An Ode: The Frugality of the Frozen Pizza

Who doesn't like a good frozen pizza? Cheap, easy, and tasty. I'm sure you or your family had a favorite growing up. For us, Tombstone was the pizza of choice. Crispy crust,above-average sauce, and decent toppings. All for around $3. Total bang for the buck. Not that there were many options back then. Freschetta, DiGiorno, Wolfgang Puck, and California Pizza Kitchen were non-existent. For the most part it was Jacks, Tombstone, and Red Baron - then the store brands, which were pretty crummy looking.

While we were still clueless and in debt, we were eating rather high on the hog. We tried all of the 5, 6, and 8 dollar frozen pizzas - self-rising crusts, pseudo-deep-dish, brick-oven-this, cheese-in-the-crust-that. And they were good. Some of them were very good. Some of the toppings were so tasty, that it made you forget about those delivery places that we still called from time-to-time (ya know, when we were out of frozen pizza and still too lazy to cook). The modest frozen pizza had come a long ways and we were loving it. But all this had to change - for our wallets and our waistlines.

While getting out of debt, the food budget was slim. Fortunately, those cheap frozen pizzas were still around. It's hard to beat cheap. With both of us working and a little one starting to eat big people food, there was more than enough added pressure to prepare and have a meal ready in a timely fashion. That was when we started pizza night. Mondays were rough enough as-is. Now after working late, I have to come home and figure out what to make for dinner.... and then make it? Monday was the obvious choice for pizza night. Most other meals were made from scratch. This was our one reprieve.

But there was a problem. We had gotten used to those 'fancy' frozen pizzas and all of their flavorful goodness. How could we downgrade to such bland, pathetic excuses for pizza? This was not going to be easy. In the end, we got on quite well. Friends and family who had long labeled us as 'foodies' were shocked (shocked!) to find plane-jane, store-brand frozen pizzas in our house. "Do you really like these?" "You haven't had them the way we make them." Below, we will conclude our ode to the frozen pizza with our 5 favorite ways to dress-up a $2.50, store-brand frozen pizza. They got us by. We ate like no-one else, and now we can eat like no-one else.
  1. Reclaim it for Italy. It's supposed to be an Italian dish, right? Yet I don't taste anything Italian-ish here. Pick up a container of pizza seasoning, some oregano, or crushed red pepper. A light smattering before going in the oven will do the trick.
  2. Accessorize. I'm not sure what that stuff is that some of these places try to pass off as sausage these days, but it's pretty terrible. Try browning, seasoning, and freezing your own Italian sausage. Buy your pizzas sans-sausage then add your own before cooking. Or, dice and freeze red onoins, or chicken breast, or bell peppers, or pineapple, or ....
  3. Three words: Bee. Bee. Que. Just as most people have a favorite frozen pizza, many have a favorite barbecue sauce. I prefer Stubbs Spicey. Full bodied with just enough pepper for a kick. Drizzle some on before cooking and you'll have quite the treat. Works best with pepperoni.
  4. Cheese, glorious cheese. That grated white stuff on top of the cheap pizzas resembles cheese in looks, but thats about it. Just as simple as the previous tip and equally vast in variety. A dusting of Parmesan cheese? Some chunks of Gouda? Slices of real mozzarella di bufala (a budget buster for sure)? Finely grated Romano (finally, it's grated....)? How can you go wrong?
  5. Cook directly on the rack. No matter what those silly directions say. Put a baking sheet on the rack below it if you must, but but don't let it touch the crust. I've tried it both ways with lots of pizzas and I was never satisfied with that droopy, undercooked crap that was supposed to be my crust. All because the directions recommended a baking sheet. I'll deal with a few stray toppings in the bottom of the oven, thank you very much.
Give these a try - preferably not all at once. Tell us what you think. If you have a favorite way to dress-up a cheap pizza, then hit us up in the comments. We'd love to hear about it.

***UPDATE*** Welcome Carnival of Debt Reduction readers! To find out more about us, click here. Check out our latest articles here. Thanks for reading!

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NtJS - Greatest Hits

Our most popular posts to date:

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My Financial Beating: Episode 1

I say "My" Financial Beating, because it is just that - mine. There is no 'we' here. This happened before we were Mr. and Mrs. NtJS, so the experience and responsibility rests squarely with me.

This happened while in college. While dividing up the responsibilities with my fellow house-mates, I volunteered to handle the phone bill. Probably a dumb move as this is the most complicated of all the utilities. Water, electric and gas were just divided evenly between us. But not the phone bill. Besides needing an associates degree to decipher, the phone bill was divided evenly for the base charges, but then added to each share was each persons long-distance calls. This was back when 'long-distance' and 'unlimited' were never in the same sentence. It took a little while to get acquainted with everyone's calling habits. The first couple months meant lot's of reverse phone look-up sessions as well as the occasional, "Hey, did you call Denver, Detroit or Davenport, Iowa last month?". It sucked. After a couple of months it wasn't too bad. That is, except for the billing errors.

It was an existing account that was transferred to my name. Pre-number-portability, and we didn't want to lose our phone number from last year. How would all of our loser friends from last year find us? Had to keep our number. Despite all of our time and effort and three-way calls, the name on the account was not changed, but the address was. Not a huge problem, but it was wrong and we were afraid it would cause issues, especially for the previous account holder. This began the monthly routine of calling our phone provider to get billing errors fixed. It took 4 months to get the name changed on the account, and by the time we did, I wished we hadn't.

They would bill us for services we were not receiving. Over bill us for internet access. Not credit us for last month's payment. It was one thing after another, and it usually required about 1-2 hours of my time, on the phone, every month, to get it corrected, just to get blindsided by the next bill and whatever potential hell it contained.

I finally decided that I had spent enough time on the phone with 'Janice' and 'Regina' and 'Gregory'. I'd had enough of their empty promises and meaningless confirmation numbers. Had enough of waiting until the next billing cycle to see the changes and billing corrections. It was time to deal with an inept customer service rep face to face. The local phone monopoly had, for some unknown reason, a brick-and-mortar location in a shopping center. I'm really not sure what they did there other than deal with all of the problems created by the deadbeats working the phone lines. They wouldn't screw me over if I was standing right in front of them, would they? Oh yeah they would.

One of my parents even accompanied me in an effort to not look like just some dumb college kid. It must not have worked. The rep we met with feigned sympathy quite well. She helped with all of the issues that were seemingly impossible to conquer over the phone. Then she hit us with it. "looking at your long-distance bill, sir, we could save you 15% per month if you'd switch it to us." We bit. I still have no idea why, but when she dangled the bait, we took it. All seemed to be well - we took care of the issues, the CSR apologized profusely for the problems we'd had, and we even saved some money on our long-distance. Then we got the bill.

Ug. It was sky high and it made no sense. Even short calls (in duration, not distance), were costing several dollars. Dollars! It should be 20 or 30 cents. Dollars!? The whole bill was over $300 for one month of this crap - they even charged me to connect and then disconnect my long-distance. Bill in hand, I went back to the store. The explanation left me speechless.

"Sir, it looks like we were unable to give you the long-distance service you agreed to, so we switched you to So-and-So's 'Occasional User' plan. The reason the calls are so expensive is because there is an access fee of 75 cents per call plus 26 cents per minute."
Being an incredibly better informed consumer now than I was then, this would not fly today. But as a dumb college kid, I was dumbfounded. "Huh??". This needlessly expensive long-distance plan wasn't even with this company. She couldn't help me and said that I would have to call a certain customer service number with the other company to dispute it. You can imagine how helpful they were.

