Money: Instant access? It depends what you mean by 'instant'

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WHAT do banks and building societies mean when they advertise savings accounts as "instant access"? Increasingly, the answer is anything from free and immediate access to your cash to accounts where it actually takes up to a week or more to access your savings, or where the size and number of withdrawals is limited, or where there is a charge for withdrawals.

Last week the Advertising Standards Authority struck a blow for clarity. Following a complaint about Direct Line's Instant Access account, where like most new phone accounts it takes, in effect, three days to get your hands on the cash (you need to transfer it to your bank account first), the ASA said the "instant access" description should be qualified.

The specific ruling was against Direct Line, but the ASA said it was likely to take the same view with other phone accounts as well as many traditional "instant access" postal accounts, where it can take more than a week to access funds.

This last point may explain why the building societies, now so keen to prove their customer service credentials, have not tried to capitalise on Direct Line's knuckle-rapping.

Despite the ruling, for many people the new generation of telephone savings accounts will work out as convenient as branch-based accounts while paying much better rates. By contrast, no society has yet launched a high-paying phone account. The best they've offered to date is "instant access" postal accounts, and presumably they would rather keep as quiet as possible about the time taken to access savings from these.

SOME Barclaycard customers are about to get a better deal, though even more would get a better deal by switching cards. Barclaycard is cutting its interest rate for those spending pounds 300 or more in a month, and cardholders who spend pounds 5,000 or more a year will have the pounds 10 annual fee waived.

If you spend more than pounds 300 in a month the rate drops from 22.9 per cent to 20.9 per cent, if more than pounds 500 it drops to 18.9 per cent. But these rates are still not cheap. Cardholders who want to borrow can get a much better deal elsewhere - try RBS Advanta's 7.9 per cent fixed until January 1999; call 0800 077770.

For those who pay off bills in full each month there are cards with no fee whatever you spend, combined with more tangible spending rebates - try Goldfish, 0345 609060, or Alliance & Leicester Money Back, 0500 838383.

MANY of Britain's biggest mortgage lenders are dropping mortgage indemnity guarantees for a number of borrowers. Since they cost upwards of hundreds of pounds and give no benefit to the borrower, the moves are welcome. Once again, not a single big building society is among the modernisers.