Wednesday, May 31, 2006

10 Steps for Fun-but-Cheap Birthday Parties

Hey I loved these tips about putting together meaningful but affordable birthday parties for kids...Check it out.

" There are ways for parents to avoid the financial and emotional traps birthday parties bring. Stowers Innovations, Inc., publisher of the Yes, You Can... series of books, suggests the following 10 tips to increase the meaning and decrease the cost of birthday gift giving and celebrations.

1. Set a pre-determined budget – Determine a specific budget in advance for gifts and parties to avoid a financial crunch each year. Share this budget with your children to avoid unrealistic expectations.

2. Limit the number of guests – Keep parties manageable by limiting the number of guests your child is allowed to invite. A good rule of thumb is one guest for every year. So a five year old could invite five friends. Children cannot connect with very many people at one time and often connect most with family. By limiting the number of guests, you create an environment in which your child can form more meaningful connections.

3. Involve your child in the planning process – Give your child a major role in organizing the party. Talk about what is important about this party and how the money budgeted for the celebration will be used. Help them pick out games, food and decorations. Sit down with them to write party invitations. Years from now, when your child remembers his or her birthday, they’ll remember the experience, not just the party.

4. Team up – Share the cost of birthday parties by joining with other parents whose children have a similar birth date. This allows children to have parties that feel extravagant without straining your budget. If teaming up isn’t an option, consider throwing a big birthday party every other year for your child.

5. Keep it simple – Plan a party around a simple and inexpensive activity your child and their friends enjoy, such as baking and decorating cookies, hosting a talent show or playing dress-up. If your child is interested in dancing, host a dance party and allow your child to create a dance for everyone to learn. Or create a play based on their special interests and have party guests put on a show.

6. Build connections – Create activities that build connections and allow enough time for the activity to be meaningful. Young children have shorter attention spans and an hour and a half party would allow them enough time for a meaningful experience without loosing interest. Older children, however, may find a longer activity more meaningful. Consider allowing your older teen to invite a friend on a weekend family trip, or to a concert or theme park.

7. Celebrate family birthday traditions – Invite children to take part in a family birthday tradition. Serve breakfast in bed or allow children to choose the dinner menu on their birthday. Bake special treats the child can share with the class at school. There are many ways to build traditions, which make the day extra special.

8. Consider alternatives to traditional birthday gifts – Give your child a non-material gift, such as an experience or new privilege. Take the day off from work to go to a museum together or recognize the importance of getting older by extending a curfew or allowing young children to stay up later.

9. Teach the art of giving – Incorporate giving into your child’s birthday celebration. Instead of bringing gifts to the party, ask guests to bring something that can be donated—books, money, new toys or clothing—to a charity your child chooses. Send thank you notes to guests giving them specifics on the total contribution to the charity.

10. Make gift giving and receiving more meaningful – Set aside enough time during the party to allow the gift exchange to be a special experience. Let each child explain why he or she chose their gift and allow time for the recipient to open it. Many parents set up chairs for the gift giver and recipient, so they can sit next to each other while the present is being opened.

“Including your child in all aspects of the birthday experience, from planning to creating a scrap book after the event, helps create a party both you and your child will remember for a lifetime,” said Sheelagh Manheim, Ph.D., co-author of Yes, You Can… Find More Meaning in Your Life. “A great party is not about the money spent, but about the connections formed and the memories made.”

The books Yes, You Can... Afford to Raise a Family and Yes, You Can... Find More Meaning in Your Life are available by calling 1-800-234-3445 or online at"

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Manic Mom & Simple Birthday Parties

During my children's birthday parties, I morph into Ms. Manic Mom, my alter-ego. Pumped with a maternal cocktail of adrenaline and anxiety, I dash around with a single question: ``Are they having fun yet?!?''

I worry about the activities, the party favors and the atmosphere of our high-energy, but low-budget parties. It doesn't matter that we typically receive rave reviews. In the Manic Mom mode, I never stop worrying.

I'm not alone. As a nation, we spend a fortune on petting zoos, bounce houses and other party festivities for our children. We spend huge sums of dollars to create a few smiles during birthday parties.


Just relax, says Sheelagh Manheim, co-author of Yes, You Can . . . Find More Meaning in Your Life (Stowers Innovation Inc/2005, $19.95).

As a grandmother and veteran of many fun, but frugal, parties, Manheim has dozens of celebrations that have generated happy memories for her children and their friends. Her kids and their guests still talk about the low-cost gypsy party in which Manheim dressed up as a fortune-teller and offered words of advice.

She believes in the keep-it-simple approach. Her basic party recipe includes a short roster of games/activities, cake-cutting ceremonies and sweet goodbyes. And she recommends a two-hour party limit, especially for the five and under crowd.


Here's the logic: Children are ''over-programmed'' during their daily lives. Play dates, homework, lessons and other after-school activities leave little time for basic fun. Therefore, many kids particularly appreciate simple ball games and bean bag tosses. Other party favorites include craft activities in which kids make place mats or other useful items.

For my daughter's recent birthday party, we purchased wooden door paddles on clearance from a national craft chain. Shaped like the classic do-not-disturb hotel signs, the wooden paddles were perfect for paint, sparkles, stickers and other tools of creativity. The kids decorated their paddles with names, initials, welcome signs or words of warning. This activity consumed a large block of time and was a hit with the boys and girls. What's more, each kid left with a practical, but unusual party favor for their bedrooms.

'Their self-esteem comes from saying: `I did it myself,' '' Manheim said.


Even Pin-the-Tail on the Donkey -- an old-school classic -- can be transformed into an exercise in self-esteem and creativity. We discovered that lesson by accident. As our party guests decorated their door paddles, my artistic husband quickly sketched out a donkey for the next activity. Fascinated by his artistic production, the kids drifted away from their own art projects to watch. We could have taken it a step further by letting the kids draw the donkey and create the tails, Manheim said.

''It's hysterical fun,'' she said about the entire process. `What matters is that they are using their imagination and doing something new.''

Friday, May 26, 2006

Botox vs Sunscreen: My Anti-Facelift Rant!!

Botox, facelifts, collagen, acupuncture treatments and expensive skin creams!!!!
Millions of dollars are spent annually on cosmetic procedures and expensive anti-aging treatments.

But for far less money ($5 and under), we can buy cheap but effective preventive facial/skin care. THINK SUNSCREEN.

On a personal level, I know the power of sunscreen. For the last few weeks, I've been out of my favorite anti-aging skin creams. I use inexpensive; but effective drugstore potions. I've been too busy to clip coupons and pick up more. But I've slapped on some sunscreen --important in Miami--and my skin has been looking great. Less is more, especially if you remember the sunscreen.

The latest crop of women's magazines -- Real Simple, First, For Me -- have written some interesting pieces about the frugal and effective power of sunscreen. On the low end, decent coverage can cost $5 (or less). Here's one cheapie that's gotten rave reviews:

Hawaiian Tropic Baby Faces & Tender Places SPF 50 $5 (rated best stick protection by Real Simple)

On the higher end: Lancome Soleil Ultra Expert Sun Care SPF 50 Sunscreen Face and Body Lotion $32.50....rated best cream by Real Simple.