That was May and the school year was over. My house-mates went home and I told them that I would let them know what they owed once I got a corrected bill. Well, I never got a corrected bill. In fact I never got another bill. Nor did it get corrected. I got a collections notice. The local phone monopoly got bought out by a larger phone monopoly and apparently my case was more than they wanted to deal with (likely one of thousands that they didn't want to deal with). Away to collections I was sent.

Dave Ramsey often says that, "You can tell when a debt collector is lying by the fact that their mouth is moving". How true. I tried working with the collectors. I tried working with the phone monopoly. No avail. One story after another. Never a consistent answer, and barely an answer at that. So I dropped it. The matter was not resolved, the bill was not corrected, and I never got any money out of my former house-mates. I should have billed them and just paid it. Instead I forgot about it, as the collectors seemed to have forgotten about me. The calls just stopped.

Well, 2 years and 3 residences later, they caught up with me. The bill was still owed, and I was still unequipped to deal with them effectively. With the threat of dinging my credit (oh my!), I paid. I was out of school and working. I had the money and chose to get them out of my life. I was beaten. I'd had enough. I'd been victimized by the phone monopoly's ineptitude and policy of screwing over the local college kids. I'd been abused and lied to by the scum collection agencies they'd sent after me. I just wanted it to be done and that was their goal.

We still have that file, complete with the 'account paid in full' notice, the original phone bill from the now defunct phone monopoly, and the unfulfilled long-distance contract. These are nestled in with the various letters I'd sent in attempts to clear up the matter, other bills on the account, and the canceled checks from the payments. We'll have that file forever.

This financial beating was frustrating, confusing and drawn out over 2+ years. It left me confused about where I had gone wrong and what I could have done differently. Since then, Mrs. NtJS has taken over the responsibility of physically paying the bills. Her diligence keeps all of the bills paid and quickly notices any errors or abnormalities. It usually ends up being my responsibility to handle billing errors/problems which is fine. As I said, I'm a much more informed consumer these days. I now know how to talk to a customer service rep - what to ask for, when to raise my voice, when to ask for a manager, and when not to.
  • Persistence pays off. If you are getting nowhere with a CSR or get the feeling that they are as smart as a box of hammers, then hang up. Call back in a few minutes and try again - you'll get someone else. This works quite well, especially when you can tell that the CSR is clueless, not listening or trying to take advantage of you. Some companies, like DirecTV, can tell how many times you've called. On the third call, they pointed this out and sent me straight to a manager who took care of the issue quickly and without question. Others have no idea, and don't need to. Just plug away until you get somebody who has a clue and is willing to help.
  • Have your ammo locked and loaded. Know what happened and when. Be ready to cite the facts and be clear about what you are wanting them to do for you. Never ask for an apology - you won't get it and it wouldn't do you any good if they did. Do you want a discount? Do you want a refund? A prorated bill due to their outage or lack of service? Do all of the math yourself and have exact numbers to cite. Without this, you are just another barking chihuahua yapping about your bill to someone who really doesn't want to hear your BS. Do the leg work and make the CSRs job easy. "Here is where you screwed up, and this is how much my bill should be."
  • Play dumb. This one should be used sparingly and only when you already know the answer to the question. Sometimes it helps for the CSR to think that they are in control. Sometimes you don't know all the right terminology and want to hear it from them. Sometimes, you just want the CSR to see for themselves and state their company's stupidity out loud. "Yes, I was billed for some PPVs that I didn't order." "Well, lets see... those charges are for PPV X, PPV Y, and PPV Z, and they were ordered from this receiver on October 14th and 15th." "Hmmmm, October 14th and 15th... of what year?" "2005." "And when was this receiver activated on my account?" "October 3rd." "Of what year?" "2006....... Oh... I see."
  • Take your time. CSRs are usually expected to hit a certain number of calls per hour or some other meaningless metric based on call volumes. Anyways, they want you off the phone ASAP so they can get on to the next one. Be sure that you have more time to talk than they do. The longer you keep them on the line, the more likely they are to give you what you want as you are screwing up their average. Don't let them hurry you off of the phone.
  • Document everything. Get names, employee numbers, phone extensions, confirmation numbers, call center locations, whatever they will give you. Note the time and date of your call and what you asked for as well as what they promised you. Best case is to get any agreement in writing or at least a confirmation email, before sending any payment. Important details have a way of "not showing up in your file", so don't rely on them for anything.
  • Don't lose your cool. Not so long ago, I was fuming over a billing error. We had disputed it to no avail. Mrs. NtJS tried to handle it and they accused me of placing the order behind her back, then trying to cover it up so that she wouldn't find out. No matter how often that scenario is true, they had no right to assert it. I was ready to kill. No matter how great the urge, while on the phone with 'Jose', I never swore, never yelled or abused him. What's he got to do with it? He's just the messenger. I did however make it quite clear, in a firm, slightly elevated tone, that he was not getting off of the phone with me until each and every cent of the erroneous charges were accounted for and reversed, and the inaccuracies on my account corrected. I did once respond to his failure to come up with the right answer with, "No way, Jose."
  • Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em. Don't threaten to cancel the account unless you are ready to do it right then and there. One mention of cancellation may get you to the glorious 'retentions department', where discounts and upgrades are offered to keep you as a 'valued customer'. Or it may get you straight to the less-glorious 'cancellation department', where they confirm that you want your service shut off, do so, and then hang up. If you are ready to go, then go. You aren't meant to do business with everyone. Close your account and don't look back, but do your best to resolve the issue first. After resolving a billing issue with a belligerent service provider, I responded to their query of, "Is there anything else I can do for you today?", with, "Yes, put me through to your cancellation department." She didn't like that, but enough was enough.
We've all made mistakes - especially with money. What is important is that we learn from them and make the necessary changes in our lives to keep them for reoccurring.
Got a 'Financial Beating' story to share? Send us an email and we'll consider it for publishing.

See the original 'Financial Beating' article here.

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Carnivals/Carnivals/Carnivals (Carnivals)

We have four carnivals in town this week. First I would like to welcome Treehugger's Carnival of the Green and it's readers. This is our first post with them and hopefully not our last. This is also our debut on the Green It! Carnival. Welcome, all around.

The Conservation Report is hosting the aforementioned Carnival of the Green this week, which features our tutorial on rainbarrel construction. We're really trying to get the word out on this How To. It's an easy project, it's modular, adaptable to your needs, and yields some great results both financially and ecologically. Some other posts of note:

  • Cindy at My Recycled Bags has a great tutorial on crocheting bags out of plarn. I won't even begin to try to explain what plarn is , but she even shows you how to make your own.
  • Lisa at Greener pastures has a great post on fair trade coffee and the power of consumers over stockholders. Consumer demand trumps all.
GreenMe presents the Green It! Carnival, and we have managed to sneak our rainbarrel tutorial in there as well. Stewardship is part of our mantra and it can co-exist with frugality. So, there! So many great articles in this carnival, but here are a few that stood out:
  • Michelle at Organically Inclined offers a fabulous post on cloth diapering. If only more people considered this option instead of automatically opting for those terrible disposable things.
  • Tired Gardener makes the case for their new HE washer and dryer. Modern appliances are so much more energy and resource efficient than their predecessors it's not even funny. We love our frontloaders.
  • Kate at the Green Thinking Blog advocates ditching the ubiquitous plastic bags for durable, reusable bags for your daily shopping/activities. We couldn't agree more.
The Carnival of Debt Reduction is back after a 5 week absence on our part and hosted by Broke Grad Student. It features our Budget Busters challenge post. This is always an interesting discussion, so feel free to post some of yours in the comments, or blog about it yourself. Some articles we enjoyed:
  • I've Paid for this Twice Already... talks about another reason why debt stinks. As if you needed another reason to hate debt. Great thoughts - we've totally been there.
  • Financialzip has some interesting insights from a credit card company insider. Even with 'responsible usage', these snakes still find a way to bite.
Perennial favorite, the Carnival of Personal Finance is in it's 150th edition and hosted by Lazy Man and Money. It features our post on the proposed Credit Cardholder's Bill of Rights. It's in the 'Credit' category which fell just above 'Other'. Eh. Some other posts that are worth a look:

Thanks for reading. Don't forget to tell your friends and subscribe to get updates via email or RSS.

