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Going abroad? I need your help….

If I had a euro for each time I’ve been asked a variant of this question by holidaymakers, "I’ve just been to a bank/shop and it’s giving me the choice of paying in euros/dollars or pounds, which should I choose?", I’d err, have a lot of euros.

For a detailed answer see my Always pay in euros blog post, which as the title suggests, explains the safe option is to always pay in euros.

However my experimentation and rate comparison that underpins that blog was done primarily in Spain, so I wanted to take the opportunity this summer with so many people going away to spread my research base.

What I’d like you to do

If you’re going abroad and meet a shop or cash machine that gives you this option, I’d like you to take a picture of the screen or receipt which explains the rate it’s offering… (example below).

Banca March ATM withdrawal screen

Banca March ATM withdrawal screen

Then please email it to me at payineuros@moneysavingexpert.com and also if possible, include the following:

1. Where you are (country and location).
2. The date and time.
3. If you know the spot rate on the day (if you don’t, don’t worry – I can find it).

My aim is to get an accurate comparison of how this compares to paying in pounds – all around the world.

Thank you in advance.

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Huge anger over HMRC wanting to raid people’s savings – but why do we already let banks do it?

Huge anger over HMRC wanting to raid people's savings – but why do we already let banks do it?

Huge anger over HMRC wanting to raid people's savings – but why do we let banks do it already?

HMRC has been accused of attempting to overturn the Magna Carta by trying to gain new powers that will allow it to take money from people’s bank accounts without a court order (see HMRC wants to raid accounts).

There’s been uproar and outrage from MPs and others on this. I share in this angst. Yet I thought it worth pointing out that while we object to the taxman doing it, we have already given banks the power to do something very similar. Under the rules of setting-off, a bank can take money from accounts to pay itself without notice, without permission and without a court order.

Now my point here isn’t that because banks can do it, we should allow HMRC to do it. It’s more that if we are going to protest around the idea that the taxman has this permission, we should also stop banks – which aren’t exactly paragons of virtue with great track records on such things.

For those unfamiliar with the rules of setting-off, it’s quite simple. If you have a debt eg a credit card or loan with the same bank where you also have savings or a current account, even if those accounts aren’t linked, the money can be taken from your savings to repay your debts. And they don’t need to notify you or seek permission in advance.

This can cause cataclysm for people’s finances. Those doing the correct strategy when in trouble (ie, focusing on priority debts) such as putting money aside to pay their mortgage can see it snaffled to pay a credit card (a lesser-priority debt), leaving them in mortgage arrears.

I’ve even heard of a woman being given money by her father to pay for her wedding just a few days before the big day to have it snaffled immediately by the bank.

For full help on your rights if you’re affected, see our Setting-off guide.

Why do we give banks so much power? Why is it a special form of creditor above even HMRC? Gas and electricity companies can’t just dip into your bank account to take your money when you owe them. Why is a bank so special?

In my view – it isn’t, and it’s about time we ended this antiquated law. If banks want to take money from your account, they should require a court order like anybody else does.

I’d welcome your thoughts below.

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How much is a blank worth at Scrabble?

How much is a blank worth at Scrabble?

How much is a blank worth at Scrabble?

I’ve been getting the spreadsheet out. Over the weekend Mrs MSE and I played a few games (as we do). In the first two she was rather unlucky that I got both blanks each time, which I think probably turned the game in my favour (just). Thus intrigued, I decided to enter nerdvana and calculate the value of each blank.

Of course, a blank, in simple terms, is the only tile on a Scrabble board worth no points. Yet what I’m talking about is the value of gaining a blank – the fact it can be used as any letter makes it by far the most powerful, flexible and desirable tile there is.

So on to the calculation. Luckily, I’m not doing this blind. I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet of the last 948 of the 965 games of Scrabble Mrs MSE and I have played since we met – plus since game 690, I’ve been recording how many blanks we got in each game too. That means I now have just over 250 games with that data – a decent enough sample – so I decided to see how it pans out.

Me Mrs MSE
Games with 2 blanks 51 52
Average score 444.9 391.8
Games with 1 blanks 156 156
Average score 415.6 378.0
Games with 0 blanks 52 51
Average score 399.5 354.9

As you can see, the number of blanks has a clear impact on the score in a game.

This is, of course, for regular Scrabble players, who get a decent number of bingos (7-letter words). I suspect for new players, the difference will be far less as then the gain of being able to use a blank for bingos is offset by the fact it’s a non-scoring letter.

Typically for both of us it’s worth 23 points. Though there is a difference in the distribution. For me the second blank is worth far more – probably because I tend to play harder when I’m on for a very good score. For Mrs MSE the first blank is worth more, probably as she cares less about her ‘ongoing average’ than I do, so she takes her foot off the gas if she’s behind and likely to lose.

