If you’ve been hit by rising energy costs and are struggling to pay your gas and electricity bills, it can feel as if you don’t have many options. And not being able to afford to heat and power your home is stressful. However, there is some energy bill help available, with different solutions for different situations.
Addressing unpaid bills as soon as possible will help you get back on track, so make it a priority. You can then concentrate on how to save energy at home going forward, and hopefully avoid more headaches in the future.
How to get energy bill help if you can’t pay your bills
1. Call the energy company
It may feel like the last thing you want to do. But contacting your energy supplier should be the first step. Under Ofgem rules, suppliers must work with you to agree on a payment plan you can afford.
‘It’s really important that if people are struggling to pay their energy bills they get in touch with us so we can discuss their individual circumstances and how we can help to support them,’ says an E.ON spokesperson.
‘As part of this conversation we’ll aim to try to understand what the problem is. We would ask questions such as whether your circumstances have changed, whether you need more time to pay or if you or someone in your house is elderly, or have a disability or long-term illness. Once we have more information about a customer’s individual circumstances, we can look at the ways we can support them.’
2. Ask to pay in your energy bills in instalments
You can tell your energy supplier that you want to pay your debts in instalments as part of a payment plan. This means paying fixed amounts over an agreed period of time. It can be adapted to what you can afford – covering what you owe as well as ongoing use.
According to Citizens Advice, your supplier must take into account how much you can afford to pay. Therefore, you’ll need to give them details about your income and outgoings, debts and personal circumstances. They’ll also work out how much energy you’ll use in future. This is usually estimated based on past usage. However, you can give the energy company meter readings to make it more accurate.
You can also ask for a review of your payments and debt repayments, as well as more time to pay, payment breaks or reductions. Once the instalments are up and running, you may find that you’re still struggling to afford the repayments. Speak to your supplier again if this is the case.
‘If you’re finding it hard to pay your energy bills in difficult circumstances, see if you can be put on your supplier’s priority services register,’ says Alex Hasty, Associate Director at Comparethemarket.com. ‘This is a free service provided by energy suppliers and network operators. It offers customers extra help and support in vulnerable situations.’
3. See if you could change your tariff
It could be that the tariff you’re on for your gas or electricity isn’t the right one for your circumstances. So it’s always worth asking your energy company if you can change it. There are fixed price tariffs, which set the cost of your energy for a certain amount of time – often a year or more. Variable tariffs, on the other hand, rise or fall depending on the market.
Government research has shown consistently over time that Standard Variable Tariffs are more expensive than fixed ones, with differences of 10% or more in recent years. Unfortunately, this currently isn’t the case, with most fixed rate tariffs being more expensive than variable rates.
It’s also worth asking about dual-fuel tariffs, where your gas and electricity both come from one supplier. These can be cheaper – but check it against the price of sourcing them separately.
‘As a rule, it is better to stay on a default or variable tariff than opt for a fixed rate alternative at present,’ says Alex Hasty. ‘As you will fall under the protection of Ofgem’s energy price cap. We have decided to show all available tariffs on our website, including those you cannot switch to via comparethemarket.com. This enables people to compare a range of prices relative to their current situation. Keep an active watch on Ofgem’s next price cap adjustment, which will be announced at the beginning of February 2022. It is predicted to rise again which could further impact energy bills from the start of April 2022.’
4. Ask to be put on a meter
Rather than dread a regular bill, you can ask to have a meter fitted. There are two types.
- Pay-as-you-go smart meters that show how much you’re spending and can be topped up in advance (or paid by Direct Debit).
- Prepayment meters are usually topped up with credit bought at a local shop or online.
Both allow you to buy your energy before you use it, so you won’t overpay for an estimated reading. However, it’s worth noting that tariffs for prepayment meters are typically more expensive per unit. Smart meters usually offer more favourable rates.
5. Request additional energy bill help from a charity
Some energy companies work with charities. Or have their own schemes dedicated to those who need emergency help to keep the heat and lights on. ‘We’d urge any of our customers who are concerned about debt to contact us as early as possible so we can discuss the support available to them,’ says Christopher Dalley, Director of Back Office Operations at EDF.
‘Help may include referring customers to our partners who can help maximise their existing income and manage their money. We also have a dedicated Customer Support Fund, which in 2021 provided support totalling £2.1 million. It can help with electricity or gas bill debts, and provide essential white goods such as a fridge or cooker.’
6. Claim government energy bill help
If you’re on a low income or benefits, or a pensioner, you may be eligible for discounts or payments towards your energy costs. ‘You may qualify for £140 towards the cost of your electricity each year under the Warm Home Discount, which is paid for by your supplier,’ explains an E.ON spokesperson.
‘If you received the guarantee element of Pension Credit on 4 July 2021, your energy account should be automatically topped up with £140 by your supplier by the end of March 2022. If you don’t fall into that category, but are on a low income and in receipt of other qualifying benefits, you’ll need to apply to your supplier. Energy suppliers set their own qualifying criteria in this broader group, and funding is limited. At E.ON, we deal with applications on a first come, first served basis, and close the scheme once the funding runs out.’
Other schemes you may be eligible for include Cold Weather Payments from the government. This is paid automatically into your bank account if you claim certain qualifying benefits and the weather in your area is very cold. The newly available Household Support Fund offers small grants to cover the cost of essentials. Speak to your local council. Eligible pensioners can also receive a Winter Fuel Payment, while those who receive benefits may be able to pay off energy bill arrears directly from them using the Fuel Direct scheme.
7. Consider switching suppliers
While it’s not always cheaper to switch suppliers, doing so may enable you to take advantage of a better deal as a new customer. However, it’s worth asking your existing company for their cheaper promotional deals. Especially if you’re near the end of your current contract.
8. Set a budget to recoup the costs elsewhere
It’s a good idea to record all your income and outgoings so there’s enough in the budget to cover energy bill payments, even if you’re only slightly behind. Try Money Helper’s Budget Planner, which separates your finances into categories and allows you to track your spending month to month so you can see areas where you can save.
If you need extra assistance budgeting, speak to debt charity Step Change. They can also work with you on a plan to repay and get help to pay your energy debts.
‘Until wholesale prices for energy change, it’s worth considering other ways of cutting back on costs, such as with other utilities and insurance products,’ suggests Alex Hasty. ‘By shopping around online and switching, you could save on average £267 on motor insurance and £110 on home insurance. This could help offset the increasing energy bills.’