Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Few Words About Water

I have realized that I have amassed quite a few little tweaks and life hacks that are fast, cheap, and good but are not full-scale projects, so I'm going to dedicate a few posts to some simple ideas.  The first is all about water.

1.  Of course, we've said it before and the frugal blogosphere will say it again, but please do everything you can to avoid buying bottled water.  It costs a lot to transport, both in money and environmental impact, leading to a big expenditure for you.  It also throws off a lot of trash, which you have to haul to the curb and someone else has to haul to the landfill or recycling center.  In this case, I'm going to advocate you spend to save:  Go out right now and treat yourself to a stainless steel or aluminum water bottle that you will fill from your tap and carry with you to work or wherever you need water.  If you don't trust your tap water (and most of us really have nothing to worry about), get whatever filtration system will make you feel secure about drinking your own tap water.  Long term, these purchases will save you money.

2.  While you're at it, stop buying bottled iced tea.  As you can see above, you can make iced tea in about 10 seconds of work and an hour or so of waiting, just by filling a jar with warm water and throwing in one industrial-sized tea bag.  (This is Lipton made for cold brewing, which I bought in bulk at Sam's Club.)  This batch of tea is probably 5 minutes into "brewing" by sitting on the counter; I was enjoying a glass (at work in my aluminum bottle!) about 20 minutes later.  Again, don't pay someone to transport water to you.  (For those of you extra-worried about bacteria growth in "sun tea," just let it steep in the fridge.)

3.  Finally, an odd water-related tip I read in a WWII-era home economics publication:  when you use a carton of cream (or half-and-half, or a can of evaporated milk), rinse the container out with an ounce or two of water, and add this reconstituted milk to your milk jug or use it in cooking as milk.  I thought this was a neat idea, and I've been doing this on the rare occasions that I have a container of half-and-half around.   It saves a couple of cents and gives me the jollies, which isn't a bad thing either.
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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Knitted Cowl

This questionable looking item above is a cowl.

For those of you not familiar with them, cowls are somewhere between a stand-alone turtleneck and a scarf.  If you knit them fairly narrow, as I did above, they cozy around your neck like a big turtleneck.  (This is critical for me, because if my neck and feet aren't warm, there is no hope for the rest of me.)  If you knit a larger circumference, you can pull it up over your head like a hood.

Plain English Cowl Instructions

You need:
1.5 skeins Lion Brand Nature's Choice Organic Cotton Yarn
Size 10.5 circular knitting needle with 24" cord
Size N crochet hook

Cast on 80 stitches.  This edge will curl when you wear it, which I think creates a neat look. 
Knit in the round until the piece is about 12 inches long, or however long you want it.  The longer it is, the more it will scrunch up around your neck.
Crochet off.  The piece above has a single row of double crochet, but in later versions I have done a double row, which seems to make that edge lay flatter when you wear it.  Obviously, you can wear either end at the top, or even wear it inside out.

You can cut the cost of this by choosing less expensive yarn, but I am addicted to this Lion Brand option.  It just feels so good in my hands! I started by buying it at my local yarn store for $7.49 a skein plus tax, making this cowl come in at $12.  I have since found several good online sales that bring the price per skein under $6. currently has a good price, plus free shipping on orders over $35.  If you get the mailers from Joann Fabric, you will often see a 40% or 50% off coupon on regular-price items, which helps as well.

The Analysis

Fast:  I can finish one of these in two or three nights of knitting (at one or two hours a night), which means they are plenty quick to make a few for me, a few for hubby (they are unisex), and some for gifts.

Cheap:  As mentioned above, this cowl was $12, but I should be able to do future ones for around $8 if I'm careful.

Good:  As we head into fall, anything that adds some warmth allows us to keep that heat low or off for longer!

Fall Thermostat Challenge Update:  Typical for the Midwest, we just had a weekend during which I could hardly stand to turn off the AC, followed by a night during which I slept in socks!  So far, the whole-house heat and AC have been off 266 hours since Labor Day, or 11.08 days!
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Friday, September 24, 2010

Grad School Casserole

The intoxicating thing about blogging about domestic issues is that one can make one's life sound as perfect as possible.  I figure this is what happened to Martha Stewart:  one day she was telling the neighbor how to repot African violets, and the next thing she knew she had a multimedia empire that required her to put little gingham hats on her Mason jars of home canning and tie them with rafia bows.

