Windows on Mac, twice

So not only can you dual-boot a Mac into Windows XP, there’s now a VMWare-ish app called Parallels that will run any version of Windows (or whatever), in a window, on a Mac, and it’s even supposed to be pretty fast. The New York Times has some pretty good things to say about it, and it’s firmly in the consumer price range ($40 pre-order, $50 when it ships).

If I had a Mac, the Parallels beta is definitely a toy I’d be playing with.

Of state parks and tow trucks

Jennie and I had a picnic lunch at Laka Manawa State Park today, and then spent a little while on the walking trails and at the playground.

Here are the things I learned from the experience.

Lesson learned #1: Getting away from it all, even if it’s just for an afternoon, can be very relaxing while it lasts.

Lesson learned #2: Playing tag at the playground with little kids is fun, but extremely tiring.

Lesson learned #3: When your car dies somewhere in the middle of a state park in Iowa, calling your insurance’s road assistance call center, located in Florida, and trying to explain where you are, will not be very fruitful.

Lesson learned #4: Keep your mechanic’s address in your car, so that when you do get hold of a towing company and they ask, “Where do you want it taken?”, you can give an intelligent answer.

Lesson learned #5: Also keep the phone number of a good towing company.

Lesson learned #6: Heck, a phone book wouldn’t be a bad idea. (It might not hurt to throw in a church directory, too.)

Lesson learned #7: Having an emergency fund takes the stress, but not the frustration, out of getting a tow truck and a ride home.

Lesson learned #8: Not all tow trucks accept credit or debit cards on weekends (there’s nobody at the office to verify the card), so if you’re going to get stranded, bring the checkbook. (But if you forgot the checkbook, the grocery money will do in a pinch.)

Lesson learned #9: You can pay $70 for a $75 towing bill if you pay cash.

Thanks again, Sam and Erica, for all the shuttling around.

Debt Watch

Inspired by Tatsuya’s Sinfest “Futility Watch”, I’ve added a “Debt Watch” to my blog sidebar, showing how many debts we’ve paid off since this March. (We’ve paid off other debts before, and we’ve even paid off other debts since we started our Money Makeover. The significance of starting with March 2006 is that it corresponds to both my annual bonus and our tax refund — it’s when we were able to kick off our debt snowball with some attitude.)

Debts paid off as of yesterday evening: 4. I sat down tonight with a sheet of blank paper, drew a big semi-artistic “4” on it, and posted it on the fridge.

I had forgotten that we paid another one off by phone today. So I had to make another number. Then we sat down with some updated balances from other creditors, did some number-munging and general spreadsheeting, and wrote some checks.

Debts paid off as of this evening: 8.

I have to go make more numbers now. In fact, we decided we’d make a sheet with each of the numbers 1 through 8. We’ll put the 1 through 7 side-by-side on the living room wall. The latest and greatest — 8 as of now — goes on the refrigerator, where we’ll see it all the time. Also on the fridge, we’re going to put the next bill we’re hammering on, with a big target drawn on it.

I think I’ll finish the display with the “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal” cartoon.

Can you rent a car without a credit card?

It’s interesting how often I run into the idea that you need a credit card to rent a car. It’s particularly interesting because it isn’t particularly true.

Relevant quote:

“Be sure you check ahead in advance, but I fly all over America and rent cars every week, virtually, I am appearing somewhere, speaking somewhere, doing something. I simply reach into my pocket, pull out one of my two Visa debit cards, on my personal account or on my business, and I can rent a car anywhere except a couple of the majors, and I don’t don’t do business with them anyway — they are too expensive.” — Dave Ramsey, in the “Dumping Debt” session of Financial Peace University

I can vouch for this, too. I’ve rented one car from Rent-A-Wreck and several cars from Enterprise using Visa check cards (aka debit cards).

So the money comes straight out of my checking account, with none of that “I promise I’ll pay it later” nonsense.

