Monday, March 30, 2009

My Automotive History

Today's the day I've been waiting for. General Motors has a really good chance of going bankrupt. Not that I want GM to go bankrupt. Quite the contrary, but you see, I have this history.

My first new car was a Fiat. A 1980 Fiat Strada in a lovely copper color. It was a comfortable, beautifully designed car. Those Italians know how to design a car. Unfortunately they don't really know how to build them. I credit that car with teaching me much of what I know about cars and how to fix their problems. That car wouldn't start if it was below 10 degrees or above 90. Or if it was raining. If the engine got wet you'd have to open the choke and stick a screwdriver in the carbureator the spray all the spark plug wires with WD40 and maybe it would start. Things regularly fell off of it for no apparent reason. Little things like the knobs on the radio and the rubber cover on the gas pedal and big things like the windsheild wiper that flew across six lanes of traffic on Lake Shore Drive and impaled a squirrel on a tree.

The car came with a handy tool kit which was nice because everything was metric and American tools wouldn't work on it. I also had to pay twice as much for an olio filtre than I would have for an ordinary oil filter. But most of all it started a trend for me. Within a couple of months of buying the car, the dealership went out of business and then about a year later Fiat stopped selling cars in North America.

I think I kept the car until 1985 or 1986 when I traded it in for another European wonder--a Renault. The Renault was not as bad as the Fiat but a few months after buying it the dealer went out of business and within a couple of years Renault stopped selling cars in North America.

In 1992 I bought a Geo Tracker which was sold as a GM car but was actually made by Suzuki in Canada. Nothing happened. In fact, at that point I started leasing cars and had a steady stream of GM cars that gave me very little trouble.

But in the back of my mind I always figured something terrible would eventually happen to GM. But what could happen? Back then they were the biggest company in America and the biggest car manufacturer in the world. But slowly it started to erode. Exxon Mobil took over the biggest company in America and Toyota eventually sold more cars. But GM? C'mon.

My current GM car is a Chevy Trailblazer which I love dearly. It's comfortable and I feel safe driving it. I've taken many long solo driving trips in it. I carried in it all the furniture I bought for the club from the Ikea store in Phoenix and the five computers I brought home from California.

I think the dealership where I bought it is still in business--Sharp Chevrolet on Golf Road in Skokie but the big one, of course is GM going out of business. I hope it doesn't happen. I hope they can get it together and build cars that people want to buy.

In the meantime...I see Chrysler is merging with Fiat. Good luck with that one.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

This Guy Got It Way Back When

Click here

The above link will take you to an article published in the New York Times in November of 1999. It will probably ring a bell when I tell you it is when Congress and then President Clinton signed the bill that repealed the Glass-Steagall bill. Still not coming to you? Well to refresh your memory, the Glass-Steagall bill was originally passed in the thirties and it separated the banks, brokerage houses, real estate companies and insurance companies so that if your entity is doing business in one of those areas, you can't do business in another. allowed Citibank to buy Travelers Insurance and become Citygroup. It allowed Washington Mutual and Countrywide to become banks and AIG to be able to bundle now toxic assets into derivitives and generally to take all regulations off of the financial industry somehow never thinking that human nature (i.e. greed) would never enter into it.

Well, one guy...Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota thought this was a bad idea and this is the quote from that article that stands out:

'"I think we will look back in 10 years' time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that that which is true in the 1930's is true in 2010,'' said Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota. "'I wasn't around during the 1930's or the debate over Glass-Steagall. But I was here in the early 1980's when it was decided to allow the expansion of savings and loans. We have now decided in the name of modernization to forget the lessons of the past, of safety and of soundness.'"

Ten years' time? Well that would be now, wouldn't it?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Toying with a New Idea

I've been doing a lot of cooking and baking and have been trying to think of ways I could turn this into a business. The picture above is my batch of oddly shaped sugar-free butter cookies made with Splenda. They're not as sweet as regular butter cookies but they're pretty good. They're just oddly shaped because when I rolled the dough into a log and put it into the fridge to set it sort of settled and got flat on the bottom.

