January 10, 2007

A new way of watching DVDs

Enjoy watching TV series on DVD? Constantly buying or renting them? Sick of paying massive amounts of money for them? Read on.

Like many people without Sky or Sky+, the future-Mrs-C and I enjoy watching television series on DVD.

The theory is this:

You can be selective.

You watch less TV overall, because you only watch things you want to watch and avoid channel surfing.

You don't miss or forget to record an episode.

You don't get all those annoying commercials.

But this can be pricey. Typically a recent box set of a new TV series will set you back around £40. This is a lot of money for something most of us will only watch once.

I tried renting the series from online DVD rental websites. But you have to be sent one disk at a time. So frequently I would be sent disks one and two, but then face an excrutiating three month wait for disk three.

So I am going to try something new. Buying and selling on Amazon marketplace.

If you have not heard of Amazon Marketplace, it is a place where normal punters, like you and I, can sell and buy their wares. If you go to most items for sale on Amazon under the price that it is selling the item will normally be the words 'Used and New'. Click on this and you will see the marketplace.

Unlike eBay, it is not an auction, so you can set the price of what you want to sell. As soon as someone meets the price, you post it to them.

Amazon deducts from the sale price a sellers fee, and VAT, while you set the postal costs. Before you even advertise the item Amazon will tell you how much you stand to make.

Last year I ordered series 5 of 24 before it was released. By doing this it cost me £29, as opposed to the full retail price of £49.99.

I watched it once and then lent it to a friend. Since then it has been gathering dust on my bookshelf at home.

Yesterday I sold it for £28. After seller's fees were deducted I pocketed £25. So essentially I paid £4 to watch this TV series. That is less than I would have paid to rent it.

So this is my new 'thing' for the year. I've just ordered The Wire. I'll let you know what happens when it comes to selling it.

If you have any other ideas to save money, like this, then let me know.

James Coney, Money Mail

January 08, 2007

New Year, new Talk Talk problem

Oh deary me.

As readers of this blog will know, before Christmas I signed up to TalkTalk's free broadband forever package.

I had emails from some of you that had problems with TalkTalk saying I was an idiot. Afterall, I have reported at length the delays and confusion that many Money Mail readers have suffered trying to get their free broadband up and running.

To be fair though, those of you that are up and running, rave about the unlimited 8Mb broadband you get and the free international calls all for £19.99 a month.

Anyway, TalkTalk convinced me that there problems were at an end.

So I signed up on November 24 and up until last Friday - my activation day - everything had been going smoothly. I have even made some international calls.

I had switched phone lines, my wireless router and modem (which I opted for instead of the one you automatically get) and all the relevant documentation and start up disks had arrived.

This included a letter announcing my activation day would be: January 5.

So Friday arrived, I turned on my router to get a broadband signal......nothing. I tried to go through the start up disk....but of course, I couldn't because my router was not up and running.

After 45 minutes of faffing around the-future-Mrs-C convinced me to call TalkTalk.

I got through quite quickly and went through the identification check and then explained my problem.

The customer services assistant told me: 'You are not yet live. Your broadband has not been activated. Can you call back next week?'

I sighed. 'But my letter says today is my activation date.'

Assistant: 'That's just an estimated date.'

'But that is not what the letter says. It says that January 5 is my activation date. There is nothing that tells me this is an estimated date. What is the point in sending out a letter if that is not the date of activation. I've just spent 45 minutes trying to figure out what is going on.'

Assistant: 'It is just an estimated date. Call back next Friday and we will tell you then if you are live.'

And so that was that. Go on, tell me 'I told you so'. I could have argued for longer -but that would have got me nowhere. So all I can do now is wait another week and see if I am live then.

James Coney, Money Mail

December 08, 2006

A coincidence or a bit rich?

Yesterday I got a letter from Natwest. I hold a current account with them.

The letter informed me that they had reviewed my account and that as a result I was being given an extension of my overdraft.

On all my current accounts I apply for a permanent £200 overdraft. I rarely go overdrawn but I think its good practice to have this kind of buffer just in case one month I happen to slip into the red. The buffer would stop me from being charged.

Natwest had decided that I can now be trusted with an overdraft facility of £1,250. To take advantage of this all I have to do is nothing.

Now, call me cynical, but it does seem a bit of a coincidence that just four days after Natwest hiked its overdraft rates for the second time in three months that all of a sudden they are bumping up customers' overdrafts.

On my particular account the rate has moved to 18.9 pc, from 15.98 pc at the start of September.

Over the course of a year on my original £200 overdraft this increase of rate would have cost me about £6.

However, now with the increased facility an overdraft, assuming I used it to its full extent, which obviously Natwest would like, I would pay £236.25 in interest. That's a whopping £200 more than I would have paid with my original overdraft.

And I don't suppose that it has passed you buy that it is also Christmas - a time when a lot of people need that extra credit.

I hate to think of the extra cash banks across the country rake in from tactics such as this.

James Coney, Money Mail

November 24, 2006

Time for Talk Talk to come up trumps

FROM the moment it launched the free broadband forever offer Talk Talk has been in the headlines.

At first it was all about the great offer. In case you missed it, you get unlimited free international and UK calls, and 8 meg broadband for £20.99 a month. That's it.

Then it all went pear-shaped as customers began to complain of almighty delays, poor customer service, and a never-ending array of excuses as to why they could not get connected. Money Mail received hundreds of complaints, and many customers that had initially signed up changed their mind and went back to their old broadband provider.

And it was all because someone had badly underestimated the demand for this product.

Eight months on and the problems seem to have died down. There are more call centre staff and waiting times are down to about a month. Those that have successfully been connected are very happy indeed.

And so, with the arrival of a new computer at Coney HQ this week, I decided to put Talk Talk to the test. I have signed up. And I fully intend to let you all know how it went.

Well, part one, actually becoming a customer presented some initial problems.

You see I wanted a wireless modem connection, and I wanted to know if the free international calls included calls to mobiles.

I spent at least 20 minutes flicking through the Talk Talk homepage trying to find answers to these questions and then, when this proved unsuccessful, trying to find a phone number.

Now, I use websites alot. And especially those run by phone companies and banks. So I should be able to find a phone number. But I couldn't.

So I'm sorry to say it, at the first hurdle. I resorted to calling the Talk Talk press office who gave me the freephone number I could use to.

For the record it is: 0800 049 1002.

Anyway, once I got through it was all plain-sailing. Questions answered satisfactorily (yes you can get a wireless modem, and only mobile calls to Canada and the USA are included) I simply had to say yes and no a few times and I was signed up.

My phone calls should start going through Talk Talk within three weeks, and the broadband should be up and running in the New Year.

We will see.

James Coney, Money Mail

November 09, 2006

Australia is overrated

There are many small pleasures in life that cost nothing. There are equally many expensive things that are a waste of time.

We were having this discussion in Money Mail the other day, and have decided to open this out to debate.

What things do you think are overrated and what is underrated? Here are some things to get you started:

OVERRATED                                 UNDERRATED

Tumble driers                          Starting a new notebook

Australia                                USA

smoked salmon                        dill

going to the gym                     table tennis

coffee shop chains                   watercress

mini bottles of water                clean bed sheets

Tetra Pak milk cartons               milk bottles

main courses                          starters

James Coney, Money Mail

November 07, 2006

House price crash?

House prices is an often debated subject, but I just thought I'd weigh in with my two-pennyworth. I should probably declare an interest first. I am a (potential) first-time buyer.

There has been a lot of talk in the past week about income-multiples, the amount times your salary you can borrow. This is because Abbey has now said it will lend five times income. Plenty of banks lend more than this.

Now, personally I wouldn't take out a 100% mortgage at five times income. Do the math, as they say in the States.

If two of you both earn £30,000, you can borrow £300,000 - enough to get you a decent pad in most cities. Your mortgage rate will be about 5.8%, and that means your monthly repayments are £1,800. Your take home pay on £30,000 is around £1,825. That is ridiculous.

It means one of the couple pays the mortgage and the other foots the cost of all your other bills and expenses. And here is another thing.

As I was writing about the five-times mortgage last week I stumbled across some statistics from Nationwide BS. It has figures showing first-time buyer affordability as a percentage of take home pay.

It's an index, so shows a comparison over time. It shows that shortly before the last big house price crash in 1989-1990. Back then affordability was at 146. As prices fell so it meant more could afford to buy and affordability plateaued at around 49.

Now the index is back up to 116. Now that is a little way off the previous high. But now look at this figure. But that's not all. It also has an index showing first-time buyer house price to earnings.

This ratio tells a similar tale. In late 1989 the ratio was 3.9. In 1994 it was 2.4, and now it is a staggering 5.0. It passed the 1989 mark of 3.9 midway in 2003.

Now let's add this to the mix: as a nation we spend more than 20% of our disposable income servicing all our various debts, including mortgages and credit cards. This proportion was exceeded only once on record and that was - you guessed it - back in 1989-1990.

The first time buyer's problems have been exacerbated by our attitude to housing. It seems that everyone wants to own a rental property. As soon as house prices rise, first-time buyers start to struggle. Meanwhile those better off and homeowners already think about splashing out on a buy-to-let. The more people do this, the more it worsens the housing situation for first-time buyers. There are fewer properties for them to buy, demand is high and prices increase again. And so the spiral goes on.

