Friday, January 28, 2011

Proof: Credit Cards Provide the Best Conversion Rates

Before my trip to Rome last month, I was told the best value converting dollars to any foreign currency was by using your credit card. Here's proof.

On the day I departed for Rome, I went to the downtown Boston branch of my bank, Citizens Bank. I was given a rate of 1.4 dollars per Euro. Actually, I think it was 1.41, but anything above 1.4 is moot, as you will see when you continue reading.

While in Rome, I took cash out of an on-the-street ATM. To take out 100 Euros; my bank statement reflects $131.75. However, there was also a $3.95 foreign currency fee. Still, the resulting $135.70 reflects a rate of 1.35 to do the exchange. I would imagine the $3.75 currency fee remains the same even for larger withdrawals; so the exchange rate on the currency was 1.318.

As for my credit card, I used it quite often in Italy. I see on my statement a dinner that cost me 77 Euro. The corresponding charge was $100.67. This represents an exchange rate of 1.307. There is a foreign transaction fee on my statement for $11.46. Since it's a general fee for the entire statement, I can assume it represents the collective foreign transaction fees for all five international credit card transactions reflected on the statement. That would equate to roughly $2.29 per credit card transaction.

Here's a quick summary:

Getting cash from my bank before leaving the United States:
Exchange rate was 1.4 dollars per Euro.

Using my ATM card:
Exchange rate was 1.318 dollars per Euro, plus a $3.95 fee per transaction.

Using my credit card:
Exchange rate was 1.307 dollars per Euro, plus a $2.29 fee per transaction.

The bottom line: The exchange rate is far better for credit card and ATM transactions, compared to going to your own bank to get a cash currency exchange.

It's worth noting that I didn't bother to even try using an overseas exchange counter, like one of those exchange stations you see at an airport or on the street. My assumption is the exchange rates there-- as well as the effective rates when adding in fees-- are pretty high.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Beacon Hill: It's Time for 2 + 2

When I moved to Beacon Hill in 1999, my good friend and then-neighbor Tom Hopcroft (now the executive director of the Mass. Technology Leadership Council) encouraged me to join the Beacon Hill Civic Association. I quickly became involved in the biggest neighborhood issue: trash. I was the chairman of the Civic' Association's trash committee for a few years, and I still today serve on the group's board of directors.

Having investigated the trash issue for a long time, my words of wisdom to the rest of Beacon Hill are simple. We have three days of trash pick up in our neighborhood. If we really want to improve the cleanliness situation here, we need to remove one of those days. The Civic Association's City Services Committee (which is what the trash committee has evolved into) has approved my request to investigate switching to two days of trash pick-up, alongside two other neighborhood needs: two days of recycling (we currently have one) and moving the start of trash and recycling pick-up to 9 a.m. (currently 7 a.m.)

Beacon Hill's three days of pick-up, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, is a concept that's at odds with itself. To begin with, other neighborhoods are envious. They see three days as a "special" deal Beacon Hill has made with those in authority; another example of how Beacon Hill receives favored status. The irony is having three days of pick up is an Achilles heal to the neighborhood's trash situation.

One out of every four hours during the week, trash is at the side of the street. No wonder trash remains the top area of concern for residents. Switching to two days of pick up, plus recycling on each of these days (hence, 2 + 2) will greatly improve the trash situation on Beacon Hill, and in the other downtown neighborhoods that currently have three pick-up days.

We have made great strides in improving cleanliness on Beacon Hill since I moved here, with the help of our elected officials. Mayor Menino's public works department has towed cars to enforce posted street sweeping signs, which has gotten neighbors into the habit of moving their cars to make way for the street sweepers. More recently, the state legislature, governor, and the city have teamed up to pass the necessary measures so that trash violators are properly fined, and so that the punishments for improper trash handling have real teeth.

But these successes do not help the fact that trash is on my street corner one out of every four hours during the week.

I have already started my investigation, which I hope to present to the City Services Committee later in the spring. I am investigating other options besides 2 + 2 as well. Stay tuned.

Editor's Note: By investigating 2 +2, the Civic Association is not taking any position on the matter. My investigation DOES NOT mean the Civic Association supports the switch.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Small Change(s) On Beacon Hill

Not sure about you, but I haven't noticed that my paycheck is now a tad higher. Federal payroll tax reductions went into effect on Jan. 1, and the government actually hopes I don't really notice. The economic theory is that consumers are likely to spend incremental increases in their pay, whereas they are more likely to put into their savings accounts one-time stimulus checks. No doubt the payroll tax, while unnoticed to me, is quite substantial when considered across the entire population.

Small changes on Beacon Hill are similarly having a bigger impact. I had to park my car on Charles Street after work this week. Charles Street is not a residential parking zone, and the meters there extend to 8 p.m. (don't get me started on that fact), so I had to find quarters in my car to feed the meter. I noticed that each quarter doesn't go as far as it used to. One quarter now means 12 minutes; only a few weeks ago each quarter was worth 15 minutes. Three minutes per quarter lost. Again, over time, I am sure that means a lot more revenue for the city.

