Freak fires shine light on home insurance; are you underinsured/overinsured/paying too much through price comparison sites?

Herald Scotland

By Iona Bain

Scots are being urged to check their homes – and insurance cover – just in case they fall victim to the so-called ‘magnifying glass’ effect.

Just last month, Glasgow entrepreneur Michelle Mone issued a warning to her Twitter followers after a mirror in her Mayfair home beamed sunlight onto a bean bag, setting it alight.

Not So Shabby - Shabby Chic: Mirror wall is almost complete....

In London in January, novelist Daisy Goodwin came back to find her three-story terraced house gutted by a fire ignited by a shaving mirror.

And last month a house in Twickenham was partially destroyed, and a dog killed, when an empty jar containing hairbands in a girl’s bedroom refracted sunlight onto window blinds.

Last March, Scottish Fire and Rescue Services were called to a house fire in Aberdeen, triggered by the sun shining through a snow globe placed on a windowsill. Watch manager Garry Chalmers said: “It heated the curtains, which then caught fire. The curtains were completely destroyed and there was fire damage to the floor and ceiling.

“This is certainly one of the most unusual causes I have seen during my career as a firefighter, but it highlights the risk of leaving any glass object in direct sunlight, such as mirrors, reading glasses or even drinks glasses.”

The fire service in London has reported 125 such call-outs in the past five years. A spokesman for Scottish Fire and Rescue Service could not give a figure for Scotland but said: “Since 1988 any item containing upholstery sold in the UK has been required to have a permanent label confirming it meets British Standards for fire resistance. If an item of furniture shows signs of being affected by heat – like small scorch-marks or a smell of burning – then it is obviously a risk that shouldn’t be ignored.”


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The gender gap in STEM subjects – and why it matters

The latest study from the OECD has confirmed that girls are still underperforming in STEM subjects in school, predominantly due to lack of confidence. And the UK is one of the worst performers overall. But how does this play out? And why does it matter?

by Helen Lawless

Generally girls are keeping up, or frequently outdoing, their male counterparts in school and university. Girls tend to get higher grades at GCSE and A-level, and more of them are entering competitive university courses like law and medicine than ever before. However the important and enduring caveat to this is that girls continue to do less well from a very young age in subjects like mathematics, chemistry and physics.

This means that fewer of girls choose to study higher mathematics or triple science at GCSE, and then fewer of them select to study STEM subjects at A-level, and thus they become ineligible to enter courses like engineering at university. The situation is slightly more balanced in the biology related fields, but there is still an enduring gender gap, particularly at the highest echelons of third level.

Essentially, young girls opt out of STEM subjects very early on, and with our increasingly specialist education system, never have a chance to opt back in. But even in countries with broader university systems which encourage cross-disciplinary studies like the USA, the gap persists because by that point it’s often too late. By that point many young women have already decided that “they can’t do maths.”

Notice that this is an extremely useful skill to decide is beyond you; being able to use statistical measures, perform accounting calculations, and analyse quantitative data are all skills which are highly advantageous in a myriad of careers. Furthermore a degree in a STEM course like chemical engineering is vastly more employable than most. STEM degrees offer graduates nearly secure employment prospects and often well-paid careers with lots of upward progression. And as we try to tackle global challenges like climate change, food shortages and an increasing population, the demand for scientists who can propose solutions to these problems will do nothing but increase.

In short there is a dire global macroeconomic need for the best and the brightest scientists, and currently we are losing nearly half the possible talent pool through an arbitrary gender bias that in no way reflects ability. Girls have proved they are just as intellectually capable, there is no reason why they should be intellectually intimidated away from “the hard sciences”, but they are, and we are all losing out as a result. Not to mention girls are losing out by not considering careers which could make them happy.

Fun Science Experiment for Kids:  Elephant Toothpaste! from Fun at Home with Kids

So where does this crisis of confidence stem from? Partially it’s the problem of the self-fulfilling prophecy: teachers and parents don’t expect girls to excel in these subjects so they don’t push them

as much as they necessarily would in other subjects. It’s also an issue that a lot of the fields associated with the hard sciences are wrapped up in gender stereotypes. Girls aren’t brought up to be interested in space exploration, Formula 1 cars, or circuit boards. We buy little boys Lego and chemistry sets: we buy little girls plastic ponies and princess costumes. It’s only natural that the careers they choose to pursue mirror the expectations we’ve laid out for them.

