Microsoft buys LinkedIn

So Microsoft have gone and made an all-cash, $26.2 billion offer for LinkedIn and I can certainly see the logic. After acquiring Yammer not so long ago, they’ve now neatly secured the enterprise social media market – through owning two of the largest players – and have the opportunity to develop a unique integrated internal/external offering. 

It’s also interesting that LinkedIn is going to be allowed to continue operating largely independently, and I for one think it’s a good thing… although it’s going to be challenging for LinkedIn to continue growing the network as they’ve already faced difficulties in this area. In part, those difficulties contributed to the overall decline of the share price and the recent profit warning – and that’s just allowed Microsoft to snap up a comparative bargain. 

But LinkedIn have continued to make subtle changes to their service (not all for the best – I’m thinking about Unlisted Groups here!) and continue to look at broadening their user base. The sub-apps they’ve released over recent months and years, for groups and recruiting, as well as their support for self-publishing via LinekdIn Pulse, are testament to that innovation culture they clearly have.

However, it’s likely that the 100+ million monthly active users of LinkedIn and 45+ billion unique page views per quarter, are clearly stats that Microsoft couldn’t ignore. Everyone’s busy buying user data these days it seems, and this is a highly relevant, business-specific dataset which is very closely aligned with the core Microsoft offering. 

Good luck to them I say. I think Microsoft has been much maligned over the years in the press and by the blogerati, but I actually think they’ve turned a corner with Satya Nadella at the helm. Office 365 is very good. OneDrive is improving (despite the reduction in free space offered and removal of the unlimited band). And Windows 10 is one of their best operating systems ever, in my opinion. It all just works. On multiple devices. And in an increasingly integrated and cloud-enabled way. So for that, I’m in support of this acquisition and will be keenly watching to see what comes of it.

Whale slaughter continues

IMG_4896While I’m no eco-warrior, I continue to be dismayed about the Japanese whaling fleet. In the news this week was the story that the fleet had killed 333 minke whales. I just can’t understand how a supposedly developed nation can still claim this is a scientific programme. There’s nothing scientific about it. It’s just outright slaughter and really needs to stop.

With demand for whale meat in Japan apparently declining and the Japanese government investing considerable amounts of tax money to artificially sustain whaling operations – why is this being allowed to continue? Is the International Court ruling that this whaling programme was not scientific just being ignored? What repercussions will Japan face? Why are no international sanctions being imposed?

And this hunt took place in Antarctic waters too. What right does the Japanese whaling industry claim in order to do this? It’s such an illogical argument that this completely unscientific slaughter is being carried out by Japan, in contravention of international rulings and outcries from other nations all around the world.

I just don’t know what we can do to bring this to an end. Other than signing online petitions (which I recommend) it seems we’re all powerless to stop this wanton destruction of a peaceful species sharing this planet with us.

Expat woes with the Lifetime ISA

So we’ve recently had the budget from George Osborne and amongst other things, he announced the Lifetime ISA. On the surface of it, the Lifetime ISA seems like an attractive proposition. And for many, it will be.  

Effective 25% profit (interest) guaranteed from the government on up to £4,000 of annual investment, until a person reaches the age of 50 appears very attractive. And that’s before any natural growth on where the ISA is invested, until the age of 60 when it can typically be accessed.

And this is where Osborne has been crafty, in my opinion. Dangling that 25% carrot in front of many almost seems too good to be true. In many cases, it will make sense to take advantage of the Lifetime ISA – but is this going to be at the expense of pension saving? 

The key difference between a pension and a Lifetime ISA is when tax is paid. So, with a pension, the money we put in to it now is tax free and then we get taxed when we take it out in retirement, often at a more favourable tax rate.

With a Lifetime ISA, the money that goes in has already been taxed up front. This in itself is a shrewd move by Osborne, because in a single swipe, he’s potentially reducing the immediate burden of pension tax relief whilst also securing tax revenues from future chancellor’s budgets.

However, for many, retirement – at whatever age it comes – may include a move to a sunnier climate, retiring overseas and joining an expat community of like minded folk. And this is the issue I have with the Lifetime ISA. 

