If you've got a prepaid gas or electric meter, your options are finally getting better. There are now cheap fixed tariffs available that help you save AND beat future price hikes.
Prepayment meters are electricity and gas meters that let you pay for your energy on a pay-as-you-go basis. According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, around 4.5m UK homes use them.
You top up via a key or card, which you can credit at newsagents, post offices, garages, or sometimes online. While they can help to budget, you usually end up paying more for energy. This guide shows you how to switch provider or change meter to save £100s.
Now is the time to switch and save
With the cold really biting, but it's still a great time for prepay meter users to switch. Cheap deals aren't always around for prepay users, so it's worth checking what's out there (alongside options for getting a standard meter for even bigger savings).
Fixed tariffs freeze the price of each unit of energy you use for a set time. Always watch out for exit fees though – they're what you'll be charged if you leave before the tariff ends.
OUR TOP PICKS (based on typical usage)
These are average prices. Always do a comparison.
|Supplier||Fixed for/until||Exit fee||Cost/year||Service feedback (1)|
|Typical big six standard prepay tariff||-||-||-||£1,163||-|
|Cheap fix but no service feedback||E 1 year fixed||12mths||None||£1,050||None|
|Cheap with good service BUT not fixed||Ovo Energy Smart PAYG*||Variable||None||£1,058||85% great
|Cheap 12mth fix||EDF Blue+ Fixed Prepay Feb 2018||28 Feb 2018||None||£1,096||55% great
|Cheap non-prepay tariff (2)||GB Energy||Variable||None||£765 (3)||62% great
Correct at Feb 2016. All tariffs assume Ofgem medium usage. Varies by region. (1) For each firm, not tariff, based on MSE poll of 5,452 people, Nov 2015. (2) Full options in Cheap Gas & Elec. (3) Monthly direct debit.
In addition to being one of the cheapest prepay tariffs on the market right now, Ovo's PAYG (Online) tariff comes with a smart meter and access to its free PAYG+ app (iPhone and Android), which allows top-ups via it.
You can also top-up online and by text, and it allows you to set automatic top-ups if your credit falls below a certain limit. See the Ovo Energy PAYG app MSE news story for details.
Latest price changes
Last year suppliers hiked prices, then subsequently trimmed them – and this year providers are further cutting prices.
See full info on recent energy hikes and cuts
Historic price changesPrice rises by provider
Energy prices have changed a lot over the last two years – here's a quick recap.
2016 price cuts
So far, SSE, Scottish Power and E.on have announced 5% price cuts to gas, which also applies to prepay, with E.on's already in place, Scottish Power's set to take effect on 15 March and SSE's on 29 March.
The big six are like sheep, so it's likely others will follow.
2015 price cuts
With the wholesale price of gas falling by up to 30% in 2014, energy firms found themselves under political pressure – especially in the run up to the general election – to pass on savings to customers.
We've detailed the big six standard gas tariff price cuts below, and their typical redutions for information, though these apply to those on credit meters, not prepaid users.
|Supplier||Gas price cut (effective date)||Reduction on typical gas bill for credit meters|
|British Gas||5% (27 Feb & 27 Aug 2015)||£72 combined|
|EDF||1.3% (11 Feb 2015)||£9|
|E.on||3.5% (13 Jan 2015)||£24|
|Npower||5.1% (16 Feb 2015)||£35|
|Scottish Power||4.8% (20 Feb 2015)||£33|
|SSE||4.1 (30 Apr 2015)||£28|
2014 price rises
A host of providers announced price hikes in the winter of 2013/14, blaming the Government's green levy charges. The green levy – paid by energy firms as a contribution to certain schemes, eg, the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) – was introduced to make homes more energy efficient.
In a bid to lower bills, the Government reduced the amount suppliers had to pay (see the Government shakes up energy bills MSE news story). Suppliers passed on some of these cuts to consumers, reducing bills slightly, but due to the high increases in bills initially, overall prices rose significantly over the year.
The table below shows the net effect of price changes to the average gas and electricity cost over 2013/14 for each major supplier, including where they passed on green cuts. It also shows the overall increase, taking into account all hikes and cuts from 2013/14.
||Price cut on typical bill||Overall rise|
|Npower||10% (1 Dec 2013)||c.£50 (28 Feb 2014)||7.4%|
|British Gas||9% (23 Nov 2013)||£53 (1 Jan 2014)||6%|
|Scottish Power||9% (6 Dec 2013)||£42 (31 Jan 2014)||5.7%|
|SSE||8% (15 Nov 2013)||c.£38 (24 Mar 2014)||4%|
|EDF||3.9% (3 Jan 2014)||£12 only (Autumn 2014)||3.9%|
|E.on||3.7% (18 Jan 2014)||£12 only (Autumn 2014)||3.7%|
|As their price hikes were lower, EDF and E.on already factored in the green levy cuts.|
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You can switch and save on prepaid gas or electric meters. Our Cheap Energy Club tool makes switching as easy as possible and helps you get constantly cheap gas and electricity.
