Everyone needs gas, electricity and water; your utilities are what keep your house ticking over and your family living in comfort. But it’s easy for unpaid water, fuel or phone bills to spiral out of control. In this guide, we’ll examine utility bills, from what they are and how people can fall behind with their utilities, to the places you can go to get support for utility bill debt.
What are utility bills?
‘Utilities’ are an umbrella term for the things you need to keep your home running smoothly and your family living comfortably. The main bills considered as utilities include:
As well as the likes of gas and electricity, utilities can also cover heating, telephone lines, and internet connections. People usually pay their utility bills monthly, and can either pay a fixed price to their energy supplier, or pay an amount based on their energy usage.
In Scotland, your water costs are included in your council tax bill. However, if you live in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, you will have to pay all of these separately.
Common causes of utility bill debt
People get into debt with their utility bills for many reasons. Below we’ve listed a few of the most common causes of debt from utilities.
Utility companies upping their prices
Gas and electricity companies are upping prices and bills all the time. Your energy supplier might increase your bill without you realising, which can result in you receiving a high bill at the end of the month that you can’t afford to pay.
Energy price hikes are particularly difficult if you’re a pensioner or on low-income, as you might not have the flexbility in your finances to be able to pay your energy bills.
Mistakes from the energy supplier
Your energy bills are based on what your supplier thinks you’ll use throughout the year. If you’re using more than the gas and electricity or water companies initially think, you can end up with an energy debt – not paying enough for their usage and being sent the bill for the difference later on.
Seasonal surges in gas and electricity bills
Living in Britain, our weather is unpredictable. People tend to use their utilities more during cold weather, rainy days, and sudden snowstorms, meaning your bill can easily end up costing more than you expected.
Can the government help you pay for gas or electricity?
Depending on your circumstances, there are schemes in place to help people pay for household bills they might otherwise find themselves struggling to pay. These schemes are usually aimed at people on low income, or are relying on state benefits.
You may be eligible for support with energy payments if you are involved in any of the following:
- Universal credit
- Pension credit
- Income support
- Income-based jobseeker’s allowance
- Income-related employment and support allowance
You can find out more about whether you’re eligible for support on here on the gov.uk website.
What support is available to help me pay my utility bills?
Cold weather payment
The cold weather payment is a scheme aimed at subsidising energy bills for low-income people during the winter months, when people are most likely to rely on expensive utilities like heating.
Under the scheme, the Government will pay £25 towards your energy supply for every 7-day period of cold weather between the months of November and March each year.
There are certain benefits that qualify you for the payment. To check if you’re eligible, visit the Government website.
Warm home discount
The warm home discount is a one-off payment of £140 to low-income people to help them pay their energy bills.
Like the cold weather payment, the warm home discount is a Government scheme that might otherwise find themselves struggling to pay things like gas and electricity bills.
You can find out more about the cold weather payment, and whether you’re eligible for support, by visiting the Government website.
How do I stay up-to-date with my utility bills?
Set up a direct debit to pay your energy bills
Companies often raise their prices with little warning, and many still base your bill on how much energy they predict you will use.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an exact science, and it’s easy to overlook the true cost of these bills when planning your budget, especially if you pay them quarterly.
Keep on top of things by putting aside enough money each month to cover all your bills – and remember, your heating bills may be more expensive during or shortly after winter.
Setting up a Direct Debit or standing order is a great way to make sure you don’t forget to pay your bill. Some companies also offer a discount for Direct Debit customers.
Make sure you’re on you’re on the cheapest rate with your energy suppliers
You should also double-check you’re on the cheapest rate. Use one of the many price comparison websites to check that you’re getting the best deal for your household energy.
If you find a cheaper deal, switch; just make sure you pay all outstanding amounts to your old supplier.
If you’re already on the cheapest plan, you may still be able to do more to keep on top of your bills. If your payments are based on what the company guesses you will use, take meter readings often and compare these to your bills to make sure you’re being charged the right amount.
Take energy efficiency measures
There are various tactics you can use to manage your energy usage more efficiently, like using a prepayment meter.
A prepayment meter allows you to put credit on an account with your energy suppliers rather than getting a monthly bill.
With a prepayment meter, you can manage your energy usage more closely, only pay for what you use, and set yourself an energy budget that you can’t go over.
What happens if I don't pay my electricity bill?
If you need help with energy arrears, contact your supplier to discuss the situation. When you get in touch with your utility company, be open and honest and explain that you’re keen to pay off your debt.
All utility companies should be prepared to work with you to find a realistic way of clearing your debt with them. Ask if they can come up with a payment arrangement so you can bring your account back up to date without leaving yourself short for other bills.
If you can’t come to an agreement and continually fail to pay your energy bills, energy suppliers will pursue you for payment the same way any creditor would.
They have a range of actions they can take, from sending a debt collector to your home, to pursuing court action. Defaulting on payments will also damage your credit score, which may make it difficult for you to access credit in the future.
If you are carrying energy debt you can’t afford to repay, it’s important you seek debt advice immediately.