Okay, there are other arguments. You could pay interest-only on that 100% mortgage until you start earning more. That's a big gamble. You could move to a cheaper area. That has its own cost implications - quite often causing transport costs to rocket by more than your mortgage repayments would be.

With homeowners borrowing more, housing supply short and interest rates looking like they are about to go up again, I get the feeling those who have just stepped on the ladder could be in for some tough times ahead.

James Coney, Money Mail

October 26, 2006

Everything's fine.....honest

Here is a marvellous bit of spin.

City watchdog, the Financial Services Authority, has announced a £455,000 fine for Loans.co.uk. It found that the company exposed 14,400 customers to the risk of being sold payment protection policies that were unsuitable for their needs.

You've probably read all about these policies - they are insurance that will guarantee your payments on a loan if you lose your job or cannot work. However, many customers later find that the policy was never any use to them and they can never claim.

The FSA has been cracking down on their sales.

Loans.co.uk is always advertising on TV - its most recent ad has Phil Tufnell strolling around a call centre talking about how great it is to borrow money.

What makes a former England cricketer an expert on finances is beyond me, but some marketing genius seems to think he is.

Anyhow, back to the FSA fine. What did Loans.co.uk have to say about the fact it would have to pay almost half a million quid after being found at fault for selling failures?

Well, this: Loans.co.uk agrees settlement with FSA.

What? Agrees! I suppose that's the same way that a driver who parks on a double yellow line agrees a settlement with the local council of a £60 fine?

The press release continues: Loans.co.uk announced that it has reached a settlement with the FSA......

What a crazy bit of spin.

James Coney, Money MailRacket160606_100x110_1

>> Read about This is Money's campaign on payment protection insurance

October 20, 2006

The end of free banking? I don't believe it

OVER the last year Money Mail's Fair Play on Charges campaign has helped hundreds of you reclaim thousands of pounds worth of reclaim charges for slipping a few pence overdrawn.

There are hundreds of you with legal actions still pending, and the Office of Fair Trading is also investigating whether the bank charges are unjustified.

Banks are clearly feeling threatened. They are going to have to explain why exactly is it costs up to £39 to send out a letter telling you that your account is overdrawn.

What annoys me most about this situation is the consistently petulant tone of the banks that readers keep telling me about. They are making threats that any lowering of charges - similary to the cap recently imposed on credit card charges - will mean the end of free banking in the UK.

We are almost alone in the world in having standard bank accounts which do not have an annual fee - and. boy, don't the banks like to remind us of it.

I get the feeling that they are rather miffed that we have taking to querying their charging structures and are not saying 'thank you' for what they call 'free' banking.

Their argument reminds me of Jack Nicholson's character in the film 'A Few Good Men'.

In this film, Nicholson plays a senior US Marine Colonel who cracks under the pressure of a court case because he is offended that lowly lawyer Tom Cruise is quizzing him about the murder of a man under his charge.

Nicholson tells Cruise: 'I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to. '

See what I mean?

Well, forgive me for not being so grateful. Not paying an annual fee for my banking is one thing, but 'free banking' - don't make me laugh.

Banks are likely to make profits of £36 billion this year - that is £26,000 a minute, or £555 for every man, woman and child in the UK. Meanwhile personal debt is around £1.2 billion. Something is awry here.

Banks say the reason that they will have to start charging people for accounts is because they will be losing money by administering unauthorised overdrafts.

But that is the point. Their charges are only supposed to be recouping costs. They should not be cross-subsidising one area of business with another. No-one believes that the estimated £4.7 billion they rake in every year on unauthorised overdraft charges just covers their costs. What costs are there? Show us.

If they do start charging for accounts because they need to make up the money they are losing from charges then customers who never go overdrawn would have the right to complain about subisdising those that do.

But this is the bank's game. They want to divide consumers. They want to get those that never go overdrawn to side with them.

Consumers are cleverer than that though. They know the banks are making a mint.

Then you have to ask what would happen to the massively lucrative packaged account market that UK banks run?

It is estimated that the banks make at least £530million from these alone, but if we started to have to pay to get a standard accounts too where would it leave the fees consumers pay for their packages?

It's a tough call. The fees will have to rise and surely, once a customer is paying more than £200 a year for a bank account they will start seriously thinking about the value they get.

Whatever happens we have seen a healthy shift in power. Consumers are learning to fight back against big banks and, so far, have been winning the battle.

Let's just hope it continues.

James Coney, Money Mail

October 03, 2006

Lloyds TSB - You have let me down

I LIKED Lloyds TSB.

When my friends asked me which bank they should switch their accounts to, I said with confidence: Lloyds TSB.

I liked the fact that they charged 4 pc on their current account. I liked their internet banking service. And most of all I liked the fact that if you went overdrawn without permission for the first time in 12 months they would let you off a charge. Better still, if you were overdrawn by less than £10 they would also let you off.

Heck, even their packaged accounts are good, as long as you know how to use them.

But then on Friday I discovered that the £10 buffer and the first-time overdrawn waiver were being taken away from customers.

This effectively means that if you go just 1p in to the red by accident you will be charged £30. And from here further charges can spiral you in to debt.

They say this won't happen. But over the course of Money Mail's Fair Play on Charges Campaign I have seen it happen to readers time and time again.

Our most recent Bad Banks league had Lloyds TSB sixth, with just 7 pc of the hundreds of complaints Money Mail had received. This is commendable when you consider that Lloyds has the biggest share of UK current accounts, some 24 pc of the market, and 10 million individual accounts.

And the reason for this satisfaction was the buffer and the waiver. Without these, previously happy customers are going to start feeling aggreived.

When I met Lloyds execs earlier this year they were understandably chuffed about this feat. Their press office has always been proud of the positive PR that it gave them - and understandably so. They boasted that Lloyds thought it was unfair to charge customers for small mistakes.

So I can only assume that it is some senior number-cruncher that has made this volte face. It certainly can't be anyone that understands about customer satisfaction.

They have obviously looked at the amount of customers that go a few pence overdrawn every year and thought to themselves: 'hey, here is a chance to boost our profits'.

And now I feel like Lloyds TSB has let me down personally because I thought they were a good bank. I thought they offered something a little bit different from their rivals: a desire to keep their customers happy.

I am off to tell my friends that I have changed my mind.

James Coney, Money Mail

September 25, 2006

The little things that make you happy.....

OFTEN there is little real value to be had in a supermarket.

Shopping in one can be a pretty miserable experience at the best of times, but on a Sunday morning and in miserable weather it can be soul destroying.

In my tiny corner of south-west London there is little option but to head in to one if you need some fruit and veg on a Sunday. So that is where we found ourself yesterday.

It's hard to tell what value-for-money actually is when you shop these days. There are so many multi-buy offers, different pricing methods for the same products that you cannot compare anything.

The-future-Mrs-C and I use the '£1 per item' technique to judge whether we have shopped well. This means if you have, say, 14 items it should come to no more than £14. Any more than this and you have shopped badly. It's not scentific, but I reckon its a good measure. (We also play 'guess the price' before we pay. Whoever's guess is most out has foot the bill.)

Of all the things to cheer me yesterday, the trip to the supermarket provided an unlikely tonic. We came away with 28 items for £19 and all thanks to a basket that was brimming with items reduced because they had hit their 'sell by' date. It saved us £9 - and they were all things we actually wanted before we went in.

Each of us in the UK chucks out £420 of food a year. And much of that is perfectly edible, but just past its sell by date. And it wouldn't surprise me if quite a lot was made up people throwing away items they bought in 'buy one, get one free' offers, or 'two-fors' that they didn't really want or need.

You have to be so careful not to fall for these tricks because it can send your supermarket bill creeping higher and higher, and leave you with a cupboard full of stuff you never really wanted.

But when you do come away feeling like you have saved some money it is a genuine feeling of happiness indeed!

James Coney, Money Mail

August 23, 2006

A cycling manifesto

GENERALLY speaking, drivers don't like cyclists.

And I can understand that. But do drivers really hate cyclists more than other road users? Probably not. I reckon there are the same proportion of bad cyclists as there are bad drivers. Which means there must be more bad drivers since there are simply a greater number of car users.

It seems to me that much of the anti-cyclist sentiment comes from the fact that cyclists can get to the front of traffic jams and weave their way through the queues, leaving fuming drivers sitting there.

Now I must declare an interest, I am a cyclist. But I'm not going to be a cycling apologist - because I agree that there are stacks of terrible people on bikes out there. There are three reasons why I cycle to work. It's quicker than the tube, it's cheaper and being able to get a bit of fresh air every day is great.

And for those sceptics, it really is cheaper and quicker. My bike cost me £300. Even if I don't look after it will last three years. Extras (clothing, lights, batteries, bags) are another £200. Roughly its £300 a year.

A one month tube card costs £99.

I live in Balham in south west London. The Mail's offices are on High St Kensington. As you can see this requires two changes on the tube, plus a 10 minute walk at either end and waiting time. All in all, its a 45 minute journey. If the tube has delays it can take more than an hour.

To cycle takes 20 minutes. Even if the journey gets disrupted it only takes 25 minutes.

