LPG: investing in frugality

Sometimes you have to spend money to save money.  After saving and saving for months, we recently converted our regular gasoline-burning car to burn LPG (liquid petroleum gas), a mixture of propane and butane that is sold at select gas stations around Greece.

We are extremely happy with this investment.  Yes, the upfront cost was eye-watering.  But the LPG fuel gets the same mileage as gasoline, and costs exactly half the price.  We actually made up the first 10% of the difference within the first month of converting.

We can still use gasoline if we choose to – the car has the factory gasoline tank and a new LPG tank.  This effectively doubles our range, but in practice we rely on the LPG exclusively now because of the price.

One concern I had was if we would be able to find LPG easily.  And in fact, it is not so easy to find.  The number of gas stations selling it is growing, but it is still only a small percentage of the total.  There are three gas stations in our town that sell it, but there are plenty of places where there are no stations, so if anyone is thinking about doing this, do a little research first and make sure you can fill up in your own city.  Unfortunately none of the Greek islands with the exception of Crete, Lefkada, Kefallonia, and Evia have gas stations selling LPG, so this is not going to be a solution for the islanders.  But on the mainland, the situation is much better.

Be prepared to spend a lot up front – prices vary a lot; the range is anywhere from around €700 to €1300.  We did ours at our dealer to keep it under warranty.  The car has to pass an inspection before it can go on the road, but it’s not a complicated process at all.

Once we did ours, our friends who had done theirs started to come out of the woodwork.  We have three or four friends our age who have converted their cars in the past two or three months!

With our LPG, we are now paying only about $3.92 per gallon, instead of $7.84.  We had been paying as much as $10.80/gallon for gasoline at various times over the past twelve months.  We are so thrilled that we did this in time for summer trips to the beach!

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supermarket politicians

Tonight I stayed up late to watch a program on TV that I was very much anticipating.  Alpha channel, which is one of the less serious channels, but has recently in the past month or so tried to realign itself as a serious/newsy channel, has in so doing chosen to focus on the more “populist” issues.  At this point, the most populist issue in Greece is probably the high cost of food in the supermarket.  It’s easy to talk about the euro currency, illegal immigration, and unemployment, but what really matters to people is if they can get spaghetti on the table for dinner tonight.  With that in mind, they came up with the idea to ask two average moms to share their experiences at the supermarket: how much they have to spend, what they need to buy to get through the week – and then ask the representatives of four political parties – four candidates for Parliament – to shop for those items with €50.

So we meet Liana, a mom of an 8 year old and an 12 year old, who makes €360 per month as a cleaner; her rent and utilities alone are over €400/month; and Anna Georganta, a mom of three who has been unemployed for some time (and no longer receiving benefits but continuing to search for work) and whose husband is, like mine, an employee of the Greek government; he was making €160 per month for the past six months but recently started making €400 per month.  They don’t have €50/week to spend on food – Anna says she goes to the supermarket once per month and spends about €70 – but they decided to give the politicians a break and give them the €50 that studies say the “average Greek” has to spend on food and household goods for a family of four, per week.  Anna got teary-eyed when she talked about how lucky she felt that her children went to a school that provided snacks to the children, a new and very rare concept in a country where schools don’t serve meals – in Anna’s children’s school, they started serving snacks after they had problems with hungry children passing out in class.

The list was not luxurious.  There were no eggs, meat, or fruit – items well out of reach of the average Greek, if that €50 figure is correct.  It included basics like potatoes, pasta, tomatoes, cucumbers, condensed milk, flour, oil, and soap.   (Why condensed milk?  Apparently they water it way down for their kids.  I didn’t know about this trick.  I don’t drink milk myself or I would try it!)

New Democracy was represented by the weepy Adonis Georgiadis, who mentioned several times that he felt personally ashamed for the state of these moms.  At one point he told Liana that she, and others like her, were today’s heroes.   Her bitter response was “I don’t know if we’re heroes… or if you’ve turned us into this.”  He seemed – was it real? or just an act? – to be deeply affected by the exercise.  He seemed overwhelmed by the supermarket itself, as if shopping while mentally keeping a budget was too much for him.

PASOK was represented by Katerina Batseli, former Minister of Agriculture, a frowning woman who made it clear from the first moment that this would be very easy for her, because she does the shopping for her family and this is all a load of propaganda anyway.  She was the only one who ignored the directions to buy the things on the list, and just bought the stuff that she wanted to buy.  The moms were not impressed – they estimated that her shopping would feed their families for three days, when the assignment was for seven days.  She seemed shocked when the moms said that they needed to be completely vegetarian; she seemed to think that a chicken, at the very least, was necessary.  She came off as having absolutely no clue, and was immensely unlikeable.  She was a very bad choice; even Georgiadis, who is practically a caricature of himself, was much more likeable.