Anyway, while watching the Food Network I saw these two ladies in Austin, Texas who call themselves the Casserole Queens. They produce large (for four) and small (for two) casseroles and deliver them to people. I was thinking about the same thing with some of my depression-era cooking but instead of delivering them, selling them from a booth at the Farmer's Market. It only costs a couple of bucks to rent a space at the Market but I do need to go down to one of the city offices to get their rules and regs for selling food. I need to find out about liability and what I need to do about food safety.

I also need to have provisions for hot and cold. Cold is easy...the market is only open for four hours so the casseroles will hold easily in a cooler. I would also like hot so I could hand out samples. That's a little trickier since there's no access to electricity. But I'm working on it.

You've probably seen all the publicity on the so called "victory gardens" that everyone seems to be planting (even our first lady). I'm not very good at growing vegetables especially here in New Mexico where the hot sun can easily fry the plants. I've always found it's cheaper to buy tomatoes than to grow them...or better yet...find a friend who's good at growing them and wait for them to offer.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Eating Well on a Budget

One of the hardest things to maintain as a poor person is a healthy diet. I have a Facebook group dedicated to depression style cooking which generally involves a lot of starch to make the recipe go further. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there cooking like that.

I think the secret to eating healthy on a budget is to watch the supermarket sales. Buy what's on sale then devise recipes from that. Granted it takes a good sense of food (what goes with what) and nutrition (how to balance a meal) but you can also go to the Food Network website and enter the name of your sale item into the search box. Typing "chicken" into the search box will return 7298 recipes. They have good tools for paring down that search to get a manageable number to browse but the point is that if you can get a whole chicken for $3.50 as I can this week, it's worth the time and effort to find out how to cook it.

I am not yet receiving food stamps (too much in my savings account) but if I did it would give me $176 a month to spend on food. In April I plan to try that as an experiment and see if I can survive on $176 food budget including eating out.

Speaking of eating out, the photo with this post is the new Smartchoice grilled salmon from Long John Silver. It's only $4.99 and there's a coupon offer on their website to get a dollar off. This is two meals for me and even though it's a tad overcooked it's still pretty good.

Here are some of my tips for smarter grocery shopping

Buy chickens whole and cut them up yourself. The more the store does to chicken (i.e. boneless, skinless chicken breasts) the more it will cost you. Save the giblets, back, neck and wings for the stockpot. They make a great soup.

Buy store brands. Over the years I've found very little difference between store brands and name brands aside from the price. If you look in my pantry you will find Albertsons Crispy Rice and Great Value bran flakes instead of Kelloggs rice krispies and all bran.

Go with the season. As Easter nears eggs go on sale and they're very versatile for breakfast, lunch, dinner or baking. Know the seasons for fruits and vegetables and shop accordingly. Better yet, if you have a farmers' market in your area check it out. It's going to be cheaper and the produce will be better.

Bake from scratch. I make my own bread for about a dollar a loaf compared to over three dollars in the grocery store. Cookies can be made cheaply too if you find sales on flour, sugar, butter and eggs.

Drink water. It's cheaper and better for you than soda or fruit drinks.

So happy, healthy and most of all budget conscious eating.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Welcome to the Ranks of the Newly Poor

I was having a conversation the other day about the fact that I heard the Smashing Pumpkins' song Today on a Visa commercial. I said I had gotten used to hearing the Beatles songs in commercial because they no longer owned the publishing rights. Michael Jackson bought the entire catalog around 20 years ago and it's probably one of his main sources of income. I didn't think, however that the Pumpkins would sell out. My friend said Billy Corgan (leader of the Pumpkins) can't seem to find his musical compass these days and therefore probably decided to cash in for the cash.

I can totally understand that. No need to be self-righteous when you're poor.

So I was thinking what with the Bernie Madoff scandal and all, there are probably a lot of newly poor who many be selling off some assets. I found the list of Madoff's victims on the Wall Street Journal website and perhaps I can help them list a few things on Ebay if they want.

Steven Speilberg must have tons of movie props to auction off. I personally wouldn't pay a nickel for that creepy ET costume but I'm sure someone would.

Leonard Feinstein, co-founder of Bed, Bath and Beyond, if you're reading I'm sorry I didn't buy those towels to match my shower curtain so if you still have any, I'll take a couple off your hands.