But it’s more than just a “boys and their toys” problem, that word “confidence” is crucial. Theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, these are the things we laud as the pinnacles of intellectual achievement, and so it is the less confident gender that feels they are out of their grasp. A young girl is much more likely to be scared off something she doesn’t instantly grasp, and much more afraid of failing. Why? Because she doesn’t have the same level of self-assurance to fall back on that the boys in her class do. We teach young girls the worst thing they can do is fall on their face, which means they never try to fly.

The STEM gap isn’t going to disappear organically – it hasn’t yet. It is only through persistent and conscious encouragement that we can get girls to perceive these things as within their grasp, by perceiving themselves differently. And even if it would eventually disappear on its own, we can’t afford to wait.


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The forgotten art of talking; how digital communications hamper gen Y in the workplace

Emails, social media and texting have revolutionised our lives – but are they adequate substitutes for good old fashioned talking? I ask whether young people need to get working on their presentation skills

Iona bain

Remember back to January 1st? Ah, what an innocent time, when you were brimming with optimism for the year ahead. All the skills waiting to be learned, the bad habits waiting to be scrapped, the empty bottles waiting to be put out in the recycling bin after THAT New Year’s Eve party.

Alas, it is all too easy to neglect self-improvement once the day-to-day routine kicks in. All those deadlines, meetings and all-round pressurising responsibilities mean we keep treading water, rather than swimming ahead. But if there is one resolution that is worth your attention – and commitment – it relates to the device you are using to read these very words.

Many business leaders are blaming the rise of smartphones, computers, tablets and other technology for a soft skills deficit, saying that our ‘heads down, screen on’ mentality means we cannot engage with others in the flesh.

Last month, Anthony Jenkins, chief executive of Barclays, warned of a “lost generation” of youngsters who cannot shake hands, stand up straight and even make sustained eye contact. He said that while social media is a very “effective form of communication”, it was important for young people to learn the art of effective talking.

He added: “Parents and teachers can nurture confidence in their children,” he said.

“In the workplaces of the future, collaboration will be very important. The question of how to teach this generation to be successful is very important.,” he said.

Sadly, soft skills may well have been put on the back burner by school children who are trying to squeeze in Mongolian nose flute lessons, ice hockey try-outs and applications to study Guatemalan history at university. A teenager today is encouraged to put great emphasis on working towards academic glory, but it is their personal skills – or lack thereof – that may prove to be the deciding factor in a job interview ten years down the line.

Robert Doisneau (April 14, 1912 – April 1, 1994) was a French photographer noted for his frank and often humorous depictions of Paris street life.

An article published earlier this year in the Telegraph’s Stella magazine highlighted how workplaces of the future may be divided between technology based jobs for the highly skilled and charismatic leaders who create, innovate and generally make people feel good about doing business with them.

The article spoke to the only known professor of networking in the world – Julia Hobsbawn from Cass Business School. She said: “On social media, many of us are very disinhibited, which means our approaches can ricochet from one extreme to another. In person, we make much better judgment calls. Fifty to 70 per cent of communication comes through body language. But people need to be persuaded that this is the case, then be given the confidence to go out and meet people.”

Sadly, the article showed how oral communication was fast becoming a lost art among young job hunters. This is a crying shame, because your manner of speech alone can hugely influence how others perceive your ability to lead, work with others and get the job done.

David Spencer, founder of Spencer Media, is a highly regarded voice coach who tells me that young workers who depend on email and other impersonal communications miss out on valuable opportunities to foster meaningful connections and put across valuable ideas with meaning and clarity. In other words, they don’t learn how to communicate effectively. So how can we go about improving the way we speak in the workplace?

The key is to know how you sound in terms of pace, tone and language. David Spencer said: “How we perceive ourselves is very different to how other people perceive us. So it may be useful to record our voice so we understand whether we speak authoritatively, take our time over sentences and give enough emphasis to what we’re saying.”

Prepare thoroughly what you say before you say it. Make notes before an important phone call, run through presentations with colleagues and (patient) friends, rehearse difficult or sensitive conversations in front of a mirror…just remember that even the great Mark Twain once remarked: “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

So what are you waiting for? Next time you are tempted to hide behind a computer screen, pick up the phone or get yourself out there in the flesh. Give your true voice a chance to shine.