Because tax has already been paid when the money enters the ISA, it should be tax free when it comes out. But this isn’t the case for expats. ISA’s lose their tax free status for those permanently living overseas, so in effect, a Lifetime ISA will result in money being taxed twice.

This isn’t the same case for a pension though. Putting money into a pension now, benefitting from tax relief at a potentially higher rate and then paying tax on the money coming out, regardless of where you are in the world – may arguably be a better home for retirement investment, if retiring overseas is even remotely being considered.

This isn’t intended as financial advice, it’s just my take on the Lifetime ISA – so please carry out your own research before making any investment decisions!

Change needed for BBC licence fee

It’s hard to argue with the detractors of the BBC licence fee because of the arbitrary way it has been made mandatory for everyone watching live TV in the UK, regardless of whether they actually watch any BBC programming.

Personally, I watch BBC news and a smattering of other live BBC programmes. If I have the time for TV these days, I take advantage of Netflix or catchup TV from any of the free-to-air channels (no Sky TV in this household!). I highly rate most of the programming the BBC make, however, even though not all of its to my personal tastes, as the stuff I do watch – like news, dramas and documentaries – are such high quality and genuinely entertaining. 

But what I do find outdated in today’s world is to have a mandatory licence fee enforced on everyone. Yes, it’s a British institution, but in a free market economy if individuals had the choice of spending around £7 per month on Netflix or Amazon Prime, or around £14 per month on the BBC (which is roughly what the licence fee equates to now), I would imagine a large part of the population would opt to avoid the licence fee and just choose the channel package that best fits their viewing tastes. And that’s they key concept, isn’t it – we should have the option to choose. 

The politics

Now the Conservatives have unfettered power since winning the election and ditching the Liberal Democrats, John Whittingdale (the Conservative culture, media and sport secretary) has the BBC licence fee firmly in his sights (source: Guardian). But whilst Whittingdale may have a personal dislike for the either the BBC or its licence fee, there’s no public mandate for the attacks of this nature. If the Conservatives think they’re doing the British public a service by pushing this challenge, I think they’re mistaken. Perhaps more should be done to reduce the country’s foreign aid budget, which last year topped £11.7bn (source: Telegraph), particularly when we see some truly absurd ways in which they budget is spent. (Don’t even get me started on why we’re still funding India… a country with its own space programme!)

But, I still feel it would be a shame to see such a great British institution as the BBC, disappear. That’s not to say that reform wouldn’t be welcome though – see the solution below, for my suggestion options as to what could be better options. 

Over 75s

Whilst writing about the BBC, its also worth mentioning the reported change that now sees the BBC ‘paying’ for licence fees for over 75s (source: BBC). I object to it being termed in this way, because there’s no incremental cost for another person watching BBC TV. This is effectively just an accounting term because it was previously money received from the government and now they (the BBC) are being told that they’re not going to be receiving it any more. So, they’re not paying for these licences, they’re just not receiving money for them – which means there’s a gap in the finances. Perhaps it might prompt the BBC to reduce some of its bloat and stop commissioning some of its more popular culture programming (I’m thinking of the X-Factor challenger, the Voice – which I’ve seen reported as costing around £19m)? 

International freeloaders

The BBC should also look at how they can limit overseas viewers freely accessing their programming via iPlayer and VPNs. The scale of the problem can’t be truly known, but with some BBC programming being incredibly popular overseas (e.g. Top Gear and Downton Abbey), surely the corporation owes us, the fee paying public, to do more to commercialise it internationally.

The key issue here is that the online services are only restricted based on the IP address where the viewer is based, and as I mentioned earlier, a simple DNS change or use of a VPN can enable anyone overseas to watch this – without a single penny being contributed to the corporation. A subscription only service, despite its technological obstacles and cultural reluctance at home in the UK, might be a better option to limit this sort of activity. It’d be interesting to see any stats from the BBC or other bodies that might be able to estimate the scale of this freeloading and whether any projections have been made as to what the income could be from making this a subscription service.

