Archive for April, 2009

Spring has Sprung

Relaxing at Maggie's bridal showerThis is what I’d like to be doing right now.  It’s a photo from my bridal shower – the clothespins were for a party game and this is the only picture not featuring the oh-so-sexy oatmeal face mask.  The face mask felt great but in the photographs it kinda looks, well, really gross.

On a different note, here are some updates on our recent activities.

Will and I walked the Louisville Mini Marathon this Saturday, completing 13.1 miles in 3 hours and 28 minutes.  Yay us!  My three aunts and one 13-year-old cousin all beat us but hey, we finished with our best personal time ever.  And we can still walk!

My rhubarb is coming up strong and sending out seed stalks like crazy, which it turns out need to be pulled so the plant will keep producing stems to eat.  I used them to make rhubarb-ade (rhubarb + boiling water + sugar), which was actually quite tasty.  It makes me think I should create a business selling beverages made from local ingredients – sumac or rhubarb “lemonade”, sassafras tea, lemon balm honey tea, etc.

Actually, my latest million dollar idea is to create a CSA- type business where people sign up to receive plant starts for their garden every other week during the growing season, starting with the really cold-hardy stuff in the spring and transitioning into robust tomato and eggplant starts after the last frost.  Alas, I don’t feel like implementing it so if any of y’all feel motivated, run with it.

Will has had some pretty decent million dollar ideas as well but of course the ones that stick with me are the ridiculous ones.  This evening he declared that he could eat all the samoas (girl scout cookies) ever and I told him that it was a bad idea and that he would get ridiculously fat.  He said the key is to eat them so fast that he burns as many calories as he consumes.  Speed eating or “speating.”  I told him I think it would make a best seller.

We’re still debating what kinds of home improvement projects to invest in.  Things keep popping up to sway our priorities, like Saffron  digging out under our fence today so she could go… well, she came back wet so I’m assuming she found a pool or something.  Constructing a new fence seems like kind of a lame home improvement project but it is making its way steadily to the top of our priority list.

For now, both of us are trying hard to make it through the next couple of weeks so we can then relax a little when the grading (Will) and field trips (Maggie) are over for the season.  Wish us luck!

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Earth Week Excitement

It’s Earth Week in Bloomington and there are tons of activities going on in Bloomington.  Yesterday, Will and I went to see the new film “What’s the Economy For, Anyway?” with filmmaker John DeGraaf.  We both thought the title of the film was kind of weird (can you imagine a film “What’s Physics For, Anyway?”) but his major point was that we need to acknowledge that a strong economy doesn’t necessarily mean a healthy community.  His larger vision is to create a society where people spend more time doing the things that make them happy (caring for family, volunteering, recreating) and less time working long hours to buy useless stuff.  I love that idea but the film was more of a rambling treatise on why GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is not a good thing to be harping on about.

Today I tabled for Sycamore Land Trust at a little informational event in People’s Park.  (Will refuses to classify it as a park since it’s only about 4000 square feet, mostly concrete, but it’s right downtown and gets a lot of foot traffic.)  The concept of the event was excellent but alas, it’s April in Bloomington so the weather was cold and rainy and windy.  Most of us had our tabling material either soaked or blown away and the foot traffic was pretty sparse.  The Parks & Rec Department apparently has been celebrating Earth Day in June for the last few years in order to increase the probability of decent weather.  Maybe April weather is nicer in California where Earth Day began.

This evening, I spoke on a panel about how to get healthier food to low income communities.  There was a lot of good discussion from a nice diverse panel of speakers representing a variety of groups (IU, Hoosier Hills Food Bank, Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, Local Growers Guild, Center for Sustainable Living, Latino Cultural Center).  I noticed that we were all women but didn’t think a lot about it since I seem to frequently be on panels with other women.  However, one of the audience members asked why there are so many women leading the local food movement and we all through around ideas about women being traditionally the nurturing type and responsible for food purchases in the family while trying to also emphasize that it’s the 21st century and by golly, women can do anything they want!  That was the awkward part of the discussion; the rest was a lively discussion about how we can restructure our food supply to make everyone well-fed.

