Cost of living - what can I do about it?

On this page we outline some of the ways in which you can access additional support and offer advice on managing your bills in light of the current cost of living crisis.

In the last 12 months we have witnessed an unprecedented rise in the cost of living. This is mainly being driven by significant increases in the cost of energy. We are also seeing a big rise in the cost of essentials like food. The rises effect everybody, although how much you are affected will depend on your circumstances. If your overall financial position is tight, then it will be much harder to deal with rising costs.

If you are still unclear about the support you might be able to access, local advice agencies and the Advice NI helplines are here to help make things clearer.

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1) I have an emergency or crisis situation

If you are unable to meet your basic needs, such as putting food on the table or keeping the heat or lights on, or you need to deal with an unforeseen event, like losing your job or an essential appliance breaking down, you may be able to access emergency support from the government or certain charitable organisations.

Finance Support Service

Short-term financial support from the Department for Communities to help cover living costs or obtain essential household items. The Department operates several schemes, each with different criteria, but usually on the basis that you are dealing with ‘an extreme or exceptional situation, or be in a crisis which puts you or your immediate family’s health, safety or well-being at significant risk’.

Universal Credit Contingency Fund

Grant to help with the cost of living while waiting for your first full payment when making a claim for Universal Credit.

Discretionary Support

Loans and grants to help with short-term living expenses, replacement of household items, some travel expenses and rent payable in advance to a private landlord. Loans will have to be repaid by automatic deductions from benefit or through a negotiated repayment plan.

Short-Term Benefit Advance

Advance payment of means-tested benefits when making a new claim or reporting a change of circumstances. Must be repaid within 12 weeks.

Social Fund Budgeting Loan

Loan to cover the cost of essential household items or necessary costs in certain cases, such as starting work or moving house. Repaid by automatic deductions or through a negotiated repayment plan.

Charitable support

A small number of charitable organisations offer limited financial support with short-term living expenses.

There are also smaller, local charities, such as churches, that may be able to offer help. To find out about support in your area, we recommend getting in touch with your local independent advice service.

Food banks

We work in partnership with the Trussell Trust, which has food banks across Northern Ireland. Our helpline advisers can issue vouchers to those in need, which can be exchanged for an emergency food parcel containing a minimum of three days’ food.

A number of local organisations also operate food banks, and the best way to find out about these is by contacting your local independent advice service.

Lots of food banks also provide essential household items, such as toiletries, as well as foodstuffs.

Homelessness

If you are sleeping on the streets, do not have a proper place to live or you cannot continue living at your current address, there are a number of agencies that offer support, including temporary accommodation.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) is the government department that is responsible by law for supporting people who are homeless. To request help from NIHE you can ring 03448 920 900 Monday to Friday from 9-5, and 03448 920 908 at all other times. You can get more information at the Housing Help section of the NIHE website.

A number of charities also provide support to people who are homeless:

If you need advice on a housing issue you can contact Housing Rights, who will help you to navigate the housing system whatever your circumstances. Call 028 9024 5640 between 9:30-16:30 from Monday to Friday or request help online. Housing Rights also provide a wealth of information about housing issues through the Housing Advice NI website.

Mental Health

Struggling with debt, managing bills and rising prices can put a lot of strain on our ability to cope. If you are finding it difficult to manage it is really important not to ignore your mental health and to talk to someone.

If you or someone you know is in immediate physical danger or needs urgent medical attention you should always call 999 to alert the emergency services.

In less extreme circumstances, Lifeline provide a free helpline for anyone that is ‘experiencing distress or despair’ and their counsellors are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To contact Lifeline call 0808 808 8000, or for Textphone users 18001 0808 808 8000.

Childline provides a similar service for young people.

There are a variety of charities across Northern Ireland providing expert advice and support on mental health issues:

You can also find numerous local organisations offering community-based support through mindingyourhead.info.

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2) My income isn’t covering my bills

The main driver of rising costs at the moment are energy prices, with average bills about £1,000 higher than they were this time last year. For that reason, the government have introduced a range of measures to support households. There are also a number of existing benefits you may be able to claim, as well as action you may be able to take to reduce your bills.

Cost of Living Payments

At the end of May 2022 the government announced a range of support with the cost of living. The support is being provided automatically to those who are eligible, which means you should not need to apply for it. Payments are being made to people who are:

  • On means-tested benefits
  • Disabled
  • Pensioners

On means-tested benefits

If you receive any of the following benefits you will probably be entitled to a low income cost of living payment of as much as £650:

  • Universal Credit
  • income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
  • income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Income Support
  • Pension Credit
  • Child or Working Tax Credit

You will need to be in receipt of one of the qualifying benefits during a specified period to get the payment. If you’re not sure, give us a call on 0800 915 4604 or email [email protected] and we’ll help you to work it out.

