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Debt claims another British family

Can society learn anything from the terrible murder-suicide in Hampshire this week?

Firstly let us allow the fact that there is no excuse for a man to kill his wife and children, but I do wonder if it's something we're going to be seeing more of. In today's very materialistic society, people seem unable in the UK to live within their means, and with temptation so close at hand, many people are only a few weeks away from disaster.

The saddest thing in this most recent case is that the couple both had jobs - they had not been hit by a sudden crisis, such as job loss or illness. Why could they not work through it together? It is so terribly sad. 

The materialistic urge seems so horribly prevalent in the UK. Here in rural France, for instance, most of we Brits own our modest properties outright and would never dream of taking out a loan to buy something other than a necessity. Even then, we would tend to pick the cheapest thing we could find and settle for what we could get.  

But I was talking to a close friend in the UK the other day who was spitting nails that the bank would only loan her £30,000 to undertake a loft conversion. "I need at least £40k," she said. "And it will add £100k to the house..." (ah, the house as an investment again, rather than as a place to live...)

I feel so dismayed by this kind of attitude that it's difficult for me to know what to say. She already has a mortgage on her own flat, plus two mortgages on BTL properties, and no work. Yet her solution to the problem is to throw at it yet more money that she hasn't got.

She is annoyed that the bank wanted to look at her outgoings, to calculate what she could afford to repay, and yet that is precisely how French banks operate - very sensibly - and it's a system I'm used to, after so many years living in Continental Europe. I think the loans available in the UK are utter madness - I had no idea until the Credit Crunch that such a thing as self-certification even existed. 

The DH and I have watched with mounting horror this past 14 years as the overspending in the UK got worse and worse. My unemployed, benefit-claiming, working-on-the-black relatives all have credit cards, bank loans, new three-piece suites and wide-screen televisions - items that we ourselves cannot afford.

One of my blue-collar relatives is currently refurnishing his house and I can't help noticing that he's buying everything new. He's entitled to, of course - it's his money. But I wonder if it even occured to him to buy second-hand, as I would do. Another, unemployed, has just landed a super little council house but is whingeing because it hasn't got fast enough broadband access. 

When, precisely, did the British get so bloody picky about everything? Here, with our financial situation improving at last, we are grateful to be able to afford steak and chips at the local bar once a month - we hadn't eaten out for two years until recently. What we did NOT do when things got really and truly tight, as they did in the past two years, was go around spending money we hadn't got.

The murder-suicide in Hampshire is a terrible tragedy, especially as it involved two infants, so let us only hope that society can learn some little thing from it: that children should be taught financial management and budgeting, for instance; or that bank lending should be tightly controlled; or even better, that values such as thrift and frugality should once again be valued in society, instead of keeping up with the Joneses.

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Good riddance to bad rubbish

I have given up my credit card, thanks to Barclaycard's inability to distinguish its arse from its elbow

So, I no longer have a credit card.

It wasn't exactly my choice, I must admit. But after my nth call to Barclaycard to request a lower rate than the 24.9 per cent APR I was paying, and their nth refusal to change it, I cancelled it altogether. 

I am furious, so forgive the following rant because I am absolutely blue with fury. 

What, exactly, does Barclaycard consider to be a good customer? One who has been a client for 25 years? One who owns her house outright and her car outright? Who has no loans or mortgages? Who periodically pays off her balance entirely, always pays off the minimum each month and who pays by direct debit so she can never miss a payment?

And yet they couldn't wait to get rid of me. To say that I am beside myself with rage would be an understatement.

The issue is that, clearly, I don't fit into one of their little pigeonholes, so I am no use to them. I don't have a monthly salary, being freelance, and I don't have high outgoings. That is the kind of client the banks really want, so they can pull you in, fling you over a barrel and keep you there indefinitely. They are scumbags. No wonder the world economy is in such a mess. Over the years I've gotten well sick of banks phoning me up trying to get me to take out a loan, or a mortgage, or a remortgage for an extension I don't need or a car I don't want.  

