No Return on Investment: Selling a Home at a Loss

Bang! Bang! Is it duck season or messenger season? From my observations over the last few months it is clearly the latter in Wanganui.

The overwhelming overreaction to the independent expert analysis from economist Shamubeel Eaqub appears to be indicative of why Whanganui is still spinning its wheels and failing to progress after decades of whinging: decision-makers in our city appear to refuse to accept all forms of constructive feedback and suggestions to adopt new ways of thinking.

When dialogue is shut off before it begins we are ensured that no change will occur. This is a consistent pattern I have observed while living here. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t this what puts the P in Provincialism? Forget adding an H to Wanganui, let’s just go ahead and rename the city “De-Nile.” Egypt won’t mind.

I will admit that thinking different is not easy, but failing to do so can be expensive. Let’s take housing and renovation as an example. Conventional wisdom is that investing in property will always give a positive return because house prices always rise. Everyone in Wanganui knows this.

More convention urges us to put in new kitchens and new bathrooms as these add value to our homes and we will easily recoup the investment when it comes time to sell. Everyone in Whanganui knows this too. Screen shot 2014-11-01 at 8.07.10 AM

New Kitchen: No Return

Nek minnit, QV.

About a year ago I was taking photographs of the absurd process of bulldozing sand from Castlecliff Beach into the Tasman Sea when the driver walked over for a chat. We had a great conversation about sand, wind, waves, Council, America, and Detroit (my “home town”). But what really concerned him was the recent valuation of his home. After spending heaps of money renovating the valuation did not come close to reflecting his investment. Screen shot 2014-11-01 at 8.07.52 AM

Refurbished Lounge

Real estate agents tell me that many clients struggle to “claw back” any and every dollar they have spent doing up their homes. With rare exception, I suspect that most homes purchased and renovated within the last eight years are being sold at a loss. My family is looking at this very proposition ourselves, which is especially disconcerting because we invested heavily in energy efficiency in addition to the new kitchen and bathroom.

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Beachy Bedroom

When it comes to the energy performance of a home, QV does not recognize a price premium. In other words, if you spend $30,000 on solar energy, super-insulation, double-glazing, etc. don’t expect to recoup that investment when you go to sell. Even if that investment will save the next occupants $30,000 in power over ten years it is not recognized as a valued asset of the home.

Justifying this position, the friendly QV man who came to our home after we challenged its mind-bogglingly low valuation told me, “The market does not show that it values energy efficiency.”

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Floor to Ceiling Native Rimu

But to what extent is this a chicken-and-egg scenario? If QV does not value eco-renovation then potential buyers will look at the valuation and be less willing to pay for what it cost to do the work in the first place. On the other hand, how many enlightened buyers will it take to prove to QV that the market does value energy performance?

To review, evidence suggests:

  • doing up a kitchen and bathroom do not increase the value of a home in Wanganui;
  • improving the energy performance of a home in Whanganui does not increase its value.
  • doing both…R.U. Nutz?

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Repurposed Doors and Coal Range

So the moral of the story is that unless you plan to remain in your home for a very long time it is highly unlikely that you will break even on the costs of renovation. Of course this will not come as welcome news to many people in our community.

Go ahead and shoot me. It is a good day to die.

Peace, Estwing


Workshop: Low-Input / High-Productivity Gardening

Thoughtful design and management of a vege garden can increase productivity and decrease the hours of labour. Invest two hours in this workshop and save dozens of hours weeding your garden.

Sunday 9th November, 3-5 PM. Registration and deposit required.

06 344 5013,

Propagation by Cuttings: A non-expert experience

I have been mentioning in a few posts about the plant propagation course I took over the last 10 months. Here is a little more explanation of propagation by cuttings, but I am certain you can find better advice elsewhere on the internet.

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From what I recall, this is how it works. You’ll need a rooting hormone, which you can purchase in powder form, but in this case I used chopped up willow leaves that I soaked overnight.

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Cut the stem to three nodes and cut half off of the top leaves. This is griselinia, a NZ native tree aka kapuka in te reo. Scrape one side of the bottom of the cutting to expose the cambium.

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I soaked these semi-hardwood cuttings in the willow water for half an hour before putting them into the propagation mix.

