Cash in the time of coronavirus: how to get in financial shape for the new normal | Money | The Guardian
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The coronavirus crisis has had a huge impact on all of us. About 8.4 million workers have been furloughed, tens of thousands have lost their jobs and many self-employed workers’ incomes have taken a hit.
Even the lives of those who are still in work may have changed dramatically. Working from home has become the norm for many, and employees at some firms have already been told this will carry on until at least the autumn. Meanwhile, physical distancing measures are likely to remain for many more months and a whole swathe of events, from holidays to festivals to weddings, have been cancelled. And behind all of this is a virus that can be deadly.
With all of this in mind, it’s possible your financial set-up no longer matches your lifestyle and needs. Guardian Money has put together a guide to getting everything in order as we all adapt to new ways of going about our daily lives.
Reducing household costs
Wholesale energy prices have dropped as a result of factories and businesses being closed and demand for fuel falling across the world. The very cheapest dual gas and electricity tariffs cost £750 a year for a medium-sized house with average consumption. Households on their supplier’s capped standard tariff will typically save more than £300 a year by switching. Tonik Energy’s green super power v4 tariff is arguably the pick of the cheapest deals and it’s fixed for a year. Prices have fallen so much that those on fixed deals bought before March should consider moving supplier too and pay any exit fees. Use Energyhelpline.com to find out what your household can save.
Housing is likely to be your biggest outlay. If you have a mortgage and have taken a three-month payment holiday, you may be aware that on 22 May the government said people can extend this for a further three months (the first ones were due to come to an end in June). Meanwhile, those who are struggling but have not yet taken a mortgage payment holiday will have until 31 October to apply. However, there are also other options available to borrowers, either now or at the end of the holiday. Two of the main ones are temporarily switching to interest-only payments and increasing the length of the mortgage term. Both will reduce your monthly payments but there’s a price to pay. For example, increasing the mortgage term will ultimately mean paying a lot more interest.
Most local authorities are offering council tax payment holidays to those struggling but you have to ask for one, and there is no guarantee the answer will be yes. Those on universal credit or low incomes may be able to get their bill reduced, or in some cases waived. The amount of reduction depends on your circumstances and the council. On top of the discount, in England, you may also get an extra £150 off your bill, backed by a £500m Covid-19 hardship fund.
Making up for lost income
You may be entitled to benefits to top up your earnings. Anna Stevenson from the advice charity Turn2Us says it is “very difficult to talk in specific sums because each household’s claim is different, depending on the rent they pay and a host of other factors, including the number of children etc”. The charity has a benefits calculator on its website, which will help you work out what you can claim.Households who receive working tax credits and whose annual income is expected to be more than £2,500 different to the previous tax year should contact HM Revenue & Customs and declare a change of circumstances, which should bring a change in payments. Stevenson says some people on working tax credits, which are typically no longer available to new claimants, may be better off switching to universal credit but they should use a calculator to check before they make a claim.
Are you a higher earner with children who has suffered a drop in income due to the pandemic? If your income is set to be less than £60,000, then get your child benefit restarted. It’s worth £1,820 a year for a family with two children. Under the high-income child benefit charge (HICBC), if you or your partner earn more than £50,000 a year, the benefit is progressively clawed back through the tax system until it is worth nothing on incomes over £60,000. Thousands of parents who opted out of receiving child benefit, or never started claiming in the first place, because they had to pay the HICBC will be eligible to claim or restart the payments. To restart child benefit, either fill in an online form or call 0300 200 3100. For more information go to gov.uk/child-benefit-tax-charge/restart-child-benefit.
If your salary has dropped below £50,000 as a result of the crisis, there could be £250 with your name on it, courtesy of the marriage allowance. This tax break lets one partner transfer £1,250 of his or her personal allowance to their other half, thereby reducing that person’s tax by up to £250 in the current tax year. You can claim it provided all of the following apply: you are married or in a civil partnership; one partner’s income is below £12,500, or nothing; and the other partner’s income is between £12,501 and £50,000, or £43,430 in Scotland. HMRC will typically give the recipient partner their extra allowance either by changing their tax code or via the self-assessment system. Applying online is simple – go to gov.uk/apply-marriage-allowance.