Tomorrow there is a Green Drinks event, an informal evening of sustainable social networking.  This will be the third one in Bloomington and I keep meaning to go but I am not a big fan of networking events.  Stephanie has told me that I’m too well-connected in Bloomington to say that I’m not a networker but I think I can still safely say that I hate going to parties and introducing myself to strangers.  I am also feeling like my schedule is way too full and I need some breathers between activities.  You know, for things like eating dinner.

What are you doing for Earth Day?  (And I won’t be offended in the slightest if your answer is “Not a damn thing; every day is earth day.”)

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Nature Nerd Presents Wild Edibles

Redbud tree in bloomThey say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach but I’ve found it to be equally true with children, especially if the food you are offering is exotic or intriguing in some way.  Kids are strangely drawn to disgusting and/or weird foods if they’re presented in the right way.  They may turn up their noses at mom’s brussel sprout special but if Nature Lady takes them outside and plucks something off the ground, they’re totally happy to eat it.

Part of the trick is peer pressure – there’s always one kid who will eat it and if he/she has any sort of strong reaction, everyone else has to try it too.  It’s kinda like that old stand up routine about the guy in every office who comes around saying “Man, this coffee is terrible!  Try it!”  The other trick is to  give kids just a small taste so it’s not like they’re eating a whole plate of it.  This time of year is great for sampling redbud tree blossoms.  Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are beautiful trees, one of the early spring bloomers, and they also have heart-shaped leaves that are pretty easy to identify.  The flowers are edible and were allegedly eaten by pioneers who were eager for some fresh vegetables.  The taste is, well, plant-like.  I think it tastes like grass or maybe a strong variety of lettuce.  A couple of kids told me it had a minty flavor.  Several descriptions I’ve read claim it has a nutty flavor.  I guess I should disclaim that I have a pretty uneducated palate; I’ve never been good at describing the tastes of wines or cheeses much beyond “I like it!” or “I don’t like it!”

Spring is my second favorite season (after fall) and I love introducing kids to frog calls and spring wildflowers but I find myself returning time and again to edible plants.  I did a presentation today with some kids at Unionville.  They were very excited to sample the redbud flowers and wild onions growing in the schoolyard and immediately began bringing me plants asking if they were edible.  I told them that I think of plants as being in three categories – edible, neutral (like grass; you can swallow it with no ill effects but you can’t actually digest it), and poisonous.  I can identify between 30 and 50 wild edibles and tend to leave everything else alone.  One of the boys was very disappointed and gestured around the schoolyard saying “You can only find two edible plants here?”  I pointed out a number of other plants that either weren’t ready or weren’t very kid-friendly –  red clover (flowers), wild black berry (fruit), autumn olive (fruit), dandelion (bitter greens), pine tree (tea from needles), sassafras tree (tea from roots), violets (flowers) – and he changed his tune.

“You sure know a lot of things,” he told me, shaking his head in awe.  It’s nice to be admired.

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How to invest sustainably (in bonds)

The bond certificate for a train companyLast week, I talked about the safest, most liquid investments you can have: bank accounts and CDs. Bonds are slightly riskier but have better returns and sometimes allow you to fund very specific activities, which makes it easier to make moral investments. Bonds also encourage a long-term perspective since their value doesn’t fluctuate like stocks do. There are three major types of bonds, each with different benefitsa dn drawbacks: federal, municipal, and corporate.

A bond (or bill or note depending on how long they take to mature) is basically a loan to a company or government. You pay them a given amount and they pay you interest and then repay your loan at the end of the term. Some bonds roll the interest into the final payment while others give out occasional (usually quarterly or annual) interest payments. For example, you can put $25 into a savings bond and get $50 from the government in 15 years. Or, you can put it in a corporate bond and receive annual payments of $1 until you get your $25 back in 15 years (obviously, these numbers are totally made up).

