Surviving Winter (and Beyond) With Rising Fuel Costs


Britain’s energy prices are spiralling upwards, seemingly out of control, as the wholesale cost of gas and electricity has skyrocketed in the past year or so.

There are a number of reasons for this. If you’re interested, I’d suggest Googling it. I’m not going to write about it here, because many people no longer care why — they simply want to know how to get through the winter and 2022 without having to sacrifice too many home comforts.

What seems clear is that some of the old advice about saving money and being energy efficient is currently useless, or completely out of reach of the average family or individual living in the UK today.

Our current economic climate, limping out of COVID, still suffering from some of the effects of Brexit, and the government cutting benefits paid to some of the poorest in our society, means there is no longer a single strategy.

Some of the ‘solutions’ may even seem draconian or outdated, viewed alongside what many of us have come to expect as modern loving standards. Yet—without wishing to sound fatalistic or unduly negative—they may be the only way to make it through without having to choose between essentials or ending up in severe debt.

So here we go. Don’t expect the usual platitudes here. And don’t be surprised if you are shocked by some of the suggestions. Should we have to put up with these? Probably not, but in today’s economic circumstances, we might have to.

Know Your Budget

It’s boring, and if you’ve been used to a comfortable amount of disposable income until now, you might not want to know.

Similarly, if every penny counts, it may be too painful to feel like you’re overanalysing your income and expenditure.

However, knowing what money you have coming in and where it’s going is the first step to taking control, however uncomfortable it may be to have to do so.

If your income fluctuates from week to week or month to month, perhaps due to shift work, freelancing, self-employment, zero hours contracts, and so on, you’ll need to do this every time it changes.

In any case, it’s a good habit to record every expenditure you make, itemised if possible, so that you know where your money is going.

Only when you can see what your income is, how much you have to spend on essentials, and how much is (or isn’t) left, can you make changes.

You’ll also need a decent idea of your budget, income and outgoings if you reach out to any organisation or company for help with payment plans or debt management.

If you haven’t budgeted before, it could come as quite a shock. You will likely need to reassess what is “essential” and what is “luxury”. It’s not simply about cutting out luxuries, although you may well have to, but seeing if essential expenditure can be reduced at all.

There are plenty of resources online about how to budget and record what you’re spending. If it’s a skill you find difficult, see if you can find a trusted friend, family member or colleague to help you.

Of course, the other part of having a budget is being able to stick to it. Particularly when money is tighter, you need to know you have enough money to pay for the essentials such as rent or mortgage, food, utility bills, council tax, and so on. You’ll also need to show that you haven’t been frivolous and have made an effort, if you want to be treated sympathetically if you’re struggling.

Actions:

  • Draw up a budget which shows your income and essential spending. Ask for help or search online if you need to know how to do this.
  • Be honest and determined to stick to your budget so you don’t overspend.
  • Look to see if you can save money in any area of spending.

Know Your Home

Everyone’s home is different, so what works for one may not work for another. Different sizes, layouts, heating methods, insulation and efficiency, people/pets and their preferences/tolerances — you have to get a grasp on how your own dwelling works, and how to live in it as efficiently as possible.

Some are fortunate to have homes which heat up very quickly. Others have outdated systems or big, draughty rooms which are hard to fully insulate.

Smaller homes will generally be quicker and cheaper to heat than larger ones. Modern homes may well be more energy efficient that older ones.

Some people are naturally able to tolerate lower temperatures, while others may have health conditions necessitating warmer surroundings.

When you know what your home is like, where it’s warmest, how quickly it heats up, where any problems are, and how your family prefers to live, you can make more informed decisions about how to stay comfortable and save money.

Actions:

  • Walk around your home, assessing which rooms are naturally warmer or cooler, where there are draughts, where radiators or other heaters may not be working well, and where more insulation could be added.
  • Note which rooms you and your family spend the most time in and look to make those the most efficient for heating, draught proofing and insulating.

Educate Your Family

Not everyone in your household may understand the pressures of running a home, but there are ways of explaining things to even the youngest of children without catastrophising or making it sound like a big deal which they may start worrying about.