My friends, I promise you:  my Mason jars will never wear gingham hats.

Anyway, yesterday was one of those less-than-perfect days.  After a week of nearly no sleep and multiple client deadlines, I managed to get one of the worst allergy attacks ever.  I could hardly see or breathe for the majority of the day.  By the time I got home from the "second shift" job, I was pretty much ready to either call out for expensive, fatty junk or commit to making a dinner out of tortilla chips eaten over the sink.

Enter Grad School Casserole.

Developed back in the day that this was an economical meal or 5 for a graduate student, this is the go-to meal for complete melt-down days.  It is not healthy.  It is not even as cheap as lovingly sauteing veggies from the garden.  But it tastes like comfort food, is prepared from stuff you can easily keep on hand (because Heaven knows none of it will ever spoil with the preservative content), and it resembles a meal enough to keep body and soul together.

Grad School Casserole
1 Box Kraft Deluxe Mac n Cheese ($1.67)
1 Package Hot Dogs* ($3.99)
1 cup Kroger stuffing mix ($1.79 per box; 3 cups per box = 60 cents)

Prepare mac.  Cut up hot dogs.  Put in casserole dish, top with stuffing, and cover the dish.  Bake at 350 for 20 minutes until hot dogs are hot.

* I buy Hebrew National, a more expensive brand, because at least the kosher butchering process makes the company slow down during the meat production process, which means a cleaner overall product.  This is particularly important when you are buying what is functionally spiced leftover meat bits shoved in a tube.

Drink a lot of water, because you've just had your sodium for the week.  But, this casserole tastes like your favorite hot dogs and mac lunch from when you were a kid, and it keeps the family together long enough to live to fight another day.

The Analysis

Fast:  About 25 minutes, including prep and baking.  This is the point of this dish.

Cheap:  At $6.26, I've certainly made cheaper meals.  But it makes about five servings, and it is cheaper than the pizza I was about to order. 

Good:  Comfort food for those bad days and lunches the next.  If you want to reheat this one for lunch, you may want to add a splash of milk to keep it from drying out.
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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Zavory Peppers

Do you remember, way back in February, when I started my pepper plants?  Growing peppers is such a wonderful hobby for someone like me; it gives me some gardening to do just when I'm starting to be convinced winter will never be over, and then the little plants are pretty happy to be ignored until time for harvest.

This year, you may recall, I grew a new offering from Burpee called Zavory.  These are the pretty little red peppers you see at the top of the photos.  (The three darker green chiles on the left are Salsa Delight, and the lighter green one on the right is a Bananarama, both also from Burpee.)  At the time, I conjectured that the Zavory peppers would be hotter than I could handle, because my typical growing methods seem to produce very hot peppers.

Was I pleasantly surprised!  The Zavory have a little snap to them, but not a tremendous amount of heat.  Best of all, they have just the right spicy flavor to go perfectly on pizza, which is how we ate a handful of these this weekend.   Yum!

What did I do differently?
  • I started my seedlings in newspaper pots filled with potting soil rather than in peat pellets.  I think this allowed me to let them stay put longer before their first transplant, and it didn't stress the young seedlings with looking for nutrients.
  • I "abused" my peppers less.  I always say I abuse my peppers; I tend to expose them to the wind from a fan for several hours a day from the time they have their first real leaves until they go into the large outdoor containers where they live.  This year, I exposed them to shorter bursts from the fan to keep their stems strong and keep them from growing leggy, but I didn't make them stand up to wind all day.
  • I moved them outside to harden off earlier.  This spring had a number of early warm days, and the peppers got a much longer period of sitting on the patio during the day and only coming in at night.
  • I watered them much more regularly.
Combined, I think this kept my peppers from being overly-stressed, which I think keeps the capsaicin at a manageable level.

Ultimately, many things in the garden this year were disappointing due to some very erratic weather in the Midwest, and I didn't get nearly the harvest of many things I would have liked.  However, I got quite a few of these lovely Zavory peppers, and they are on my list for next year!

