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Life before Vanquis:
I lost my job after becoming ill with depression back in the late 90s. With my lost health went not only my self esteem, but my previous good credit history I'd established over the years, as through my loss of income went my ability to meet my contractual payments on an existing personal loan and a credit card and in turn, I had to offer my creditors much lower monthly instalments than I'd originally agreed to and my credit rating was adversely affected as a result.
Having eventually recovered and got back into work, I found I'd become about as welcome as Saddam Hussein at a White House garden party in terms of being able to obtain things like a bank account with a cheque card, or a credit card with a mainstream lender. Although I was paying my debts to my creditors via arrangements with the Consumer Credit Counselling Service and had no CCJs, my credit history, since becoming ill, was now sufficiently poor enough for potential creditors to turn me down as soon as look at me. Essentially, I was knackered.
Vanquis asks to come into my life:
It was around this time that I received a mail shot from Vanquis Bank for a newly launched credit card, called a Vanquis card.
I was immediately wary of this card, as I'd recently read about Provident Financial PLC being behind Vanquis Bank. I remembered the TV adverts I'd seen as a child for the old Provident cheques system back in the early 70s. These were cheques generally used by poorer people that exchanged them for goods at retailers who deigned to accept them. The resultant interest those people had to pay back (to Provident door-step collectors) was said to be extremely high. Currently Provident Personal Credit offers loans of up to £500 (payments collected at the door) at a typcial APR of 177% - that's right, 177%. I'd also heard that Provident Financial was involved with the former Yes Car Credit (a company selling used cars, targeted at people with credit problems). Anyone who'd seen reports about Yes Car Credit's sales methods featured on shows like Watchdog may well have some serious concerns about the way they'd allegedly treated some of their former customers.
Still, I really didn't have much choice other than to apply. I'd tried everywhere else for a credit card and the only other lender to seriously consider me was Capital One, who'd wanted a £200 security deposit for a £200 credit limit card with an APR of around 29% - an offer I politely declined to pursue further. Modern day life can sometimes be difficult without access to a credit card. It wasn't credit per se I wanted. It was more about if I ever needed to hire a car or a van. I'd found this virtually impossible to do without a credit card. I did have a Visa Electron debit card, but these are still not universally accepted as a means of payment in high street shops and online retailers. A credit card would also be very useful for those types of purchases, so with all this in mind I bit the bullet and applied.
Applying was relatively straightforward. The amount of personal details asked for was much less than for a standard credit card request with a low APR. The promotional literature re-assured me that I "mustn't worry" if I'd been turned down elsewhere and that Vanquis would still 'consider me'. Though, with a quoted typical 39% APR for purchases and cash withdrawals and an initial credit limit of just £250, I'd have been surprised if I wouldn't have been very seriously 'considered' by them. 39% APR is one hell of a horrific interest rate level - particularly when it is one being directed at those perhaps more prone (the 'sub-prime' borrower) not to pay the balance off in full each month. Vanquis justify these high rates by quoting the 'risk factor' they take on by dealing in 'sub-prime' business and how they offer these kinds of customers an opportunity to 're-build' their credit rating - a chance they wouldn't normally get and of course, beggars like me, cannot be choosers.
After about two weeks or so I received an envelope back from Vanquis. Inside was a letter telling me I'd been accepted and my Vanquis card was enclosed. I now had to telephone Vanquis and activate the card. I'd been given the aforementioned £250 credit limit and APR of 39%.
Living with Vanquis:
In fairness, I have found Vanquis Bank a decent company to deal with.
Their customer service centre is UK-based and generally very helpful and waiting times to get through to an advisor seem generally low. You can also use an automated menu system for things like checking your balance.
I previously imagined that as a member of the 'sub-prime' species, I'd have been talked down to by their staff and generally treated rather shabbily. I was mistaken. I have been treated more courteously by Vanquis customer service than I was with more mainstream lenders when I was a 'prime creature.
Using the card and paying for it:
The card is a Visa one. It is widely accepted and quite cleverly and tactfully, the word 'Vanquis' fails to appear on the front of the card itself. All you see is Visa with the word 'Vanquis' appearing in microscopic print on the reverse side of the card. Even so, I still feel somewhat sheepish producing my Vanquis Visa for payment. Far more so than I would do if could snootily wave a Coutts World card in the air to all and sundry!
As I said earlier, I was only given a £250 limit, so I was hardly going to paint the town red with it. I have been careful not to use it to withdraw cash with, as I don't want to risk incurring any instant interest charges. Hence, I use the card purely and simply to make purchase transactions with. Doing this allows you up to 56 days interest free credit, as long as you clear the previous balance in full each month.
You can pay your Vanquis statement using direct debit, at a post office or via a bank, by post, or over the phone direct to Vanquis - the method I use.
Upside of Vanquis?
Being given a credit card after so long without has given me a sense that I am on the road to at least some sort of recovery in getting credit again and then using it responsibly. Without the likes of a Vanquis out there, I would have had little to no chance of getting a credit card for some years more and that can make you feel like a second class citizen in financial terms.
