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Save, impulse buy, repeat: are our lockdown money habits here to stay? | Be a money hero

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As the clamour for post-Christmas bargains showed us, the UK is a nation of spontaneous spendthrifts who can’t help succumbing to wanton acts of buying. Want an inflatable rhino half the size of your living room? Sure. A Tom Jones-themed jigsaw? Naturally. A handcrafted Negroni “exploration kit”? Add it to the cart!

Although spur-of-the-moment sprees aren’t unusual for the Christmas shopping period, the impulse buy has also been one of the defining financial behaviours of 2020. Ever since the UK entered its first national lockdown in March last year, pandemic puppies, entertainment subscriptions and even goldfish have entered our lives as people seek reassuring pick-me-ups amid the hardships of the pandemic. And we’ve gone on a chocolate binge apparently, spending millions more than usual. According to Aviva, 36% of us have become bigger spenders during lockdown.

Statistics: 36%  - the amount of people who became bigger spenders during lockdown. 64% - the amount of people who saved more in lockdown



“Spending on trivial expenditures such as buying coffee, snacks or even quirkier items definitely adds up,” says Alistair McQueen, head of savings and retirement at Aviva. “Of course, it’s important to have fun and buy a coffee if you want one. But it’s worth spending with your eyes open, and realising it could make a massive difference to your long-term future if you cut back and saved the money instead.”

If we’re spending more impulsively, it’s because we also have more disposable income to play with. The things we’d usually splurge on BC (before Covid) – think mini-breaks to Bratislava, £9-a-day lunches or pound-hoovering commutes – have been unavailable because everything’s been shut or cancelled. As such, nearly two-thirds of us (64%) have squirreled away a larger nest-egg than normal, with Aviva finding that the typical UK household spent 29% less in lockdown than we did before the pandemic (an average saving of £171 a week).

Statistic - 1/4 of new dog owners during lockdown bought their pooch on a whim, doing less than two hours of research.



It’s a phenomenon that McQueen calls “enforced savings”, noting that “the shops, pubs and travel that previously made up disposable expenditure have been shut, forcing people into a saving situation”.

It isn’t just our new cooped-up lifestyles that are prompting us to curb our spending; people are also saving to help buffer their finances against any future recessions or other shocks.

“We’re surrounded by headlines of economic hard times ahead, which has resulted in precautionary saving and people instinctively battening down hatches,” says McQueen. “They’re adopting a prudent nature as the world faces uncertainty.”

A little prudence now can make a big difference to our future financial health. In 2015, Aviva calculated that the average individual spent £948 a year on “invisible” buys, such as coffees, lunches and treats. If a 20-year-old started investing this amount annually today in, say, a pension pot, that could generate something like £159,000 for their retirement.

Statistic: £50m more was spent on chocolate in 2020 than in 2019.



Some might argue that impulse buys are an act of comfort-buying: an emotional fix to help soften the gloom and anxiety many of us are experiencing right now. They also deliver dopamine – the brain’s feelgood chemical. This is what makes us constantly refresh our Instagram feeds or feel the urge to “add-to-basket” on online retail sites. “The act of going to our phones and impulse buying are similar: they’re short-term, immediate hits,” says McQueen. “The internet is a powerful means of impulsive shopping. It’s right in front of us, so you suddenly find yourself buying something you never knew existed five minutes earlier.”

For all the instant thrill they provide, our off-the-cuff buys don’t necessarily bring happiness: over the summer, Barclaycard Payments research found people had been buying items as random as a cardboard cutout of Mr Bean, a piece of the moon, a horse-hair T-shirt and an inflatable pub.

Unfortunately, not everybody has managed to save during this period. Furloughing, redundancies, a loss in income or salary, plus an increase in household expenses due to more family members staying at home (16% say their adult children have become more financially dependent on them as a result of coronavirus) have all contributed to mental health issues. Recent Aviva research has found that almost one-third of 45-54-year-olds said they are concerned that the financial strain of the pandemic is negatively impacting their mental health, while 38% are having trouble sleeping because of financial woes.