Illustration: Ryan Gillert
Travel and transport
If your car has not moved for the past few months, why not furlough it? Insurers generally won’t let you pause your car insurance but you can cancel it and take a refund of the remaining months. You can tell the DVLA you are taking the car off the road with a statutory off road notification (Sorn) and cancel the policy. Check the savings and fees you will have to pay before you go ahead. You will also save the car tax for any full months it is off the road. But be aware that the vehicle has to be physically off the highway, on a driveway or similar. The big downside, of course, is that it will not be covered if it is stolen.
Even if you still need a car, you may be using it less than when you bought your policy. Churchill and Direct Line are among the insurers offering refunds to drivers who are in this position. You need to get in touch with your new mileage during lockdown and they will give you cash back based on the difference between that number and the figure you declared when you bought the policy. Check if your insurer is doing the same. If it isn’t but your policy is coming to an end, don’t let it renew without adjusting the mileage you are paying for.
If you no longer need a car you are buying on finance, you can hand it back, provided you have paid back at least half the money owed on it. Section 99 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 sets out how you can voluntarily terminate a regulated hire purchase or personal contract purchase (PCP) agreement. With a PCP, the buyer puts down a deposit, makes perhaps three or four years’ monthly payments, and then a final balloon payment at the end of the term if they wish to keep the car. If you have paid half the value of the vehicle, you can ask for a voluntary termination. If you are near 50%, you can opt to pay the difference to get you there. You hand the car back and escape the rest of the payments. Be aware that no refunds are given if you paid more than 50%. Those with HP agreements can hand the car back sooner, typically halfway through the term, as there are no balloon payments. The Money Advice Service website has some good advice on the process. A voluntary termination will show up on your credit file but should not negatively affect your credit score, it says.
Bike sales have been soaring during the pandemic. You may want to consider buying a bike through your employer’s cycle to work scheme, which will allow you to save 25-39% of the cost. Employees who sign up get a voucher, which they take to their local bike shop and use to buy their chosen equipment, including lights and clothing. The savings come through the fact that you don’t pay income tax or national insurance on the purchase price. In reality, your employer buys a bike for you, and you “hire” it back, making monthly payments from your gross (pre-tax) salary, typically over four years. Basic-rate taxpayers save a quarter on the cost of the bike and accessories. Higher-rate taxpayers save about 40%. Technically, the bike belongs to your employer until the end of the four years, at which point there is an ownership fee payable. Buy a decent lock and insurance, as the payments must still be made even if the machine has been stolen. You don’t have to ride the bike to work to use the scheme but most new applicants will be planning to do just that.
Rail commuters who expect to carry on working from home can still apply for a rail season ticket refund, backdated up to 56 days. Passengers have to go back to the rail company that sold them it, either in person at the ticket office or online. Be aware that you will not get the cost of the annual ticket divided by 12, with each unused month returned. Refunds are calculated as the difference between the season ticket’s cost, and that of the cheapest way to make the same journeys without it, using monthly, weekly or daily tickets. Use a refund calculator, such as the one from Southeastern. Some passengers have received in excess of £2,500 back.
Illustration: Ryan Gillert
Change the way you pay
Millions of older people left trapped in their homes after the coronavirus struck found that without an online bank account, day-to-day banking has been near-impossible. Halifax said the numbers of over-65s signing up for online banking has jumped by 63% and their use of contactless has also soared. Santander says the over-55s have flocked online during the pandemic, with numbers up 54%. Signing up for an online bank account is relatively easy. You don’t have to have a smartphone but it helps. If not, use a home computer instead. Either try your existing bank or set up an account with one of the app-based providers such as Monzo, Starling and Revolut.
The pandemic and physical distancing have already forced many of us to adapt our payment habits. If you haven’t already, check out Paym, the free service launched in 2014 that allows you to send or receive money with any UK mobile phone number without sharing your bank details. Industry body Pay.UK says it is safe and efficient, with 15 banks and building societies offering the service, including all the big ones. Watch out for fake messages, which have recently been impersonating Paym and asking customers to follow a link to receive money.
We are highly likely to see many businesses closing their doors for good because of the coronavirus. From a consumer point of view, remember that paying by credit card gives you added legal protection if the company you are buying from goes bust. If you use your credit card to buy something costing more than £100 and up to £30,000, you are covered by section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. This means the card company has equal responsibility with the seller if the company you bought from fails. If you pay with a debit card, you might be able to make a claim later for a refund under the chargeback scheme. This is an agreement the likes of Visa and Mastercard have signed up to. The card company will try to claim your money back from the company you have paid by reversing the transaction. Be aware that time limits apply for making a claim.