All you need to do is tell it where you live and how much energy you use. Then we'll tell you if you're overpaying on your current deal or if there's a cheaper alternative.
But the best bit is we'll keep monitoring your tariff for you every month to ensure you're always on the best deal. Plus if we can switch you, you'll usually get £30 cashback.
It's also worth checking out the comparisons below – they offer cashback options too.
The limitations of comparison sites – they don't always show all tariffs
Bear in mind that some comparison sites by default only show you tariffs you can switch to via them (ie, where they're paid commission). This filters out some results unlike Cheap Energy Club which shows you ALL those available by default and always has done.
If you do use a comparison site always check you're seeing all available tariffs to get the full picture before making a decision. Since March 2015, comparison sites covered by Ofgem's Confidence Code must show all available tariffs by default, making this much easier – you can check what sites are covered.
Energyhelpline* has a history of good reliability and good feedback on our forum. It pays £17 cashback per fuel per switch if you do it online.
For a dual fuel switch – getting gas and electricity from one provider – you can get bigger freebies (one per household). Yet don't assume dual fuel is always cheapest. Check whether getting separate gas and electricity can undercut it, as it often can.
By specifically clicking via these special MoneySavingExpert.com links to get to the comparison sites and not going direct, you also get paid the cashback or freebies on top, provided they can switch you (see why they pay). It's usually paid in 45-90 days.
If you've less than £500 debt per fuel, you can still switch supplier. This debt will follow you to the new supplier.
If you rent your home, you can also save £100s by switching, especially if you've never switched. You don't need to own the property to do it, you're free to switch providing you pay the energy supplier directly.
You should check your tenancy agreement to see what it says about switching. But even if your contract bans it, Ofgem's guidance states that if you pay the energy bill, you're still entitled to change supplier.
If you move in to a new home and want to know 'who supplies my gas?' Check with your landlord. The property may already be supplied on a more expensive, standard tariff. You can still compare on Cheap Energy Club, even without the former occupants' bills.
We'd love to hear your experiences of switching as a renter on the Switching when renting forum discussion, especially if you've challenged your landlord.
Tenants can also print out our factsheet to give to landlords. It explains the rights that renters have to switch energy supplier, but in the meantime here are some pointers...
Pay the energy company directly? You CAN switch supplier
This is because you have a contract directly with the energy supplier. You don't need to get permission from your landlord to do this, but it's a good idea to let them know in writing so they're aware. It is worth checking your tenancy agreement just in case it is a breach. If it is, talk to your landlord.
My tenancy agreement says I can't switch, help!
Even if you pay energy bills to the supplier, but your tenancy agreement says you can't switch, challenge it. Preventing a tenant from changing energy suppliers may be viewed as an unfair term in a tenancy agreement. Speak to Citizens Advice to see if it can help.
If there's a default supplier clause in the tenancy agreement – where a landlord has a tie-in with a particular supplier – Ofgem says you can still switch.
Ofgem's guidance states: "If a tenant is directly responsible for paying the gas and/or electricity bills, they have the right to choose their own energy supplier and the landlord or letting agent should not unreasonably prevent this."¯ See the Ofgem website for more.
Landlord says you can't ditch supplier? Try a cheaper tariff
If your landlord won't budge, and you don't want the hassle of challenging it, ask if you can be switched to a cheaper tariff with the same energy supplier. If the landlord allows this (here's hoping they will), you'll start paying the cheaper prices the same day you switch.
You may be able to switch from a prepay to a standard meter
If you've got a prepay meter and you're renting, you can still switch your energy supplier, providing you pay the company directly (check your tenancy agreement too – though if it says you can't switch, challenge it).
If you want to change the meter itself (perhaps you're changing a prepaid to a standard meter), then it's best to get written permission from your landlord first.
This is because it could be seen as changing the property from its original condition, unless you arrange to change the meter back at the end of the tenancy. The supplier may charge to do this (see below) so check first.
You may be eligible for free insulation or a free boiler
Tenants can also get free insulation and boilers, as long as they meet suppliers' eligibility criteria and have permission from their landlord.
You may be able to qualify if:
- You get tax credits and have a household income of less than £16,010 OR
- You receive income-based benefits, such as pension credit or income support, and you've either, children, a disabled person in the household or are over 60. Full help in the Free Insulation guide.