Back in the UK I have a friend, C, who with her partner runs an electrical goods shop, selling televisions etc. She has been amazed these past 10 years at the people who are buying the equipment - unemployed people, people on income support, people from the local council estate. The Waynes and Waynettas of the kingdom, or what we British call 'Chavs'.

"It's all on tick (credit) Trish," she told me, gobsmacked. "You know - WE can't afford these things, these plasma-screen TVs and stuff - we just have an old colour telly. But all these people have credit cards and they come in here and they drop thousands..."

Myself and C, who was a nursing matron for many years, come from the same kind of background. Our parents weren't wealthy. They were modest, hard-working people (we too lived on the council estate), but in those days credit - 'the tick' - was frowned upon.

My parents regarded it as little better than the pawnshop and what we couldn't afford to buy, including our television, we rented. We bought almost nothing new - not cars, not furniture, not even clothes. "If you can't buy it from your savings, then you can't afford it," was their mantra, and over the years I have come to agree with them.

The truth is that the credit card exists to fill the gap between the person you are and the person you'd like to be - and God help you if that gap is too wide. 

Time was when, blithe about my employment prospects, I'd run up large amounts on the credit card (though never more than a couple of grand) and just for things I wanted, rather than needed. But over the years I noticed the APR getting higher and I switched to using the card only for overseas purchases where I couldn't use a debit card (Paypal, Amazon.com etc). But this is not the kind of client the credit companies want - the careful, organised shopper. They are simply not making enough money out of me.

So, now that credit stream is closed to me, and it looks like I won't be buying from overseas any more (though luckily I can use a debit card on Amazon.co.uk).

Oh la. If that's the way they want it. No-one has a right to credit, but all I wanted was a reasonable rate - the kind of rate that they offer their new customers. And if they can't offer me that, then screw them - I'll manage without.  

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How much is your life worth?

Should your life's worth really be calculated in monetary value?

I got a fun press release from Lifesworth this morning.

Apparently, in the UK at least, you're 'worth' the most at the age of 46.

They're talking in terms of personal possessions, of course, not your real worth (don't get me started...). The average mid-life Brit apparently owns about £40k's worth of goods and chattels - more than you ever have in your life before or afterwards. Interestingly, though, that same average Brit also believes their personal possessions amount to about £28k and underinsures them accordingly.

This, of course, is Lifesworth's objective - to get you to up your insurance premiums, but I must confess the idea of being 'worth' £40k made me laugh out loud. I doubt I am 'worth' half this now, and it's very definitely by design.

Over the years, I've come to the belief that people are at their most free and creative when they're not burdened by possessions. Sure, it's great to own things, but once you've got them, you have to worry about them. Clean them, dust them, store them, take care of them, insure them. Is this really a good idea? Better to have plates you can afford to break, clothes you can afford to ruin without there being any heartache involved. Then you don't have to work so hard to support a lifestyle. Maybe you can just have a life instead.

The DH and I, some 10 years ago, were forcibly relieved of much of our burden of possessions by a burglary. After the initial relief that no-one was hurt (the house was empty at the time), came the absolute fury about what had been taken - our wedding presents to each other, the Victorian writing box my parents gave me when I was 16, Steve's favourite watch, the World War II marching compass I'd bought him in six instalments, his entire collection of aviation memorabilia, my late father's clock. There were also our computers, all of our coats, the throws off the sofas, the curtain tie-backs - a strange assortment of finds. It was Christmas, and they had gone shopping in our house. 

A wealthy friend patted me on the head and said: "Trish, they're only things," which only incensed me more because a: his parents subbed his lifestyle and he'd never had to work, and b: many of them were things that I had bought and paid for, worked many hours at a job I hated in order to own. They were MINE, for God's sake.  

And then I thought again. Why exactly was I working all these awful hours in horrible jobs just in order to buy stuff? None of it was necessary stuff - it was pretty, it was nice to have, but it wasn't the roof over my head, it wasn't food on the table. In the grand scheme of things, it didn't make a difference. Sure, it's nice to be surrounded by pretty things, but it's not necessary to fulfilment.