Even though the lockdown is easing (with outdoor markets and car showrooms in England reopening from 1 June, and other non-essential retailers from 15 June), going to the shops is likely to remain a rigmarole. Physical distancing rules will restrict the number of people who can be in a store at any one time and shoppers will have to contend with closed changing rooms, restrictions on touching merchandise and one-way systems. If there are things you buy every time you go and you can afford to pay slightly more for them, you could consider looking into a subscription from an independent retailer. You can arrange regular deliveries of all kinds of foods, including ground coffee, cheese, bacon and wine. Away from the kitchen, some small book stores are offering to send you a book a month for a year. This is not likely to be a way to save money but will prevent you having to visit a shop and could help save a small business.
Similarly, a milkman can help you cut out trips to the shops. Many deliver non-dairy substitutes as well as the traditional pint. The website Findmeamilkman.net can help you find one that covers your area but it doesn’t seem to be exhaustive so ask neighbours or use Google. Some of the larger companies such as Milk & More carry other products, including bread, vegetables and drinks.
In terms of returns and refunds, retailers have generally updated their policies since the start of the outbreak, allowing customers to return items after physical stores reopen and extending online returns periods. This is typically between one and two months. The consumer group Which? put pressure on laggard retailers, which were not being quite so generous. Your consumer rights are not affected by the disruption to retail caused by the outbreak, although refunds are taking longer to process as stores and their customer services staff buckle under the strain.
Illustration: Ryan Gillert
Stashing your savings
While the coronavirus crisis has been a financial disaster for many people, the bald truth is that many others are feeling better off at the moment because they are spending so little. If that is you, now’s the time to build a financial safety cushion with some of the money you have saved as a result of the lockdown. Financial planners typically suggest we need three to six months’ worth of expenses as a rainy day fund but a study in 2018 found 70% of the UK’s workers were “chronically broke”, with almost no proper savings. If you are lucky enough to have spare cash, channel it towards a savings account. The interest rate may not be great but by separating it from your everyday spending account, you will make it harder to access and force yourself to think twice before using the money. Check out Moneyfacts.co.uk for the best rates on different types of accounts.
Rebuild your pension with some of that money you are not spending. According to adviser Kirsty Stone of The Private Office, if you are in your mid-40s and can afford to put an extra £100 a month into your pension, it could be worth an extra £42,000 in terms of your pension pot by the time you are 65. If you can set aside an additional £250 a month, it could be worth an extra £100,000, using standard assumptions. You could also contact your HR department at work and ask them to increase the contributions that are taken from your pay. That way, you will receive either 20% or 40% tax relief, depending on your pay. If you are fortunate, you may find your company offers an additional voluntary contribution (AVC) scheme where it will match or partially match whatever you put in. But remember it’s a pension so you can’t access the money until you are at least 55.
Make sure you have a will and it is up to date. Check in with older relatives too. The majority of Britons haven’t made a will. However, some trade unions offer members free will-writing. So do several charities, including Cancer Research and the British Heart Foundation. These will work if your family setup is quite straightforward. If your financial or family situations are at all complicated, it will be worth paying for legal advice. Use the Law Society website solicitors.lawsociety.org.uk to find a local solicitor.
With foreign holidays and many other trips on hold, those lucky enough to have a garden will be spending a lot of time in it this year so it is not surprising that people are flocking to garden centres to invest in their outdoor space. But if you are splashing out on expensive barbecues, patio furniture and children’s play equipment, dig out your home insurance to check you are covered. The average British garden contains £1,457 worth of valuable items, according to MoneySuperMarket. But financial information firm Defaqto says about 10% of home insurance policies did not cover items left in the garden as standard. Of the policies that do offer cover, many have low limits for these items, typically £1,000 or less, as outdoor space cannot be secured in the same way that a home is. Minimise the risk by bringing items inside or storing them in a locked shed or garage, where possible. If you have had to splash out on new technology to teach the kids, make sure your kit is covered by your home insurance policy. Lots of home insurance will cover all but the most expensive equipment as a matter of course but check the small print in case you need to increase your cover. If you are a renter and have never bothered to buy insurance for your belongings before, it may be worth doing so now. The price comparison sites will help you find a policy that suits you.
The pandemic and its fallout have prompted many people to take another look at how much life insurance cover they have, with some companies saying many more younger people are buying it. Straightforward life insurance is still widely available and nearly all policies, even those taken out today, will pay out if the death is due to coronavirus. Note that the price rises steeply as you get older. We obtained a quote from Aviva this week where the cost was £8.42 a month for a 37-year-old seeking a payout of £100,000 should they die in the next 15 years. But if the person was 57, the premium shot up to £45.22 a month.
