Great Britain

How to get help with bills if you’re struggling

CORONAVIRUS has played havoc with millions of families’ finances since the pandemic began.

With low-income Brits twice as likely to have increased their debts during the crisis, covering household bills has become even harder for many.

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If you’re struggling, there’s certain things you can do to lower these costs.

Banks and companies have put in place initiatives to help those who are falling behind on payments.

You should also consider reaching out to free debt help organisations such as Citizens Advice, National Debtline, and StepChange.

Here’s how you can reach out for support for nine household bills.

Broadband bills

If you can’t pay your mobile, phone, internet or TV bill, Citizens Advice says you should contact your provider and ask for help.

They might agree to reducing your bill, increase your data or download limit, or move you to a different contract that suits you better.

You should contact them as soon as you can, otherwise you might be charged for not making a payment.

Ask your provider to put you on a payment plan so you can pay back what you owe in a more manageable way.  

If your provider won’t help, you might be able to switch to another company.

If you’re hard-up, you can also get help from providers such as Vodafone, Three, BT and EE.

They have teamed up with the Department for Education to offer free data or broadband while kids study at home through lockdown.

The support is only available to disadvantaged households with kids and you must meet the following criteria:

The help could come in handy, especially as some of the largest broadband providers are hiking prices up in April.

Sky is upping bills by up to £72 per year for some customers, meanwhile, Virgin Media is hiking prices by £44 per year for some households, and BT prices are going up by £24.

Which broadband providers are offering help?

HERE'S what support is on offer from some of the UK's largest broadband providers:

EE

BT

O2

Three

Virgin Mobile

Vodafone

Water bills

Over one million customers have had their water bills cut during the pandemic, according to Ofwat.

But if you’re still struggling to meet the payments, you can get help in a number of ways.

You should contact your water company as soon as you can, Citizens Advice says, and ask to go on a payment plan. This will give you more time to pay what you owe.

You could also get help through a scheme called WaterSure.

This allows water companies to cap bills for customers on certain benefits who use a lot of water for essential family or health reasons.

To be eligible, you must be claiming at least one of the following benefits: income support, pension credit, income-based job seeker’s allowance, working tax credit, housing benefit, Universal Credit or child tax Credit (other than just the family element) to be eligible.

Lots of water suppliers also have social tariffs designed to slash bills for customers with lower incomes.

Different companies have different eligibility criteria and rules on how much you can save.

You can see what your water company offers and how to apply here.

You can also get in touch with organisations including Turn2Us, The Money Advice Service and Citizens Advice, who offer support to people who are unable to pay their water bills.

Energy bills

With millions of Brits working from home under the nation’s third lockdown, many will have seen a spike in their energy bills - but help is on hand if you’re struggling.

If you’re in debt to your supplier, you might be able to get a grant from a number of energy companies to help pay it off.

The British Gas Energy Trust is open to everyone, not just British Gas customers, and you can find out more and apply here.

What to do if you can't pay your bills

FALLING behind on your energy bills can be extremely stressful.

If you’re struggling to pay what you owe, contact your supplier as soon as possible.

Your provider has to help you come up with a solution, and you should be able to negotiate a deal that works for you both.

One option is to agree a payment plan where you pay off your debts in affordable instalments.

You may be able to pay off your debts directly from your benefits through the Fuel Direct Scheme.

A fixed amount will automatically be taken to cover what you owe plus your usage.

To be eligible, you must be getting one of the following benefits:

If you cannot come to an agreement with your supplier, they may try to force you to get a prepayment meter installed.

In very rare cases, where you refuse to negotiate, your supplier might threaten you with disconnection.

Npower also has a fund, which gives out grants to struggling customers, as well as 

E.on, which helps existing or previous customers who need help.

Scottish Power, gives cash to help struggling customers if they’re claiming Income Support, Job Seekers Allowance, Pension Credit, or Employment and Support Allowance. 

And EDF, Ovo, and Bulb also have similar funds too for their own customers.

You might be able to get extra help from your supplier as well by applying to their Priority Services Register.

Each supplier has its own register, and offers help such as moving your energy meter free of charge and offering free gas safety checks. 

Cold weather payments are also still available up until the end of the month.

You could be entitled to up to £25 a week if the temperature drops below zero in your area between November 1 and March 31.

Food bills

If you’re struggling to feed your family, you may be eligible for free school meals.

Boris Johnson confirmed that the scheme would continue during lockdown until kids can return to the classroom on March 8 - although this could be extended further.

Parents of children who usually get free meals can get supermarket vouchers worth £15 per week, per child, under lockdown.

Alternatively, schools can claim up to £3.50 per pupil, per week, on top of their usual funding to provide food parcels.

How to cut the cost of your grocery shop

SAVING on your shop can make a big difference to your wallet. Here are some tips from comparison site Money.co.uk about how you can cut the cost of your shopping bills:

How you claim the free school meals depends on where you live.

For example, you can either get a form to fill in from your school, call your local council or fill in an online form.

Start by entering your postcode into the Gov.uk website to see what the process is in your area.

There’s a different process if you live in Northern Ireland, Scotland, or Wales.

You can also get free food using food waste apps such as Olio.

The Olio app lets shoppers pick up free food from Tesco that is approaching its expiry date from the app’s 8,000 volunteers.

The volunteers get to keep 10% of what they pick up from the store but they then photograph the rest and upload it to the free app for local people to claim.

