Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dog days of summer

Pets need special care during the hot summer months to keep them comfortable and safe. While we can perspire to help cool our skin, cats and dogs don't have sweat glands. The dispel heat by panting and through the bottoms of their feet.

It's hot and humid. Air conditioners aren't the only things that feel blowing a fuse. Now image how you'd feel if you were wearing a fur coat and couldn't take it off. That's exactly how your cats and dogs feel.

Pets should never be left alone in a car, even with the windows cracked open. Temperatures can quickly reach 120 degrees F. If you see an animal in a parked car, notify the store manager or call the police.

At home, make sure outdoor pets have plenty of cool water and shade. The Animal League of Arlington (VA) has more tips for keeping pets safe in the summer heat.

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Feed your face for less

We don't have food riots here, not yet anyway. Food shortages have been in the news lately. We love our food, maybe a little too much. We have networks devoted to cooking and fine eating. Is there anything better than watching a marathon of "Top Chef" while eating a bucket of fried chicken?

Have you noticed that bucket costs more? Connect the dots with corn. Corn is in short supply because it being used to make Ethanol to help alleviate the petroleum shortage. It's taking corn away as a food source. Corn isn't only found creamed in cans. It's used to feed cows that make milk that is turned into cheese, butter, ice cream and other creamy goodness. Some cows end up on our grills on a hot summer day. Corn is also used to feed the chickens that end up in the Colonel's bucket.

With the recent flooding along the Mississippi River, crops took a hit, contributing to the food shortage. We connect the last kernel of the cycle with the higher cost of shipping food to your grocery store due to, what else, higher cost of fuel.

Gasoline is taking a bigger bite of our monthly budgets so we struggle to find ways to shave a few bucks or even cents from our controllable expenses. Food prices may be rising, but it is possible to eat well with a little planning and creativity.

My favorite trick is to use a crock pot. My crock pot is about 30 years. The brown crockery is round and deep. New models are oval and a lot more streamlined. The premise is same after all these years. You put the ingredients into the pot in the morning, set the timer and take off for work. Eight hours later, the odors of cooked food greet you at the door. You'll be less likely to pick up some fast food on the way home, if you know dinner's almost on the table.

Eating out costs three times more than cooking at home. Here are some more tips on how to save money on food.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Bankruptcy hits self-esteem

I teach money management classes for people going through bankruptcy. Nationally, the majority of bankruptcies are related to medical bills, divorce, widowhood or unemployment. My clients are no different. People of all ages and different walks of life have attended my classes.

There have been teachers with master's degrees, restaurant owners, and a bank manger who said he has "seen the dark side of the banking industry."

Some of the saddest cases are retired couples who co-signed loans for their adult children and got stuck with the debt when their children could no longer make the payments.

A disabled Gulf War veteran has short-term memory loss and can't hold down a job any longer. Some couples work two minimum wage jobs each to pay the bills. While bankruptcy may bring relief from the bills that are stacking up, it may be a short-term solution. Unless their income increases, there's a good chance they will be drowning in debt once more in a few years.

The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 requires that those filing for personal bankruptcy learn how to manage their money. How they got to the point of bankruptcy is a road often filled with desperation, depression and for most shame: "At my age I should known better" is a common self-deprecating remark.

Some of my clients tried to hang on as long as they could by supplementing their monthly living expenses by using credit cards, hoping their situation was short-term and their financial situation would improve before the next month's bills started to pile up. Instead they found themselves deeper in debt.

My students have been hit in more ways than just financially. Some are suffering deep depression and loss of self-esteem. A student told another how his deep faith gave him a reason to live for when he had thoughts of suicide.

Bankruptcy is not a perfect solution. The bankruptcy will remain on a credit report for 10 years. Prospective lenders usually charge them higher interest rates since they are now considered a higher risk. It will take years to rebuild good credit, but it is possible.