The growth in online shopping may have exacerbated this: the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute recently found that shopping online is pushing some with mental health problems into debt because of the personalisation, algorithmic nudges and “buy now, pay later” options of e-commerce sites.

“It’s easy to slip into a situation that’s out of control and have debt build up,” says McQueen. “The first step is to recognise there’s a problem, before seeking some support. The good news is that today there’s more help than ever, with organisations such as Money Advice Service offering free advice on savings, budgeting and debt.

“Also, don’t think that it’s only you who doesn’t understand financial issues. Try to take some comfort from the fact most people in the UK feel exactly the same.”

Statistic: £771.34 - the amount the average Briton spent on average on impulse items during lockdown.



Although smartphones might be responsible for some of our more reckless spending, they could also help combat the UK’s notoriously poor financial literacy (our understanding of monetary tasks is among the lowest in the developing world, according to a UCL/University of Cambridge study).

As it happens, Aviva has seen more people managing their pensions or investments online during lockdown; and households repaid £7.4bn of consumer credit during the first national lockdown, according to the Bank of England. “One of the reasons we’ve got such low levels of financial literacy is that we haven’t encouraged people to take control of their money – in the past either employers or the state did it for you,” says McQueen. “Lockdown has accelerated people’s adoption of digital technology, and forced companies to up their game. It’s now much easier for people to do it themselves.”

Statistics: 49% - the percentage of people in Brighton who said they’d experienced ‘lockdown losses’ after saving less than usual. 43% - the percentage of people in Plymouth who saved more money than usual during lockdown.



“Our spending habits and incomes changed radically last year,” he adds. “But if you get a spare moment to sit down and revise your budgets, such as working out how much money is coming in and whether you are spending on compulsive purchases, you’ll be in a much better place to ride any waves that come up in 2021.”

Find out how to harness your money superpower with tips, tricks, and information on managing money in today’s ever-changing world. Read more here

The views expressed in this article do not constitute financial advice. The value of investments may go down as well as up and you may not get back the amount you invested.


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Lastminute.com hasn’t given us a refund for Covid-cancelled flight | Money

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We are among the many people still struggling to get a refund for Covid-cancelled flights booked though Lastminute.com. Our son’s flight from America in May was cancelled by Austrian Airlines in April and, after very many emails, we got a reply from Lastminute.com in June, offering a refund of £517.

No payment was received. In November, an email told us we had to provide bank details. Then, without explanation, it reduced the amount to £173 and said we had to accept within three months.

We have sent numerous emails. There is no working phone line. The airline has told us twice it has repaid Lastminute.com, but can’t give the sum, and says we must contact the agent.

SL, Lewes

It will be little consolation to know that you are not alone – Lastminute.com has been one of our most complained-about travel firms in recent months. In December the Competition and Markets Authority forced it to start refunding passengers following an investigation.

After a great deal of pressure on my part, Switzerland-based Lastminute.com finally agreed to call you. You have accepted the £173 to put an end to the matter. It seems the company had replied to your emails, albeit from a different address, and these ended up in your spam folder.

When things finally get back to normal, you might want to stick to UK-based travel agents or, better still, book flights with airlines direct.We welcome letters but cannot answer individually. Email us at [email protected] Please include a daytime phone number. Submission and publication of all letters is subject to our terms and conditions

We welcome letters but cannot answer individually. Email us at [email protected] Please include a daytime phone number. Submission and publication of all letters is subject to our terms and conditions


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Come on in! The exhilarating joy of outdoor ice-bathing | Swimming holidays

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The path to the water is treacherous. The snow has covered the ice making it slippery underfoot. It is 7.45 am and dark, but my friend Vicky and I have head torches and the moon is bright.