The Ecologist Greens were represented by Ioanna Kontouli, who appears to be the only member of that party who ever appears in public, and who mentioned several times that her own monthly salary is €1300, but that any day that could be reduced to the amount that Anna and Liana live on.  She ended up in tears, group-hugging the moms and promising to exchange phone numbers so that they could set up a currency-free barter system to feed the moms and kids of Greece.  The look on Anna’s face seemed to say “how do I tell her that we don’t have a telephone number to give her?”

The Independent Greeks party were represented by the actor Pavlos Kontogiannidis, the only one who seemed to find humor in the situation of nice people whose children were obviously going hungry.  Anna had mentioned during the intro that she can’t shop with her children, because she doesn’t want them to see all the food they can’t have, and she can’t get them the things they want, like chocolate, because that means she can’t afford pasta, and chocolate won’t keep them full.  So Kontogiannidis bought some chocolate bars for her kids, saying that he would pay for them out of his own pocket.  Anna had the grace not to say anything, but I wanted to reach through the television screen and choke him.

After the shopping trip, where they all made it through spending €50 plus or minus €10, they all convened for a typical political discussion panel back at the studio with, surprise, Anna the mom in attendance.

The journalist leading the panel asked the politicians why, when salaries have been reduced sometimes to a quarter or a fifth of what they were before, when we haven’t had an increase in sales tax in the past year, prices on food and household goods – supermarket stuff – have gone up, not down.  Only Ms. Batseli tried to answer – she tried to give an economic explanation, blaming increases in the price of fuel, various taxes, including business and sales tax, and other “factors.”  When she was called out on the issue of cartels, which have a long history of price fixing in Greece, she – as former minister of agriculture and therefore the person in charge of breaking up the cartels – didn’t have anything to say.

While the politicians bickered, Anna the mom came across as the most balanced individual in the room – she was dignified and remarkably articulate, staying on topic while appearing knowledgeable on political and economic issues.  She wasn’t angry, desperate, or even irritated with the politicians – even when talking about the pain involved in paying her income taxes this year.  One almost got the feeling that she was used to listening to a bunch of people arguing with each other – maybe her three children prepared her for the panel.

Ms. Kontouli brought up the idea of barter again on the panel, suggesting that she as an engineer could offer her services in exchange for, say, Anna to clean her house.  Ms. Batseli cut her off to suggest that if that happened, sales tax would have to be extremely high to cover the fact that fewer goods would be taxed, and tax revenue would be extremely low.

Of course, the discussion fell apart into the usual bickering and yelling over each other that characterizes every political panel on Greek television since the beginning of time.  Anna sat quietly on the end and watched, head cocked to the side, while they argued over ideological minutiae, blameshifting, off-topic issues like the rate that Spain was able to borrow money today, and lines like “you dare to point your finger at me?”

Anna, mom of three, had the last word, when asked what she expected for the future:  “I’d like to live like a human being.”

basic curry powder

This is a frugal tip, but it’s also just good practice in the kitchen.  If you like to cook, and you buy spice mixes, you’re missing out on a lot of fun.  Making your own spice mixes is easy, fun, and the results are much better than the storebought kind.  As far as frugality goes:  it’s cheaper even if the mixes seem cheap enough.  Here’s why:  if you buy whole spices and toast, combine, and grind them yourself in small batches, they’ll always be fresh when you use them.  As a result, you’ll use less.  There aren’t that many spices out there, but spice mixes are endless.  Instead of having to buy fifty spice mixes, or feeling defeated when a recipe calls for one you don’t have, if you have the ingredients and can make your own, the sky’s the limit, but you don’t have to buy that many things, and if you don’t like something, you just don’t have to make it again.  So save some money, have some fun, and get better tasting food!

We’ll start with the most basic spice mix of all:  Curry powder.  Some people run the other way when a recipe calls for it.  But if you make your own, there’s no reason to turn up your nose at a simple recipe with curry powder on the ingredient list.  But there are 90 different kinds of curry, you say?  Not a problem – use your favorite.

I am using Alton Brown’s recipe with minor alterations.  He wisely suggests that you make up a big batch of the stuff but don’t grind it until the day you want to use it; then only grind the amount you need.  I take a middle-of-the-road approach with this.  Many curries are meant to be quick and easy.  If I have to grind my spices every time, that might not work so well.  So instead of making a big batch and grinding every time, we’ll make a small batch and grind the whole thing.  It’s a compromise between very fresh and very convenient that I think we can all live with.

