Autumn and Energy Prices

After a delayed summer, most people in the UK were probably hoping for an unseasonably warm Autumn, but this week’s forecast weather has put a very literal dampener on all that. For me, the warning bells of Autumn started ringing three weeks ago when I started getting cold-called by energy companies.

Every year about this time, there’s usually a hike in prices; many have already announced price increases but it’s not across the board just yet. The end of September also seems the point where many customers get to the end of yearly fixed price caps (like me). Aware of this, some companies try and tempt consumers into price switching and, to be fair, the tactics used can be rather under-hand.

Last year I reported a company who were going door-to-door claiming to be meter readers (when they were simply there to sell a switch contract). After turning away one caller, I was disturbed again a week later  . . . this time there were two of them and were there to “check I had been given the pricing details”. Once again I was assured they weren’t trying to sell anything but a heated argument ensued when I simply tried to tell them I wasn’t interested (and on my own doorstep too). Not happy with the thought of two aggressive cold callers harassing the local pensioner population, i put in a call to the police.

This year it’s all been phone-based . . . despite being on the telephone preference service I still get calls and I know where they are getting the data from too: one of my previous jobs was online advertising and I foolishly used a personal address to test out a survey. What’s really depressing is that (a) data is being used from five years ago and (b) it’s not being screened against the major block lists by whoever the energy company is using to do their telemarketing.

The worrying thing is that last year, the company responsible for the door-to-door actually increased its prices a few weeks after the callers were visiting. Now I don’t know if they were offering a fixed price deal or whether their attractive comparison price rate became the first casualty of the 2011 energy cost increases, but I can imagine a few people who thought they were doing the right thing lost out as a result.

So the moral of the story: yes, check your energy provider prices. The cost of doing nothing is maybe losing out ona cheaper deal and you will feel cheated and silly if you discover you paying more money than you need to (especially if finances are getting tighter). However make sure that decision is done on your terms, and not forced upon you by someone on the phone or at your door: there are lots of good comparison sites online where you can check details yourself.

Back from the Olympics
Well, I'm delighted to say that the Olympic experinec was a hugely positive one. In addition to watching about six hours of competition (which considering the face value of the tickets paid, was pretty good value), the evnt was really well organised and despite beign quite busy, had none of the delays and crushes that I've epxerie4nced in the normal London rush hour (although I suspect a lot of regular commuters had taken Boris' advice and booked some holiday).

Quite apart from the national buzz concerning team GB's gold rush and other medal sucesses, the atmosphere around the Games events in London was electric, and the volunteer brigade played a major part in that. They were there at statiosn, guiding toursist to their locations, pointing the way en-route and their good humour was infectious. By the time I arrived at the security checkpoint I was like a small kid on Christmas day waiting to open presents.

Having taken the decision to arrive in London and stay over to make the event opening time, I got to experience the weird feeling of being in the middle of the action: many of the athletes and team support staff were staying at the smae hotel, so breakfast was a truly international affair and there was an unashamed spot of "star-spotting" as there were some sprinters I'd watched on televion previously in the qualifying rounds. Obviously not everyone was staying in the Olympic village for whatever reason.

I had a great time, the event was good although I must admit there were quite a few empty seats for what was supposed to be a "sold out" event, even up in the cheap bits where I was. I didn't bother with any official merchandise from the venue, simple key rings and magnets were flying off the shelves at fifteen quid a pop, and there was nothing specific to the event I was watching (perhaps they sold out). My bank account was already quite bruised with booking a last minute hotel room and an evening's meals and drinks in central London. I did see many people taking picnics to watch some of the public open screens, which seemed like a good idea, but the actual catering within the venue at Exxel (past the final security point which wouldn't allow re-admission if yu left) was quite limited - snacks, ice cream and chocolate, mainly. Some Americans next to me managed to smuggle what seemed like an 18-course banquet in with them as they were eating during the whole 6 hour event!

Anyway, despite the cold reality of paying it all off now, I'm glad I went along and experienced part of history first hand, having been lucky in the ticket lottery. I didn't get to see the main Olympic park which I'm quite sorry about, hopefully it will be maintained as a training centre in years to come rather than left empty (as happened with the Sydney Olympic facilities) or sold off to a football club.

