What should I do if I simply cannot afford to pay for energy?

A guide on the advice and help available if you're struggling to pay.

Cost of living: What happens if you simply can’t pay your energy bills? Glegorly via iStock

Millions will see a huge rise in their gas and electricity bills after the new energy cap was announced last week.

The typical household bill will increase to £3,549 in October – a rise of 80% – but the 4.5 million pre-payment meter customers, who are often the most vulnerable and already in fuel poverty, will see an even more punishing increase, with their average annual bill set to go up to £3,608.

Charities, politicians and industry experts have warned that households face a “catastrophic” winter of soaring bills and demand the government takes urgent action.

So, what happens if you can’t afford to pay your energy bills?

Direct debit customers

Citizens Advice Scotland says that if you’re struggling to afford your energy bills, contact your supplier to discuss ways to pay what you owe them.

The company has to help you come to a solution and you should try to negotiate a deal that works for both of you.

If you don’t try to agree a plan with your supplier, they might threaten to disconnect you. If so, explain your financial circumstances to them.

If your supplier doesn’t disconnect you, you should still arrange to pay what you owe them to protect yourself from being disconnected in future.

If you have more than one debt

Energy arrears are a ‘priority debt’. This means you need to pay them before debts like credit cards. If you have more than one debt, work out which debts to pay first. 

Agree a payment plan with your supplier

Tell your supplier that you want to pay off your debts in instalments as part of a payment plan.

You’ll pay fixed amounts over a set period of time, meaning you’ll pay what you can afford. The payment plan will cover what you owe plus an amount for your current use.

Citizens Advice says your supplier must take into account:

  • How much you can afford to pay – give them details about your income and outgoings, debts and personal circumstances
  • How much energy you’ll use in future – they’ll estimate this based on your past usage, but give them regular meter readings to make this more accurate

What if you have a pre-paid meter?

You can ask your supplier for temporary credit if you can’t afford to top up your meter.

It might be added to your meter automatically when you run out of credit, or you might have to contact them and ask.

Get temporary credit

If you’ve run out of gas or electricity, your energy supplier should give you temporary credit if you can’t top up, for example because:

  • You can’t afford it
  • You’re having problems topping up

Check your supplier’s website to find out how to get temporary credit.

Thousands of households could face being driven into fuel poverty according to charities.PA Ready

If you run out of temporary credit

It’s important to get in touch with your supplier if you run out of temporary credit. They might give you extra if they agree that you are vulnerable, such as if you’re disabled or have a long-term health condition.

Citizen’s Advice say you may be deemed vulnerable if you:

  • Are over state pension age – check your State Pension age on GOV.UK
  • Are struggling with your living costs – for example, you’re limiting the amount of gas or electricity you’re using
  • Can’t get to a shop to top up – for example, if you’re ill
  • Are pregnant or have children under the age of five
  • Need extra help with communication – for example, if you don’t read or speak English very well

You might still be able to get extra support even if your circumstances do not match these. Contact your supplier to explain your situation and ask for extra credit.

You’ll have to pay back any extra temporary credit you get. You can agree how to pay it back with your supplier.

You can get temporary credit if you can’t afford to top up your meter. Your supplier might add this to your meter automatically when you run out of credit, or you might have to contact them and ask. Find out who your energy supplier is if you’re not sure.

Paying back money you owe to your supplier

If you owe money to your energy supplier, you’ll pay back some of the debt each time you top up your meter. For example, if you top up by £10, £5 might go to paying back your debt, leaving you with £5 of credit.

You can ask your supplier to reduce the amount you pay back each time you top up.

The company has to take into account how much you can afford, so tell them if anything has changed since you first agreed your repayments. 

For example, tell them if:

  • The price of your energy has gone up
  • Your income has gone down
Pensioner Angie Thompson said she was

Financial help available in Scotland

Home Energy Help Scotland has rounded up the financial available to struggling Scots to help with their energy bills.

Energy Bills Support Scheme: All households with a domestic electricity connection in Britain are eligible for a £400 discount from their bills. This will be deducted over six months from October (£66 off your bills each month) and will be credited automatically to accounts so there’s no need to contact your energy supplier to arrange this.

For pre-payment meters, the discount will be added to the meter or paid via a voucher. Your energy supplier will need your correct details to ensure you receive this.

Child Winter Heating Assistance: This is a payment of £214.10, paid once a year to parents and carers of disabled children and young people under 19 who receive a qualifying benefit. To check the qualifying benefits and if you think you may be eligible and aren’t yet receiving this payment, contact Social Security Scotland on 0800 182 2222 Monday-Friday 8am to 6pm or online by webchat.

Warm Home Discount Scheme: This is a £140 payment towards your energy costs, managed by participating energy suppliers. To apply for the discount, speak to your energy supplier directly.

Cold Weather Payment: If eligible, you’ll get £25 for each seven-day period of very cold weather between 1 November and 31 March. You don’t need to do anything as you’ll be automatically given this.

Winter Fuel Payment: If you were born on or before 26 September 1956 you could get between £100 and £300 to help you pay your heating bills.. The Scottish Government have extended the benefit to also cover families with severely disabled children.

If you need more advice contact your local Citizens Advice bureau or Advice Direct Scotland’s energy advice service on 0808 196 8660 or visit the website: energyadvice.scot.