January is sent to punish us for the previous month's excess. There's more winter in front of you than there is behind. A Christmas tree skeleton lingers by the bins making you wonder that you ever felt 'festive'. If you are not undertaking a torturous detox regime and drinking pond-dredge for breakfast, everyone else is and they don't want to go out. Your Facebook feed is full of the smug red outlines of 10k runs mapped by friends.
Financially, things are not looking much brighter. It's a long wait until payday and your bank statement, if you could bear to look at it, is likely to be an embarrassment of Uber trips you don't recall and rounds of shots for people who were already too drunk to notice. So, in the spirit of glossy 'New Year, New You' features, here are some useful tips on how to be smarter with money without becoming a miserly bore.
Credit card debts are a lasting, finger-wagging reminder of past mistakes. To paraphrase an old advert: 'An extended stay in Central America with the newfound love of my life who turned out to be a coke-dealing cheat? Some things money can't buy and for everything else there 's MasterCard.' Without dwelling any longer on my errors of judgement, you should make it your priority to clear any outstanding credit card or overdraft balances.
Zero per cent balance transfer cards will buy you time to pay down your debts without them growing any bigger. Make sure you switch to a new card or clear your debts before the interest-free period ends so you are not penalised with an expensive rate. Never miss a monthly payment or use this card for shopping or at the cash machine. MBNA offers the longest interest-free period of 39 months, but the card has a fee of 2.98% fee. There are many other options with lower or no fees and shorter interest-free periods. Being rejected for credit cards will damage your credit score, so check whether you are likely to be successful first with this eligibility calculator.
As with credit cards, it's vital to have the right bank account for your needs. If you frequently go into your overdraft make sure that you have a bank with low charges like First Direct, which allows you £250 at 0% and thereafter charges 15.9%. You'll also get a switching bonus of £125 or £150 via MSE's link. (Try a different browser if it still shows £125).
If you are always in credit, you can choose a bank account that offers benefits. Santander's 123 Account pays cashback of 1%, 2% or 3% on different types of utilities bills like broadband, electricity and council tax. You have to pay a monthly fee which is rising to £5 this month, but it offers the best in-credit interest on large sums. For balances of between £3,000 and £20,000 it pays 3% a year. There are lots of other options to consider depending on your circumstances. You can also earn cashback on certain credit cards but make sure you pay off the balance in full every month or you'll wipe out any gains. Get into the habit of thinking 'cashback' before you make any online purchase - from train tickets to clothes - and use websites like topcashback.co.uk and quidco.com whenever you can. All in all you can make hundreds of pounds per year through these steps.
If you have yet to completely give up on the idea of owning a home ever, a Help to Buy Isa is really worth having. For every £200 per month you save, the government will give you an extra £50 when you come to buy a home, up to a maximum of £3,000. On top of that you will earn interest. The best rate is from Halifax at 4%.
You cannot open another cash Isa during the same tax year - for more detail see the FAQs. On a similar note, make 2016 the year you take out a company pension, even if you cannot afford to pay in much each month. If you don't,you are missing out on free contributions from your employer. The earlier you start the better, as compound interest means it is much harder to make up for lost time later in your career.
Budgeting is horrible, so I won't tell you to cut out your daily coffee (just that if you did, you would save nearly £1000 per year). Buy a coffee machine for home and you will still make a big saving or, if you live or work near a Waitrose, get a MyWaitrose card and you can have a free coffee every day. A friend of mine, freelance journalist Michelle McGagh, is embarking on a year of austerity that would make George Osborne weep . She's spending nothing apart from on bills and food, and is cutting out transport costs, as she has vowed to cycle everywhere. She is hoping it will open her eyes to "wonderful free events that happen right under my nose". Follow her progress on Twitter @mmcgagh and glean some thrifty tips.
Many see 'comping' as being on a par with hoarding and other forms anti-social behaviour. But, I have to admit I 've been inspired by another friend to give it a go. Helena Briley estimates she has won around £250,000 of stuff since she began entering competitions ten years ago. She now spends around ten hours a week on it. Helena says: "I've won over 25 holidays abroad. The best prize was my wedding in the Bahamas - it included the rings, the dress, all the flowers and service. Plus flights and accommodation for four of us on a privately owned island which costs $1,500 per person a night to stay there. It was worth about £20k as a package. Other good trips include China, Rio, a prize with Captain Morgan's where they hired a whole island in St Vincent, a spy-themed adventure holiday around Europe." She has also won £3,000 in carpets and flooring for her home and a year's worth of cheese. Less desirable wins have included seven packs of Tena Lady. Her tip is to set up a separate email account so that you don't get deluged with spam. The MSE forums are the place to look for competition details. You are most likely to win with prizes that require a little effort, such as coming up with a slogan or uploading a picture.
If you do have a creative side, you could turn it into an earner. If you take good photographs you could sell them to stock image websites like iStockphoto.com. Jasmine Birtle's moneymagpie.com has lots of ideas for turning your talents into a profit, as well as some truly out-there ways of making extra cash that are not for the faint-hearted (selling your hair, taking part in medical trials, sperm and egg donation, etc).
Life-drawing classes are soaring in popularity, with new groups springing up every week, so if you are comfortable with modelling nude, this is a great opportunity to earn extra money - typically £10-15 per hour. Carla Tofano, a model with The Life Drawing Collective, says: "It's a very mindful experience that puts you in touch with an introspective part of yourself. In modern society we are too body conscious and having the experience of modelling nude gives a very unique opportunity of detachment from the sexual objectification of the body, allowing the feeling of been a useful medium offered to facilitate the exercise of drawing by observation. In my opinion everyone should try to modelling at least once."
Finally, you could make 2016's travels (almost) pay for themselves if you rent out your flat on Airbnb or wimdu.co.uk. You should probably check with your landlord first and store your valuables with a friend while you are away. You know, just in case.