US government bonds are some of the safest investments you can make. This lack of risk is reflected in their low returns, however. The current rate for most federal bonds range from 0.07% to 3.7% depending on the maturation date (1 month to 30 years out). Interest on government bonds is also exempt from state and local taxes (although not federal taxes), which increases the effective yield a little. Even though returns aren’t great, you know what you’re funding: the US government. Generally, the government takes a longer view than corporations but there are still some morally sticky areas, depending on your viewpoint. If you’re interested in federal bonds, you can buy them through TreasuryDirect.

Municipal bonds are similar, but sold by local governments. Usually, these bonds raise funds for a specific purpose like improving schools. Here in Bloomington, the city is considering floating a bond to buy a sports complex. To encourage people to invest, they’ve discussed how much money they’ll need to raise as well as how they plan to pay it back (savings from events they’d otherwise have to rent locations for and monthly access fees). This makes it easy to evaluate and decide whether or not it’s a sustainable purpose.

Even better, this money stays in the local economy. Interest rates are usually higher than those for federal bonds, about 1.7% to 6.8% (6 month to 30 year) right now. That’s because of slightly higher risk and difficulty finding buyers (it’s easier to sell to the entire US than to a small town). You also have to invest on the municipality’s schedule and not your own, since they don’t continuously float bonds. Many municipal bonds are tax free at all levels (federal, state, and local) but others offer no tax incentives at all.

Corporate bonds are floated by companies that need additional cash. Many large corporations use bonds to raise money for seasonal expenses or short-term capital expenses like building new factories. Like buying stock in a company, you’re funding all of the company’s activities, which can raise moral problems if the company isn’t one you believe in. Although corporate bonds are riskier than government bonds, they’re safer than stocks. If a company goes bankrupt, bond-holders are paid before stock-holders. Corporate rates range from 1.5% to 11% (2 year to 30 year) depending on the risk rating of the bond (A, AA, and AAA from reasonable risk to almost no risk).

If you buy a corporate or municipal bond, you’ll probably see numbers like the price, coupon, and maturity date. In general, all you really need to worry about is the yield-to-maturity (YTM). This incorporates all of those factors into a simple annual yield. For example, if the YTM is 3% then you know that buying a bond at $1000 will yield you $30 a year. If the bond costs $500, then you’ll only get $15 with the same YTM.

Federal bonds are a little simpler, since you pay a discount and receive face value on maturity. For example, a EE bond with a face value of $50 might cost you $25. In 30 years, you can redeem your EE bond for $50, an annual compound rate of 2.4%.

Bonds are great if you’re looking for tax exemption, low risk, regular payments, or specific projects to fund. They’re not so good if you want to invest money on a regular schedule or you want higher returns. I think that bonds are a great part of a sustainable portfolio, but since they take some work and aren’t always available, stocks have a place as well. I’ll talk more about that in my next article.

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Measuring Happiness

Will smilingI just finished reading “Simple Living: One Couple’s Search for a Better Life.”  It’s about a couple who transition from being  busy young professional writers in Los Angeles to running the family orchard in rural Virginia.  There’s a lot more to the story but the basic gist is about searching for meaning by slowing down and getting out of the rat race.  I found the writing style hard to get into but I really enjoyed their profiles of other couples that were downsizing or had downsized already and some of the comparisons and contrasts.  Do you have to be in a rural area to live simply?  How far should you downsize your life – are you allowed to have electricity?  a car?  a fancy car?  Can you still be a successful professional?  There are lots of ways to simplify life and it’s hard to say that any one is the “best” – I like hearing lots of different versions.

Still, the part of the book that interested me most was the discussion of finding one’s purpose in life.  It’s a topic that always piques my interest.  In fact, it’s probably the subject that I think about the most, generally from a “Why don’t I have a clear purpose in life?” sort of perspective.  The father in the book who had been managing the orchard for 40+ years has a pretty intense sense of purpose that is linked to the Quaker ideal of service to others.  Sam determined that his purpose in life was to promote world peace and so he ran his life in a way to keep expenses low so he could earn enough income at the orchard to support his family and also support his many hours volunteering as a peace activist.