So I have decided it is time for a change. It is time for cyclists, pedestrians and drivers to sign a truce.  Here is my manifesto for change:

Cyclists

- For goodness sake, wear a helmet. I know it means you have to do your hair again when you arrive.

- Wear bright colours.

- Buy lights.

- Signal.

- Don't undertake cars that are indicating left.

- Don't jump red lights, and please, if you are at a crossroads wait for your lights to turn green rather than watching for the other lights to turn red.

- Don't cycle with headphones on or while chatting on the phone.

- If another cyclist has overtaken you on the road don't then push in front of them at the next set of lights. They will only have to overtake you again.

Drivers

- Don't overtake a cyclist and then immediately turn left afterwards.

- Don't get annoyed by cyclists because they can weave their way through a traffic jam. It is not their fault you are in a car.

- Signal.

- Look before opening your car door.

Pedestrians

- Look before you cross. Just because a road is quiet does not mean nothing is coming.

- Don't walk in the road. You don't want cyclists on the pavement, so stay off the road.

Let me know what you think.

James Coney, Money Mail

August 22, 2006

Car insurance confusion

EVERYONE knows that you should shop around for cheaper car insurance your policy comes up for renewal.

But what happens if you get a cheaper quote from the same company that you have been offered your renewal quote from?

This is precisely has just happened to me.

My old car insurance policy with M&S Money expired this month. They gave me a renewal quote of £500 (forgive me for not using the actual figures).

I had no problems with M&S, in fact I quite liked their policy - it gives you free European cover and breakdown assistance. But anyhow, I decided to go online and find see if there were cheaper quotes out there.

A range of companies came up that were cheaper than my renewal quote - and bizarrely, M&S was one of them. It was giving me a quote of £400.

I called M&S Money to find out what was going on. They asked me if I had found a cheaper quote and I told them that online I was able to get £400 from their own company.

'I'm sorry,' said the customer services adviser, 'but we can't match that quote.'

'But it's your company,' I said. 'I have typed in all the details exactly the same as the renewal letter you gave me. Nothing has changed and yet the online quote is cheaper.'

'I don't know what that is. But I can't match it,' came the reply. I hung up.

So I then applied online for the M&S policy. They sent me documents so I rang the number on my renewal letter to let them know I would not be taking them up on their renewal quote. They asked why and I explained the situation. Again I was told that they could not match the quote.

'We're sorry about that you've found another insurer,' said the adviser.

Yesterday, I received a letter from M&S Money saying: 'We are sorry you are leaving us.' I rolled my eyes.

And the moral: Always shop around for a new insurance policy. You may find a better deal - even if it is with your old insurer.

James Coney, Money Mail

August 18, 2006

Are PayPal users really better off?

CALL me cynical, but I can't help but think there is an alternate motive behind the press release from PayPal that has just arrived in my inbox.

It is warning small businesses not to fall behind in the ultra competitive market.

Apparently one in five purchases that occur online would not have otherwise happened on the high street, creating an extra £3.2billion in consumer spending each year.

PayPal says the internet is the most prosperous place for businesses to survive.

So, why the scepticism you may ask? Well, not us let forget that today all businesses on eBay, which owns PayPal and for many people is one and the same organisation, are going on strike.

They are in dispute over an increase in sellers fees for businesses, claiming that the site is being geared towards individuals.

So in this context does this not sound a little bit like sour grapes? That perhaps PayPal is sending out a warning shot to businesses not to mess with it or else risk missing out?

I'll leave it up to you to decide whether this is just another example of a company trying to cover up some bad publicity by creating some good publicity of their own.

And on that issue of publicity PayPal also appear to have ditched their previous PR company and are now being represented by a company called Lansons. For those outside the media world, this will mean nothing. But Lansons are one of the most savvy and demanding PR agencies in the financial services sector.

After months of foul publicity, much of it prompted by Money Mail's own investigation in to Paypal, the company now seems to have got fed up with its old agency and wants someone to get it some positive mentions in the press.

Sadly, with our post and email inbox still bulging with complaints about PayPal they are not going to be able to do this by putting a nice gloss on the surface. It is going to take a more serious review of its internal complaints system.

James Coney, Money Mail

August 11, 2006

What happens with your travel insurance?

There could be some very nasty surprises if you are one of the thousands of travellers caught up in the current airport chaos and are hoping to claim on your travel insurance.

Now, while you will be covered by EU regulations for some delay, whether you will be able to claim on your policy for loss, inconvenience, delay or damage caused to your possessions could be down to the goodwill of your insurer.

You see, the problem is that while some policies cover travellers for these things when they are caused by terrorism your insurer will argue that this will not apply because there has been no terrorist action - just the threat of it.

And financial research company Defaqto reckons that while many policies cover you for delays in take-off their terms surrounding the claim can be onerous. This is because you will have to claim that you checked in and then waited 8 to 12 hours. What is happening to many flyers at the moment is that they are not even being able to check-in so there is no proof of the delay.

Further, your valuable possessions that now have to go in the hold of the plane will not be covered for breakage or loss unless they are stored in a lockable case or bag.

However, you may be able to claim for them on your home insurance.

It is the AA who have hit the nail on the head they. Its main bit of advice is: Check with your travel insurer what is and is not covered.

And I suspect that with the volume of claims likely to be high that the answer will more often than not be: Nothing.

James Coney, Money Mail

>> www.thisismoney.co.uk/insurance

August 08, 2006

Sometimes you get what you pay for

Okay, there was a slight mishap on my recent holiday.

To cut a long story very short, we (me and my fiance, her mum, and two sisters) turned up at the airport to discover that actually the flights we had confirmed with British Airways from Gatwick to Barcelona left precisely seven days earlier. We hadn't turned up late, it was just that they had been booked incorrectly.

I'm not going to point any fingers of blame (but needless to say the-future-Mrs-C will not be booking our honeymoon).

Now when you have booked a return flight and you do not take the outbound trip you automatically lose the inbound flight.

Airlines are completely within their rights to do this. It is essentially to stop you from buying a cheap return flight because it costs less than going one way.

Having carried a letter in Money Mail just a couple of weeks ago about this subject I knew this already so as the flight disaster unfolded I was well aware of the grisly fact that we had lost all our flights before the BA staff told us about it.

Now in the course of what was a long day at Gatwick all of us eventually managed to get where we were going. For £122 extra per person we were able to get confirmed return flights (albeit coming back to Heathrow and a day later than intended) and fly out to Spain stand-by that day.

The four ladies were able to squeeze on a flight five hours later than intended and were in Barcelona by bedtime. I arrived later*.

There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing all that day at Gatwick Airport as we went from check-in desks, to customer services desks, to stand-by desks and back again on several occasions.

And at every turn the BA staff were fantastic. They came up with sensible options of what we could do and help us out as much as they could. The airport was heaving as it was the first week of the school holidays, but they were patient and helpful (and I know what you are thinking: 'Of course they were helpful. You are a journalist for the Daily Mail.' But I promise you, they were never aware of this fact).

Even more staggering was that they all knew that we were not stuck because of a mistake out of our hands......it was entirely a situation all of our own making.

As I finally sat on my flight I felt a pang of regret about a recent Blog I wrote about getting cheap flights. I was prepared to fly budget. My fiance's mum had insisted on BA.

I just wonder. If I had flown budget would I have got the same level of help? Would I have been able to get on another flight that day at no extra cost? Would I have been able to reconfirm flights back for such little cost?

I doubt it. But I wonder if I have learnt a lesson.

James Coney, Money Mail

* If you really want to know how I got to Barca then here it is. I flew to Madrid on the last flight that night, slept on the airport floor and then went on the Metro at 6am to go to Atocha station where I took a five hour train journey to Barcelona.

www.thisismoney.co.uk/travel

July 21, 2006

The Inheritance Tax shock

One in five homes will be worth more than the inheritance tax threshold of £285,000 by 2020, according to some research that has landed on my desk from Halifax.

That means the beneficiaries of 4.5 million homeowners would have to pay inheritance tax at 60 pc.

Which leads me to this thought: Are we about to get to the stage where people are actually trying to make their houses worth less, rather than more, in order to push the price below the inheritance tax threshold?

Imagine it. Couples in their 80s with a house worth £300,000 putting stone cladding on the outside walls, Christmas lights on the roof, and installing an avocado coloured bathroom all in a desperate bid to reduce the price of their house by £15,000 before they die.

We could be seeing a sudden wave of pensioners being dragged into court charged with tax evasion, for ripping out a fireplace and installing uPVC windows on their two-up, two-down in Croydon.

Is this not the price we will all have to pay for the luxury of high house prices? Halifax thinks not and wants the inheritance tax bracket to be raised to £430,000.

At the other end of the scale first-time buyers are more streched than ever. The number of people entering the market is at a record low. If you want an indication of the plight then hows about this.

Imagine you and your partner decided two years ago you wanted to buy a house. The average price was £157,091, so you put aside £650 a month (its a lot, I know) in order to save for a 10 pc deposit. You reach your target two years later.......only to find that you now need another £3,000 to get to your 10 pc deposit because of the continued house price growth.

And at current growth every month you are £350 further away from your target as house prices grow by a further £1,000.