Olympic Countdown
I have tickets to one of the minor events and am off next week to see what all the fuss is about. To be honest, it will be nice to get to see some sport (fencing) that gets pretty ropey coverage maybe once a year on terrestrial TV, however the whole Olympic thing has been pretty daunting.

For one thing, this event is being held in Excel, which I had the misfortune of going to once. A conference centre in the armpit of Docklands, doors open at 7AM and the brochure asks that i allow "plenty of time" to get past the security checks. This means that in order to get a hope of making it for the start I've needed to book a hotel in London, which has added considerably to the cost. At least I could use any card to book that, not just VISA (who also charged a special 'fee' for processing the ticket purchase when I'd learned I'd got the allocation).

Another thing are the restrictions. It seems we're not actually allowed to enjoy this Oluympic Event we're witnessing. No uploads of pictures to social media sites. It's a wonder they don't march the crowd out and brainwash them so they can't remember what they've just seen. It's all a bit Orwellian, considering I'm cheifly coming to watch some worl-class exponents of a sport I love, and don't really give a monkey's about the Olympic hype, that ridiculous logo or people climbing off a bus, running 100 yards with a torch and then driving off somewhere else. I'd rather it be about the evnts than all the marketign guff and the sponsors, to be honest.

That said, I'm not jumping on the cynic bandwagon just yet - I'm headed off to enjoy the event and fully hope to do so, restrictions and Big Boris regardless. Then after it's all done with I expect i'll have to get round top paying it all off - a minor event in itself!

The Credit Chickens
Years ago at University, a very hassled-looking lecturer stumbled into his first class of the year, threw his stachel down and stood with his head in his hands for a good minute and a half, to the bemused looks of us first years.

"The skies are dark with the wings of chickens come home to roost", he said . . . and I've remembered that phrase ever since (probably more than what he went on to teach, to be honest). In his case it was a class scheduling issue, but I imagine this is what RBS head Stephen Hester is feeing at the moment.

Just when the publicity surrounding his downgraded bonus had started to wane, comes the sad tale of a botched systems upgrade at RBS which has paralysed their payment processing system for two weeks now. Inevitably, there is going to be some sort of public enquiry into this . . . RBS after all, is 86% state-owned following a taxpayer bail-out. Whether anyone will actually face any measureable censure as a result is open to speculation of course . . . Hester still managed to secure deferred shares estimated to be worth nearly one million even after the group required a state rescue, although that share price is probably going to be considerably lower after the grubby details of their IT systems policy emerge.

In the meantime, RBS and its beleagured staff are trying to cope with a huge peak of customers trying to sort out their finances, and although extraordinary measures have been put in place (such as opening on Sundays), many people will find that their accounts are being hit with penalty payments from creditors who aren't getting paid by their scheduled direct debits.

RBS have acknowleged they will restore people's accounts - the implication is that this will include refunding charges that are levvied as a result of their systems upgrade botch. However it would be wise to hedge your best here as there's no fixed timeline on when they are going to be able to sort this all out.

Get your free credit report from one or more of the agencies. In addition to showing penalty charges that have been applied, it will also demonstrate what adverse affect these charges may have had on your profile. A systematic report like this will assist RBS in getting the relevant charges credited back to your account and they should also be able to help in getting your adverse credit issues challenged and removed. The easier you make it for their customer service people to do this, the quicker it will get done and you will be able to get on with your life without worrying some black marks on a credit record might affect future borrowing.

Then once that is sorted out, you may want to consider shopping around for banking facilities, or at least asking what incentives RBS can dangle for you to encourage you to stay.

Spending Less is the Answer, but a Social Life is Still Important
It's one of the perennial balancing-acts - how do you cut down on "additional expenses" without turning yourself into a hermit and crippling your social life? As the effects of the economic recession continue to bite, maintaining the family finances remains a hugely important issue for millions of us. It’s often difficult to keep heads above water, especially in the face of higher prices, lower earning potential and increasing pessimism. It’s often the case that people cut down on their entertainment spending as soon as they start to endure financial difficulties. After all, how can they justify going out for meals or to theatres when they are struggling to pay for more serious items? It’s perfectly understandable that the social life becomes one of the first aspects to be jettisoned in the search for spending reductions.

