Life is getting more expensive for all of us at the minute, and rising living costs are a concern for households across the country.
The cost of living has surged at its fastest pace in almost 10 years, with inflation – the rate at which prices are rising – hitting 4.8% in the year to December.
With interest rates also having risen in December and rumoured to go up again soon, record fuel prices and a hike to the energy price cap on the horizon, a team of Which? experts have answered 17 key questions on how you can cut your household expenses this year.
You can scroll down to read the full article, or use these links to jump straight to the section you’re most interested in:
- Energy bills
- Broadband, mobile and insurance
- Food and shopping
- Getting help if you’re struggling
How to cut your energy bills
Rising energy prices have been well reported in recent weeks, with suppliers collapsing and consumer choice over tariffs dwindling. Here, lead energy researcher Sarah Ingrams, senior sustainability researcher Karen Lawrence, and senior appliances researchers Jane Darling and Aaron West answer some of your most commonly asked questions.
1. Should I try and switch energy supplier at the moment?
Usually we’d advise everyone to compare prices and switch energy supplier or tariff to get the best deal. But these aren’t normal times and switching is definitely not the right idea for many people at the moment. Suppliers aren’t selling cheap deals and lots of us are facing increases thank to the price cap having risen on 1 October.
It’s still important to look closely at your current deal, though, and what you should do depends on your situation. If you’re on a low-priced fixed-term deal, don’t switch away from it early. You’re unlikely to find anything as cheap.
If you move onto a deemed or default tariff (e.g. if your supplier closes, or you haven’t switched in a while) then you may be paying the maximum permitted by the price cap. This gives you some protection – Ofgem revises the level every six months (next in April 2022) – but it’s likely to be much pricier than your old deal. A fixed-term deal will give you price security but you may have to pay a premium for it.
2. My energy direct debit has gone up – what should I do?
You’ll usually see your direct debit payments increase if you’re moving onto a pricier deal (for example if your fixed tariff ended and you move onto an out-of-contract price-capped tariff automatically, or your energy company went bust). Your payments might also rise if your supplier notices that your energy use has increased.
If you don’t understand why your direct debit payments are increasing, ask your supplier to explain. If you don’t agree (for example if you think your current payments will cover your increased usage or the higher rates of a new tariff) then you can ask for your payments to stay the same.
If you are unable to pay your higher energy bills, help is available. Contact your supplier in the first instance.
- Find out more: how to complain if your bill is wrong
3. What’s the most energy-efficient way to heat a room if I don’t want to put the central heating on?
Central heating is generally the most cost-effective way to heat your home, but make sure it’s working efficiently and use timers, room thermostats and thermostatic radiator valves (TRVs) to control which rooms are heated and when.
Set your thermostat to the lowest comfortable temperature: turning it down by just 1°C can save you £80 to £85 a year.
If your central heating system doesn’t have individual room controls and you only need to heat one room, a portable heater can be cost-effective. Convector heaters, including oil-filled and oil-free radiators, are best for heating a room for a period of a few hours or more, while fan or halogen heaters are better for a shorter blast of heat to warm you up quickly. Choose a heater with a decent thermostat and timer to avoid overheating and save money.
- Find out more: how to use heating controls and thermostats to save on your heating bills
- Find out more: how to buy the best electric heater
4. What’s the most energy-efficient way of cooking?
Electric ovens, whether part of a cooker or a built-in oven, are more energy efficient than their gas counterparts. Similarly, electric induction hobs are the most efficient as they supply heat only to the pan, and not out into the kitchen; electric ceramic hobs are second best, while gas trails in third.
However, it’s worth noting that, because gas is cheaper than electricity, your energy bills will be lower if you cook on gas.
Using a slow cooker is a smart choice as, although it may be on for a number of hours, heating a small space requires less energy than cooking the same kind of meal in an oven. Microwaving cooks food quickly, so is another option for keeping cooking costs low.
- Find out more: how much do ovens cost to run?
