You know that feeling of impending doom during a horror film, as the creepy music starts, lights flicker and floorboards creak?
That’s how I’ve been feeling over the last few months, faced with the flood of frightening news about rising living costs.
Inflation has already hit a 30 year high, at 5.4% compared to the 2% target. Yikes.
House prices had already gone crazy. Higher fuel costs mean it costs extra tenners to fill up your tank. Food prices have been juddering upwards, with value ranges disappearing from supermarket shelves. Energy bills have already become scorching, pushed up by wholesale gas prices.
Then yesterday, further horror was unleashed.
Scary price rises
The new energy price cap from April, announced yesterday, will go up by a staggering 54%.
That’s huge, on bills that have already become frighteningly high after previous price rises. Someone paying typical bills by direct debit of £1,277 a year will suddenly be scrabbling to find nearly £700 extra, as their bills hit £1,971.
The price cap limits how much energy companies can gouge per unit for people on default tariffs – ie if they haven’t switched or fixed. So price increases, especially for those in draughty houses, coming off cheap tariffs or on prepayment meters, will actually be way higher.
The Bank of England also doubled base rate yesterday, up from 0.25% to 0.5%, the second increase in as many months. This may not be a massive increase, but it is likely to push up the cost of borrowing money. For many homeowners it won’t make any immediate difference – around 75% of mortgages are on fixed rates. But those on variable rates are likely to face higher monthly payments, if their lenders pass on the interest rate rise. Higher rates will also affect new buyers and anyone looking to remortgage.
Savers may hope to benefit from extra interest on their accounts – but in practice there’s no guarantee banks and building societies will pass on the increase in full, or at all.
Many of us would normally expect to pay higher Council Tax from April too.
At the same time as costs are rising, many are seeing their income shrink.
In October, the Chancellor cancelled the extra £20 a week added to Universal Credit during the pandemic.
National Insurance rates are due to go up by 1.25 percentage points from April. This affects all workers who earn over £9,880 a year. For someone earning £30,000 a year for example, just north of national average earnings, that means shelling out an extra £214 a year.
Plus over time, many taxpayers will start feeling the pinch because tax thresholds have been frozen. Normally, the amount you can earn before starting to pay any income tax, and before starting to pay higher rate tax, ticks up each year. Instead, the Personal Allowance has been frozen at £12,570, and the Higher Rate Threshold frozen at £50,270, until 2026. Over time, as earnings increase, ever more people will have to pay ever more tax.
Help that won’t even touch the sides
The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, made futile attempts to plug the yawning gap yesterday, but I fear it will be too little, and will come too late.
He promised all domestic electricity customers a £200 “discount” on their bills in October. But people will then need to repay this supposed discount in equal instalments of £40 a year over the next five years.
What kind of weird Klarna Kool-Aid has be been drinking, offering people the chance to buy now, pay later on their energy bills? That’s not a discount, it’s a loan that has to repaid. Plus, it’s only meant to kick in from October, when millions of families are struggling right now.
So before that, in April, he’s bunging £150 each off Council Tax to people in Bands A to D. Local authorities will also get £150 million to hand out to other lower income households, and people who are exempt from Council Tax.
Plus, more people will be eligible for the £140 a year Warm Home Discount.
I fear the odd few hundred pounds here and there won’t even touch the sides, when the combined impact of price rises climbs into the thousands.
Struggling to cope with rising living costs
Many of us will need to dig deep to cover so many price hikes all at once. For those already teetering on a financial knife edge it will be disastrous. The Bank of England is forecasting inflation over 7% and the worst fall in living standards since records began 30 years ago.
If you haven’t already exhausted these options, I suggest:
- Strip out any excess costs right now, before big bills become more horrific. Check out my previous post on how to slash your budget to the bone
- Start saving. If the pandemic demonstrated anything, it reinforced the need for an emergency fund.
- If you pay Council Tax in 10 instalments, with no bills this month and next, consider how you can use the money best.
- Think twice before blowing extra cash, in case it’s needed later.
- Double check if there’s anything you can claim – bung your details into the benefits calculator at Turn2Us and use their grants search. If you have a low retirement income, definitely check whether you qualify for Pension Credit (Age UK also has a useful benefits calculator for senior citizens). Claiming for example Universal Credit ir Pension Credit doesn’t only provide extra income, but can unlock shedloads of other advantages.
Now – over to you. How do you feel about the rising costs of living? What are you doing to cope?
For more discussion about energy bills, interest rates, inflation and banking at the Post Office, check out episode 249 of the Andy Webb’s Cash Chats podcast, where I was a guest yesterday.