Weekly Money: the news stories that we noticed 25 to 29 January

The personal finance stories you may have missed this week

29 January

Sky landline and broadband customers have just a couple more days - until Sunday - to make a penalty-free exit from their package before the company increases charges from 1 February.

“Now is the time to check whether you can get more for your money elsewhere – the chance is that you’ll be able to save a bundle,” said Hannah Maundrell of money.co.uk.

The price increases were announced in December and included a 400 per cent hike in voicemail charges from 25p to £1.25 a month. Line rental charges are also going up by £1 a month to £17.40.

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Sunday also marks the deadline to file your tax return. Help is available at www.gov.uk/self-assessment-tax-returns or from the Self Assessment helpline on 0300 200 3310.

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Independent firm GB Energy Supply has cut the price of both its variable and fixed dual fuel energy tariffs to £765 a year, making it currently the cheapest deal on the market.

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People are most likely to spend their pension freedom cash on home improvements, reckons the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association. Its research found that one in three who spent the money put it into their property while just under a fifth put it towards a one-off purchase. One in four used the money to get out of debt, paying off their mortgage or clearing a loan or a credit card.

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Complaints about packaged current accounts increased by a third last year, the Financial Ombudsman said.

28 January

Energy giant SSE has become the latest of the Big Six firms to cut gas prices for consumers, following similar moves by British Gas last summer and E.on from the beginning of February. The firm will reduce domestic gas prices in Great Britain by an average of 5.3 per cent on its standard tariff from 29 March.

Last week E.on announced a domestic gas price reduction of 5.1 per cent to start on 1 February. But the move led to widescale complaints that the big six energy firms have been overcharging consumers in the face of falling wholesale prices, which fell 23 per cent last year. SEE’s announcement has been met with similar opprobrium.

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Are we set to soon see the end of high street bank branches? Not according to a new report from the Social Market Foundation. It reveals that bank branches remain essential to Britons, with nearly two-thirds of consumers preferring to talk to someone face-to-face when making a big financial decision.

However, when it comes to everyday money management such as checking a balance or paying bills, seven out of 10 are happy to do so online.

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Almost 5,000 small businesses have been hit with compliant notices or fines for failing to sort out their company pension schemes.

The figures are revealed in a Pensions Regulator report which shows that 4,818 compliance notices have been issued to firms that have failed to comply with pension auto-enrolment rules in time, while 1,594 £400 fines have been issued.

The rules require firms to put their staff into a workplace pension and 90 per cent have successfully done so with 5.8 million people being automatically enrolled.

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Self-employed people, on the other hand, are struggling to save into a pension. Most would rather invest cash in a savings account, cash Isa or property, reckons Citizens Advice, with half not trusting pensions.

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With Britain set to take a battering from Storm Jonas, if you’re in need or are caring for the vulnerable call 0800 33 66 99 and find out more about financial support and practical advice from the Home Heat Helpline.

It’s a free service that provides advice on rebates, grants for insulation and new boilers, and tips on saving energy.

27 January

Has your credit card company increased your spending limit? Almost 19 million credit card holders have had their credit limit increased without requesting it, according to new research.

While that may sound relatively harmless, the uSwitch research suggests that some 4.5 million of people handed a higher limit have seen their spending spiral as a result of the temptation of easy extra credit.

“With the increased limits unrequested, unwanted and a surprise, spending beyond their means without considering the repayments is an easy trap to fall into,” warns Tashema Jackson of uSwitch. “With household debt on the rise, providers shouldn’t encourage customers to bite off more credit than they can chew.”

Last week the Nationwide became the first major credit card issuer to pledge not to increase customers’ credit card limit without asking. It’s time for others to follow and stop handing out easy and expensive credit to people who may not be able to handle it.

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If you mistakenly send a mobile, online or phone banking payment to the wrong account, you’ll soon get more help to reclaim money sent in error.

Cash wrongly sent will now be returned to the person who made the mistake within 20 working days, in straightforward cases where there is no dispute, according to payment services Faster Payments and Bacs.

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Three quarters of those aged 45 and over dream of retiring in the next five years but almost half don’t stand a chance. That’s because of a lack of finances, according to an HSBC report. It suggests millions are having to delay retirement hopes because they have children who rely on their income, have debts to pay off or simply do not have enough money saved.

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The average deposit for a home has passed £80,000 for the first time reckons Mortgage Advice Bureau.

26 January

One benefit of continuing low interest rates is that fixed mortgage deals are still falling, with an average two year fixed rate for those with a 10 per cent deposit now at 3.06 per cent, down from 3.84 per cent a year ago.

In the last four years, the rates charged by lenders have dramatically lowered. In 2012 someone with 40 per cent equity, for instance, would have been charged 4.05 per cent for a two year fix: now the same deal is less than half at just 1.99 per cent.

But Charlotte Nelson of Moneyfacts, warned: “It is still a question of when the Bank of England will raise interest rates rather than if, so borrowers need to take advantage of current low mortgage rates before they disappear.

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Meanwhile, the average cost of a £10,000 loan has fallen to its lowest ever level, says Moneysupermarket. At the end of 2015, it stood at 3.58 per cent for a five year loan down from 4.18 per cent the previous year

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How much are your annual bills? We underestimate the total by an average of £1,459, reckons Santander. Its research suggests average household bills totalled £3,987 last year, but we estimated them to be just £2,528.

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Growing your own fruit and vegetables could save you an average of £268 a year. “Up to 3,000 edible crops can be grown extremely easily in the UK climate,” said botanist James Wong. “It adds variety to the ingredients you cook with – but also saves you money.”

He is fronting the Edible Garden Show being held at the National Agricultural and Exhibition Centre in Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, from 11 to 13 March. You can find more details at theediblegardenshow.co.uk.

25 January

You have just six days to get your tax return in or face being fined. A late return means an automatic £100 fine even if there is no tax to pay. And after three months you’ll be charged £10 a day.

It’s one of our most hated chores, reckons Which? Half of us would rather change a nappy while four out of 10 claim they’d rather go to the dentist.

The deadline for returns is 31 January. Help is available at www.gov.uk/self-assessment-tax-returns or from the Self Assessment helpline on 0300 200 3310.

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Complaints to the Energy Ombudsman climbed almost a quarter last year, rising to 65,168 compared to 52,937 in 2014.

Four out of five complaints were about bills with gripes about back billing and inaccurate invoices. Problems with switching supplier or tariff accounted for one in 10 complaints.

If you have a problem with your energy company you can call the ombudsman on 0330 440 1624 or take it online to www.ombudsman-services.org

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After it realised that two-thirds of us have no idea how premium rates are calculated, Co-op Insurance has just sent 10,000 customers an explanation of where their premium money goes. The information also sets out the consequences of certain types of claims – how much a fire claim would cost, for example.

At the moment this is just a trial project, but the company says it hopes to offer it to all customers. “We want to focus on fairness and simplicity,” claimed the Co-op’s James Hillon. He told me the company is looking at a range of other options, too, to explain how insurance pricing works.

Fairness and simplicity should be at the heart of all financial companies’ offerings to consumers. This is a very small step in the right direction, but a positive one.

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