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Saturday, Oct 23, 2021

Four weeks to financial fitness: 28 steps to get your money into shape

Four weeks to financial fitness: 28 steps to get your money into shape

From pensions to savings, and broadband to energy bills, check if you have made the right choices

It is the start of a new academic year and while that might not be as associated with resolutions as the day the calendar year ticks over, it is not a bad time to make a few changes. For those who have been meaning to get their finances in shape, here are 28 steps to follow – the idea is that you can do one a day for the next four weeks or take it slower. Some will need follow-up actions but as making a start can often be the hardest part, we have included them.

1) Take any “free” pension contributions your company offers


It may sound dull but it could be the best move you make this year. Many workers have the option to top up their pension pot by making additional voluntary contributions from their pre-taxed income. The best bit is that lots of companies will match at least some of what you pay in, with the best putting in up to 50p for each £1 you invest – a free pension top-up.

For higher rate, 40%-band taxpayers, it means you effectively pay in 60p (£1 minus the tax relief) and get £1.50 paid into your retirement fund. Once it is set up you can usually stop, restart or change the monthly payments as you wish, so if you can afford the reduction in your salary now there is no reason to delay.

Get in touch with your workplace pension provider and start the ball rolling. It will usually ask you to fill in a form to send back. It is currently the most rewarding saving you can do.

2) Check you are getting the broadband speed you are paying for


Does iPlayer keep buffering? Are different family members struggling to use the internet at the same time? You may not be getting the broadband speed you are paying for. Broadbandspeedchecker.co.uk will give you an accurate reading – it is worth running a few tests at different times of the day – and you can compare your scores with what you were promised when you signed your broadband contract. If you were told to expect download speeds of about 34Mbps but you are only getting 4Mbps, then complain to your provider. If the company is unable to get the speed up to something close to what it promised, you have the right to leave penalty-free, although be aware that it is worth spending some time trying to resolve the problem if you are on the BT Openreach network, as things won’t necessarily be better if you switch supplier. Broadbandchoices.co.uk has some good advice on how to proceed and contact details.

You may not be getting the broadband speed you are paying for.


3) Unpackage your bank account


If you are one of the millions of people who has a paid-for bank account, take an hour to work out whether you are getting your money’s worth. Some accounts, such as Lloyds Platinum, cost £21 a month and typically offer world travel insurance, mobile phone and car breakdown cover – all of which can be bought separately for less than £252 a year.

That’s if you even need the policies at the moment. A foreign holiday may be the last thing on your mind, and your lease car might come with breakdown cover included. Are you really going to claim on your mobile insurance if you have to send the phone away for repair, or pay a £100 excess? Downgrading to a free bank account is as easy as a phone call.

4) Unsubscribe from emails selling you things


Often signing up to a retailer’s email list will get you a discount on your first purchase but after that you will just be getting messages designed to lure you back to spend more money. Go through your inbox and get rid of temptation by clicking unsubscribe. As well as saving you money, it will mean you are more likely to spot the genuinely important messages that arrive.

5) Watch a Citizens Advice TikTok video on credit scores


Find out what a credit score is and why it matters in only 34 seconds on Citizens Advice’s TikTok channel.

6) Switch gas and electricity supplier


If you are on your supplier’s default, standard tariff you could soon be paying £1,277 a year (average usage) after Ofgem increased the price cap. Plenty of households will be able to save at least £200 a year by switching and it takes about 20 minutes. Go to Energyhelpline.com or Uswitch.com, and input your existing supplier and household details. Click on filters, and tick the “show me all the plans available” option and choose one. We would opt for a fixed price plan – Green Energy’s tariffs are currently good. Then it’s just a case of heading to the website and inputting a few details. On the day of the switch – usually a couple of weeks later – you take your meter readings, if required, and that’s it. Just don’t forget to keep a copy of your final readings, and to chase your old supplier for any balance you are owed.

Many workers have the option to top up their pension pot.



7) Improve your data deal


If you regularly go over your mobile phone contract’s data allowance, you are chucking money away each month unnecessarily as the excess charges can really add up. Moving to the right data plan could easily save you £100-£200 a year depending on how wayward you are currently being. In most cases, it’s a call to your existing supplier to add a pre-bought bundle for a few pounds each month. If you are still paying more than £8 for up to 15GB of data a month you are generally overpaying, and it may be worth switching to a new contract.