However, it should be pointed out that it’s just as important to keep morale levels as high as possible when times are hard. If you decide to cut all ties with friends and family members it can soon have a debilitating effect on your spirit, and once that happens you can find it extremely hard to focus on the crucial battle to keep the finances on an even keel.

Think outside the box and save money

Even the major banking and credit institutions recognise the need for morale, and as such give at least some concession on this matter. While no-one is saying it’s perfectly fine to spend money on holidays or expensive meals, there is a general consensus of opinion that remaining in touch with others is hugely important. Thankfully there are ways of enjoying a social life without having to spend a fortune in the process.

While the cost of restaurant dining may be beyond the reach of the individual, it’s still possible to invite friends to the home in order to enjoy a meal. A candle or two and an affordable bottle of wine can make the occasion a special one, without having to spend any money that you don’t really have. And it can provide a much-needed boost to the spirit as well.

Now that the nice summer weather is here (or at least the rain seems to be getting warmer), going out to parks and public areas can make for a nice day out, and if you bring a home-prepared picnic along can be a meal out in the fresh air that doesn't have to cost the earth. Inviting friends round for a barbecue, with people bringing their own preferences for the grill can also be a good way to keep costs down whilst entertaining a fun afternoon and evening to reconnect with friends.

Many experts are predicting further economic problems in the coming months, and that outright recovery may take several years. With such a bleak outlook to worry about, taking the opportunity to trim back wherever possible and curtial non-essential costs is the right and sensible thing to do. However, don't forget that you need to give yourself a boost and treat now and then . . . it will help you stay focussed on your budget goals and keep you motivated, and doesn't necessarily involve maxxing out your credit card either!


Saving Money - are E-books the Way to Go?

With my previous comments about libraries in mind, are e-books an economical (as well as trendy) method of saving money?

Are E-Books Really Better - and Cheaper - Than Real Ones?

E-readers and e-books are big business these days, with the recent release of Amazon’s latest Kindle only serving to reinforce this incredibly contemporary fact. But is spending around £100 on an e-reader - and then additional money for each book - a sensible investment, especially if you don’t read all that much? Here are a few things to consider if you’re thinking of getting yourself an e-reader but are worried about how much it’ll really cost.

1) You can borrow books for free.

Most town and cities have a local library, and provided you take the time to fill out a membership form you can borrow as many books (and often also other media such as films, music and even video games) as you like for free. This is perhaps the lowest cost book reading option... just so long as you don’t forget to take back your books and thus incur fines or, worse, lose them entirely.

2) Would you miss holding an actual book?

Reading books is arguably an incredibly tactile pastime. As well as some people insisting they love the smell of books both old and new, simply being able to hold them and turn the pages is cited as being integral to the reading experience to many. Being able to pull a well worn book out of your bag and start reading it instantly without having worry about the battery having run out (long though its life may be) is certainly not something to be sniffed at.

3) Books are more easily replaceable

If you leave a single book on a train then unless it was a rare or out of print edition (which you probably shouldn’t be taking outside without due care and attention anyway) you can always buy another one. However, if you happen to leave you e-reader somewhere then that’s an expensive electrical device to replace, one that you may even have to buy again at full price if you didn’t have it insured for such an eventuality.

4) E-books are harder to lose

While the e-reader itself might be at risk of being mislaid somewhere, your e-books, at least, are safe. Able to be backed up like any other piece of data, a number of e-books distributors also offer an inbuilt cloud backup service.

5) How much do you really read?

If you only read the occasional paperback then an e-reader may not be the wisest investment. After all, they do cost a fairly significant amount of money, and if the number of books you actually buy is less than the cost of the e-reader and e-books combined then you may be better off without one.

6) Space

If you are a bookworm however, then significant amounts of space can be dedicated to storing your collection. Unless you want bowed shelves or floorbioards, getting a sturdy bookshelf is vital; and this too, can cost quite a bit (and get full rather quickly). An e-reader on the other hand, can store literally hundreds of books in no space at all!

What's your view? Curerntly I suspect that unless you are pursuing a concentrated period of study (like a degree, or school exams) then an e-reader is not giong to save you that much in terms of social reading. It may well be convenient (so long as it remains charged) for those on the go, but from the initial publishing trials of releasing content on e-readers, it seems to have the effect of acting as a "try before you buy" and getting people to purchase cheap copies of the printed version.