If your concern is about losing your job and not being able to pay the monthly bills, things have become a lot tougher. Many of the big price comparison sites that sell insurance have stopped providing quotes for unemployment cover. You can in theory still obtain income protection cover that pays out if you become sick with coronavirus. We got quotes for an office worker aged in his mid- to late 30s, on an income of £40,000 a year, which would pay an income of £1,650 a month for the next 12 months. LV=, Royal London and Legal & General all came back with quotes at about £20-£22 a month. It’s crucial to check what the minimum amount of time is that you would have to be off sick to get a payout. Most policies don’t cover short periods of illness – the minimum period can be a month, or a lot longer – so you would probably have to be ill with coronavirus for a very long time to get a payout.
Illustration: Ryan Gillert
Review memberships and subscriptions to check you can still afford to pay them and are getting what you want. Some organisations, such as the Barbican arts complex in London, have already told their members they will be able to extend their membership by the length of the closure for free. Most gyms have frozen memberships while closed, with no fee to pay until the clubs reopen. With some teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and no guarantee there will not be another lockdown later in the year, you may want to opt for monthly payments rather than paying for a year upfront. David Lloyd, which has 100 tennis and racquet clubs in the UK, is gradually reopening but only for outdoor tennis. It has decided to maintain its freeze on membership fees until its clubs are fully open but has not announced what will happen next. The National Trust is a charity and is keen for members to continue to donate to support its work. It says for a limited period only, it is letting members have a 25% discount when they renew their annual membership.
Parents who use government schemes to get tax breaks on nurseries, childminders and after-school clubs will have been accruing money in their accounts while not being able to use those services. Insurer Royal London estimates £18m could be sitting in tax-free childcare accounts. This is money parents can withdraw if they need it. The older childcare vouchers cannot be refunded but if you have this type of account, you can suspend payments while you are not using it. To stay in the scheme, you need to start them again within 52 weeks.
The new workplace
If you are going to be working from home for several more months, as seems to be the case for many of us, it’s vital you have the right equipment, such as a suitable chair and desk, to ensure a healthy and productive work environment. Research from the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management earlier this month found just under a quarter (24%) of the employees it questioned had a separate home office, with almost two-thirds (64%) resorting to makeshift workstations on dining room tables, sofas and beds. Some employers are going as far as couriering a van full of kit to their home-working staff, while others are doing little or nothing. Royal Bank of Scotland said this month it will distribute additional gear such as office chairs, folding desks and screens to those who need it. Meanwhile, the BBC said staff can apply for an interest-free loan of up to £250 (with repayments deducted from net salary), which they can use to buy modest equipment to help them work from home more comfortably. Ask your employer what it can do to help you. Which? has published a helpful list of tips, which also includes recommendations for home office chairs and desks.
You may be able to claim tax relief for your job expenses now that you are working from home. You can typically only claim for things that are solely related to your work – for example, business phone calls or the extra cost of gas and electricity for your “office” area. You can’t claim for things you use for both your work and in a private capacity, such as your broadband. Accountants Blick Rothenberg point out HMRC allows employees who don’t already complete a self-assessment tax return to make claims of up to £2,500 on employment-related expenses incurred in a tax year by using form P87. Check out HMRC’s website for more information. The gov.uk/tax-relief-for-employees page includes sections on working from home and buying substantial equipment that you have to have to do your work. This page on form P87 may also be useful.
Is your home broadband up to scratch? Don’t put up with a shoddy service. If yours is limping along at the moment, there are things you can do. You may want to ask your existing provider whether it can upgrade you to a faster fibre package without any loss of service or the need for an engineer visit. And there are various tips and gadgets that might help. Switching broadband provider is of course an option, and may be the best bet for some. Most people won’t require a home visit from an engineer. Comparethemarket.com recently said there had been considerable demand for faster broadband packages since the lockdown restrictions began.
In terms of other homeworking costs, try to make use of the technology available for business calls and meetings – Zoom, Skype and so on – rather than racking up phone costs that, with all the chaos, you may never get around to claiming back.
Strictly speaking, everyone should probably notify their buildings and contents insurer(s) if they are going to be working at home for a while – particularly if they have bought expensive new gear to help them do their job. Similarly, you are responsible for checking that working from home will not cause any problems with your mortgage or tenancy agreement.