The very cheapest energy tariffs are online deals for those who have credit meters, or normal, standard meters in other words. They measure your usage, then you receive a bill or pay by direct debit afterwards, rather than paying in advance.
|Typical average prepay meter cost: £1,163||Typical cheapest prepay meter cost: £1,050||Typical cheapest credit meter cost: £765|
|Correct at Feb 2016. Based on average consumption for a typical house using a 'medium' amount of energy.|
Standard meters offer a wider choice of tariffs including cheap online deals, direct debit discounts and more. It's simply a more competitive marketplace.
Choices are opening up for prepay users, but it's still an outrage that some of society's poorest often pay more for their energy with these. If you can, ditch and switch to a credit meter.
Before you take the plunge and consider switching to a credit meter, bear in mind:
You may be credit-checked
Providers usually fit prepay meters because they think you're a credit risk. If you're moving into a property with a prepay meter, but have a good credit history, it should be easier to ditch it.
If it was fitted because of payment problems, you'll need to prove your creditworthiness. Any external credit checks via credit agencies will appear on your credit file and may affect future applications. See the Credit Rating guide for full info and tips on how to improve it.
A new meter might cost
Some providers charge up to £60 for swapping to a credit meter. Your savings from moving can be up to £250/year, or even more if you've never switched. So your savings should offset the cost eventually, but of course it may mean finding the cash in the short term.
You may have to pay for the meter if you change supplier
The provider may charge you for the free meter if you switch away to a different supplier before 12 months, so it can recoup its costs.
It can't dictate which tariff you opt for though, so make sure you switch to its cheapest tariff (online tariffs are usually cheapest – see Cheap Gas & Elec for more info).
It's easier to get into fuel debt on a credit meter
Prepayment meters have the advantage of budgeting. You know what you're spending, when you're spending, and it's an incentive to keep energy usage down. While for most the savings from lower rates will outweigh this, it's worth thinking about it before attempting a switch.
How to get a credit meter for free
If you think a credit meter is right for you, follow these steps.
Find out how much your provider will charge to ditch your meter.
As you can see from the table below, some suppliers remove prepay meters and install bill meters for free if you meet their requirements, so it's always worth asking. Almost always though, you'll need to have paid off any existing debt. If you're renting, you may need your landlord's permission first, so check your tenancy agreement first.
How much does your existing provider charge for a meter?
Energy supplier Meter cost What are the requirements? Do you have to stay with the supplier? Free An account review and credit check. You can't be in debt, or have had a debt at your current/previous address in the last 12 months. You can't be in credit of over £50 No, and you don't have to pay for the meter, even if you switch to another supplier after the swap Gas: £60
Can be free, so ask
Your account history is reviewed to ensure you won't build up debt. You can't be in debt on your account. No Gas: £62.90
Your account history is reviewed to ensure you won't build up debt. A credit check is done. It may ask for a deposit which will be returned in 12 months, with interest. No Gas: £52
A direct debit. No Free No credit check, but you must repay any outstanding debt first. No Free A credit check. No Correct at Jan 2015.
Please note: Switching to credit meters is at your supplier's discretion, so please tell us about your experience in the forum discussion.
Do you receive benefits or have a medical condition?
If you haven't been able to get a credit meter for free and fit into either of these two groups, it may still be possible to swap.
Get certain benefits? A Government scheme, Fuel Direct, lets you pay your bills directly from your benefit allowance. To be eligible for the scheme you have to receive certain benefits (see the site for these).
A set amount of £3.65 can be deducted to cover arrears, and an extra amount would be taken on top of this to cover your current consumption. Energy suppliers may agree to remove a prepay meter if you agree to sign up to Fuel Direct. None have confirmed this and they say it's decided on a case-by-case basis, but it's worth a try.
Medical condition? According to CAB, if you have mobility problems or if you are reliant on electricity for medical reasons, eg, to run breathing apparatus, you may be able to get your prepay meter removed.
Threaten to leave if it isn't free.
If you've passed the credit checks which should, in theory, make you a desirable customer, but are still being asked to pay for removal of the meter, threaten to switch to another supplier. Some suppliers may waive the charge to keep your custom.
Move to a provider that will give you a credit meter for free.
If you can't get a free meter from your own provider, consider switching to get a prepay tariff with one of the suppliers that does offer free credit meters.
However, Ofgem rules state that if you have more than £500 debt per fuel with a supplier, you can be stopped from switching.
Remember, there's no guarantee that if you do switch to another company, it will then allow you to get a credit meter. So if you're going to do this, use the chart above in conjunction with finding a cheap prepay provider. This will at least ensure you won't end up paying a lot more on prepay if you don't ditch the meter.
If you're a new customer, it may be best to wait a few months to build up your payment history with the company.