The solution

Is there a best case scenario for the future for the BBC? Whatever happens, there’ll be groups of people that aren’t going to be pleased.

My personal view is that we should see a reduction in the licence fee to reflect a core set of public-service channels that avoid the populist programming the BBC seem to focus on more these days. On top of this, we should have the ability to subscribe to additional BBC channels, with an additional fee for iPlayer. 

In doing this, it gives consumers the option of picking the package of programming and distribution channels that best suits them. 

If the online service was subscription only, that should surely also help address the international freeloaders. And who knows, perhaps in doing so, the corporation could recoup some of their lost funding.

So, something like this structure might work:

  • BBC One, BBC Two, BBC News, BBC Radio 1 – 4 – Base level mandatory licence fee – £7 per month
  • BBC Three – £3 per month
  • BBC Four – £3 per month
  • BBC iPlayer – £5 per month
  • BBC Radio other/all channels (online only) – £2 per month

A full package could cost more than the current licence fee, but equally many could pay less by choosing the services that are relevant only to them. This solution obviously doesn’t take into account the mechanics of how such a system could be introduced, but from a pricing perspective, I think it’s inevitably fairer.

NB: I’ve not mentioned the BBC Parliament channel, as I honestly can’t believe anyone ever watches this! I’ve also not gone over the widely covered fat cat salaries, golden handcuffs/parachutes that are offered to BBC execs, as that’s old news and seemingly happening less these days?!

Cut benefits for Sky TV subscribers

With all the focus on the recent budget from George Osborne and the welfare cuts about to be imposed, it still surprises me that one of the UKs big benefits issues persists and remains undiscussed and untackled.

Simply put, why are people on benefits able to have Sky TV subscriptions? If they’re rich enough to pay for Sky TV – with minimum subscriptions starting at over £20 per month and top tier packages over £80 per month – then they should arguably have their benefits reduced by this amount.

It confuses the hell out of me why the taxpayer funded benefits are allowed to support Sky TV subscriptions. Pay TV is a luxury, not a basic human right or utility, and certainly not one that should be paid for by the UK taxpayers. This benefit cut is much more logical than the bedroom tax that’s come about recently and would, in my opinion, have much wider acceptance by the general public.

I know many people, gainfully in employment, with good jobs, decent salaries and families to support – and they’ve made a careful decision not to have Sky TV because it’s too expensive for them. They pay their taxes, out of hard earned income, to – among other things – support the needy. And Sky TV should not be funded by these taxes. It’s just wrong.

With Freeview, or even Freesat, offering such a good range of completely free programming I can’t think of any genuine reason why Sky TV should ever be considered a necessity, and certainly not one that people on benefits should be able to pay for.

So, it might be a controversial statement – and it is entirely my personal opinion – but I believe that anyone on benefits that has Sky TV, should have their benefits reduced by the amount they pay for their subscription. That’s surely a fairer way of redistributing taxes and supporting those genuinely in need, isn’t it?

Government backed annuities

Every time there are reports in the media about the woefully low annuity rates or the recently implemented pension freedoms, I wonder why there aren’t more flexible or state-backed options for annuities. As much as the pension freedoms might have kickstarted a more flexible approach to retirement planning, annuities will still have a place in many people’s financial scenario planning because the security they offer is something many people will desire in their twilight years.

Given that the companies providing the annuities are effectively profit focused organisations, the fact they still offer these products means there must be money in it for them to do so. But if they’re basing their calculations of an annuity’s viability on historic mortality data, it’s no wonder that the returns they’re expecting will be lower as we’re all supposedly living longer these days. So in order to retain their operating margins, inevitably the value of annuities to consumers falls.

What I wonder though, is why the government doesn’t offer a state-backed annuity, accepting lower returns than the incumbent organisations but basing those returns over a longer period. In doing so , they’d be able to offer individuals higher rates and make the option of an annuity a much more attractive proposition. And because the government has the comparative luxury of basing their calculations over a longer time frame, it could result in a long term revenue source for a future government. 