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Then they go into the propagation unit, which holds in warmth and humidity. Behind the griselinia is buxus.

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The unit has two misting units set on a timer.

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After a few months the cuttings have put out roots.

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I used my very fancy potting bench/duck house to prick them out and pot them up.

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Then back in the unit for some more time to grow in a sheltered environment.

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And finally outdoors.    Screen shot 2014-10-27 at 11.44.27 AM

Peace, Estwing

Keep Calm and Think Different: It Takes Money to Save Money, Part 4

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We all know that growing fresh fruit and vege at home can save money while providing one’s family with healthy kai.

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But like many DIY endeavours, there are more effective ways of going about it and less effective ways of going about it. Sadly, I have seen dozens of examples of failed home and community gardens that suffered from poor design and poor management.

For example, many fruit trees have died at an unsuccessful community garden at the top of Carson Street in Castlecliff due to poor design and installation. Hundreds of dollars worth of fruit trees have been “blown away” because the trees were not given protection from the coastal winds and “leached away” because they were planted in sand without sufficient soil amendments.

Unfortunately, when it comes to fruit trees and vege gardens, being cheap can be expensive. In community gardens this represents a waste of money and sends the wrong message to the local community. In a home garden, it may be that a failed attempt discourages a family from trying it again.

The good news is that this can be avoided with appropriate design and installation. I am fond of the phrase: “Do it once. Do it right.”

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This is not to discount the value of making mistakes and learning from them, but it is always better to learn from someone else’s mistakes and subsequent learning. With this in mind, here are a few things I have learned.

There are four main factors in food production: sun, wind, water and soil. Unless you are Maui, the only one that cannot be actively managed is the sun. Screen shot 2014-10-24 at 2.43.35 PM

The easiest of the rest to manage may be water. Living within city limits all you need to do is turn on your tap for unlimited free H2O for your lawn and garden. However, this can be wasteful if you live on sandy soils because most of the water leaches away carrying some of the nutrients you may have put on in the form of compost or chemical fertilizer. Additionally, it is highly likely that at some point in the future Wangaui will have metered water and we will pay for what we use.

At our Castlecliff property we have invested about $400 in topsoil that greatly enhances the productivity of our fruit trees and vege gardens by slowing the leaching of compost away from the plants’ roots. The return on this investment is far in excess of $400 in abundant organic fruit and vege. (It takes money to save money.) Screen shot 2014-10-24 at 2.43.24 PM

We also invested about $600 in substantial wind protection. It makes no sense to plant a fruit tree in Castlecliff if you do not protect it from the coastal winds. (It takes money to save a tree.) Adequate wind protection reduces stress on trees and results in higher fruit yields. For example, one Black Boy Peach tucked away in an especially sheltered corner of our property is perhaps the healthiest and most productive organic tree of its kind in the city. Screen shot 2014-10-24 at 2.44.06 PM

Other fruit varieties on our property include: plums, apricots, prunes, guavas, grapes, figs, bananas, oranges, loquats, feijoas, apples, olives, raspberries, and more peaches.

Alongside good property design and proper installation of garden infrastructure comes good management. Together, they can account for many thousands of dollars in fresh fruit and vege for your family with little effort. The savings on your food bill can be significant but it’s critical to invest first for success later. Screen shot 2014-10-24 at 2.43.58 PM

If you are interested in learning more about the best practices in organic garden design and management, check out the sidebar.

Peace, Estwing



Workshop: Low-Input / High-Productivity Gardening

Thoughtful design and management of a vege garden can increase productivity and decrease the hours of labour. Invest two hours in this workshop and save dozens of hours weeding your garden.

Sunday 9th November, 3-5 PM. Registration and deposit required.

06 344 5013,


Seeding an Herbal Ley Around Fruit Trees

I have been rushing to get our fruit trees planted before the cool, rainy weather gives way to long, hot, dry days. With 74 trees planted so far I am nearing the end of the job.

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But essential to the process is getting an herbal ley seeded around each tree while the rain will still provide the irrigation. This is important because most fruit trees are shallow-rooted and they compete directly with grasses for nutrients and water. An herbal ley is a diverse mix of plants that are meant to provide a range of services in an orchard that grass does not.

