Day 6 of the January Money Diet – Get Your First Tax Deduction of 2013

Welcome to Day 6 of the January Money Diet, a 31-day break from nonessential spending. If you’ve just joined us, you can learn more about the money diet here — and jump right in!

Free couch at Happy Simple Living

Photo by Rusty Clark

“The difference between a helping hand and an outstretched palm is a twist of the wrist.”  ~ Laurence Leamer

A friend of mine told me about a great habit she’s developed. Whenever the various charities call asking if she has any “household goods, clothing or reusable items to donate,” she always says yes. She says she can always find something to give away, and the pending pick-up deadline keeps her constantly weeding out  drawers, closets and the garage.

Coats, blankets, furniture, baby items, kids’ toys, dishes and clothes are all much-needed items that most nonprofits readily accept. Many charities have drop-off locations or regular pick-up schedules. You can also contact your church or homeless shelter to learn more about specific needs. Or try Freecycle, an site that connects people who have extra stuff with people who need things.

Homework assignment #6: Give something away, and leave a comment below letting us know what you cast off. If you itemize your taxes and donate something to a nonprofit, be sure to ask for a receipt so you can claim the deduction on your taxes. Giving stuff away helps others, reduces the landfill volume, and helps clear space.

Giving stuff away just makes me feel happy. How about you?

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Win a Deluxe Happy Simple Living Gift Basket

In honor of the January Money Diet, I’ll be giving away a gift basket chock-full of home and garden goodies at the end of the month. On January 31, 2013, I’ll draw one random name from everyone who commented during the month and that lucky person will win the gift basket. I hope you’ll stop by often this month and share your own ideas, thoughts and experiences about taking a 31-day break from nonessential spending.

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About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

A Green, Clean and Cheap Way to Enjoy Spot-Free Dishes

Spot-free dishes at Happy Simple Living

Photo by Steve A. Johnson

If you have an automatic dishwasher, chances are you have a little dispenser that you’re supposed to fill with “rinse aid” to help the dishes come out sparkling and spot-free. Rinse aid isn’t cheap, though; at our local grocery store, an 8.45 ounce bottle retails for $5.15, or about 61 cents an ounce.

Rinse aid has another little problem. Have you ever read the back of the bottle?

Rinse Aid at Happy Simple Living

Many brands of rinse aid contain chemicals that can irritate the eyes and skin. Is it just me, or does it seem counter-intuitive that we’re instructed to coat our dishes and eating utensils with potentially harmful chemicals?

You may also wonder, as I do, about rinse aid’s environmental impact. According to Grist: “Conventional rinse aid is one of the mystery products wherein manufacturers only need disclose active ingredients. We can find Material Safety Data Sheets for these products on line, which say reassuring things such as “The manufacturer’s MSDS does not state whether the ingredients are considered carcinogens or potential carcinogens.” Rumor has it that conventional rinse aids do contain phosphates, the chemical compounds that can lead to marine dead zones.”

I tried running the dishwasher with just eco-friendly dish detergent, but the glasses came out spotty. Then someone told me you could use distilled white vinegar instead of rinse aid. So last month I experimented and filled the little dispenser with vinegar.

Vinegar rinse aid at Happy Simple Living blog

Eureka! After a dozen loads of dishes, I’m happy to report that the vinegar rinse works perfectly. The glasses are spot-free, and in case you’re wondering they don’t smell like we pulled them from a pickle barrel. In fact, I think the dishes and dishwasher actually smell fresher since we made the switch. Vinegar is natural, and we paid $1.29 for a 32-ounce bottle – or 4 cents an ounce.

If you feel hesitant to pour a non-approved product in the dispenser or if your dishwasher doesn’t have a rinse aid dispenser, you can instead just put a small glass (a shot glass works perfectly) upright in the bottom of your dishwasher rack and pour in about 2 tablespoons of white distilled vinegar right before you run the dishes. The vinegar will get mixed in with water during the rinse cycle, and your glasses will be sparkling clean.

If you make the switch from a chemical rinse aid to all-natural vinegar, I’d love to hear how it works for you. Happy rinsing!