So, let’s take a look at the ingredients:

There are three kinds of whole seeds in this:  cumin seeds (top), coriander seeds (bottom), and cardamom (right).

There are three kinds of pre-ground spices:  dry mustard (top), turmeric (bottom), and hot paprika (right).  Alton Brown uses cayenne, which I don’t buy; I use hot paprika instead of cayenne in everything and while I can tell the difference, it’s too difficult to get quality cayenne here.

Gently toast the whole spices in a dry non-stick pan.  I move them around pretty regularly so they don’t burn.  When they start to smell really good, transfer them to your spice grinder, along with the ground spices, mixing everything up really well.

Grind in your spice grinder.  You can use an actual spice grinder, a coffee grinder that you’ve designated as a spice grinder, a grain grinder (as I do), or some other grinding apparatus of your choice.  I wouldn’t recommend a mortar and pestle because we want a very fine powder.

Keep it in a glass jar in your spice cabinet (the recipe makes more than what you see there – I used a bunch of it for dinner).  Try to use it within about two months.

A note on measurements:  if your measuring spoon collection doesn’t include the rare 1/2 tbsp spoon, remember that 1/2 tbsp = 1 tsp + 1/2 tsp.

Basic Curry Powder
original recipe

1/2 tbsp whole coriander seeds
1/2 tbsp whole cumin seeds
1/2 tbsp whole cardamom pods
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp hot paprika or cayenne pepper

1.  Measure out the whole spices.  Toast in a dry, non-stick pan on medium heat, moving around the pan frequently, until fragrant.

2.  Measure out the ground spices.  Combine with toasted spices.  Transfer to grinder.  Grind on a very fine grind.  Store in a glass jar.

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vanilla extract

If you had the choice to pay $103.12 or $11.99 for something, which would you pick?

A 20 mL bottle of vanilla extract costs EUR 2.75 at the supermarket.
A 750 mL bottle of vodka costs EUR 9.99.  Three vanilla beans cost EUR 2.00.
750 / 20 = 37.5
I can get 37.5 times as much out of the vodka as I can out of the vanilla extract bottle.
2.75 * 37.5 = 103.125

So really, this is kind of an easy choice.

After seeing this idea on several blogs, like here on Suburbhomestead, I realized that I was throwing a lot of money away on vanilla extract.  It might sound silly, but when some of my recipes call for a whole tablespoon of the stuff – or at least a teaspoon – that means that one of those little bottles is only enough for four or five recipes.  After a little reassurance, I decided I had nothing to lose and a lot of money to save!

All you need is vodka and vanilla beans.  I am using a nicer glass bottle, but only because I have one on hand.  You can just put the vanilla beans directly into the vodka bottle.

The great thing about vanilla beans is that last a really, really long time.  When I get through this entire 750 mL of vodka, I can get another bottle of vodka and just add it.  The beans will continue to work, potentially for years.

I used a razor blade to slice a slit from one end to the other of each bean, to help get the vanilla flavor into the vodka.  The pictures don’t show it, but vanilla beans are soft and have an almost gel-like consistency, kind of like a dried apricot.  A razor blade is a good way to cut into them without mushing them up.

Put the vanilla beans into the bottle…

Fill the bottle with vodka.  It really doesn’t get any easier than this.

The bottle on the left used less than half of the vodka I got for 9.99.  The bottle on the right cost 2.75.  It just makes me laugh.  I feel like such an idiot that I didn’t do this before!

I put mine in my bean pantry.  It should stay in a dark place.  Every day, I’ll take it out and shake it gently.  After about a month, it should be ready to use.

This is what it looks like after about two weeks; it still has another two weeks to go, but it smells absolutely divine!

And it has a lovely amber color too, making it practically decorative!  However, it really is best to keep it in the cupboard.

A teaspoon of vanilla extract in a recipe = a teaspoon of this stuff.  It’s the same damn thing.  Isn’t that awesome?

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surviving the new unemployment

As many of you know, half of Greeks under 25 who wish to be employed are unemployed; and general unemployment (official – still receiving Unemployment Benefits) is over 20%.  [Edit March 8, 2012 to add:  the official unemployment statistic for December, 2011 was released today.  21% of Greeks are unemployed, which is a new record.]  That number of course doesn’t include people looking for work for the first time, people who are underemployed, the many, many Greeks who worked for employers who don’t insure them (and who are much, much more likely to be fired, because they have no protection from laws, unions, contracts, or anything else – this is particularly an issue in the construction and tourism industries), or the many Greek small and very small business owners whose businesses have closed; as far as the “true number” goes, it’s anyone’s guess.