Real Simple offers these sunscreen tips

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

New Lives for Old Stuff: Recycle!

From the corners of closets and the depths of storage bins, I have uncovered an assortment of unwanted items.

However, thanks to a few recycling tips, I look at castoff items with new eyes. Here are a few ideas from readers, magazines and friends:

Mylar balloons: Give festive Mylar balloons a second life. Deflated Mylar balloons make great gift bags. Just snip off the top portion, insert gift and tie the bundle with a pretty ribbon.

Mouse pads: As popular give-aways, computer mouse pads often multiply. Old mouse pads can be used as kitchen trivets for hot dishes, according to Budget Living magazine ($3.99 at newsstands).

Shower curtains: One Budget Living reader offers this practical suggestion for worn-out shower curtains: Cut the magnets out of the old plastic liners for use on refrigerator doors.

Envelope addresses: Put junk mail to good use. Before tossing unwanted mail, snip out the three lines featuring your name/address and paste that information onto outgoing envelopes. This process creates two solutions with one snip. Dumpster-diving identity thefts are thwarted and you've created instant return labels with minimal effort and no expense.

Craft photo frames: Take a tip from a vintage (June 2003) issue of Martha Stewart's Living magazine ($4.75/newsstand price). Old make-up compacts can be recycled into elegant photo frames.

Re-fashioned hair accessories: For awhile, I stocked up on trendy hair elastics – sold at CVS, Walgreens and other chains – created from the same fabric used in pantyhose. But a thrifty friend pushed my DUH button, with her brilliant idea: Cut the legs of clean but worn out pantyhose into horizontal strips. (No sewing, required). Using black and brown hose, I've made pony tail elastics that really resemble my favorite name-brand accessory. I've saved money and landfill space.

But my favorite recycling tip -- actually the spark for this post -- was delivered by a kind woman named Vivian.

While visiting an animal shelter, Vivian discovered that the vets used plastic Herald newspaper delivery bags as feeders for baby birds. What other uses are there for plastic bags? Vivian asked.

Melissa Tosetti, editor of Budget Savvy magazine ( has come to my rescue with this suggestion for plastic bags: "Double the bags and pour cooled kitchen grease into them. Tie the bag shut and throw it away. No mess!"

Monday, May 22, 2006

Off-Season Travel Bargains in Miami

Okay, I'm talking about off-season travel bargains in Miami. But apply this logic to other areas of the country. Try Disney in the winter; go to a ski resort in the summer. You'd be surprised about the discounts offered by seasonal resorts seeking to lure in year-round traffic.

check this out:

My first summer in Miami was a shock. After a flight from Manhattan, we arrived at Miami International Airport on an August evening about 10 years ago. Holding suitcases and a toddler, we stepped into a blast of hot, humid air. Within minutes of arrival, I was ready to return to the Northeast region of the country, where the summer nights are relatively cool.

But we've stuck it out and I'm glad.

There's nothing like summer in South Florida, especially with the palm trees, the ocean and the wide range of affordable activities during the seasonal meltdown. Many businesses, restaurants and attractions offer summer perks and discounts to increase traffic during the off-season.


For example, during a recent stroll down the 41st Street shopping district in Miami Beach, I spotted a summer dinner sale at Dougie's Bar-B-Que & Grill. On Wednesday nights, children 12 and younger eat free with an adult who orders a minimum of $15.95. Tuesday nights, the restaurant, a popular kosher deli franchise, markets an all-you-can eat buffet.

Other local restaurants will offer dining discounts during the month of August as part of the Campo Viejo Wines Presents Miami Spice. For more details, check out:


Meanwhile, hot-ticket discounts include reduced rates or special programs at hotels, parks and bowling alleys. To boost summer revenue, bowling alleys, such as Strike Miami at the Dolphin Mall, are also promoting warm-weather specials. As part of a ''Summer Cool Down,'' Strike Miami is offering group discounts of 30 percent off during the day and 20 percent off at night. Groups must book through the event office; 305-594-0200, ext. 406. For all customers, a Monday night special, beginning at 9 p.m., features shoe rentals and unlimited bowling for $14.95, according to Strike Miami's Amy Arcara.


Likewise, during July, the Miami Metrozoo will hold a buy-one-get-one free ticket sale, according to Cindy Castelblanco, the Zoological Society of Florida's public relations manager.


Luxury spas and resorts also have summer deals. Those promotions include free mojitas and a $65 rate (down from $102) for a mini-massage at the Shore Club on South Beach, and 20 percent discounts for locals at The Setai (Miami Beach) and the Harbor Beach Marriott (Fort Lauderdale).

And as weather heats up, area motels and hotels are always likely to offer deals. And remember, not all specials are advertised or promoted. Therefore, it pays to ask for summer or regional discounts.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Pet Supplies for Scruffy at the Dollar Store

We have a new dog named Scruffy. He is so cute. His adoption is a great story for another time.

But first, I want to write about our dollar store pet supplies. Of course, we could have spent a fortune on pet supplies and trinkets at an expensive boutique near our home, where dog shampoos and conditioners cost about $20 a bottle and doggy outfits cost over $100.

Hello?!? I don't spend $20 for a single bottle of conditioner for my pampered hair and I buy my clothes at steep discounts. (Best find: a $100 Ann Taylor Loft jacket for $15 at a summer sale last August.) I love Scruffy, but he doesn't need a $200 jacket and he can use the flea shampoo that my husband found for $1 at a really cool dollar store in South Beach. And the stuff even smells good. (Not for my hair. Oh no. But it's great for Scruffy.)

So here is a list of some of our dollar store purchases:

One Buck Bargains

1. Great nylon leashes (we purchased 2)
2. Really cute dog bowls (one for water, one for food)
3. A package of chew sticks (Other stores charge $6 to $7 for similar packages.)
4. Assorted chew toys...for $1 dollar each. (I've seen the same toys for about $10 each.)
5. Conditioning Pet Shampoo $1 for 16 fl. oz (Forget the high-end stuff for $20 a bottle)

Dollar Duds

1. Chain link leash. The dog hates this one. So we don't use it.
2. Rope/Ball-tug-of-war toy. This dollar store item was a dud. It was not well-made and my dog quickly ripped it apart. oh well....
3. Spiky rubberized teething circle. He ignores this toy.

We enjoyed the stuff that worked and our mistakes weren't costly.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Traveling on Big Wheels

In air-conditioned comfort, I traveled in a stretch vehicle driven by a uniformed employee, who politely opened the door for me. It was a luxurious, waterfront ride for $1.25 — far less than a gallon of gas — courtesy of a Miami-Dade Transit bus.

I shared the ride with tourists, who were traveling to the Nasdaq-100 tennis tournament. Other riders included, Raymond Cummings, a Miami resident, who is also a big fan of public transportation.