Kevin Bacon will now (for a small price) come to your house and do his Footloose routines.

Zsa Zsa Gabor...I don't think she has anything anyone would want anymore.

Sandy know this is where I draw the line. You can scam Larry King and Phyllis George and Jeffrey Katzenberg and Marc Rich and everyone else on that list, but when you cheat one of baseball's greats...this is the crime of the century.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Watch out for the Scammers

If it sounds too good to be true then it probably is.

I'm hearing stories on the news of the scam artists who are coming out to grab the last dollars out of the hands of people who still have them.

Its always amazed me that people would fall for the old 419 scam. That's the one with the exiled Nigerian statesman (or prince or widow or something like that) who promises you millions if you would just deposit a couple of hundred thousand to tide him over until he can get at the money. I'm still getting them every so often. If they're still out there then they must be working. 60 minutes even did a piece on it several years ago.

Now I guess unscrupulous people are sending out official looking messages under an IRS letterhead asking for personal information and promising early large tax refunds.

And speaking of scam artists...Bernie Madoff is going to jail. Yay!

On a positive SeniorTech business is coming along. I'm getting calls off the flyer at the senior center and now that I've got my printer working again I can send out my mailing. Still no word from the woman at the senior center about the classes but I remain hopeful.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Quote to Follow Yesterday

"I do want to get rich...I just don't want to do what it takes to get rich."

Gertrude Stein

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Weekend At Bernies

Most poor people today are angry at all the news coming out of Washington and Wall Street and Detroit. Fancy retreats, private jets and million dollar bonuses don't go over well with people wondering if they're going to make the rent this month. I've looked at all these instances and mostly just shake my head and say "these people don't get it." People like the heads of Citigroup, Lehman, AIG or General Motors have never had to scrimp and save and scrounge. Same thing with many in Congress with their chorus of "let the market run it's cost." These same people have no idea what it's like to have a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan.

What it boils down to is that the people who cause these problems usually don't have to experience the consequences. They deal in economic and political theory and in the meantime still get to have breakfast with their families every morning and live their lush lives.

Which is why I, a bona fide poor person wish for the worst for Bernie Madoff.

He is working out a plea deal and thus has remained out of prison and in the luxury of his penthouse apartment. His wife went to the judge and asked if she could keep what she feels is "hers" in their relationship. Neither of them seem to grasp the fact that he did an enormous amount of damage to a lot of people who lost their life savings. All they seem to care about is saving themselves.

As most people know by now the most heinous thing he did was swindle the funds out of the Elie Weisel Foundation. Weisel, a well-known Holocaust survivor heads a foundation to fight intolerance and injustice throughout the world. Almost all of their assets valued at over 15 million dollars was lost to Madoff's greed.

It is beyond my comprehension that someone would do that in the first place and even more dumbounded that he is being given such preferential treatment. The fact that he will be given 150 years in prison even after the plea deal is little comfort every day he goes back to his penthouse.

So Mr. Madoff, don't be surprise that 99% of the world bears ill will toward you. Maybe something really terrible will happen to you this weekend. Maybe the cable will go out or you'll run out of Grey Poupon.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Our First Guest Blogger

I've been asking for contributions by anyone who wants to talk about how this great recession affects them personally.

So here, blogging about what it's like to buy a house and get a mortgage in these tough times is Pamela B.

Hi all! I am writing this as a guest blogger (my first official blog anywhere) on Karen’s site :> Let me give you some brief background to set the scene. I’m a 38 year old working as an Office Manager in Southern California. My husband is 43 and we are dealing with him being let go from CBS in October 2008. We have been renters all our lives and have now decided to take the leap into actually buying a townhouse. The fact that Ernie is out of work is scary but our mortgage will equal what we are paying in rent so we feel we might as well do it.

The townhouse we are looking to buy is listed at $285K, down from the $430K that the owners paid for it in 2007. Yes, that is scary indeed when townhouses were almost half a million dollars. Ernie and I were locked into a lease in 2007 but even if we weren’t we were not comfortable paying that much for a townhouse. We stayed put and bided our time. When things dropped we began to look around and were moments away from leaving to an appointment with a mortgage broker when CBS called to let Ernie go. We were devastated! We put our plans on the back burner and pretty much wrote it off.

