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It’s tough on busy families trying to save on gas bill

Jean Nash Johnson The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS – It’s Friday afternoon about 2:50, and Carla Bolner wheels her full-size champagne-colored 2001 GMC Yukon around a corner and parks it alongside her kids’ elementary school in Richardson, Texas.

It’s after-school pickup and the end of a long week for her vehicle, Big Tan.

For some families, the increasingly high prices at the pump are not just forcing them to rethink gas consumption but also their way of life. For Carla, who practically lives in her car, that means depending less on driving.

Carla and her family moved from North Dallas to Richardson a year ago for the schools. In doing so, they moved away from favorite eateries, doctors, hair stylists and, most important, family and friends. When gas was cheap, it was easy to stick to old habits. But now high gas prices may force them to sever some of those ties.

Carla is a prototypical soccer mom, with three kids 10 and younger who have busy schedules.

Big Tan is financially demanding, to the tune of $80 a fill-up weekly.

The Bolners have two SUVs, and their gas consumption has them bleary-eyed. Now facing the busy fall season of school and extracurricular activities, Carla will have to consider a few changes.

Anthony Bolner, a commercial real estate agent and senior vice president of CBRE Inc., drives a new black Chevrolet Tahoe. It’s necessary for business, he says.

“I lease office space, and once or twice a week I run a tour where I show prospective property to clients. The leg room and comfort are important.”

Between the two vehicles, the gas tab runs about $150 a week.

Carla and Anthony struggle with the bottom line: In times like these, what do you give up? With the recent devastation of Hurricane Katrina and its impact on domestic oil, the question of consumption and conservation is even more urgent.

The Bolners, both 39, were in grade school the last time families faced a gas crisis and had to sacrifice certain luxuries. Then, as Carla notes, it was a matter of rationing. With the current situation, prices will likely continue to climb.

She points out Gracie and David, who are heading toward the car. They hop in and plop in the spacious tan leather seats. They have lots of room to maneuver, squirm and wrestle. The spaciousness appealed to the growing family when they first selected the car.

As the three wait on first-grader Calvin, they plan the afternoon. Mom attends to Gracie’s sudden paper cut. A hesitant Calvin approaches the car and wonders out loud if the family won the lottery since he sees a camera and two strange people sitting in Big Tan. By 3:20 p.m., they are on the road. The trip to Preston Center from Richardson takes about 30 minutes and 13 miles. The four jump out of the car and head to the kiddie shoe store that houses the hair salon.

The Bolners used to live in the neighborhood, and when Gracie was 2, they came in one Sunday afternoon, not knowing the salon was closed. One of the hairdressers cut Gracie’s hair on her own time. “How can I not come here?” says Carla.

She admits that she clings to the family’s established routines because they give her a sense of place. “It’s like in Cheers – everybody knows your name.”

With fresh haircuts, the crew parades around the corner to the barbershop with the old-fashioned soda machine and are told that it’s on the blink.

Carla is as dejected as the kids, and on a dime comes up with a plan.

“Hey, who wants to go to Sonic by Jesuit?” It’s 4:30 p.m.

After tater tots and giant colas, Carla and the kids contemplate the rest of the evening. The boys have flag football practice not too far from home.

Carla is queen of multitasking in the car. By 5 p.m., she has organized Gracie’s sleepover plans and firmed up evening plans for her and Anthony from her cellphone. The sitter is lined up for the boys, and she and Anthony will drive to a restaurant near downtown Dallas for dinner with friends.

“All of our special restaurants are in Dallas. Besides, our friends don’t like to come too far north,” she says, laughing.

Carla and the kids arrive home from the afternoon run at 5:35 p.m.

Tomorrow they will start over again with a 7:30 a.m. wakeup call for indoor soccer and a trip to their favorite breakfast place.

“We’ve decided that the bagels at the one near us are as good as the original in the old neighborhood,” Carla says. She’s beginning to soften, she admits.

After breakfast the five will head to Frisco to see the kids’ new cousin.

Anthony’s sister and her husband have an infant daughter who’s barely a week old. To Carla, she’s too irresistible.

“Yeah, we’ll be hauling it up to Frisco now more than ever.”

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