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About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

A Quick, Painless Way to Save Money and Energy When Baking

Elmira retro range on HappySimpleLiving.com

Retro range from Elmira Stove Works

I don’t know why I never thought of this before, but I read a great energy-saving idea in the book Shift Your Habit: Easy Ways to Save Money, Simplify Your Life, and Save the Planet by Elizabeth Rogers. When you’re cooking something in the oven, turn it off 5 to 10 minutes before your food is done. The oven will stay hot enough to keep cooking your food, and you’ll save energy. Rogers says this simple tip can save 100 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions  and $15 per year if you typically use the oven three times a week. During this toasty summer, turning the stove off early will also help your kitchen cool down faster.

How about you? Do you turn the oven off early to conserve energy? We always love to hear your energy-saving thoughts and ideas.

Stay cool,

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About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

How to Banish Green Gloom and Guilt

raindrop at Happy Simple Living

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

Nobody talks about this much, but it seems to me that trying to live a sustainable life can sometimes be a Big Biohazardous Bummer.

Earlier this week, I headed to the compost bin with a pan of water. The water had been soaking in a cooking pot, and instead of pouring it down the drain I thought I’d virtuously recycle it. I managed to open the back door with one hand, staggered out with the pot (only spilling a little on my shoes), quickly shut the door so the cat wouldn’t escape…and that’s when I noticed that the back porch light was on. I had forgotten to turn it off in the morning, and the light had burned all day – just wasting electricity and money, expanding our carbon footprint, and negating my feeble effort to reuse cooking water.

Sprinkler at Happy Simple Living

Photo: jjsala

My inner critic berated me the same way it does when I forget to bring the reusable bags to the grocery store, or the time I accidentally left the sprinklers on during a rain storm. So careless! So wasteful! So UN-green!

Later I tuned in to the evening news, which showed footage of the Japanese tsunami debris washing up on Alaskan shores. My stomach was in knots as I heard the concerns about toxicity and watched the images of so much plastic and trash all over the beach. I wondered for the millionth time how much more our planet can take. The news is so depressing, and every day seems to bring a new worry.

Photo - SOSnyc.org

I’ve experienced my share of personal eco-angst, too, like when I spearheaded an effort to get our public school to stop using disposable, petroleum-based, non-biodegradable Styrofoam trays. Just as the district buyer was considering a move to a biodegradable tray, the cost of the Styrofoam trays suddenly dropped by 30 percent. I learned firsthand about the force of the American plastics industry and the continued nationwide purchase of these trays by school districts, despite outrage and protests from students and parents.

It’s much like the frustration I feel when I read about major agribusiness corporations lobbying heavily, making obscene contributions to Super PACs, and imposing their environmentally-damaging practices and products on a world that desperately needs them to do the right thing.

Oh, my friends, what’s an earth-loving human to do?

After feeling discouraged last week, a lightbulb went off (pun intended). Trying to live green should be a reason to smile, I reasoned later, not an excuse to walk around in an Enviro-Funk. It’s not always easy to consistently live this lifestyle, but we have to keep doing our best. We have to keep encouraging each other, staying positive and pushing ahead.

Photo: Mykl Roventine

I realize that every day I have a choice. I can beat myself up for every eco-opportunity I miss, or I can celebrate the efforts our family does make. I can obsess about everything that’s wrong on our planet, or I can focus on trying to make a difference in my own way. I can despair about the bad news, or I can stay informed and continue to try to make the world a better place.

Besides hugging the nearest tree, one thing that cheers me when I’ve got the Toxic Waste Woes is you, the caring community of people who read Happy Simple Living. How remarkable it is that so many good people are spread all over the world, each trying to do the right thing. You lift me up, you challenge me, and you inspire me to keep trying. Above all, connecting with you makes me happy.

No more green blues for me,

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P.S. Whether you can relate to these feelings or not, you know I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

A Letter to the Meat Industry

Cows at Happy Simple Living

Photo by Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden

Yesterday I read an article on the PR news site Bulldog Reporter about the meat industry’s “image crisis.” From the public outcry against “pink slime,” to a recent incident of mad cow disease in a dairy cow, to the Harvard study released this spring that suggests eating meat could lead to premature death, this spring has been a PR practitioner’s nightmare.