Obviously the first step is to kill off the grass. The easy organic way to do this is to smother it with cardboard and/or newspaper.

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I then mulched this with copious amounts of rotted horse manure while being careful not to mulch against the trunk.

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The seed mix I got from friends of ours so I cannot tell you exactly what it contains. You can easily Google recipes for different regions and different climates.

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Sprinkle lightly over the top of the rotted manure.

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Then lightly cover with more mulch and pat it down.

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With a bit of rain it will start to germinate.

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As the grass dies beneath the mulch it turns into food for the fruit trees and the herbal ley.

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Easy-peasy. Now repeat 73 more times.


Peace, Estwing

Keep Calm and Think Different: It takes money to save money, part 3

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This is the third in a series focusing on the value of investing in long-term savings. The most obvious example of this way of thinking is represented by energy savings and payback period. But let’s not get hung up only on the financial benefits – which can be substantial – while ignoring others such as health, happiness and harmony.

The following testimonials come from residents who have participated in building and renovation projects through Beacon Pathway, “an Incorporated Society dedicated to transforming New Zealand’s homes and neighbourhoods”:

“We know what a warm house is now.”

“We are doing our job as parents keeping the house healthy for the kids.”

“We are happy here, which flows through everything else. Everything has been better since being here.”

“Being warmer made us happier. We were on edge before, and cold. It was a nightmare. This has taken a weight off us.”

These words from four different families speak volumes about the non-financial benefits of living in warm dry healthy homes. I would classify the sentiment of these statements – especially the last two – as one of emotional resilience. In other words, knowing that their homes would be warmer and drier at lower running cost has taken stress and emotional pressure off these families and resulted in a flow-on effect of higher quality of life in many ways.

This is a dramatic contrast to a poem I ran across recently:

Sisyphus in Aotearoa

By Leonel Alvarado


All winter long

I push my oil heater

From room to room


Resilience – emotional and otherwise – will become increasingly important to individuals, families, neighbourhoods, cities and nations as ever more volatile weather patterns result in increasing physical and economic damage. Innovative communities worldwide are planning for resilience. Others choose not to.

Resilience can take many forms on many levels. One important form of resilience on a residential level is durability. Alongside energy efficiency, another way the long-term running costs are kept low at our Catlecliff villa has been by investing in durability. The first and most prominent example of this is the new Coloursteel Maxx roof installed in November 2011. This high quality roofing iron was more expensive than inferior versions, but will last longer in the sea spray zone. A more durable roof is cheaper in the long run because it delays the replacement by many years or potentially decades.

Another example of durability is doing painting right. What this means is: 1) good and proper surface preparation; 2) quality primer applied liberally; 3) quality paint applied in coats.

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For exterior timber cladding and timber trim this also means priming and painting the end grain as well as the backside. Yes, this takes longer but results in lower maintenance and longer life.

Along those same lines, we treated all of the floors against borer before covering them with other materials. Obviously, less “bora” activity will increase the longevity of the structure.

One final example for today’s column, but certainly not the last example of durability on the property, is protecting the end grain of timber fencing from water damage. Biological names for end grain are xylem and phloem. When alive, these “tubes” transport water and nutrients up and down a tree as essential functions. When dead, end grain allows water to penetrate deeper into the timber and accelerate deterioration. From this perspective, protecting the end grain from rainfall lengthens the life of a fence and postpones its replacement by many years of possibly decades.

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As a humorous alternative to the investments we have made in durability and resilience at our Castlecliff property I’ve included a photo of a fence at Wanganui’s Davis Central Library where a water sprinkler unit has been fixed directly adjacent to exposed end grain. There is a term for this in America: “Good enough for government work.” Screen shot 2014-10-17 at 7.53.42 PM

Peace, Estwing

Roots and Shoots: Permaculture Update

I just finished a plant propagation course after 9 months. I have enjoyed learning a wide range of propagation techniques, especially propagation from cuttings. We started with semi-hardwood cuttings from NZ native plants, and then proceeded to softwood cuttings from rosemary and lavender.

