Monday, September 22, 2014

Texas Property Taxes are High ... and Due Soon

Water bird at the edge of a pond
Yellow Crowned Night Heron at the Park in Temple, Texas

Texas Property Taxes are Assessed in October

You may think of Halloween in October, but in Texas, we know that’s property tax notice month. Texas homeowners get a notice in the mail to pay property taxes by October 31 to avoid penalties -- or get a discount, however you read the notice. 

You already know that everything is bigger in Texas, and that includes property taxes. According to, the median property tax in Texas is $2,275 on the home value of $125,800. You’d think with all that farmland, Texas could make enough revenue taxing ranches and leave the homeowners with a postage-stamp square of land a little money to live on. It’s not to be, and property taxes, even with a homeowner’s exemption, will probably cost you $200 a month in Texas.

You may pay your Texas property taxes with your house payment each month as part of the escrow, or you may pay the taxes separately once a year, directly to the Tax Appraisal District for your county. 

If you’re paying with your house payment, you may not be getting all the exemptions available to you. There are a few exemptions allowed under Texas property laws.

Check your tax notice to see the appraised value of your house. If you don’t believe your house will sell for the amount of the appraisal, contact the local tax appraiser and ask questions. Compare the value of your home with similar homes in the neighborhood. The appraisal information is available online at official websites in Texas, but estimated values are also available through websites like Trulia and Homesnap. If your local appraiser doesn’t value your home based on similar homes in the neighborhood, complete the forms and request a hearing. You can contest the value. Here’s how it works.
See if you have a homestead exemption. If you live in the home and meet the qualifications, you can claim a homestead exemption and reduce some of your taxes. If your tax notice doesn’t show a homestead exemption, call the Tax Appraisal District and ask. Complete the homestead exemption forms and save a copy for yourself before you send them to the tax office. You are entitled to $3,000 in exemption from county property taxes and $15,000 in exemption for school district taxes.

Look for disabled or age 65 exemption, if you can qualify. This gives you an additional $10,000 exemption of the appraised value of the homestead, and maybe some other exemptions -- depending on whether the additional exemptions are adopted by the governing body of the taxing unit or a majority vote of the qualified voters of the taxing unit.

Texas also has a tax ceiling for senior citizens. Ask about freezing your taxes the year you are 65. It applies as of January 1 of that year, and will keep your taxes from increasing each year unless you make significant improvements. The freeze or ceiling applies to a surviving spouse living in the home if the spouse is 55 or disabled at the time of the spouse’s demise.

There is a disabled veteran exemption in Texas that also applies to the surviving spouse. If you or your spouse is a disabled veteran, be sure to check to see if you are getting the exemption. You are not eligible if you are remarried, and you can’t receive both the disabled veteran or surviving spouse exemption combined with the over 65 exemption.

Request the forms and send them to the appropriate office, along with any requested documents (probably a copy of your driver’s license and utility bill). Beware that there are people out there who want to do this for you FOR A FEE. They check to see who hasn’t claimed all available exemptions and offer to complete the form for you. You can do this on your own, and if you have any difficulty, the Appraisal District will assist you. You don’t need to pay for free services.

Pay your taxes in full by the end of October and get a 3 percent discount. End of November payments are reduced by 2 percent and end of December payments save one percent. Take advantage of all of the breaks, exemptions and reductions you can get to save a little money on your property taxes in Texas. Remember that you don't pay an income tax and enjoy your little piece of Texas.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Cooking Cool in the Summer Heat -- Pasta Salad and Fruit Salad Recipes

Killdeer or plover bird in Texas pond water
The Killdeer Keeps Cool in the Texas Heat by Standing in Water

Texas summer is upon us and we attempt to keep the electricity costs down by using recipes that don’t require the oven. We also like cold salads and have a couple of recipes we’ve developed over the years that are economical and easy. When cooking, we often read a recipe and remove the foods we don’t like or don’t have on hand. Then we substitute foods we like that sound like they would go with the recipe. Here are a couple of recipes we've created that you can modify to suit your family’s likes and dislikes.

Vegetable Pasta Salad

Boxed Mac and Cheese Dinner
Cucumbers, tomatoes, celery, bell peppers, carrots and other vegetables you like, chopped in bite-size pieces.

Boil some salted water on the top of the stove and add about half a cup of macaroni. Cook until tender. Pour off most of the water (leave a few tablespoons of water to wet the dry cheese) and add the cheddar cheese mix to the macaroni. (We don’t use butter or milk like the Mac and Cheese recipe calls for.) Allow to cool. Add chopped vegetables and mix so the cheese coats the vegetables. Season with black pepper and Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning. Cover and refrigerate until serving. If we have ham available, we chop it into the salad and serve as a main dish.

Fruit Salad

1 Can of pineapple chunks
1 Cup of mini marshmallows
1/2 cup of coconut
1/3 cup sour cream
1/2 apple, chopped fine
Can of mandarin oranges, drained or fresh oranges in broken sections
Strawberries or other berries, fresh or frozen
Other fruit in season that you like

Mix all ingredients and cover. Refrigerate until cold.