The general advice has been to live within your means. Go one step further and live below your means. Save, invest or donate what you don't spend. Your life will be richer for it. Jack Zavada retired at the age of 51 by living below his means. His 10 smartest ways to live beneath your means make sense and won't hurt your standard of living.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Birds of paradise

The Rio Grande Valley is considered a birding mecca.  Some beautiful and exotic birds can be sighted only here and in Northern Mexico.  Bird and butterfly enthusiasts bring millions into the area.  It's a daily occurrence for locals to spot colorful parrots and Green Jays.  In the fall and winter, cardinals were a rare treat this far South.  A popular tourist site is the World Birding Center at Quinta Matalzan in McAllen.  The beautiful grounds of a historical hacienda with its outdoor classrooms and walking trails is open for special tours.  The Texas Butterfly Festival is held in October in Mission.  Eco-tourism is a good business that makes local and visitors appreciate the beauty of the area. With so many jobs being lost in agriculture and the few manufacturing plants heading overseas, eco-tourism may be salvation for the area.

                                            Green Jay

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

It's the economy, again, stupid

Bill Clinton's famous campaign slogan for his 1992 presidential bid - "It's the economy, stupid" -  focused on the shaky economy.  There were early signs that a recession was developing, and the cost of oil spiked dramatically at this time.  Despite President George H.W. Bush's 90 percent approval rating in 1991 following the invasion of Iraq, his popularity dropped to 64 percent the next year.  

Déjà vu or a Bush redux? Rising oil prices, a recession, a Bush in office, a war in the Middle East.  It's the same old script that ousted the last Republican presidency.  I can't help but wonder, if the economy is being manipulated to influence the presidential election.  The obvious question is who or what has this kind of power?  OPEC? Priory of Sion? Osama Bin Laden sitting in a cave buying and selling stock on a lap top? 

When choosing our next president, let's consider all the issues - health care, education,  jobs, the war - and not get carried away with the price at the gas pump.   

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Conserve water this summer on lawn care

When I was growing up in the Rio Grande Valley in the '60s, the area was considered a semi-tropic. Now it's often referred to as semi-arid. Diminished rainfall makes the once lush landscape parched and a fire hazard during windy days (which is more often than not). The Rio Grande runs slow and low as the population on both sides of the river continues to grow and increases demand for water for new households, agriculture and business.
Summer is here in full force and lawns are looking a little ragged. If you want to conserve water and few bucks while keeping your lawn healthy, check out Water-Saving Tips for Your Lawn under Read More About It.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Border Patrol announces zero tolerance policy - what they were kidding before?

"Operation Streamline" will prosecute migrants crossing the border illegally.  The program has been successful in rural areas of the Texas and Arizona, drastically reducing illegal entry into those states.  

The plan has been criticized for possibly overwhelming federal courts.  The program will be implemented along a four-mile stretch of Cameron County's border with Mexico.  Undocumented immigrants who are arrested will be sent to court and could face jail time of up to 180 days and then be deported. 

Before the crack down, first-time offenders were given the choice of voluntary deportation.  They were processed, placed on a bus and were home in Mexico within hours of their arrest.

The thinking is that the unpleasant experience will discourage people from returning, and they're warn others not to cross the border.

A few years ago, my daughter's boyfriend came to visit during the Thanksgiving holiday.  Mexico was one of the places he wanted to visit before he returned home.  While we were walking across the bridge into Mexico, we spotted three people floating across the Rio Grande on inner tubes.  When they reached the banks of the U.S., they took off running.  This all happened in broad daylight.  There was nothing sneaky about their crossing.  I wonder what happened to them.  Did they make a clean break and find jobs up north.  Do they celebrate every Thanksgiving to mark the anniversary of their entrance into this wonderful country?  Or were they caught, processed and sent back home within hours, after enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner courtesy of the Border Patrol?

Some Mexicans enter the U.S. in luxury sedans.  Wealthy Mexicans pump millions into the Rio Grande Valley economy.  Stores in the local mall consistently rank among the highest grossing stores in their appropriate chain.  

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

The pie stays the same size, it's the slices that are getting smaller

In our petroleum-dependent economy, we have seen prices for food, fuel, utilities and other goods and services rise as the cost of oil hovers at $135 a barrel.