If you ensure you pay off your balance in full each month, then you cannot go far wrong as far as I can see.
Using the card in this way will start to have at least some degree of positive impact on your credit rating, as it will start to show future potential lenders who carry out a credit search on you that you are using a credit card correctly and sensibly by making your payments on time.
Vanquis says that it regularly reviews your use of their card and if used responsibly, will apparently consider lowering your APR and increasing your credit limit (you can ask them to lower it again, should you not want this). I have had the card for six months now, and neither of those options has been offered to me so far.
Vanquis also says that "from time to time" it will send you out some Vanquis cheques (to a pay a tradesman with, for example - interest rate and terms as per cash withdrawals). They have yet to send me any of these.
Downside of Vanquis?
The annual fee of £19 I (and presumably others) have to pay seems quite an extreme and unfair charge to make for a card with such a high level of interest rate. Saying that, for a customer like me who pays off the balance in full each month, that is the only money (so far) they will make out of me.
If you fail to pay off your balance in full each month, you will end up potentially paying horrendous amounts of interest to Vanquis over the longer term. Equally, if your credit limit is also regularly increased by them and you only make minimum payments (5% of the balance), there is the potential to end up in a serious amount of debt (the very thing you should be trying not to repeat), so be warned on this.
I would recommend a Vanquis card to those people who cannot find a credit card elsewhere and who want one with a small credit limit and to repay it in full each month in an attempt to improve their credit rating by demonstrating responsible use of a credit product.
I could not recommend the card to those who feel they would end up paying Vanquis less than the full balance each month. Not clearing the balance each month on a card with such a high APR could end up with a person getting into serious financial difficulties over time, with them adding significantly to their existing levels of debt.
So, on balance, I'd recommend the Vanquis card overall, but with the aforementioned reservations. Its a good product in the hands of the right people. In the wrong hands it is potentially a tool to add to people's debts, compounding the financial problems they already have and Vanquis needs to be very careful about increasing their customers' credit limits as a matter of routine.
Finally, I have spotted that Vanquis appear to have done a re-branding of their credit card product since I got mine. They now offer the 'Abacus' card at a rate of 39.9% APR (for people new to credit or with more serious credit history problems (defaults and CCJs)), the 'Blue' credit card at a rate of 29.9% APR and an opening limit of up to £2000 (for people with less serious past credit problems) and the 'Gold' credit card at a rate of 19.9% APR and an opening limit of up to £2000 (for people who "deserve a credit card with a good APR, but a major lender has turned down" - tenants, self-employed etc.)
Regardless of age, it's never easy to meet a potential new partner and once you pass the milestone of 40 it gets more difficult as I guess you get more picky, have more emotional baggage, backache, nasal and ear hair. I'd divorced at the age of 41 after a long marriage and once I'd shed as much of the aforementioned 'baggage' of a bitter break-up as it is possible to do, I soon realized how hard it was going to be for me to find such a person.
I was never a fan of 'meat market' type nightclubs (even when I was in my 20s), singles nights/clubs reminded me of the old BBC comedy show Dear John, people at work were all married or gay, or both and I was not the type to approach a woman by the kippers in Tescos and ask her if she came here often, and I'd failed to get any positive signals from an evening class for British Sign Language I'd enrolled in. Where the hell was I to go to next to find love, I thought?
I decided to resort to the concept of the Internet dating site and I chose U Date after having spoken with a female friend who'd used it and had found a man and got engaged to him.
The first thing you encounter on the U Date site is the initial 'sign-up' screen. You then create a username, give them your e-mail address, tell them your location, type of relationship you seek ('Romance' 'Friendship' 'Fun') gender and sexual persuasion you want to meet/age range/geographical area. You then proceed to a very long drawn out online questionnaire, asking you things like height and weight, salary, occupation, politics, personality, movies you like, sports you watch/play blah, blah, blah, etc. etc. etc. You can also provide up to three photos of yourself and write an introduction about you, where you would like to go on a first date, what things make you happy and sad and where you would ideally see yourself in three years time.
Once you have been through all of the above, your profile is ready to launch on the main site and can then be seen by your chosen target area.
U Date is technically a free site, but as they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Yes, on the free membership basis, you can look at profiles of other members and be seen by them, but you'll have no official means to communicate with people who you like the look of and vice versa- rather pointless on a site for meeting people. You could try placing coded references to your e-mail address in your profile, but these will soon get removed if spotted by U Date staff who 'police' them. To ensure you are able to 'speak' with or write to people on site, you'll simply have to pay. Cost varies from around £25 per month for the pay monthly option and goes down to just under £12 per month if you are prepared to pay for six months of membership in advance
So, if you do decide to pay for U Date, you will be given the facility to be able to send on site E-mails to other members' U Date inboxes, plus the U Date piece de resistance - 'The Whisper' function (which I will explain more of later).