The first £326 of this payment has already been issued to those eligible. The second part, amounting to £324, will be paid automatically to most people between 8 and 23 November (payments to those on Tax Credits will be made a little later).

If you have not received a payment and think you should have, contact the office that normally pays your benefit in the first instance:

Disabled

Those in receipt of disability benefits are being given an additional payment of £150 in recognition of the higher cost of living they experience. You have to have been entitled to any of the following on 25 May 2022 to qualify:

  • Attendance Allowance
  • Constant Attendance Allowance
  • Disability Living Allowance for adults
  • Disability Living Allowance for children
  • Personal Independence Payment
  • Armed Forces Independence Payment
  • War Pension Mobility Supplement
  • Adult or Child Disability Payment in Scotland

Payments should have been made to most people eligible, so contact the Disability and Carers Service on 0800 587 0912 if you have not received a payment you expected.

Pensioners

Pensioners are being given an extra £300 top-up to the Winter Fuel Allowance in recognition of their higher energy consumption. This will be paid as part of the standard Winter Fuel Allowance.

To qualify for the Winter Fuel Allowance, you need to have reached State Pension age by the qualifying week, which this year means you must have been born before 26 September 1956.

Most payments are made automatically during November and December, but if you do not receive the State Pension you might have to make an application. If you need help making a claim, contact your local advice centre for assistance.

More information, including payment rates for 2022-23, is available at nidirect.

Energy Bills Support

In addition to targeted support for those most vulnerable, there is also universal support for households and businesses being made available. This support is being delivered by the government through energy suppliers, so will not require action from consumers. However, you may be advised to contact your electricity and gas suppliers to ensure your contact information is up to date.

Energy Bills Support Scheme

This is a £400 credit that will be added to electricity bills by suppliers:

  • Every household will receive this support, regardless of their income.
  • Credited in 6 roughly equal monthly instalments.
  • People on traditional prepayment meters will either receive a voucher by text, email or post, or an additional credit at the top-up point.
  • The Prime Minister said recently that households in Northern Ireland would begin to receive this support from November.

If you want to check how you will receive the support, you should contact your electricity supplier:

Guidance provided by the government for delivery in England, Scotland and Wales gives an indication of how the support will be delivered in Northern Ireland.

Energy Price Guarantee

In addition to bill support, the government will also fund energy suppliers to restrict the unit prices that can be charged for electricity and gas for 2 years from 1 October 2022:

  • Average unit prices of 10.3p/kWh for gas and 34p/kWh for those on standard tariffs, with slight differences for prepayment customers.
  • Customers on fixed-rate deals will be eligible for a discount of ‘up to’ 17p/kWh for electricity and 4.2p/kWh for gas. If your current deal is already below the average price for standard tariffs, no discount will be applied.
  • Standing charges will not be affected.

More information is available from the UK government website.

Energy Bills Relief Scheme

Equivalent support is being made available for all non-domestic customers:

  • Support will be provided for at least the next 6 months.
  • Available to businesses, voluntary organisations and public bodies.
  • Sets a baseline ‘government supported price’, which has been set in England, Scotland and Wales at £211 per megawatt hour (MWh) for electricity and £75 per MWh for gas.
  • Equivalent figures for Northern Ireland have not yet been determined.
  • Likely to shift to more targeted support to organisations most in need from April 2023.

Alternative Fuels Payment

The Westminster government has also committed to providing an additional £100 of support to those people not on the gas network, such as home heating oil customers. It is unclear at present how this support will be delivered, but we will update this page once details are provided.

We would strongly encourage home heating oil customers to use the Consumer Council’s Home Heating Oil Price Checker to inform themselves about current prices in their area prior to placing an order.

In addition, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive’s network of Oil Buying Clubs can be an effective way to reduce costs.

Income Maximisation

With prices at record highs it is absolutely imperative that everyone is receiving the benefits to which they are entitled. Not everyone is aware that they could be eligible to receive support through the social security system. In addition, receipt of certain benefits can ‘passport’ entitlement to other financial help.

For that reason, we would encourage you to get in touch on 0800 915 4604 or through your local advice centre for a benefit check. Below we outline the benefits available to certain client groups.

