Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Getting more for your holiday money

In just over a week I will be in Tokyo and like most other holiday makers I'm doing everything last minute, but you can still get a good deal on your holiday money.

I spent the better part of this morning researching currency rates and I was surprised to find that the rate can vary a lot. Most people don't bother to check the rates before buying and this can really leave you out of pocket.

1) Go for a 0% rate - I wanted to go for a 0% commission rate to maximise the amount of money I get back. Although my own bank, Nationwide, does do this, even 0% offers do vary their exchange rate so do shop around.

2) Compare exchange rates - I then checked out Marks & Spencer and the Post Office and here I discovered the difference between the three above would mean 4,000 yen, about £18, between the highest and lowest figures, which really surprised me.

3) Watch out for hidden extras - If you order a low amount of currency most providers will charge a delivery fee, so find out before hand if there are any hidden costs.

4) Online versus offline - Putting a call in to the Post Office, I then discovered that there is a big difference in the rates they use to calculate the currency, depending on if you order online or over the phone. I found that if I placed the order over the phone I would be charged the branch rate which is much lower. So watch out, it pays to ask more questions! In the end, I decided to go with an online rate as this would give me more currency and it would be delivered free of charge to my door.

5) Ask about their returns policy - One last thing, check out their returns policy, some places wont exchange coins or notes with low denominations. Not that I expect to be bringing back any cash from Tokyo, but its worth remembering to spend your small coins whilst you are out there. Mine will be going into those weird vending machines for random anime toys! Only in Japan...

For more info, check out these articles on foreign currency and how to save money on your holiday.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Young people: beware the debt trap

A new report today has revealed that two third of young people feel they are being urged to get into debt and this is by far a common situation that I can sympathise with.

The number of times I've walked into high street shops to be offered a credit or store card, and I'm not the only one, 77% of the 16 to 24 year olds surveyed said they have received credit offers in the post.

Not too long ago a pre-paid credit card dropped through our letter box and it just goes to show what clever tactics that companies and banks will use to get you hooked on credit.

But it's not just credit cards, 80% also had an overdraft facility and others also had taken out personal or student loans or store cards - all before the age of 25.

Not sure what to do about it? Here are some of my tips:

1) Avoid temptation - If you are stopped in a shop, smile and politely say no. Just last week a sales assistant was trying to convince me to take out their store card while I was paying at the till. If you feel the sales assistant is being pushy, try the following: "No thanks, but I prefer to live within my means." This usually gets them to stop and think about what they are really doing - trying to get you into debt.

2) Store cards/Credit cards - Know the difference - I once nearly signed up to a store card only to realise moments before I signed on the dotted line that what she was in fact selling me was a credit card.

3) Junk mail really is junk - If you don't like the letters coming through your door, complain. Ring the company or bank up and tell them you don't like being sent these things through the post. But make sure you speak to a manager or senior person, someone with the authority to take your name off their mailing list. If they prove to be unhelpful say you want to make a complaint and ask to be put through to the relevant person, this usually gets people to change their tune.

Send it back or if you think leaving a pre-paid credit card in the home is too much temptation, cut it up immediately and chuck it in the bin.

4) Remember why they are calling you - If they can keep you in debt longer, the more money they can make from you. It really is that simple. So do yourself a favour, if you ever feel like you are being pushed into something, just walk away, as credit can easily spiral into large debts.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Supermarket shopping gets even more expensive

According to an article in the Daily Express today, the cost of grocery shopping has gone up by 12% over the last year.

This with the recent news that Chancellor Alistair Darling is telling families that pay increases will be limited this year and salaries could even fall in a bid to keep inflation under control.

What this means is less money to spend on goods that are becoming even more expensive.

So what can consumers do about it? Check out my blog entry about how to cut the cost of your grocery bill for practical tips on how to save money.

Next look at where you waste money, we Brits waste £10bn on food that never gets eaten so check out my tips on how to stop wasting food.

My family spends nearly £70 a week on food at the supermarket and above is a photo of some of the food we bought yesterday. I'm going to see how much money I can save my family over the next couple of weeks by being more thrifty at the supermarket. I will keep you all informed on my progress.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

End of cheap mortgages

As if the credit crunch wasn't bad enough, it looks like the end of cheap mortgages too. Halifax, one of the biggest mortgage providers in the UK have pushed up their rate for fixed mortgages and the new rate is now 6.99%.