Maybe the concept is too alien for any government, thinking about future generations – and future governments – but as a concept, I think this could definitely be a good move for both individual and the broader country finances.

Part time rail season tickets

I have a cynical supposition that the rail companies continue to talk about part time season tickets but never actually commit to introducing them because they believe it’ll cost them too much to set up or lose them too much money in lost revenue.

My particular issue with this is that all season tickets are based on 7 days of travel, yet in my experience, the majority of season tickets are used to commute to and from a place of work. The fact that these tickets are based on 7 days of unlimited travel along a particular route means that for many, the weekend days of travel are completely unnecessary and in effect any season ticket holders are subsidising the cost of those weekend travellers.

If you think that a typical commuter might only need to travel to and from their place of work on weekdays – ie Monday to Friday – then surely the rail companies should now be in a position to offer a season ticket that is 5/7 the cost of a full-week season ticket. For them not to do this smacks of profiteering in my mind.

The situation is further shown to be grossly unfair when you consider part time workers – and this can include flexible working individuals, return-to-work mothers, working parents, etc. and anyone else that maybe doesn’t work a traditional working week. In this case, they may not even need the 5 days of weekday travel that I was arguing for above, but have no option but to either buy individual tickets or a full week’s season ticket. They may work a fixed pattern of days and therefore should surely be able to benefit from a season ticket that fits that pattern.

In my own case, for example, working 3 days a week in London means it’s just not viable to buy a season ticket for the cost of this travel. Why can’t I be allowed to buy a ticket for those fixed 3 days of travel, instead of paying for 4 days of travel I’ll never use? With today’s mobile tickets, Oyster card system, contactless payments and other advances in ticketing and payment, I can’t believe there’s a valid reason not to offer this flexible approach to pricing.

A BBC report (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-25948876) suggested that flexible tickets and travel cards would be launched (in London) from January 2015, but I’ve seen no sign of these yet. And the Guardian also reported around the same time, with the Campaign for Better Transport calling on the government to “honour its pledge” to introduce flexible season tickets (http://www.theguardian.com/money/2014/jun/11/rail-season-tickets-part-time-commuters). Despite the news apparently suggesting something might be happening soon, there’s still no news about what might change.

Flexible and part-time season tickets aside, there’s also the enormous cost of travel that needs to be taken into consideration too. An annual season ticket from Chester to London costs nearly £13,000! And that’s before the cost of travelling to/from the station and home, and any onward travel once in London. The actual cost is £12,844 (at the time of writing) – use National Rail’s season ticket calculator here: http://ojp.nationalrail.co.uk/service/seasonticket/search to see the options. The calculator helpfully tells me the average journey price is £26.75 – but this wrongly assumes 480 journeys per year (2 per day), whereas in reality a part time or flexible worker working 3 days a week, would make ‘just’ 288 journeys. With this number of journeys, if we were able to use the same average journey price of £26.75 the part time season ticket would cost £7,706.40 – so whilst not cheap, it’s still over £5,000 less than the full-week ticket.

Without that flexibility, it means many just can’t afford to use a season ticket and instead have to go through a complicated process of attempting to secure the cheapest way of travelling to and from their place of work. In my case, I use the very helpful ticket splitting services from Money Saving Expert (http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/split-cheap-train-tickets/) that allows me to make some hefty savings on the cost of travel. But not every ticket can be split and then occasionally to see the look on some ticket inspector’s faces when you hand them a split ticket, you might think you’re personally pickpocketing them by the look of distate on their face (note – this isn’t every inspector, but some seem genuinely perturbed by the concept of a split ticket).

The system of pricing for rail travel compared to elsewhere in Europe is massively out of sync with other countries. The Telegraph produced a comparison report in 2014 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/road-and-rail-transport/11043893/Rail-fare-hike-Britain-vs-rest-of-Europe.html) that shows some distance and cost comparisons – and I’ve highlighted some below.