“It’s cheaper than buying gasoline,” said Cummings. “I don’t drive. My wife usually drives. I just don’t like the traffic.”

Many consumers have reservations about public transportation. Complaints range from schedules, convenience and access. Many of those concerns are valid, but as gas prices continue to climb, I've noticed an effort to improve public transporation. And indeed, there should be a long-term commitment to upgrade and support transit systems.

Buses and trains are affordable and energy efficient. There are also fare discount programs for individuals, senior citizens, veterans and students. Many transit programs also offer group discount plans for companies. But even without discounts, buses, subways, trolleys and trains are far cheaper than cars.

To get the most mileage out of public transportation, it’s best to check schedules and leave plenty of time for possible delays. And I always carry work or reading material with me. It's my spin on energy efficiency.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Shopping at the Portal: Online Comparisons

Game Boy Advance -- a handheld electronic toy from Nintendo -- has topped my daughter's wish list for the last six months. With her own savings and a parental contribution, she recently purchased the toy at a discount through an eBay auction. Other Internet resources also offer affordable options.

In fact, there are several online shopping portals that compare vendor/retail prices at a variety of outlets. Those services are helpful for researching the best deals over the Internet or at traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Those outlets include,,, and

Online comparison shopping is a popular trend, even with consumers who are uncomfortable making online purchases. Traditionalists use the Internet to compare retail prices and then make their actual purchases at standard stores. In fact, 70 percent of online shoppers browse through multiple Internet channels before every purchase, according to a recent survey from Shopzilla, an online index of 30 million products at over 50,000 stores. But for 64 percent of shoppers surveyed, comparison shopping is a time-consuming process involving multiple visits to four sites on average. and Other Outlets features excess inventory. For less than wholesale prices, Over purchases merchandise from manufacturers and sells those items at discounts of 40 percent to 80 percent below standard retail prices. In addition to partnership agreements with name-brand companies, acquires canceled orders from stores and items from companies that are downsizing or moving. Merchandise includes furniture, books, clothing and jewelry and other items.

In addition to its regular discounts, offers special clearance bins. A special page on the site features bins of books, music and movies for $1 to $5. Another bin features an assortment of bedding, shoes, accessories, jewelry, electronics and house wares for $25 and less. And regardless of the size or weight of your order, shipping is always $2.95. (Shop It To Me) works like a personal shopper. You provide a profile of your shopping tastes (size and favorite labels), and Shop It To Me will find the lowest sale price from its pool of retailers. That list includes Nordstrom, Ann Taylor Loft, Kenneth Cole, Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue and other top stores. You can elect to receive daily, weekly or semi-weekly e-mails alerting you when the items from your wish list are on sale. sells discounts for restaurants in your area. For instance, after typing in my area code, I received a list of 212 restaurants within 15 miles of my home, including hot spots in South Beach, Coral Gables and the Brickell Avenue district. At those eateries, charges $10 for $25 gift certificates and $3 for $10 certificates. They are good for purchasing meals. Restrictions vary from restaurant to restaurant and are detailed on the website. One South Beach eatery, for example, requires a minimal food purchase of $35 and at another restaurant, the certificates can't be used for early-bird dining. offers discounts on beauty and personal care products, vitamins, prescriptions and other items typically found in brick-and-mortar stores. partners with Rite Aid and GNC, which sells vitamins and other health aids. Product savings range from 20 percent to 40 percent. Shipping is free for orders of $25 or more.

Of course, due to security concerns, many consumers are wary about online transactions. For that market, (bill me later) offers a solution. Through agreements with a wide range of retailers, Bill Me Later enables you to shop online, but receive hard copy bills through regular mail so that you don't have to use your credit card on cyberspace. According to a customer service rep, the merchandise is shipped as soon as you make the purchase, with the bill arriving later. Bill Me Later has financing agreements with Wal, Sports Authority, Linens-N-Things, Petco.Com and other well-known online merchants.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Spinning on the Freecycle

Imagine if everything on eBay, the global Internet-based garage sale, traded for free. Perhaps that electronic marketplace would be called ``Freebay.''

Don't laugh. A large Internet-based giveaway exists in South Florida and throughout the country. The Freecycle Network, operates an Internet-based bulletin board where items -- fax machines, movie tickets, pianos and other household castoffs -- are offered for free on a first-come, first-serve basis.

''One person's trash can truly be another's treasure,'' say the organizers of Freecycle Network (

The Freecycle Network was launched in May 2003 by RISE Inc., a Tucson, Ariz., nonprofit group committed to waste reduction, recycling and other social issues. RISE created Freecycle as a way to reduce waste in Tucson.

But over the last year, membership in the program has expanded nationally and even beyond national borders. Anyone can register for either group by going to and clicking on the appropriate geographical region.

The Miami-based group was started by Michele Doss of Miami, who screens the posted messages on Freecycle Miami's electronic bulletin board. She urges new members to participate as donors as well as takers. Freecycle works best when there is a balance between giving and taking, she says.

Doss also adheres closely to the initial concept from Freecycle's founder Deron Beal: recycle, recycle, recycle.

''It looks like we're helping people keep a lot of things out the landfills,'' she says.

Curious about the local giveaways, I recently logged onto the global Freecyle site and registered for Freecyle Miami through Yahoo.

The list of available items included a playpen, a child carrier, a recliner, a hot tub, a water softener and movie tickets. As of June 10, a boy's 26-inch Schwinn bike was still available, but a 25-foot fiberglass boat was taken.

A family of five from West Palm Beach was offering a free General Electric washing machine that they acquired when they purchased their home last year. According to their report, the machine that came with the house is in good condition and doing a ''great job'' on the family laundry.

But a gift of a newer and larger machine prompted the family to give away the older one. The family wants to continue the spin cycle of giving. And as a give-away bonus, they are also offering an organic watermelon from their home garden and fresh eggs if their chickens cooperate.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Frugal Prom Fantasies: Fashion for Less

Dateless and clueless in New Jersey, I skipped over the entire prom scene during my high school years. I never missed the long cheesy white limo, the stick-pin corsage or even the rent-a-tux boy. But I still dream about The Dress.

I can't go back in time, but there are lots of options to meet my high school prom fantasies as well as prom realities for today's high schoolers. Options range from custom dressmakers to discount stores, depending on whether your budget is at the high or low end.

Unconventional channels (eBay, consignment/thrift stores, online swap shops such as and different charities) have prom gowns from $0 to $300 and up. One local charity -- Becca's Closet -- hands out free prom dresses and formal wear to teenagers in need. I highly recommend this Plantation-based program for teens seeking assistance with prom wear. Check out

No matter where you shop, your prom dress hunt should begin with a few fashion basics, such as fabric, fit and workmanship, according to Wensley Alvarez, a salesman at Consign of the Times, a consignment store in Miami Beach and Coconut Grove.

''It's all about quality and a good cut,'' Alvarez said.

