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Racing out of the owe-zone

Don't use a late bill as an excuse to go on a spending spree with the money - set it aside to earn interest, says Philip Evans.

Sometimes we get into debt because of circumstances beyond our control, such as unexpected redundancy or sudden chronic illness. Sometimes we are the authors of our own misfortune - perhaps by using an overdraft or credit card to buy things we can't afford. Sometimes it's a bit of both, or arrears and catch-up.

It often happens when you move into a new home. Most common is when the local authority doesn't quickly work out what proportion of the annual council tax you need to pay. Similarly, if you live in a leasehold flat, your proportion of ground rent or other maintenance payments might not be calculated promptly. Or a utility company could take a while to create a new account for you, so you don't get water, electricity or gas bills.

To begin with, it's easy to spend the money you start to think of as spare cash. This soon creates spending habits that can be hard to break - regular espressos or magazines purchased with loose change on your way to work, for example.

Inevitably, there comes a time that you are expected to catch up. This means you not only start paying the regular amount, but also have to find the extra in order to clear the arrears.

And so, for a while, you have even less money than you should have to live on. Not only do you have to cut back, but you have to make more economies than if you didn't have to play catch-up.

Something similar develops when you pay regular utility bills by a monthly standing order, but don't increase the amount when there's a price increase - as has just happened with fuel. If the utility company doesn't contact you to increase your monthly payment, and if you don't take the initiative yourself, you slip progressively into arrears. The company may not want you to take remedial action for a year or 18 months, but when it does, again you'll have to make harsher economies than if the adjustment had been made promptly.

Here's how to manage this problem. In fact, you should even earn some interest if you have a good savings account.

Right from the start, make your own calculation about what you should be paying for water and fuel. If you've moved into a new home, you could ask the previous owners how much they paid. If it's council tax or ground rent, you could look up the annual rate and make your own calculation. If you're really stuck, get some guidance from a local advice centre (they're listed in telephone directories).

Put aside what you think you'll need to pay. In fact, put aside a little bit extra in case something upsets your calculations - like a particularly harsh winter creating higher heating bills.

Keep the money in your savings account so that it earns interest, but keep a running tally so you can ring-fence it in your mind and not inadvertently spend it on some luxury.

When fuel prices increase, work out for yourself what this will cost you and arrange with the company to increase the direct debit. If they won't, put the extra into your savings account for when they will.

If this advice is already too late for you, only agree to pay off the arrears at a rate you can afford without making unreasonable economies. After all, had they worked out the amounts sooner, you wouldn't have this problem.

If the council or utility company insists that you pay more than you think you can, treat it like any other money problem and immediately get expert help from an advice agency. The quicker you get professional help, the quicker the problem will be sorted.

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