Get the money you deserve
When 54-year-old Anna Smith from Walthamstow was diagnosed with a brain tumour, the last thing she needed was money worries.
"I wasn't able to work, had very little money to live on, and my house was in need of repairs to help keep it warm when I came out of hospital. I was finding it difficult and was really worried about how I was going to cope," she says.
Fortunately for Anna, who had worked in a bank for over 20 years as well as volunteering for a local credit union, she'd heard of Turn2us, which helps people access benefits and grants.
She contacted the charity, and because she'd worked in a bank, it put her in touch with the Bankers Benevolent Fund (BBF), which sent an adviser to her house.
As well as receiving help with a claim for Disability Living Allowance, Anna also received a grant from the BBF for the repairs to her home.
"Without Turn2us I wouldn't have known where to go for help. The financial support I have received has really boosted me and I'm sure it helped with my recovery," she adds.
But, while Anna was able to access the financial support she was entitled to, thousands of others are going without what's rightfully theirs. According to government statistics, £16.8 billion of tax credit and benefits go unclaimed each year.
Council tax benefit is one entitlement that many people forget to claim, with up to three million households missing out on an average of £13 a week.
Pension credit is another, where as many as 1.7 million pensioners are missing out on an average of £31 a week. On top of this, around four out of five low-paid workers without children miss out on tax credits worth at least £38 a week.
Reasons for failing to claim are varied and complex, according to Emma Aldridge, projects manager at Turn2us. "We've undertaken research into why people don't claim," she says.
"As well as common reasons such as lack of awareness and complicated forms, for some – especially those over 50 – it can be a question of pride and embarrassment. The questions can be intrusive, which is hard for someone who is quite a private person. Sometimes people simply don't want to ask for help.".
In some cases, however, you might not even realise you're eligible. For instance, child tax credit is paid to households with incomes up to £58,175, although this figure will be reduced from April 2011.
"A lot of people don't bother to claim either because they don't think they'll receive anything or they believe other people are worse off," says Diane Buckby, senior counsellor at Consumer Credit Counselling Service.
"But we see people with debt problems, who, if they simply claimed the benefits they're entitled to, could be free of their debt."
Benefits also go unclaimed when eligibility results from a sudden, unexpected change in personal circumstances. For example, Aneira Thomas, a 62-year-old retired nurse, enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle until her circumstances took a turn for the worse.
In quick succession, she lost her husband to cancer and her sister in a car crash. A large heating bill from keeping the house warm for her husband while he was ill plus the cost of two funerals meant Aneira found herself facing financial difficulties.
"I'd have been destitute if I hadn't got help," she says. "I spoke to Macmillan Cancer Support and it put me in touch with Turn2us. The charity then gave me information about the grants and state benefits I could claim."
Turn2us was able to help Aneira claim a state entitlement for carers, as she was also looking after her son who had suffered a stroke 25 years earlier, and it put her in touch with a number of grant-giving organisations.
These included the Road Haulage Association Benevolent Fund, which gave £1,000 to cover her husband's funeral costs; the Eaton Fund for Nurses, which gave £300; and the Sandra Charitable Trust, which gave a further £900.
A complex system
Benefit entitlement, however, can be very complex. The benefits available in retirement are a good example of this, as Philip Spiers, chief executive of First Stop Advice, explains: "What you'll receive is dependent on a number of factors including your age, income, health and savings.
"Some benefits also affect others. For example, Carer's Allowance and Carer's Premium are paid if you look after someone who receives Attendance Allowance or the middle or higher rate of Disability Living Allowance.
"But they are taxable benefits and, by receiving them, you might reduce or lose other benefits. It's therefore worth seeking advice and checking your entitlement whenever circumstances change."
Eligibility for Pension Credit illustrates the complexity. The first part, Guarantee Credit, becomes payable when you reach state pension age; it will top your income up to £132.60 a week if you're single or £202.40 for couples.
When you reach 65, you may be eligible for the second part, Savings Credit. This is paid if you have saved towards your retirement and is worth up to £20.52 a week or £27.09 for couples, with eligibility dependent on how much income and savings you have.
Thankfully, there are ways to check eligibility for Pension Credit, as well as all other benefits, without having to bring out your calculator.
For example, Turn2us will assess your eligibility through its website (turn2us.org.uk) or by phone (0808 802 2000) or you can get advice from Citizens Advice.
"The government also provides information to help you determine whether you can claim and it has centralised this on its Directgov website (direct.gov.uk)," adds Buckby.
Grants and charities
As well as checking your eligibility for benefits, it's also worth considering applying for grants. "There's a phenomenal amount of untapped support, with more than 3,500 organisations offering help for a diverse range of things," says Aldridge.
"Some are general but you might also get support as a result of your or your partner's occupation – or even that of a family member."
Some financial services companies also offer support. This is particularly the case with some of the friendly societies and mutuals, which set aside funds to help members.
There are also discounts and benefits that you'll automatically receive regardless of income. A prime example of this is free bus travel, which both men and women qualify for when they reach women's state pension age (60 if you were born before 6 April 1950).
You need to apply for this, however. Your local council will be able to provide all the information. The over-60s can also benefit from free swimming. And, once you reach 75, you'll also be entitled to a free TV licence.
But it can be difficult to ensure you claim all you're entitled to. Some improvements have been made to claims for government benefits. For instance, when you call the Pensions Credit helpline you'll also be able to check your entitlement to other benefits.
"We'd like to see something similar rolled out for all ages," adds Buckby. "But, until this happens, if you want to claim everything you should, the charities can help."
Child tax credit
A scheme started in 2003 that sought to replace a raft of other tax credits and benefits, the payout depends on the number of dependant children in a family, and its level of income. The amount of credit is reduced as income increases. It is payable to the main carer of a child, usually the mother, and is available whether or not the recipient is working.