Friday, 4 April 2014

Frugal Friday...

One thing that consistently comes up when people are struggling for money is the fact that all too often, they are paying for things that they're not using. Be that unusued gym memberships, insurance for items that they no longer own, magazine subscriptions where the mags sit for ages unread, or any of the myriad other ways in which your hard-earned can slip away without you even noticing. I bet by now you're smugly thinking "Well none of those things apply to ME!" - but how about checking the stuff you pay for that you DO use? Bank Statements for example - not only to check that the balances are where you expect (and if you don't know where they should be - why on earth not?), or that you've been paid, but that other transactions are as they should be, payments haven't been missed (An energy supplier on one occasion managed to cancel our direct debit - thankfully I noticed, called them up and flagged it up - had I not checked the first I knew of it not leaving our account as normal would have been when the red bill arrived, no doubt!)

Yes, random photos again - Vatersay, Outer Hebrides
That neatly brings us onto energy suppliers - and their bills are something we should ALL be checking. Yes, the cost of energy is escalating, we're all well aware of that, but with care you can still keep your bills, if not "cheap" then at least manageable. The first thing is to know what you use - familiarise yourself with your meters and read them regularly - initially if you're just starting to monitor your use, you may want to do this each week on a set day, but as you settle in to a routine of knowing what you should be using, you can probably drop that back to monthly. If you have a smartphone then there are some great little apps out there for helping you to keep track - you input your rates, and readings, and the app then produces all sorts of useful stats that let you see at a glance if your useage is usually high, for example. Of course, if you have an online-manageable energy account, then you can also submit your readings to your supplier - meaning your bills should be a more accurate representation of the power you are actually using. This applies with particular importance to those of us who are trying to cut back our use, as the suppliers do have a tendency to assume that we all have thermostats set at 25 degrees, leave every light in the house on, and cook a three course meal every day without fail! If you have a thermostat, then put a jumper on, yes, and some socks, slip your feet into your slippers, and now turn that thermostat down until the temperature is just comfortable for you. Go from room  to room in your house and find all the power-drains - clock radio in the rarely used guest bedroom permanently switched on? A computer than only gets used once a week left switched on but "asleep" - TV's and DVD players left on standby...all these things will burn your money, so get them gone. Get an energy monitor - some energy companies will supply them for free, you may find that friends of relatives have a spare that they don't use, and I understand that in some cases you can even borrow them from the local library! Try to fill your oven - and if you have an electric oven you may well find it cheaper to cook small meals in a mini-oven or combination microwave. If you have Economy 7 electricity it's absolutely vital that at least 50% of your use, and preferably more, if overnight - otherwise you're drastically overpaying!
Sticking with beaches...this is Grenitote, North Uist
I had cause to ring British Gas twice over the past week - the first time was on Saturday, after we got a document that claimed to be our "Annual Energy Statement" - my curiosity was piqued initially as so far as I could recall, and in spite of having been on our current Gas tariff for several years, we'd never been sent one of these before! Add to that the fact that it wasn't a statement at all, as nowhere did it tell us what we'd paid, over the time it said it referred to. A slightly longer look revealed the answer - it was really to inform us that our current tariff had now been stopped - at the end of January in fact - and that we were now on "Standard" tariff - which included a 26p a day Standing Charge. Now, to put that into context, until now our total gas bill for the whole year has been less than £60, and this service charge alone amounts to £95, you can begin to see why alarm bells started ringing! I rang customer services to ask what was going on, to be informed that they had "told us" this was going to happen. A little more probing revealed that "telling us" consisted of a single line on a previous bill - so not really fulfilling their duty of care to keep customers informed about such changes! The lady I spoke to was very helpful, promised to escalate the complaint and agreed a £10 Goodwill credit as she could see why we were unhappy. I rang off, and immediately went to check what our options were.

The Money Saving Expert Cheap Energy Club came in useful for the next bit - letting me input both our current supplier and tariff, and our exact usage, to get a clear picture of which suppliers might be useful for us. To our delight we found a small, independent "Not For Profit" supplier whose unit charges were lower than we had been paying British Gas, and more importantly without that pesky Standing Charge! (Or rather, they have one, it's just set at Zero p/per day!) Their forecast for us suggests that we'll now be paying under £30 a year for our gas - which is a definite result!

Sanderling on the beach at Berneray, Hebrides. 
The second call to British Gas came on Tuesday after, coincidentally, I'd just recieved our up to date bill from them. The first thing that surprised me was how much it was for - bearing in mind I checked the balance on the account just a couple of months ago and it was sitting at just a little in credit, to suddenly be owing over £40 seemed a bit unlikely! A bit more investigation revealed a litany of problems - in spite of the notification that our tariff would end in January previously they'd applied the new Standing Charge from November, and then created the tariff change at the end of December! They'd made all these changes without once managing to actually read our meter, or indeed to ask us to, so as to get an accurate picture of where we stood at the time the prices were changed! Apparently they "should have" informed us in September that the Standing Charge was going to be added - however it was patently obvious from the conversation that they knew full well that they hadn't! Eventually I told the call centre operator what I believed we should have been charged, and he used those figures to work out a further credit which would be applied.

I've now asked for the next Direct Debit to be set to clear the outstanding balance on the account, and hopefully by the time the following one is due, we'll be settled in with the new supplier and will just be able to clear the final balance by cheque. For us this all worked out well, however I do find myself wondering how many others who also weren't informed about this change will just completely fail to notice or challenge it, allowing British Gas to profit at their expense. Whoever your energy suppliers are, it pays to check their bills carefully - and not just the bits that are all they know most folk will check - the bottom line figure - either!



Dani said...

Since the end of June 2012 we have been living in our house on our smallholding with what we generate via our solar panels only.

It was a learning curve - and yet so easily achievable / maintainable / do-able, providing that one is careful, and totally aware that one can't splurge on allowing anything to consume ghost power. Our energy monitor is brilliant in telling us exactly what wattage we are consuming at any given second of the day.

The only thing I can't have is a deep freezer - but I'm working on that :)

It is funny though how one learns to use power wisely when it is "limited" :)

Robyn said...

Wow - Dani, that's a heck of a project. Well done for making it work for you. The question of items consuming when they're technically off is something I was reading about on a blog last week, and now want to focus a bit more on. By the sound of it you'll have that deep freeze very soon indeed!