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How To: Get Kick-Backs On Purchases WITHOUT A Silly Credit Card

Wanna get a math nerd all hot and bothered? Talk about rewards cards. Some people are absolutely giddy about their rewards cards. To get folks to forget about all the risk they are about to take on , credit card companies slather you with lavish kick backs / rewards / air miles / what-have-you. Plus it rewards you for spending money, which is just what Americans need. You can even get rewards debit cards now. What is that, a gateway drug? Anyways...

If you've been reading very carefully, you may have noticed a string of comments in response to our NtJS Mailbag - Mr Credit Card article. Mr. Credit Card's estranged half-cousin (on his father's side), Mr. Smart Cards, disagreed with my anti-credit card stance in the comments. That's ok, he's entitled to his opinion, and we welcome intelligent discussion on our posted topics. His second 'pro-rewards credit card' comment stopped me dumbfounded:
"Guess I will just have to disagree with you on this one. I am surprised a frugal hacker would dismiss 3% on gas."
I couldn't believe it. I had totally overlooked a true frugal hack and great topic for a NtJS How To post: Scrip Cards.

Our child's school takes part in a Scrip card program (the one in the link is not ours, but they have lots of good info on the program in general as well as details on the kick-backs for specific merchants). It is the only fundraiser that the school has that does not cost the parents additional money (as opposed to selling T-shirts, coupon books, magazines). You are buying gift cards for with money you would have spent otherwise. For example: If your grocery budget is $400 per month, you can buy four $100 gift cards to Safeways (or where ever you shop), and use the gift cards instead of cash, debit or credit. Safeways pays 4%.

But WHY? Why would you go through all that hassle just to pay with a silly gift card?! I'll tell you why - it's really not much trouble. Each merchant's gift cards have an associated kick-back (you may know them as rewards) to the school and the student. 2.5% here. 4% there. 10%..... All money you would have spent otherwise, and with no risk of incurring debt or fees. The kick-back to the student comes in the form of a tuition discount. At first, that doesn't sound quite as attractive as say, cash in hand. But, we look at it as a 401k for tuition - it's a forced savings plan. This money won't walk off leaving us wondering where it was spent. It goes straight to tuition,with no opportunity to misappropriate it. Each month we buy a few hundred for gas, plus some for other planned expenses. This month, we replaced an appliance. We knew which one we wanted and that Sears had the best price. So we got $500 in Sears cards. Sears is also a 4% kick-back.

But here is the best part - you can sell the Scrip cards to other people. Family. Friends. Enemies. Whoever. And the tuition discounts all go to your account. We're not talking door-to-door begging here. Our extended families order a few hundred per week easily. Our order before Christmas was so large it should have been delivered by armored car.

All in all, our tuition discount from Scrip cards for this past school year was $139. That comes out to:
  • A kick-back of 9.2% to us based on money we spent
  • A kick-back of 2.9% to us based on total money spent (us and family and friends)
  • A kick-back of 1.9% to the school based on total money spent
  • 5.2% off of next year's tuition.
And we only participated for maybe 6 or 7 months. Will be interesting to see what our 2008/2009 results are.

So why did we wait so long to post about Scrip cards? Why are we not blogging/commenting up a storm, singing the praises of the almighty magic Scrip cards? Scrip cards didn't get us out of debt. Scrip cards didn't get us on the same page about money as a couple. Scrip cards didn't reconcile the budget. Scrip cards didn't get us gazelle intense about our finances. Scrip cards are not this mystical golden goose that slathers us in free money, blinding us to all of the inherent risks of the program. It's not a solution or a financial tool. It is a program put on to raise money for our school and encourage people to spend money locally. The incentive to do this is a kick-back. It's fine. We'd rather do it than try to sell cookie dough, or magazines door-to-door.

Its not without its faults.
  • There is a one week lag time from when you order the cards until you receive them.
  • Once you order, the money is spent, so no changing your mind as to where you are shopping.
  • Some kick-backs are barely worth mentioning - as little as 1.5%
  • It's a little bit of a pain in the butt if you have say, cards for a Shell gas station, yet there are none for miles, and you just need some gas. Granted this is no different than if you have a Shell rewards credit card.
Still, it's worth doing. It supports our school. It supports local businesses. And credit card companies don't see a dime of it. You won't catch us doing cartwheels over Scrip cards, but you also won't catch us signing up for a rewards credit card.

So, yes, I will dismiss your 3% back on gas. I will dismiss your "1% on everything else". I can get 8% back from Avis and 12% back from Marriott Hotels! Woo-Hoo. 4% from Lowes, 3% from Home Depot.... Hoo-Rah. All without a credit card.

And before you ask - These must be purchased with cash or checks.

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This week's Carnival of Personal Finance features our post on how credit card companies are like abusive spouses. Hey, it was CitiGroup's analogy, we just ran with it. Thanks to The Happy Rock for hosting. Below are some other featured posts of interest.
  • Paid Twice has a nice piece on the $1000 emergency fund, and how it's a bigger deal than it sounds - especially when you have zero in savings.
  • Momma from Tales From The Road Less Traveled is less than impressed with Suze Orman's book, and I can see why.

The 122nd edition of the Festival of Frugality posted on Tuesday, and Aaron at On Financial Success has taken a stab at a paragraph format for the festival as opposed to the traditional bullet point method. It makes for a nice read, but made it really hard to find our own post on watering your garden by building your own inexpensive rainwater collection system.
There were some other great articles as listed below (sorry, no paragraph format)
  • Out of Debt Again has a great post on saving money on ground beef, and she's not talking about buying that stuff that comes in tubes with a picture of ground beef on the outside.
  • We've been in our garden already and so has the Frugal Babe. Can't beat home grown veggies - on cost or taste.

Wednesday brings the Carnival of Money Hacks which also features our rainbarrel-building tutorial as an Editor's Pick! (Thanks, Mike!) I felt it prudent to submit this to a few carnivals as a bit of an 'Earth Day' effort to spread the word. Other PF bloggers can focus on recession-proofing their finances - we're drought-proofing. Thanks to our PF bloggers to the North, The Quest for Four Pillars for hosting. Some other money hacks you may want to check out:
  • Squawkfox is all in a huff about free-bee offers from retailers, and I don't blame her. Once upon a time there may have been some deals to be had, but those days are over.
  • Master Your Card outlines the detail of Barrack Obama's proposed "Credit Card Bill of Rights". There are some good ideas there, but maybe he should get back to work and get some of those into the bill that is already on the table.
Happy reading! And be sure to subscribe to our RSS or email feed to keep up to date with our latest articles. See 'Subscribe' section on the right-side of the page.

