Right now, many of us need a helping hand with finances particularly with the cost of living on the up.  Petrol, rent, bills, even our favourite pasta sauce!  Sometimes it feels like the only thing not going up is our savings and, for many in financial crisis, that also means morale is on a downward trend. 

Here at Southcare, our Financial Counselling team help people every day get back on their feet. One of the most common ways is with utility bills as many in our community are at risk of having their power, gas or water disconnected. 

To coincide with Anti-Poverty Week (16-22 October), our Financial Counsellor Duncan Edgar answers some common questions to help you keep your utilities on. 

What should people do who are struggling to pay for utility bills like power, water or gas? 

If you are struggling to pay your utility bills, you must contact your service provider as soon as possible. 

There is a misconception by some people that service providers cannot or will not disconnect supply.  If you do not make a payment on your account, or keep in contact with your provider, then you are very likely to be disconnected and getting reconnected can be quite a difficult process. 

We always suggest to people that they make basic living costs such as rent and power a priority when deciding what to pay first when you have a limited income as these can have the most significant consequences if you don’t pay these expenses. 

Is there something people should do before they contact their provider? 

Yes, it is important to work out what you can realistically afford to pay and start making payments as soon as you can. A financial counsellor can help you in that process by setting a budget and working with you to stick to it. 

Working out what you can actually afford to pay is necessary because if you make a commitment to pay more than you can really afford then you will most likely break that arrangement and that will then make it more difficult to negotiate future arrangements.  

When working out what you can afford to pay, also bear in mind what your average consumption is because if you are paying less than what you are using then the arrears can quickly mount up – meaning you will need to pay much more in the future to reduce the arrears. 

Can utility providers help people who are finding it difficult to pay their account? 

Yes, there are several things providers can do to help you out: 

  • Ask them about their “hardship policies” which all providers have to help customers in financial difficulty.  
  • Investigate if they are able to postpone the due date for an account or enter into a longer-term arrangement to pay amounts owed in instalments. 
  • Get them to check that you are receiving all the concessions that you may be entitled to, whether you are on the best plan for the amount you consume, work out your average usage over 12 months to make payments more manageable and help you identify appliances or habits that are inflating your bills. 

 What if you are experiencing significant hardship or can’t come to a satisfactory arrangement with the utility? 

Most utilities have a dedicated hardship or credit management department with staff that are trained to work with and assist people experiencing financial hardship, so make sure in the first instance you are speaking with the right department.  

Ask them to access specific assistance programs to help you manage and reduce any arrears on your account. For example, the Hardship Utility Grants scheme allows people in financial hardship to access a grant to reduce the arrears on their account if they stick to a repayment arrangement for 6 months.  

Some providers have payment matching schemes where they match a customer’s repayments or programs that specifically exist to keep people in hardship connected to supply. 

Is there anything else people can do if they still cannot reach an agreement with the provider, or are still facing disconnection? 

Yes, you still have options. Here at Southcare, we often say there are “no closed doors” because we work with you to keep your options open. 

Ask us to negotiate with your provider supplier and advise you of your rights and entitlements. 

You can also lodge a dispute with the Energy and Water Ombudsman who can investigate the matter to make sure the provider is meeting their requirements under the current laws and regulations.  

Any other final tips regarding utility bills? 

Do take the time to assess what you are using and get an understanding of what appliances draw the most energy. You can save significant amounts of money by using appliances differently or replacing them with something more efficient. 

Don’t be enticed to borrow from short-term or pay day lenders to pay utility accounts. This may mean you end up in greater debt, paying off a lot more than you originally owed and make it much more difficult to manage in the future. 

If you need help staying connected reach out to the caring hands of Southcare’s Financial Counselling Team, we are always happy to help.