Life maybe rosy if you are already on the ladder. Just remember that at the end of it that there could be a price to pay.

James Coney, Money Mail

Useful links

Latest on house prices - www.thisismoney.co.uk/houseprices

News and advice on inheritance tax - www.thisismoney.co.uk/iht 

July 19, 2006

Bank charges fight goes on

There is good news for all of those current account customers trying to get their bank to refund unauthorised overdraft charges.

A legal test case that caused bank charges complaints to be thrown out of the courts has been settled.

The case, which we revealed a week ago in Money Mail, was against Lloyds TSB brought by a customer trying to reclaim thousands of pounds of bank charges and was scheduled to be heard by London Mercantile Court.

This would have provided grounds for a precedent that other similar bank charges cases being heard by the small claims court could have followed. As a result many were thrown out or stalled.

However, after a chat with a spokesman for Lloyds TSB I discover that they have now paid back the dipsuted charges. She says that Lloyds had not been aware that its legal argument was being considered as a test case.

The case passed on from the small claims court to the higher Mercantile Court because it had been so technical.

This had alerted other regional courts where judges had decided to put claims to refund bank charges on hold.

However, after the case had been transferred to the Mercantile Court it was settled by Lloyds. Now all the other cases that had been delayed by judges have been . Many have now been settled by the banks.

It means that no bank has yet defended a court claim from a customer seeking to have bank charges refunded.

I passed this good news on to Marc Gander, from bank charges website Consumer Action Group. This group has done some sterling work in helping current account customers understand their legal rights when it comes to unauthorised charges.

Mr Gander says: 'I think that this goes to show that the banks really don't want to go to court and are in disarray.'

And he could well be right. During our campaign Fair Play on Charges we have entered into a bit of a circular conversation with banks.

Every time I ask them about charges they reply that they are part of the terms and conditions of the account. But that doesn't mean they are fair, I reply. That doesn't mean that they reflect the true cost of operating the unauthorised overdraft.

And you can guess what the response is. 'They are part of the terms and conditions of the account.'

And so it goes on. I'm sure you'll be hearing plenty more on this from me....

James Coney, Money Mail

- For a full list of Bank Charges stories click here or see here...

July 14, 2006

Too much choice in the air

I dread going to airports. Not because I hate flying, but because of the journey.

Of course, when you go on holiday cost of flights is one thing. But getting to and from the airport easily and cheapily is another. The cost and aggravation of the trip can really mount up if you get it wrong.

Airport parking is out of the question. It is never convenient. You either get stung for a fortune, or you end up leaving your car parked in some field five miles from the airport and needing to get a lift in minibus to get you to the airport.

So it is down to public transport.

Because I live in south-west London you would think I had lots of choice of airports to fly from.

There is City, Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton and Stansted.

However, getting to Heathrow and Stansted can be an almighty pain in the neck and the wallet. You need to add on another £40 to the cost of your flight and, realistically two hours to get to both. (I kind of discount Stansted anyway because I refuse to fly RyanAir on the basis that a) we get lots of readers complaining about them b) they nearly killed me on a flight to Brussels c) if I wanted someone to tell me off constantly I would go back to boarding school).

And its not just these two airports. Luton is a cheap £10 train journey one way but an extra two tube journeys to get to, while Gatwick is nearest and cheapest (£8) but is generally the most chaotic of the lot.

However, just off the radar are two airports which are an oasis of calm and, in my view, worth the small extra cost. These are Bournemouth (90 minutes from Clapham Junction) and Southampton (one hour). A return is £30 but actually getting there and back is far less aggravation. You get on a train and, hey presto, an hour later you are there.

Anyway, I'm off to scour the FlyBe and EasyJet websites to see what I can get.

James Coney, Money Mail

July 11, 2006

Nice idea...but will it work twice.

So, the canny internet user who set out to swap a paper clip for a house has achieved his goal.

It was a great idea and I'm sure that a book and a film of the scheme will follow. What I really like about it is that the very heart of this goes back to the age-old tradition of bartering - swopping something you've got that someone else wants for something that they've got and you want.

When it came to this swap, Kyle MacDonald was savvy from the start. Why? He told the press. We loved the story.

And because of that Kyle's lot was made so much easier. I bet there are thousands of loonies out there who want to be part of a such a high-profile scheme. He was probably inundated with offers.

But now, I can't imagine it working twice. At least not with such ease. The idea has been done, and the media will not go so wild a second time round. In fact MacDonald's last few trades all came about because of publicity hungry traders.

I suppose that it is like all the best ideas - you have to be the first person to have it.

James Coney, Money Mail

June 28, 2006

Crazy cards

THERE are two good things about the new Audi credit card.

The first thing is that it is only one of three in the country that does not charge upwards of 2.5 pc commission for foreign currency transactions (Nationwide and Livepool Victoria are the other two).

The second is the press release that arrived in my email announcing the launch of the card.

Listen to this: 'As pleasing to the touch as it is to the eye, in the best traditions of Audi design, the distinctive matt black Audi card upholds the Vorsprung durch Technik principles of innovation and progress through attractive features that distance it from the majority'

Ha ha ha ha ha. I almost had to remind myself that I was reading about a piece of plastic designed that enables you to spend money.

And I realise that Audi are quite new to the world of personal finance but surely claiming that the Audi card is 'a new way to pay for goods and services' is stretching the PR guff a little bit too far.

Still, there are other benefits to the car, - but they are mainly geared (get it!) at Audi car owners. However, the 0 pc currency conversion is something we at Money Mail are keen to see more of.

James Coney, Money Mail

This is Money: Credit Card finder

June 26, 2006

This is the problem with first time buyer schemes

This is an advert I spotted in a London estate agents last week.

£198,000, Kennington.

A well presented second floor two-bedroom maisonette in a Victorian building situated within walking distance of local shops and restaurants in Kennington. Regular transport to City and West End are close by. The property offers one double and one single bedroom, a large reception room, a kitchen/breakfast room and bathroom. The flat is being sold on a shared ownership basis. A 62% share is currently for sale, and the remaining 38% is owned by Tower Homes, part of London & Quadrant. The property is available only to first time buyers.

Now, doesn't that sound too good to be true? Well, you are right.

After phoning the estate agents I was told that for starters £198,000 was not the asking price, but rather the amount of mortgage the buyer was expected to stump up (IE the complete 62 per cent share). Secondly, unlike most shared ownership schemes you could never increase your stake in the property so that you owned the whole of the property. The housing association would always own 20 per cent.

And finally, and most ridiculously, the first time buyer had to have a salary of £57,000, or £75,000 joint income.

Isn't that nonsense? If you are earning this much money then surely you can afford to buy a house on your own accord, without help of a key worker scheme.

I may sound like a disgruntled first time buyer.....and I am.......but the point is that large swathes of the population fall below this salary and are not teachers or doctors or nurses or fireman and are getting no help whatsoever to get on to the ladder.

James Coney, Money Mail

Getting your foot on the ladder

June 02, 2006

Orange joins 'free' internet battle

SO, Orange has become the first company to challenge Carphone Warehouse's 'free' broadband offer.

Carphone offers free 8Mb broadband when you sign up to a £21 a month landline that gives unlimited calls to UK, USA, Australia and Europe. Orange's offer gives free broadband when you sign up to a £30 a month or more mobile phone contract.

Now free is an interesting word. I don't think that there can be many consumers who actually think that a company will give them something for nothing. In both these cases 'free' is only free because the company is not charging you directly for the service.

As always there is of course a catch. With Orange still need to pay a basic £11 line rental to BT in order to get broadband in the first place.

Unlike the Carphone offer, us journos have hardly been jumping up and down excitedly about the Orange deal.

For starters it is more expensive, and then there is the fact that just 16 per cent of mobile customers spend £30 or more a month on their mobile - so most of us would be paying extra.

Crucially, most telecoms experts I have spoken to since the Orange offer launched on Wednesday seem to agree that you can get better value by signing up to Carphone Warehouse's offer and getting yourself T-Mobile's £25 a month mobile phone contract.

What is more the offer is not open to existing Orange customers. This is something that grates with all journos: why should loyal existing customers be shut out?

Don't be surprised if this free broadband market really starts to hot up in the next year as companies frantically try to tie their customers in with increasingly attractive deals.

James Coney, Money Mail

May 30, 2006

Guessing the FTSE

We've got a new game in the Money Mail office. It's guessing what price the FTSE will be every hour.

It was only a couple of months ago that the FTSE 100 was nudging 6,000. At the time of writing it was at 5,688, and down more than 100 points today.

Last week the FTSE seemed to bounce daily between being 100 points down to 30 points up - in fact finishing the week marginally higher than it had started following its biggest fall in three years the previous Friday.

For many small private investors these daily fluctuations are a nightmare. Do you stay or do you go? Sadly, I don't have the answer to that. If I did I would be sitting on my own island in the Indian Ocean rather than here.

You may decide that you want to get out now - but here lies the problem. If you have cash in investment funds now doesn't mean now......it means tomorrow.

You would think that in this modern age of computerisation that funds would be able to take their price more than once a day - but no (apparently it costs too much). Sell your investments now and it is highly likely that the price you get will be the one at noon tomorrow.

If the market falls five per cent in the meantime, then tough luck, so does your investment.