Today, the government announced that the new Unemployment Benefit is 359 euros per month.

The explanation for the reduction was that, because the minimum wage and non-minimum wage scales were both reduced by 22%, it was only fair that unemployment be reduced by 22% as well.  The logic was that if unemployment and minimum wage were the same, there would be no motivation for someone to look for work in an economy with 20%+ unemployment.

Although there was much discussion about making exceptions for some people who were in high ‘at-risk’ categories (like people with several children or whatever), ultimately they decided not to make any exceptions.

So, 359 euros…

It’s comforting to me to know that if S loses his job (they have agreed to fire 150,000 public sector workers in the next couple of years), with his unemployment, he could pay our rent and have nine whole euros left over for utilities and food!  With that, we wouldn’t be able to have electricity or running water, but we could buy a gallon of whole milk (3.40), two kilos of white pasta (1.80), ten medium eggs (1.41), and five kilos of potatoes (2.40).  Actually, I’d be one penny over, but I’m sure the supermarket would look the other way.  Of course, I wouldn’t be able to cook the pasta or the potatoes.  This is why a solar cooker is so important.  It means eating on cold or overcast days would not be possible but, at least outside the winter months, most days are sunny enough to get a solar cooker to boil water, which is all you need for potatoes and pasta.  Eggs can be eaten raw.  You might say – what about fresh vegetables?  You can pick edible weeds – although, living in the city, we’d have to walk at least an hour for those, and there’s no guarantee that you’d find any.  They should be boiled as well, to be safe.

The foods listed above (milk, pasta, eggs, and potatoes) come to a total of 14,473 calories, or 241 calories per day for each of us.  That’s about 10% of what we need to stay the same weight, but a good 25% of what we need to stay alive.

Without running water, and without money for water, and in a country with very low rainfall, you could collect water from a city fountain, a river, pond, lake, etc.  If you live close to the sea, you could collect sea water and distill it using solar power alone.

(Of course, most unemployed people move in with relatives to stretch their money further.  If your parents are living and can take you in, that’s an option; or maybe you have a sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle, or friend who has extra space and is willing to take you in.  But it’s important to note that not everyone has that option – especially when so many people are out of work already.)

This is why it’s so important – while you have a job – to stockpile food, water, medicine, and household supplies.  It’s good to have solar solutions for various things (cooking, water distillation) and know how to use them.  It’s a good idea to learn how to use drugs and medical paraphenalia yourself so you don’t have to rely on doctors or hospitals if they’re not accessible to you at your income level.  This is also why it’s so important not to have debt:  most people agree that credit card debt is for suckers, but many people think a mortgage is ‘safe debt’ because laws are in place to prevent people from immediately losing their homes to foreclosure if they miss a few payments – but those laws are changing.  In Greece, laws protecting struggling homeowners expired and were not renewed.  Unemployed people with mortgages are at extreme risk of homelessness.  I predict that we will see a new spike in homelessness in Greece with the expiration of foreclosure protection laws.

Do I think S will lose his job?  It’s hard to say.  I believe that he’s the best, of course (I’m his wife, after all) – and luckily his work superiors enthusiastically agree with this – one of his superiors told me that a teacher like S comes along “once in a lifetime.”  But, and this is a really big ‘but,’ public sector firings have not been based – at any point – on productivity or the quality of a worker, but only on ‘horizontal’ criteria like ‘the birthdate of a worker.’  He works in a field – teaching – that can be eliminated if the government needs to cut expenses further.  After all, a teacher in every classroom – and schools altogether – can be replaced by a television channel for each grade level, with the students staying home and only one teacher needed for each grade level and subject, for the entire country.    (This is not my idea, by the way!)

And we don’t even have to go that far.  It would only take the stroke of a pen to eliminate over half the teaching jobs in Greece by eliminating entire courses and fields from the curriculum.  Who needs classes in health & physical education, art, music, environmental science & geology, advanced math, foreign languages, computers & technology, ….  You get the idea.  A school that only teaches Greek, basic math and science, history, and religion (lest the Church get upset) and sends the kids home by 11am – what a huge discount for the government!

Do I believe it will happen?  No, I don’t.  But I didn’t believe a lot of the other things that have already happened, so I eat humble pie and prepare for the worst.  If you live in Greece, I urge you to consider doing the same.  Remember:  death is 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food (3 months if you sleep the whole time):  secure your water and food security as soon as you are able to.

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Greek frugal cooking, circa 1941
Water:  please just trust me on this one…
Frugality, eclipsed