Where to get help with your gas and electricity bills

Gas flameStaying warm this winter is going to be a challenge for millions of households.

That's because four of the 'Big Six' energy providers – SSE, British Gas, npower and Scottish Power – have announced price rises. The other two – EDF Energy and E.ON – are expected to follow suit before the end of the year.

These companies supply power to 99% of homes in the UK.

The rises announced so far will add around £130 a year to a typical dual fuel bill, pushing energy costs over the £1,500 mark.

That's a lot of extra money to try and pluck out of nowhere.

So here are a few suggestions on where to turn if you're struggling with your energy bills this winter.

Use free helplines and websites
Have you heard of the Energy Company Obligation? Or the Warm Home Discount Scheme?

The maze of benefits and grants available to those that are struggling with their energy bills can be hard to navigate.

Using a free helpline or visiting these websites can make what support is out there, and available to you, much clearer.

Home Heat Helpline
Home Heat Helpline assisted around 42,000 people over the 2012/13 winter and was able to make around £250 of savings per household. But the organisation believes it can help millions more.

Advisers are on hand between 9am and 6pm Monday to Fridays and can suggest benefits and grants that you could be eligible for as well as giving energy saving advice that can keep your home warm and reduce your bills.

The free impartial service is available over the phone on 0800 33 66 99 and you can now a chat to an adviser online through its new web chat service. The website also has lots of information available via factsheets.

Energy Savings Advice Service
The Energy Savings Advice Service offers impartial advice on how to cut energy bills, and can explain things like the Green Deal and the Energy Company Obligation, which can offer certain lower income households free energy-saving improvements to their homes.

The service is provided by the Energy Savings Trust on behalf of the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

You can get in touch via the helpline on 0300 123 1234 (England and Wales) 9am to 8pm Monday to Friday, Saturday 10am to 2pm. Or 0808 808 2282 (Scotland) 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday. Alternatively you can email energy-advice@est.org.uk.

Turn2Us is a charity that helps people in financial trouble get access to benefits, grants and other financial help online and over the phone.

The website features a benefits calculator and grants search as well as helpful information and resources.

But if you can't access the internet you can use the helpline on 0808 802 8000, which is available 8am-8pm Monday to Friday, and speak to an impartial advisor.

Citizens Advice Bureau
The Citizens Advice Bureau helps people resolve problems with debt, benefits, employment, housing and much more.

So if your problems with energy bills encompass a lot of other issues you can look for information on the website in the form of its Advice Guides, call the helpline for your area or visit a local office.

The Gov.uk website contains details about all Government departments and will have all the up-to-date information about benefits including heating and housing as well as others that could help your situation.

It also has its own energy grants calculator to help you work out what you can get based on your circumstances.

Also for those in Northern Ireland check out the Warm Homes Scheme (0800 988 0559) and if you live in Wales you can get help from Nest (0808 808 2244).

Clear debt with energy trusts and funds
Some energy providers contribute to a trust or fund which is administered by a charity. These can provide grants to clear debts including energy bills.

British Gas, EDF and npower all contribute to a pot for their customers, but British Gas is the only one that accepts applications from people who are supplied by other companies. It has contributed £18 million this year.

In order to be considered you will need to fill out an application form detailing your circumstances. Here are the websites to access the forms: You can also request a form to be sent to you by calling 01733 421060 or by emailing Charis (the charity which administers all these schemes) on admin@charisgrants.com.

SSE has a slightly different pot of money to help its customers called the Priority Assistance Fund. Unlike the other schemes this doesn't require an external application process carried out by an independent administrator. Instead, it happens in-house and staff are given the power to identify those who may be eligible for assistance. SSE predicts that this year it will help 3,500 vulnerable customers with support worth up to £900 each. Which is why you should definitely consider our next suggestion.

Contact your energy provider
If you think you will have problems paying your energy bill you should contact your provider.

Energy providers will have a section on their website explaining what it can do to help. Here are the links to the major providers: Your provider may be able to assist with a payment plan, freeze accumulated debt for a period and offer energy saving advice as well as details of the benefits that you might qualify for.

The Warm Home Discount Scheme, for example, provides a one-off payment towards your electricity bill and this year it is worth £135.

Pensioners that meet certain criteria, known as the 'core' group, get this benefit automatically through the Department of Work and Pensions.

But energy companies will also pay the discount to other vulnerable people as well.

Each supplier will have their own rules on who from this 'broader' group can get this help and they must apply for the discount direct.

So it's well worth getting in touch.

Use our comparison service to compare tariffs
The helplines and websites listed above won't be able to suggest a better tariff to help you avoid falling into financial difficulty.

If you're worried about the price rises and think you might struggle our energy comparison engine can help you find a better deal that can see you through the winter.

See if you can switch and save on your gas and electricity bills

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Where to get help with your gas and electricity bills

Consumers are often tempted to use appliances such as washing machines and dryers late at night when energy tariffs are typically lower. However a Fire Service representative said it was not advisable to leave a washing machine, tumble dryer or dishwasher running overnight since they are a fire risk because of their high wattage, friction and motors.