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Everyday Frugal: Earth Day 2008

With Earth Day fast approaching, we have to admit that we struggled a bit with what to blog about. We feel compelled to support Earth Day, as avid supporters of the green movement. We are pleased by the extra attention that Earth Day brings to environmental issues. But what are we doing special for Earth Day?


Maybe that's the real story here. We aren't doing anything special for Earth Day, or at least we have nothing special planned. We made a decision in life to make everyday Earth Day. After all, is it really effective to adopt these eco-friendly ways for one day or week per year? So to mark Earth Day 2008, we are going to share some of our earth-friendly secret sauce. Some tips, some tricks, some links, some love. Enjoy.

  1. If you missed our How To: and Why To: on rainwater harvesting, then now is a good time to catch up. Since moving out of the arid, drought prone Southwest US, we have not set up a rain barrel system. But our previous system, as described in the How To:, served us well for several years. And when we left, it did not got to waste. We sold the system for $50 per barrel. As far as green movements go, solar and wind get a lot of attention, but rainwater is great for the environment, great for your plants, great for your pocket book, and much more attainable than wind or solar power.
  2. Speaking of wind power, a wind farm was recently completed in Northwest Indiana. What's in Northwest Indiana? Nothing, and that's the point. With corn and soy beans fields as far as you can see, the wind whips through the country side. Now, instead of going to waste, that wind will turn 87 giant wind turbines. I have seen these in person and they are amazing. What's even more so is that this is just phase 1 of the project, with phase 2 including around 400 more. Yes, four hundred more. This will be the largest wind farm in the nation, and at least one of the largest in the world.
  3. Recycle, recycle, recycle. Our recycling volume at home rivals that of our trash. So why are trash cans so big and recycling bins so small? Recycling is one of the simplest things you can do that millions have done at home for decades, yet this is news to many corporations. My corporation is just starting to notice that there is a 'green bandwagon', but I wouldn't say that they are on it yet. To give you an idea, getting away from using bottled water is a big deal around the office. This does mean that we now have recycling bins for plastic bottles, not that we have any others. Not that it matters that all of the pop machines sell bottled pop, and we still bring in bottled water for meetings. What a long road we have. The point is that even if you are green at home, work to make your office more eco-friendly. You may find that there is a lot of good that you can do there.
  4. The harshest chemicals you will find in our house are bleach, borax and vinegar. Most household cleaning can be done with these ingredients. A favorite with the kids is toilet cleaning time. We add a couple tablespoons of baking soda, then add vinegar until the soda is all used up. Be careful not to add too much at once. These 'toilet bombs' only then require a little scrubbing, then a flush. We'll have to dedicate a future post to the other wonders of vinegar.
  5. Reduce, reduce, reduce. In college, my house-mates and I would fill up the kitchen trash can every single day. It was crazy and they were always complaining about having to take it out every day. How could this be? Well, I started analyzing our trash, and found that a lot of the volume was made up of empty boxes from pre-packaged food. Oh, how far we've come. We rarely buy pre-packaged food, and when we do, that packaging gets flattened and recycled. We've also reduce our grocery bag consumption buy using canvas and woven nylon bags. Strong, spacious and reusable.
  6. Incandescent bulbs have no place in our home. We have replaced all of our light fixtures with CFLs. Even the kids' nightlights have LED replacement bulbs. The CFLs made for one huge energy turnaround in our house. When we bought our house, every bulb was either a 100 or 150-watt bulb. ..... Yeah...it blew our minds too. Our 13 and 20-watt CFL replacements make for a huge swing in energy consumption. An average savings of 108 watts per bulb times 40 total bulbs is 4340 watts. Wow. Now assume that those are on for an average of just 1 hour per day. That would give us a savings of 1579 kWh per year.
  7. Reuse, reuse, reuse. When some building material arrived on palates last spring, we thought nothing of it. Later we were perplexed with what to do with them once the supplies were used. Then we saw a great article on how to build a set of compost bins with used shipping palates. After collecting a few more from family, we had enough to complete our project. Instead of hitting the trash, these robust wood palates are helping turn 'trash' into rich fertile compost.
  8. We support Environmental Defense. We've donated to various charitable organizations over the years. Few can compare to EDF in terms of action and results. While a local view of environmental issues is important, these guys are tackling the problems nationally. When Duke Energy was about to renovate it's power plants to create more carbon emissions, EDF sued them and won. When the EPA tried to chicken out on regulating global warming pollution as mandated by the Clean Air Act, EDF joined in the lawsuit and won once again in front of the Supreme Court. When TXU was looking to circumvent regulations and build 11 dirty, new, coal-fired power plants in Texas, Environmental Defense fought hard with traditional tactics. But when it was clear that political corruption would stand in their way, EDF helped broker the deal for Texas Pacific Group to buy out TXU and shut down the projects. It was a huge win for EDF and a huge win for the environment.
How do you make everyday Earth Day?

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What Is: Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights

The saga begins....

On April 17th, Congressional hearings were held by the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit in regards to the proposed Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008. For the first time, consumers were allowed to testify without being forced to allow their private financial information to be made public. They were still not allowed to speak in their native tongue and or with the use of a table-top microphone (just kidding).

Anyways, the unchecked greed of the credit card companies has finally drawn the ire of Congress. What does this mean to you and I? Likely nothing. Congress has a long track record showing it's lack of ability to pass meaningful legislation. The current group of corrupt individuals is no different. But lets assume for a few minutes that none of our congressional members are on the take with CitiGroup, American Express, Discover, Chase, Visa, Bank of America... What if the legislation were to pass through both houses and get signed into law by W without major deviation from it's current language and intent?

According to the House Committee on Financial Services website, the 'Bill of Rights' Act contains the following (my comments on each will follow in RED):

  • Amends the Truth in Lending Act to prohibit a creditor from using certain adverse information, including information in a consumer report or any change in a consumer's credit score, as the basis for increasing any annual percentage rate (APR) of interest on the consumer's outstanding balance under an open end consumer credit plan, except for actions or omissions of the consumer directly related to such account. (Thus eliminates the universal default for credit already outstanding.) This is a very good thing. Universal Default clauses are absolutely evil and should be outlawed.
  • Bars a creditor from changing any term of the contract or agreement of an open end consumer credit plan until contract renewal, except for specific material reasons already contained in the contract or agreement. Another major complaint of cardholders is the way that card issuers can change the agreement signed by the card holder on a whim, as stated in the said cardholder-signed agreement. This kind of language is used in other legal documents and should be more broadly regulated - not just in cardholder agreements.

  • Requires advance notice of credit card account rate increases. "Advance notice" is a bit of a broad term. Card issuers wouldn't abuse broad language used in laws, would they?

  • Authorizes a consumer who receives such notice to: (1) cancel the credit card without penalty or the imposition of any fee; and (2) pay any outstanding balance that accrued before the effective date of the increase at the APR and in the repayment period in effect before notice was received. You may be very surprised to find out that this is not the case today. Credit cards may not be evil, but the companies who issue them are. With the little to no regulation that we have today, the terms of these agreements are at the issuer's discretion, and you can see how well that is working out.

