If you are looking for information on how to avoid problems with bills before they arise, see our overview guide to renting a house.
If you're looking for information because problems have arisen with your bills, or because you want to know what you can do should problems crop up, then this is the right section for you - choose your link and read on…
What can happen if I don't pay a bill and do nothing about it?
Your household bills fall into three major groups:
Group 1) Can cut you off; can sue for the money
Most services you pay for will be in this group – including your gas, electricity, internet and telephone. If you don’t pay for a service on time, you can be cut off because you’re in breach of contract.
Group 2) Can’t cut you off; can sue for the money
This is an unusual group – usually only your water bill will fall into this category. Water companies can’t cut off your supply for Public Health and Human Rights reasons but often sue very quickly if they feel they’re being messed around.
Group 3) Can’t cut you off; can prosecute you in front of the Magistrates
Another unusual group – this is the category the TV License falls into. An unpaid license won’t end your TV reception but leaves you liable to prosecution. Obviously, your house only needs a TV license if you have equipment in it you watch TV on (including cable, satellite, and/or TV over the internet). See the TV Licensing website for more information.
For information on Council Tax, click here to see our separate section on Council Tax.
What can I do if I can't afford to pay a bill?
You’ve already taken a giant step by looking for information on what to do. The worst thing you can do if there’s a problem with bills is hide your head in the sand – this sort of problem won’t go away.
Whichever group the bill or demand falls into: the best thing to do is talk to the people who sent it to you, as soon as you know you’ll have trouble paying, and let them know the situation. Don’t delay. If the company knows you’re trying to do something about it, not hiding from the issue, and generally acting responsibly, it’s less likely to take radical action than if you try to pretend nothing’s happening and ignore the issue.
Before you talk to them, consider some other things:
If you think the bill is too high for some reason (e.g. “The meter might be faulty”) or that you might not be liable to pay it (e.g. “They’re charging me for gas from before I moved in!”), get individual advice.
Can you apply for extra money to pay the bill? If you can, this should make your conversation with them a lot more pleasant than would otherwise be the case – you’ll be able to tell them what you are doing in order to be able to pay them what’s owed. See our information on student funding; get individual advice if you’re not sure on anything after looking at this.
Remember to ask if you can pay in smaller instalments. For example: water companies usually bill you for six months at a time but many will take monthly payments instead.
What can you afford to pay towards the debt (without starving!) and when can you pay it? Work out a budget so you can check what you can afford on top of your other commitments. Don’t offer more than you can afford – being let down annoys creditors just as much as it annoys anyone else.
Your conversation with them might not be terribly pleasant, but not dealing with the issue promptly usually leads to even less pleasant consequences.
If you're not sure how to go about talking to creditors, working out a budget, or doing any sort of financial plan, see one of our Advisers - click here to open the Money section of the Union website.
If you can’t reach an agreement with the people who sent you the bill, what happens next depends on what group the bill’s in. If you do nothing more, you might get a service cut off (group 1) or sued with court costs added to the debt (group 1 and group 2) or fined (group 3).
Any of these would be a fairly unpleasant thing to happen to a person, so get advice quickly if you reach this point.
What if my housemates won't pay their share?
If yours is the only name on the bill, the company will chase you for the money.
If there are several names on the bill, the company can chase one or more of those named people (in legal terms, “jointly and severally”). You can try to persuade the company to chase a different person named on the bill if there’s a good reason for this.
If you were the one watching an unlicensed TV when an enforcement officer came round, it’s your problem even if it’s not your TV.
So, you’ll probably need to find a payment solution for yourself. But:
Do seek a mediated solution to the disagreement with your housemates: if local mediation services are available in the area where you live, SAC will be able to help you find them.
In theory, you might be able to sue the housemates for their “share”; but in practice this would usually cost more than it’s worth (unless it’s a really huge sum). Threatening to do this might do some good, though.
If you want housemates to share the cost of the TV license, and you’ve been caught watching an unlicensed TV, make sure the TV license that gets bought is in your name to avoid further problems.
If you think a bill for a metered service (electricity or gas or ‘phone plus sometimes water) is too high, examine the bill and compare the charge with your usage (the meter or the itemised ‘phone calls). Either the bill or your contract should explain how service use is charged for. You may even want to consider having a smart meter installed.
If your landlord pays the bills, bear in mind s/he can charge a reasonable admin fee for doing this (but mustn’t charge you extra per unit for gas or electricity). So, ask yourself: do you want to pay for the convenience?
If you fall behind on paying for gas, electricity or water – see if the supplier runs a Trust Fund that might help. Severn Trent does, and your supplier might too.
Keep on top of your household bills: prioritise them, make sure you save for them, and above all make sure someone pays them – not paying household bills leads to far more problems than not paying some other debts (like credit cards or catalogues or personal loans) on time; and unpaid bills go on your credit reference just like other debts!