Since I my job depends on a certain amount of driving, I can't realistically cut back on gasoline.  Since gas takes up a larger slice of my budget, that leaves less money for the rest of the pie.

Something has to give, as in cut back or eliminate. With the cost of living spiking, now would be a good time for us to re-evaluate our budgets.  Don’t wait until you’re caught up in a serious cash crunch and turn to credit cards to finance your monthly living expenses.

And while we're at it, let's call it a spending plan instead of a budget.  The word budget has an ugly connotation of depriving yourself , kind of like the word diet.  Doesn't a food plan sound less restricting than "diet?"

Here are three budget guidelines to consider: Prioritize, Economize, and Increase Income Size. 


Ask yourself if a purchase is based on a “need” or a “want.”  Needs are necessary for survival: a roof over your head, a car to get to work, food to nourish your body.

Sure “wants” make life more fun or comfortable.  But you can probably do without those little luxuries. Don’t confuse your need for a car as an excuse to buy a prestige model when a more affordable car will be kinder to your budget.  We all need to eat, but ordering steak every day may an indulgence.

First things first. When doling out money each month, the first payment should be for shelter.  Pay your rent or mortgage payment first.

Save as much money as you can each month.  This savings account can be used in an emergency instead of using a credit card.  If economists are correct in forecasting an impending recession, you want to be prepared.


Compare the rates of utilities, phone services and insurance.  Sometimes you can get a discount by signing up for a package of several media and communication services.

Use the Internet to compare prices for loans.  Many companies offer Internet specials.  I just refinanced a car for 4.25 percent over the Internet and transferred credit card balances for 2.99 percent for the life of the loan.

Get reacquainted with the stove and cook more.  Eating out costs three more than eating at home. To cut on food costs, revive old family recipes.  One-skillet recipes stretch meat, which can be the most expensive ingredient in a dish.  Make your own fruit juice pops when the kids want something cold from the freezer instead of ice cream.

You can still have fun while watching your budget.  If you love movies, consider taking the family to the dollar cinema, just forgo the pricey popcorn and soft drinks.  Or you could always rent a movie and pop your own corn at home.

Check out the weekly specials at the grocery store.  We often get busy and make the same old dishes.  Develop recipes based on the fresh produce and meats that are on special.  Some store, such as Wal-Mart, will honor competitors' prices when the ads are shown to the cashier. Coupons for items you regularly purchase can save you big bucks.  Beware that some companies have to entice customers to buy their products because they are expensive even with the coupon savings. 

Increase Income Size

Look for a second job.  Even a part-time job will bring in extra cash.

Have a garage sale to sell unwanted items.  Some cities require a permit so call city hall first.

Encourage your teen-age children to get part-time jobs.  They can pay for their own clothes, entertainment and gas, lightening the load for parents.  Working builds character and teaches life skills, such as getting along with co-workers, managing money and handling difficult people.  My son started his job eight days ago at a fast food restaurant and has learned there are good days and there are bad days on the job, but you just do your best.

Before you start your campaign to balance the family budget, it’s important to change your attitude about what is really adding value to your life. It’s also important to get the entire family onboard.  Constant complaints could sabotage your good intentions.


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Friday, June 13, 2008

Rising gas prices create indigestion for commuters

With gas prices hovering at $3.89 a gallon here, creative scheduling is one resort to squeezing the most octane out of a tank.  Students attending South Texas College and the University of Texas are typically commuter students.  Most live at home and many hold down full-time jobs while attending classes.  This results in drive time to and from campus.  UTPA recently announced it would lengthen class sessions so students could attend classes on only two instead of three days of the week. (Source: The Edinburg, TX, Review, June 11, 2008)