Upscale consignment stores are ideal for prom shoppers with high-end tastes but off-the rack-budgets. At Consign of the Times, for example, clothes and accessories from Prada, Versace, Chanel and other designers sell for one-third of the standard retail price. For instance, a designer cocktail dress or gown sold new for $600 to $2,100 would cost about $200 to $700 at Consign of The Times.

There are a number of consignment stores in South Florida. Inventory varies and it's best to call ahead to see which stores have a collection of prom gowns and cocktail dresses. Thrift stores throughout our region are stuffed with an abundance of gowns because many dresses are cast aside after being worn to just one prom.

Many dressmakers will tailor their creations to fit your budget. I spoke to one Coral Gables seamstress -- located on Miracle Mile -- who makes prom gowns that cost $3,000 and higher. But if your budget is far less, about $250, she'll create and stitch an attractive prom gown to fit that price range. At a coming-of-age party for a friend's daughter, I saw one of the dressmaker's affordable custom gowns, and I was impressed with the cut, color and fit.

On the other end of the scale, Marshall's sells affordable and fashionable gowns for well below $100. I tried on one gown at Marshall's and later spotted that same gown for more than twice the price at a small boutique. Other fashion mavens praise the off-the-rack gowns at JC Penney, Ross and Dillard's.

Other affordable options include bridal shops where either discontinued, unclaimed or sample party gowns are available at steep discounts.

I was also surprised to find a wide range of prices and selections of gowns and party dresses on eBay (, some with designer labels. From an eBay vendor called Fabulous Gowns, I even found gowns as cheap as 99 cents, excluding shipping and handling. Ebay showed a long track record and high customer satisfaction rating for Fabulous Gowns.

My personal favorite was a size 6 green sheath gown with a V-neck for $1. Of course, my prom days are over, but I can still dream.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Poor Mario: A Hamster's Obit & My Lost Money

Toward the end of his short life, our pet Mario developed tumors and in a frantic attempt to save his life (and my children’s hearts), my husband and I visited two animal specialists. We spent about $250 in medical bills for our beloved Mario, a $6 hamster at the pet store.

We could have saved a lot of heart ache and dollars, if we had done our homework. Hamsters — as we later discovered — have short lives and tumors are a sign of the end. Our misdirected kindness only prolonged Mario’s pain and cost a fortune.

Frugal Warnings from Pet Specialists

Careful research is the ticket for pet care, according to the experts at area animal shelters, who offer a long list of tips for pet owners. From warnings about unscrupulous breeders to low-cost health care for pets, local not-for-profit animal rescue operations have a wide range of resources for pet-loving parents.

Bad Breeders

The problems that face would be pet-owners are numerous. For instance, due to an unscrupulous puppy breeder, Lee from Pompano Beach spent over $1,500 on a puppy that died quickly after the sale. Lee purchased a Teacup Yorkie puppy from a private breeder for $1,000. Within three days, the puppy became sick and Lee spent an additional $430 dollars in emergency vet care. The animal died within days and Lee later discovered that the animal breeder had a bad reputation for running a “puppy mill,” that peddles problem or sick animals to the public.

Puppy Mills

Puppy Mills are breeding operations where animals are housed in crowded quarters, with minimal care. Purebred puppies born in such overcrowded conditions often develop illnesses or behavior problems, according to animal experts. Therefore, it’s important to investigate a private breeder’s background and business. Many breeders run excellent operations, but some unsavory characters prey on pet-loving families.

In Lee’s case, the breeder refused to reimburse him for the cost of the sick puppy. But backed by Florida’s Lemon Law, which also applies to puppies, Lee is taking the breeder to small claims court. In the future, he plans to carefully research the history and the reputation of other breeders before making a purchase.

Costly Designer Mutts

Unscrupulous breeders are also selling mixed-breed dogs with cute names and high prices ($1,000 and up), according to Cherie Wachter, director of Marketing for the Humane Society of Broward County. These so-called novelty dogs include: “Labadoodles,” a cross between a Labrador and a poodle; and “schnoodles,” a mix of a schnauzer and a poodle.

“Buyer beware,” Wachter said. “Basically what you have is a mixed-breed, a mutt. There are plenty of mutts at shelters all over the country.”

Mutts and pure-bred animals are available at both shelters. For instance, the Humane Society of Greater Miami offers pets at a rate of $60 for cats and $90 for dogs, according to Melanie Otero, public relations director for that non-profit organization. Likewise, the Humane Society of Broward County charges $70 for cats, $85 for dogs and $95 for puppies. Both agencies provide a wide-range of health, identification and support services with each pet adoption.

“We have a wonderful selection of dogs and cats of every breed, size, color and shape imaginable,” said Otero from the Humane Society of Greater Miami.

Pure-Breds for Less

And surprisingly, both agencies have pure-bred animals for adoption that would cost at least $500 to $1,000 or more in the private market. Lisa, from Sunny Isles, adopted her Flame Point Himalayan cat from the Humane Society of Broward County.

In Miami-Dade, 25 percent of the animals at the Humane Society shelter are purebreds and the rate is 30 percent at the Broward shelter.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Hurricanes & Freezers in a Blackout

Hurricane season lasts from June 1 to November 1, according to Frank Lepore, public affairs officer for the National Weather Center.

“Each family and each business needs to have a plan for what they’re going to do,” Lepore said.

Unfortunately, Lepore said, too many residents postpone hurricane preparations until lines for seasonal merchandise are very long and prices are very high. Purchase canned goods, water, batteries and other hurricane-related supplies before the stores are swamped with panic buyers.

I have a friend who buys an extra gallon of water every time she goes to the store. It's important; last year after Hurricane Wilma, my apartment building did not have water or electricity for a few days. Of course, we were fortunuate compared to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. But the last storm season was a wakeup call.

A shop-now strategy enables you to take advantage of sales and weekly specials offered by different retailers. Items like water, batteries and nonperishable lunch treats are frequently sold at sharp discounts. And If you don’t have storm shutters, buy plywood now when it’s still cheap and available, Lepore said.

My supply list includes: batteries, lanterns, flashlights, canned food, battery-operated radio, banquet style warming trays with candles, foil pans and other goodies. I'll shop in stages and hide my stash from the kids,who love to use the batteries for toys.

“Know your vulnerabilities,” Lepure said.

For example, I live in a neighborhood that is very vulnerable to frequent and sustained power outages. When my daughter blows a bubble from our porch balcony, the lights go off all over Miami Beach! Hence, our storm preparations must always factor in life without electricity.

Sub-Zero Freezers and Blackouts

During storm-prone months, many consumers deliberately reduce the load on the family freezer because of the fear of power loss. But I have chatted with two appliance experts about freezers and power outages. Representatives from both companies touted the benefits of a packed freezer during a power outage.

“Generally speaking a full freezer is going to retain cold longer, with food items serving as blocks of ice that help maintain sub-zero temperatures longer,” according to an email reply from Stacie Barnett, a spokeswoman for Sub-Zero Freezer Company.