I’m pretty sure that’s not my calling in life but I don’t know what is.  Will says he thinks a good life purpose is to be happy and to promote happiness in others.  I told him I wasn’t even sure what made me happy, at least in terms of working activities.  (I doubt I can support myself soaking in hot tubs, receiving massages, and eating bonbons.)  He has challenged me to start measuring my personal happiness and figure out what makes it increase and decrease.  Being the rational scientific type, he suggested conducting personal tests to see what activities are best or worst.  Do I like working with kids?  Work with kids and find out.  Working with kids wasn’t fun but maybe that was because we were trying to study butterflies in the rain?  Try it again on a sunny day or with older kids or with younger kids.

It all sounds very rational and yet I find myself very resistant.  Can I really measure happiness accurately?  Surely my happiness fluctuates greatly from moment to moment; how can I track what is causing the changes?  Am I ready to turn my life into a giant experiment and spend half my time writing down notes about my feelings?  What if I decide the only things that make me happy are hot tubs and bonbons?  I think that’s what I’m really afraid to discover – that deep down I’m a big slacker who is only happy when I’m being utterly lazy.  I don’t really think that’s true but still I hesitate.  Experimenting with my own personal happiness sounds both daunting and rather selfish.  Do I really deserve to be happy or to spend my waking hours figuring out how to make myself happy?  Shouldn’t I be establishing world peace or something?  But maybe conducting happiness experiments would make me a more productive person, and perhaps help me figure out how to make other people happy (and thus more peaceful).

I suppose I could always the experience as fodder for a lucrative book deal.  I’ve always talked about being  a writer.  Would you buy a copy of “The Happiness Diaries?”

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How to invest sustainably

In the past few months, I’ve been thinking heavily about investing for retirement. I’ve never had a job with a 401(k) or retirement plan, so my retirement planning has been entirely on my shoulders. Unfortunately, for a long time that meant no retirement planning. Once my business stabilized a little and we got more important stuff (like health insurance) squared away, I decided that it was time to take my future into my own hands. I opened a Roth IRA and bought a couple of low-cost index funds. According to my research, that was the best approach for a casual investor since it represents a bet on the future of the entire market rather than on the future of a particular company.

The moral drawback is that I’m investing in companies I disagree with, like RJR and Exxon. The mechanical drawback is that our economy can’t sustain the kind of market growth we’ve seen in the past (at least, not without also causing the kind of market crash we’re seeing now). The alternative is sustainable investing.

Sustainable investing has two parts: investins in sustainable organizations and investing in a sustainable way. Sustainable organizations have both sustainable products and sustainable business practices. Obviously, drilling for oil isn’t sustainable because eventually there won’t be any more oil. Problematic business practices are often harder to figure out, but just ask yourself if it could work forever. For example, outsourcing to developing countries for cheap labor isn’t sustainable because eventually prices will increase. On the other hand, supporting a living wage is a sustainable business practice because it can be supported indefinitely (and, as Henry Ford realized, it can help create or expand a market for your product).

Investing in a sustainable way requires treating your money the same way that you’d treate any non-renewable resource. This means taking a long-term view and focusing on growth. Money primarily grows through compound interest, so you want to avoid touching your nest egg as much as possible.

As long as you like your local credit union, the easiest way to invest sustainably is to put your money into a savings account or certificate of deposit (CD). It’s not risky, which means that your principal is safe, allowing you to treat the interest as a renewable resource (think of it as tree farming). This money will also go to work in your community by supporting local businesses and individuals through bank loans.

Unfortunately, saving account and CD rates are currently at an all-time low. The best rate I can find locally is about 2.5%, which is less than inflation. Once the economy picks up, so should rates, but this means that CDs probably aren’t the best investment choice right now.

The two other big options are stocks and bonds. Although they have their own problems, I’ll talk you through the basics of investing sustainably using both in the next couple of articles.

The  second part, on investing sustainably in bonds, is now up!