Equally, if you are still on pay as you go and your charges have risen in recent months, you will almost certainly better off buying a monthly bundle or a sim-only contract.

8) Check subscriptions, direct debits and standing orders


It may sound trite but an amazing number of people rarely, if ever, check what is leaving their accounts. The Consumer Champions inbox regularly contains letters from readers who have suddenly found that they had two Netflix accounts or were paying to insure a boiler or to subscribe to gym, a theatre membership or music streaming service – payments they thought had been cancelled months, and in some cases years, previously.

If you genuinely did cancel and the overpayments are the company’s fault, the direct debit guarantee can be used, and there is no time limit. Beware recurring bank card payments so beloved of firms that take annual subscription payments.

9) Switch one of your savings accounts to a better rate


Savings rates at the moment are pretty terrible, and if you take a look at the interest rate on your bank-account-linked savings account, you may well find you are getting a paltry 0.01%.

However, it is still possible to get more than 1% with a bit of searching around. The Savingschampion.co.uk website is your new best friend, listing most of the UK’s best buy savings accounts. It currently lists a host of providers paying about 1.3% for one-year fixed-rate savings bonds – with Tandem the top payer at 1.41%.

If you prefer an easy access account, you can currently get 0.65%, again with Tandem, or you can earn between 0.86% and 1% with a notice account.

Round up gift cards and spend them.


10) Dig out unspent gift cards


Instead of thinking you might save them for a treat one day, round them up and spend them – you could buy something that you need and put the value aside in cash to buy something fun with no restriction of where you get it.

Several websites exist that let you sell cards, or you can do so on eBay or local marketplaces. So if you really can’t spend one you could at least raise some cash with it. Alternatively, give them to a worthy cause to raffle or ask a local food bank or charity if it can make use of them.

11) Arrange to write – or update – your will


This is one of those jobs that is easy to find reasons to put off but, ultimately, is not as painful as it sounds. You can do it yourself or you can get help – the latter is generally better if your finances or family set-upare at all complicated. Solicitors are regulated and you can find one via the Law Society’s website – look for “private clients – wills” or ask friends for recommendations.

Some charities offer free will-writing services to encourage people to consider them as beneficiaries. Cancer Research, for instance, offers a free service with a solicitor or online. If you are a member of a union, check if it offers a free or reduced price deal. Make the appointment today and you are over the first hurdle.

12) Find out what your pension invests in


Few of us probably know exactly where the money in our workplace pension or personal pension is invested.

If you are in a company scheme, your pension contributions will be going into an underlying fund. Log into your employer’s intranet or go online and it shouldn’t be hard to find the most recent fund factsheet or investment report for your fund.

This will typically give details of how much of your money is in shares, bonds, property and so on (often called the asset allocation) and the top 10 holdings. The last can sometimes be an eye-opener if you find it stuffed with companies you would rather not have your money invested in, such as oil and mining firms and tobacco giants.

13) Look into making it greener


Many schemes offer an ethical or sustainable fund option and will allow employees to allocate some or all of their money to that.

If you are unhappy with what’s on offer, contact the trustees of your workplace scheme to ask how much of your money is invested in – for example – fossil fuels, if there is a divestment option (where money is moved out of things such as oil, coal and gas companies) and, if not, one can be set up.

14) Read: Ten Pence Story by Simon Armitage


Have a day off from financial admin, and enjoy this by the poet laureate. It’s a reminder of how physical money has lots of roles in our lives – and how quickly that has been changing. Phone boxes are now a thing of the past but pre-match coin tosses have not gone cashless … yet.

15) Rationalise your Isas and other accounts


Are you one of those people who chased the best tax-free rates and now have multiple accounts from different tax years with different banks and building societies? There’s a lot to be said to said for having the money in one account for ease of management. Switching is as easy as filling in a few forms. However, it is essential that you arrange your transfer through your new provider – the company behind the account you want the money moved to. If you simply withdraw the money yourself and seek to reinvest it, your savings could lose their tax-free status as a result.

