Five steps to trimming your energy bills
The cost of heating and lighting your home has rocketed by 140% in the past eight years, according to uSwitch, whereas the average salary has increased by just 20%. And yet the energy firms still aren't happy; their profits are soaring but every time there is a rise in the cost of wholesale gas - no matter how tiny - they pass it on to us.
So, as the latest round of price rises gets under way, what can you do to minimise the pain. Is it really worth switching provider and should you go for a fixed-rate deal? And what else can you do to cut your bills? Here we answer all your questions.
Should I switch energy provider?
In all probability: yes.
Despite the fact that experts and the financial press have been telling people to switch provider for years many people still haven't bothered.
According to a survey by incahoot.com, almost a quarter of people have never switched supplier. If you belong to this group big savings can be made. On average, people save around £200 a year when they switch, says moneysupermarket.com, but if you have been with your provider for as long as you can remember you could save even more.
So, it is well worth taking five minutes out of your day to type your details into a comparison website such as uswitch.com, moneysupermarket.com or indeed moneywise.co.uk to find out how much you could save by switching.
"While we have not yet hit the winter months, it is only a matter of time before the longer, colder nights start drawing in. Switching your gas and electricity provider takes up to six weeks, so customers languishing on their provider's standard tariff should act now to ensure they switch to the best deal in time," says Scott Byrom, energy expert at moneysupermarket.com.
How often should I switch?
If you are reading this and smugly thinking this doesn't apply to you because you switched providers last year, you might be surprised to learn that you're unlikely to still be on a great deal.
"We recommend that consumers shop around at least once a year to ensure they keep up with the best deals on the market," says Tom Lyon, energy expert at uSwitch.
Is it time to fix my bills?
With energy bills rising enormously in recent years, a fixed-price deal gives you the peace of mind that your bills won't rise. "Now is the ideal time for households to consider fixing their energy bills ahead of possible price hikes this winter," says Lyon.
"Thankfully, the decision to fix has never been easier. Some of the most competitive plans on the market are fixed price, but don't have any exit penalties.
"This means that consumers can enjoy a low price today, price protection for the future and yet still have the freedom to shop around and switch should a cheaper plan come onto the market. This gives consumers absolute flexibility and peace of mind."
How else can I cut my bills?
If you are already on the best deal, or you want to cut your bills by even more after you've switched provider, there are other ways to shave some pounds off your bill. The simplest thing you can do is start paying by monthly direct debit.
Not only will this spread the cost of your bills so you aren't scrabbling for hundreds of pounds when the bill lands, it will also reduce what you pay.
Like any company, your energy provider likes to know it has a steady stream of cash coming in, so it rewards customers who pay by direct debit with slightly lower bills. For example, British Gas offers customers a 6% discount if they pay by direct debit.
Another way to save some cash is by abandoning your paper bill. Posting out bills costs companies money. So if you opt to go paperless and save them that postage they pass on some of that saving to you.
For example, Southern Electric will knock £6 a year per fuel off your bill if you abandon paper billing. It's not a massive discount, but every little helps.
Finally, always get your gas and electricity from the same company. This kind of loyalty is rewarded with 'dual fuel' deals, which are cheaper than single fuel tariffs.
The energy suppliers you can trust
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Can I slash the amount of energy I use?
"As well as ensuring that you are paying the lowest possible price for your energy, you should also look to become more efficient with your energy usage to bring costs down. These two steps are your best defence against higher energy bills," says Lyon.
This means cutting the amount of energy you need to use to heat your home. Aside from sticking a jumper on and investing in a hot water bottle, the best way to do this is to insulate your home so less of that expensive heat escapes.
It costs £350 to insulate the average family home, but it could shave up to £135 a year off your energy bills, according to the Energy Saving Trust. And, best of all, you may not need to pay that £350.
Most energy companies offer subsidised insulation deals as they have had to set aside a sum of money to help customers insulate their homes. So speak to your energy provider and find out if it can offer you any discounts or freebies to help you install insulation.
As for cutting your electricity usage, this largely comes down to common sense. Switch anything off that you aren't using - such as lights in rooms you aren't in, and appliances that are on standby.
Turn your heating down, too. Reducing temperatures by 1°C could cut your heating bills by 10%, saving you £60 a year, according to the Energy Saving Trust. And check your water isn't too hot as well. Your cylinder thermostat should be set to 60°C.
If you would like further advice on how to cut your energy bills then take advantage of Big Energy Saving Week, which is being run by Citizens Advice from 22 to 27 October. During that time you can get free, independent advice on lowering your gas and electricity bills. For more information go to citizensadvice.org.uk.
How to switch
Switching energy firms should be a fairly stress-free process. Just grab your latest bill and hit the comparison websites to find out which company can offer you the cheapest deal.
If you don't have the internet then you can use uSwitch.com's postal service. You simply send it your bills and an adviser will call you to talk through your options. Call 0800 051 5493 to find out more about the service.
Once you've decided which company you want to switch to, clear any outstanding bills with your current supplier so that you aren't in arrears, then contact the new one and tell it you want to become a customer.
Your new provider will then take control of switching you and the only thing you should need to do is take meter readings on the switchover day (your provider will tell you when this will be). If you pay by direct debit then don't cancel it until you have received, and paid, the final bill from your old supplier.
The whole process shouldn't take more than eight weeks and there will be no interruption to your gas or electricity supply during the process.
The most important thing to remember is to make sure that you provide accurate meter readings so that your final bills and payments to your new supplier are calculated correctly.
“Arrears” tend to be associated with debt. If you fall behind and miss payments on any outstanding debt, the amount you failed to pay is an arrear – the amount accrued from the date on which the first missed payment was due.