You can talk about the changing of the seasons, and how we naturally wrap up warmer in the winter time (this can be great for those who expect to be walking around the house in summer clothing in the depths of winter), how we want to keep our homes warm but also how there are some financial pressures (and environmental ones, too, if you want to include that) which mean we can’t afford to keep the heating up high and constant all winter long.

Educating your family will also help them to feel empowered, and should make other decisions easier to bear. Simply saying “no” to things without explaining may end up backfiring.

Actions:

  • Explain to your family that it costs a lot of money to heat the home, cook and create hot water, particularly in the winter, and that you all need to find ways of using less gas/electricity.
  • Get your family involved in suggesting creative ways to keep warm this winter without spending much (or any) money.
  • Ensure everyone is “on board” and knows what is expected.

Look For Cheap Wins

Chances are you are reading this article because money is tight and you need to get your home comfortable as cheaply as possible. So, talking about upgrading heating systems or adding expensive home improvements is not going to help one bit.

Instead, find cheap and creative ways to add insulation and improve heat retention in your home. Stopping a draught from a door or window may not have as much an effect as a brand new boiler or energy-efficient cladding on your external walls, but it’s much cheaper and will still improve comfort levels over doing nothing at all.

Actions:

  • After assessing where the main draughts and lack of insulation are, buy cheap and useful fillers and insulators including silicone sealer, expanding foam and caulk. Seal up obvious holes and cracks around windows, doors and pipework. Make draught excluders for draughty doors.
  • If you have uncarpeted floors, particularly downstairs in the living areas, see if you can pick up a cheap rug. Not recommended for the kitchen.

Heat People Not Things

Central heating is still a relatively new thing, along with the expectation that the whole home is kept at a certain temperature. In the past, people only heated the areas they spent most time in, and took more attention to keep themselves warm, rather than the spaces they were in. Added to this, the average temperature of UK homes was several degrees or more cooler than today.

I’m not suggesting central heating is useless, but it costs far more to heat the air in an entire room than it does to heat the body using extra layers of clothing/blankets, a hot water bottle or microwaveable beanie, and the body heat of others.

Homes do need to be kept to a certain temperature to help reduce damp and the problems that brings, but temperature is not the main culprit for many types of damp.

Consider using central and space heating less (in both duration and temperature) and concentrate on heating your bodies instead. This not only means more layers and heat-generating items when you’re sedentary, but being more active in general. Any exercise — even if it’s a household chore — which gets the heart rate up and the blood pumping will make you feel warmer.

Even in winter, there are days when it may be (or feel) warmer outside than in. Winter sun can still feel warm when you’re outside even if it doesn’t heat up your home like it might in the summer.

Bear in mind that many days and nights, even in summer, do not reach the temperature we might wish to set our central heating at, and yet most of us don’t put the heating on in the summer. We dress appropriately to the conditions whether outside or inside. When outside, we don’t try to heat the whole space around us, but add clothing or heat a very small area with a fire or heater.

So it should not be completely strange to accept a lower inside temperature, even in winter, so long as damp (in particular) can be controlled and we have ways of keeping our own bodies warm and insulated.

Actions:

  • Ensure everyone has a nice collection of snuggly items, including slippers, socks, jumpers, blankets, hot water bottle/microwavable pad, full and fingerless gloves, hat, scarf and coat. (We’re not suggesting they all have to be worn inside, but keeping warm both outside and inside the home helps to regulate body temperature).
  • Devise an exercise plan for the family. This can be specific fun workouts and more active household chores which everyone can join in with.
  • Choose hot drinks and food throughout the day, where possible, including foods which release their energy (and hence heat) more slowly.
  • Do activities together, sharing body heat by staying in the same room whenever possible. When  family members need their own space, ensure they have enough things to wrap up and stay warm with.
  • Let the sunshine warm up rooms by opening curtains and blinds, then close them when it gets dark to keep warmth in.
  • Do things outside and at other venues. This doesn’t have to cost a lot. It could include countryside walks, library and museum visits, stays at relatives and friends houses, and so on.
  • Get ready and go to bed early if you’re not going out, so you don’t have to change clothing when rooms are colder. You don’t necessarily have to sleep straight away when you go to bed — you can still read, play games, use a tablet, and so on.