The Halifax were the last of the big four banks to increase their rate, and when you realise that these banks control 50% of the mortgage market, it can only mean bad news for people trying to buy their first home.

A couple of weeks back, anyone trying to get a foothold on the property ladder would need to raise 13% of the total value for a deposit, considering most Brits struggle to save £3,600 for a cash ISA, the dream of owning your first home is now further away for most young people.

But I'm determined to get on the property ladder and plan to save my deposit the old fashioned way, by stashing my cash into my ISA. If I've learnt anything from the current housing market, it's that there are no such things as cheap gimmicks!

Friday, 20 June 2008

Cost of living up 26%

With inflation, fuel prices and weekly groceries ever increasing, it was no surprise to find out according to a YouGov survey that the cost of living is going up.

Mortgages, household bills, cost of rent has all increased and with recent forecasts about the economy it looks like we will be forking out even more money in the months ahead.

The Government thinks inflation will hit 4% before the end of the year, but for most people, when you take into account the amount we are all spending on food this is more likely around 5%.

Needless to say we will be spending more on essentials and less on luxuries as the credit crunch grips a hold on people's wages.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Narration of Love at 17: love in an everyday world

Dealing with love can be painful, confusing and perhaps even lonely, that's what surprised me the most about Narration of Love at 17. A Korean manwha series and an old school one at that, even New Kids On The Block get name dropped - remember them? If you can look past the dated artwork, there is a real gem hidden underneath.

But that's what makes this series so very special, it deals with the other side of love that you don't see in manga these days. Written in the early nineties the story follows a young high school girl, Seyoung, who never gets to act in her school drama club. One day, the leading lady quits the club to take up a staring role on TV and Seyoung is suddenly thrust into the limelight, only to have her moment in the spotlight stolen from her.

But the drama in the school play is only secondary to the big issue in her life, the fact that she's in love with her childhood friend, Hyunwoo, who doesn't notice her feelings. Then there's the captain of the drama club, Yunho, who any girl would fall head over heals for, but not Seyoung.

There are no robotic boyfriends in this manga or space hopping saga's, what makes this series so very enjoyable is the fact that it's about ordinary people living their everyday lives, making mistakes and overcoming regrets. When the promises of love fail to deliver, what do you do next? What can you do?

It's the little things that make this series so special. On a trip out to an amusement park, Yunho doesn't wear his sunglasses because he doesn't want to look like a gigalo. Or those crazy high school dares that classmates do to relieve the stress and angst of teenage life. And the realisation that even though you have lots of friends around you, sometimes you can still feel you have no one to talk to.

Narration of love at 17 is all these things. Those awkward moments, hurting the people around you to protect yourself. The portrayal of love in this series is perhaps the most honest version I've ever read, no cute fluffy romances here. Even by the end, Seyoung is perhaps the only heroine who doesn't get the guy, but accepts that life is always changing and sometimes things come to an end, even feelings. Because sometimes in life there is no dramatic ending, life continues just like it always has, with the Earth rotating on its axis.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Anime Life in London

There was me thinking my life would calm down after sports reporting for Sky News, but as soon as my placement finished I got a call from another journalism student who wanted to interview me about anime.

So over the last two days I have been involved in filming a mini documentary of anime life in London, where I interviewed cosplayers, anime fans and took my camera woman extraordinaire, Yin, on a whistle stop tour of anime London.

It was nerve racking being infront of the camera talking about anime, even though it's a subject I love, but the idea behind the film was to introduce new people to the delights of anime and manga and to explore the wonderful and weird world of fanculture.

We went to Hyde Park, a fave venue for Deviant Art cosplayers and then on to Tokyo Toys for quite possibly the funniest segments of the film, taking a cheeky look at plushies, those scantily clad figures and Pocky.

The Pocky proved to be an interesting talking point, my friend couldn't believe that Pocky was that important. But talking to the sales assistants, they informed us that Pocky was in fact the best selling item in the store, (who would have thought?)

Just for the fun of it, here's a quiz where you can find out - What flavour Pocky are you?

We then went to a nearby park where I talked about how to read manga and the popularity of anime conventions. It has been a fun two days and I will most certainly write a shopping guide for anime fans in London, as I've learnt, there is much the capital can offer.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

New season anime: Allison and Lillia

As the new season of anime in Japan is hurdling ahead at full steam, I thought I would talk about a series that has really caught my attention, the rather wonderful Allison and Lillia.