Adapt these recipes to suit your family, and enjoy the fruits and vegetables while they’re in season and affordable. As a smart consumer, you can find ways to beat the heat and the utility bills while eating well. We have other tips and practical cooking recipes in an ebook we wrote a couple of years ago. You can find it here in Tips and Recipes for Easy Cooking.

Enjoy your summer. Eat economically and keep cool.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Donate your Left-Over Merchandise to Reach the End-User

Shasta Daisy flower in natural setting
Add Beauty to Someone's Life with Your Donation

Donating Where It’s Most Helpful and Best Used

When you have leftovers from your garage sale or are cleaning out the house or garage, you probably think you’re doing a good deed by donating it to a local non-profit. Some non-profits resell everything, and some really give things away. If you donate to a non-profit corporation that sells the merchandise, the people who really need it never get it. They usually don’t have vehicles to drive around looking for bargains, and they don’t have money to buy what they need.

I saw a whole box of hotel soaps and shampoos for sale at a local non-profit store this week -- someone had spent some time in Las Vegas. These are great items for the women’s shelter or for a homeless shelter with shower facilities. If you donate to the place where the product is used, your donation goes directly to someone who needs it and won’t get thrown out if it doesn’t sell.

Blankets, coats, towels and washcloths are also essentials for women’s shelters and homeless shelters. New products like unopened make-up, combs, brushes and even emery boards are helpful donations for shelters. Shelters need school supplies because kids are homeless, too. 

Call around and find out which organization can use your leftovers, instead of donating them to a place that sells them. Even the profit doesn’t go to homeless or needy from some of these non-profit stores; it goes to build more stores and grow the capital of these non-profit outfits. Many of the non-profit stores pay management bonuses to use the profit, while lower-level employees get minimum wage and aren’t allowed to purchase anything in the store.

When you live in a nice neighborhood, it’s difficult to locate individuals who really need, but they’re in every town and city in America. You can make a difference with your cast-offs by touching base with organizations like food pantries, homeless shelters, women’s shelters and the Salvation Army donation center. These organizations run shelters and provide food as well as supplies to individuals and families. Coat drives give away coats before the cold weather begins. Some organizations give away fans in the southern states in the summer and provide blankets in the winter. 

The Salvation Army in our area interviews individuals and provides a voucher for household necessities like silverware, pots and pans and sheets -- particularly helpful for someone who leaves an abusive relationship or is starting over after a fire. When the person finds an approved item, it’s checked off the voucher and bagged at no cost to the individual. If the store doesn't have all the items at one time, the person can return to shop until listed items are located and checked off the voucher. 

Before you make a run to the nearest thrift store, consider where your donations will reach the end user. A place that sells the items to build another store may not be your best choice.

See you soon!


Monday, June 9, 2014

Using Vintage and Collectible Ceramics and Glass in the Kitchen and Around the House

Vintage Fiesta Red Platter Showing HLC Fiesta Mark on Back
Vintage Fiesta Red Contains Elements Not in Other Colors

A benefit of collecting pottery and glass is that you never have a shortage of useful bowls, vases or pans, but some vintage and collectible ceramics and glass are not safe for food use. Recent imports are often marked on the back as “Not safe for food” but older and handmade pieces are not often marked. Hazards exist beyond breakage and getting cut, as lead and cadmium poisoning are insidious dangers lurking in these wares. Lead is common in our everyday lives, but chronic exposure to lead or constant consumption of lead causes long-term effects, particularly in fetuses, infants and children.

Ceramics are made of a clay layer and maybe a glaze layer, and either layer can contain unsafe metals and elements, including lead and cadmium. The clay may also be fired only once, creating a bisque without glaze, and elements in the clay depend on where the clay comes from. Some pottery has lead glaze or metal fragments in the glaze, and crystal has a higher lead content than ordinary glass. Any of these may be unsafe in the kitchen.

You’ve probably seen crystal marked 24 percent lead content, and it’s shiny and beautiful, but it’s not good for long-term storage of acids. Liquor stored in crystal decanters can acquire lead from leaching. You can use a crystal decanter, but it’s important to return the liquor to the original bottle after each use. The same is true for acids such as lemonade, vinegar or orange juice. If you serve in crystal, return to another container after the meal.
Block decanter and stopper in clear crystal
Block Brand Crystal Decanter Has Lead Content

Pottery and ceramics are more variable. Contemporary ceramics may be marked as safe for food use or safe for microwave, but the FDA warned several years ago of items from Mexico marked as safe were not.  Sometimes it depends on the glaze color. You may recall that Fiesta red dinnerware had a higher radiation level than other colors, causing concern, and discussed in Smithsonian Magazine. Also, pieces with significant wear to the glaze may leach elements more easily than ceramics with no damage. Microwave use or heating may cause more leaching than serving. It can also depend on age, condition and use. Prior to about 40 years ago, the Food and Drug Administration didn’t test or regulate elements in dinnerware or kitchenware.

