SQUEEZED households are struggling to stay afloat as bills are going upwards.
With four in ten already finding it hard to meet gas and electricity costs even before another £600 rise in October, more people will be needing help and support.
StepChange debt advice policy officer Andy Shaw says: “We’d urge anyone to get help as soon as they realise they are not going to be able to meet their household bills.”
The Government’s Breathing Space scheme, which gives a 60-day break from creditors, marks its first anniversary this week.
Mel Hunter shares tips for giving your debts a spring-time sort-out before those unpaid bills begin to gather dust.
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Check your benefits
MAXIMISING your income is one way to shrink debts.
But millions of people are missing out on benefits, with around £10billion going unclaimed every year.
Many schemes, including marriage allowance, child benefit and pension credit, have low take-up rates.
Only two in five of those eligible currently receive pension credit, which tops up low incomes and unlocks other benefits such as the free TV licence for over-75s.
Use a benefits calculator, like the one on the Turn2Us website, to make sure you are getting what you are entitled to.
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Don’t ignore bills
IF you are struggling to get a handle on the money owed, do not wait until things get worse before you get help.
Andy says: “People typically used to wait around a year from first struggling with bills to seeking help.
“We are starting to see that change a bit, with people coming to us earlier, which is encouraging.”
There are a number of organisations that can help, including StepChange.
Its debt remedy tool asks a series of questions and then gives you a way forward, based on your personal situation.
Give yourself a break
IF you are being chased for payments, a money advice organisation may register you for the Debt Respite scheme.
It is known as Breathing Space and has been running for a year in England and Wales.
You have to be referred to the scheme by an approved debt adviser. Once you are on board, the scheme stops creditors demanding payments and adding interest for 60 days, giving you a chance to sort your finances.
Andy says: “People who take up Breathing Space seem to be more likely to go on to a long-term plan to repay their debts.
“It helps people engage with debt advice and stick with it.”
Use local credit union
SADLY, one of the big winners from this cost-of-living crisis is likely to be the unregulated loan sharks who prey on people’s desperation.
Instead, you could look to a credit union.
Regulated in the same way as a bank, credit unions offer savings accounts and low-interest loans.
Membership is based on a common bond, such as working for the same employer or in a particular industry, or even where you are living.
Not-for-profit, credit unions urge members to save as much as they can and only borrow what they can afford to pay back.
You need to read the small print and be aware of any fees, but they can be a lower-cost option when you need tiding over.
For more information see findyourcreditunion.co.uk.
Get your bills in order
A PILE of red demands screaming at you from the doormat can be scary – but be careful not to pay off the wrong bills first.
Andy explains: “It is not always the creditors that scream loudest – like credit card companies – that are the first ones you have to pay.”
The debt prioritiser tool on moneyhelper.org.uk will help you understand how to tackle the most important ones first.
Deal with card debts
IF you are falling behind with payments, contact your provider.
It may agree to an affordable repayment plan or allow a payment holiday.
One way to pay it off may be to transfer the balance of a high-interest card to one with zero interest.
To find the right one, take the total amount you have on your credit cards and divide it between the amount you can afford to repay each month to get the zero interest period you need to pay off the debt.
Someone with £1,500 debt who could afford to repay £50 a month would need a card with a zero interest period lasting at least 30 months. The longest card on offer is currently 34 months – but you need a top credit score to get it
Some will charge two to three per cent of the amount you are transferring as a one-off fee, so allow for that or any other fees.
With a Santander All In One card, you will pay zero interest for 26 months and there is no fee for transferring the balance of another card.
But you will pay a £3 monthly fee, adding up to £78 over 26 months.
Use an eligibility checker such as MoneySavingExpert’s to see which card you could be accepted for without damaging your credit score.
Cut up your old credit card and close the account so you are not tempted to keep spending.
And clear the balance before the interest-free period ends.
Get help with water
HOUSEHOLDS could get help with water debts through a little-known scheme – and even get the balance written off, say experts.
After council tax, water is the second most common charge residents fall behind on, with £988 being the average amount owed, according to the charity StepChange.
Many suppliers will help you clear outstanding bills by wiping an extra £1 of debt for every £1 you pay back, via matching schemes.
StepChange’s debt expert Andy Shaw said: “Get in touch with your water company to see if you qualify for this type of help.”
Water firms’ terms vary, but Thames Water, South West Water and United Utilities are among those which offer this kind of plan.
Councils grab back double rebate
THOUSANDS of bill payers are having £150 taken from their bank accounts after a council tax rebate error.
Four in five households are getting £150 cash back from councils to help them cope with the cost-of-living crisis.
But in a processing blunder, around 25,000 residents in Leeds have been paid the rebate twice.
Leeds City Council has apologised for any “confusion or inconvenience” and is now trying to claw back the extra payments.
A council spokesman said: “This is due to a process error where the same payment file was incorrectly processed twice after it was initially rejected by the bank.
“We are working with our bank to recover the duplicate payments so that the situation can be rectified as soon as possible.”
Payments started on April 1 in some areas but dates vary by location and some residents will have to wait until June at the earliest, while those who don’t pay council tax by direct debit also face a longer wait.
See your council website for when to expect your payout.
Waste not . . .
FORGOTTEN food costs families £800 a year – and half a million of us throw it away every day, research for Tesco has found.
Its Use Up Day campaign urges households to cook one meal a week using food they already have.
The company, which worked with sustainability charity WRAP, claims the simple tip could save families £260 a year.
Tesco’s Kene Umeasiegbu said: “No one sets out to waste food. But all too often hectic lifestyles, changing plans or just plain forgetfulness can mean good food ends up in the bin and money down the drain.”
Catherine David, from WRAP, said: “The average UK household wastes eight meals a week, costing money and feeding climate change.
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“Food businesses can really help shoppers reduce the amount of food ending up in the bin, through simple changes such as the one being championed by Tesco and Unilever.
“Less food wasted means more money in people’s pockets, and a lower carbon footprint.”
TESCO shoppers have just weeks to spend £17million worth of Clubcard vouchers, the supermarket has warned.
They are handed out in February, May, August and November and are valid for two years.
The store issues a voucher worth £1.50 for every 150 points collected.
Today it warned customers must use those issued in May 2020 before May 31 this year.
It estimates there are £17million worth of points sitting on accounts.
You can check the expiry date of vouchers on the Tesco website or app.