She’s just texted me (and my four siblings) for the fourth time this week with a desperate plea for ‘pressie ideas.’
For people not given to extravagance in any other respect, my parents’ approach to Christmas is pretty extraordinary. The tree will inevitably look like it’s being swallowed alive by Santa’s bounty, and at dinner you can guarantee there’ll be more starter and dessert options than there are people around the table.
My refrain that I want nothing more for Christmas than to flop on the sofa in a Quality Street coma will of course fall on deaf ears, and the ‘bank of mum and dad’ will begin 2020 as a shadow of its former self.
So this week’s column is dedicated to simple ways you can boost your bank balance and offset the festive splurging. Happy Christmas!
Cash in on cashback
It’s easy to make your Christmas spending pay - particularly if you’re shopping online. Cashback site giants Quidco and Topcashback both offer cashback at more than 4,000 retailers - and it’s free to sign up.
Offers change regularly, but eye-catching examples when I checked included 20% back at Etsy via Topcashback, 4.7% at M&S via Quidco and up to 10% at Amazon via both sites.
Even if you’ve put the brakes on festive spending, there are ways to build up bonuses without buying anything. Both Quidco and Topcashback have a range of ‘free cashback’ offers, where you can earn small amounts by completing tasks such as getting an insurance quote or signing up for a free trial.
I never buy online now without first checking if a cashback offer is available. But don’t let the lure of cashback lead you towards a poor-value product. Think of it as a bonus, rather than using it as your starting point for deciding what to buy and where from.
If you’re an American Express customer, register now for its Shop Small cashback scheme (americanexpress.co.uk/shopsmall), which is dedicated to supporting small businesses across the UK. You’ll get £5 back in statement credit when you spend £10 or more at participating businesses between 7 and 22 December - up to a maximum of £50 in total.
Switch your bank account
Two in three people have never switched their current account, according to the latest Which? survey of more than 4,000 customers. One of the top reasons for staying with the same bank is the perceived hassle of switching. But of those who had switched their current account in the past three years, the majority (82%) described the experience as problem-free.
And there’s plenty to gain from it, from better customer service to more competitive products. Several banks pay interest on current account balances (up to a certain amount) or offer cashback on household bills.
For a more immediate boost to your bank balance, you can take advantage of the financial carrots dangled by some providers when you switch to them. First Direct, for example, pays £50, while M&S Bank offers a gift card of up to £180.
Check if you’re owed a refund from your energy supplier
Chances are that if you pay for energy by direct debit, you don’t think much about it. You know the same payment will be taken automatically every month.
But you could be owed several hundred pounds, based on our 2019 survey of almost 4,000 Which? members who pay by direct debit, two-thirds of whom are in credit with their energy firm. A handful told us they’d built up a balance of more than £1,000.
If you are in credit, you can request a refund at any time and your energy supplier must do so promptly, unless there are reasonable grounds not to.
Whether it’s worth requesting a refund will depend on how much credit you have built up in comparison to your monthly payments, and the time of year (you’ll often build up credit in summer and use it in winter).
If you’ve built up more than three months’ worth of credit, or find your credit is increasing during the winter, your direct debit may be set too high. If this is the case, it’s time to take action.
Take advantage of tax breaks
Around 700,000 couples could be missing out on a tax refund, according to HMRC.
Thanks to a tax break known as the marriage allowance, couples who are married or in a civil partnership can lower their tax bills in certain circumstances.
To qualify, one of you needs to be a non-taxpayer - in other words, to earn less than £12,500 - and the other needs to be a basic-rate taxpayer (£46,350 is the current threshold in England, Wales and Northern Ireland). In Scotland, they’d need to be a starter, basic or intermediate rate taxpayer, which in 2019-20 means an income of between £12,500 and £43,430.
Eligible couples who have been married or in a civil partnership for the past five years but haven’t yet claimed their allowance could now get a rebate of £1,150.
You can apply online via HMRC’s website, or by calling 0300 200 3300.
By Jenny Ross Editor of Which? Money