I think that as far as saving money goes, you still can't beat a good book stand at a charity sale.

Libraries - End of an Era?

Following a dark period of drunkenness, poverty, inequality, crime and nastiness (so famously depicted by Hogarth in his Rake’s Progress series), Britain underwent a period of rehabilitation following its gin hangover, and engaged upon a series of civic improvements and entrepreneurial philanthropy which created many of our great museums, charitable institutions and libraries of learning.

Ensconced in many of the Victorian and Georgian buildings that housed societies and institutions dedicated to particular fields of learning, libraries house collections and archives that chart hundreds of years of research and achievement, as well as being a perennial goldmine for contemporary research.

In light of the economic recession and David Cameron’s announcement of “big society”, libraries and library funding came in for a series of policy amendments and spending cuts that have left many trained professionals in the library field wondering about their job security, and many historic collections hanging in the balance.

Public libraries suffer the dual stigma of being both recipients of public sector funding, and an area that progressive governments have deemed rather unnecessary, due no doubt to the uptake of the internet and the effectiveness of Google, its primary search engine. However many of the private institutions which archive texts and are open to the public and members also enjoy charitable status, and have in turn been hit by a downturn in government aid and overall charitable spending in the recession.

Most of the major London institutions are also a casualty of their exalted status: most occupy prestigious buildings in prime London locations. Many of these grand buildings are in severe need of expensive restoration and where the institution does not own the premises outright, renewal of expensive leases (which often include restrictive covenants which can impact revenue-generating activities) are forcing many to re-think their focus, and consider closing their libraries.

Libraries are often unique collections that detail the history of the organisation, sometimes going back for hundreds of years. They can hold key documents, research and papers that chronicled the social and scientific advancement of the world, including original works from the likes of Newton and Faraday. Libraries are also accounted value on the extent of their collections, and by dint of sheer age many have accumulated a simply massive range of sources, including texts from other historic collections that have been broken up. Other collections have actively pursued or had donated to them rare items for which they act as conservational archivists.

None of the above however, usually translates into raw revenue . . . and in light of financial constraints and the odd poor executive board decision, many libraries and reading rooms are soon going to become a part of history, rather than a place to review it. Many institutions are looking to relocate to “purpose-built” (and cheaper to maintain building) and their libraries are not coming with them. Some are considering long-term off-site storage for their archives, but even this involves drastic pruning of their collection in order to keep costs down. Others are simply developing their ornate reading rooms into social areas for meetings and conferences . . . one landmark London Institute is turning its library (which is often used as a location by TV companies for scientific documentaries) into little more than a glorified coffee-shop, removing the subject matter from the shelves and replacing with ornamental book stock (as you would get in a pretentiously trendy pub).

Playing devil’s advocate, you could argue whether these expensive buildings and reading rooms were necessary in today’s digital age. Surely libraries could just digitise the content and make this available remotely, or via terminals to drop-in visitors?

Many librarians have been digital evangelists for a long time, however publishers of content are different beasts. Most have their own society’s publications available, but collecting third party research content relies on a bewildering variety of delivery platforms, document formats, digital rights and pricing models from publishers deeply nervous about online piracy and "releasing" digital content. Digitisation of historical content too suffers from being expensive and destructive on a large scale. For many this isn’t cost effective and other volumes are simply too fragile to survive being packed off to Asia to be cheaply scanned.

Librarians also suffer from being gatekeepers to Copyright. Libraries pay hefty fees to allow the limited copying of copyrighted material, and most simply could not afford the licensing to “own” material still under Copyright. Given the bizarre and drastic legislation proposed recently by the government concerning digital piracy, it seems insane that they should be advocating that libraries should simply rip off publishers by digitising their entire collections . . . which is essentially what Google did when they launched their collections project (and are still in the process of settling lawsuits).

So if big society isn’t to include the definition of Copyright thief, what can be done to save an essential part of the country’s history and accumulated learning? Or is this another luxury we have to trim away under the austerity cuts (whilst maintaining all the expenses of Westminster’s pomp and ceremony)? Owning a library used to be seen as a mark of status and refinement, with most stately homes priding themselves on their collections. Condemnation too, has been heaped on other nations and governments for attacking centres of learning, burning books and stifling education. But, as with everything in the current economic climate, if you do it slowly and gradually, it's amazing what you can get away with.


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