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EXCLUSIVE: Shops incentivise staff to sell YOU store credit despite its role in surging personal debt

Iona Bain

Herald Scotland

The days when pushy staff used to flog store cards at the till were thought to be over, following a clampdown on aggressive sales tactics and immediate discounts for signing up.

But new research and employee testimonies show that a ‘buy now, pay later’ culture is still alive at the big retailers, with some shoppers paying a high price for this luxury.

Before 2011, retailers typically paid commission to staff whenever they sold a store card and offered shoppers upfront price reductions as an incentive.


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Should you invest in property rather than your pension?

By Ryan Smith

As young people, we’re always told to start thinking about our futures. Pension investments are one of those things that just seem so far away that it becomes difficult to comprehend as something we need to concern ourselves with right now. Reports state that young people are more interested in saving the money they’re earning to invest in a property; that first home is something we aspire to more than a pension fund. And while auto-enrolment is making it easier to at least start putting something away for retirement (alongside extra contributions from our employers and the government), property still might be the best investment.

Here are 5 reasons we think you should invest in property instead of your pension…

Military Couple In Front of Home, House Keys and Sign

1. Property prices up 4.2% in 2014

In the 12 months between December 2013 and 2014, UK property prices saw an average yearly increase of 4.2%. Greater London saw the biggest increase at a whopping 11.1%, with the South East just behind it (9.5%) and the South West reporting increases of 6%.

2. Mortgage rates have fallen

Thanks to a combination of low inflation, a prediction of slowing economic growth and more Eurozone fears, Autumn 2014 saw a drop in mortgage rates. A healthy deposit is required but you can now get a 2-year fix below 2 per cent, a five-year fix below 3 per cent and even a ten-year fix at around 2.94 percent. It’s worth setting up a meeting with an independent financial advisor as they’ll be able to help you make the most of a property deposit while these great rates are available.

3. Generate an extra income

One of the more popular mortgage products on the market these days is buy-to-let mortgages. It may require a bigger deposit, and won’t be ideal for a ‘first home’ but it could be helpful for generating an extra income, particularly in later life. An investment in a buy-to-let property, with the combination of rent incoming and the increased value in the property could see a much greater return than the same investment into a standard pension fund.

4. A retirement nest egg

Those who purchase their first home between the ages of 26 and 35 are expected to be mortgage free by 61 years old. The average age of first time buyers has increased to 36, so it shows just how important it can be to get on the property ladder early. Not only will you be paying into your own bricks and mortar, rather than throwing money away to a landlord, by the time you retire you’ll hopefully have no mortgage left to pay. This leaves you able to live a more comfortable existence, or even unlock the value in the home by downsizing. If you have a number of rented properties you can also sell these to fund your retirement if you don’t want to continue on as a landlord.

5. New pension rules show uncertainty

With new pension rules coming into effect from 6 April 2015, the landscape looks blurry. Annuity rates are expected to fall, at least in the short term, so you may not get the best return on your savings. Some reports are even predicting that pensions may not even exist by 2050, due to young people’s disinterest in saving into funds they cannot access when needed. It’s always good to have a mix of investments, but a financial advisor who is independent and unbiased can guide you through the changes, and advise you on any questions you may have on finances, pensions and investments.

Ryan Smith writes for Local Financial Advice, pointing people in the direction of independent financial advisors in their area. The views of the author are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Young Money blog.

What do you think? Do you agree? Leave a comment or get in touch –


Filed under First-time buyers, Investments, Mortgages, Pensions & Retirement

How to avoid waste in Foodbank Britain; the joys of homecooking

By Iona Bain

Last year, I looked at why food banks have become commonplace in modern Britain – what is it due to a real fall in living standards? Difficulties in finding worthwhile jobs that put food on the table? Or has there been a growing faith in – and awareness of – food banks to provide a sticking plaster when all else fails?

All three factors have played their part, but a further issue began to play on my mind recently; how many people know how to cook with the ingredients they have?

Baroness Jenkin in the House of Lords landed in hot water last year by seeming to suggest that ‘poor’ people cannot make their food last because they don’t know what to do with it. Many critics hit out at her comments, arguing that you cannot produce ingredients from thin air and that extreme poverty cannot be simply alleviated with a quick Home Economics lesson.