Double Up: Eat and Heat

Make the most of the heat generated in the kitchen. If you are going to be cooking a meal anyway, utilise the warmth before, during and afterwards.

Although it is not recommend to use kitchen appliances for the sole purpose of heating (both for safety reasons and because it’s uneconomical), there is nothing to stop you getting the room temperature in the kitchen and adjoining rooms to rise by a degree or two because of heat from ovens, stoves and appliances.

The oven and stove generated the most immediate heat and will also push out an amount of warmth after they’ve been switched off. Hot plates and kettles generate a bit of heat, while slow cookers and bread makers exude a more gentle heat over a longer period of time.

The microwave oven cooks certain things more quickly, and can be more energy efficient than an oven or stove, but it doesn’t give off any heat due to its insulation and the fact it heats the contents directly rather than the air.



Actions:

  • Plan meals which utilise the oven, stove, slow cooker, and other appliances which generate heat.You may not be able to afford to use the oven for hours at a time every day, but when you do, make the most of its heat.
  • If you have the space, eat in the kitchen after the meal has been prepared, to make the most of the residual heat.
  • “Dry heat” is best — it is still worth avoiding letting a lot of steam into the room a this can settle on colder surfaces and form condensation.

Make Health a Priority

The healthier you are, the more able you are to stay active and be more able to cope with cooler temperatures.

Though it may be difficult to get through the whole season without picking up coughs, colds, and other illnesses, good hygiene and a healthy lifestyle can minimise those risks and reduce the need to crank up the heating.

Of course, if someone has a long-term health condition which necessitates warmth, it is important not to ignore that. Even then, you can concentrate on keeping the person warm rather than the entire home.

Try to eat as healthily as possible. If you can get hold of some fresh fruit, vegetables and other raw ingredients, and have (or can learn) a basic set of cooking skills, you have already opened up a lot of nutritious, cheap meals to feed your family.

That said, almost any food is better than no food at all, so don’t be embarrassed about what you feed your family when “needs must”.

We know it can be hard to strike a balance between the favourite foods which children (and adults!) prefer to eat, and some of the healthier and cheaper options. Try to adapt some of the favourites (often things like burgers, fish fingers, bolognese) to include more fresh and less processed ingredients. Also, switch from “big name” brands to supermarket own brands when possible, as many people can’t tell the different, particularly if they don’t know it’s been changed.

Eating a healthy diet (which in winter can definitely contain an amount of healthy fats, as this actually helps with body heat retention), doing exercise every day, getting fresh air and sunshine when possible, and maintaining basic hygiene, is key to being healthy and thriving in colder surroundings.

Actions:

  • Plan nutritious, wholesome meals and cook from scratch using as many unrefined ingredients, whenever possible.
  • Bulk up favourite meals with fresh and less processed ingredients, and swap out brand name goods for supermarket own brand where possible.
  • Exercise as much as possible to raise heart rate and body heat.
  • Maintain basic hygiene including hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, and keeping household surfaces disinfected.n  

Create An Adventure

No-one should have to make excuses for sacrificing comfort, but when an active choice has been made to save money by reducing heating use, it can help to get everyone on board by making it more of an adventure, even a challenge.

That doesn’t mean ignoring the signs of someone who is not coping with a lack of warmth. Instead, it means creating games and giggles from wrapping up warm, snuggling together, doing exercises, making healthy meals, finding cheap ways of getting out and about, and so on.

It takes a possible horror story of sacrifice and turns it into a winter adventure.

Actions:

  • Get everyone involved in planning fun activities and ways of staying warm in the house.
  • Try to stay positive about the your home this winter.
  • That said, don’t cover up everything and be honest with your family about your finances.

Help Not Hush

Please don’t be afraid to reach out to people and organisations who can help.

