Don't get ripped off by your energy provider
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Ever received a huge bill from your energy provider that you weren't expecting? Here's how to make sure you never get ripped off by their sneaky tactics.
I've always found the concept of an estimated bill a bit confusing. You don't have a similar system with your phone bill - O2 don't guess how much I've been texting this month, and charge me accordingly.
To be honest, I want the money I have to hand over for my gas and electricity to be based on something a little more solid than a guess.
So I've been buoyed by two bits of good news on this front in the last few weeks which suggest we are getting closer to truly accurate energy bills.
A round of applause for British Gas
First up, British Gas announced they were introducing a new system allowing customers to submit how much energy they use online or by text.
The provider will be kitting out their customers with energy use monitors. Customers can then report back how much they've used. The firm claims it will ensure the bills are accurate.
British Gas also said its research had found estimated bills were somewhat unpopular. Who'd have thought?
Time to get smart with meters
This was followed by reports this week revealing that the Government is about to approve the rollout of a whopping 47 million new gas and electricity "smart meters". A survey last month suggested 57% of Brits have no idea what a smart meter is, but chances are that is all about to change.
As with the British Gas initiative, a smart meter will bring an end to inaccurate estimated bills and ensure you only pay for what you use. In addition, the meters will track when you are using your appliances, with the idea that energy providers will offer more competitive rates at off-peak times in much the same way they do with phone bills.
Unfortunately, such a programme is going to cost a fair bit - up to £9bn. And it's me and you that will be footing the bulk of the bill.
Don't hold your breath
It will also take a fair while, unsurprisingly, for the 47 million new meters to be fitted in every property across the UK. Chances are you won't see the benefit for about another decade.
In the meantime, the one way to ensure you get accurate bills is to be extremely vigilant and keep track of your own energy use. Once a month, make a note in your diary to read your meter and tell your provider, either online or over the phone. That way, your estimated readings will always be relatively accurate and so you shouldn't get any nasty surprises when the bill comes through each quarter.
Accurate doesn't equal cheap
In all honesty, it's a bit depressing that we should herald changes that mean we are actually being charged for what we use, rather than some estimate our provider has made.
But while accurate bills are something we should strive for, accuracy does not equal good value. Just because your bill from British Gas, or whoever, is completely accurate does not mean that it is the best value deal for you.
Thankfully there are some simple steps you can take to ensure that you are spending as little as possible on your energy needs.
Sign up for a cheaper tariff
The most obvious thing to do is to check that your deal is the most competitive.
The entry of two new players in recent months, First:Utility and OVO Energy, has shaken up the market somewhat, with the so-called 'Big Six' providers given a bit of fresh competition. Both have recently held the top spot for the cheapest tariff in the UK, so they are well worth checking out.
And now is absolutely the right time to switch your energy provider, as we head into the coldest months of the year. Chances are you'll be using more energy over the next few months than the rest of the year, so it makes sense to try and keep how much that energy costs you to a minimum.
It only take a few minutes to search for a new tariff on our price comparison tool, and it's well worth it - the average saving reported by lovemoney.com readers is a cool £215. Not bad in anyone's book!
Easy ways to cut your bills
Of course, there are some very easy things you can do in your own home which can have a real impact on the size of your bill.
We've put together a comprehensive round-up of how you can reduce your energy expenditure, from things like energy-saving lightbulbs to fiddling with your thermostat, in this guide: Cut your energy bills.
It's an absolute must-read - so what are you waiting for?