5. Could buying an energy-efficient appliance really make that much of a difference to my bills?
Absolutely. An efficient appliance can help avoid unexpected bills after you buy – check out our free ‘how to buy the best’ guides (including how to buy the best tumble dryer and how to buy the best fridge freezer), which contain searchable tables listing the running costs of popular models.
All of our energy cost data comes from our independent lab testing, where every appliance we review is tested in real-world scenarios to measure how much energy it uses. We find big differences between seemingly identical A-rated machines, and even B and C-rated machines. You could save hundreds of pounds a year by factoring this in when you’re buying new appliances, and even more over the lifetime of the appliance.
- Find out more: how to save money with an energy-efficient appliance
6. Are there any cheap ways to insulate my home?
While some energy efficiency upgrades need professional installation, there are other quick and cost-effective DIY ways to insulate your home. Our top five recommendations are:
- Insulate the loft
- Install draught proofing
- Insulate hot water pipes and tanks
- Fit secondary glazing
- Add cosy furnishings
- Find out more: five easy DIY jobs to improve your home’s energy efficiency
How to pay less for broadband, phone contracts and insurance
Yvette Fletcher, principal telecoms researcher and Sam Richardson, money editor, advise on how to save on your bills.
7. My broadband costs a fortune, should I switch?
It’s worth exploring if you’re out of contract – it’s not only an opportunity to save money, it can also mean a faster connection.
If you still have standard broadband (also known as ADSL), switching is an opportunity to upgrade to fibre. Fibre broadband can cost the same as standard broadband – or less – plus it’s more reliable.
Out of contract customers stand to make significant savings of up to £200 on mobile, broadband or TV packages.
- Find out more: compare broadband deals with Which? Switch
8. Am I wasting data – and money – with my mobile phone contract?
It’s worth keeping on top of your data usage to make sure you’re on the best mobile phone deal for you. It’s increasingly common for providers to offer high, or even unlimited, data allowances, but the average UK consumer uses just 4.5GB per month.
However, deals with high data allowances aren’t always more expensive so this might not be a huge factor in your choice of provider. Which? Switch Mobile lets you set a minimum data allowance and then compare deals by price – you can use it to check whether the amount you’re currently paying is reasonable, and find a new provider if you want to make a switch.
9. How do I haggle with my broadband or mobile provider?
If you’re happy with the provider you’re with, you might feel reluctant to switch away just to get a better deal. Negotiating means you can stick with your current package and pay less.
Haggling can sound more daunting than it actually is; it’s not like randomly asking for a discount in a supermarket or high street shop – broadband providers both expect customers to do it, and invite it. And if you don’t fancy a long call, most providers allow you to do it via email or live chat instead.
The key is to shop around first to see how much you could save elsewhere, as this will be a vital tool when you’re negotiating with your provider. Check our guides below for some tips.
- Find out more: how to haggle for the best broadband deal
- Find out more: check out the best mobile phone and Sim-only deals today
10. How can I cut my insurance bills?
As your car or home insurance renewal approaches, use comparison sites to see if you can get cheaper quotes than the one your current insurer is offering. If you can, ask your insurer if they can match or beat the best quote.
Even if you’re not nearing your renewal date, it can pay to check what your insurer’s rivals are willing to offer you to switch early. If the difference between competitors’ quotes and what you’re currently paying is more than the cost of cancelling early (cancellation fees are typically around £50) then doing so might be a way of saving money.
Paying annually for insurance will often be cheaper overall than paying monthly.
Check your cover level and strip out any optional extras that you don’t need. Similarly, increasing your voluntary excess will reduce your premium, but make sure you can afford to cover it in the event of a claim.
Young and inexperienced drivers tend to pay the most for car insurance. Adding a more experienced ‘named driver’ to your policy can reduce the premium, as their lower risk will be taken into account.
You could also consider black box policies. These use GPS devices or smartphone apps to track how you drive, meaning the insurer can give you a more tailored price.