It can be difficult to admit that you are struggling and need help, but it’s far better to do this than to suffer in silence at home.

Make sure you are getting all the benefits you are entitled to. Talk to your energy supplier to see if they can help. Rally friends and family. Use food banks if you need to.

If you rent your property, talk to your landlord or housing association to see if any home improvements such as draught-proofing and insulation can be installed.

Ensure your boiler or other heating systems have been serviced. This is important not just for safety but also heating efficiency.

Please don’t succumb to payday lenders or loan sharks. No matter how much you need money to pay a bill or buy food, there are many better, safer ways to get on top of things.

Actions:

  • Reach out to organisations and people who can help your situation.
  • Check what benefits and allowances you are entitled to.
  • Talk to your landlord and utility companies if you need help.
  • Don’t be embarrassed to seek help from the community, including food banks, if you need to.
  • Don’t use unscrupulous money lenders or high interest credit to cover bills or debts.

Platitudes Busted

Sadly, a lot of well-meaning advice has been handed out over the years about how to save energy, and while they work in principle, right now they really don’t make enough of a difference.

Switching Energy Supplier

For years, we’ve been told to switch energy supplier and to get off standard tariffs on to longer term fixed ones.

Right now, that’s terrible advice.

Many price comparison sites are not currently providing energy tariff comparisons, and ‘experts’ suggest the best deal is the standard variable tariff.

That’s not to say that one utility company isn’t cheaper than another, but the market is so volatile right now, that the only surefire way to save money is to use less energy.

Turning the Thermostat Down One Degree

This energy saving tip has been dragged out year after year, and while there is truth to it, it’s not very helpful when you’ve already turned down the thermostat several degrees, or you don’t have the heating on at all.

Many people no longer have the choice of their “ideal” temperature, or to have the heating on for long periods of time, because they cannot afford it.

Tiny Savings After Huge Expense

Yet other savings are to be had if you fork out large amounts of money for the privilege. Indeed, that’s true, but is hardly helpful at a time like this, with so many people struggling.

More efficient boilers, heating systems, large appliances and insulation methods will certainly make a difference but they are out of the reach of the average consumer. Even with funding available, the costs are too great and monetary savings will take years to recoup.

Household Audit to Save £150 Per Year

Saving £12.50 per month is lovely, but for some, the cost of gas and electricity will soon be going up by £50-£100 per month.

This may be because their energy supplier has gone out of business and they’ve been moved to the standard tariff of another company, or because they were on a fixed deal which comes to an end and they are now faced with much higher current unit prices.

By all means, do all the fiddly jobs to save £150 per year, but you’ll need to take much greater action to absorb £600-£1200 per year.

Conclusions

When money is already tight and energy and food prices keep rising, it sometimes take drastic measures and the swallowing of pride to survive, even thrive, the colder months.

In a fair world, no-one should be forced to choose between heating and eating, or even reducing comfort levels in order to stay out of debt.

Sadly, this isn’t a fair world, and until such a time as the powers that be gives a practical commitment to everyone having enough money to eat and heat well, we have to be realistic and take the power into our own hands.

Everyone is in a different situation. For some, they have plenty of disposable income but don’t want to spend a larger proportion of income on heating their homes. That’s fine. Perhaps there is also more of an incentive and ability to look at lifestyle changes which reduce environmental impact.

For others, they’re doing OK now, but know that any significant increase in the cost of living is going to put them in debt. They’re the ones who may really have to be radical, medieval even, in their approach to this winter. There is no time or money available for making massive improvements — it’s about using small amounts of money, and large amounts of ingenuity, to make their homes as comfortable as possible, without living beyond their means.

And sadly, others are already struggling to pay their bills. Any increases will just increase debt levels even faster. They may be receiving help already but are going to need far more over the coming months.

Resources

There are plenty of online resources which can help you become more confident in making financial and lifestyle decisions.

If you don’t have trusted friends and family around to offer support, or you just want to be proactive in your approach to learning, take a look.

Staying Warm in a Cold House

Budgeting

Home Assessment

Educating Family

DIY

Cooking

Health

Organisations to Help

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