Not all Isa accounts allow transfers in but most will, and it will be stated prominently in the marketing materials. If you want to invest some of the money in shares, there is no limit on the amount you can transfer from a cash Isa to a stocks and shares Isa.

Do the same with your other accounts: close those with tiny sums and move money to the one with the best interest rate. At the same time have a clear-out of ancient payees you have set up on your main account. We’ve heard stories of scammers defrauding people by transferring money to existing payees. If your list of payees includes people who you haven’t transferred money to for years, delete them, and limit the chance of them being used in a scam to get your cash.

16) Make your passwords stronger


Take some time changing any passwords you have had for years and think could be on the weak side (if you have any on the National Cyber Security Centre’s list of most-hacked passwords make them a priority).

“A good rule of thumb is that a password should be at least three (random) words long, to fully protect against the chance of a ‘brute force’ attack,” says Alex Hern, the Guardian’s UK technology editor. This has superseded advice about using capital letters, etc because that produced passwords that people couldn’t remember, which meant they reused them. Not all banks have caught up, though, so you may still be asked for something in that format.

“Even more important than making passwords stronger is not reusing them,” Hern says. “Use the password manager built into your browser, like Chrome or Safari, or download a third-party one like 1Password or LastPass, and make sure that every password you use is unique. Otherwise, if one site gets hacked, you can lose stuff from unrelated sites.”

17) Reclaim credit from your electricity and gas bills


If you pay your energy bills by direct debit you may have a tidy sum sitting on account with your gas and electricity provider(s) – in 2018 the energy regulator, Ofgem, found £1.4bn of surplus payments was being held, the equivalent of £65 a household. The money is typically built up in the summer months when your direct debit remains the same as during the winter but you use less fuel. Ofgem has plans to force energy companies to automatically return the cash, which could come into effect next year. But in the meantime you can request a repayment. Bear in mind that you may want to keep some with the provider if you think you will need it to cover winter bills. But if a large sum has accrued, get it back.

18) Switch credit cards


Had the same credit card for years? It may be possible to get a better deal on your borrowing.

If you pay off your balance each month, look out for a card offering cashback or other rewards. According to Andrew Hagger of Moneycomms, the best deals are the store specific credit cards such as Sainsbury’s Nectar, Tesco Bank, M&S (Shopping Plus) and the John Lewis Partnership card. He gives the example of the rewards possible with the John Lewis Partnership card, which offers 1.25% back in vouchers when you spend in its shops. Say you are planning to buy furniture there and you spend £2,500, then do your main shopping in Waitrose and spend £300 a month all year, after 12 months you’ll have earned £76.25 in rewards vouchers.

Hagger says if you are struggling to clear your balance these days, switching it to a card offering 0% interest “is a savvy move”. When you transfer existing borrowing to one of these cards, it stops accruing interest for a set period. This means you can stop your debt growing and make bigger inroads with your monthly repayments. You can currently get up to 29 months interest-free with Sainsbury’s Bank and M&S Bank – charging one-off balance transfer fees of 2% and 2.75% respectively, while NatWest has an 18-month 0% deal with no balance transfer fee.

All of the big comparison sites offer search tools.

It’s worth tuning in early to Radio 5’s Wake Up to Money.


19) Listen to: Wake Up to Money


The BBC’s daily finance show is a great way to get up to speed on the events, big and small, that may have an impact on your wallet. You can listen live from 5am on Radio 5 or catch up with the podcast version.

20) Check your tax code


Having the wrong tax code will result in you paying either too much or too little to HMRC. You should get a paper coding notice each year, and you can log in to the government website at any time to check it. Or grab your payslip, P60 or pension advice slip and check the row of numbers followed by a letter. The most common tax code is currently 1257L, which means you get the standard personal allowance of £12,570 before you start paying tax, but your code may have been adjusted to take into account allowances such as gift aid on regular charitable donations or deductions to cover perks such as medical insurance. The coding notice will show you how it is worked out. If there are mistakes, or your circumstances have changed, you should notify HMRC online or by phone.