James Coney, Money Mail

May 23, 2006

Finding a place to call home

WHAT is the most important factor when buying your first home?

A new survery from property management group Places for People, sugggests that it is affordability. Crime, local hospitals and schools were well down the list.

I bet this comes as a surprise to 'the powers that be', but for anyone trying to get their first foot on the ladder the grim reality of a housing market with sky-high prices is something they are all too well aware of.

Fantastically, the report which quizzed MPs found that only one-third of them thought that affordability was a factor and that low crime and schools were of almost equal importance.

Those on the housing ladder already seem to have very little grasp of how dire the situation is for those waiting to get on - unless of course they have kids of their own in exactly this situation.

Indeed, you only need to take a glance at the government's solution  to this affordability issue - by giving key workers and those on low incomes access to cheaper homes - to see that while this will help them, it will not address the problem of thousands of middle earners, the majority of the university leaving workforce who are not doctors or solicitors or policemen or nurses.

Quite simply these middle-earners are earning too much to get cheap housing, but not enough to stretch their budgets to buy everyday housing.

Meanwhile they have to stay renting until they are able to afford a deposit. But as house prices climb still higher, the goal of getting that five per cent deposit gets further away.

James Coney, Money Mail

May 17, 2006

An insight into a journalist's world

Those of you who read the Money Mail section on a Wednesday as well as this page will know that we have started a 'Fair Play on Charges' Campaign.

We have called on the banks to come clean over those awful overdraft charges that stack up whenever you go a few pence overdrawn.Logosbankl131205_100x110

As you can probably guess our postbag and email inboxes have been bulging. Some of you have lost thousands of pounds for making the smallest of errors. (If you are in this boat I can recommend Simon Lambert's excellent guide on how to complain).

This week, we looked at how the charges can stack up. Now, I've spent three weeks looking at current account information: studying the small print, speaking to press officers, reading readers' letters - all in a bid to find a way to explain how charges are implemented.

And the answer: willy-nilly. There are so many exemptions, so much smaller print in the small print, so many random charges, that sometimes not even the press officers can explain it. With two banks it took at least three phone calls and three emails to sort out how much you would be charged if you went a 10p overdrawn for one night.

Another bank, who I asked to tell me what the total charges would be for having two direct debits bounce and for the customer to be overdrawn for £40 for a week, sent me this:

'Sunday: If he is overdrawn by £10 there will be no debit interest or unauthorised fee as there is a £20 buffer zone. Direct debits. If over £10 and we fail to pay: 2x £34 unpaid item charge. If over £10 and we do pay, despite insufficient funds: 2x £25 paid item charge. Decision to pay or not is based on the previous conduct of the customer's account. If overdrawn for five days: £78 - 2x £25 unauthorised fee.'

Can you see what the total cost is? No, neither can I. (The final answer was £118!?!)

Is there any wonder why customers are so confused and angry?

- James Coney, Money Mail

Useful links

DEAL FINDER: Switch your current account now

DEAL FINDER: Do your own research on credit card charges

TOP BUYS: Check out the most competitive credit cards on the market

April 18, 2006

The end of cash?

For the first time ever spending on debit cards in shops is greater than the amount spent in cash.

This was revealed today in figures from the UK payments association APACS and is an important landmark for the move towards our cashless society of the future.

The figures from Apacs show that in 2005 spending on debit cards was £89 billion while cash spending was £81 billion - both well ahead of credit card spending at £61 billion and cheques at a measly £9 billion.

And I am pretty sure that this trend will continue. Spending on cheques has been falling steadily for a few years now, while that of debit cards climbs by around 10 per cent each year.

With advances in technology, and increasing number of shops now taking cards, chip and pin, and predictions of top-up cards that we can use for transport and shopping it seems likely that cash spending will continue to fall.

It is all seems such a far cry from the days when you had to ask whether a shop 'took cards'. And even then you would sometimes be penalised if you wanted to spend a small amount, but in reality this was less than a decade ago.

- James Coney, Money Mail

Useful links 

More stories on banking at www.thisismoney.co.uk/banking

More stories on credit cards at www.thisismoney.co.uk/credit

April 05, 2006

Website savers

LAST month in Money Mail I wrote about some handy websites that will save you money and make your life easier.

Since then my postbag has been rammed with letters and emails from readers wanting more and even suggesting some of their own personal favourites.

There are dozens of sites out there for switching your gas and electricty or for comparing loans and credit cards - some reliable (like our very own ThisisMoney) site - and some not so.

What we want to find is more the websites run by small companies or individuals that have spotted a niche and can cut corners to save you cash.

Here are three more to get you started:

www.sharedplaces.co.uk - Website that matches people that want to find someone else to buy a house with - whether as a buy-to-let opportunity or to live in themself.

www.haggle4me.com - Looking for a bargain? Then this is the place for you. Sign in and find out about a wealth of products that you can save at least £20 on that have been spotted by the website's own users.

www.fatfingers.co.uk - Independently run website that trawls through eBay's pages looking for items that have been spellt wrong. Why? Because these items will not come up under a normal search, have fewer people bidding on them, and as a result are usually sold at a much lower price.

I am keen to hear any more of your ideas.

James Coney

March 29, 2006

Credit card basics

INCREASING numbers of us are paying off our credit cards.

According to latest figures the average outstanding balance on a credit cards has dropped to below £3,000. It's a figure that has been falling for 10 months.

And the amount of balance transfers has fallen too - to around £2,500. This peaked at £3,500 in April 2005.

It is good to see that finally credit card borrowers are getting to grips with their debt. But let's just hope that they are making the right decision when it comes to swapping their balances.

Changing to a credit card that is interest free for balance transfers is a great idea. But make sure that you are not being charged for the privilege of doing so. There are plenty of good deals around, though not nearly as many as their were at the end of last year.

Also, remember not to spend on top of your balance transfer. This bit of debt will, with most companies, be the last thing that you pay off and undo all the hard work you have done in switching the balance in the first place.

And finally, one month before the interest free period ends start shopping around for a new deal. As soon as you have transferred the balance to the new card make sure you rip up the old one.

James Coney

Useful links

Compare the best interest-free credit card deals

REPORT: Card charges to be slashed

FREE TRIAL: Check your credit file

March 24, 2006

What am I paying for?

THERE are times when I really cannot figure out what I am paying for in a supermarket.

Take two common purchases. Tomatoes and toothpaste.

Putting aside the different varieties of tomato for a moment, the way that they are priced in most supermarkets seems deliberatley deceptive to me. How is a person supposed to compared loose tomatoes priced in pence per pound, with packaged tomatoes given a set price for 300 grammes. You can't. And I guess that is why they do it.

And then there is an item such as toothpaste. Prices for a tube vary from £3.50 down to as little as 70p. So what is the difference between them all. Only a chemist would be able to explain what all the various ingredients are so how are we supposed to know what is best.

I suspect that many are priced higher just to make us think that they are better.

James Coney

Shoppers fill their trolleys with clothes

Supermarket watch

March 21, 2006

Bigger doesn't mean better

Supermarkets rule the shopping world.

Every week we are reminded to use our local shops as they are dying out. Research from Clerical Medical shows that we spend £123 billion a year in supermarkets. Most households spend around £63 a week, not including top-ups for extra items.

And apparently 47 per cent of us feel guilty about shopping in a supermarket.

But the next sets of figures get to the heart of the issue. Some 52 per cent of us say that cost is the most important thing when shopping for fruit and veg and that where and how it was grown is of no concern.

Meanwhile, a third of us think that we get better value for money from supermarket and 40 per cent claim that they us supermarkets because they are more convenient.

And that surely is the point. There is a fantastic fishmonger up the road from me. How many times have I been to it in the last year? Twice. And that is the same for the greengrocer and the butcher. Why? Because they are only open from 10am to 6pm. I would love to go to these shops. But these are precisely the hours that I am at work.

A quick poll of friends round the country reveals that they too have the same problem.

In countries such as Spain, Italy and France there are plenty of local shops that survive. I can't help thinking that the reason for this is that they open until at least 8pm.

So what is the answer? Would people use smaller shops if they opened later? Most of us are savvy-ing up to healthy lifestyles and where our food comes from. This is half the battle for small shops.

Would you be prepared to pay more to support your local community? How much more would you be prepared to pay?

James Coney

Our small shops are dying fast

MPs back plea by small shops

March 15, 2006

Watch out for hidden sting

SOMETIMES (or maybe that should read 'often') banks make me despair.

Yesterday Natwest sent me through some details about their new first time buyer mortgage.

Now, few in the mortgage industry would argue that it is a tough time for first time buyers.

High house prices and massive levels of debt mean that thousands are left struggling to find enough cash for a large deposit for a house. They need as much help as they can get.

Natwest's mortgage is staggered. You pay 3.99 pc in the first year, 4.99pc in the second, and 5.99 pc in the third. You can overpay 10 pc each year, a £195 arrangement fee and free valuation. And they will lend you 100 pc of the property price.

Not bad.......until you add in the hidden cost. The higher lending charge. This is a fee that kicks in when you borrow over three-quarters of the property price. If you wanted to borrow 100 pc with Natwest it would be 10.3pc.....an extra £2,575 for a £100,000 property.