Telling the story of Allison, a gung-ho fighter pilot, and her sidekick friend, Wil, the story starts on a war torn continent, where the two conflicting countries are divided by a river. The duo meet an elderly man who claims to know off a treasure that could end the war, he is then kidnapped by suspicious men and Allison takes off in hot pursuit, draging Wil along for the ride.

This action adventure story may be a little more slow paced but it is full of countless charming moments as Allison inadvertently (and sometimes intentionally) lands her friend into trouble. Timid Wil eventually gets used to his troublesome friend and as fly into enemy territory they meet Ker Benedict, a soldier on the enemy side and that's when things really get interesting.

It's impossible not to compare this series to the seminal Last Exile as similarities are everywhere: children pulled into conflict, politics of warfare and the sort of guardian role that Benedict ends up taking over the young kids. But that's where the similarities also end, Benedict is not as jaded or brooding as Last Exile's Alex Rowe,(not that's a bad thing)and the story is much more light hearted as the main characters, including a girl named Fi, find themselves launched into one adventure after the nest.

It may be an old fashioned piece of storytelling, but as the series is based on novels penned by Keiichi Sigsawa (creator of Kino's Journey) there are a number of twists along the way. Judging by the quality of this series, it's a real shame that more of his novels aren't translated into English.

Now, you may well be wondering, just who is this Lillia girl anyway? That was the same question I was asking myself when I started watching this show. The series is divided into two halves, the first focusing on Allison and the second on Lillia, but I'm not about to ruin any surprises for anyone.

Allison and Lillia is a lovely story, heart warming and fun. It's great watching the book-sh Wil being pulled out of his safe sanctuary to explore the world with his meddling friend, and just like Wil, it doesn't take much to be pulled along into the story wondering, where will they go next? Joining Allison and Lillia on their journey has so far been a wonderful experience. It goes to show, not all anime needs to be philosophical or complicated. Sometimes, it's great to watch a show simply because it's fun. For now, that's more than enough for me.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Gadgets and girls

Today, my article about Gadgets for Girls: What do women want? appeared as the top story on the Sky technology page.

I recently interviewed a very interesting lady called Genvieve Bell who researches trends on the way women are influencing technology and there were some surprising findings.

She has spoken to many women around the globe and increasingly women want more from their gadgets, more than just pink phones. Women are also big online gamers where games have really taken off in Asia. Also, I was surprised to learn traditionally feminine styled phones are now being bought by men.

By about lunchtime I learnt that the page had already had 11,000 hits which was very flattering and it was good to see that the article had started an active discussion on the website.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Would you quit your job over Facebook?

I'm currently on work experience at Sky News and over the last few days I have been writing for the technology page, below is one of the stories that I have recently written.

According to a recent survey 39 per cent of young people aged between 18 to 24 would quit their jobs if websites such as Facebook and YouTube were banned.

More than 80% of those in the age group now use these sites on a regular basis. I remember working in an office where the main topic of conversation was always 'what's happening on Facebook?' so the survey result was a reflection of changing times.

I was interested by the fact that so many people would quit their jobs and the article has sparked some debate on the Sky website.

On another note, I recently wrote another story about the popularity of Sniff, an application that can find your friends instantly using mobile phones, which can also be used on Facebook. You can read the full article here.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

London for free

"But London's so expensive!" said my best friend when I tried to invite her out for a night out on the town last night. And this wasn't one of my always broke university friends either. With a little help from my other best friend, Google, I decided to find out about all the free things you can do in London, here's what I discovered:

1) Swapping shopping for culture - Now that I'm on my new budget, my shopping habit has resorted to 'window shopping' instead. I found this great website called London Is Free which lists everything from free exhibitions, theatre to dance tickets. Currently there are free tickets for Summer Festivals happening across the capital and tickets for TV shows.

2) Museums and concerts - There are more than 200 museums in the capital and many of them including the British Museum, Natural History Museum offer free exhibitions for the budget culture vulture. Also, even if you haven't listened to much classical music, check out the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre for free lunchtime concerts.

3) Grab some freebies - The good thing about the net is that there are lots of freebies online , including dvds and gift packs, perfect for an evening in. The internet is also good for another thing: competitions. Currently, I'm trying to win an iPod Nano. Wish me luck!