  • Prohibits a creditor from imposing interest on credit repaid within the interest-free repayment time period. (Thus prohibits double cycle billing). Yes. That's right, issuers have found a way to charge you interest on your balance during the "interest-free" period (ie. before the payment is due). "If I pay my balance in full each month then I'll never pay interest and there is no risk." Now tell me there is no risk. There is always risk with credit. And it's policies like Double Cycle Billing and Universal Default that show just how creative these issuers are at creating new risk and then sneaking it into the cardholder agreements and terms of service changes.

  • Prohibits the imposition of fees on any outstanding balance on a credit card account attributable only to accrued interest on previously repaid credit. I have no idea what that means. Straight from the legislation, "If the outstanding balance on a credit card account under an open end consumer credit plan represents an amount attributable only to accrued interest on previously repaid credit extended under the plan--

        `(A) no fee may be imposed or collected in connection with such balance; and
        `(B) any failure to make timely repayments of such balance shall not constitute a default on the account.
  • Requires each periodic statement of account to provide specified information on obtaining the payoff balance. As someone with no credit card debt, it is hard to fathom that this information would not be on the bill. But the issuer has no interest in helping the cardholder pay off the account. It's all about the fees, baby. What is crazy is that this is just requiring information on obtaining the payoff balance, and not requiring the payoff balance itself to be noted. As I understand it, that balance changes daily, if only by a few cents.

  • Prohibits a creditor from furnishing information to a consumer reporting agency concerning a newly opened credit card account until the consumer has used or activated the credit card. Here they've tossed a bone to the folks playing credit score games. "I applied for an AmEx Purple card and my credit score went down 5 points! 5 points!!!" Get a life. I really hope that there is some real purpose for this line item.

  • Details mandatory pro rata payment allocations by a creditor. This is a good thing as there is all kinds of abuse in terms of where payments get credited. When you are talking pro-rata plans, you are typically working with a debt collector or at least the in-house collections department of an issuer (the lowest of the low). Pro-rata plans are used when you cannot make even minimum payments on you debt. The pro-rata plan itself would include a copy of you budget, and sheet showing how your are repaying debts with what you do have to work with. This is don by listing your disposable income, your debts, the percentage of your total debt that each debt represents, and the amount going to each debt (figured by said percentage X disposable income)

  • Authorizes a consumer to opt-out of creditor authorization of over-the-limit transactions if fees are imposed. A long-time criticism of debit cards is that the bank will let you overspend your account and then charge you fees for going over the limit. Which is true, and does suck. The same is true of credit cards. The 'limit' is simply a threshold allowing the issuer to charge more fees. The fallacy of the Reps drafting this bill is that this feature should be an 'opt-IN', thus implying an opt-OUT by default.

  • Restricts the frequency of over-the-limit fees. Fees, fees, out-of-control fees. Do they really think that they can stop them?

  • Specifies the contents of credit card price and availability information the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System must collect and make public semiannually. Sounds interesting. Has anyone outside of the Beltway even heard of the "Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System", let alone know to look for this magical report produced by the group. Near as I can tell, this a collection of information from credit issuers that includes interest rates charged and how many people they were charged to, a list of each type of fee charged to a cardholder, the total number of cardholders that we charged interest... It's information that will give Congress a better grasp of what is going on, which is great, but means very little to you and I.

  • Prescribes a standard for the initial issuance of subprime or "fee harvester" cards (accounts requiring first-year fee payments in excess of 25% of the total amount of credit authorized). These 'standards' require that fees be paid upfront, before the account is opened and the card is issued. Said fees cannot be charged to said card. No more, no less.

After reading the bill itself, I would have to conclude that this "Cardholders' Bill of Rights" amounts to little more than:
  • An attempt to end Universal Default
  • An attempt to end Double Cycle Billing
  • An attempt to regulate fees
  • Some regulation of procedures
  • A few amendments to the truth in lending act that have little affect on the cardholder.
It's not terribly impressive as written today. Don't get me wrong - there is good intent behind it. Even if this is successful in ending UD and DCB, we are talking about the industry that invented and embraced UD and DCB! I don't see the consumer rights or industry regulation capable of stopping the next UD and DCB. Is it bad legislation? No, a few years too late, but not bad. I do disagree with the title of "Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights" as it is a tad misleading - possibly done intentionally to gain support in Congress. I mean, who would vote against a "Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights"? That won't get you re-elected.

This bill will likely get a lot of press, but it is important to look past the hype of 'putting the credit card companies on trial...' as see through to what the legislation actually does.

The real fundamental shortcoming is the failure to address the real issues with debit cards and credit cards alike and the reluctance to regulate their issuers. Another day, perhaps.

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Our Budget Busters

CindyS over at Oh My Aching Debts threw down the challenge: Post your top 5 budget busters - then tag 3 other bloggers to do the same. I wasn't asked to participate, but after reading Ana's post over at Debt-FREE Revolution, I thought I'd chime in.

  1. Rising food prices. I really hate to say it, but the general cost of food has been blind siding us a lot lately. Seems like the price of everything is up these days. I understand that inflation does exist and that prices will go up, but these increases are crazy. I even swore off of cold cereal for about 4 months because of the price increases. This one is really hard to admit, as at one time, we were the family of three living off of a grocery budget of $250 per month. Current food budget for the four of us is $400-450.
  2. Forgetting my lunch. I am quite well known for skipping lunch out with friends in favor of a nice bowl of leftovers. No complains - I enjoy our cooking, even a day or two after. But two or three times a month, I'll find that I've forgotten my lunch at home. Ug. This usually means lunch at the cafeteria. Not that it's expensive, just not in the budget.
  3. A great deal on ________ . There's lots of ways to fill in the blank, and that's the problem - clothes, home improvement products, garage/estate sale finds, what-have-you. We're not phased by retailers' "Whatever Sale! This week only!" Whatever is right. But when you can get a $600 sink for $30, or that garage sale has clothes in your size - new or nearly new - for pennies on the dollar, how do you say, "No"? Many times, we don't.
  4. Unplanned trips. We've had a handful of family members in and out of the hospital over the past couple months. If you haven't noticed, gas doesn't grow on trees. In fact, quite the opposite.
  5. Unexpected medical bills. I've spoke, at length, about our crummy health insurance. Well, we planned for the bills from the birth of our second, but the tumor that she had removed was not planned for. It has been hammering our emergency fund, and replenishing our emergency fund has been busting our budget.
My wife is a budgeting ninja, so these rarely knock us too far off track. But some of these do occasionally earn me some glares during the budget committee meetings. Ouch!

Some other posts in this challenge:

We'll tag:
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The CR Money Paradox

While parsing through the May 2008 issue of Consumer Reports, I saw an interesting article towards the back on the magazine in their monthly Viewpoint feature titled, "With credit cards, a deal is not always a deal". So kind of them to make it available online. The article contains a mock letter from a bank to a card holder. It is quoted below and we'll discuss on the other side.

Dear Credit Card User,

You owe us money. We can raise your interest rate just because we feel like it. We can do this even if you have always paid us on time and your credit is still good.

We gave you a zero percent interest rate to entice you to transfer a balance to us. Now that you have, we can raise your rate from zero to our standard rate or even higher, to our default rate, if you pay us late or go over your credit limit just one time.

You may have to get your payment to us 20 days from when we mail you the bill. Mail delays in either direction are your problem. If your payment is late even once, we can boost your interest rate to as high as 29.99 percent.

And you out there on the West Coast: Your electronic payment is late if you set it up after 2 p.m. Pacific time on the date it's due.