Related Past Blogs:

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The trick to access every network’s signal from your mobile

The trick to access every network's signal from your mobile

Mr Cameron, I've got a tip for you

The Prime Minister’s rightfully badgering the UK mobile phone networks to share masts in rural areas to prevent mobile blackspots. He has complained of having to go to the top of a hill in Cornwall when on holiday in order to speak to world leaders, and thinks this problem of poor rural coverage needs fixing.

Well, Mr Cameron, there’s already a way you can access all signals from your mobile, so to help you (and others), I thought I’d bash this note out.

In the UK, each of our mobiles is locked to one network’s signal – after all, that’s what we buy when we sign up. Yet if you travel abroad, and your phone is roaming, it can often connect with any signal from the overseas operators, so in fact, you may get more coverage there.

1. Use a foreign Sim in the UK

The trick to turn this on its head is to pop a foreign Sim card in your unlocked handset. Yet not every Sim will work, as it depends on their relationships with UK networks.

If you did try this, one piece of luck is that European Union roaming charges are regulated (interestingly, this doesn’t cover calls from UK networks to UK networks). So if you were to get a prepaid EU Sim and use it in the UK, the current maximum costs are…

EU roaming caps
Making calls to UK/Europe €0.19 (excl. VAT) / £0.19 (incl. VAT)
Receiving calls €0.05 (excl. VAT) / £0.05 (incl. VAT)
Texts to UK/Europe €0.06 (excl. VAT) / £0.06 (incl. VAT)
Data download, per MB €0.20 (excl. VAT) / £0.20 (incl. VAT)

2. More certainty using a global roaming Sim

The problem with foreign Sims is the uncertainty of their network connection in the UK and the fact you have to pay to receive calls. But global roaming Sims are designed to be relatively cheap wherever you go, and the big benefit is you usually don’t pay to receive (this generally applies in European and big Western countries, you can pay in some others) – so they’re perfect for people who regularly travel to different countries.

So I decided to check out their policies on when calls were made on them in the UK. The first one I tried, World Sim, wasn’t good for this. Its UK partner is O2, so you’d automatically be connected to that.

Yet the two providers below automatically connect to the strongest signal (and you can manually select a network if you choose).

Now technically, the underlying Sim used for these global Sims is a Jersey one. This means it isn’t governed by the EU cap, so prices vary. But crucially, if you receive calls via them in the UK, you won’t be charged.

Details on how to get these Sims in the Global Roaming review.

Prices for global Sims on a UK network
GoSim 0044
Making calls to UK 12p/min (landline & mobiles) 15p/min landlines (25p to mobiles)
Receiving calls Free Free
Texts to UK/Europe 9p 10p
Data download, per MB 21p 39p

Who should be doing this?

On paper, this would work well for anyone who needs a constant connection and that’s more important than price (as far cheaper deals are available see Cheap Mobiles), so that’s likely to be a business user – or indeed the Prime Minister, when making emergency calls to international leaders.

One way to make this easier to use, though, would be to get a handset which takes a ‘dual-Sim’. This means you have your normal Sim in it, but if that’s not working you can seamlessly switch to a ‘strongest signal’ provider.

I should note at this point I’ve not actually tried this, it’s based on the companies’ notes on how they work. So I would love feedback below from anyone who’s done this.

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How would you describe Lidl? Is it really “poor food for poor people”?

How would you describe Lidl? Is it really “poor food for poor people”?

How would you describe Lidl? Is it really “poor food for poor people”?

The papers were full of it yesterday on the back of Lidl announcing sales of premium vintage and non-vintage wines such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. All the messages were on about posh goods next to the usual tat. The phrase that came up time and time again was that "the firm is trying to move away from its poor food for poor people image".

I found this interesting, as I think it’s perhaps a legacy of a long-gone time. It’s not close to how I would characterise Lidl (or Aldi) and so I’m interested to find out if this is a true reflection of the general perception of Lidl, both among those who shop there and those who don’t.

Certainly a basket of shopping at Lidl can be very cheap. True too is the fact that it is used by many as a place to cheaply stock up on your bog roll and necessities – with a catch-up shop for the other stuff done at the main supermarkets. Yet for me this is less about quality of food and more about the range of choice.

I would categorise both Lidl and Aldi as ‘limited brand’ supermarkets – when you shop in them, you don’t necessarily get the brands you are used to, nor do you get the great plethora of options for each food item that you do elsewhere.

Instead, you get a limited choice of own brand and other brands – far fewer options of your tinned tuna than in a large Tesco store. But this is the defining point – a limited number of choices doesn’t necessarily limit quality.

So my question, which I’d love you to feedback on below is; what is YOUR perception of Lidl and Aldi? And do say whether you shop there or not.

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