Credit card bills

If you’re falling behind on your credit card and personal loan debts, then you can apply for a payment holiday.

The Financial Conduct Authority announced in November last year that households will be able freeze their repayments for up to six months.

However, you’ll only be eligible to apply for breathing space if you haven’t already had a payment break of more than six months. 

The payment holidays can also be taken on rent-to-own agreements, buy-now-pay-later schemes, car finance and pawnbroking.

If you want to apply, you should speak to your lender - but remember that the break doesn’t remove any debt or financial obligations.

It will also have an impact on your credit score, which could affect any future borrowing.

If you want help reducing your debt, you should consider shifting it to an interest-free credit card.

This means that rather than spending your money lining the pockets of banks and other lenders, you're actually paying off what you owe.

We've rounded up some of the best deals here.

If you owe money to lots of different people you should look at prioritising repayments to the highest interest rates. That means you will minimise the amount of interest you pay.

Mortgage bills

Fallling behind on your mortgage repayments can be stressful, and Citizens Advice says you should talk to your lender straight away if you’re struggling.

This will stop your lender beginning court action against you if you’re falling behind - which could result in you losing your home.

However, you can apply for a mortgage holiday and pause your payments until July 2021 due to the Covid disruption. 

The extension will be available for any household that hasn't already had a payment break of more than six months.

You have until March 31 to apply for a payment holiday.

Asking for a mortgage holiday shouldn't be taken lightly - you should only really apply for one if you can't afford your repayments.

This is because interest will continue to accrue during your payment break, which means your overall repayments will increase.

In fact, taking a mortgage payment holiday because of coronavirus could cost you £2,769 in higher repayments.

You could also switch mortgage suppliers, which could potentially save you thousands, according to The Money Advice Service.

To do this, check what deals are out there when your mortgage deal comes to an end to make sure you are getting the best deal.

You should also shop around when interest rates change - this will affect how competitive your current deal is.

Rent bills

You can get help paying for your rent - or mortgage - if you’re eligible for Universal Credit. This is called your housing element.

Your housing payment can help you pay:

How much you'll get depends on your specific circumstances. You can find out more and how to apply here.

What to do if you can't pay your rent

FOR private renters, speak to your landlord as soon as you can.

They may be able to defer your payment, or to allow you to pay a smaller amount - but they don't have to do this.

Social renters should speak to their housing association or local council.

If you've tried speaking to your housing association or landlord and they aren't being sympathetic, contact Shelter for advice and support. They'll be able to guide you about what to do next.

If you're finding it difficult to manage your payments because you're in debt, here are some tips for you to curb it:

Check your bank balance on a regular basis - knowing your spending patterns is the first step to managing your money

Work out your budget - by writing down your income and taking away your essential bills such as food and transport
If you have money left over, plan in advance what else you’ll spend or save. If you don’t, look at ways to cut your costs

Pay off more than the minimum - If you’ve got credit card debts aim to pay off more than the minimum amount on your credit card each month to bring down your bill quicker

Pay your most expensive credit card sooner - If you have more than one credit card and can’t pay them off in full each month, prioritise the most expensive card (the one with the highest interest rate)

Prioritise your debts - If you’ve got several debts and you can’t afford to pay them all it’s important to prioritise them. Your rent, mortgage, council tax and energy bills should be paid first because the consequences can be more serious if you don't pay

Get advice - If you’re struggling to pay your debts month after month it’s important you get advice as soon as possible, before they build up even further.

Groups like Citizens Advice, Money Advice Trust or StepChange can also help you prioritise and negotiate with your creditors to offer you more affordable repayment plans.

You can also ask for a rent holiday from your landlord.

Landlords are not legally obliged to offer a break, but some might agree a payment pause, which could help if finances are tight.

Council tax bills

Households could see their council tax bill jump by up to 5% in April after the Treasury gave the green light for the tax hike in last year’s spending review.

This could mean bills could be pushed up by over £100 a year for millions of families. But you can apply for help to lower your bill.

You could be eligible for up to 100% off your council tax bill if you’re on a low income or on benefits, including Universal Credit. 

But how much your bill could be slashed by depends on where you live, as each council runs its own tax reduction scheme.

Other factors which will affect your discount includes your earnings, household income, the number of children you have and how many people live with you, whether you’re on benefits, and your residency status.

You may be able to get a council tax reduction in certain circumstances even if you’re not on a low income, Universal Credit or benefits.

Those living on their own can get 25% off their tax bill. This includes where one adult and one student are living together, or one adult and one person who is classed as severely mentally impaired.

If you live with someone who officially doesn't have to pay council tax, such as a carer, or someone who is severely mentally impaired, you can get 50% off.

For the a full list of circumstances that exempt you from paying council tax can be found on Citizens Advice.

If you live in an all-student household you can get 100% off your council tax.

A full reduction is also possible in households where someone under 18 is living with someone who is severely mentally impaired.

Insurance bills

Shopping around for insurance can save you significant money, so you should do it whenever a policy is up for renewal.

Martin Lewis urged Brits to start hunting 20 to 26 days before your car insurance policy is up for renewal, for example, to knock hundreds off your bill.

And you might be eligible for a refund off your car insurance cost if you’ve not been using your car due to the stay at home measures.

If you’re struggling to pay your bills, your insurance firm should provide tailored support to help you manage your payments.

Each firm will offer different support, but you should reach out to discuss options at hand.

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