Your Bank

Now that letter is fairly sugarcoated, but absolutely true. Quite sobering for those unaware, especially that last statement. One thing that I love about Consumer's Union is that they tell it like it is. There's no bias, no slant, no spin - with the exception of blindly recommending Toyota cars and trucks, which I'll never understand. If a product stinks, then it stinks, and they're going to tell you about it. In many ways, CU has been saying that credit cards stink. So much so, that they are testifying before Congress to advocate an end to their out-of-control business practices. Yet, CR's Money section still advocates using "good" credit cards and responsible usage, going so far as to offer ratings and advice on how to pick the right card for you. How about 'none of the above'? With an entire industry that is so morally corrupt and anti-consumer, CU still seems oddly supportive of these products in general. This is something I struggled with for quite a while (kind of like their car buying advice). How could they play both sides?

Then it hit me. CU really isn't in the business of condemning entire product categories, companies, or industries. They are in the business of helping consumers. They give you information to help make educated decisions about products and services. The inform you about scams and questionable business practices and/or products. And, they work with companies and regulatory bodies to improve products and services from a consumer's standpoint. And that is exactly what they are doing here. The outcome of all of this extra special attention that the credit card industry has been receiving will be interesting. They successfully bought that "bankruptcy abuse reform" legislation a couple of years ago, so I'm not terribly optimistic that a slightly reshuffled group of legislators will rail against the debt-mongering industry.

But if this ends like most Congressional hearings (with little to no action), then CU will still be there, telling you about the pitfalls and perks - letting you make your own decisions - and advocating positive change.

The real take away, is that when Consumers Union speaks, people listen. It's important to understand the context of their message.

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How To: Build a Low-Cost Rain Barrel

So maybe you've read my How To on rainwater collection, and you're ready to give this a go. I know several people who have gotten to this point and stopped. They got the raw barrels, and for whatever reason, they just didn't finish. They've been setting there for years - unused. Time and priorities are always an issue, but there's no excuse for letting this one slip through the cracks. This job is about 2 hammers out of 5 on difficulty (but only because we are using power tools, otherwise it would be a 1), and about 1.5 dollar signs out of 5 (the cost of the barrels is variable, but the rest is quite cheap). Really, the barrel can be painted over a weekend of intermittent activity, and the rest of the work can be done in one evening. It's really not hard.

**NOTE** My How To is for non-potable use. There are ways to adapt this simple system for potability, but that lies outside of my relm of expertise.

We'll start with the tools list. It's not terribly long or complex. When I built my barrels, the only thing I had to buy was the 1" hole saw for the drill. If you are lacking in power tools, I wouldn't buy them just for this project. Try to borrow some if you can.

Tools needed:

  • Drill with 1" hole saw
  • Sawz-all, saber saw, or jig saw with a fine or all-purpose blade
  • sharpie
  • scissors
  • makeshift compass (I used a screwdriver and some butcher's twine)
  • plot of hole pattern
  • tape measure
  • spirit level
Now the materials. Other than the barrels, everything on the list can be found at your local home improvement mega-center. We discussed some ideas for getting the barrels in the previous article. Of the 6 that we made, 2 came from a garage sale, one from craigslist, and 3 from a neighbor. All had been acquired with the intent of making rain barrels, but stalled out at that point. Of the 3 that we purchased, we paid around $5-10 each. The ballast need not be anything fancy. This is simply to help hold the barrel in place when there is little to no water inside.

Materials list (minimum for one barrel):
  • 1 uncut heavy-duty plastic 55-gallon barrel [cost variable]
  • fiberglass window screening [about $3 per barrel, comes in rolls]
  • (2) 2' bungees with hooks [$1 each]
  • 3/4" brass spigot [$7]
  • outdoor caulking [$3, but I'll bet you already have some]**
  • flexible gutter extension [$3]
  • zip-ties [$2]**
  • 3/4" P-trap [$3]
  • rocks/bricks/ballast [free, look around the yard]**
  • cinder blocks [$1 each]
  • paint and primer [use whatever is handy]**
  • brushes and rollers [ditto]**
  • sandpaper [use what you have]**
The items with ** are ones that I had on hand. ~$22 + the cost of the barrel, which you might be able to get for free. (Go ask!)

Step 1: Plan
Choose the location(s) for your rain barrels. Maybe you want yours hidden from view or proudly displayed. Your call. Likely, you'll want them to be within a foot or two of your downspouts. Otherwise you'll have to pipe the water to the barrel. Not impossible, but something to consider. Also consider how you will use the water. If the barrel(s) need to be elevated - 3 inches or 3 feet - you'll want to plan for that. At peak capacity, we had utilized 3 of our 4 downspouts with 1, 2, and 3 barrels at those locations. We opted for extra capacity in our back yard as it was easier to hide (stupid subdivision covenances), and that is where we needed the water.

***Disclaimer*** Steps 2 through 6 are only for the barrel under the downspout. If you are daisy chaining, those will follow a different method. See Step 7 below.

Step 2: The Inlet
The whole point of the barrel is to get water into it. The method we chose (the pie-wedges) was suggested by one family who sold us some barrels. It involves cutting pie-wedge shaped openings in the top and then covering it with window screening. These openings may seem like overkill, but stay with me. I'm going to take a wild stab and guess that there is more than water coming down your downspouts. Leaves, tree pollen, shingle gravel, small woodland creatures. You don't want these in the barrel. You'll need a 'filter' of some sort. With this method, the water will come down your downspout and spill out onto the screening. The water will filter through whatever area is not blocked by roof debris, thus all the openings. After a rain, you'll clearly be able to see the debris and clear it simply by brushing it off.

These large openings also act as a vent to let the air out as it is replaced with water. I don't care what anyone says, large or small water tanks, venting MUST be addressed. It is a fact of life and physics. You may have a different water inlet method, and that is fine, just be sure that you have an exiting air vent or you will have problems.

The pie-wedges are not something you'll want to just 'wing it' on. The last thing you want is for this to break and end up with a big gaping hole in your barrel. The webbing that remains between the openings will support the screening on top as well as help maintain the structural rigidity of the barrel. I took the time to layout a hole pattern for the wedges, with one 1-inch hole at each corner. This file is available for download at the end of the article and on the right side under "NtJS Downloads". Once plotted, I poke a hole at each point and place the plot on top of the barrel. I use the sharpie to mark a dot at each location, 18 in total. Now comes the drill and 1" hole saw. Be forewarned - the plastic can be upwards of 3/8" thick on the top. You may go through a couple of batteries just getting through the holes for one barrel. have your charger handy. A corded drill may work better here. **Note: the barrels are not terribly heavy when empty and have low friction. You may need a friend to steady the barrel or find a way to secure it while you drill and cut. I used bungee cords to hold it against a bench on the deck.

Next you'll need the power saw to 'connect the dots'. Start on the outside edge and go 'tangent to tangent' for a clean final appearance. You may want to draw some guides with the sharpie and a straight edge. I used the makeshift compass and sharpie to draw the arc between the outer most holes as I wanted that cut to be concentric with the lip of the barrel. But thats just me, you could skip that. Take your time with this part. This is the easiest part to screw up. If all goes well, you'll have something like what is in the picture.

Step 3: The Outlet
There is a bit of planning needed here - measure twice, cut once sorta thing. We were using our barrels mainly to fill watering cans, occasionally 2-gallon buckets. Based on that and our plan from Step 1, we chose a height to drill our outlet hole. The other edge to that sword is that the higher you go up on the barrel, the less easily accessible capacity you have. Any water below that level will require tipping the barrel.