Freezer Advice from Sears

Dean Schwartz, a refrigerator buyer for Sears Holding Corp. (Kemore appliances), agrees. A packed freezer, Schwartz said, has fewer pockets of warm air.

“Keep it shut,” he said. “Humidity is a huge enemy of a freezer or a refrigerator.”

Both companies declined to comment on how long food is safe after a power outage.

“Because of so many environmental factors, we don’t note a maximum length of time that food is safe after a power outage. Rather, Sub-Zero advises homeowners know the “danger zone” for unsafe food temperature. Generally, food spoilage occurs between 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit,” Barnett wrote in her email.

“Therefore, in the event of a power outage, it is advised that consumers stick a thermometer in the freezer to assess the temperature. Keeping the door closed keeps food colder longer, but check the thermometer occasionally to assess when the “danger zone” is reached. Homeowners never want to leave food in the danger zone for more than two hours.”

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

My Plastic Bag Collection: Recycling 101

I wish American Idol had a recyling competition. Contestants would have to sing, while coming up with lots of new ways to reuse plastic bags. Voters would cast ballots for the best song and the most creative use of a plastic bag.

Actually, there are various ways to recycle and reuse plastic shopping bags. In fact, there are also creative and money saving uses for many household materials and items.

“More than 80 percent of consumers reuse plastic bags as liners for household wastebaskets, shoe totes and laundry or garment bags. They also use them to carry home wet swimsuits, towels or gym clothes, to hold recyclables or yard wastes for collection, or for a variety of other purposes," according to a statement from The Society of the Plastics Industry.

From Knee Pads to Pooper Scoopers

Likewise, the September issue of Real Simple magazine has an excellent article featuring 10 different uses for plastic grocery bags.

Garden Knee pads. Wrapped around your knees, plastic bags make great protective clothing pads for gardeners.

Paint brush covers. Secured with rubber banks, plastic bags will keep paint brushes and rollers moist when you take a break from painting chores.

Instant rain gear or umbrellas covers. Folded into a small square, a plastic bag can be toted around to provide instant cover for unexpected rain. Or bags can be used to stash wet umbrellas, thereby protecting briefcases, cars and other surfaces from dripping umbrellas.

Kitchen helpers. Peel your carrots, potatoes and other food over a plastic bag. When the chore is complete, either simply wrap and toss the scraps into the garbage or rinse and reuse the bag for your next peeling project.

Cookbook cover. Wet ingredients and messy chefs are hazardous for cookbooks. Fashion a book cover with plastic bags.

Small plastic bags also serve as wrapping paper (use colorful shades or decorate with stickers), shoe covers or even filler in planters. Stuffed into the bottom of a pot, a plastic bag will help you fill space (and save on potting soil) when the container is too deep for the plant. Don’t stuff the drainage holes. Other ways to recycle plastic bags are listed at

You can also shop with your own bags by purchasing cloth or nylon re-usable grocery bags. Store bags can also be stored from trip to trip and then re-used. Various stores sell gadgets for storing recycled bags. Real Simple recommends two: 1) A $6 Plastic Bag Recycler from or a $15 Upright Bag (stainless steel) Holder from

Empty Tissue Boxes

In my house, however, we store plastic bags in empty tissue boxes. As needed, individual bags are extracted from the boxes. With this storage method, we recycle two cast-off items: plastic bags and empty tissue boxes

We have a new dog and the plastic bags are great as pooper-scoopers.
Susan Deets, one of my Miami Herald readers, provided one of my favorite tips for creative uses for plastic bags.

“The Herald newspaper delivery bags make great shoe bags for traveling. It keeps the suitcase clean and protects the shoes as well. I use one bag per shoe,” she wrote.

Broken Arm Covers

Likewise, reader Jeane Shelden also rehabilitates plastic bags: “When I had a cast on my hand/arm I put my arm into one of the newspaper bags, slipped a rubberband around my arm and kept it dry during a shower. Worked perfectly,” Shelden wrote.

“I also use one in my kitchen sink every day for the 'wet garbage' then knot the top of it and drop it into the garbage bin. We can usually find a use for almost anything that is intended to be discarded, it just takes a little bit of thought and ingenuity.”

Formal recycling programs are available from . On that website, use your zip code to find nearby recycling centers. In my region, for example, various Publix Supermarkets and Albertsons were listed as recycling centers.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Money from the Closet

Children’s clothes, castoff suits, furniture and other items represent a potential source of funds, according to local and national experts in the consignment industry. With a prudent eye and a little time, your closets, garage and deep storage areas could yield valuable merchandise for resale at consignment stores.

“It’s almost like a second source of income,” said Lynn Rachel Garber, owner of Rachel’s Rare Finds in Cooper City.

To stock her store with a wide variety of merchandise that ranges from $10 garments to a $6,000 sable coat, Garber shops at estate sales. But most of the merchandise on display—about 90 percent—are consignment items placed in the store by families looking to earn extra dollars from designer suits (for men and women), diamonds, shirts and every-day garments.

In most cases, Garber evenly splits the proceeds of the sale with the seller. However, for more expensive items, she offers sellers a higher cut on a case-by-case basis. Nationwide, consignment stores typically pays the consignee 40 percent to 60 percent of the selling price. Other stores—called “resale shop”—will buy furniture and clothing directly from owners and then place those items for sale.

Clutter for Dollars

“It certainly is a wonderful way for people to turn their clutter into cash,” said Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale & Thrifts Shops (NARTS), an industry trade group that educates and assists consumers and retailers involved in the resale industry. “Resale is the ultimate in recycling.”

It’s a high-growth market for vendors and consumers. Nationally, there are over 20,000 second-hand shops—consignment, resale and thrift stores—in the nation and the number of outlets expands about 5 percent a year and the resale industry has become a multi-billion annual business, according to data from NARTS. Through consignment sales, mom-and-pop consumers can directly participate in that trend and clean house.

Furniture sales represent one of highest-growth segments of that market. That trend is driven by college students, young families and empty nesters(as buyers and sellers of second-hand furniture.)Other popular segments of the resale market include clothing for teens and men.

How to Consign

If you’re looking to cash into this market, here are a few NARTS suggestions for reselling merchandise through consignment and resale stores:

1) Carefully evaluate consignment/resale stores. Ask about stores policies, commissions, payment schedules and customer base.
2) Become familiar with seasonal trends in merchandise.
3) Make your look appealing. Clothing should look and smell clean. Furniture should be polished and dusted. Make small repairs to enhance the value of the item.
4) Stay in contact with the shop and keep a list of items that have been placed for consignment.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Frugal Lessons from the NBA Court

The sports world is filled with philosophy. And some of that wisdom, I've belatedly realized, applies to frugal living. Here are a few lessons from the 2005/2006 Miami Heat basketball season.

Consume less. After cutting back on fast food, a trimmer Shaquille O'Neal is highly effective on defense and offense as long as he stays out of foul trouble. Likewise, when I cut out unnecessary calories and indulgent expenses, I function better on the court of life.

