Keep cosy and solvent

With massive increases in gas and electricity prices last year, there are a lot of savings to be made from comparing and changing suppliers, says Alison Brace

Penniless and feeling miserable? Well, it must be January. With the excesses of December over, most of us look to rein in expenditure and build up some rainy day cash reserves again.

One of the easiest ways is to take a closer look at your gas and electricity bills. Turning off lights and reading by candlelight or swapping central heating for winter woollies may help to save the planet, but it's not going to save you money if your supplier is charging you over the odds. And chances are, if you have never switched supplier since the domestic energy market opened up to competition in 1996, it will be.

In fact, according to the National Audit Office, you're probably paying 22 per cent more for your electricity than you should be. With combined electricity and gas bills for the average household now topping pound;1,000, even a slight difference in tariff could bring your bill down considerably.

So visit one of the many comparison websites and prepare to be amazed. The process of switching is simple: it can either be done online or by telephone. "Anybody using energy cannot afford to be passive any more,"

says Georgina Walsh of Energywatch, an independent watchdog that lobbies on behalf of consumers.

Gas and electricity suppliers have increased their prices at least twice over the past 12 months, pushing up the average household bill by 40 per cent. This was initially because the price of wholesale gas increased as the UK's stocks in the North Sea declined. But wholesale prices have dropped and Energywatch expects prices to be lowered soon.

For those still nervous about using a comparison website, Energywatch is launching a new confidence code this month. Only sites that can show they give fair and impartial advice will be accredited by the watchdog.

But whoever you choose as a supplier, it is advisable to keep an eye on the detail. If you pay by direct debit, check you are not paying more each month than necessary. Credit on your gas and electricity accounts is earning money for your supplier.

And remember that energy companies now only have to read your meter once every two years, not every quarter as they did in the past

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