The Analysis

Fast:  Peppers are the biggest long-term commitment (you will note seven and a half month from  seeds to harvest here), but they don't require a lot of attention except during that time of year when you really need a garden plant to love!

Cheap:  Even with a relatively small harvest, I don't think I could have purchased the same quantity of Zavory peppers at the farmer's market for the cost of seeds.  For one thing, I didn't see any Zavorys at the market this year.

Good:  Seriously, these taste just like they were tailor made for a pizza. 
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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Is Organization Frugal?

"That's so last season!  I wouldn't be caught dead in it."

"Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without."

Somewhere between these two is where most frugalistas (and frugalistos) live.  But it is easy to see how frugal living can tip the scale and send you right into accumulating too many things you will never use again.

For me, it was my clothes closet.  I love getting new clothes, something that hasn't changed just because I want to live sustainably.  However, a quick look at my closet this summer showed that I had gotten rid of very little since the early 1990s.  Clothing was shoved, stacked, and stored in there:  everything from current favorites to out-of-fashion but expensive pieces to cheapies that had seen better days.  It was time to take action.

I was helped by two powerful forces.  First is the recent proliferation of television shows about hoarding; after watching about two-thirds of an episode about these poor folks with disorders that resulted in the inability to throw things away, I invariably need to clean something out.  More than one episode of such a show has ended with me holding a full trash bag.

The second, more powerful force is my wonderful Mom.  She encouraged me to get rid of anything in my closet that I don't love and that doesn't make me feel good when I'm wearing it.  No matter how expensive or how un-used (or, conversely, how loved-to-death), if it no longer works, it goes.  When I needed a push forward, she would look at a piece of clothing with wide shoulder pads or an androgynous shape and parrot a commercial from a few years back:  "So, where did you park your DeLorean?"  No one wants to look like they are tooling around town with Marty McFly, so out the offending garment went.

This doesn't mean everything hit the trash.  I tried to clean in a sustainable way, including:
  • Items that were too worn to use became rags or quilt squares or hankies, as the fabric dictated.  I tried to limit this category so I wasn't just moving stuff from my closet to another pile.
  • Items that were still good but just didn't look good on me went to Goodwill.  For example, I don't know how many mock turtlenecks I had to buy to learn the lesson that these shirts make me look like I have mono-bosom.  Yuck.
  • Items that no longer work but are more valuable as a garment than a rag also went to Goodwill.  For example, wool jackets of a questionable cut were sent in the hopes that maybe they would be sold at deep discount to someone who needed the warmth more than the latest style.  However, I didn't send anything obviously dated that was also super-cheap, like a cotton blouse with shoulder pads.
All told, I took a substantial stack to the rag and fabric piles, and to date I have sent ten (count 'em, ten!) bags to Goodwill.

Is organization like this frugal and sustainable?  I think so.  Since the organization, I have been better able to find my favorite items, and I treat them better.  Now that clothes have room to breathe, I am less likely to pull something out of the closet only to find that it needs ironed before wearing.  I have also better been able to resist buying a new item because I didn't remember that I had one similar tucked away on the shelf. 

The organization has also carried over into my shopping.  Now, when I shop, I ask myself if I really love something, if it will look good on me, if it will make me feel good about myself.  If it is just OK or a "like not love," I put it back on the rack.  Someone else who loves the item can give it a home and "use it up, wear it out."  I will do likewise with my favorites before I shop for new ones.  I think that's sustainable.
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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Organize Those Coupons

I used to be a couponer of the first order.  Every week, I would clip the coupons from the paper (there was no such thing as online coupons at the time) and file them in a little expandable file that I kept with me at all times.  On the days that I was going to the grocery after work, I would take my shopping list and sort out the applicable coupons, noting a "C" and the number and brand of the item I had to buy.  So, if I wanted to buy toaster pastries and had a coupon for 50 cents off two boxes, the list would get a note that said "C Pop Tarts x2."

Did I mention that I had a really boring job at the time, and I was, um, multitasking at work?