According to the LA Times article cited in the story, “beef historian and author Maureen Ogle believes the industry should have responded by running polished advertisements featuring ranchers touting their American heritage, as well as billboards proclaiming the safety of products, and executives should have been sent to major talk shows.”

As a PR professional myself, I politely beg to disagree. I don’t think the meat industry has an image crisis that calls for a more polished public relations response. The meat industry has a listening crisis. The reason the media is filled with so much negative news is because the U.S. meat industry is not hearing its customers.

We are a household that still eats meat. I try to purchase from local producers who use organic feed, let animals graze, and treat them humanely, but like most people, sometimes I’m trying to live within the budget or I’m in a hurry and I purchase supermarket meat. I find that our family is moving to an increasingly vegetarian diet for many reasons – not the least of which is our distaste for much the U.S. meat industry’s standard practices. Your feelings may be different, of course, but here’s what I wish the meat industry would hear:

  • We don’t want animals suffering in fetid feedlots or stuffed in crowded cages – not at any cost. We want humane treatment of animals raised for food production.
  • We humans don’t want to have to forgo antibiotics when we’re sick, because of your continued overuse in the meat industry. (Factory farm animals consume 80% of all antibiotics in this country. The European Union curtailed use of routine antibiotic use on farms in 2006.)
  • We don’t want you to pump these animals full of hormones like rBGH to induce quick growth. Let them grow up naturally. (The European Union, Japan, Australia and Canada have all banned the use of rBGH due to animal and human health concerns.)
  • We want you to feed these animals good food that is part of their natural diet. We don’t want you to force animals that are herbivores, like cattle, to eat feed manufactured with animal by-products.
  • We don’t want pink slime or other cheap additives in our meat. We simply want good, top-quality meat. (Canada, the UK and European Union have banned pink slime from their meat, but here it can constitute up to a whopping 15 percent of our ground beef without any labeling. Why?)
  • We want you to take the lead in good practices. We want to be proud of our United States producers and processors, and we want U.S.-raised meat to be the best in the world.

In March 2012, ground beef sales slipped to the lowest level in a decade. Consumers are clearly voting with their checkbooks, and one can only hope that the U.S. meat industry collectively decides to improve its practices, not its propaganda.

What do you think?

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About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Save the Bees and Two Simple, Free Things You Can Do

Save the bees at Happy Simple Living blog

Photo by Karen Roe

American honeybees are disappearing at an alarming rate, and some think the EPA knows why. A growing body of evidence shows that widespread use of nicotine-based insecticides called neonicotinoids is linked to Colony Collapse Disorder.

Several countries, including Germany and France, have already banned clothianidin. And – Halleluia! – after the bans, bee populations began to rise again.

But in the U.S., clothianidin is still used on millions of acres of crops of corn, soy, wheat, cotton, sorghum, peanuts and more. American beekeepers report losses of up to 90% of their bees, and many worry that their hives won’t survive another season.

Here’s how to help:

1.  Sign Change.org’s petition to urge the EPA to end the harmful pesticide’s use. As of today, the organization has gathered nearly 125,000 of the 150,000 signatures it seeks to present to the EPA. The form is quick and easy, and Change.org won’t share your personal info.

2. Post a link to your Facebook or Twitter page urging others to do the same. Here’s a ready-made tweet:

Save the bees! Sign your name to support urging the EPA to ban harmful pesticides now  http://chn.ge/Hoh9Yr via @change

That’s all there is to it. Change.org has provided the impetus for numerous citizen-led causes, and every signature helps send the message that we care about our planet.

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P.S. If you want to welcome bees to your garden this summer check out Urban Bee Gardens for tons of ideas, from bee-attracting plants to creating bee-friendly habitats.

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Small Batch Homemade Greek Yoghurt With Fruit

Happy Simple Living and Greek Yoghurt

I just love Greek yogurt with fruit, like this FAGE nonfat Greek yogurt with Strawberry “Goji,” whatever that is. BUT, this tiny cup retails for $1.69 at our supermarket. According to the ingredients list, twenty percent of the product is the strawberry topping–which means that the cup contains only about 4 ounces of yogurt. That’s pretty expensive when I can make a 32-ounce batch of homemade Greek yogurt for just a few dollars. (Here’s the recipe, in case you missed it in my earlier post.) Plus, I’m trying to eliminate disposable packaging as much as possible. But those little cups are so cute, with their spoon-shaped compartment of…goji. What’s a sustainability-lovin’ girl to do?

