Stimulate this! Spending your Economic Stimulus tax rebate check, 10 great ideas

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While there are lots of opinions pro and against the Economic Stimulus Package checks (hitting your bank account beginning May 2!), the fact is: they're coming no matter what you think. We all have heard the prevailing skepticism as to whether $300 - $3,000 a family will do anything to help the failing dollar or to create jobs; in the end, who knows? But we have some ideas about how we could spend together to create the change we want to happen. And we'd be remiss as a personal finance site if we didn't come up with some ways you can truly stimulate your own personal economy.

Let's start with a couple of Don'ts. Don't use your rebate check for conspicuous consumption -- TVs, DVD players, large bottles of Champagne, imported Kobe beef, a trip to Cancun. Don't use it to create a greater need for fossil fuels; not as a down payment for a new car (if your very survival depends on a car, at least get a used one), or to trade up to a bigger gas guzzler, or for a power mower, or to put a new hot tub in. Do this and you'll help stimulate us into the worst possible direction.

Here's a better idea. Do try to spend it locally on something that will benefit your financial future! I've been reading a lot of smart people's musings about this (and coming up with some of my own), and have identified some areas of absolute crisis in our economy. Our country's farmland is being stripped by the wrong-headed over-production of corn and soy (in complete ignorance of sustainable farming practices). Our limited fossil fuel resources are being frittered away unnecessarily so we can continue to cling to our isolated, wasteful car culture. Our healthcare expenditures are reaching a panic point, while we are eating ever-more-expensive, ever-more-damaging food. Life as we know it is not sustainable, and no one seems to have the willpower to reverse the societal tide.

Doing something radical with your Economic Stimulus Package check can be both fun and good for your own financial bottom line. You'll end up with more money left after your pay your bills, you'll be healthier, and you may just spur a tiny bit of social change. At the very least, it can't hurt you. Here are some ideas:

Stimulate this! Spending your Economic Stimulus tax rebate check, 10 great ideas
Got lawn? Or any small, rectangular sunny spot in your yard? Dig up whatever's there, buy a few 2"x6" or wider boards, and make a box (we've had good luck finding scrap lumber on construction sites, too). A couple of bags of compost, sphagnum moss, and vermiculite will set you back $50-$100 depending on the size of your box. Buy some seeds, plant 'em, and suddenly you've turned a resource hog into a resource producer. Lettuce, peas, potatoes, beets, carrots, spinach and tomatoes are all easy to grow just about anywhere and provide a good return on your investment.
Three or four baby chicks (ask for "pullets" or little girl chickens) will cost $10 to $20 at a local feed store or garden center, and a waterer and feeder are about $15. You can keep them in a rubbermaid tub, cardboard box, or wire cage until they're 8-12 weeks old, then you'll have to build a coop; look for plans on the internet or in the library, most coops cost between $50 and $500 depending on the luxury of your building materials. You can feed chickens largely on kitchen scraps and leftovers, with a little purchased feed for supplementation, and they'll reward you with about an egg a day during the spring, summer and fall. Not only will you have "food security" but your eggs will be way healthier if you let your chickens roam a bit in your yard, they'll taste better, and chicken poop is compost gold. It's like the perfect little micro-economy, right in your backyard. Most cities and towns allow a few chickens; or you can bribe your neighbors with eggs not to rat you out.
Writer Sharon Astyk suggests that you build a rainwater catchment system with your Stimulus Package check. "Make sure you have water. You can't grow food, wash, or live without it. Make sure you have a reliable source of water in the future. That could mean a well with a manual pump, or a cistern, a rainbarrel set up, a spring, solar direct pumping, or a public resource - perhaps a pump in a park or at the local school that can supply the community when the power is out," she writes. You can buy rain barrels for between $109 and $400 here.
If you're even moderately healthy and live within 15 miles of your office/school/fave shopping destination, securing a smoothly-operating bicycle is good business. You'll end up saving money on gas and repairs, and if you go whole hog and stop driving like my family, you'll save on insurance and annual tag fees too. Depending on where you are in your bicycling career, you could buy a new bike, fix up an old one, buy some great cargo carriers or child seats (I'm headed straight to a great local bike shop upon receipt of my Stimulus Package to get an Xtracycle with two BoBike seats for my 9-month-old and three-year-old). What would happen if gas went through the roof? What would happen if you could no longer afford your car payment? What would happen... if you already had a well-working bicycle and some strong leg muscles already part of your transportation portfolio? It's good for your health, it's fun, it's great for the planet, and best of all, it saves you money.
Every vinyl storm window you install will decrease your heating and cooling costs. A normal-sized vinyl window costs between $100 and $400, depending on the size and complexity, so you may be able to buy several -- enough to outfit a whole room, or even a whole floor of your house. Depending on your current expenditures, you could save hundreds, or even a thousand dollars in costs, reduce your carbon footprint, and keep your neighbors from hearing your arguments, too. It's always good to keep some things behind closed windows!
You know the saying about teaching a man to fish? The same goes for bread. Get yourself a couple of 50-pound or 100-pound bags of good organic flour, a nice big container to keep it in, and this book on baking bread simply (or another great bread book) and, while your friends are complaining about the fast-increasing cost of a loaf of bread or their favorite pastries, you'll be zen-ing out in your kitchen, up to your elbows in flour and yeast. The 'artisan bread in five minutes a day' method is really simple and even someone who works crazy hours can fit it into the schedule.
This past month I found myself critically evaluating every tree in my yard, wondering, "what have you done for ME lately?" Out went one of the hawthornes and the particularly awful poison sumac. In its place will go a couple of cherry trees, and I think I'll put a few fig trees in that sunny spot where blackberries (an invasive species in my region) like to take over if you let 'em. In a few years, my $60 investment will be literally bearing fruit, and whatever I don't eat I'll freeze for cherry muffins and fig preserves all winter long. Less than $100 should save me several hundred in food costs over the next five years -- and mine will be organic, local, and way less thorny than my current options!
According to the energy efficiency people, the best bang for your buck is to buy insulation for your walls and ceilings (you should have 10 inches in your attic, for instance) -- it's cheap and it really saves money. You could recoup your investment in a few months in the winter if you do the work yourself.
A share in a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is like owning a share of stock in a company that pays dividends in organic, sustainably farmed produce! What could be better? For $200-$1,000 depending on the size of your share and the length of the season, you'll get a (usually) weekly box filled with seasonal, freshly-picked produce. If the harvest year is poor, you'll share in the risk; but if it's great, you'll share in the bounty. You either pick up your share from a central location (in Portland, most CSAs have a drop-off point in each quadrant of the city, at someone's home or a church parking lot), or the farmer will deliver it to you. It's almost always cheaper than buying produce from the store, and you're supporting a local business AND getting food that's more delicious and fresher than the stuff you can buy at the supermarket. Find a local CSA at localharvest.org.
Books are always a great way to use your windfalls. Make 'em count: try books on slow cooking, sustainable gardening, local eating, green building, garden structures, goat farming, and keeping chickens.
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