Overdue utility bills
If you're having trouble paying utility bills, such as gas and electricity, it's important to address the problem. Utility companies can cut off your supply. Even a phone bill is a priority if you need the phone to earn your living.
What to do if you can't pay a utility bill
List your creditors
Make a list of everyone you owe money to. These are your ‘creditors’.
Decide which debts to pay off first
Put your list in order of importance so you know which creditors to pay first. Some bills are more important to pay than others because they're 'priority debts'. Utility bills are priority debts - this means the consequences of not paying may be serious.
Sort out your budget
Work out your personal weekly or monthly budget. Note down details of your income and your outgoings. See what you can afford to pay your creditors and decide how much you'll pay to each.
Get in touch with your utility suppliers
Contact each utility company whose bill you haven't paid. Explain your situation and offer to pay an amount you can afford.
All fuel suppliers (electricity and gas) follow a code of practice that means they won't cut off your supply if you agree a payment plan with them and then keep to it.
You'll need to check each code of practice, but they should take into account your ability to pay - complain to the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation (NIAUR) if they don't (see 'What to do if you have problems dealing with your fuel supplier' below). A plan could include:
- paying by weekly or monthly instalments
- using a pre-payment meter
With a pre-payment meter, you use a smart card, key or token (or, sometimes, coins) to pay for your gas or electricity as you use it. You recharge your card or key at PayPoint outlets like newsagents and Post Offices.
If you have a meter installed, remember you'll only get a supply when it's topped up.
Third Party Payment scheme
If you are getting Incapacity Benefit or State Retirement Pension and owe money to the following organisations, you may be able to join the Third Party Payment scheme;
- Northern Ireland Housing Executive
- Northern Ireland Electricity
- Land & Property Services (formerly the Rate Collection Agency)
- Housing Associations
This scheme will take money from your weekly benefit covering your current rent or use of electricity and also pay a sum towards your arrears.
You can also have money taken out of your Income Support/Pension Credit, Job Seekers Allowance (income-based) and Employment and Support Allowance.
If you wish to join the Third Party Payment scheme you should contact the organisation you owe the money to and ask for them to make an application to the Social Security Agency.
Winter fuel payment
Most people aged 60 or over can get Winter Fuel Payment to help them pay for keeping warm in winter. This annual tax-free lump sum is normally paid from November and most payments are made by Christmas.
If you're struggling to pay your utility bills but you're not claiming benefits, it's worth checking to see if you qualify for any. If you're on a low income or you've got extra costs because of your personal situation, there may well be some benefits you could claim.
If you've problems dealing with your fuel supplier
Help and advice
If you're having debt problems, always get expert help and advice.