Rail fares 1-10 miles using a travel card:

– Britain £17
– France £9.60
– Belgium £7
– Italy £4.79

Rail fares 100-150 miles
– Britain £96.50
– France £29
– Belgium £16
– Italy £16

So not only are we paying more generally, the services are (over)crowded, the trains – particularly outside of London – are very old (I’m looking at you Arriva Trains Wales for the Chester to Crewe service here!), but we’re also being forced into a payment structure that fails to reflect the modern way of working today and penalises those who work either reduced hours or have flexible arrangements to support a better work/life balance.

This topic seems to be picked up every now and again but nothing ever seems to come of it. We see the annual ticket price rises being announced on the news, accompanies by the typical complaints in TV interviews with commuters at rail stations, but then everyone just seems to get on with it and pay the extra costs because there’s no viable alternative. We’re collectively a captive customer with no recourse for challenging the status quo because there’s actually nothing we can do if we don’t like it. But by writing this post, I at least want to express my dissatisfaction with what I believe is a genuinely unfair and antiquated system that is increasingly less fit for purpose than when it was originally designed and implemented.

Changing Amazon delivery charges is a risky business

So as a one-time Amazon affiliate I received notification recently that the terms of the free delivery (Super Saver Delivery as they call it) in the UK was about to change (as of 1st May 2015). And in my opinion, it’s not a minor change at all, as they’re changing the minimum qualifying order from £10 to £20. 

Amazon super saver

Amazon super saver affiliate notice

It’s not the first change they’ve made, as the super saver delivery used to be free for all orders. They subsequently introduced a £5 cap, which quickly became a £10 limit – and this was just about acceptable, as it still meant a lot of orders could be considered impulse purchases. And if your basket fell below the £10 cap, sometime you might add something extra items that you knew you were going to use at some point (like a commodity item such as printer paper, or something that cost a couple of quid), just so you hit the minimum order level.

But at £20, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to reach that qualifying cap and it’ll take a good few commodity items to get close. 

I can understand why they’re doing it, as postage charges have increased, so they need to cover their costs. And the prices of many items has also gone up too, so from a consumer’s perspective maybe they’ll not notice the cap as much as I think they will. But from a personal perspective, I think it’ll definitely make me think twice about using Amazon if I know I have to pay postage charges. 

Forcing Prime

Some have said that in raising the limit, they’re trying to drive customers to opting for their Prime subscription. At £79 per year, that’s quite a leap of faith and an upfront commitment to the Amazon way of thinking. And for me, as a happy Netflix subscriber (better quality, more devices, better range of material IMHO) and having had the free trial of Prime – I found a worrying range of products that weren’t eligible for Prime delivery and also didn’t particularly rate their Prime TV/video services. I found their apps clunky (compared to Netflix), their range limited (although they do often have slightly better, more modern movies available) and generally the whole experience just felt a little forced.

I’d much rather they did one thing well, rather than many things in a mediocre manner. Netflix understand that and that’s why I’ve been subscribing for a while. eBay understand it too, and I think that with many of their lower ticket items continuing to be offered with free delivery (and no minimum order value) they might be the big winner as a result of this move by Amazon. At one time Play.com might have been a credible alternative, but since Rakuten have taken over, the platform has gone downhill and seems to be confused about what its raison d’etre actually is – not a smart move in such a fast moving, online, very visible world of online retail!


So will I still use Amazon? Probably. Although the delivery charges will make me use it less. And less frequently too, which I think is an important consideration. I’ll not be going online and making an impulse purchase through Amazon any more, that’s for sure. Maybe that’s what they want? Maybe they want us to use their wish lists and basket facility more, so that they can have fewer, higher value deliveries. If that’s the case, then maybe this is a stroke of management genius.

But from a consumer’s perspective, I think they just might have shot themselves in the foot and opened the door to other, leaner, more customer-friendly operators that offer exactly what we want: flexibility, free/cheap delivery, and the ability to make impulse purchases when the moment takes us, not just when we have a sufficiently high value basket of goods.

The looming generational pension crisis

It’s been a constant feature of the various online financial press in recent months and even years – at least as long as I’ve had an elevated interest in this sort of thing – but given the pace of change in the financial services market and in particular, with regards to pensions, I am increasingly concerned about the looming generational pension crisis that many are going to be facing.