Once I went full-time freelance, time at my desk was sacred.  If I'm sitting at my desk, I'm earning money, and couponing isn't typically part of the equation.  I still clip coupons from the paper and online, but it is increasingly hard to find the time to match them with my list.

So, I have devised the above system.  You will see that there is a single envelope for coupons.  This is because I no longer clip every coupon that seems promising such that I need to file them by category.  If I have clipped the coupon, it is because it is for something I would buy anyway.  This cuts waaaaaay down on the number of junk food coupons that accumulate; if a frozen dinner or convenience food isn't a good idea at full price, it isn't a good idea with a coupon.  (I make an exception for those favorite splurges that will get us out of the occasional jam.  For example, I try to make my own pizzas because I add more veggies and less meat, but having a frozen pizza or two in the freezer will save us from a complete meltdown on a really bad day.)

As far as grocery lists, you see three:  one is for Trader Joe's, the only place I can find a good selection of reasonably-priced organic meats and hormone-free cheeses, turbinado sugar, and cookies made without HFCS.  TJ's doesn't take coupons because they are almost entirely based on house brands, so when this list fills up, there is no need to sort coupons.

One list is for Dorothy Lane Market, our local upper-income, foodie-oriented bodega.  To save my budget, I only frequent DLM for locally-made organic butter and milk from grass-fed cows, plus some of the Bob's Red Mill grain items.  Buying anything else in DLM -- even a bottle of shampoo -- can be budget suicide, so unless I know I have a Bob's Red Mill coupon, I don't sort my coupons and I don't shop for anything other than the DLM-only items.

The big list is for Meijer, our local superstore.  Here is where the coupons come into play.  This list has everything:  food, health and beauty products, even basic automotive and household supplies.  When it is time for a Meijer trip, I sort the coupons, taking the ones for items on the list and the ones about to expire.  I add these last items to my list; remember, these are things I would buy anyway, so I will take the opportunity to stock up.  So, of all of my grocery trips, this is the only one that really involves couponing. 

I try to rotate among the lists to address the longest one, and I try to only go to a grocery store once a week.  Currently, our grocery budget for two people is around $100 a week, which sounds high until you realize that that is not just food (and really, the only food we are buying right now in any quantity is dairy) but also shampoo, make up, OTC medications, any household cleaners I don't make myself, ingredients for the ones I do, and the occasional one-off purchase like the injector cleaner I just bought for my car or the water bottle my husband just bought to carry drinks to work.  Not bad, I'd say.

The Analysis

Fast:  My couponing time is reduced to a couple of minutes of sorting before I do the big Meijer run, and I'm still taking advantage of the cents-off as well as the planning to get my items at the most economical locations.

Cheap:  Couponing is still one of the easiest activities for saving money, as long as you have a system that works for you.

Good:  I love a good organization system!

Fall Thermostat Challenge Update:  Thanks to a few cool days, the whole house AC has been off for 128.5 hours since Labor Day, or 5.35 days.  I had to turn it back on to combat the allergens, but I should be able to take another run at it soon.
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Friday, September 10, 2010

The Value of Stretching

Stretching is something of a lost art.  Your grandmother or great-grandmother did it during the Depression and WWII, taking a little bit of rationed foodstuffs and turning it into enough food to feed a family.  In fact, home cooks throughout history have primarily stretched their food -- making do with the scarce or expensive items and adding in cheaper or in-season items to add bulk, volume, taste, or nutrition.  Cookbooks from most eras explicitly or implicitly refer to stretching; it is only modern cookbooks that seem to imply that you can't make dinner unless you have the exact quantities asked for, down to the last bay leaf and quarter teaspoon of lemon zest.