You can browse possible contacts via your 'Matches' screen - a kind of human league table of the people U Date has selected as suitable for you from your profile input, or, you can bypass that method and look at the members online in general.
Now comes the harder bit for the more socially reserved - actually making contact. First, if you click on a profile that attracts your eye, the member concerned will know you have done this (from their 'Who Has Been Looking At You' screen) - so there is no having a peep covertly, and if you look again and again without actual contact, you sense they may think you are some sort of Net stalker! You can keep a check on who you have been looking at via the 'Who You Have Been Looking At' screen. So, you can either play it shy and wait for somebody to contact you, or you can take the bull by the horns and contact them.
'Whispering' is the 'real time' way of talking to a person. E-mailing is the other choice. A 'Whisper' is essentially a flowery term for sending a chat box to somebody. Once you engage in a Whisper, you can either chat on U Date, or if you find you are getting on, go offsite to continue on something like MSN or Yahoo Messenger. Sending Whispers and receiving them back can take ages and as a result, the conversations can be very fragmented. It takes ages because, a) the software appears so slow, and b) members can engage in 'multiple Whispers'- where they try and talk to several potential suitors at any one time. Of course, you don't tell (or get told) that you are participating in this trick and essentially, it all seems rather rude and pointless and above all, confusing. After all, you wouldn't have three simultaneous conversations with three different men/women in a bar, would you? If you did, those people would soon get peed off. The worst thing that can happen when you multiple Whisper is to send the right Whisper response to the wrong person and if you do, that is a perfect way to end a potential relationship before it has even begun.
It is possible to get unwanted attention or abuse via the Whisper process. If you are unfortunate to experience this hassle, you can use the 'block' button. Doing this prevents the offending member from contacting you again on the site and can ultimately get their membership terminated through breach of the rules.
So, broadly speaking, that's how U Date works as a site in terms of picking out someone you like the look of, or being picked out. After that, it's really down to you in terms of what you achieve or don't achieve.
I have had two brief memberships of U Date. The first was for about three months last year. The second was for a month this year.
I experienced the following:
1) I often found people didn't feel a need to read what you had written in your profile and contacted you based on a quick glance based on your photo - 'liking your eyes' or because you 'looked tall'. Then they'd ask you things they could have easily learnt about you by having the courtesy to take five minutes to read your profile in advance of approaching you.
2) Some beardless women used a clever trick to catch out men who haven't taken the time to read about them before whispering. They put something like 'long goatee beard' as an answer to the 'Facial Hair?' question to see if you'd mention it to them. Though, you did need to be careful of offending genuinely bearded women by raising this issue with them in an overly facetious or insensitive manner.
3) People lied about their motives for being on the site - women could pretend not to be married or in a relationship (as do men of course), others posted photos taken years ago and lied about their age, or both.
4) Some U Daters liked to keep their dating options open, so be prepared to see them still using the site, despite having arranged to meet with you (after all, if you do see this, you are still using the site, too!).
5) Ensure you don't unknowingly opt for 'Continuous Membership' of U Date. You are automatically configured for this, unless you go into you payment options and un-tick the option - twice. If you don't, you'll find further months of membership deducted from your credit/debit card, even though you only wanted one month of membership to try the site out.
In my two stints of membership I had about twenty or so serious (i.e. not time wasting type) contacts. Of these, I actually met six women. Two of these didn't like me ("no spark") when we met and it was the same for me - spending a very uncomfortable but obligatory hour in a pub until we could finally flee. One liked me so much she invited me on a holiday with her, but sadly, I felt I didn't really connect with her, so she got hurt. One other, my gut feeling told me, was using me as a kind of a stop-gap or reserve for somebody better to come along and I pulled out of the situation. The other two encounters led to further dates and I liked them and they liked me. Unfortunately, one of these people lived many miles away and distance proved the ending of things and the other one eventually turned out to have not really ended her previous relationship - so that knocked that one on the head.
Finally, a few tips based on my experience in how to try to avoid the seven deadly sins of Internet dating:
1) Never give out a home number or home address before meeting and avoid giving people your main ISP e-mail if at all possible.
2) Don't give out your mobile number straight away - try to chat online with the person for a week or so at least before you do and be wary of those who push to meet within a few days of the first contact.
3) Have a voice chat before you meet - it helps to break the ice and makes you more relaxed when meeting for the first time than if you stick to purely written 'chat'.
4) Try to avoid the temptation of 'falling in love' with a photo, written words, or a voice - it can work, but it can also hurt one or both of you badly if those feelings evaporate come the real life test of meeting face to face.
5) Meet in a public place and make a friend or a relative aware of where you are and how long you plan to be.
6) If you feel at all unsafe, or things generally have a bad vibe on a date, make your excuses and leave.
7) If you have met a second and then a third time, say, and the person is not willing to give you their landline number - be warned, as they may not be as 'free' as they say they are.
Based on personal experience, I can't really recommend U Date, but I suppose if you use it sensibly, it could lead to meeting that 'special' person, but it's not easy and you have to expect quite a few dates from hell along the way to finding them.