Money Talk: Don't get soaked by society skinflints

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The Independent Online
Scrooges apart, we all need a little extra cash at Christmas time. For people who can afford to pay off their bills every month, credit cards are the obvious way of taking up the strain. And, as we detail on the back page, putting big ticket items on cards, or even taking up other credit offers, can offer an additional safety net if there are problems.

It may also be a good time to trawl through your savings accounts for extra funds. Despite this year's base rate rises and growing competition, you may be missing out on very little interest by cashing up.

True, there are now some attractive accounts out there. But there are also plenty still paying miserable returns.

Anyone with societies that are now banks should pay particular attention to what they are getting. After all, there is no windfall benefit in sticking with the converters now they have made their payouts.

Take Northern Rock, for example, paying just 0.9 per cent gross on balances of less than pounds 500 in its 60-day account. Fortunately anyone wanting to withdraw these sorts of sums - or even close their account - can do so without penalty. Or Bristol & West, paying a pitiful 0.2 per cent on similar amounts in its instant access Select account.

Tesco, by contrast, is paying 6.5 per cent and arguably offers at least as good access.

The converters were berated for paying poor rates while savers waited for their windfalls. In many cases they continue to rely on our inertia. This is annoying, although savers have only themselves to blame if they choose to put up with it.

More of a pain is the running sore that is the policy of the Birmingham Midshires, which is in the process of being taken over by Royal Bank of Scotland. The society has only recently announced its plan to be taken over, but has been paying relatively poor rates for very much longer. Some savers have already foregone hundreds of pounds of interest and many borrowers have been stung to an even greater degree.

The society is due to announce the details of its payout in the spring (and actually make the handout by September next year). But in the meantime it refuses to say whether savers who withdraw cash now will affect their eventual windfalls. With many of its accounts continuing to trail behind the market, the fear is eventual payouts may in some cases not make up the lost ground.

Birmingham Midshires is a society that claims to set a lot of store by customer service. It also has a tricky vote to pull off in the spring: many members might question whether their handout couldn't be bettered.

On both counts, and because it is Christmas, it should tell its savers they can touch their money now without losing out. If it waits it will be storing up even bigger problems. Its eventual outflows may even be such that RBS might question what it has bought. Meanwhile savers might like to increase the pressure by complaining to the Building Societies Ombudsman on 0171-931 0044. The Ombudsman has already been inundated with similar complaints about the other converters.