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Guest Article: National Debtline

By Dennis Hussey, an adviser at National Debtline

At National Debtline, we speak to people who have found themselves in debt or under financial strain for a host of reasons.

However, energy-related debt is an issue we’ve seen increase significantly – last year, 17 percent of calls to National Debtline were related to gas or electricity arrears – up from 12 percent in 2010.  In many cases, these arrears are a direct consequence of fuel poverty.

From the people we speak to on the phone, we know that energy arrears can be caused by many different issues. Sometimes it can be a breakdown of communication, a missed payment, and then a surprisingly hefty bill. Sometimes the person may already be paying off arrears, but find that they are no longer able to afford to incorporate it into their budget. At this time of year, many people we speak to are facing a ‘bill shock’, as the temperature jumps, the heating goes on, and gas and electricity bills go up.

Another common problem is that customers often don’t realise their rights. Tenants privately renting may not be sure about asking a landlord to install a pre-pay meter, or knowing you can switch suppliers even if you have an outstanding bill of up to £500.

Many people we speak to often are struggling with arrears payments but aren’t aware of the help available. Many energy suppliers offer grants and funds, and they are not always necessarily just for their customers. Our MyMoneySteps site runs in partnership with the Turn2us Benefits Calculator, allowing users to search for available help and creating a budget to help regain control of their finances.

Whilst working through bills with clients, we often find that energy efficiency has a role to play in high costs. This can be down to living circumstances, for example, empty nesters who now have a larger, but under-occupied home, to heat. Or in private rented accommodation where landlords are reluctant to make changes to help with energy efficiency. 

Here are National Debtline’s top five tips for getting your fuel bills in check:

  1. Check your account is not being billed on estimates – always give a meter reading

  2. ​Always check you’re on the best tariff – shop around for the best deal

  3. Keep in touch with your supplier – they may be able to help more than you think.  For instance, if you receive benefits, you may be able to arrange to pay your arrears as a direct deduction, making budgeting easier

  4. See if you can cut down the energy you use – visit Home Energy Check.

  5. Use the Turn2us Benefits Calculator to check your entitlements and the Turn2us Grants Search to see if there are any trust funds from energy suppliers or charitable funds available

It’s important to make sure you know when your energy bills need paying, and budgeting accordingly – especially during the winter months. Of course, this isn’t always possible, and if you are struggling to cope, seek free advice from a charity-run service like National Debtline as early as possible. The earlier you seek advice, the quicker and easier the problem will be to resolve. 

By Dennis Hussey, an adviser at National Debtline