Why banks persist with this ridiculous charge is beyond me. If banks really wanted to help first time buyers they would get rid of the higher lending charge -just like Nationwide, Cheltenham & Gloucester, Woolwich and Northern Rock have done.

James Coney

First time buyers miss out

First time buyers at 25 year low

March 09, 2006

Stop the junk

ABOUT a year ago I signed up for the Mail Preference Service www.mpsonline.org.uk and Telephone Preference Service www.tpsonline.org.uk.

This was on the back of a number of satisfied readers who had called to recommend them.

These are two websites that you can sign up to which stop cold-calls and junk mail being delivered to your house. Within two weeks of logging on I found a drastic reduction in the number of calls, in particular, that our house received. It has stayed this way ever since.

In this week's Money Mail we listed a number of websites that make can your life easier and save you money. Both these sites were on the list.

Since then my mailbag has been bulging with complaints. "They do not stop anything", "It was okay for a short while and now its just as bad as ever", have been the gist of the calls.

Now either these readers are over-reacting and expecting a little bit too much, or something has happened. Because, quite frankly, this surprises me.

Have marketing firms suddenly started to do something different that means TPS and MPS are becoming redundant? They both make it clear that not every junk call or letter will be stopped, but if the evidence from readers seems to suggest that signing up has had little or no effect.

What is going on? If you have any comments post them below.

James Coney

March 01, 2006

Revenge on 0870 numbers

I'm going to get myself an 0870 number for my home.

Why? Quite simply, revenge. I am sick to the back teeth of companies making me pay to speak to them. So, since the-future-Mrs C and I rarely get any phone calls to our home line other than those on business we are going to turn the tables.

According to the web I can get an 0870 number for £9.95 so for every call made to me I get 4p per minute. A second landline costs £74. After 2,000 minutes of incoming phone calls (five minutes a day) I am in profit.

This new phone number I am going to give out to directory enquiries and every form I have to fill in for a bank, online shop, utility etc. Even cold callers can have it.

Of course, to further my own enjoyment I am going to connect this phone line to a very long answer machine message, which I envisage going something like this.

"Hello, you are through to the phone line of James Coney. Your call maybe recorded for training purposes. Your call is important to me. In a minute you will be presented with three options please listen to them and choose the appropriate one. If you are hoping to make me change my phone line, gas or electricity please press one. To call me about a new service on my bank account please press two. Or to speak to me directly press three........I am sorry James Coney is busy right now. Please try again later."

- James Coney

Useful links

0870 days are numbered

Message Boards: Discuss 0870 numbers

February 27, 2006

Changing Banks

I decided that I needed to swap bank accounts and since Barclays had a good deal I opted for them.

It was all going so swimmingly. I had filled in the form online and answered all the basic questions, but then came the security questions.

Now, you expect to be checked up through Experian or Equifax whenever you buy anything financial these days. But I had never come across the bizarre multiple questions that Barclays had. They went something like this:

Question 1: You took out a credit or debit card in 1989. Who was it for?

a) Bank of Dorset b) Joe Bloggs Lending c) Coney Loans d) DM Credit Cards

Question 2: What is the current balance of this card?

a) less than £5 b) £6 to £8  c) £9 to £7,000 d) £7,001 to £7,002

Question 3: What is the current credit limit on a card you have with Financial Ltd?

a) £500 b) £3000 c) £3100 d) £3500

Like every multiple choice test I did at school one answer was obviously wrong, but it could have easily been any of the others.

And like every multiple choice I did at school, I didn't know the answer so opted for option C every time.

Predictably, I failed the test and was refused for an account. The reason why? Barclays says that the answers I presented did not match the ones on my record. Well, what a surprise!

I mean, seriously, is it just me or does anyone actually know precise what the balances on their cards are to the day and what card they took out 17 years ago? Is it not enough that every transaction we make these days is tracked that all of a sudden they want your complete financial CV?

James Coney

The great switching divide

Guide: How to switch bank accounts

February 10, 2006

Problems with NTL

I regularly get complaints from readers about NTL.

This week, I had a beauty. A reader complained that they were being billed by NTL for phone calls, even though they never used the phone. Indeed, when they checked the line it was dead.

Months before, the reader signed up for NTL cable TV. They were asked if they wanted a free phoneline - and said yes, thinking it would be a good second line. They already had a BT phoneline and broadband internet with another provider.

In December they suddenly got a £20 NTL phone bill. They complained to NTL, which promised to get back to them. It didn't. The money was taken by direct debit.

The next month they got an £80 bill. They complained again. Nothing. Eventually an engineer was sent out. He confirmed that their NTL phoneline was not connected at the mains box in the road.

But NTL still refused to reverse the charges, and even billed them for the engineer because there had not actually been a problem 'on the line'.

They tried to argue that they could not possibly have made the calls because their engineer had said the line was not connected. But this logic did not seem to work.

Exasperated, the reader turned to us.

NTL investigated and confirmed that the reader had no line. Amazingly, the engineer's report told how the mix-up occurred. Apparently, wires were crossed in the mains box and the reader was being billed for calls his neighbour was making.

The money has now been given back to the reader. But why, if the report explained this was the reader never told this and made to go through all this grief.

I suspect, as we normally find, it was someone at NTL who made the mistake trying to save their own neck.

And guess what? While the reader never actually made any calls on their NTL line, once it was fixed they received one. From who? NTL! Asking them if they wanted to sign up to broadband!

- James Coney

New boss to improve service at NTL

Driven to distraction by NTL

February 07, 2006

What price love?

With Valentine's Day just round the corner apparently 3,000 of us are gearing up to pop the question.

So how much do you spend on the ring? It was something I had to answer just a couple of months ago when I got engaged. It is one of those issues that seems a tad indelicate to talk about in public - but  one that everyone seems to offer the same answer to.

Let's face it. It's all very well and good knowing what type of ring you want and when you are going to do the deed - but no-one ever talks about how much you should be spending.

Okay, okay. I know that it should be down to you, and your individual situation, and what she likes. And I would never advocate breaking the bank or pushing yourself massively into debt to buy the ring.

But just remember this, chaps. She WILL show the ring to every single person she meets from now until wedding day.

So here is the unwritten rule that all women know: you have to buy a ring that costs at least the same as one month's salary - though no-one seems clear on whether this is before or after tax!

Now, I'm not going to tell you what I spent, and there very few men are willing to offer the same information. However, for guidance the average monthly wage in the UK is currently £1,768.

And remember - no matter how much you spend - make sure you get an insurance certificate for the ring.

- James Coney

Wedding Guests Outspend Hosts

Avoid those wedding day blues

February 03, 2006

To buy or not to buy?

It is a question that is going through the minds of thousands of first time buyers around the country......when do you buy your first house?

And now is a worse time than ever. Mainly because house prices are so high that it is a risk.

Banks and building societies will tell you otherwise. They say that because we have steady low interest rates house prices are unlikely to fall. Indeed, according to Nationwide Building Society prices increased by a couple of per cent last month.

The economy is stable. But has anyone considered what would happen if we had a change of Chancellor? Or even a change of government.

And despite the so-called permanent low interest rate environment we are in, mortgage lenders have not changed the way they decide how much you can borrow for more than 30 years.

There is still a record low number of first time buyers on the market. Where are the new buyers on the bottom rung of the ladder going to come from? No-one has an answer.

Capital Economics use this as the reason why prices will fall by 20 per cent - because this is what prices were at last time there was a steady number of first time buyers.

Certainly, with prices in many regions oscillating between positive and negative growth, stretching yourself to buy a house is a risk. The smallest fall will leave you with negative equity.

- James Coney

The Paperclip Property Ladder

Ten Steps to Your First Home

Hosue Prices Picking Up

February 01, 2006

Switching should be easy

Hands up. I admit it. I am a rate tart.

I'm on about my third interest-free credit card deal. This time it's HSBC.

I took it out last month when my last deal expired. And it was all going so smoothly. I filled out the forms, set up the direct debit for the minimum amount each month, got the card, transferred the balance, without incurring any charges.

And then I got the letter. HSBC wrote to say my first payment was late. As a result I had racked up a charge.

So I rang them. The letter they sent said that for 'my convenience' I could make the payment over the phone.

All was going fine. After the predictable event of being passed from one person to another, I finally explained that there had been a mistake and that I had asked for a direct debit to be set up.

They understood and cancelled the charge. Then I asked to pay the balance.

'You can't', said the call centre.

I explained that the letter said I could. Apparently, what the letter fails to say is that only HSBC current account holders can make a payment on the phone. I had to go to a branch.

So I've now done this. But there here are two questions I will endeavour to answer. I understand that sometimes direct debits fail to set up, but why did the letter say I could pay on the phone when I can't?
And what happens to my interest free period now? I was promised on the phone that it wouldn't be, but I'm not so sure.

I'll let you know when I find out.

Have you had a similar problem? Post your comments below.

- James Coney

Useful links

News, advice and tips on credit cards & loans

Credit card guides

Credit card finder

January 24, 2006

Money Etiquette - Part Two

Is it polite to let people know which charities you are supporting?