Some of the items had sentimental value, but this too is an imaginary construct. I didn't drop dead for the loss of any of them. And the truth may be something else, too. Every time I looked at that clock I remembered that my mother wouldn't give it to me when dad died but had made me pay £200 for it. Whenever I looked at the writing box, I was chastened by the split it had picked up when I placed it too close to a radiator. Steve had bought his favourite watch the same day as a near-identical one for his ex-wife, which coloured my view of it somewhat. 

A couple of years went by and although we sometimes winced when we thought of what had been taken, we found we didn't need to replace much, other than the work computers. When we did buy, we hit on a strategy of buying only things we could use, not things that were purely ornamental. And gradually, gradually, we began to divest.

I can't remember now what went first, but every year that goes by, we have sloughed off more of our belongings, and every year we feel better for it. We've got rid of clothes, books we'll never read again, ripped all our CDs into I-Tunes and chucked the discs, put item after item of furniture into the local depot vente. The house feels bigger, emptier, more spacious. There is less cleaning to do, less maneouvring around things. Both our lives and our souls free freer for it, and I hope, in time, to get to a stage where nothing I own has ANY monetary value at all. 

I wonder where this would put me on the Lifesworth scale? Probably a complete loser. But I frankly I have no truck with a society where a person's worth is calculated by what they own and not by what they contribute. If the latter was calculated, where on this scale would the average lawyer, PR executive or stockbroker be? A damn sight further down than the lowly-paid nurse or cleaner or ambulance driver.

If you want to calculate your worth on Lifesworth, click here (only relevant to UK residents).

Average age and value of possessions in the UK
20 - £24,548
30 - £34,823
40 - £40,125
50 - £40,454
60 - £35,810
70 - £26,192

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101 ways to save money

Froggybank has a new listing of 101 ways people can save money in the economic downturn

piggybank If you're having trouble coping with the credit crunch, it might be worth taking a look at Froggybank's latest tips.

Froggybank is a 'cashback' site - ie: it enables you to claim cashbacks for buying online. They then ask you to donate some of it to charity, which is the reason for Froggybank's existence.

Many of the tips, to be honest, come under the heading of 'Stating the bleeding obvious', but sometimes it's good to get a reminder to get off your backside and shop around for your mortgage provider, shop around for your credit card provider etc.

I have to admit to already doing pretty much everything on this list, though - you simply have to when you're a downshifter. We paid the mortgage off years ago (and yes it hurt, because we wanted to spend the money on a conversion). Cutting open my moisturiser tubes gives me enough cream for another three weeks. I save the centres of kitchen rolls and use them as firelighters. Every week in summer I pick up two orange crates and keep them for winter kindling. But this kind of thing is a way of life around here, where the average income is less than 12,000 euros a year. When I bluntly said to my optician recently: "That's far too expensive," I didn't get an argument, I got tips on how to cut the cost - he'd lose half his customer base if he priced too high.   

On Froggybank's list I loved item 10: 'stop impulse buys'. LOL. Now, if it was that easy, the UK wouldn't be in a credit bubble to start with. But the end of the past decade's zeigeist of 'I want it all and I want it now and I don't want to have to work for it' is going to come with some pain for many people in the UK. There is a whole generation of young people who have never experienced delayment of gratification in any shape or form. This is not good for the soul.

I was talking with a friend about this just the other week, remembering the first time I ever bought a sofabed. It was back in the mid 1980s and my boyfriend and I saved for months to buy it. We were so excited. It was £220 at a time when my take-home pay was £300 (tax, dear reader, was about 28 per cent in those days). Now, you can pick up a Clic-clac sofabed for about £120, and considering how salaries have leapt, in real terms it must be peanuts.

In the past 20 years, in the west, damn near everything has been commoditised to the extent that we now have shedloads of 'necessities' that we used to live without perfectly happily - mobile phones, tumble dryers, Ipods. I remember when I was a kid seeing Doris Day in a movie putting bread in a pop-up toaster and it was the most exotic thing I'd ever seen - we did ours under the grill. 

Still, I digress. There are many useful tips here and a lot of them are not only green but also healthy - drink less, stop smoking, buy your fruit and vegetables loose rather than packaged. And while you're there, if you're UK-based, why not sign up? It's no good for me because I live in France, but it looks like a good option for those across the Channel. 

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