12 minutes per quarter, not 15
Cambridge Street, Boston
January 22, 2011

Around the corner on Cambridge Street, the Beacon Hill Anna's Taqueria has become one of the first stores in the chain to accept credit cards. As an Anna's aficionado knows, a trip to buy a burrito has always meant a trip to the ATM first, similar to the mental process ahead of visiting Giacomo's in the South End (which also is cash-only). Well, credit cards are now welcome at Anna's, at least on Beacon Hill. Just remember to pay the extra quarter into the parking meter.

A welcomed sign at Anna's Taqueria
Cambridge Street, Boston
January 22, 2011

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Kudos For Friends' Achievements

As we roar ahead in the new year, some kudos to friends and family:

--- Former co-worker Lisa Mokaba, one of the funniest writers I know, has started a new blog with a couple of others called "That's Why I Dumped You." It's an essential daily does of humor that everyone on the planet can relate to (and yes the title of the site speaks directly to its content). For those of you in Boston, Lisa will be on WFNX on Monday morning during the 7 a.m. hour to talk about her new site.

--- My college roommate Scott Lauber, Red Sox writer for the Boston Herald, has written an amazing profile on new Red Sox outfielder Carl Crawford. Since the Pats are off this weekend, it's necessary reading.

--- And finally, my brother Mark won my company's pick-em NFL pool this year. He's sharing the honor with three others, meaning that all four successfully navigated all 17 weeks of the NFL season without getting knocked out. As someone who has never made it past round five, and was kicked off after week one this year, it's quite an accomplishment.

Bravo Andrew Luck

When I was a kid there was no such thing as "leaving early to go to the draft." College basketball and football players were expected to stay in school, and play for their respective teams, for four years. The TV networks that carried the games talked often of the players' academic pursuits. They always mentioned degrees and academic performance, even if less than stellar.

By the time I was in my early teens, the reality was only beginning to surface. The tongue-and-cheek comment about certain players was not that they were graduating after their senior year, but that they were running out of eligibility (in that, they didn't have the credits to get the degree, but could no longer play basketball, so why stick around?).

Today, it's unheard of for even a good (let alone all-star) college athlete to graduate. Which is why the announcement from Andrew Luck this week is so darn interesting and laudable. Luck is the star quarterback of the Stanford Cardinal. He came in second in voting this year for what is essentially college football's MVP award, the Heisman Trophy. He led his team to a victory in a major, major bowl game last week, as Stanford dismantled Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. He is the consensus first pick in the upcoming NFL draft, and the team who owns that pick, the Carolina Panthers, is eager to slot Luck into its beleaguered offense.

There's just one problem. Luck doesn't want to leave Stanford. He's only a junior, and-- I hope you are sitting down for this one-- he wants to graduate.

When Stanford announced Luck's intentions this week, they did so via a statement and did not make the college student available to talk to the media. As a PR person, I can tell you the only reason to make news this way is to avoid challenging questions. Luck's decision was a personal one that is technically no one else's business, so he doesn't have to answer questions anyway.

And the question he would have gotten this week is one that drives to the root of the word "success" in the United States: "Why are you leaving the possibility of more money you could spend in a lifetime on the table to play for nothing in the college ranks?"

Talk show hosts were mystified by Luck's decision. My brother Mark sent me an email yesterday and paraphrased Jerry Callahan on WEEI talk radio in Boston, who said of the move: "I've never had so much respect for someone who is such an idiot." According to Mark, Callahan went on to say that finishing one's degree is laudable, but leaving "50 million" dollars on the table is foolish.

So this is where athletics have come to in this country. You are foolish to not follow the money even if what will make you happy is not taking it. Money trumps happiness. Greed is good.

I have similar feelings every time I listen to the pundits when discussing the decision making of a major league player or coach whose contract is up and they are able to bargain for new terms among the teams across the entire major leagues. If a player is only offered three million a year, let's say, when they are worth much more, accepting the small deal "is an insult." Well, I don't know about you, but I could live off of three million a year just fine. And if it meant staying in a city or neighborhood I loved, or keeping the infinite number of other circumstances (school, family, weather, boss, etc.) that make me happy in the job and in the location I have, then turning down the larger offer is certainly not "foolish."

The players fall for the money trap all the time, and I don't blame them. They get caught up in the name calling we hear on talk radio and they hear, no doubt, from their agents, who are motivated to sign the largest deal since it means more money in their own pockets. I challenge players to think about what makes them happy, or what's consistent with their goals, when making contract decisions. I have never made a million dollars a year, but I would imagine that once you get above a million, the multiples don't necessarily make life easier to live. As my great college professor and mentor Dr. John Schultz used to say, "Money is a means to an end, but it is not the end."

For Andrew Luck, the NFL would not make him happy, at least not now when in one more year he can be a Stanford graduate and degree holder. I just don't understand why that move on his part is so shocking to so many people, or causes so many to think Luck foolish. As his father, himself a former NFL quarterback put it, "The NFL will be around in a year. It's not going anywhere." Thank heavens both Andrew and his dad are smart enough to realize that.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Welcome 2011!

The Crown Plaza Hotel Over the Mass Pike
Newton, Mass.
January 3, 2011