Some of my favorite stretching tips:

To Stretch Meat
  • Meat is the most often stretched foodstuff, because of scarcity in earlier eras and expense in all eras.  The best way to stretch meat is grind it up; buy a less expensive cut and grind it, or buy pre-ground chuck, turkey, or the like.  Stretch by adding approximately one egg per pound of ground meat and up to a cup of oatmeal, bread crumbs, rice, or cracker crumbs.  Behold, meatloaf!  Meat balls!  Just season according to your recipe.  This is the stretching tip you most likely remember from your granny, and it is the one you are most likely to still use, even if you don't think of it as stretching.
  • Slice your meat.  With a better cut of meat, prepare it and then slice it and use it as a garnish on pasta, rice, or salads.  You will want less meat when it visually takes up more room, and this also means fewer calories in your diet.
  • Use the scraps.  We keep a "stock bucket" in our freezer to collect trimmings and bones.  When it is full, I make stock and use that for a hearty soup.
  • Make a casserole from leftovers.  If you have a few trimmings from a roast or even a few hot dogs from your last cook out, you can add them to a casserole for a little extra protein and a meal with less meat.
To Stretch Carbohydrates
  • Carbs, like pasta, rice, or bread, are usually the thing we use to stretch.  However, in some seasons, they are the most expensive item on a very economical table.  When the garden is in full swing, suddenly that $1 box of pasta is your big expense for the meal.
  • Stretch pizza crust and most baked goods by adding shredded zucchini.  I like to take a Jiffy boxed pizza crust and add about a cup of shredded zucchini (about one medium) and decrease the amount of water called for.  Add a little extra flour if the dough seems watery.  Often, this makes a small box of pizza crust mix become enough for two pizzas.
  • Likewise, put a shredded zucchini in your next batch of bread and decrease the liquid a bit.  You will get more bread, and you have found a way to get rid of a zucchini and add some nutrition to your diet.
To Stretch Dairy
  • Dairy is expensive, especially if you want hormone-free or organic varieties.
  • Make yogurt.  Yogurt can take the place of many sauces, and it becomes a good way to get calcium without having to drink a lot of milk.  While an ounce of milk makes an ounce of yogurt, so no real change in volume, you tend to be happy with four to six ounces of yogurt and some fruit instead of an eight ounce glass of milk.
  • Buy stronger flavored cheeses.  That way, you will use less and still be satisfied.
  • Use cheese as a garnish on veggies, not as a main ingredient.
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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Basil Pesto

If I had to pick only two things to grow in my garden, they would be tomatoes and basil.  Tomatoes because nothing tastes like a home grown tomato, and basil because it functions almost as a cash crop for me.

Nothing could be easier than growing basil.  Packets of seeds of "Genovese" or "common" basil, the kind that is perfect for pesto and sauces, are readily available at the hardware and grocery store every spring for around $1.50.  (Yes, they are hybrids; if you want an all-heirloom garden, you will pay up.  But I promise, Genovese or common basil is the kind you want for pesto -- meaty, large leaves, strong aroma, dark green color.)  Start your seeds about 6 weeks before your last frost date; I usually dump about a quarter of a pack of seeds into each of four small pots and treat the resulting seedlings as four plants.  You could get more scientific.  Wait until your ground is warm and no threat of frost remains, and plant them in a sunny spot. 

You will wait forever to see a plant of any size, but when it starts to take off, prune the plant regularly at the leaf junctions, encouraging two more branches to sprout where you cut.  Pretty soon, you will have a basil plant of mammoth proportions.

I think the best way to preserve the bounty is by making pesto.  Pesto (coming from the Italian root for "paste," the same as pasta) is a sauce of any leafy green mixed with olive oil, salt, and frequently cheese and or nuts.  I use the term "pesto" to refer to basil and oil, to which I add salt when I cook.  I may or may not want to add cheese or other inputs, so I freeze it pretty plain.

In the store, small jars (3 oz.) of basil pesto are typically $3.39 (the most common price I saw when I looked this week at a few brands.  If you assume that each ounce requires 38 cents worth of non-basil inputs (like oil and salt), making your own basil pesto will save you 75 cents per ounce.  This can get into some serious savings quickly.  Last year, I froze 14 half pint containers of pesto (a half pint will cover a box of pasta, which is my most typical usage).  That means 112 ounces, or $84 in savings over buying a comparable amount in the store.  This year so far, I have put up 6 containers, for a savings of $36.  As you can see, most years the basil pesto alone will pay for a significant part of the garden seeds and plants (which typically run me around $250 a year).

To make pesto, wash your basil leaves and puree in a food processor with olive oil until you have a consistency somewhere between a sauce and a paste.  Put in a container and freeze.