Cadmium is present in fertilizers, batteries, plastics and often occurs in association with zinc, as reflected in this CDC report.  Cadmium is naturally occurring in the water and soil, and may be present in the air near iron and steel production facilities. Dyes, paints and glazes can also contain cadmium. Cadmium studies are ongoing, but cadmium consumption may cause kidney stones, kidney diseases and maybe high blood pressure, peripheral artery disease and COPD, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  You can read more about cadmium content in everyday products here on the National Institutes of Health website

Test kits are available for checking lead or cadmium content, but home test kits for cadmium have not been reliable, often rendering false positives, according to the National Institutes of Health. The safest method is to use vintage dishes and accessories for decoration, and use only dinnerware approved for food at the table.   

Use your knowledge to be safe in the kitchen. See you next time!


Monday, May 5, 2014

Save or Starve in Retirement: The Choice is Yours

Squirrel sits on a rock with acorn
Even a Squirrel Saves for the Future

Our government saw starvation first hand after the Great Depression of the 1930s and realized a need to take care of elderly Americans with Social Security, so starvation was not the way to die. In the 1960s, Congress tackled Medicare so that lack of medical care for the elderly was not the way to die. Now, fifty years later, the Affordable Care Act helps Americans of all ages have health insurance and Social Security and Medicare are still in effect. But without careful planning, elderly Americans can still die of starvation or lack of good medical care. How could this happen?

If you don’t save money during your working years, you won’t have enough money to pay your portion of Medicare or your needs not covered by Social Security, because neither program covers all your expenses. The government intended for Social Security to cover only part of your needs, because at the time, most Americans had a pension plan at work. Company-paid pension plans are now personalized -- you have to make the contribution to a retirement plan before your employer pays any part of it. Many of us live for today and don't make the contribution. If your employer gives you free money, why turn it down?

Social Security covers 40 to 50 percent of your pre-retirement income, and out of that money must come your Part B or medical coverage and maybe Part D for prescription insurance coverage. Part A, or hospitalization coverage, has a deductible as well. If you go to the hospital, you are responsible for the deductible.

No matter how much or how little money you earn, you can save some money for your future. You need six to eight months of expenses saved in an emergency fund. This fund can also be the start of your retirement fund. We waste more money in the United States than people in many countries have to live on. We buy trinkets, junk, more clothing than we can wear, jewelry, and memberships we don’t use. Think through your lifestyle and what you need, and pare down to save for your future. It’s a horrible thought that we might die of starvation in America, but it happens. Older Americans today are choosing between food and medicine, according to the AARP Foundation.
Start now. 

You’ll be more relaxed with money in the bank to cover emergencies and may even live longer as a result of less stress. Have money taken out of your paycheck to cover a 401(k) or Roth 401(k), or set up an IRA for yourself by contacting your bank. I'll confess that when we were 40, we thought we had many years to build a retirement fund. Twenty-five years later, we realize the importance of saving early to let the money accumulate interest, so we don't have to work for every dime.

Spend less.

One of the easy ways to spend less is to cook at home instead of eating out. Cook vegetables, serve fruits, and don’t use starter mixes like helpers. 

Buy bleach, hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and vinegar for cleaning supplies instead of squirt bottles of something you can’t identify that is heavily perfumed. 

Shop when you need something, and don’t use shopping as your recreation. 

Go to the park, library or zoo for free entertainment, instead of spending your money on tickets for activities you may not even enjoy. 

Review your bills and cut expenses where you can. Expenses you incur every month are bites out of your future funds. Call your utility companies and ask for better rates. Telephone, cell phone, cable, electricity, alarm systems and internet services all have loyalty or retention programs to keep customers once they have them. 

Buy used.

If you need something, call thrift stores and see if they have the item available. Buy clothing at thrift or bargain stores. If you’re afraid someone may see you or recognize something you’ve bought, go to the next town to shop at their thrift stores. We frequent thrift stores and have made friends with the clerks and other thrifty people. Some of our thrifty friends own businesses, a couple are in real estate sales, and others are retired. 

Don’t pay interest.

Save money by paying for purchases in cash or paying with credit cards that you pay in full every month. It’s shocking to see how much money Americans spend on financing. Dinner out for $100 should be $100, not $125 because you didn’t pay the credit card on time. Make it your goal to pay credit cards every month or don’t charge anything you can't pay off that month. You're borrowing against your future when you charge more than you can pay this month. Your future is money you need in retirement. 

Live Modestly.

You don't need a new house or an electronics upgrade every few years. Living in the same house saves moving expenses, larger payments and contributes to your overall wealth. Pay for what you have, and appreciate it.

Think of your future every time you spend money. 

Picture yourself too old to get a job and choosing between medicine and food. It’s your wake-up call.