Warning, though: I was talking to someone a couple weeks ago who said their car died in the middle of nowhere, and they tried to rent a car from the local Enterprise office, which wouldn’t take their check card. So it may be a regional thing. Be sure to call ahead and check.

Also from my personal experience, when I tried to rent from Budget Rent-A-Car a few years ago, they said they didn’t accept check cards. Which kind of sucked, because they didn’t bother to tell me this when I placed my reservation; I didn’t find out until I got to the counter to pick up the car, with all my other travel arrangements already booked and non-refundable. I wasn’t too happy that day.

Moral: do be sure to specifically ask, ahead of time (this is important), whether the rental agency accepts the Visa check card. But I’ve rented cars on several occasions with non-debt-bearing plastic. Check with the rental agencies in your town; chances are, you’ll find one less reason to keep a credit card.

Agile Cash

Credit has an interesting problem that people usually don’t think about: it destroys your ability to adapt to change.

I was radio-surfing in the car this morning, and I happened to hear an ad for “no interest, no payments until January” or some such. And it occurred to me that there were parallels to the XP idea of constant shippability.

Let’s go back to Alistair Cockburn’s example of packing a house. If I’m going to be moving in a month, and I need to pack my entire life into little boxes, how can I know how long it will take? How can I be sure I’ll be done in time? Cockburn answers this scenario by packing an entire room at a time – and when you pack it, you pack it completely: so that “not even a sock” is left behind.

This has two big benefits. #1, you find out how long it takes you to completely pack one room (and you know how many rooms you have; the rest you learned in elementary school). #2, that one room is now done. Ron Jeffries, the last time he was in our office, explained it along the lines of “the very best way to make sure Feature X is done before we release is to do Feature X first.”

Now let’s apply that idea to money. My bank account should be constantly primed. I should always be able to pay for the things I know are coming.

When I pay cash (assuming I live on a budget), that is indeed the case. When I buy something for cash, it’s done. That’s it. I’m done buying it, and I know exactly where my money stands. Item X is now 100% mine. There’s nothing more to worry about.

When I buy something on credit, though, that dynamic changes. I’m not done buying it. I’ve made a commitment to pay, but I haven’t yet followed through. I’m left in a dangerous in-between state where I’m legally obligated to spend money I don’t yet, and may not, have.

Suppose I go out and buy a $1,200 washer and dryer, “no interest and no payments for 90 days”. And over the next three months, I’m saving up the money so I can send them a check before the 90 days is up. So far, so good, right?

But one day the car won’t start, and it needs $750 worth of repairs. Now what? Well, I have to fix the car – otherwise I can’t get to work, and I definitely won’t be able to pay for the washer and dryer if I’m unemployed!

And at the end of the ninety days, I can’t pay off the washer and dryer, because I spent $750 of the money I was going to pay it with. And they sock it to me with rip-off interest rates, possibly even back-dated to the original date of purchase.

Or maybe I go ahead and pay off the debt, by skipping a month on some of my other payments. Oops. Not much better.

Debt is risk. When you do “90 days same as cash”, or when you put stuff on your credit card but swear you’ll pay it off every month, you get stuck in that “in-between” state between buying and paying. You’re essentially betting that nothing will go wrong between now and when you pay. And in any form of gambling, in the long run, the house always wins. The finance company wouldn’t have loaned you the money if the odds weren’t in their favor.

What if I had decided to pay cash for that washer and dryer? Well, if I didn’t have the money, I would’ve had to save up for it. I would set money aside each month – kind of like making payments on a debt, but without the interest expense, and without the risk. If I start saving for something, and two months later I have to pay for car repairs, I just stop saving for as long as I have to. I can stop saving without suddenly having to pay interest, or late charges, or getting a nasty letter added to my credit file.

Savings is very easy to stop. Credit is not. Savings lets you stay flexible in the face of change. Credit does not.

And then, when I’ve saved up everything I need, I can just go out and buy the thing, and then I own it. The transaction is done. No unfinished business, nothing left behind.

Not even a sock.