You can use this to dress pasta, giving you a quick meal that also has a fair amount of leafy green veg in it.  Or, use it as a compliment to dipping oil for bread, or as a dressing between veg and bread on bruschetta.  When you use it, you can add salt, cheese, or nuts to your liking.  In the winter, I love to make a batch of pasta with basil pesto, sea salt, sun dried tomatoes, and a grating of Parmesan as a quick, healthy meal.

The Analysis

Fast:  Processing basil to be frozen takes a little time, but not as much time as, say, freezing strawberries or canning tomatoes.

Cheap:  See above.  Every 8 oz. container of pesto you freeze now saves you $6 over buying the cute little jars in the store.

Good:  Here's the kicker:  nothing tastes as good basil pesto frozen the day it was picked, so the expensive little jars don't even taste as good!

Fall Thermostat Challenge Update:  As of today, 6 hours saved.  Yesterday was a cool day, and we were in and out of the house doing home improvement, so it made sense to turn off the AC.  We turned it back on for night and for an expected heat wave.
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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Frugality and Textbooks

(Full disclosure:  I am currently director of education for a small college, and I have spent much of my career working in and studying higher education.  My experience necessarily informs and colors my thoughts.)

If your back to school season includes college classes for yourself or a family member, you may have experienced sticker shock at the bookstore.  Because of relatively small print runs, among other factors, textbooks will never be as cheap as the latest Dan Brown thriller.  Additionally, some publishing companies appear to have cracked open their own marketing textbooks long enough to embrace planned obsolescence, releasing a new edition every year, obsoleting the old edition (which was probably perfectly fine) and killing the used book market.  What is a student (or parent) to do?

Choose your courses wisely:  I would never advise a student to choose their courses based solely on book costs; an education, no matter how expensive, is a bargain in improvements in earnings power and quality of life.  However, if you are ambivalent about your choice of elective course, you might let textbook cost be the deciding factor.  If you are deciding between courses to fulfill your literature requirement, Survey of Shakespeare at 2:00 p.m. with a $200 textbook may not be as good a deal as Intro to Dante at 8:00 a.m. with a $35 copy of The Inferno.  Set your alarm and save a little money.

Buy used:  Many college book stores offer at least a few used textbooks to round out their stock.  Get to the store early and select used books that are as unmarked as possible.  However, don't hesitate to buy new if your only other option is a book so highlighted that you will never be able to process the information on your own.

Talk to your professors:  Professors often make book adoption decisions without thinking about the price the student will pay.  Even the most well-meaning prof is usually wanting to get the information in front of students in a convenient way, regardless of cost.  And price sensitivity is often blunted by the fact that these profs typically have stable careers and paychecks, making it easy to think of throwing another $20 book on the pile just for completeness.  Talk to your prof and ask his or her honest opinion on your book-buying decisions, including:
  1. Which of these books do you think I will want to keep after the course is over?  Does your answer change if this is not my major?  (Consider buying new or gently used copies of references in your field.)
  2. Can I share a book with someone else in class?  With someone in a different section?  (If the prof gives open book tests, you won't be able to share a text.  Otherwise, you and a friend or roommate may want to split the cost and share the book.)
  3. How much of each of these books do you use in class?  Is there one or more I could use from the library reserve? (Professors often put selected readings on reserve in the library, or sometimes these readings are available online.  If your prof has adopted a book for one or two readings, try to get by with the library copy or an online source.  Or, look for another book that has the reading; the Declaration of Independence doesn't change whether it is printed in a $120 history survey text or on the back of a freebie Fourth of July pamphlet from your state senator.)
Start a book fund:  You know that textbook purchases are coming each term, so save for them like you would a vacation or a special treat (yeah, I know, not the same).  Sell your aluminum cans and put the money in a jar.  Let family members know how much you would like a gift card to your college book store or online store of choice.

Shop around:  The internet makes it much easier to compare prices, and you should do this on textbooks.  Many university book stores will charge the suggested retail price for textbooks, while many online stores, lacking the expensive bricks and mortar overhead, will charge much closer to their own wholesale price from the publisher.   A few minutes checking prices (which you can do from your smart phone while standing in the college book store) could save you several dollars or more on each book.
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