Strange question? Well, around the family dinner table last week it cropped up. And it was a split decision. Half of the people argued charity pins and ribbons, such as for AIDs and breast cancer awareness, and plastic bracelets such as for Lance Armstrong's Livestrong cancer charity, are a good thing.

Why? Because they raised money and, crucially, awareness. By people seeing the pin or bracelet they become conscious of the charity and, hopefully, what it does.

However, the other half of the table argued that you should give your money and keep quiet..............that it was somehow impolite or distasteful to display your generosity.

Let me know what you think.

Post your comments below. No need to put in a URL.

- James Coney

January 18, 2006

Money Misers

Members of the Money Mail team have decided to put their money where their mouths are........by taking our own advice.

This year four members of the team will be trying to slash their bills by up to £2,300. How will they do this?

Well, not be scrimping and cutting back on life's luxuries, but by having a complete overhaul of their finances - switching their phone, gas, electricity and internet to make sure they have the cheapest deals, remortgaging where necessary, using credit cards and loyalty schemes wisely, and shopping around for vouchers and money off at shops.

To kick it all off they have outlined what they spend their money on now. You can catch the first installment by clicking on the link below, and their money saving capers will be featured on this blog as well as in the Money Mail section of the Daily Mail on Wednesdays.

Post your comments below.

Meet the Money Misers

- James Coney

January 17, 2006

A plea to Natwest

Another example of banks not quite telling you the whole story.

I was in the local branch of Natwest this morning.

As I was finishing up at the counter the assistant asked: 'Did you know you are entitled to an upgrade on your account?'

'Upgrade?'

'Yes, upgrade. To our Advantage Gold account.'

'Your packaged account?'

'Yes.'

'No thanks'.

The question remains. Upgrade! What upgrade? Sure a packaged account could leave me better off. But it could also leave me worse off because for the extra services you pay more than £100 a year.

It is certainly a different type of bank account to the one I have now, but an upgrade......?

I wish banks would just tell you the whole story. Thousands of Natwest customers will be being offered this 'upgrade', many will take it thinking that it is somehow an improvement on what they have now. But unless they actually know how to use the services on offer and need them they will be worse off. What kind of an improvement is that?

So please, Natwest, stop calling it an 'upgrade' and just tell customers what you are really trying to sell them.

- James Coney

January 13, 2006

Credit ratings

There are always a few letters in the Money Mail postbag about credit ratings.

The letters range from complaints about being refused for a credit card or a loan, to readers that have been to a credit reference agency to find out what their rating is and discovered that they have not understood the results.

It is a complex, and by no means infallible system - since we still get dozens of readers contacting us that have never had any credit card or loans and always had funds in their bank account yet they have been refused credit to buy a television simply because they have never owed a company money and there is no record of how reliable they are at repaying.

Sometimes it seems like the economy is designed to force people to take out debt.

And what vexes readers more is that they have no idea precisely how to improve a bad rating.

The simple answer is, unfortunately, that you need to have had some kind of credit and repaid it consistently over a set period of time. Other than that the vagaries of the system are deliberately kept a mystery.

Let me know if you have any credit rating tips or interesting experiences. Post your comment below. No need to enter a URL.

- James Coney

January 11, 2006

Money etiquette - part one

This is a subject that fascinates me: how we all deal with tricky financial dilemmas.

Let me explain. I got engaged just before Christmas and so am now planning our impending wedding.

It is good fun, but there is one difficult situation that needs to be resolved: funding.

You see, gone are the days when the bride's parents pay for the wedding and the groom's the honeymoon. It is much more likely that 'the happy couple' will put up most of the cash themselves.

We are of this mind ourselves: it's our day and if we have to we will pay for it ourselves.

But with the average cost of a wedding now at £17,000 this can leave young couples stranded. And, unlike the US, most British families do not have a wedding fund put aside for their children.

Parents may want to offer some help and it is important to get the balance right between them feeling included and ensuring that neither side feels put out. 

So how do you broach the subject? Do you get all sides to sit down in a room, work out a budget and then ask for whatever anyone can afford? Do you split the bill into thirds so that each side of the family has an equal responsibility with the future newly-weds?

Or do you keep it all a big secret so as not to offend anyone?

My fiance and I have negotiated this minefield now, but I would be interested to hear what advice others can give.

Post your comments below.

- James Coney, Money Mail

Useful links

Weddingl300305_100x110 Wedding guest outspend hosts

Avoid those wedding day blues

£4.2bn spent on weddings

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December 19, 2005

Mind your manners

Things that annoy me: number 345

People that talk on their mobile phone while they are being served in the bank. How rude! If this is you, then hang your head in shame.

If you expect good service from your branch, then you have to show them consideration and your undivided attention. It is not only them you are showing a lack of manners towards, but all those people in the queue behind you patiently waiting to be served while you natter away and shove your documents through the glass and expect the member of bank staff to guess what they are supposed to be doing and then try to interupt you to ask a question.

Post offices have signs put up to ask customers from talking on their phones while they are served. It's time banks did the same.

Any thoughts? Post your comments below. No URL necessary.

- James Coney

December 15, 2005

The Sky's the limit

Where exactly is pay TV heading? It is all becoming very confusing.

The last few years have been relatively simple. There was Sky and there was cable. You chose one and you chose a package of programmes. But then we started getting the extras, channels such as FilmFour and niche channels like MUTV which fall outside these packages.

Suddenly there are an increasing number of these. Then comes along Freeview which brought us Top-up TV. Suddenly, by the day, the number of channels which are classed as extras seems to have multiplied.

I'm worried because when I lived in Italy I saw the mess that their pay-per-view TV networks were in. Just on something as simple as football, if you wanted to watch Juventus home games then you had to have one channel, Milan home games a separate channel, to see them play away you needed another channel..and so on. But that did not include cup games, which were all on another channel. It sounds like madness, but basically if you wanted to follow the national sport you would have had to sign up to three or four individual pay channels. It would have cost a fortune.

But is this where we are heading in the UK? Sky is already around £40 a month, cable can be around £30.

It is just another financial decision that can drain your household budget if you don't get it exactly right.

Have you got any views on pay-per-view TV. Post them below (No URL necessary).

- James Coney

December 13, 2005

A nasty package

What is going on with packaged bank accounts?

In the last few days readers galore have been letting me know their frustration after they were signed up to a packaged bank account they never knew about.

All of them have the same story to tell. About 18 months ago they received a phone call from their bank.

'Hello Mr X, we have been reviewing you account and have recommended you for an upgrade. Are you interested?'

Obviously, the customer is delighted and says yes.

Time passes.

One year later they study their bank statement closely and discover that they are paying £10 a month for their account. They call the bank but get told they signed up for the account, despite having no recollection of actually agreeing to it. They are told of all the free bonuses such as travel and phone insurance that they get with the account - none of which any of the customers has used.

It seems that most of the major banks have gone through a desperate flogging of these packaged accounts late last year some time, and now customers are starting to twig on.

So if your bank rings you up this offering you an upgrade, take a leaf out of the Grange Hill kids' book: Jut say no!..................at least until you know exactly what you are getting.

Comments can be posted below. No URL needed.

December 08, 2005

Don't cheque this out

Credit card cheques are evil.

That is my opinion anyway. if your credit card provider sends you any through the post this Christmas my advice is to do to them what you do to all junk mail: Rip it up and recycle it.

Most people out there simply do not understand what interest rate you will pay when you use them. It is bad enough that credit card rates are already around 16 pc, but credit card cheques are around 20 pc.

On top of this there is a handling fee or a minimum charge of £2 (though it has to be said that some providers, such as Halifax, do not charge this).

Thankfully, the Office of Fair Trading seems to want to act. It has launched an investigation into how consumers understand the terms and conditions on the cheques and is threatening to force companies to stamp the interest rate on the front.

Even so, I'm with the Consumers Association, which wants them scrapped outright.

Have you got any thoughts? Post your comments below. No URL necessary.

December 06, 2005

If only the service were high speed

What is wrong with internet providers?

I haven't seen a single one that has good customer service. Every week my email inbox brims with readers that have had shoddy service from their broadband provider. Normally they have come to the end of their tether having emailed, written and then waited on the end of a phone line that rings and rings until they are blue in the face.

The problem is that there is very little the average consumer can do about it. If your internet connection packs up then most of us have to beg and plead with our provider until we are reconnected successfully.

So what price customer service? These days broadband will cost you from about £14.99 a month, up to about £23 depending on what speed of service you get. If you have been with your provider for more than 12 months then it is probably time to change.

But while technology has improved massively, and prices have dropped by almost half, customer service for something, that for many households is a part of everyday life, is staggeringly poor.

Any comments? Sick of your broadband provider? Post your comments below. No URL necessary.

- James Coney

P.S. Don't forget to check out This is Money's campaign for justice at OneTel.

December 02, 2005

Something positive

Credit where credit is due.

We reporters spend a lot of time rightly slagging off banks and building socieities that have behaved badly, but probably not enough praising those that have done something right.

So well done Abbey. It has just launched a new range of Spanish mortgages - hardly surprising when you consider it is now owned by Banco Santander. These mortgages are in Euros, so you need to transfer your money from Pounds when you make repayments.

Because the mortgage is essentially offered by Banco Santander you have to pay a lifting fee when you transfer the cash - a common practice that can add up to 0.5 pc on to your bill. This fee is supposed to pay for the work of transferring the cash between different banks and is on top of the charge you pay for changing your money in to Euros.