I recently made a batch of regular (non-Greek) yogurt, but one morning I awoke craving one of those little goji cups. So I experimented and set up a small strainer with an unbleached coffee filter inside like this:

Straining Greek yogurt at Happy Simple Living

I added two cups of yogurt and let it sit for about an hour. The straining process reduced the volume by half, and I poured off the whey (which I freeze and save for cooking).

Small batch Greek Yogurt at Happy Simple Living

Then I spooned the thick, creamy Greek yoghurt in a bowl — a luxurious eight ounces instead of the measly four offered in the little FAGE cups — and (since we happened to be out of goji) added a swirl of homemade strawberry jam.

Homemade Greek yogurt with fruit goji

The result? The best cup of Greek Yogurt with Strawberry Goji I’ve ever had.  Now that I know I can have it on demand whenever I like, I’m a whole lot more pleasant in the morning. Okay, that’s not really true. But this homemade version of one of my favorite treats does make me happy. Try it and see if you agree.

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P.S. This post was shared on Frugally Sustainable’s Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways.

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Mid-Summer Garden Update

For gardeners everywhere, the summer of 2011 has been an interesting one. It seems that record-setting weather is the norm rather than the exception for most of the United States, and many other parts of the world as well. Here in Colorado, June was hot and dry followed by one of the wettest Julys on record. For the most part, the garden is doing fine and enjoying the extra moisture. Here are a few photos of some of the plants:

Pumpkin Plant at Happy Simple Living

A pumpkin plant has lots of blooms but the leaves are a little yellow from all the rain.

 

Cherry tomato plant at Happy Simple Living

The bottom leaves of the cherry tomato plant are a little yellow, too, but it has lots of blooms and green tomatoes. Our garden is 100% organic and the only fertilizer we use is homemade compost.

 

Jalapeno plant - Happy Simple Living

The jalapenos are kind of puny this year. I think chiles prefer hot, dry weather.

 

onions, garlic, chives at Happy Simple Living

The garlic, chives and onions seem completely happy with the extra water!

 

Currant bush at Happy Simple Living

The currant bushes are loaded with ripe fruit.

 

Strawberries at Happy Simple Living

The strawberries are blooming and putting out fruit for the second time this season.

 

Butterfly at Happy Simple Living

While I was snapping photos, a butterfly stopped by for an early morning drink.

How does your garden grow this summer? I’d love to hear how you and your plants are doing.

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P.S. While it rains here, across the globe the skies are dry. If you watched NBC Nightly News last night, you saw a heartbreaking report about the famine crisis in Africa due to the region’s worst drought in half a century. More than 11 million people in Somalia and parts of Kenya and Ethiopia need food assistance due to the drought, according to the United Nations. Nearly half of the Somali population, 3.7 million people, desperately need food and water. Even a small donation could save lives, and you can find a list of key organizations providing aid here.

 

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Free Book Giveaway – The City Homesteader

This month I’m giving away a brand-new copy of a terrific book, The City Homesteader. Written by Scott Meyer, this 272-page book has tons of great ideas for people who live in urban areas yet long to be more self sufficient and live more sustainably.

Meyer was formerly on staff at Organic Gardening, and accordingly, the book has plenty of advice and tips for growing your own fruits and vegetables – including a growing guide at the back of the book. Meyer also delves into other home food sources, from building a bee house to raising goats. Plus, he provides excellent information for preserving all that wonderful food, from canning your own homemade pickles to making homemade fruit leather.

To enter the drawing, simply comment below about the one homesteading skill you’d like to try someday – whether you live in a city skyscraper or a rural farm. The deadline to enter is midnight MST on July 18, 2011. On July 19 I’ll use Random.org to pick a winner and announce it here. Good luck, and I can’t wait to hear your responses.

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About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.