"The practice of leaving these appliances on after you have gone to bed, means if anything goes wrong, you are not in a position to do anything about it. Electrical faults have frequently caused fires that have proved fatal to those sleeping upstairs," the source said.
But it is not just fire hazards a burst hose could mean the whole downstairs of your house is flooded resulting in a hefty insurance claim and undoubtedly increased premiums as a consequence.

There is nothing wrong in itself in switching utility suppliers as if you do it properly you can reduce your bills. However if you are not careful you might actually increase your outgoings. 

If you don't establish the type of tariff that best suits your needs you could be throwing money down the drain. With some suppliers, for instance, you pay less for the energy you use during the night than the energy used during the day. However, you'll need to use about 20% of your energy consumption at night to really make a saving (cheaper tariff starts at 1a.m. and finishes at 8a.m.). For those on shift work this might be very useful but for others there may be little benefit and we have already talked of the dangers of running appliances when you have gone to bed.
Fixed or capped price plans offer a set price for a period of time (usually 18 months to 2 years) but sometimes this includes a premium on the supplier's standard unit rate.
Finally, be wary of sales people who call at the door and try to talk you into switching to their company. It is just as easy to switch online yourself when you have time to make a considered and non-pressurised decision.

When stock markets go into freefall – and we have seen plenty of that over the last 12 months – there is always a tendency to try and save money by selling shares quickly or just trying to move investments to another provider. But some times all you are doing is incurring extra trading costs or charges on fund switches. Unless you are totally convinced that the only way is down, it is usually best not to sell shares when they have hit rock bottom – all you are doing then is crystallizing a loss. It makes sense to plan a less knee-jerk exit strategy.

And as far as funds go, investors have a habit of chasing the latest theme and piling in at the height of the market only to see their investments fall as sanity returns to proceedings 
Glasgow-based IFA Alan Dick believes investors are getting severely short changed by active fund managers and he insists investors are far better off in low-cost Index tracker funds.
"This idea that fund managers can beat the market and pick out the winners just doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. Constantly switching fund providers only piles up extra charges and costs and offers no added value."

Anyone who has ever bought electrical goods at a major retailer will have been subjected to the hard sell of 'have you considered taking out an extended warranty?' Then follows the spiel about how you will have piece of mind if anything goes wrong blah, blah, blah….

In theory it sounds like a way of saving you hefty repair bills in the futuer but in the vast majority of cases extended warranties are overly expensive and not necessary. With most electrical goods you have a legal right under guarantee for the retailer to repair or replace faulty goods within a specified amount of time – typically 12 months. The only conceivable reason for buying an extended warranty would be for something like accidental damage cover - but in most instances that would be covered under a typical home contents insurance anyway.
Extended warranties are of course designed to cover goods for a longer period than the 12-month guarantee the product is sold with. They normally cover the three or five years, after the guarantee has run out. But you are not obliged to take out this insurance when you buy the goods nor do you have to buy the policy from the retailer selling you the item. You can pretty much bank on the fact that the in-store policy will be more expensive than any stand-alone policy as the retailer will take a commission charge. If you really feel you need an extended warranty at least shop around for it.

You might be paying lower premiums on your health insurance but that's not much good if the policy exclusions mean you are denied the treatment you suddenly find you need. Going for a policy based on budget alone rather than specific levels of cover could prove a false economy. One of the most common exclusions is home care or private nursing – you may think you are covered but the small print says otherwise. If you have to economise on personal health plans, make sure you understand exactly what you are giving up under the terms of your policy.

If you are unhappy with the response or would just like to explain a missed payment on your file you can send a Notice of Correction. This is a statement of up to 200 words that will be added to your file. Although lenders don't have to take this information into account, it at least gives you the chance to tell your side of the story.

Experian states that agencies will also help you escalate the dispute to a third party arbitrator if necessary, such as the Information Commissioner's Office.

With interest rates at record lows, it seems like a no brainer to move your savings to the best rates currently offered on the market. But moving money in this way will often only have short term benefits unless you are prepared to continue this process on a regular basis.

For instance the ING Direct Savings account is currently one of the best instant access deals on the market offering a variable rate of 2.75% for new customers including a 2.22% gross pa bonus fixed for 12 months. But after the 12 month period customers go onto the standard variable rate currently 0.5%. If you don't then move on to another provider returns on savings will come down pretty sharply. 
One obvious plus with this account is that you can move your money when you like with no penalties or restrictions. 
However the trade off for the decent introductory headline rate is that you have to bank entirely online or by phone there is no branch or post facility available. 
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this account but the restrictions on access (no branch or post) may mean you don't use the account efficiently. And apathy to switch to another account provider after the introductory period has ended might mean your money gets little in the way of improved returns going forward. The onus is on you the saver to keep moving your money around to get the best rates.

It might seem like a way of dealing with an immediate cash flow problem but loading up on your credit card to pay your way out of recession-related problems could prove a very bad call in the longer term.
Debt counselors frequently hear cases of people paying for their mortgage on their credit card – possibly because they have lost their jobs so there is briefly no income coming into the house. It might seem like a simple solution to a short-term cash flow problem but what if the cash flow problem is not quite as short term as you imagine?
Using credit cards in this way is one sure way to rack up debts fast and accumulate interest on what you owe. If you have problems paying a mortgage or any other regular outgoings, contact your mortgage lender immediately and talk through the problem with them.
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