Our walk – prior to lockdown 2021 – is through the woods and down the path to the edge of Threipmuir reservoir in the Pentland hills, just south of Edinburgh. It is impossible to tell where the water starts as everything is covered in a thick layer of snow. And the snow is also coming down in earnest, landing on our eyelashes and into our dry bags, as we unpack and start to undress.

Once stripped to our swimsuits, neoprene boots, gloves and woolly hats, we approach the ice. A pickaxe makes little impact to begin with, but we continue with one of us using the axe while the other smashes away with boots and moves huge chunks of ice with our hands. It is quite a workout and seems so ridiculous that we laugh until we have tears rolling down our faces.

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Safety advice

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• Preparation is key as ice-bathing can potentially be a dangerous pastime in the UK, as we don’t have places, such as Finland, where there are 260 winter-swimming centres, which often include changing facilities and saunas – as well as specific entry and exit points in the ice. 

• Ice-bathing must always be approached with caution, never alone, and having risk assessed the location first. Acclimatise to cold water carefully, keeping your dip short and warming up quickly afterwards with layers of clothes and a hot drink. 

 • Going in to very cold water (typically less than 10C) can cause numbness and pain, particularly in the extremities, such as the hands and feet. Neoprene socks and gloves can help protect hands and feet. 

• The Outdoor Swimming Society has tips on how to acclimatise to cold water

After about five minutes, we start to make headway, working as a team to create a little plunge pool. When we visited two days previously we were able to clear a long swimming channel, but today the ice is too thick. A flock of Canada geese fly past, skimming the top of the ice, and a bullfinch hops around the shoreline, its pinkish plumage the only colour visible in this white landscape. Finally, we have cleared enough ice to swim.

Wendy and her friend Tracey break the ice.
Wendy and Tracey brave the ice

Preparation is key as ice-bathing can potentially be a dangerous pastime in the UK, as we don’t have the infrastructure of places such as Finland, where there are 260 winter-swimming centres which often include changing facilities and saunas – as well as specific entry and exit points in the ice. Here, we often need to look to more remote spots in order to find ice, which adds a huge element of risk to the process.

It must always be approached with caution, never alone, and having risk assessed the location first. Acclimatise to cold water carefully, keeping your dip short and warming up quickly afterwards with layers of clothes and a hot drink.

I lower myself down into the 0.8C water until my shoulders are beneath the surface, and try to calm my breathing and bring my heart rate down as I absorb the shock of the cold. Even though I have swum through four winters, my body’s automatic response to the extreme cold is still powerful.

I try to remain calm, swimming a few strokes and trying to avoid the ice shards, which can cut. Despite having gloves and socks, my fingers and toes are are numb, my body sending all available heat to my core. I feel utterly alive and exhilarated, though. But there is a fine line between fun and hypothermia, so we tear ourselves away as the dawn light turns the mountains pink. Beginners should stay in the water for two minutes maximum.

Ice swimming in Scotland
Vicky, the writer’s friend, takes the plunge

Then it is a race to warm up, using cold, muddled fingers to put socks on top of socks and more layers than you imagine possible, pouring hot drinks from flasks, doing star jumps and squats to get the body warmed back up. Though the massive rush of energy and unbridled joy far outweigh thoughts of frozen toes.

As we are packing up to leave, we hear belly laughs and people approaching through the snow, and then encounter three women armed with an axe and a rolling pin to continue what we started. As the hilarity of the moment hits them, Wendy Masterton tells us: “We’ve been cold-water swimming with ice around the edges before but this is the first time we’ll actually experience breaking the ice in order to get into the water.”

Outdoor swimming has seen a dramatic rise in popularity over the last year. As swimming pools closed due to Covid restrictions and holidays were cancelled, many people turned to their local beach, river, loch or lake to swim. And many have continued, despite the reopening of some pools during summer and early autumn. The Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) has seen website traffic increase by 46% to 785,000 unique users and membership increase 36% to 136,000; its Facebook group has grown by 73%.