The beauty of this step is that a 3/4" fitting will screw directly into the hole made by a 1" hole saw. Once drilled you may do a dry fit first, but when you are ready to put the spigot on for good, smear a little silicone caulking on the threads and turn it into the hole. Just be sure to get it tight to the barrel and pointing the right direction (down). Don't strip it - you have one shot at this. We'll finish sealing it with caulking after the paint is dry.

Step 4: The Overflow
We've tried a few methods on this one and my best suggestion is to install a small P-trap like what is under your sink. With water in the 'P', mosquitoes can't get in to lay eggs, yet water can freely over flow out. Once again, you'll be using your 1" hole saw and treading the assembly into the hole. Location is at your discretion. One tip is that some folks like to put a hose connection on the outside of the overflow so that they can hook a soaker hose onto it and run it through the landscaping so not to waste the overflow and end up with a small pit next to the barrel.

You may think, "with such large openings in the top, who needs an overflow?" That's what I said. After trying to do without, and letting the water overflow out the top, I found that the water was pushing the screening up and causing gaps that let mosquitoes in. This was my best solution. Maybe you have a better one? Let us know.

Step 5: Paint

Even if your barrels are opaque, you may not want to skip this step. Our bright blue barrels were great at stopping algae growth, but otherwise an eyesore considering their surroundings. Our chocolate brown paint job was great for making these guys mostly disappear into the landscape. Materials can vary, but likely any barrel suitable for this application will be made of HDPE or PP. This is great for durability and cleaning. Not so great for paint. Results may vary. I scarred ours up with 60 grit sandpaper before priming them. Once cured, I applied the color coats. Use as many as are needed to get a consistent opaque color. This step is done last in an attempt to minimize scrapes and scars from processing.

My best advice here is to paint the sides first. This way you can hold onto the top to steady the barrel. Once that is done, then paint the top. Give your paint time to cure before adding successive coats. We used regular house paint. Spray paint didn't seem to be a good fit to us as you'll go through several cans on one barrel. If you have a friend with access to a paint booth, then it may be a good time to cash in a favor. Alternatively, if you have kids, they may want to help. Put on the paint smocks and let them have at it. Just be sure to smooth out the paint as they go.

Step 6: The Install
You're almost there. Once the paint is dry, cut a piece of the window screening and cover the top, wrapping the excess to the sides. Use the bungees to secure it in place by wrapping them around the screening. Use the scissors to trim off the excess.

Use some silicone to seal around your spigot and overflow. While that is drying, remove your aluminum downspouts and replace them with the flexible gutter extensions. These will allow you to lengthen and shorten as needed. Even go around corners, which is pretty handy. I used the zip ties to hold the end of the extension to the barrel by looping them through the bungees. I do not recommend having aluminum downspout contacting your screen as you see here. It is much more likely to wear a hole in the screen letting in, you guessed it, mosquitoes.

Prep the site, place your cinder blocks, and check for level. Once you are ready, set the barrel in place and load the ballast. Check the level of the barrel now. Trust me, now is the time to get this right. Attach the downspout, and pray for rain.

Oh! be sure that the spigot is turned OFF. Small detail.

Step 7: Daisy-chaining
This is a very simple way to add capacity to the single barrel system that we built above. These are even easier to make.

Materials list (for daisy chaining multiple barrels onto one down spout)
  • 1 uncut heavy-duty plastic 55-gallon barrel [cost variable]
  • a few feet of garden hose [cheap at garage sales]
  • male-end hose repair kits (2 per daisy chain) [$2 each]
Step 7b: Layout
Carefully plan the location as in Step 1. They should be close together, but not touching. If they were then they may rub together and you'll lose your paint. Be sure that you have plenty of room and can build up any foundation that is needed. Set the barrels in place and make a preliminary mark for the inlets/outlets that we'll talk about next.

Step 7c: In/Out
The daisy-chained barrels use the same opening for the inlet as the outlet. There are various methodologies on this, but I chose this one for a few good reasons. First, I used garden hose as it is flexible and will stand up to the elements. Second, I wanted to do this as minimally as possible, so complex PVC structures were not happening. Last, by mounting the inlet/outlet low, all the barrels will have the same amount of water in them for holding them in place. Besides, if I mounted it high - where the overflow is - then I would need a spigot for each.

The hose repair kits consist of a treaded end (to thread into the barrel), a smaller end (that goes into the hose), and a clamp. We'll attach the clamp and hose later. Do what comes natural with the rest.

Step 7d: Vent
We've already discussed the need for vents, but on the daisy chain barrels, we don't have the large openings like we do on the main barrel. Fear not. Here are two ways to get plenty of ventilation. Either of these should be completed post-paint, put planned for and prepped now.

The first and easiest is made possible by the bung on top of the barrel. Ok, Beavis, I said bung. All of the barrels I had found had one or two threaded caps on the top - 3-4" in diameter. To use these, I simply unscrewed the cap, covered the top with window screening, and secured it with zip ties. Ta-Daaaaaa.

The second way was what I had to do with one barrel that already had a hole cut into the top. This time, I left the bung in place. I sized up a piece of window screening that would cover the hole and overlap the plastic by an inch or two. I ran a bead of silicone caulk around the hole, and pressed the window screening into it. Not too shabby, but a tad ghetto. Method 1 is much cleaner.

Step 7e: Paint
Same as Step 5 above.

Step 7f: Install
Mostly the same as Step 6 above. Be sure that these barrels are at the same height as the main barrel. To install these, you'll want to prep the sites and set the barrels in place as you had them before when we were marking for the inlets/outlets. Attach the garden hose and be sure there are no kinks. If there are kinks in the line, then you have too much hose. Trim a little and refit.

Other Options
If you are wanting more pressure out of your tanks, then I have one word for you: elevation. I was quite close to building an elevated platform for out 3 daisy-chained barrels just prior to selling them and moving. My best advice here is to over-build it. Over-engineer it. Remember how heavy these get when full? 8.33 lbs/gal x 55 gal/barrel x 3 barrels = 1374lbs!!!

If you are just dying to wash your car or run a lawn sprinkler off of these, then good luck. I wish you all the best. I've seen systems with pumps, pressure tanks, even one with plumbed spigots around the yard. This can be just as complex as you want it to be, but my guidance ends here.

My Hole Pattern
This is the pattern I used to layout the holes on top of the barrels. Pretty simple to use, but you will need a large format printer to plot it out. If you don't have access to one, or don't have access to someone who has access to one, then Kinko's is a good last resort. For full 1:1 scale, print the file at 24x36". I thought long and hard about charging for this file. In the spirit of eco-friendliness, this one is FREE. Download it here.

Somewhat Useful links
Pollution Prevention Factsheet
City of Austin Rainwater Harvesting Programs
The tutorial that got me started

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Ever Taken a Financial Beating?

I was reading this article over at the Consumerist about Citicard ending Universal Default on it's card. Universal Default became a part of many card holder agreements a few years back. In a nutshell, Universal Default allows any credit issuer to adjust your interest rate to the default rate (usually around 26, 29, or 32% apr) if you have gotten behind with an unrelated bill. Miss a house payment? Universal Default allows Citi - and any other creditor - to jack your interest rate. Late on the water bill? Jacked. Overdue library fees. Jacked. Didn't pay that parking ticket that blew off of your car? Jacked. Under Universal Default, creditors could treat you like a deadbeat for simply taking on, in their eyes, too much debt. Even if the late payment is due to an error on the part of one creditor, the others who jacked your rates are under no obligation to return them to where they were - even after the matter is cleared up with the original creditor! This practice was so bad that it was finally struck down by Congress during some hearings last year. And by 'struck down', I mean that Congress gave the industry a good, hearty "shame on you". Since then, Citi has agreed to stop using Universal Default. Here is a quote from the Consumerist article - we'll discuss it on the other side.

