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Are you in fuel poverty?

Posted 23 March 2016 by Shelley Bowers

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Have you suffered because you can’t pay for gas or electricity? If you have, read on.

This shocking BBC Panorama documentary, Too Poor to Stay Warm, shown on the BBC on March 21st, has highlighted the terribly cold conditions some people are living in. It features a pensioner, who has to sleep in her living room simply because she cannot afford to heat more than pone room on the money she received each week. But, it also features a family of four, where both parents are working, and yet still they are suffering fuel poverty.

The programme revealed the extent of people living with fuel poverty in the UK today. It detailed that 1 in 5 families are currently living in fuel poverty and that since the government said that it would put an end to fuel poverty, it’s actually doubled. And being in fuel poverty is not just about being a little bit colder and having to pop on an extra layer.

No, it is much more serious than that – it can cause the deaths of those who may already be vulnerable, such as people who are ill or who have respiratory problems or compromised immune systems. In fact, the show highlighted that last year alone there were 9,000 deaths, that’s 80 every day, from cold related illnesses. Not being able to heat your home properly, or living in a poorly insulated home, can cause other issues too, such as damp and black mould, both of which are very detrimental to health.

And to add to the worry and stress that living in a cold home brings, those who have fallen behind with their payments may find themselves forced into having a pre-payment meter fitted too. As prepayment meters require payment in advance, and are one of the most expensive ways of paying for energy, if you don’t have any spare cash, you will, in effect, be cutting yourself off gas, electricity, or both. Plus, the cash that you are able to put into the meter will be eaten up faster than it would for those on non-prepayment meters.

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Does any of this sound like the situation you’re finding yourself in?

Now, this may seem an odd thing to be thinking about, as we’ve just moved into Spring, but if you struggled to keep yourself, your family and your home warm last year, it’s likely that it’ll happen again this year. So why not arm yourself well in advance and get prepared for the extra costs that cold weather brings.

If what we have described above sounds like your situation, there are some things you can do about it. First we’d advise that you carry out a thorough budgeting exercise to see if there are any places where you can cut back on other things you spend on so that you can free up some spare cash for your energy costs. We have a blog that shows you how to see if you’re leaking money. If you do, great, make those changes and see how much more you’ll be able to put towards your energy bills. 

If you already know that you have more money going out of your household than coming in because of problem debt, you might want to consider a debt solution to regain control over your finances. If you’re in this position, simply choose one of the ‘contact us’ options from the left of the page and speak to a trained debt advisor about what options may be suitable for someone in your situation.

If you’re not quite ready for a debt solution there are still things you can do. The first things we’d advise is don’t ignore the letters you receive from your energy supplier. If they try to contact you, and you don’t reply, they will escalate the situation further, which can result in them applying for a warrant to enter your home and fit a prepayment meter. Once this happens, it is very difficult to get the energy company to switch you back to a normal tariff, so try to avoid this at all costs.

So, when a bill lands on your doormat and you already know you’re going to struggle to pay it, get on the phone and call them. They’ll be more accommodating if you speak to them before your bill becomes overdue and they may have a number of ways they can help you, including making sure that you’re on the right tariff and that you’re receiving any discounts you are, or could be entitled to.

Check your benefits      

You can also check to see if you are claiming all the benefits you are entitled too as well. A good place to start with this is the benefits calculator provided by Turn2Us. This website shows you all of the grants and payments you might be entitled to, and there are a number of trusts connected to energy suppliers that can offer you help with paying your bills, and you don’t have to be a customer of theirs to claim the help. These include the British Gas Trust, EDF Energy Trust and the E.ON Energy Trust. Other companies offer help only to their own customers, these include the npower Energy Fund, the Scottish Power Hardship Fund and the Ovo Energy Fund, and Southern Electric also offer a Priority Assistance Fund, you’ll have to contact them by telephone on 0800 072 8616 to see if you’re eligible.

However, as well as checking this website, you should also visit the government’s own website on the benefits available and your eligibility for them. One of the benefits is the Winter Fuel Payment, which is available to pensioners and varies in size depending on what other benefits you are entitled to.

There are also Cold Weather Payments that you can claim up to 31st March 2016. This pays you £25 for each seven day period of very cold weather. It’s only available to people on certain benefits, such as Income Support, Pension Credit and Universal Credit and you can see if there are any payments due in your area.   

Another benefit you could apply for is the Warm Home Discount Scheme, which gives you a £140 discount off your electricity bills. The payment is not made to you, it’s simply deducted from your bill. Again, it only applies to people on certain benefits, but can also be claimed by people on pre-payment or pay-as-you-go meters.  

Some of these schemes require that you apply at a certain time, so check which ones do and then make a note in your diary so that you don’t miss any deadlines.

Set up a saving fund

We realise that being in fuel poverty is usually because you don’t have enough money coming into your household. But, in some cases you may be able to manage the money you have coming in better. For example you could set up a separate savings account and transfer some money from your bank account into it when your bills are lower over the summer. Then you can use it to pay your bills when the weather starts to get colder. But, if you have problem debts and interest and charges are being added to them it, it makes sense to pay those off first, before saving for anything else.

 

So, get ready now for winter 2016, even though it seems a long way off. And, if the reason you are struggling with your energy bills is that you have problem debts, and you’d like to explore the idea of using a debt solution to get your finances sorted, we can help. Just give us a call, send an email or chat live with us.

by Shelley Bowers

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To find out more about managing your money and getting free debt advice, visit Money Advice Service, an independent service set up to help people manage their money.