It's the sheer jauntiness of it all that astonishes me – and Northern Rock is possibly just the most high-profile example. "Ooh, we've come a bit unstuck, please, Bank of England, can you bail us out? To the tune of £10bn?" Mervyn King's injections to the banks this week, which have now racked up to an astonishing £18.8bn, are an example of what happens when you are a big player with employees, your own stationery and a lot of debt to answer for. And let's not forget the three further loans, available over the next three months!
Now, I know that banks are important places, but this is a pure double standard. We mere mortals who employ no one, write our letters on pads from Paperchase and also – because we have followed suit with the banks – have a lot of debt to juggle, can't hope to be bailed out the same way.
Of course, there was the Bank of Mum and Dad when we were teenagers. But normal adults without Mervyn King on a "family and friends" direct dial must face the music. For us, there is no nice Mr King to step in. No charming Mr Darling with assurances that everything will be personally looked after by No 11. No "bloody hurrah". And certainly no end-of-term bonuses. We have to carry on, carrying the can through sky-high overdraft charges and steep interest rates and penalties for bounced cheques, boringly paying everything off the old-fashioned way until we are debt-free and the cashflow crisis has been averted.
Only this week, I received payment from a big player for a piece of work I had done, ooh, about eight weeks ago. That's the first thing, come to think of it: the tradition of paying people eight or 10 weeks after the work is done. Sometimes I'm told that Accounts has "been on holiday" or "lost my invoice", and then have to wait a hilarious 16 weeks for the payment. Well, do you know, I'd rather like to pay the builder with eight weeks' arrears, or to give our lovely nanny her salary two, three or four months late. Of course, I can't. I have to pay all my bills on the day they are due, yet must wait eight weeks for everything I'm owed to be paid to me. Who pays for the lag, and the resulting cash-flow crisis? You guessed it.
Anyway, I was owed £1,000, which I think we all agree is a rather jolly figure. Not a giant amount, but a pretty damn nice thing to land in your bank account, particularly during that lean and hungry moment in the second half of the month. Except when the payment arrived, it wasn't £1,000. It was £100, which is not the same thing at all: £100 hardly begins to mop the floor; £100 doesn't pay for half a week's worth of nanny; £100 doesn't pay for a single term of a child's school dinners – or even half a term's worth of piano lessons. (Yes, all the worthy things. I don't spend money on anything else these days.)
Immediately, I got onto my contact at Big Player House. "Oh, that can't be us," she said. "I don't think any mistake has been made." The classic attitude of the big institution: deny everything. Two urgent emails later, however, she admitted that Big Player House was at fault. "Ah, yes. I think our Accounts Department left a zero off your payment. We'll pay the remaining £900 at our next cheque run." In four weeks' time.
"Well how about paying my extra interest incurred from being £900 further overdrawn than I would have been if your accounts department hadn't been so bloody sloppy?" I felt like saying, although of course I didn't. How ridiculous. Leaving off the zero! I don't go around "leaving off" zeros on my bills, though I very much wish I could.
Still, at least I noticed that I was owed something. This, dear thrift-seeker, is a key trick that we who face tipping over the chasm of cashflow on a monthly basis must master: finding out who owes you what, and pursuing them for it. Big institutions are so hapless these days that you can't trust them with anything – as Northern Rock has so eminently demonstrated.
The broadcaster Paul Ross put his finger rather brilliantly on this issue last week. "I only ever worry about money I am owed – not the other way round" he said. This seems to me a singularly fabulous piece of advice, and I shall never forget it. I suggest that you take it to heart, too. If you are a debt-ridden individual, that is, not a big player.Reuse content