Wednesday, January 24, 2007

And Your Cheques for Free

Along with “Where do you get your ideas from?” and “What do you do all day?” the third question that I often get asked is “How much do you earn?” Sometimes it’s phrased a bit more politely than that, but the gist is the same – because I am a writer, I must either have a massive income from royalties, and I just choose to live in an unfashionable part of north-west London to keep it real and stay close to the streets that made me, or that I have to suck off sailors to pay the gas bill.

The truth is somewhere in between – I am a secret millionaire, but hey, who can resist a sailor?

No, the truth is somewhere in between – by saving when the times are good I can get by when the government decides to ban advertising junk food to kids. I hate wasting money, and am always checking for the cheapest utility suppliers and best mortgage rates, and I never, never run up interest on a credit card. I am the annoying person who always has his tax return done by mid-September. It was therefore with some dismay that I opened a letter saying that I had a loan that I should have paid off last year that had now accrued £100 interest, and could they have it all back please?

My heart sank; it was true. I had taken out a career development loan for a course a couple of years ago even though I hadn’t really needed to as the government were lending money at 0% for a year. Today’s money-saving tip is that if someone lends you money at 0% you should always take it, as any interest you can earn on it elsewhere is free money. Today’s other money-saving tip is to always remember to pay it back before they start charging interest, otherwise the whole clever sticking it to The Man idea becomes a bit redundant and you realise that you’re actually bent double with your trousers round your ankles whilst The Man lubes up in quiet anticipation.

But I had paid it back, hadn’t I? Yep – there was my little note on the statement, and I remembered the phone call asking how much I had to repay and what the latest possible date was to avoid interest. And there was the corresponding transaction on my current account, paying the loan off.

I rang my loan providing bank. They said that the loan hadn’t been paid off, and the loan department would have to ring me back.

The loan providing bank has been pretty useless. This is an account that has only required two transactions (paying my college, then me repaying the loan) and they have messed both of them up. They managed to pay my college the day before they put the money in the account in the first place, which of course made the brand new account overdrawn, then tried to charge me for their own poor co-ordination. And now this. I don’t care that they claim to be ethical – I am prepared to sacrifice a few baby seals in the name of basic fiscal competence.

The loan department rang me back. The money had gone into the account, but bizarrely hadn’t been used to pay the loan off. What it had been used for, no one could actually say, but they apologised. A lot. I said I’d like to close the account to avoid any further problems, which the woman said would be fine, then she said a curious thing: “You’ve still got a balance of £30.38 in there.”

This was a bit odd, as this account should never have had any money it. As soon as it did, that went straight to the college (the day before, actually, so no interest earned there), and as soon as I put money in it a year later it should have paid off the loan. So where had this come from? Apparently it was the interest earned over the past year whilst my money was inexplicably failing to pay off the loan (the interest on which they had rightly written off). I quickly told her to transfer it to my current account at another bank and to shut the loan account immediately.

I felt like a man who had just been wowed by a street magician. I kept thinking that half an hour later I would say, “Hang on, he’s still got my watch.” But I think that I borrowed money from a bank and they paid me interest.

If only I could make a career doing that.