She said she was personally appalled after finding out that her company had the policy in the first place, but then struggled with how to tell customers about it, because, she said, "It's like telling people you stopped beating your wife."
Wow. That's quite a statement and likely the closest thing to an admission of of guilt that you'll see out of a credit card company. The comments were quite interesting too.

But really, lets continue with the 'wife-beating' analogy. It's likely no secret that the abuse is happening. Your friends and neighbors know, but it is still a bit too taboo to talk about. The physical abuse comes and goes - some incidents are worse than others and nothing you say or do will make it stop. Sometimes the relationship is good. Flowers, dinner out, a nice vacation. You want to believe he's changed, but deep inside, you know that you are setting yourself up for a downfall. The mental abuse is the worst part. That time you 'took a break' and went to your sister's house for a week was hell. He called constantly. Sometimes you'd pick up, and he didn't seem so bad. But then suddenly he's yelling at you and calling you a names. Still, he was your first, and you couldn't bare to leave him, could you? Think of how this will affect your reputation. He wouldn't go around bad mouthing you and calling you a whore, would he?

***Disclaimer*** This analogy is in no way intended to downplay or make light of the seriousness of spousal abuse. It is a terrible thing that affects far too many people.

Maybe this sounds familiar, despite never being a victim of spousal abuse. Sounds like a relationship with a credit card, doesn't it? So long as you walk on eggshells and play their game, there are no problems. Then you miss a payment. The abuse begins. It's small a first, and you brush it off. "Maybe I deserve it", you think. Then things start to happen for no reason. Suddenly your interest rates go from a 'reasonable' 4.99% to 31.99%. They want to make things work, but it seems like every time you come to a compromise, they forget about it and it's like it never happened. You may get completely cross-ways with them and they send your file to collections. Then the real abuse starts. Yelling, name-calling, calling your family members to 'get a message to you'. They may even make good on their threats and ding your credit, which will follow you around and affect future relationships.

Abusive creditors are like abusive spouses. They won't change, and the only way to end it is to leave for good. If you don't enable the abuse, then it can't happen. Sorry, Citi, but it's your analogy - you opened the door, and we walked right in.

Have you ever taken a financial beating? Abused by a creditor? Taken advantage of by someone who knew you weren't ready? Screwed over despite your best, honest efforts to be a good consumer?

What happened? How did it make you feel? What steps have you taken to make sure that this never happens again?

**UPDATE** Welcome Carnival of Personal Finance readers! To find out more about us, click here. Check out our latest personal finance articles here. Thanks for reading!

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How To: Water Your Garden For Free

Spring is here! It sure feels nice outside, and I'm pretty sure that was the sun I saw the other day. April showers will surely bring May flowers, but what if those same April showers could stay with you for more of the hot, dry summer? Every year there are more and more areas forcing homeowners to stop watering their lawns due to water shortages. Even with out shortages, you may be reluctant to water your lawn and garden simply due to the cost of city water. A few years ago, we were introduced to the concept of rainwater harvesting. The general concept is to collect rain water, from storms large or small, to be stored and used during periods of drought. "Yeah, that sounds great, but how?"

It's far easier than you think. First, a few basics.

This may sound like just another 'hippie/tree-hugger', 'green living' solution with questionable ability to deliver on investment. Well, consider this: For ever 1000 sq. ft. of catchment surface, you can collect ~600 gallons of water for every inch of rainfall. How many gallons per year of rainwater are you missing out on as they rush through your downspouts and aimlessly back into the ground? How many times have you had 5 days of rain per week for a month straight, just to follow it up with 3 months of drought?

To begin collecting, you first need a catchment surface. Don't worry - you likely already have one. It's usually called your roof. Most roofing materials are acceptable, though if you are planning to drink your rainwater, you may want to do a bit more research as some roofing materials are less than ideal. Enamel coated metal roofing is typically best. Asphalt/composite shingles (what most people have) will work, but you'll have to deal with all of the gravel that washes off of the shingles.

While you may have a roof, you may not have rain gutters. These are also quite important. Without them, you are going to have a very difficult time collecting the water running off of your roof. If your gutters are intact and functioning, then read on.

Now we just need a place to store the water. You don't need gigantic plastic vats or underground cisterns to pull this off, though those can be pretty sweet. The simplest way is to use plastic drums. These are typically between 50 and 60 gallons each, about waist high, and easy for a DIYer to handle (when empty that is). Drums made of food-grade plastic and in great condition are easier to find than you may think. Some places sell them - new or used. Used can run you $30-50. Typically you can find someone who works at a warehouse, bottling plant, or factory where these are used and discarded daily. Put your feelers out, and keep your eyes open. Likely these will just require a couple rinses of warm, soapy water to have them prepped for rainwater. With a few modifications - opening in the top, valve at the bottom, and overflow provision- you'll be ready for rain.

That will give you a very basic system. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Mosquitoes love standing water. No matter how small the opening, they will get in and turn it into a breeding ground. Home improvement stores sell non-toxic tablets to help with this. Even still, fiberglass window screening and silicone caulking are your friends.
  • Water + sun light = algae. This is not a good thing as it will clog up your spigot. With water collection being the whole purpose of the barrels, light is the only other variable to remove. The easy fix is to paint your barrels or just be sure they are opaque to begin with.
  • 1 gallon of water equals 8.33 lbs. So your 50 gallons of cloud juice would tip the scales at 416 and one half pounds. Once it has water in it, you will not be moving it. So choose your location carefully. Also be sure to place it on a solid base - cinder blocks work well. Be sure they are solid and level. The last thing you want is for one of these to fall on someone or something.
  • This is a gravity feed. That is unless you've sprung for a pump, which I doubt. Hooking a hose up to your tank's spigot may not do much good unless the end of the hose is lower than the water level in the tank. Even then, we found a garden hose to be ineffective, other than for draining it without making a mess next to the barrel. Be sure you have enough room to fit a watering can or bucket under the spigot.
Barrels specifically made for rainwater collection can be purchased from various retailers. These will run you anywhere from $80 to $200. For us, this was not only about stewardship of natural resources, but plain ol' frugality as well. No deal on the pre-made barrels. We built our own and it really wasn't that tough. It helps to do several at once as you will quickly get the hang of the process. Though it is probably best to do just one for your first as you will likely learn a lot and may want to do something different going forward. We have a DIY rain barrel design that we will be posting next week - complete with materials list, tools list, design tips, system modifications, and drawings. Be sure to check back for it. At our previous house, we started with 2 barrels, but later added 4 more giving us a storage capacity of 300 gallons. With a catchment surface of ~2000 sq. ft., and 300 gallons of storage, our barrels were filled from just a 1/4" of rain. We were quite successful with our system and learned a lot from the experience.

We have lots more to share on this topic, so be sure to check back next week for our follow up post. This seems to be plenty to digest for now. The barrel building tutorial is live! See it here.

***UPDATE*** Welcome Festival of Frugality readers! Please take a few minutes to check out some of our other frugal living articles. If you are new here, find out more about Not the Jet Set here.

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