Towards the end of February 2009, my sister-in-law (also living with us as a renter) forwarded me a link to a unit up in our complex and after looking at the unit it we felt it would work out for us so we got the ball rolling. Believe it or not, we didn’t have any problem getting qualified for a home loan (350K to be exact). We did not use a realtor since we know the area and know what we wanted. We went directly to a broker who was able to get us a loan no problem. I really thought that with Ernie being out of work we would be denied and really even laughed at but it wasn’t an issue. We have amazing credit (with both of us having scores in the 800’s) and were able to show a good source of income from when Ernie had been working so it was no problem. Since we are first time home buyers we got a FHA loan with a 5 % interest rate. Because of the FHA loan we only have to put 5% down on the townhouse. We have enough saved to put down 10% but the difference in the monthly payment was only about $60 so we decided to keep with 5%. If we did put 10% we could get a regular loan and not deal with a FHA loan but our interest rate would not be as good, causing our monthly payments to be higher than what we want. Going with the FHA loan was the best way to go. However, because it’s an FHA loan we have to do a few things we wouldn’t be required to if we were going with a regular loan. We have to have the townhouse appraised. The FHA wants to make sure we aren’t overpaying for the townhouse. We have to have the HOA/Condo Board certified which will show if the funds for repairs are there or if they are over extended. All these things cost money and we need to have the unit inspected as well. Basically, we will be spending about $1000 to get these things taken care of. The risk to us is that the bank has only given us 10 days to do these things and that’s not enough time. Usually buyers have anywhere from 17 days or more but short sales are different. We therefore have to start the process sooner. Even if our offer is accepted there is still the risk that the bank can back out of it. Meaning we could be out the money for the inspection/appraiser/certification process.

As we stand now on the 6th of March is that the bank has indeed accepted our bid of $268K with closing costs paid by them up to 6%. We now begin the process of getting the Certification and the Appraisal done. If all goes well we will be in a townhouse in about 60 days but there are a lot things that can blow it (i.e. our inspection shows something we can’t financially fix or the bank at the end backs out of the agreement). Keep your fingers and toes crossed that all goes well :>

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Proposal for the Senior Center

Friday I had one of those serendipitous events that sets your head spinning. Normally I embrace such events since I am a great believer in fate and destiny and deja vu and all that stuff. However, my last date with destiny did not turn out so well. So I'm approaching this one with caution not wanting to jinx it.

My cousin Brian and I have this thing about jinxing. Anytime we are having one of our betting competitions (baseball, football, Project Runway, whatever) we try to jinx each other by wishing each other luck. You are never allowed to get too confident about your own picks or you will jinx yourself and you never want to do that.

But serendipity makes me feel good so I was kind of walking around with a smile on Friday afternoon. I did resist the temptation to spend money on a pizza and ate the last of my depression food of the week which was made from scratch mac and cheese with tuna chunks in it. I don't need no stinkin' box to make mac and cheese even though I do think they had it during the depression. But more on depression style cooking in another post.

So here's what happened. It could be one small step for Karen, one giant leap for SeniorTech.

After getting busted at the grocery store for handing out flyers, I had to think of other places to do my marketing. I hung a flyer at the Burger Nook (and had a burger) and then headed over to the senior center. I asked the receptionist if I could leave a pile of flyers. She said no but I could put one on their bulletin board. Then I asked her if I could talk to the person in charge of scheduling their classes. I thought I'd build a little good will by volunteering to teach a couple of computer classes.

I had to wait to see the programs manager but when I finally did and told her who I was and what I did she was very excited. It seems that she is fairly new in the job (less than a year) and one of her priorities was to bring technology to the seniors. At the beginning of the year she got her new budget and was currently in the process of upgrading the computer labs at all four locations. She also said that they were currently using university students to teach the classes because they needed to do 20 hours of community service to graduate. The seniors weren't entirely comfortable with the students because they weren't very good at translating geekspeek into plain English or Spanish. If the seniors did get comfortable it didn't matter because after 20 hours they were gone.