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Finally we took hardwood cuttings from grapes and hydrangea. After months in the propagation mix it is so cool to see the roots have formed. Here is a grape.

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Here is hydrangea.

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On another note, yesterday I divided a fabulous autumn raspberry to transplant to our new property.

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Raspberry roots and shoots.

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I’m also excited that the Black Boy peach stones have germinated after a winter in sand.

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How cool!   Screen shot 2014-10-13 at 6.30.46 AM

I am now busy potting up the grapes and hydrangea.

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Meanwhile, out in the orchard we have pears blossoming.

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Guavas about to flower.

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Feijoa flowers ready to burst. Screen shot 2014-10-13 at 6.33.23 AM

Apple saplings leafing out.

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This apricot is being trained to grow out instead of up.

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Peach blossom.

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I also found blackberries growing in the bush.

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And even a plum among the native trees.   Screen shot 2014-10-13 at 6.34.42 AM

Exciting times, these!


Peace, Estwing

Keep Calm and Think Different: It Takes Money to Save Money, Part 2

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Last week I introduced a new variation on an old adage: it takes money to save money. Of course this idea is not new to most people, nor is it new to this column, which has focused on the concept of ‘payback period’ since it was first published two and a half years ago.

But this concept is long overdue for the New Zealand housing sector that is known for high running costs and low performance. According to Nick Collins, the CEO of the housing performance research organization Beacon Pathway, “Much of New Zealand’s existing housing is cold, damp and unhealthy which leads to poor social and health outcomes. Poor quality, poorly performing housing affects residents’ health, education and quality to life, the resources we use, and general community wellbeing.”

I would suggest Collins’ words describe the situation in Wanganui to a tee, yet this issue does not seem to get significant traction in our community. As a self-described “struggling provincial economy” it astonishes me that, ‘zombie-like’, we voluntarily send millions of dollars to power companies in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch every year when we could easily retain them in our community.

Maybe it comes from growing up alongside the dying city of Detroit, or maybe it comes from being an under-sized gridiron (American football) player, but I have always made it a point to stand up for the ‘little guy.’ I hate waste and I like supporting local businesses.

The process of renovating our villa in Castlecliff ‘stimulated’ the local economy to the tune of $35,000. This total sum will be ‘paid back’ through energy savings and low maintenance costs over the course of about 12 years. The exceptional level of sustainability of this property can be explained through exemplary levels of energy efficiency, long-term durability of products, and the high productivity of fruits, veges and fowl. The entire property has been designed and managed to be low-input and high performance, ie, it takes money to save moneyScreen shot 2014-10-10 at 8.09.50 PM

As regular readers are aware, the villa was redesigned and renovated as a passive solar home. Between April and August, morning sunlight reaches deep into the structure, bringing warmth inside early in the day when the temperature is lowest. An abundance of glazing on the northeast and northwest sides ensure that free sunlight energy heats the northern parts of the home on most winter days to 20 – 25 degrees.

Throughout the day some of the sunlight energy is absorbed within thermal mass, ensuring that the interior does not overheat while storing the excess warmth overnight when it is released into the home. This extra thermal mass takes the form of a second layer of Gib on the walls, a cast iron claw foot bathtub, and a multi-fuel cooker with brick surround. When the sun is not shining, the multi-fuel stove easily heats the northern part of the home to 20 degrees or above on a few sticks of wood, with the added benefits of cooking and baking.

Two-thirds of the home is easily heated by this combination of sunshine and a small amount of firewood. (The southern bedrooms are kept cooler as is common in most Kiwi homes.) A super-insulated building envelope ensures that much of the heat remains in the structure overnight. Temperature in the lounge, kitchen and bathroom rarely drops below 14 degrees overnight with no heaters running. Some of this energy performance can be attributed to a combination of double-glazing, pelmets, and floor-length lined curtains, Roman blinds and window blankets. This combination of window treatments performs to a level of triple-glazing or better.

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Other energy-efficiency measures we used in the home were Energy Star appliances, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and solar hot water. This combination meant that our power bills over the last year ranged from $17 to $35 per month. Contrary to what some of our critics claim, we do not sacrifice comfort or convenience. Solar hot water allows us to take long showers even in winter, while our appliances include the following: refrigerator, freezer, oven, toaster, electric kettle, cake mixer, wizzy stick, wifi, alarm system, clocks, radios, power tools, etc.

