Rosie Millard: Thrifty Living

With kissing and banking, French is the best way
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Another day, another 0 per cent interest balance transfer application. Actually, I'm down to three cards and have cancelled the rest. The great balance transfer stampede is fast fading, with most cards only offering six months and even then most of them hitting you with a 2 per cent charge when you apply and are accepted (not necessarily a given - it's up to how healthy your credit rating is).

Furthermore, I've set strict repayment conditions on to each card. Forget about those ridiculous minimum repayments. All they do is prolong the agony. No, you have to actively chip away at your 0 per cent balance transfers, all the time. I want to be shot of them. I do not wish to be waving the junior Millards off to secondary school while still shamefully toting 0 per cent interest balance transfers. And so I give a grand to each card, every month. It's killing me but it has to be done.

It is absolutely pointless, I murmur to myself, as I visit the online slo-mo car crash that is my current account, to keep my account in the black while allowing balance transfers to just sit there for six months. Pay off the cards, and the overdraft will slowly bubble down of its own accord. Like porridge taken off the boil. Even though it has a pernicious system of interest all of its own. Because English banks earn their money from selling financial products that "help" us all to stay in debt.

There is another way. Go to France and you discover that, as with all things French (soccer, haute couture, kissing), banking is vastly superior. Radically, the French approach is not to rip you off. Even if your tendencies are those of a naughty spendthrift. Balance transfers? Giant overdrafts? Interest-only mortgages? These simply do not happen in France. I know a bit about French financing thanks to a pied-à-terre in Paris which I rent to amorous couples from the BBC. Cash from this accrues in my French account. Except, sometimes, it doesn't.

Hence a call from my delectable French bank manager. "Ca va, Rosie?" "Er, oui!" I say nervously. "Bonjour, Yves." Yves has an accent straight out of Gigi; even bank managers over there are sexy. "Now zen," he commences. "It would appear a payment for an amount superior to your cleared balance 'as resulted in your account becoming overdrawn by €88.09." He pauses. "On zis occasion we have authorised this situation, but would ask you, pleeze, to bring ze account back into credit as soon as possible." €88.09. This is equivalent in sterling to £61.10, probably about the same amount I accrue, daily, in interest charges on my British bank account - overdrawn since about 1972.

In France, banks don't appear to do overdrafts. They warn you the minute an overdraft threatens. Attentive readers will remember what will happen if I do not jump when Yves clicks his (probably) expensively manicured fingers. If my overdrawn state persists, I will once again become interdit bancaire, a sorry state which involves a ban on writing cheques for five years in France, plus a fine.

"If you wish to discuss a particular problem, zen please do contact me. I await your credit," says Yves formally. I humbly thank him then contact my agent in Paris who assures me that rental income from the love nest has been paid in this morning.

I know, it's treating the client like a child. But we need to be warned when a potentially dangerous situation is approaching; we need to be reminded of the punishment that will happen if it persists; we like being offered solutions. Why don't English banks act as responsibly? Rather than persist in offering enormous "authorised" overdrafts, then sit and watch with glee when the customer utilises said "facility", finds they are unable to pay it off and then must start the long haul through the fiscal marshland of unsecured and secured loans, minimum repayments, further overdrafts, outrageous interest rates, short-term credit, long-term credit and the whole rigmarole that has encouraged 66,000 people in Britain to go bankrupt this year, and the rest of us to struggle with debt repayment.

Yves, I salute you, your countrymen, and your stylish, but stern disapproval of debt, and I hope very much that your team is successful tomorrow in Berlin. Allez les Bleus!

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