So we had a lovely conversation and she invited me to submit a proposal for how many hours I would like to work and how much I would charge and exactly what kind of classes I would teach. I'm thinking very basic stuff like e-mail, using Google or selling and buying on Ebay. Digital photography is a big topic now and of course some people just want Windows 101 with things like cutting and pasting and keyboard shortcuts...and even something simple as using a mouse.

I told her I would have a proposal to her by next week and I will keep all you faithful blog readers apprised of my progress.

Friday, March 6, 2009

My Plea for a Bailout

As part of my background information I thought I would upload my plea for a bailout that I recorded onto a video and sent to CNN. They approved it for play on TV but to my knowledge it never aired. It did get 252 hits on the CNN website.

I never did mail in the TARP application and I couldn't take it to Washington personally because my private jet was in the shop.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The WalMart Dilemna

When you are poor you become very familiar with WalMart.

It is Mecca, the Emerald City. The Shining Beacon on the hill. You are drawn to it and if you are to survive you must heed the call.

I hate WalMart.

My entire life in Chicago when I was making good money I managed to avoid WalMart. I did my discount shopping at "Tar-jhay" and that was as low as I would go thank you very much. Groceries were bought at Whole Foods where I could browse the olive bar and much samples of orange cranberry scones as I shopped. Electronics came from Best Buy, pads of paper and ink cartriges came from Office Max and clothes? Well they came from Nordstrom, Fields and J.Jill. The shopping choices were lush and with an American Express Gold Card and the cash to back it up at the end of the month, I tell you the living was easy.

Now everything (and I do mean everything) comes from WalMart.

It's become a Sunday morning pilgrimage. Why Sunday morning? Because in a quiet, religious town like Las Cruces, Sunday morning is the only reasonable time to shop there. Any other time of the week there are too many people, too many kids, too many carts blocking the aisles and too much noise.

Upon entering and taking a cart from the greeter I usually turn to the left and head for the grocery section. Our WalMart is a Supercenter so they have a full grocery department. And that is the root of why I feel compelled to shop there. Their prices are ridiculously low. Much lower than the regular grocery store. The same goes for "drugstore" items like toothpaste and Tylenol. Name brands are lower in price and if you opt for Great Value or Equate, the WalMart house brands you will really save money.

I know how they do it. CNBC had a great two-hour documentary on WalMart a few years ago. They use their size and reputation as leverage to force suppliers to give them huge discounts at the wholesale level. They're paying a lot less for that pallette of Tide than your neighborhood grocery store is. They are a lean, mean discounting machine and they are famous for wiping out every small company in its way. People who've lived here a while say they used to have several grocery stores from which to choose. Now only Albertsons hangs on to challenge them.

Now there are some items that WalMart doesn't carry that I can get at Albertsons but they are mostly expensive specialty items and I've pretty much cut them out of my diet like any good poor person would. Also, I refuse to buy meat there. They carry the lowest quality available for human consumption and that is where I draw the line. I'd rather eat less meat which is what I am doing.

Back inside the store I do my grocery shopping first. The produce is so so but no better or worse than Albertsons. We have a farmers market on Wednesdays and Saturdays but it's more crafts and chile peppers than anything else. So I may buy some fresh fruits and vegetables but only if I'm sure I'm going to use them right away. With the small amounts that I eat I'm better off with frozen veggies and these days they're just as nutritionally sound as fresh.

I avoid the bakery and the deli. The bakery has strange oversweetened pastries with bright pink and turquoise icing and forget about buying bagels. The closest decent bagel is at a deli I found in Truth or Consequences NM and that's about 75 miles away.

So I buy my basics. Pasta, cheese, eggs, cereal, ridiculously low prices.

And then it's time to peruse the rest of the store.

You should know that there are very few things you can't get at WalMart. This is one of the things that makes it so appealing. One stop shopping. So I start walking around the store and into the cart with the peanut butter and the Cheerios go things like a ream of printer paper, a mixing bowl, a couple of garden plants and a yellow hoodie.

Yes it's come to that. I'll admit it. I have bought clothing at WalMart. I got a pair of jeans there about a year ago and I love them. It's my little inside joke when I wear them with my expensive Sigrid Olsen sweaters (from better times). They cost me $15. Before I went on my cruise I found a pair of plain black flats for $10 that I spruced up with some rhinestone shoe clips I bought on Ebay.