Will work for gas 
My husband is rather casual with our yard care.  It has been several months since anyone has stopped by to ask if we'd like the lawn mowed.  It was not unusual to have two or three people stop by on a Saturday and ask for the job until my husband would take the hint and pull the lawn mower from the garage.  
People living on marginal jobs can no longer afford the gasoline to drive around town looking for day work.  Delivery jobs that depend on personal vehicles are also being hit hard.  Think pizza, newspapers.  Who will come to your house with a hot cheesy pizza when the cost to deliver it is more than the profit from the food? 
There aren't may options for mass transportation in the Valley.  The public bus system is very limited.  People must rely on getting to their destination on their own.  People living on meager salaries also tend to have older vehicles, which guzzle gas.
Even those of us with steady jobs are feeling the pinch.  I now have a little built-in gas-o-meter. On the way to do an errand this morning, I was typically day dreaming and passed the building. I had to turn around.  It irked me.  Later I accelerated to pass a slow-moving car, only to be stopped at the corner by a red light.  This stop-and-go driving burns up precious fuel.  My mental gas-o-meter calculated the costs.  I slowed down and paid attention to the road.

Now You Want to Conserve Natural Resources
or tips for conserving gasoline
1.  Walk or ride a bike.  Bicycles are flying off the shelves at Wal-Mart.  It isn't Christmas so it's probably one remedy to cutting down on driving. 
2.  Save driving time by grouping errands so you can do them at the same time.  Do errands on the way to and from work.  
3.  Consider a staycation.  Stay-at-home vacations are a sensible alternative to high plane tickets and expensive road trips.  Leave the Suburban in the suburbs.  Leave the Explorer on the driveway while you have fun inside.  If cabin fever hits and you absolutely have to get out, take a day trip to explore the local sites you never have time to visit.  When was the last time you took the family to the local museum or library?
4.  Avoid rush hour.  Stop-and-go traffic is hard on gas mileage.  (Day dreaming just prolongs trips.)
5.  Speed kills - your wallet.  According to the Department of Energy, you lose 7 percent efficiency for every 5 mph you drive over 65 mph. 
6. Buy a locking gas cap.  A co-worker's mom had her tank syphoned dry at a hospital parking lot.  This is a new criminal activity for this area so maybe crime rates are increasing.

For more tips, check out "Easy ways to conserve gas" listed to the left.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Rotten Tomatoes Rotten for Business

The salmonella scare has hit tomato U.S. producers and importers hard. Though tomatoes are easing their way back into supermarkets in the Rio Grande Valley, people are removing them from their menus. A local produce importer is sitting with half a million dollars of tomatoes in his warehouse. Demand has dropped across the nation, as well. Though he says his tomatoes have been cleared by inspectors no one's ordering because they're from Mexico, the suspected source of the contamination, according to recent news accounts. The businessman has laid off five people locally and there may be more job losses by farmers in Mexico.

Source: The

Consumers love their tomatoes. Overheard at Whataburger, a local hamburger fast food restaurant: Why don't you have tomatoes in the salad? Are you at least going to discount my salad?
Skip the cucumbers, give me a double heaping helping of Salmonella. Any e-coli in the house?

Cooking without the pathogens
If you have to have your tomatoes, and you have to have them now, turn to the canned stuff. The canning process kills pathogens. Since canned tomatoes are juicy, be sure to drain them well. Save the juice for soups. Chopped coarsely or diced finely, canned tomatoes can be used in tacos and in Pico de Gallo without losing the integrity of the dish.
Here's a tasty Pico de Gallo that's just as good with canned tomatoes as it is with fresh. Pico de Gallo is translated from Spanish as rooster's beak, most likely in reference to the spicy bite it imparts. Pico de Gallo is chunkier and drier than salsa, even the kind from New York City. It is served with meats and tacos or with tortilla chips as a dip.

Pico de Gallo
2 medium tomatoes, diced or 1 small can of tomatoes, drained and diced
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 fresh jalapeño, seeded and chopped (use the entire pepper if you dare)
1/4 cup of fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1 green onion finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine tomato, onion, jalapeño (to taste), cilantro, garlic and green onion. Season with salt and pepper. Stir until evenly distributed. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Garnish with cilantro sprigs. Great for barbecues and picnics.

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