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Busy Like Bees

Saffron stealing a bananaEver notice that when you start to get busy somehow more projects materialize to make you even busier?  It’s frustrating, especially when you excuse yourself from something like blogging and then every time you try to get back in a new excuse materializes…  Well, I’ll spare you the details and instead provide you with an entertaining photo of our dog, Saffron, with a new toy.  I let her sniff my banana thinking she would lose interest when she realized it was not meat but I was wrong.  She delicately accepted it and carried it around the house for awhile, nibbling daintily on the stem, until I traded her for a dog treat.  I tell ya, dogs are nothing if not entertaining.

Due to the aforementioned business, our maple syrup operation turned out to be a bust.  We collected about 10 gallons of sap and boiled it down to about a quart before I left on spring break.  I left the quart of concentrated sap in the fridge but as we’ve probably all learned, the refrigerator will only keep things fresh for so long.  I took off the lid this week and was treated to a whiff of alcoholic vinegar.  Yummy!  There might be a niche market somewhere but I’m afraid for us it counts as a failure.

I’m making some slow progress on the garden.  Peas are in the ground and an assortment of warm weather veggie seeds are starting indoors.  Our friend Stephanie also provided a dozen strawberry plants which I’m excited about planting once the weather warms up.  It was almost 70 degrees on Saturday but plummeted to 30 degrees this morning.  Crazy spring weather [grumble grumble].  I’m ready for the heat to stay!

March was a busy month and April is looking similarly active.  I suspect I’ve done a few blogworthy things

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Green tax refund?

Last week, I finished our taxes. Unlike previous years, I didn’t use an accountant, so I was actually able to see how different choices we made affected our taxes. The biggest thing (apart from the Saver’s Credit, which I love) this year was buying a house. Thanks to the economic downturn, we’ll get a $7500 interest free loan, re-payable over 15 years. We don’t have the money yet, but we’re trying to decide what we should do with it.

The frugal thing to do would be to dump it all in CDs and collect the interest while we pay back the principal. Over 15 years, that would make us about $2,000 (assuming an average return of 3%). That’s about $130 extra dollars a year. That’s not bad, but I don’t think $130 a year is going to make us much happier. And besides, a CD ladder is pretty boring.

Maggie is pushing hard for a hot tub, but as fun as that would be, it’s expensive and would increase our water and power needs. On the other hand, if we got a solar water system, we could put the excess in a hot tub. Which brings us to…

A solar water system. We could get a PV system, but even with the 30% federal rebate, it’s just not cost effective. A simple solar hot water system is cheaper and simpler. We’d still have to do some serious plumbing and we might have to add support to the roof, but we’re definitely thinking hard about this option.

Instead of blowing the money all on one thing, we could split it among multiple projects. After the energy audit, the most obvious thing to do is improve the insulation in our attic and crawlspace. Insulating the attic would probably cost about $1500. To recoup that expense, we only have to save about $9 a month over the course of the loan, which is quite likely.

A more fun option would be an electric (or gas) scooter. The ones we’ve looked at cost between $800 (for a cheap gas scooter) and $2500 (for a good electric scooter). They could save us a lot of money if we got rid of the car, but I don’t think we can do that at the moment. Apart from the initial cost, I think they’d break even. The additional cost of insuring and licensing would be offset by the gas savings from using the car less. Unfortunately, there’s still that loan payback to consider…

Something that caught our eye during our shoemaking experience was Glen’s solar air heater. It was basically an inclined box about 6′ tall that was covered in glass and full of tin cans painted black. A tube at the bottom was connected to the house to get cool air into the box and a tube at the top allowed hot air back into the house. They’re relatively cheap to build and could reduce our winter heating costs considerably. This is another strong contender, although I’m not sure where we’ll put it. We might try it out on the shed or garage first just to make sure it’s a good idea.

A smaller project would be to set up beekeeping in the backyard. It’s not that expensive, although there won’t be huge savings either. Our biggest concern is that it would be a time sink, and we both feel pretty busy already.

We could also use it for house maintenance. The roof will need reshingling in the next year or two and our water heater desperately needs replacing. I’m sure that more things will go wrong as time goes on. Maybe it would be smartest to set all of it aside for household emergencies.

Are we forgetting anything? What would you do with a $7500 loan?

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