What to do if you can't pay a bill

Bills can certainly start to stack up around this time of the year, and if you are having trouble paying bills or are going through some financial difficulties, possibly as a result of losing work due to the pandemic, it can pay to know your rights.

Retail law and retail rules for energy consumers (which apply in NSW, the ACT, Tasmania, Queensland and South Australia) set out key protections and obligations for energy customers and the retail and distribution businesses where they buy their energy.

There are also protections for other utility bills if you fall into financial hardship as well.

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The first thing you should do if you can’t pay a bill is to call your gas, electricity or water company and explain your situation and ask them for help.

The company must offer some assistance to you in this situation whether you are calling about a one-off problem or an ongoing financial issue.

The relevant company should start off by providing you with a time extension on when your bill is due or putting in place a payment plan so that you can attempt to pay your bills in instalment amount that you can afford.

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If the company agrees to establish a payment plan, you must pay the instalments when they are due. To help in this situation some companies will offer incentives for sticking to the plan, such as payment matching.

All electricity, gas and water companies have a special financial hardship team that can work with you to help manage your ongoing bills and usage and all of them have to offer you help by law.

Electricity and gas
According to Victoria’s energy and water ombudsman, the level of help these companies will offer you is based on the amount of money that you owe them.

If you haveless than $55 owing and you want help to manage the money you owe, your company must offer you three of the following payment options:

  • give you more time to pay the bill
  • work out a plan to pay in instalments you can afford (with regular instalments)
  • work out a plan to pay in instalments you can afford (with irregular instalments)
  • allow you to pay in advance.

If you have more than $55 owing, the company must offer:

  • a payment plan for you to pay for usage and repay the amount you owe within two years
  • a payment plan where the amount you owe is on hold for a minimum of six months, while you make reduced payments (less than what you use at the property) and try to reduce your energy use.

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The company will also check that you are receiving the government concessions and grants that you are entitled to for your situation and provide you with practical information about how to reduce the energy that you use.

On top of that they will talk to you about your options to help you repay the amount that you owe and review your account and tariff.

Water companies do not treat your situation any differently depending on how much money you owe.

Some of the options that they will offer include giving you more time to pay the bill, offering a repayment plan, checking your concession entitlements, referring you to a free, independent financial counsellor for advice.

Another option that water companies will offer is allowing you to pay your bills through Centrepay, with smaller fortnightly payments taken directly from any Centrelink payments you receive.

Check your concession entitlements
As noted above, companies will help you find out about your concessions if you are eligible, but you should be proactive about this before your situation becomes dire.

If you are not receiving any concessions, you should call your company to check if you are eligible.

If it turns out that you are entitled to concessions and you haven’t been getting them, they can be backdated for up to a year and sometimes longer.

Have you ever had to call a utility company for help with bills? Were they helpful? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Ben