But well done Abbey. Customers with a current account with Abbey will not  have to pay this fee. And rightly so. It would be a bit cheeky to charge its own customer to move money to what is essentially a different branch of the same company.

So if you are thinking of taking up one of these new Abbey mortgages - a three year and five year fixed rate as well as a one year tracker - then open an Abbey current account before you take out the mortgage.

If you have any comments on buying a property in Spain, then post your comments below. No need to enter 'URL'.

- James Coney

November 28, 2005

Bank charges

This annoys me.

My girlfriend's bank called her today. It was from the fraud department.

'Last week we noticed that you spent £200 in Gap. Can you confirm this was you?,' they said.

She confirmed it. So why does this annoy me?

Well, I get dozens of emails and letters each week from bank customers that accidentally go over their authorised overdraft limit for 24 hours, rack up hundreds of pounds of fines and all because they did not know they were in the red. Frequently they complain that they could have transferred funds to the account and avoided these whopping fees if only they had known.

So how come banks can't ring these customers and stop them from accumulating more fines, and yet they can find the time to call a customer that has spent £200, not an unreasonable amount of money at Christmas time, when there is nothing wrong?

The answer, I would argue, is profits.

Let me know what you think below. (Ignore the URL box and remember we won't use or disclose your email - see How to post a comment).

- James Coney

Bank charges: Red with anger

November 24, 2005

Nightmare lodgers

I have had some great emails and letters from readers about the story that appeared in Wednesday's Mail: 'The true cost of a lodger from hell'.

It seems that there are dozens of you out there who have had terrible experiences with lodgers that would not move out, were inconsiderate, anti-social, and even violent.

As always with readers' letters you get a pattern of common observations. Surprisingly, one of them seems to be to rent out rooms to groups of students, because when they are in a group they tend to be tidier and more hard-working.

Another is that foreigners are always politer.

What also struck me was the number of great ways landlords have for getting rid of nuisance tenants.

Among the best were: 'become a nightmare landlord', 'change the locks', and 'announce the rent is going up next month, that will soon get rid of them.'

I'd love to hear any more tips, fill in below, no email/URL needed......

- James Coney

November 22, 2005

Work till you are 67?

It's an interesting quandry isn't it? Whether save more while you are working, or retire at 67. That is the debate that newspaper journos are obsessed with at the moment.

And it is probably because it is an extention of that age old debate about free-time. How much are we willing to sacrifice in leisure time or in our careers to achieve one or the other?

Putting a price on leisure time is hard to do - indeed, it is probably impossible. What is having a lasting marriage worth? £1 million? £2 million? What price for happy healthy children? £5 million?

But how much extra can we really save each month in order to retire sooner? My guess is that we most people in the UK could do more to live their lives a little bit simpler and spend less indulging ourselves for short term satisfaction.

If you would like to enter the debate on working longer please add your comments below.

November 17, 2005

Who are you banking on?

I wish banks would concentrate less on stealing each others customers and more on keeping the ones they have already got.

Students get treated particularly shoddily. It often seems like banks have no appreciation of what it is to be a student.

A friend of mine recently graduated with three credit cards, student loans, two student overdrafts and a personal loan.

A personal loan?! 'How did you get that?' I asked, wondering who would sell a standard financial product to someone with no monthly income.

Natwest, was his reply. Apparently, in his second year of a four year course he went £200 over his £1,000 interest free student overdraft. Natwest called and asked how he would repay the £200. He explained that he would not be earning any money until the summer.

The bank said that he would have to lose his entire student overdraft and take out a personal loan at 12 pc for the entire £1,200 instead. Thinking there was no other option he did just that.

Would they not let him take out a loan for the £200? No. He had to take out £1,200. This would be repaid at £45 a month. A heck of a lot of money if you are already a financially stretched student.

Do you think that this made his financial troubles better or worse? And whose best interests do you think Natwest was acting in?

Maybe this fact will help you answer that question: Six months later they gave him his free overdraft back.

November 15, 2005

The Hard Sell

Yesterday I was in my bank. After having a cheque put in the assistant looked up and said: 'Are you planning any big purchases soon?'

What? I must have looked puzzled.

'Any big purchases? A new car? Holiday?'

'No, why?'

'Oh. It's just that we have some new loan rates and you have been pre-approved.....'

I stop there because I couldn't be bothered to listen any more.

Then today in the Post Office. Sending a letter to a friend in the US.

The assistant says: 'That's £1.50 please. And do you have a credit card? It's just that we have a new card out that...........'

Aside from the fact that both sales pitches were blatantly being regurgitated by staff that could not care less what they were offering and to whom, is there anywhere that is safe from someone trying to sell you a loan or take out credit?

It is no wonder that UK consumers owe more than £1 trillion. Is getting rid of this relentless flogging of financial products the way to cut our debt problems?

November 14, 2005

Food for Thought

Would you pay extra to go to a food-free cinema?

I think I would. Yesterday I went to my local Odeon and after paying £16 for the two of us, then sat in a smelly, cold room and for the first half an hour of the film could hear nothing but the people munching popcorn and crisps less than a yard from me. Yuk!

It was an unpleasant experience and detracted from what otherwise was a very good film (The Constant Gardener, since you asked. Go see it!)

Cinemas make a fortune from the food and drink they sell. Surely they can have showings, or at least seating, for those of us that do not want to fill our faces while we watch a film?

November 09, 2005

Money for nothing

Finally the City watchdog Financial Services Authority is doing something about stopping the mis-selling of loan insurance (or Payment Protection Insurance, as it is more formally known).

As a gullible 19-year-old I was flogged a ludicrously expensive insurance plan by Dixons for a laptop I bought.

The salesman told me a great sob story about how once he was carrying his laptop in a bag and, for a joke, one of his friends threw his bag away and broke the laptop.

"I had no insurance and had to pay one and a half grand for a new laptop," he weeped. By this stage I was hearing violins playing in the background and immediately bought the loan insurance.

Little did I know the amazing amounts of commission and inducements staff at some shops get for selling these PPI.

Three years later I had paid off the laptop (at a ridiculous rate - because I also did not know any better about loan prices) but, guess what..... I was still paying through the nose for my loan insurance.

I'd love to hear from anyone that has had a similar experience, or has needed to claim and found they could not.

- James Coney

November 07, 2005

Ways to save

I want to know if anyone has any tips for helping to save. It's something we are very bad at in the UK.

A friend was whining to me on Saturday.

"There is no way you can earn enough money to save any during your 20s", he complained.

And suddenly I remembered a very good way of starting to save that someone once told me.

This person told their kids that whenever they got a pay rise they should take 20 per cent of it and save it. That way, they still got their pay increase - but only ever saw 80 per cent of it.

As always the proof is in the pudding.

Six years on and one of his children, now 25, is saving around £1,500 a year. And they have never found it a struggle mentally because they never saw that money in their bank account.

Anyone else got any good tips?

November 04, 2005

How to work out the best fixed rate

Grrrr. This gets my goat.

Some research has just crossed my desk (on a fast track from printer to recycling bin) from financial information providers Moneyfacts. It conducted a poll and found that more than half of consumers think they have been misled by an advert offering an amazing headline rate on a savings account or mortgage. The only surprising thing is that it is not more.

Take two two-year fixed-rate mortgages  (and this is a real example) - one at 4.34 per cent and one at 4.39 per cent.  Now which is cheaper for a £100,000 mortgage? You will pay £700 more with the lower rate. And this is all down to fees, more than a grands worth.

We are always being told 'look at the total cost of the mortgage' but it seems that there are plenty of people that ignore this plea. Otherwise banks and building societies would not keep trying to lure us in with these flashy rates.

My colleague Charlotte Beugge was talking about how she will always use a broker for a mortgage, and this is why I agree (personally I would opt for one that does not charge fees). But whichever you chose they should be able to work out which is best for your individual circumstances.....without getting blinded by headline fees.

- James Coney

November 03, 2005

My credit card phoneline hell

I was going to rant today about something highbrow...such as new pension ministers or hidden bank charges......but I can't.

Why? I am stuck in hell.

Not 'fire and brimstone' hell, but proper real hell: 'Credit card customer service line' hell.
'Please press 1' 'Press 1 again' 'All operators are busy, please hold' 'Dooo do doo dooo doo dooo dooo' (that is the sound of all call waiting music).

All I want to do is pay off the balance on my new &More M&S credit card.
I tried doing it online, but not for the first time my bank account flumoxed me. So I opted for the phone, afterall, I tell myself,  it is always better doing these things personally.....isn't it?

Just to make my life that extra bit difficult I use a mobile phone to call. This means that every time I take my phone away from my ear to press the next button I either miss the start of the next message or the beep that confirms the button was pressed correctly. When I return phone to ear I've no idea what to do next.

And guess what? When I do get through to a real, live person I can't hear them. 'I'm sorry,' she whispers, 'we are having problems. Can you call back later?'

Is there a world without hellish customer services lines? Someone must have an answer. It's the sort of idea that will make you a millionaire.

- James Coney

p.s. Also see:

Lost loyalty at M&S

My credit history blemish

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