Your supplier must give you the chance to clear your debt
Energy prices have increased, prompting government intervention.
However, many people are still worried about how to pay their bills.
The government has offered a price guarantee which means households using a typical amount of gas and electricity will pay an annual bill of £2,500.
There are also various support payments. These will be scaled back for some in April 2023, when the bill will rise to £3,000.
This has left people worried about how they can afford to pay their bills, but experts say there are things you can do to help.
What happens if you don’t pay your bill?
If you do not agree a payment plan with your supplier, they might make you get a prepayment meter installed, or they may switch your existing smart meter to prepayment mode.
Although unlikely, there is the possibility that if you have not paid a bill after 28 days, you could be threatened with disconnection of your supply.
But normally, you will be offered a meter.
Your supplier must give you the chance to clear your debt through a payment plan first.
If you’ve reached state pension age, your supplier can’t disconnect you between October 1 and March 31 if you either live alone, or live only with other people who have reached state pension age, or are children under 18.
Your supplier could also pass your details to a debt collection agency and you might be charged more to cover the cost of this.
Many suppliers also charge extra fees for late payments.
Paying by direct debit is normally the cheapest way to pay for electricity and gas so, if you cancel your direct debit, your future bills are likely to be higher.
Not paying bills could damage your credit rating and make it harder to borrow money in the future.
What should you do if you can’t afford your bills?
Check your Direct Debit
Monthly payments are based on your estimated energy use for the year. Your supplier may be able to reduce your payments if the estimate is higher than the amount you are actually using, so take regular readings.
According to Peter Smith from the National Energy Action charity, it is possible to challenge any increase in direct debits requested by your supplier.
It is recommended to ask for a copy of your annual energy statement which shows your energy use from the previous year and estimated use for the coming year.
If you believe the direct debit is too expensive, you can request for it to be lowered to an amount that better reflects your expected usage.
You can also ask for a flexible monthly direct debit where you pay for what you actually use each month.
This is generally only available to those on smart meters or who provide regular monthly meter readings.
But remember that two-thirds of gas usage is during the winter months, and prices have risen sharply.
Pay what you can
If the direct debit is fair but cannot afford to make the payments, Mr Smith recommends asking your supplier if you can work out an “able to pay plan” based on what you can afford.
Sara Williams, of the Debt Camel blog, suggests paying as much as you reasonably can each month.
It means your arrears grow more slowly so your supplier may be less worried about your debt.
This approach also shows that you are doing your best to pay your energy bills.
You may also want to avoid switching to a smart meter, as your supplier can remotely change that to work as a prepayment meter without your agreement.
Claim what you are entitled to
Charities urge everyone to check you are claiming all the benefits you can.
Ms Williams says anyone struggling should try to get their name added to the Priority Services Register (PSR). This is a list of households which may need additional help in an emergency.
Ofgem has a list of eligible people, which includes pensioners, those with young children, being disabled and having a mental health condition.
There are two registers but your energy supplier can get your name added to the network operator register if necessary.
Although the PSR does not directly affect your energy arrears, it shows you are vulnerable, something your energy supplier should consider.
It may also help if there are power cuts, as you may get extra help.
Check for Extra Government Help
The government has also announced a range of support to help people with energy bills, including a £400 grant for all UK households, paid in instalments from October 2022 to March 2023.
Households in Northern Ireland received a single payment of £600 in January, which is higher because a large proportion of homes use heating oil.
Adjust your Boiler
Most households have a combi boiler.
Jo Alsop, from The Heating Hub, suggests people turn down the boiler’s heating flow temperature.
On the front – sometimes behind a flap – there is a dial or set of buttons with a little radiator icon. Turn the dial to the number three or the 12 o’clock position. If there is a digital display, turn the dial or press the button until it shows 60°C.
You may also want to turn off the hot water pre-heat.
Many Worcester, Ideal and Vaillant boilers come on every few hours (night and day) to keep some water in the boiler warm and reduce the time it takes for hot water to reach the taps.
Most homes do not need the feature and turning it off saves money.
The rise in energy bills has left many people worried but there are a number of ways to reduce the financial burden.