A valid point, for sure, and one that Baroness Jenkin and her fellow peers endorsed in a comprehensive report on Feeding Britain at the end of last year. But the report also pointed out the need for more hands-on, intensive support for food bank claimants that includes training on supermarket psychology, food planning and healthy eating.

Who wouldn’t support this initiative? I have talked many times about financial literacy on the blog but what about culinary literacy? In fact, Baroness Jenkin’s comments can be applied to most of the young population, if my experience is anything to go by.

A newspaper column by the journalist Daisy Goodwin recently highlighted a worrying lack of cooking skills among all demographics thanks to a fast-food culture promoted by takeaway firms and supermarkets on every street corner.

The writer referred to a friend who volunteers at a foodbank and kept seeing one client who couldn’t make her food go far enough to feed her children. The mother in question didn’t know how to cook the spaghetti that she received, so the volunteer showed her how to knock up a nutritious and delicious meal, using tomatoes and tinned veggies to make a lovely pasta sauce.

Such such skills not only help you to survive and make your money go further. Creating dinners with healthy and varied ingredients makes a tremendous difference to your quality of life, whatever your income.

Sadly, I know many young people who lack the desire and ability to cook a meal from scratch. Why?

Fantastical programmes like Masterchef and The Great British Bake-off can make us feel very inadequate in the kitchen. Many of us believe that cooking should be of the highest standard, and if we can’t achieve that, we leave it up to the professionals. That means takeaway apps like Hungryhouse and Just Eat have exploded in popularity. If a meal can be delivered to our door, why slave over the stove? The extortionate prices charged by Dominos and other major chains shows our willingness to pay over the odds for a quick, comforting meal. It seems like a very high price to pay for poor organisation.

Young people, especially in urban areas, are also relying a huge amount on mini-stores. Rather than do a big shop for the week, they pop in and out of these stores, spending relatively smaller amounts on ready meals and essentials (and by essentials, I mean booze, chocolate and sweets…no?)

Why defer gratification when food is instantly available at practically any time? But the next time you go into one of these outlet stores, have a think about the ratio of healthy to junk food. Just as importantly, consider the following question; what is the mark up for this convenience? Does a ready meal, a pizza, a fatty pudding represent better value for money than a recipe using thoughtfully sourced ingredients?

Question of the day~ What is ur favorite junk food snack? I can't get enough oreos

Popping into Tesco Express on my road is an eye-opening experience. There are whole aisles devoted to chocolate, alcohol, crisps, sweets, puddings and pastries. It’s a veritable temple to instant pleasures. But try asking for some oatcakes! It’s like asking whether they sell oven-roasted unicorn.

To be fair to Tesco, it has played a huge role in helping foodbanks and their clients by hosting collection days and contributing produce. Other supermarkets such as Asda, Waitrose and Sainsburys have also partnered with local foodbanks to minimise food waste and making sure surplus food goes to those in need. These efforts are somewhat undermined, I think, by marketing techniques to persuade people to buy more food (at a higher price) than they really need.

I have also had the dubious pleasure of inviting a very popular breakfast cereal back into my life recently, as my flatmate (aka my brother) developed a sudden New Year craving for them. This cereal isn’t particularly cheap, especially when you’re getting through pints of milk at a rate of knots. Worst of all, it doesn’t fill you up. You find yourself having another bowl or snacking throughout the morning (or evening, if you desperately use it as a substitute for a meal!)

I hate to come over all pious – I go for the easy option whenever I can. I think proper food planning is one of the hardest tasks of modern day life. I have a made a study of it in recent times as I try to figure out what’s good value, what’s healthy and what’s filling. It’s a challenge but one must we try to tackle every day if we are to function and thrive.

So my first insight would be; soups and stews are a life saver. It’s ideal to plan meals for the week so you save yourself time each day, have the right ingredients to hand AND save money. But if we’re time poor or lacking imagination when it comes to food – and I frequently have both problems – then the slow cooker is your friend.

Here are typical ingredients that go in a slow cooker: tomatoes, stock, vegetables, hummus, pesto, cream, potatoes, cupboard sauces, curry paste, sesame oil, soy sauce, any kind of stir fry, beans, lentils and of course meat or fish. Never put the last two together, though I find finely cut anchovies add great flavour to any meat based stew.