What do I mean by a “generational pension crisis”? Well, if you think that the majority of us – at least those outside gold-plated civil service and public sector pensions – are now no longer on final salary pension schemes and therefore have an increased responsibility to save for our own retirement, then the question has to be whether individuals have actually done the sums required to understand what their financial situation will be at retirement. My guess is many haven’t and a majority of recent generations are relying on guesswork and assumptions, rather than making responsible provisions for what is arguably one of the main stages of life and one that many won’t be able to enjoy as they expect to (or see their parents and grandparents enjoying now).

What is enough?

This is Money featured an article last week, with a headline of: “Young people expect to retire with £95,000 pension pot – but most haven’t started saving yet”. The article raises some very valid points and for me, I find it both personally disturbing and largely worrying when I think of the looming crisis or ticking pensions timebomb as others term it.

Even having the aspiration of building a pension pot worth £95,000 – although apparently better than many others will achieve – is still going to lead to some harsh wake-up calls come retirement. At current annuity rates, this might secure an annual income of around £5,000 for a 65 year old male. That’s just over £400 per month! I appreciate spending habits might be reduced as we enter old age, but if you want to enjoy your old age, you’re surely going to want to have more disposable income available. Even the new flat rate state pension – again, assuming it’s still here and available to you when you come to retire – will ‘only’ add a further £8,000 per year to your income. So, a total £13,000 annual income isn’t that bad – but it’s hardly going to fund the lifestyle we see our parents and grandparents enjoying now, with holidays, cruises, new cars, buy-to-lets and other luxuries they have in their golden years.

Everyone’s retirement aspirations are going to be different, based on lifestyle now and individual financial situations. Given this is one of the main stages in life and the decisions made now will not really affect you for many years – but when they do, you’ll potentially have 10, 20, 30+ years during which you’re going to have to live with those choices you made in your earlier years. So making the right choices now, maybe saving more, or at the very least looking more closely at what you’re saving, whether it’s in the right plan or investment vehicle and whether it’s sufficient to give you what you want in retirement – is an essential activity I’d recommend everyone undertake. The Money Advice Service offer a helpful Pension Calculator that it would be worth using to give you an initial insight.

Compound interest

The effect of compound interest shouldn’t be ignored either. I wrote about it an article a while back, quoting Einstein as saying he considered it the 8th wonder of the world. As a father, I’m making sure my son is going to start off in a better position than I did by making pension contributions for him from the day he was born. I would argue that all parents interested in the long term financial security of their own offspring should do this – and any amount, invested now, will be hugely important 70+ years hence when he comes to retire (as the state pension age – if there even is a state pension still – will surely be in excess of 70 years).

Pension freedoms

I’ve read with interest the changes George Osborne has brought in to the pensions sector in the UK and think the decisions have led to progressive change that have made the situation at retirement much fairer and more easily influenced by the powers of the open market. But again, I wonder whether many will be relying on assumptions too much here and in reading about the pension freedoms and the ability to access your money, such as using it in flexible drawdown (assuming your provider permits it), or not investing in annuity – most articles overlook the fact that the freedom to do something with your pension only truly becomes a worthwhile change, if there’s a sufficient pension pot available to do something with in the first place. 

The answer

So, what’s the answer? Right now, I feel that everyone of working age needs to take a long hard look at their saving plans and really work out what they’re saving, what that could total at their future target retirement date and figure out whether that’s an acceptable level for them. I’m confident many won’t have done this, otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing articles like the one in This is Money. 

I think we also should see an increase in saving more – and the auto-enrollment for pension saving (Nest) is a helpful starting point, but is it enough? Is the general population being lulled into a false sense of security and thinking that just because they have the Nest and the state pension in place, that they don’t need to think about this sort of thing? I’d argue yes. I’d also argue that Nest needs to ramp up its contribution percentages – from all three parties involved: employers, employees and the government. An extra 1% even, from each, could make a significant difference to the financial situations of many.