So as much as it goes against my social consience to shop there, it has become a necessity in order to preserve what little money I have to live on.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Jon Stewart totally Skewers the Economy

Check out Wednesday night's Daily Show. I think you can find it on the Daily show website. The whole show is about the economy and takes real swipes at CNBC. It's really funny and very appropriate.

As for me, I wanted to hand out flyers for Senior Tech since it was senior day at the grocery store, but they busted me and I couldn't do it. I'm going to look for community bulletin boards.

Oh and I just heard Terrell Owens was laid off by the Dallas Cowboys. I'm telling you it's rough out there.

More Background

I must say that if you're going to be a poor person, Las Cruces is a good place to be. The cost of living is way lower than most cities and while I admit that we're lacking in a few amenities, the internet allows me reasonable access to the rest of the world. Twenty years ago, even ten years ago I wouldn't be able to live here. I wouldn't be able to frugally keep in touch with friends and family not to mention keeping up with my Cubs, being able to buy obscure books, music and movies and finding like minded people to hang with.

And of course there's the weather. I might have a little trouble managing the electric bill when we get into those 100 degree days in June but my heating bills have been reasonable and there's something very mood lifting about being able to drive around with your sunroof open in February.

With the demise of my fitness club my primary task is to find a way to make money. Looking for a real job and getting back into the IT rat race is not very appealing. However, in this economy you must make maximum use of your skills and if your skills are in IT, you're going to be working in IT.

I decided to put a new twist on it. I did enjoy working with the over 50 crowd who came to the club and ever since 1994 when my dad (who was 80 at the time) came to me and said he wanted to get a computer. I learned how to translate geekspeak into plain English and most of all, I'm very patient.

So I started SeniorTech offering tech support and most of all instruction to people over 50. Seniors learn better one on one rather than in classes and I help them with things they don't teach in those classes like how to do Google searches or sell something on Ebay. They're all getting digital cameras now with no idea how to use them.

Early next week I will have a mailing to send out to my mailing list from my club. I have a few clients already and word is spreading. Also, today is Senior Discount Day at the grocery store so I'm going there this afternoon to hand out flyers.

Obviously it would be great if SeniorTech could support me completely but I have a feeling it won't, at least at the beginning so I'm also looking for a part time job, preferably one where I don't have to wear a paper hat. I've got feelers out there for all sorts of jobs from freelance writing to working at the Hobby Lobby. We will see what happens on that front.

So through this blog I will be reporting on these and all the issues that affect poor people like grocery and gas prices, healthcare, further education and politics.

Stay tuned for more.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Lets Start with the Background

It is the 3rd of March, 2009. My business has been closed for two months now.

I'm going to give a synopsis of what happened in the first two months of the year.

January was awful. I tried to save my club and save money getting released from my lease by handing it over to a woman who said she would run it as an independent club and assume the rest of my lease in exchange for the equipment and furniture. She turned out to be a bit of a looney tune and backed out at the very last minute. I ended up having to settle with my landlord for cash and assets to avoid bankruptcy, liens, courts and all that bad stuff.

I could see their side because the same economy that knocked out my business would make it difficult for them to re-let the space. On the other hand they knew that basically I had nothing for them to sue me for and so any "bird in the hand" offer would be better than a lengthy court battle. I didn't want to take any chances since I do own property in Chicago with my cousin and couldn't risk them being able to seize that property.

To make a long story short, I am now freed of my business obligations and about to start a new life. But before I could start something new I needed to decompress and get rid of the stress and anxiety from the last few months.

So I promised myself a vacation. I took three weeks..longer than I've ever taken to travel and tried to leave all my worries behind. I drove to LA, got on a cruise ship to Hawaii, came back to LA and spent some time with my sister. Then I stopped in Arizona to see my beloved Cubs at spring training.

Now that I'm home I have some plans to support myself and decided to keep this record of my attempts to run a home-based business, maybe get a part time job and live like a poor person until I get back on my feet economically.

Unlike Rush Limbaugh, I hope that President Obama succeeds wildly with his economic recovery plan. It may be too late for my business but it would definitely help others.