Let HMV be a warning on gift vouchers

Tim Bennett rounds up the week’s personal finance news, including: mortgage payments at their lowest levels for a decade, and the latest boiler-room scam to hit unsuspecting punters.

Mortgage payments have dropped to their most affordable level for a decade as lenders slashed rates, says Rachel Rickard Straus on Thisismoney.co.uk. Thanks in part to the government's Funding for Lending scheme, typical mortgage payments for first-time buyers and home movers "have plummeted to 28% of typical incomes, down from a peak of 48% in 2007". But we're not popping the champagne corks.

According to the Ernst & Young sponsored ITEM forecasting club, general inflation is set to run ahead of wages in 2013 and job insecurity will remain high. Meanwhile, house prices are still too high for many buyers and deposit terms for first-time buyers are still pretty stringent.

As for who is paying for all this cheap money being offered to the banks by the government, the answer is still savers. Cash Isa interest rates are now at their lowest level since the scheme was launched 14 years ago.

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HMV will honour gift vouchers issued but not yet spent before the firm went into administration, accountancy firm Deloitte has confirmed. But the fact Deloitte has opted to do this doesn't change the fact that it needn't have. MoneyWeek has warned about gift vouchers before and our advice remains the same: they're best avoided. Give cash instead.

Beware the latest boiler-room scam, says Tony Levine in The Independent. This time the scammers are trying to convince people to buy rare earth metals with exotic names, such as lanthanum and neodymium. The promise is that if you buy in now you will enjoy huge price rises as demand for metals in limited supply takes off.

The way to avoid being caught out, other than being naturally suspicious of any cold call and avoiding offers that sound too good to be true, is to check the name of the firm with the Financial Services Authority (tel: 0845-606 1234). If a firm has contacted you and it's not on their register, let the regulator know.

Don't be late hitting the tax self-assessment deadline of 31 January, warns Ian Cowie in The Daily Telegraph. The taxman is getting tough in a bid to grab as much money as possible. Make sure you have all the right documents to hand for an individual these include your P60 earnings summary from an employer, your company benefits form, called a P11D, and details of bank interest earned during the year.

A 57% increase in writs against companies who filed late in the 12 months to March shows HMRC is unlikely to be lenient towards individual taxpayers who file late this year.

Website Findababysitter.com reports that 25% of unemployed parents would like to return to work but don't earn enough to cover their childcare costs. This rises to 40% in London, where the cost of the best nurseries can hit £24,000 a year, according to the Daily Mail.

And with childcare vouchers, which offer payments out of your pre-tax income, being reduced for higher or additional taxpayers who joined the scheme from 6 April 2011, the government is hardly helping.

Tim graduated with a history degree from Cambridge University in 1989 and, after a year of travelling, joined the financial services firm Ernst and Young in 1990, qualifying as a chartered accountant in 1994.

He then moved into financial markets training, designing and running a variety of courses at graduate level and beyond for a range of organisations including the Securities and Investment Institute and UBS. He joined MoneyWeek in 2007.