21) Put your loyalty cards on your phone


Reduce the bulk of your wallet without missing out on earning points by putting your loyalty cards on your phone. Most of the big retailers, including Boots, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, have apps you can download and use to collect and spend with their schemes. Nectar says its cardholders can earn up to three times more points using its app than by carrying around the plastic version.

22) Make your charitable giving more tax-efficient


Donating via gift aid means the charities you support can claim an extra 25p for every £1 you give without it costing you any extra. You need to make a gift aid declaration for the charity to claim – some charities have an online form you can fill in, some have one on their website to download and send off, but you may need to call any smaller ones to request a form.

If you are a higher-rate taxpayer, you can claim the difference between the basic rate and the rate you pay via your tax return – if you donate £100 to a charity and it claims gift aid to make your donation £125, you can claim back £25 (20% of £125). Keep a note of your donations and, when you have a moment, go through your emails and paperwork to check you have a record of ones that you’ve made in the past.

23) Go over your insurance policy details


Grab the documents that go with your policies for your car, house and so on, and check the details on them are correct and you have the cover you think you are paying for. If you have simply renewed a policy for several years you may find your circumstances have changed and you are paying for cover you no longer want or need to update your insurer about a career switch or change in how you use your home or car. Some of these things may lead to more expensive premiums but there may be ways to cut cover and costs – and by making sure the facts on the policy are correct, you can remove the chance of a claim being invalidated in future.

24) Get a pension forecast


Find out if you are on track to get the full state pension – and, if not, what you can do about it – on the government’s website. You will need to have or create a Government Gateway or Verify account but once you have logged in you will get a forecast of how much you will receive each week (at current pension rates) and information on whether you can increase the figure and how.

25) Check your credit score


The three main UK credit reference agencies are Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. They don’t decide whether you get credit – that’s up to lenders – but the data they hold will have a major impact on how you are viewed and the deals you’ll be offered when you apply for any kind of borrowing.

The agencies typically offer several ways, free and paid-for, to check your credit record or score. You can go on to each agency’s website and request a free copy of your “statutory credit report”.

This won’t give you your credit score but the good news is that it is obtainable for free. MoneySavingExpert’s Credit Club lets you access your Experian score. Meanwhile, sign up to a site called ClearScore and it will give you a score based on information provided by Equifax. And subscribing to Credit Karma lets you see your TransUnion score.

It’s vital to check whether your passport is valid for travel before departure.


26) Check when your burgundy passport expires


Not financial, but it will prevent you losing money on a trip you can’t take. Since the start of the year, UK travellers to Europe have been treated like other non-EU visitors and need to have a passport that is less than 10 years old when they travel. This means that if the expiry date isn’t the same as the 10th anniversary of the date that the passport was issued – and this can easily be the case if you renewed your last one in good time – you could get into difficulties. To travel to most EU countries you also need at least three months in hand, too. So if, for example, your passport was issued in December 2011 but says it expires in February 2022 you will need to get a new one for any trip after September.

“It’s crucial that you check whether your passport is valid for travel ahead of departure as meeting country entry requirements is the responsibility of the traveller, and if your passport is not valid you won’t be able to board the plane or claim a refund,” says the editor of Which? Travel, Rory Boland.

27) Find out if you could be claiming any benefits


If you have recently wed, or have been married for some time but one of you has retired or seen a drop in income in recent months, you may have become entitled to the government’s marriage allowance, worth up to £252 this tax year. Or maybe you are claiming the state pension but now need help around your home – this is something attendance allowance might cover. The website Entitledto.co.uk will show you what benefits you might be able to claim – you just need to answer questions about your circumstances. Charities such as Citizens Advice or Turn2us can offer you help through a claim if you need it.

28) Draw up a budget


Sorry, but we couldn’t leave this out. Even if you don’t need to keep a close eye on your spending, it pays to know what’s coming in and going out each month – it makes it easier to spot an untoward change in your bank balance or missed payment, and is a good starting point if you are thinking of buying any kind of insurance to protect your income or life. A simple spreadsheet with an income and bills column might be enough or there are apps you can link to your bank accounts to provide an analysis of where your money is being spent and use to set savings targets. Bring together your statements and bills to draw up the former or try an app such as Money Dashboard or Emma, which have free budgeting services.

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