4) Make the most of staying in - Tonight I'm having a movie and popcorn evening with friends, the hardest part is deciding what to watch. The boys want Fight Club and the girls want 10 Things I Hate About You. We could have a real fight on our hands! Here are some of the other suggestions that friends have done:

- A hot pot evening - Rather than doing all the cooking, invite friends over for dinner but each guest has to bring their own dish.

- Nineties TV marathon - Remember My So Called Life or Freaks and Geeks? Dig up an old TV show you haven't seen in ages and re-live an old teenage crush.

- Cake bake - Tired of watching the same old soaps? Grab an old cookbook from your local library and make something tasty. Over the last few week's I've made an ice-cream cake, flapjacks and chocolate brownies. Yum!

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Students bake their way to business success

Having empty pockets and no cash is a normal situation faced by most students but at the University of Westminster’s Harrow Campus, there has been a recent flurry of activity as students have been running their own stalls selling everything from cosmetics, clothes and even doughnuts!

The woman who started the trend is Jo Michael, a second year film student, who showed up on Valentines Day with a stall selling roses, sweets and chocolate cake in a bid to raise money for her student film.

I asked Jo to reveal just how she persuaded cash strapped students to part with their money:

“It was mainly just having the confidence to convince people that they needed and wanted cakes, roses and bundles of love on Valentines Day. We made sure we were quite loud and took a tray full of cakes to our lecturers. We ensured that everyone we knew including friends, lecturers, even security staff who passed our stall bought a cake.”

So what did she learn by running a business? Laughing Jo said:

“When we were selling the cakes I felt a bit like a grocer at a market stall, I may have looked and sounded a bit stupid, but it sold the cakes. We raised a total of £420.”

Next to follow in Jo’s footsteps was fellow second year film student, Natalie Paleomylites, whose cake bakes are a regular fixture at the campus. Natalie said:

“We decided to sell cakes, cookies and sweets as the university does not sell a great amount of these products, so we believed we would be able to sell them successfully.”

Natalie has the following tips to say to other would-be entrepreneurs:

“Try and establish what your customers want. Buy more than you think as we sold out quite early in. Also, do not be greedy with your pricing and remember it is a university and we all are skint so be fair. Offer a variety of products to cater for all needs. Be confident when selling, call people over and display your products in an inviting way. Make sure you advertise, it helps, and try to get your customers to advertise for you. Cheeky but it works. We raised £153.72p.”

Would she do it again?

“Definitely, I would do it again. It felt good to know that we were helping our group and the sweet tooth’s of the students.”

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Penny pinching your way through the Credit Crunch

The summer sales have started earlier this year as shops on the high street cut prices to lure in more shoppers, as retailers have one of the worst years on record. But that need not be bad news for consumers, with some savvy money tips, consumers can penny pinch their way through the credit crisis:

1) Analyse your lifestyle - Sit down with a sheet of paper and write down all your expenditures to figure out where your money is going. It would be helpful to pull out bank statements for the last three months and with a highlighter look at your big expenses. Add up how many times you actually take cash out of the bank, and jot down the cumulative total, as people often withdraw more than they realise.

2) Budgeting for people who don't budget - Sometimes people don't want to budget because it's an indication that they don't have money. But work out how much you need to live on every week and with the information above, start thinking about where you can make cut backs. I decided to rent movies instead and limit the amount of cash I took out of the bank every week.

3) Save first, spend later - With the current crisis, it's helpful to have some money in an emergency account. Move some money into a separate account when you get paid before you go shopping. Or the other way is to cut back on incidentals, basically the small item you buy everyday, which may not seem like much, but add up in the long run.

Just to get you started, here are some tips:
Take a packed lunch with you, ditch your morning coffee, instead of going out in the evening or grabbing an expensive take away, buy a few groceries from the supermarket and watch an old DVD you haven't seen for a year.

4) Smarter spending - Once you've sorted out your finances and figured out where you can cut back, now look at how you can become a smarter shopper. Before you even dash out to the sales, check what you currently have in the house, if you already have 15 tops, do you really need another one? Draw up a list of what you would like and then eliminate non essentials that perhaps you can do without.

5) Summer sales - Once you have a shopping list of what you need to buy, try to stick to this list, sales have a way of making you spend more money than you need to. Check out the websites of the stores you intend to visit before you head out the door, as some of the biggest discounts can be found online.