- Find out more: how to find cheap car insurance
How to save on food and shopping
Senior money and shopping editor Ele Clark, Which? Gardening editor Ceri Thomas and Which? Computing editor Kate Bevan help out with your food and shopping questions.
11. I’ve read that food prices are rising, so how can I keep my grocery bills down?
It won’t surprise you to know that there’s a big difference between prices at different supermarkets. Each month we compare the UK’s biggest grocers to reveal the cheapest supermarket to shop at.
Discounters Aldi and Lidl are unfailingly the cheapest, but if you prefer the range of a bigger store and the convenience of online deliveries, Asda is your best bet – it’s been the cheapest ‘big four’ supermarket for almost two years.
Regardless of where you shop, you can also develop some savvy habits: always use a shopping list to avoid picking up things you don’t really need (it also helps to avoid shopping when you’re hungry); scrutinise the ‘special offers’ to check whether they’ll really save you money; and consider swapping big brands for own-label products. Buying less meat and fish can also mean cheaper food bills.
- Find out more: how to save money at the supermarket
12. How do I grow my own food?
You can grow fruit and veg even if you don’t have a garden by using pots and windowboxes. You can grow herbs on the windowsill and perhaps look into renting an allotment in your local area.
March is the start of the growing season but winter is a great time to check out our Best Buy varieties of all sorts of veg and fruit and place your orders from one of our best suppliers of seeds and plants.
- Find out more: Which? advice on growing fruit and veg
13. Should I buy second-hand/refurbished tech to save money?
The answer to this is ‘it depends’. There’s a strong second-hand and refurbished laptops market, though with caveats. Reconditioned Windows laptops are very good value, but if you want to update to Windows 11, you’ll need to make sure it’s compatible (Windows 10 will only be supported until October 2025). Our Windows 11 compatibility checker can help.
If you’re interested in a Chromebook, you can find out how long it’ll continue receiving important updates by using our Chromebook update checking tool.
Apple Macs also have a finite support life: Apple stops supporting them once the latest version of macOS they can use is no longer updated. Second-hand Macs are more expensive as they hold their value, but it’s worth looking out for ones that are a year or two old as people look to upgrade.
There are similar caveats with the second-hand mobile phones market. iPhones have a long support life, but make sure it’s a newer device. Newer Samsung flagships are now supported for four years, as are OnePlus, but cheaper models aren’t. Google is now supporting its new Pixels (the 6 and 6Pro) for five years, though for older Pixels it’s a maximum of three. In general, be extremely careful if you’re thinking of buying second-hand Android, and use our mobile phone support tool to see how long a model has left.
When it comes to tablets, iPads get five or six years of updates. Other brands vary considerably, with a little over two years for some Lenovo and Huawei tablets, and upwards of five years for Amazon Fire devices. Use our tablets support tool to search for models you’re interested in.
A refurbished TV isn’t a bad idea if you buy from the manufacturer or a trustworthy retailer: Amazon Outlet has refurbished TVs, as does Appliances Direct. Panasonic has its own eBay outlet, too. Be wary of buying from a private seller on eBay, although if the TV has an issue that wasn’t stated in the listing then you can get your money back under eBay’s terms of service.
- Find out more: how to buy a second-hand TV
14. What do I do if a retailer goes bust?
Spend any outstanding gift cards as quickly as possible, as retailers are legally allowed to refuse these once in administration. If your gift vouchers are refused, make a claim in writing to the administrators – you should be able to find out who they are on the retailer’s website, and you can use our template letter to claim a refund for vouchers from a bust company.
If you’ve got returns to make, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to get your money back – but it’s worth writing to the administrator (as swiftly as possible) to request this.
For faulty goods, you may be able to get a replacement or a refund in the normal way if the company is in administration but still trading. If the company isn’t trading, you’ll need to make a claim to the administrator. You could also try claiming on an extended warranty if this was provided by a third party, or the manufacturer’s guarantee.