How’d we do it? By thinking different: it takes money to save money.

Peace, Estwing

Spring Permaculture Update

The equinoxal (sp?) winds are battering Aotearoa New Zealand.

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Here are my attempts to protect our newly planted fruit trees.

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I barely was able to get the garlic fully mulched on the weekend before the gale started.

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After I mulched the garlic I also mulched about 50 new fruit trees.

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Be aware it is important not to place mulch against the sapling itself.

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Having recently purchased this former horse property, we have 25 years of rotted pony poo to work with.

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This gives you an idea of what we have. There are two more piles just as big.

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We are boarding a horse now. This is what he produced in 2 weeks.

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Despite the winds, it’s great to see signs of spring, like this fig cutting leafing out.

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Peace, Estwing

Keep Calm and Think Different: It Takes Money to Save Money, Part 1

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“It takes money to make money” – a phrase so common it’s cliché. It is an ideology that drove growth during the 20th Century and resulted in multiple boom and bust cycles. It is a philosophy fueled by cheap energy and cheap money (ie, low interest rates).

Taken to the extreme it nearly crashed the global economy six years ago and has resulted in an extended economic slowdown. New Zealand’s self-proclaimed “Rock Star Economy” during this time is a result of central government running up massive debt and the temporary effect of the Christchurch rebuild.

Data suggests that nearly all of the growth experienced in the country during the last half decade has been in Christchurch and Auckland. The provinces – and particularly Wanganui – have not been part of “the band” but surprisingly remain avid growth “groupies” by clinging to inappropriate economic models.

Judging from the constant whinging we hear about the lack of “growth” in our city and how unfair it is that central government is abandoning the regions, one might think we are a town of pessimists. This glass-half-empty thinking does not serve our community and actually holds back economic development and innovation.

However, my observation is that this argument breaks down along the same lines as the climate change “debate.” In other words, those people who have chosen to ignore the overwhelming agreement by atmospheric scientists that humanity is altering the planet’s climate are the same ones who deny that Wanganui needs to consider different ways of thinking about our local economy. From this perspective, whatever I write in this column won’t make a bloody bit of difference. But since when has that stopped me?

As a researcher, I believe that robust arguments are supported with data and facts. From this perspective, let’s look at some examples of different economic strategies locally and nationally.

The Chronicle recently reported that the uptake of ultrafast internet services in Whanganui has been slower than “forecast” despite what I have observed as a massive, prolonged and shadowy PR campaign. For many months I chuckled while reading un-authored articles in the free weekly papers making all sorts of dubious claims about ultrafast internet services. I would suggest that the less-than-stellar result despite substantial Council support at rate payers’ expense is because the entire enterprise was undertaken under an inappropriate economic model. (Whingers let out a grown now.)

Alternatively, Air New Zealand gives us an example of innovative glass-half-full thinking that I would describe as “It takes money to save money.” Earlier this year the airline invested massively in new, fuel efficient Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft. Instead of chasing elusive growth and profits, Air NZ has identified money that already exists within its budget (fuel costs) and invested in reaping savings through investment.

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Along the same lines, Wanganui collectively sends tens of millions of dollars annually to energy companies in Auckland and Christchurch. As such, we are voluntarily impoverishing ourselves and enriching these already wealthy centres. Why?

Over the last three years I have developed a working model of an affordable energy-efficient home that uses less than a quarter of the power of the average New Zealand home. I have calculated that the renovated villa in Castlecliff will save roughly $30,000 in electricity over ten years compared with the house next door. Those savings exceed that portion of the renovation budget spent on efficiency and solar energy, and represent a rate of return far in excess of the best term deposit in the country.

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In addition, our renovation pumped approximately $35,000 into the Whanganui economy by supporting local businesses and tradespersons. Employees of those businesses and the tradies presumably spent some of those dollars within the local economy, and so on and so on.

This is what I mean by different thinking, by glass-half-full, and by spending money to save money. But just like the climate change “debate,” one can choose to believe the data or choose to believe the rhetoric.

Peace, Estwing