It is often pointed out that you can use less meat in a stew, and cheaper cuts of it, without really compromising the taste. My favourites are mince and lamb but I also use pre-cooked chicken and turkey, both of which are cheaper and take no time to prepare.

In other words, just about anything and everything savoury you can think of. You can even use some stale bread to make croutons on top, or grate some cheese as a topping.

And here’s an extra treat for you. Why not try making this soup in the next week? It’s got ingredients that may already be in your kitchen and it only costs £2.40 per person. Make a big enough batch, add some bread and you have a warming meal for these harsh Winter months. Many thanks to Jona at Soupe du Jour for the suggestion. Bon appetit!Image


Filed under Bargain hunting, Consumer Affairs, Food, Moneysaving tips, Politics

Why has a wonder treatment for acne disappeared from pharmacies? EXCLUSIVE for the Daily Mail

MailOnline - news, sport, celebrity, science and health stories

By Iona Bain

As a consumer journalist, I’m always on the hunt for cracking deals so that I can shave a few pounds off my shopping bill.

But when it comes to skincare, cost considerations don’t apply.

I’ve bought countless expensive lotions and potions, hoping that just one will clear up my complexion.

You see, I’m one of millions in the UK who have battled ‘acne vulgaris’, simply known as acne.

This happens when sebaceous glands near the surface of the skin produce too much sebum, or oil, which mixes with dead skin cells.


It blocks the hair follicles, tiny holes in the skin, forming blackheads and whiteheads.

Nasty pustules and cysts occur when those blocked follicles come into contact with otherwise harmless bacteria on the skin’s surface.

The condition is believed to affect 80 per cent of those aged between 11 and 30, according to the British Skin Foundation.

And it can last into adulthood – I’m 27 in March and still expect breakouts whenever life takes a stressful turn.

I have been plagued by pimples since I was 14 but my condition reached ghastly new heights three years ago.

When a painful breakout on the side of my neck triggered speculation from a colleague that I was overly fond of love bites, I resolved to find a cure for good.


I tried anything and everything.

There was high-tech heat therapy, supposed to kill acne-causing bacteria in the skin, as well as French seaweed (known as thalassotherapy).

But nothing worked.

After spending a small fortune, I finally discovered the miracle – a blackhead-buster that was worth its weight in gold. And it cost £5.


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Dry January may be over–but did we REALLY cut back on the booze?

The sauce bottle is a notorious wallet drainer – so did this year’s Dry January make any difference to the amount we spent on alcohol?

New data reveals that January is not as ‘dry’ as you might think it is. The average monthly spend on alcohol in January 2015 has increased by more than two thirds (74%) in just three years, from only £19 in the first month of 2012 to £33 last month.

The free personal finance app Money Dashboard analysed debit and credit card payments and has found that outgoings on booze last month were only 9% lower than the monthly average in 2014.

Chalkboard Print -Kitchen Art-Chalkboard Alcohol Beverage -Shots Menu-Bar-Shots Recipes-Drinks-Cocktails Recipes Print 8 x 10" No.270

Despite the average spend on alcohol falling 33% from December 2014 to January 2015, many people around the UK appear to be still enjoying a tipple to start the New Year. Those in the Scottish Borders spent the most on alcohol last month, at an average of £80, whilst the North West appears to be much better at staying on the wagon, spending an average of just £16.  

The figures from Money Dashboard follow the news that, although 12% of adults planned to give up drinking last month, more than half (52%) admitted to being back on the sauce in the first two weeks of January.[2]

Iona Bain, young personal finance journalist and editor of the Young Money Blog, said: “While initiatives like ‘Dry January’ have certainly had an impact on the drinking habits of many, booze is eating into our pay packets more this January than in previous years. I’m sure that many people will be surprised at how much they spend on alcohol during the year, particularly during what is the hardest month financially. A root and branch change in spending habits doesn’t have to be daunting though, as a better understanding of monthly outgoings and small steps to cut back in certain areas can help to ensure a healthy and happy start to the year.”  

