14:29 13 January 2013
Even with the mercifully mild winter we've had so far, energy prices are high enough to cause concern about the bills that'll soon be landing on our doormats. If you're worried about how you'll afford to pay, here's what to do.
The full weight of some of last year's energy price rises will soon become apparent. MoneySupermarket research predicts that energy customers on standard tariffs could be facing quarterly bills of £530 in the coming weeks and months.
We often give tips and advice on how to lower your energy bills to make them more affordable.
But what happens if you have an energy bill you simply can't afford to pay?
The important thing is not to bury your head in the sand, and to take the following action as soon as possible.
Contact your energy suppliers
The very first thing you should do when faced with an overwhelming energy bill is to get on the phone to your energy supplier or suppliers and tell them you can't afford it. They're not going to write the debt off, but they can work with you to agree on an affordable repayment plan for your arrears.
Here are some useful numbers for each of the Big Six suppliers:
• Eon Caring Energy Team 0345 301 4875
• British Gas 0800 072 8625
• SSE Careline 0800 622 838
• Scottish Power Carefree Response 0845 270 0700
• Npower Spreading Warmth Team 0808 172 6999
• EDF Priority Service Team 0800 269 450
The energy industry is regulated and firms are obliged to respond in a certain way in these circumstances. Energy suppliers are duty-bound to give you advice on how to pay what you owe and to offer a payment plan based on what you can afford.
It's crucial to work out what you can genuinely afford to pay back, otherwise the repayment plan will be a wasted opportunity. Look carefully at your monthly income and outgoings before committing to any repayment plan. Citizens Advice has a budgeting tool which may help.
Gas and electricity suppliers can arrange weekly, fortnightly or monthly payment plans which will cover the costs of what you're currently using and the arrears you've accrued.
They're not allowed to charge you more than you can manage in an attempt to clear the debt faster. If you feel they're trying to do this and they won't reconsider their offer, they could be in breach of their licence conditions and you could make a formal complaint.
The ombudsman for energy can be found here and can also be contacted on either 0330 440 1624 or 01925 530 263.
If, after agreeing on a repayment plan, you're still struggling, your supplier may seek to install a prepayment meter in your home so that you can no longer go into arrears.
If you're on benefits
If you're on benefits and you're struggling to pay your bills, speak to your suppliers about the Fuel Direct scheme, where affordable repayments are taken directly from your benefits.
To be eligible for Fuel Direct, you must be in receipt of income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, Income Support, income-related Employment and Support Allowance or Pension Credit.
Fuel Direct will be cheaper than a prepayment meter and means you'll never be without gas or electricity because you can't afford to top up your meter. If you think Fuel Direct might be your best option you need to visit your local Jobcentre and get them to ask your suppliers if they will agree to the scheme.
Find out if you can get help
There are various kinds of help available for those struggling to keep up with their energy payments.
For example, the British Gas Energy Trust and the EDF Energy Trust offer help for people who are struggling with energy debts, as well as rent and council tax arrears. You can find the eligibility criteria and apply for a grant on each of the respective websites, and you don't have to be a British Gas or EDF customer to qualify.
If you were born on or before July 5, 1951, you're eligible for the government's Winter Fuel Payment. The tax-free payment of between £100 and £300 is paid automatically to those receiving the State Pension or another security benefit, excluding Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit and Child Benefit.
Payments are made between November and December and the amount you'll receive (for now) depends on your age and circumstances. If you're not receiving Winter Fuel Payments but think you should be, find out how to claim here.
Former care minister Paul Burstow MP and the Centre Forum think-tank are calling for means-tested Winter Fuel Payments in future, saying the savings could be used to fund the majority of the £1.7billion proposed reforms to the elderly care system in the UK.
There's also the Warm Home Discount scheme, which is separate from the Winter Fuel Payment and could get you a £130 discount on your winter 2012/13 fuel bill.
You'll qualify for the discount if your supplier was part of the scheme on July 21 last year, your name or your partner's name was on the bill and you were either: 80 or over and getting the Guarantee Credit element of Pension Credit; or under 80 and only getting the Guarantee Credit element of Pension Credit.
Those eligible will either get the discount automatically or receive a letter telling them how to claim.
Finally, if you're getting certain benefits you may also be eligible for a Cold Weather Payment. If your local temperature is below zero degrees Celsius (or predicted to be) for seven or more consecutive days, you could get £25 for each seven-day period of cold weather between November 1 and March 31.
To be eligible, you need to be receiving Pension Credit, Income Support, income-based Jobseeker's Allowance or income-related Employment and Support Allowance. You'll find more details here.
Save yourself from bill shock
If you've managed to pay a big energy bill but it was a struggle, then you need to do something to make sure you never suffer from 'bill shock' again.
The obvious first step is to make sure you're on the absolute cheapest tariff. Our energy comparison service will tell you if there's a cheaper deal to be had elsewhere. All you need to tell us is your address, current supplier and tariff name, and your current payment method.
It only takes a couple of minutes and if you decide to go through with the switch, the old and new providers arrange the switch between them in around six to eight weeks, the only difference you'll notice is that your bills start coming from a different company.
Even if your supplier is the cheapest, you may still be able to switch to a cheaper tariff. Online tariffs are always cheaper than standard tariffs, so if you're on a standard tariff you're missing a trick.
Switching to monthly direct debits rather than quarterly billing can also take the sting out of energy bills by portioning the amount into more manageable chunks. You'll find more money saving tips like this here.
The important thing to remember if you're struggling with energy bills is that there are plenty of options available. From repayment plans to grants, there should be a way to help you cope with the cost of energy.
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