If you paid by credit card you can make a claim for unwanted or faulty goods under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. And if you paid by debit card, you can try making a chargeback claim with your bank.
- Find out more: what to do when a retailer goes into administration
How to save money on fuel
Senior cars researcher Daljinder Nagra shares his tips.
15. How can I drive more efficiently to use less fuel?
Regardless of what car you own, driving as smoothly as possible and preserving momentum will improve your overall fuel economy. Look further ahead so you can better anticipate traffic and use your brakes less, as braking wastes the energy used to get the car up to speed.
If you drive a manual car, shift up gears as early as possible without labouring the engine. Newer cars often have an indicator on the dashboard showing the most efficient time to change gears. Many automatic cars also come with an ‘Eco’ driving mode, which will change when the gearbox shifts to minimise consumption.
On colder days, it’s better to drive your car gently immediately rather than letting it warm up. Modern engines warm up very quickly, so not only will it get up to temperature quicker – reducing the potential for engine wear – you’ll also use much less fuel.
Air conditioning and heated seats are heavy power consumers, and regular use can have a small but noticeable effect on your fuel bills. However, using your air conditioning occasionally can prevent it from developing problems later down the line – around once a week is fine.
- Find out more: money-saving driving tips
How to get help if you’re struggling
Senior writer Danielle Richardson and money editor Reena Sewraz explain your options.
16. I’m worried I won’t be able to pay my bills this winter. What do I do?
If you’re struggling to pay your council tax bill, contact your local council as soon as possible. You can spread your payments over 12 months, rather than 10, or you might be granted a one-off discount if you still can’t pay the balance.
If you’re on a low income, live on your own or with someone who’s disregarded for council tax, or get benefits, you may be eligible for a council tax reduction – but this will depend on whether you fulfil your local authority’s eligibility criteria, so contact them to find out more.
If you’re 74 or older and you or your partner receive pension credit, you can also apply for a free TV licence. This used to be free to all over-75s, but is now only granted for those claiming this benefit.
And if you claim Universal Credit but find your payments aren’t enough to cover household bills, there are a range of schemes you may be eligible for – but their availability can depend on where you live and what your circumstances are. Cold weather payments and WaterSure bills cap, for instance, could help reduce your monthly bills.
No matter what type of bill you’re worried about, the first step is to talk to your provider – the sooner they know, the sooner they’ll be able to work out a plan with you.
- Find out more: how to get free debt advice
17. What’s the cheapest and safest way to borrow money?
First, check whether you have a fee-free overdraft. The providers that don’t offer this often charge eye-watering APRs of up to 40%, so switch accounts if you need to.
If you have a decent credit history and are confident you’ll be able to clear the balance in full at the end of the month, a 0% purchase credit card could do the job. These deals currently offer interest-free spending for as long as 24 months. Most providers offer a ‘soft search’ before you apply for a deal so you can see your chances of being accepted and the type of offer you might receive without harming your credit score.
Alternatively, if you need a cash loan for under £3,000 a 0% money transfer credit card could be more effective than a traditional loan (loan rates on smaller sums are usually high). These deals allow you to move money from your credit card to your bank account for a one-off fee (normally up to 5%).
Just remember, with a credit card you will need to make at least the monthly minimum repayment which is normally a percentage of your outstanding debt. Missing a minimum repayment will be recorded on your credit report which can bring down your credit score.
If you need to borrow a bigger sum of money, a cheap personal loan could be a better option. Again, you’ll need a good credit history to get the best interest rate. You should also bear in mind that you will have to make fixed repayments every month and the credit isn’t revolving like on a credit card – so you won’t be able to dip back in and spend what you have repaid.
A loan of £10,000 taken out over five years at a rate of 2.8% APR (the best rate at the time of publishing) would cost you £178.64 a month, and you’d pay back £10,718.40 in total.
- Find out more: best personal loans
This story was originally published on 26 October 2021. It was updated on 27 January 2022 to reflect the latest inflation figures and base rate increase.