I also believe that child benefit should have a mandatory pension element for all children up to the age of 18. Even at at £25 per month, for 18 years at 5% compound growth (after charges), the pot would be £106,701.70. The government needs to do more in this instance, particularly if they don’t want the state pension to become increasingly unfeasible, or a bigger burden on the UK economy.

Overall, the message is simple. Don’t rely on assumptions. Do your sums. Plan ahead. And save more!

As always, these are just my personal opinions and should only be used as guidance. Where financial situations are concerned, please do your own research and in many instances taking professional advice is definitely advised. 

Do comparison sites cost us more?

They’re often heralded as consumer champions, giving individuals access to the whole (or a much larger proportion) of the market than they would have been able to access independently. But I wonder how much the presence of the comparison sites has actually inflated the costs we all pay as a result of the fees that they charge (to the insurers and other financial services companies).

The main comparison sites: Moneysupermarket.com, Compare the Market, Confused.com and Go Compare are all very profitable organisations in their own right. They must be making their money somewhere and since they don’t directly charge consumers for their custom, they must be making money from the insurers and other providers that they work with. And this cost must be funded somehow… so I believe this ‘cost of acquisition’ of a customer must be being passed on to the end user. It therefore has to be a false economy of some magnitude, arguably with inflated premiums for an end user to accommodate the extra costs the organisations are paying to the comparison sites. We may be getting access to a wider array of deals, so we can see the best rates in the market – but if the rates are all higher as a result, is that really benefiting anyone – other than the comparison sites?

To soften the impact of the inflated costs, there are different ways to benefit from the sales process that gives something back to the consumer. I’ve listed a couple of examples below that I’m aware of, where you’re additionally rewarded for using the services. I’ve used the cashback providers repeatedly and I’d highly recommend them.

The recently launched Meerkat Movies is a good example of one of the incentives these comparison sites offer to tempt consumers to use their services. On the surface, it seems like a great offer. Buy an insurance product after having compared through the comparison site Compare the Market and then you’re eligible to 2-for-1 cinema tickets every Tuesday and Wednesday for the following 12 months. It’s a better deal than the Orange 2-for-1 cinema deal that was only available on Wednesdays, and it’s valid for the whole year – but what’s the hidden cost? 

My car insurance recently came up for renewal and we all know the advice is to shop around for a better deal than the one your insurer offers you, as you’re typically able to better it on the open market. However, having seen the Meerkat Movies deal and thinking I’d like to take advantage of it – my search on the Compare the Market website returned a deal that was over 16% more expensive than the renewal deal offered by my existing insurer. I guess this is how they’re able to fund the Meerkat Movies deal!

Having said that – Hot UK Deals – a money saving / deals website where individuals report back on the best offers, savings and deals they find in the UK as they come across them – has reported a workaround for the Meerkat Movies, whereby you can simply purchase a one day insurance policy for as little as £1.37 and therefore be eligible for the Meerkat Movies offer. If this works, it’s a great piece of advice. Check out the link here.

Alternatively, to claw back some of the money the comparison sites make out of you, consider using one of the cashback sites, like TopCashback. Depending on the policy that you’re looking for, you could save a lot of money! At the time of writing, More Than insurance is offering £106.05 cashback on Landlords insurance, for example. Quidco is the other main cashback site in the UK – and they offer similar, although not always the same, cashback deals on insurers and other online retailers. So it’s always worth checking both of them to see where you can get the best deal. Through Quidco, for example, take out a life insurance policy via the comparison site Confused.com and at the time of writing, you’re able to claim up to £127 in cashback. It’s free money, so you might as well claim it. All you’re doing is sharing the commission the insurer would typically pay to any referring organisation.

It would seem the comparison sites are here to stay – for better or worse. Going to the insurers direct offers no better rates than through the comparison sites, and in many instances you’re missing out on exclusive deals or incentives that are offered through those referral sites. Couple those incentives with various cashback offers (from the cashback sites) and it can soften the deal somewhat, but I just can’t help but wonder if the presence of the comparison sites is actually just costing us all more in the long run.