Edmund Greaves: I'm sorting my own household bills for the first time - here's what I've learned

12 November 2019

Edmund Greaves finds being the main – and only – billpayer is easy if annoying

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Managing a spread of services to run my little one-bedroom household has taught me quite a lot in a short space of time.

It really is quite the education for a personal finance journalist to have to look after their own household’s bills. Until quite recently, regular readers of this column will know that I lived in shared households and have never had to deal with bills myself.

Either I have had more responsible friends doing it or, in the case of my last home, the landlord.

This was always great for me, as it involved minimum effort. My landlord never put the rent up (which included bills), so I can only assume he was good at keeping costs under control. Again, still easy for me.

But now it is all down to me. And it has been instructive.

First, I learnt that when switching over my contents insurance policy, it is really cheap to insure.

I called my provider, Churchill, to explain I had moved. I was concerned the premium would go up because I was living in my own place, as opposed to covering just my possessions in a shared house.

But it turns out my new place is a lot ‘lower risk’ than the old one. Good old Churchill is now paying me to insure the property. Or rather, it is refunding me the difference in price. Not bad at all.

Then I found out how heavy-handed the TV Licensing Authority is. I had not been in the property a week before I received a threatening letter from it, demanding I pay for a licence and announcing grandiosely that my case had already been moved to the first stage of some sort of interrogative process.

I imagined a SWAT team of TV licensing enforcers coming flying through my windows, chucking flash bangs and zip-tying me to the radiator while they ransack my property for a digital aerial. No wonder older folk dislike the whole business. It is all quite menacing.

Dutifully, I paid.

The third lesson I learnt was how much paper one accumulates in quite a short space of time. British Gas was the worst offender.

On roundabout the third day of my residency in Balham, south London, I switched to Octopus Energy. It wasn’t the absolute cheapest, but I had heard good reviews, and it was only a couple of quid more than the cheapest tariff available. Plus Octopus offers a no-contract service, so you can switch any time if it hikes prices.

Back to British Gas, I was its customer for exactly 19 days. In that time, it sent me a dozen letters with a mixture of welcome messages and bills to pay. I was so annoyed by this, I actually counted how much paper it had sent me (pictured above). Nineteen sheets of A4 paper (one for every day I was a customer), five A5 glossy pamphlets and three copies of the same terms and conditions booklet. It is utterly mad.

One can only assume the standard variable tariff is so high because British Gas has enormous factories pumping out all this paperwork. I would love to see a piece of research that establishes the company's carbon footprint after printing so much wasteful nonsense.

The final one is council tax. This one is the most enigmatic of the lot. I registered for it with Wandsworth, my new local council, as soon as I moved in.

At the time of writing, the council hasn’t emailed, sent me a letter, or even a carrier pigeon or something to let me know when it will start taking my money. It is a little suspicious. I always assumed the local government would bite your hand off when you offer to hand over cold hard cash.

Wandsworth is often touted as the cheapest council in the country, and it is true that I will only pay around £50 a month. Maybe it is so efficient, it doesn’t even want my cash.

Or maybe enquiring should be the next thing on my to-do list. Call the council and ask why it hasn’t billed me yet. It’s like the opposite of tax avoidance. Although making them work a bit to prise our money away feels better, doesn’t it? At least, until the bailiffs turn up and don’t appreciate the finer points of my libertarian-at-heart defence on why all taxation is theft.