Constant review. After a troubling game, Miami Heat players and coaches scrutinize game tapes in order to identify and correct problems in ball movement or shot selection. We could all benefit from reality checks. It helps to write down daily expenditures and regularly review purchases.

Patience. The naysayers -- including myself -- took a dim view of Coach Pat Riley's dramatic changes in the Heat roster before the 2005/2006 season. But recent glimpses of the stellar contributions of Jason Williams, Antoine Walker and Gary Payton have underscored the importance of planning and patience. Difficult short-term adjustments in our personal strategies can yield long-term benefits.

Focus. After 82 games in the regular season, Miami Heat players approached the playoffs with a higher level of focus. Whether trying to save money or save a game, it helps to keep the ultimate goal in the front court. I save best when I constantly remind myself of my long-term financial goals.

Beware of the backslide. Miami Heat fans are well aware of how easily double-digit gains can be squandered. It's tempting to be lulled into a false sense of security. While watching the Heat struggle to maintain a lead, I've learned to take nothing for granted and to avoid coasting on past accomplishments. ''Every possession means so much,'' Dwyane Wade is quoted as saying in a Miami Heat publication.

Think discount. Shaq -- a megawatt superstar center -- markets his brand-name shoes through Payless and he once joked about selling another product through Target. Lesson: Don't be a snob when shopping. Some discount stores have great deals.

Friday, May 05, 2006

My Straw Hat & Jessica Simpson

It was a cute straw hat from Ann Taylor Loft, with a festive bow and a flexible brim. At a very attractive sale price, I purchased the hat in two colors. The price was right and the hats were marketed as suitcase/travel friendly, with an illustrated how-to about rolling, folding and packing.

I followed the printed directions, but maybe my suitcase was packed too tight or perhaps, the baggage handlers were rough at the airport. But after a roundtrip flight to New York, my adorable hats resembled battered lampshades. I was not happy. My money seemed wasted.

Fortunately, the customer service department at Ann Taylor Loft had a solution. As a private consumer (no media credentials), I politely complained to the corporate office, where a courteous customer service representative arranged for me to exchange my travel-worn hats for newer models at an area store. My hats look great and I will pack them (unfolded) in hat boxes when I travel in the future.


Clearly, it pays to complain if your concerns are valid and honest. And don’t be shy about seeking price adjustments on merchandise that goes on sale after your original purchase. Even some celebrities and millionaires are careful shoppers.

$200 Savings for Jessica Simpson!

For instance, when Jessica Simpson was busy promoting, Dukes of Hazzard, she apparently had time to track down a price adjustment at Barneys, according to In Touch magazine. The magazine reported that Simpson requested a price adjustment when a pair of shoes she purchased at Barney’s was subsequently discounted by 40 percent. Her savings — according to In Touch — was $200.

Price Adjustment Policies

A represenstive for Jessica Simpson, could not confirm the story and referred me to Barneys. I spoke to Kimberly Oser, a New York-based spokesman for the store. Citing, customer confidentiality Oser declined to comment on the discounted shoes. However, in a subsequent email, she provided details about Barneys price adjustment policy.
“Price adjustments are given within 7 days of the original purchase date. The merchandise must be present in order to process the adjustment,” Oser wrote.

Other major retailers, ranging from Home Depot to Old Navy have similar policies. Meanwhile, many stores also have generous return and exchange policies. Based on my research, Bloomingdales and Macy’s have generous return policies. Receipts are not required, according to Lisa Kauffman, senior vice president for marketing in the Florida Division of Macy’s.

“We believe that a properly handled return is a good investment. It supports future business,” Kauffman said.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Furniture Polish: Soap & Water Work!

Spring cleaning is an annual ritual for many families. During my childhood, spring arrived with an army of detergents, mops and dusters. Likewise, as an adult, I give my home a deep cleaning as part of my annual preparation for Passover.

But I could have simplified my cleaning routine and saved money if I had first chatted with Teri Masaschi, author of the article, Maintaining a Finish, in the latest issue of Fine Woodworking, a furniture magazine. Most of the expensive products on the market lack the punch of simpler tools such as a bit of paste wax and a cloth moistened with soap and warm water, according to Masaschi, who owns a furniture and restoration business in New Mexico.

Here's the rundown on furniture polishes, sprays and oils.

Aerosol sprays and liquids. Sprays and oils, (silicone-based, emulsion blends or oil polishes) are the easiest to apply and the most popular. But if this is your favorite furniture tool, use it for cleaning not shining. And within this category, emulsion polishes -- milky blends of oil and water -- are most effective at removing grease and dust, but leave minimal shine. ''A cloth dampened in warm, soapy water cleans just as well,'' Masaschi says.

Beware of furniture oils: For the short run, petroleum or mineral-based products leave your furniture with a slick gleam. In fact, quick-sale antique dealers love this short-lived shine. But over the long-term, the oil that remains on the surface really attracts dirt and dust. ''So it's better to avoid this type of polish,'' Masaschi says.

High marks for paste wax: Fine Woodworking recommends the regular use of a dab of paste wax as protective maintenance for furniture. A thin application of paste wax provides a longer shine -- relative to oils and sprays -- and conceals minor blemishes on the surface. Masaschi recommends Briwax, Staples, Antiquax and Liberon's Black Bison. But caution, while great for protecting and polishing, paste wax is not suitable for cleaning furniture.

Microfiber cloth and water: Fine Woodworking recommends old-school, low-tech methods for maintaining furniture in between wax applications. Dust off furniture with a microfiber cloth, a nonabrasive material made from polyester and polyamide, with a strand count of 200,000 strands per square inch. Microfiber cloths can be purchased at drugstores, office supply and car-care stores and cost from $3.50 to $8. The cloths can be washed and re-used. Remove grime with a cloth dampened with soap and water.

Finding Discounts in Your Industry

Access to money-saving discounts and perks may be closer than you think.

Various industries, corporations and trade groups offer cost-cutting programs for qualified participants.

For example, veterans and teachers can earn big savings from two national programs. And there are outlets for other groups. Check out your employer's human resources office, industry trade groups or your favorite stores. A little research may uncover valuable discount programs.

Office Depot has a benefits program for teachers. Heather McGrath, a computer teacher at a local private school, provided me with a quick lesson about Office Depot's Star Teacher Program. The program gives teachers a 5 percent discount on most store products purchased for the classroom or for personal use. Additionally, teachers receive a 15 percent discount on copy and print services, according to an Office Depot representative. McGrath said that enrollment was easy and the savings were real.

And there are many other benefits. Educators in the Star Teacher Program also participate in Office Depot's ''Advantage Rewards program,'' providing quarterly rebates ranging from $20 to $50, depending on a consumer's accumulated purchases.

An Office Depot representative said the program also includes an annual ''Star Teacher Breakfast'' a complimentary breakfast gathering that includes a 10 percent discount on items purchased that day. For more information, check out:

Meanwhile, U.S. veterans can receive travel, shopping and prescription drug benefits through the Veterans Advantage Program ( or 866-838- 7392). This privately run program charges an annual enrollment of $60 and $29.90 per additional family member, but offers discounts at Continental Airlines, Amtrak, major car rental companies and other travel companies, according to founder Scott Higgins, a Vietnam veteran.