  • On a low income
  • Have a health condition or disability
  • Caring for a disabled person
  • Retired
  • Parents

On a low income

Universal Credit (UC)

You can claim UC if you are working on a low income, you are unable to work due to illness or caring responsibilities, or you are looking for work. UC also covers housing costs for renters and contributes to the cost of childcare for working parents. Any income you or your partner receive will be taken into account when calculating your payments.

We are urging people on Jobseeker’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Child or Working Tax Credit or Housing Benefit not to gamble on a claim for UC until it becomes necessary, and to seek independent advice to help make an informed choice about what is best for them. You can also read our Policy & Information Briefing about the ‘Move to UC’ process for more information.

Help with housing costs

A range of benefits provide support with housing costs for both renters and owner-occupiers, including rate rebates and reductions and loans to cover mortgage interest payments.

Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)

If you have recently left employment and have sufficient National Insurance contributions, you may be able to claim JSA for up to 6 months. You can claim JSA alongside Universal Credit.

Cold Weather Payment

This is an additional benefit paid to people on means-tested benefits during periods of very cold weather. It is paid automatically along with the main benefit you receive, but you can see if the weather in your area has been cold enough using the Cold Weather Payment checker.

Have a health condition or disability

Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)

In the event that you become ill while working, you should be entitled to some form of sick pay. Check with your employer about contractual sick pay, but they will usually be required to pay the legal minimum, SSP, for up to 28 weeks.

Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)

If your employer cannot pay SSP, or if you are not working when you become ill, you can make a claim for both ESA and Universal Credit. To begin with, you will need to provide medical evidence from your doctor or certain authorised healthcare professionals. After your claim is processed, you will be asked to provide information about your health condition and will usually need to attend a medical assessment to establish to what extent this limits your ability to work.

A wide variety of benefits provide support for people of all ages with disabilities, to help them with the extra costs of care, getting around or adapting their home. You can find more information in the Disability Benefits section of this website.

‘Special rules’

People with a terminal illness that are not expected to live more than 12 months can have their claim for benefits fast-tracked and will not usually be required to complete a medical assessment.

All of our member organisations can advise on entitlement to disability benefits and financial support, but some are specialist agencies geared towards helping people with certain health conditions or disabilities:

Caring for a disabled person

More information on the benefits available to carers, including Carer’s Allowance, can be found in the Carers Benefits section of this website.

All of our member organisations can advise on benefits and financial support for carers. You may also wish to seek specialist advice from one or other of the following carer’s charities:

Carer’s assessment

To access support from social services, carer’s will need to be assessed by their Health and Social Care Trust. A social worker will review their circumstances to determine what help may be required.

Retired

Once you reach pension age, you will be able to access specific retirement benefits, including the State Pension and Pension Credit.

Lots of people who may be eligible for Pension Credit do not make a claim, so we would strongly advise you to seek independent advice to find out if you might be eligible, as it also opens up entitlement to other forms of support.

See above for details of how the Winter Fuel Payment will be boosted this year in light of the rising cost of living.

Our member organisation, Age NI, provides a free advice service for older people. You can call them on 0808 808 7575 between 9am and 5pm from Monday to Friday.

Parents

At present, financial assistance for low-income families is split between Universal Credit (UC) and Tax Credits. Both benefits include support with the costs of childcare for working parents. Beginning in 2023, Tax Credits claimants will be required to move their claim to UC (see our advice on moving to UC).

You can find more information about other benefits for parents in the Family section of this website.

The Family Benefits Advice Service, run by our member, Employers for Childcare, provides free, impartial and confidential advice to parents on the financial support available with childcare as well as other help that may be available.

Information on a wide range of family support services and registered childcare provision in Northern Ireland is available from Family Support NI.

Students with children

Full-time higher education students with dependent children may be able to get extra financial support to help with childcare costs' and costs related to their course, while parents aged between 16 and 20 studying at a further education college could get help towards childcare costs through the Care to Learn (NI) Scheme.

Energy Efficiency

One way to reduce your bills is to improve your energy efficiency, which aims to reduce your overall usage. Whilst this can involve making lifestyle changes, there is also financial support available in certain circumstances.

Advice on reducing energy consumption, including how to access energy efficiency grants, is available from the following organisations:

Grants are available for lower-income households through the Affordable Warmth and Boiler Replacement schemes. These schemes are run by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) alongside local councils.

Similarly, the Northern Ireland Sustainable Energy Programme (NISEP) provides financial assistance (mostly to low-income households) to carry out energy efficiency measures, such as improvements to heating systems and insulation.

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