On the plus side, the same data reveals that the nation appears to be making some investment in its health in January, with average spend on gym subscriptions increasing for the first time in a few years. With an average of £50 spent on the gym this January, year-on-year spend is up 11% and has increased 9% on the monthly average in 2014.

Money Dashboard, insights from over 80,000 consumers, 1-27 January 2015. ICM study of over 2,000 adults, commissioned by Phamarcy2U, January 2015

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Are you letting your money wither away in a ‘scrapheap’ account?

By Iona Bain

Herald Scotland

The financial regulator is finally cracking down on high street banks who have let a huge swathe of our savings wither away in scrapheap accounts that earn as little as 0.1 per cent.

Half of the nation’s savings, worth £354bn, is housed in easy access accounts, but most consumers who hold onto the same account for years may not realise their interest rate has dwindled and that better-paying accounts have come onto the market.

That is because the big four banks, including two partly owned by the taxpayer, are keeping us in the dark about this two-speed savings market, according to the Financial Conduct Authority, which has identified a junkyard of 1000 accounts paying pitiful interest.

In its market study published this week, the FCA said big names had capitalised on their market dominance and consumer inertia to drive down interest rates on older accounts, with as much as £160bn held in products that paid less than the Bank of England’s base rate of 0.5 per cent in 2013.

Of that amount, £145bn was kept in moribund accounts with balances of at least £5,000, making it a no-brainer for many to switch to a more attractive deal.

Click here to read more

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Filed under Banking, Consumer Affairs, Personal Finance, Savings Accounts

Why money and mates shouldn’t mix: Mr Anonymous gives us his take on financial feuds among friends

In the first of an occasional series, Young Money Blog’s Mr Anonymous (no, not Iona but a terrific young financial journalist!) will be giving his unvarnished views on the tricky issues affecting young people and their finances today…this week, he asks why young people are borrowing and lending among themselves, and why it can go badly wrong


It’s getting towards the end of the month and money’s running tight. Unopened bills are lying in the letterbox and the rent is due. Payday still feels an eternity away.

Circumstances like these gave rise to the much-maligned payday loans industry. For many though, looking to a friend for financial assistance is far preferable to the exorbitant interest rates and aggressive collection tactics of the payday lenders.

Borrowing from our nearest and dearest can certainly seem a tempting proposition – a loan with zero percent interest (if they are charging, you might want to consider what kind of friend they are), without a credit check and from someone you trust.

But turning friends into creditors isn’t without risk. A recent survey showed 15 percent of people in the UK have lost a friend following a financial dispute. That figure rose to 28 percent among those aged between 24 and 35.

It’s little surprise that it’s Generation Y who are most likely to fall out over money.

As rent is the biggest regular expense for many, and the one people are most likely to struggle to pay, a flatmate may seem the natural person to turn to when someone feels the pinch.

If you are the one who is tapped for cash, what starts as an act of goodwill can turn sour – what if your flatmate doesn’t pay the money back?  

However if the loan is well managed there needn’t be any cause to come to blows.

When the loan is agreed, make sure a repayment plan is understood and agreed by everyone involved. The sum could be paid back incrementally or all at once, depending on circumstances, but either way make sure firm dates and sums are set.

If the loan is to be paid incrementally, arranging a standing order with the bank to make regular repayments will help put everyone’s mind at ease.

Crucially, make sure not to lend a sum that will put you in hardship – this is sure to worsen the blow if the money isn’t repaid. Similarly, neither party should feel they have been pressurised into the deal – this could lead to resentment even when the debt is repaid. Being honest about expectations upfront will help avoid this.

But perhaps a more difficult situation is not when a flatmate asks for money, but when they don’t pay their share of the rent or bills. As rent is frequently taken out of just one person’s bank account – that of the lead tenant – a flatmate who doesn’t contribute can leave the lead seriously out of pocket.

The date for transferring funds between flatmates should be set well in advance of the day rent is due. That way, if the flatmate doesn’t transfer the money at the agreed point there’s still time to gently remind them – maybe with a pointed joke or two – before the rent is due.

If that doesn’t work then perhaps the time has come to do what good friends do: find out if they are struggling, and see if you can help them find a better way to organise their finances. Finally, you might consider offering to help financially – but only if you can afford it, and you feel sure they will be able to repay. ​

What do you think? Get in touch and let me know what you think. ionabain[at]

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