Other major corporate participants include Dell Computer, Apple Computer, Best Western Hotels, Greyhound, DHL and others. Program enrollees receive a magnetic card that is swiped for discounts at the counters of participating companies.

A prescription card plan offers discounts of up to 75 percent at more than 50,000 regional and national pharmacies, including Walgreens, Eckerd Drugs, Publix, Target, Rite Aid, Phar-Mor and Winn-Dixie.

The programs are typically cross-promoted in partnership agreements. For instance, Amtrak's website publishes details about the 15 percent discount offered to members of the Veterans Advantage Program.

But if you're not a teacher or related to a veteran, keep looking. In researching this topic, I was surprised at the various saving programs that are available. By networking with friends, co-workers and industry contacts, you may find untapped benefits.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Kids, Commericals & Stuff: Anti-Binge Spending

There's a $15 billion annual push to turn our kids into spending machines.

This item from Center for a New American Dream
contains some great tips about kids, spending, stuff and parenting.

Check this out:

"Problems and Solutions for Parenting in a Commercial Culture

Parents, meet the anti-parents: the new generation of children’s marketers. Modern children are inundated with a dizzying array of sales pitches in a variety of settings, hawking everything from electronics, to apparel to cosmetics and more. Laura Pavlides, mother of two boys in Glenwood, Maryland, says “The key to protecting her children from commercialism is by not having cable and making TV boring so they don’t think it is that great.”

$15 billion in advertising

The children’s advertising industry has swollen enormously over the past two decades. In 1983, it spent $100 million pitching products to kids, mainly through television ads. Today, it annually pours 150 times that amount—$15 billion—into a variety of mediums designed to seep into every corner of a child’s world.

And with each passing year, marketers strive to reach younger and younger audiences. In recent years, much of their attention has been focused on “tweens” between the ages of 8 and 12.

Targeting Toddlers

But advertisers are not stopping at tweens. They are stooping ever lower, making their pitches to budding consumers not yet out of diapers. According to child psychologist Allen Kanner: "The age of the children targeted is dropping rapidly." "It's about 2 years old now."

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that this relentless assault on their psyches is not good for children. New research suggests that aggressive marketing to kids contributes not only to excessive materialism, but also to a host of psychological and behavioral problems, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, childhood obesity, eating disorders, increased violence, and family stress.

What Are Some Steps Parents Can Take to Protect Kids from Harmful Advertisers?

- Television: Turn off the TV, or restrict TV time or content to programs with no commercials.

- Computer: Set limits on total screen time. Know where your kids are surfing and block inappropriate sites. Avoid unmonitored computer time for young children.

- Establish alternatives: According to a Center for a New American Dream poll, 69 percent of children ages 9-14 actually wish they could spend more time with their parents. The families who are most successful in keeping the corporate culture at bay find ways to spend time together away from the tube.

- Debunk advertising: Make a game out of dissecting commercials with your children, helping them to identify what is being sold and how they are being manipulated.

- Know your stuff: Teach your kids to be conscious consumers—to know where stuff comes from and know where it goes.

- Seek power in numbers: Talk to other parents in your school or social group as a support network. Work with other parents to stop commercialism in your schools and communities.

- Rediscover nature: Get outside. Teach your child about the connections within the natural world. Encourage kids to be physically active.

To download a free copy of the “Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture” visit"

Saving on Tolls

Traveling to Disney for family vacations and Thanksgiving family gatherings with relatives in Central Florida, I have looked around the highway with envy as SunPass card holders zip through designated pre-paid lanes, while we've been stuck in slow-moving toll plazas. My sister, who lives and works in Central Florida, especially appreciates the convenience of a SunPass in a region where the roads are clogged with tourists.

A SunPass works like a pre-paid phone card under a program operated by the Florida Department of Transportation. As a prepaid toll card, the SunPass is valid at toll plazas and turnpike exits throughout the state. What's more, SunPass customers can now use the pre-paid card to pay for parking at Orlando International Airport. The program is expected to expand to other major airports in Florida.

It also saves time as SunPass lanes are faster moving than other lanes at toll booths. Additionally, Sun Pass holders typically pay 25 cents less than cash customers at toll plazas. A friend of mine--Lynn Friedman gave her elderly father a SunPass last year as a Father's Day present. With a SunPass, her dad doesn't have to fumble for change on toll roads and Lynn has linked his SunPass to her credit card and automatically re-fuels the card when the balance gets low.

Different types of pre-paid toll cards for bridges and roads are available throughout the country.

Here's a list from Wikipedia

* C-Pass in Key Biscayne, Florida
* Cruise Card in Atlanta, Georgia
* E-PASS in Orlando, Florida (connects with SunPass)
* EXpressToll in Colorado
* E-ZPass in the U.S. Northeast
* Fast Lane in Massachusetts (Interoperable with E-ZPass)
* Fastrak in California
* I-Pass in Illinois (Interoperable with E-ZPass)
* K-Tag in Kansas
* LeeWay in Lee County, Florida (Interoperable with SunPass)
* E-ZPass in Maine (Interoperable with E-ZPass)
* MnPass in Minnesota
* O-PASS in Osceola County, Florida (Interoperable with SunPass)
* PalmettoPass in South Carolina
* Pikepass in Oklahoma
* Smart Tag in Virginia (Interoperable with E-ZPass)
* SunPass in Florida
* TollTag in Texas (Interoperable with TxTAG)
* EZ TAG in Texas (Interoperable with TxTAG)
* TxTAG in Texas

There's also a program in the New York metro area.
The savings adds up. For example, a cash-paying driver traveling from Sunrise Boulevard in Broward County to the Disney World exit on the turnpike would pay $15.70 in tolls. For that same trip, a SunPass holder pays $12.40, for a round-trip savings of $6.60.

Those figures don't include the intangible cost of time and gas consumed while idling in long toll lines.

SunPass toll cards are sold at Publix and CVS. The program includes an ''auto-replenishment'' option, in which your credit card is periodically billed when the balance of your card diminishes. You must pay a minimum of $25 to open a SunPass account, along with a one-time fee of $25 for the ''transponder'' device, which is attached to your windshield and enables your car to electronically communicate with the toll gate. As you pass through a toll plaza, the fare is electronically deducted from the balance on your Sun Pass.

''SunPass customers pay less than cash customers because the SunPass PrePaid Toll Program is a more efficient method of collecting tolls,'' according to a statement from the prepaid program.

For business travelers and employees on company errands, the program provides free access to monthly activity statements. By logging onto your online account at, you can download and print your toll activity statement for no extra fee.

There are, however, additional fees if you or your business ask for mailed hard copies of your toll activities.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Used Car, Cheap Playoff TKTS & Miami Heat

In some ways, we owe our family (used!) car to Game 2 of the NBA playoff between the Chicago Bulls and my beloved Miami Heat.

