How to get help paying your energy bills

Living Well | Clare Barry | Posted on 02 September 2020

Energy use skyrocketing? Struggling to pay your power bills? Here’s how to get help.

With home energy use up by 15 to 18 per cent on last year according to energy distribution company data, Victorians are receiving some frightening power bills this winter.

“Obviously it’s got a lot, if not everything, to do with people working from home,” explains Gavin Dufty, St Vincent de Paul Society policy and research manager. “People will get bigger bills that could terrify them – or shock just a little bit depending on their situation.” 

Woman reading energy bill

For those struggling to pay their power bills, Gavin says there’s plenty of help available, both in the form of flexible payment options from energy retailers and government concessions and debt assistance. He says the energy industry has been put on notice that they must offer assistance for those facing hardship.  

“The industry is acutely aware that it’s got to step up,” says Gavin. “The regulators have told them so, National Cabinet has told them so, organisations like mine and the general community would expect as much given the situation we’re in. But we have to help them to do the right thing.”

How do I ask for help?

“The trick for accessing the assistance available is you’ve got to call up and engage,” says Gavin. “If you don’t ask you don’t get.” 

Your energy provider should be the first point of contact, he says, to apply for government concessions and rebates, and to request help in the form of flexible payments and debt deferrals from the retailer itself.

“There are lots of supports and they activate them all, they’re the gateway,” says Gavin. “It can be frustrating and take a bit of time so patience is worthwhile – there’s a pot of gold at that phone number at the top-right of your bill. 

“The magical words are, ‘I’m seeking assistance through the payment difficulties framework’. Ask what specific supports they have."

He says it’s essential to stay engaged with your power provider if you’re struggling financially. If you keep in meaningful contact and explain your circumstances, they can keep you connected and manage your situation for up to two years under the payment difficulties framework.

Victorians who need help with their energy bills can also get access to financial counsellors and community workers for targeted advice under a new $3.7 million support package announced by the state government in late August.

The Energy Assistance and Brokerage Program, run by community organisations including the Brotherhood of St Laurence, helps struggling Victorians get assistance from their energy retailer to pay their bills and ensures they are receiving applicable energy concessions. Help is available online and over the phone, with financial counselling available in languages including Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi and Vietnamese. People can also access webinars and factsheets delivered by the Consumer Research Policy Centre. Find out more at , Energy Assistance and Brokerage Program, or ring 1800 830 029. 

If your retailer is less than helpful, you can contact the Energy and Water Ombudsman.

Close up of pile of bills
Woman on floor with pile of bills

Compare your rate

Whether or not you need assistance to pay your bills, it’s worthwhile making sure you’re on the best possible deal. Gavin says energy retailers are required to tell you the best rate available for your location. Simply ask “Am I on the best rate?”. You can also go further and compare your current energy rates with competitors’ on the state government’s Victorian Energy Compare site.

What else can I do to avoid bill shock?

You don’t need to wait for a bill to start paying, advises Gavin. Consider smoothing out your payments by putting $20 or $30 towards it each week instead of waiting for the full amount. “People often think they can’t put payments towards their bill without a bill turning up – you can. Turn over the bill and look at the payment options. You can squirrel a little bit away here and there.”

You can also request monthly bills to keep better track of your usage and avoid bill shock. Many energy companies have apps that allow you to track your usage so you can put money aside or try to cut your usage.

What help is available?

Energy companies in Victoria are required to help customers struggling or unable to pay their bills, including the following measures: 

  • Flexible payment options including paying smaller amounts more often, changing how often you pay, delaying payment of a bill or paying in advance.

  • If you miss a bill they must offer help, including a payment plan to pay off bills over up to two years.

  • If you cannot afford ongoing energy use and you contact your energy company about this, they will work with you to avoid disconnection and must offer additional help including allowing you to pay less than the full cost of your energy use (this may be added to a later bill). They must also offer a payment plan putting your arrears on hold for at least six months while you make reduced payments.

  • Energy companies can go beyond their mandated obligations and waive debt or a portion of fees and charges.

Government concessions and debt assistance are also available.

  • Utility relief grants of up to $650 are available to help pay a mains electricity, gas or water bill that is overdue due to a temporary financial crisis. It is available to holders of a Pensioner Concession Card, Health Care Card or Veterans’ Affairs Gold Card, or to some low-income households without one of these cards. You must apply through your electricity, gas or water retailer, and Gavin says that under new provisions the retailer must help you complete the application form

  • A year-round discount of 17.5 per cent on mains electricity and a winter concession of 17.5 per cent for mains gas usage are available to holders of a Pensioner Concession Card, Health Care Card or Veterans’ Affairs Gold Card. 

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