In addition, local wild swimming groups have reported to the OSS growths in membership of their Facebook pages of between 50% to 500%. Open water lakes are also reporting a huge increase in visitors .

“Outdoor swimming is now part of the UK psyche, part of our love of free-spirited adventure,” says OSS founder Kate Rew. “People are looking for exercise and adventure closer to home, thousands have made this their time to embrace rivers, lakes and the sea. For some, it is about self-sufficiency and stoicism: the perfect activity for a life under the pressures of a pandemic. I think others are winter swimming to achieve a high that we can’t get anywhere else right now.”

A study by Dr Chris van Tulleken and Dr Mark Harper, published by the BMJ, discovered that “regular open-water swimming results in a post-swim ‘high’, triggered by the release of beta-endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. Furthermore, facial immersion in cold water stimulates the vagus nerve, resulting in an anti-inflammatory response.”

ice swimming in Scotland
‘Same time tomorrow?’

Ice swimming, once only attempted by a few hardy souls, has been dominating Instagram feeds this winter as more swimmers seek out the extreme cold. Claire Williams began outdoor swimming at Wardie Bay, Edinburgh, in May after losing her mother to dementia

“Outdoor swimming has helped me massively, the people I’ve met, the friends I’ve made and also just the peace I’ve found from being in the cold water,” she says. “With the new research suggesting cold-water swimming wards off dementia, I will never ever give it up. I only wish my mum had been around to enjoy it with me.”

Cassandra Barron had her first ice swim at Threipmuir reservoir earlier this month after taking up swimming in the sea at Wardie Bay during the spring lockdown.

“I have swum every day in January so far and wanted to push myself further so I had my first exhilarating ice-swimming experience this week,” she says.

In Scotland [as in England], we are still able to exercise outdoors within our local area with one person from another household, so outdoor swimmers who live near water are able to meet with another person during this time, providing a lifeline for those who swim to help deal with the stress of the pandemic.

It might be extreme but immersing yourself in icy water is a wonderful way to fill up with endorphins, get a nature fix and have a thrilling adventure without having to travel.

The OSS’s tips on acclimatising to cold water

Taking The Plunge by Anna Deacon and Vicky Allan, is published by Black & White publishing. Follow Anna on Instagram at @wildswimmingstories



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The biggest secret parents keep? The life-changing brilliance of teenagers | Family

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A friend has fallen in love with Depop, the Gen Z fashion eBay, and its teen sellers. I downloaded the app on her recommendation, but I am bamboozled by the listings: a “perf lil crop top” appears to be a shirt collar and sleeves without any other shirt parts; a corset is “for dat peek-a-boo bad b lewwkkk … wear her alone and sessi or over your fav big T”. I feel 1,000 years old.

“I message them questions because the listings are lacking useful info, such as what size it is, and they answer almost entirely in emojis and put kisses after everything, and I love them,” says my friend.

The fashion is emphatically not for me, but I understand. She has stumbled on something that is, mysteriously, a closely guarded secret: how great teenagers are. There is a sort of omertà among parents of teens to talk only about the attitude and wet towels. Why? Do we want to keep them to ourselves?

Because nothing is as life-affirming as a half-hour audience with teenagers. I am not just saying it because I have two: I used to have toddlers, and you would never have heard me say they were basically misunderstood and a delight to be around.

Teenagers – not mine specifically – are creative, compassionate and careful of others; they are stoic about their constrained lives. Mine make me laugh and think constantly: this week alone about my attitude to other people’s success (wrong), my upper body strength (abysmal) and Japanese abstract expressionism (unexpected).

When we do talk positively about teens, it is in a breezy, how-marvellous-is-Greta-Thunberg way. This “young people will save us” discourse is well meant, but I hate it: it is a shrug of helplessness. Their mental health is in freefall, their present bleak and their future grimly unknowable. Teens are great, but, for all the ebullience, emojis and TikTok routines, they are fragile. It is still up to us to try to make things OK for them: we are the grownups, after all.


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