Here's the background: Our family car (a '94 Dodge Caravan) was smashed up in a recent car accident. Some driver ran a red, rammed into my husband and bam! Fortunately, my husband was fine, but the car was not. We were car-less in Miami.

Miami Heat Game: I refused to feel depressed about the loss of our car and decided to check out the cheap tickets for the Miami Heat Playoff game at American Airlines Arena.
The morning before Game 2 (Apr. 24), I purchased five standing room tickets for $12 each.

But we only needed three tickets because my second-grade daughter wanted to see Ice Age: The Meltdown instead. So she and my husband were off to the movies.

Extra Ticket Give-aways: So what to do with the two extra tickets. Scalp? Sell at face value? or Give away?

Bring-A-Friend along: I decided to let each of my boys ask a friend. BINGO!!! Both of our guests were delighted. It was the birthday of one our guests (we found out later) and the mother/father of the second guest shuttled us back and forth to the arena. Free shuttle service!

Car connection. What's more, the parents of our second guest (a fine young man also!) provided us with a tip on an affordable used car at a great price in excellent condition!!!

No-Longer-Carless in Miami: Wow! We picked up the van yesterday. Works great, looks fine. Our mechanic also blessed the car.

So morale of the story:

1) Buy cheap tickets to a Miami Heat game
2) Bring along friends
3) Share your car woes
4) Hope for the best
5) & Enjoy the game

And now, we're hoping to pull ahead of the series tonight. The refs have been terrible. There have been so many unfair calls against Shaq. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls have been playing with a lot of heart.

But my heart is with the Heat!!! Let's go Miami Heat. I'll be watching tonight and in fact I'm leaving now, hoping to buy more $12 playoff tickets.

Watch out for Medical Bill Mistakes!

My parents — retirees on Space Coast of Florida — have become especially vigilant about scrutinizing medical bills after spotting errors on a hospital bill a few years ago. While they were grateful for the excellent care, my folks were less than thrilled about questionable charges for phantom treatments.

“We successfully challenged the charges and they took it off,” my mother said. “You can go directly to the billing department and ask for an itemized bill.”

Annually, consumers and insurance companies are hit by about $54 billion in either fraudulent or illegal medical charges, according to the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association (NHCAA), a nonprofit foundation. And while medical scams account for a large percentage of those charges, billing errors also contribute to the toll. Erroneous charges — including genuine mistakes — are often veiled by complex billing codes and undecipherable medical terms.

Some billing errors seem absurd. For example,, a South Florida-based independent research company — reports that billing errors have included $129 for a “mucous recovery system,” also known as a box of tissues.

That fiscal care is recommended by the experts at and NHCAA. Here is a rundown of other steps that you can take to safeguard your financial health.

Know your benefits. Closely review health care documents and track the paperwork from your insurance carrier, physician and hospital. Read every “Explanation of Benefits” statement, which provides a rundown of billing charges. Report any discrepancies to your insurance carrier and to the hospital.

Scrutinize “free” medical services. Although many community groups and non-profit organizations offer legitimate free medical screenings — blood pressure, vision, cholesterol test — there are also fraudulent operations that use so-called free services to gain access to your personal data, including your insurance information.

Safeguard your health insurance card. Treat it like a credit card. “In the wrong hands, a health insurance card is a license to steal,” according to the NHCAA.

Establish a medical log. Your records should include a list of tests, procedures, treatments and medications. recommends that you ask a relative or friend to do the record-keeping if necessary. Those notes will be helpful if you need to challenge hospital charges.

Bring your own prescriptions. If you will be taking everyday maintenance medicine (for high-blood pressure or diabetes) while in the hospital, you’ll save a bundle by bringing your own. Check with your doctor.

Don’t be shy. Call the hospital or office billing department for a full explanation of confusing, questionable or obscure charges.

Also if you don't have medical insurance, there are options for getting discounts for prescription drugs. This post is helpful:
Cheap Drugs

AAA (Triple A, the automotive club) also has a prescription drug discount program for its members.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Gourmet Muffins and My Frugal Diet

I love muffins and part of my daily routine includes picking up a tasty corn muffin from a little café near my home. Of course, anyone watching my daily trek to the muffin shop might wonder about my commitment to thrift. Shouldn’t that muffin money be saved?

But here’s my secret: I believe in living well. I believe in delicious corn muffins. I love luxurious spas. And I love spending money on the things and people I enjoy. I just don’t believe in wasting limited resources (time, money and the environment). Quite simply: I’m frugal, not cheap.

The differences between the terms thrifty, cheap, and frugal and other tightwad words represent more than just word play. Just ask Bob Collins, a reader who recently asked me to define my terms. He recently debated the topic of thrift with a group of his friends, who are in their late sixties.

“One of my friends said that a ‘cheap’ person is someone who is stingy and will only go ‘third’ class, whether it be clothes, vacations, restaurants, cars, etc.,” Collins wrote in a recent email. “Another friend says that a frugal person will live a "quality" life BUT only when it goes on sale…They will go to a fine restaurant, BUT only for the early bird. They will go to the latest show BUT sit in the balcony with binoculars….There is no right or wrong. I just want to know you thought of the difference, if any between Frugal and Cheap.”

Coincidentally, his questions about the subtle differences in the layers of thrift were on the menu last week when I picked up my daily muffin. The owners of the muffin café, Harry and Linda, were asking me about my next column. But as I fumbled to come up with a cute answer, Linda shook her head and bemoaned her expensive tastes. Without fail—even at a sale rack—she inevitably targets the most expensive item on display.

To her surprise I empathized. Faced with a red-ticket rack of skirts, I will — without looking at the price tag — usually select the triple-digit garment ($150 and up), while bypassing the $19 bargains. Linda, the fashionable, muffin lady, nodded.

“So what do you do?” she asked.

“I save up for the things I really want and cut back on other things.”

For instance, I’ll buy the muffin — but I’ll make French press gourmet coffee at home. I’ll purchase the expensive skirt — ideally at a deep discount — but I’ll cutback on the use of our central air conditioner when I’m home alone. Other frugal people, as Bob Collins pointed out, will wash out baggies or recycle plastic cutlery. It’s all about choice and values. And I’ll choice muffins everyday. What’s your definition of thrift?

Kenneth Galbraith: A Tribute to Frugal Voice

John Kenneth Galbraith, a leading economist who passed away on April 30, clearly believed in frugal choices. We're obsessed with consumiing so much, he wrote in 1958 in his book "The Affluent Society."

Here is a quote from the obit that appeared in the New York Times:

"The Affluent Society" appeared in 1958, making Mr. Galbraith known around the world. In it, he depicted a consumer culture gone wild, rich in goods but poor in the social services that make for community. He argued that America had become so obsessed with overproducing consumer goods that it had increased the perils of both inflation and recession by creating an artificial demand for frivolous or useless products, by encouraging overextension of consumer credit and by emphasizing the private sector at the expense of the public sector.

Here is a link to the full article.