Ditched your prepay meter? Tell us how it went!
Is it worth paying for a credit meter?
If you've tried everything to get a free credit meter and can't, it still may be worth paying, though it's NOT worth getting into debt for.
The cheapest prepayment meter tariff costs, on average, roughly £1,050/year. Yet the cheapest tariff for credit meter customers is currently around £750/year, a saving of £300. Balance the saving with the cost of swapping meter to help you decide.
As a rule of thumb, if you'll live there over two years and you're not struggling financially, it can be worth paying for a credit meter.
Never had a credit meter before? Quick tips
Credit meters are usually cheaper than prepayment meters, but it takes more effort to stay on top of bills. When you switch over, make sure you do the following:
Once you've switched, ensure you're on the cheapest tariff
Don't assume you're on the cheapest tariff. In fact, it's likely the energy company will put you on a costly one. If you have to stick with one supplier to avoid paying for the meter, speak to it to ensure you're on the cheapest tariff. Or do a comparison looking only at that provider.
If not, then you need to do a full market comparison – the overall winner depends on where you live and how much energy you use. To speedily find it and get cashback, see the full Cheap Gas & Elec guide.
Every time you receive a bill, do a meter reading
Don't rely on your energy provider's estimates, these are often way out. If it's under-billing, you'll have a big whack to pay at the end of the year. If it's over-billing, then it's unfairly got your cash.
If your direct debit is way off kilter, call up and request it's changed. You have a range of rights to ensure it's correct. See the full Energy Direct Debits guide for template letters to help.
Paying by direct debit is much cheaper
Pay by direct debit and it means you won't miss any bills. Plus you can save up to £70/year compared with other methods, though make sure you send regular meter readings so it's set at an accurate amount.
If you're struggling to pay, speak to your provider
Three providers (see links below) offer an Energy Trust scheme for their account holders in hardship, to help cover energy arrears and sometimes other essential household items.
Essential items are covered by Further Assistance Payments and can include white goods, boiler repairs or funeral costs. Those who live in a home supplied by the provider, but are not account holders, can only apply for Further Assistance Payments.
You need to complete a full income and expenditure budget sheet along with proof of your income, give details on how your arrears have built up, eg, due to illness or redundancy, and say how the grant will help you.
It can take several weeks to process your claim but it can give £1,000+ in support.;
Energy suppliers are obliged to help those in hardship. One way they do it is by providing the Warm Home Discount. Essentially it's a £140 discount on your electricity bill, although the deadline has passed for this winter so it won't be available until winter 2016/17.
The overall scheme requires suppliers, by law, to help vulnerable customers pay for energy. It's available for customers who receive pension credit, so if this applies to you and you've a prepay meter, you can get it too. The final decision rests with suppliers – so call up and find out what your supplier will offer you.
For full help on getting free cash to help pay utility arrears, or freebies to cut energy bills, see our Housing and Energy Grants guide.
You can also make significant savings simply by making sure you use your prepay meter in the right way. Here are a few top tips:
Use less energy
It's not just who you pay, but how much you use. Cutting energy is a mix of big and little things.
Turn down the thermostat and wear jumpers, turn lights off when you leave a room, use energy-saving light bulbs, defrost the fridge and check it's not on too high, don't leave electrical goods on standby.
Don't use emergency credit too often
Most suppliers provide around £6-10 emergency credit after your top-up runs out. But when you dip into the emergency credit it doesn't charge you the standing charge (the fixed charge you pay daily just to be connected), so the next time you top up you have to play catch-up, which can throw your budgeting out.
Going away? Make sure you top up enough
If you're going away, you need to leave enough credit on the meter to cover the daily standing charge, even if usage will be low. Otherwise you may find your credit runs out and appliances switch off while you're gone.
Moved house? Tell your supplier immediately
If you've moved into a home with a prepayment meter, tell the existing supplier immediately and don't use the old tenant's top-up card.
Otherwise you may end up having to pay someone else's debt just to get an energy supply. The supplier must, under a code of conduct, reset the meter as soon as reasonably possible.
Ignore doorstep sellers
There have been previous scams involving doorstep sellers selling fraudulent top-up cards. The cards were normally sold in £50 denominations for the price of £25. They didn't work so it was totally wasted cash.
Top up before price hikes
This depends on your provider. But when British Gas, for example, last hiked prices, the price charged by the meter didn't increase until the first time you topped up after the hike. Anything used before that first top-up was charged at the old rate. As there is usually a maximum top-up, the benefit of this will be limited.
Keep your card safe
How to complain about your energy provider
The energy industry isn't known for having great customer service across the board, and while a provider may be good for some, it can be hell for others. Common prepay problems include faulty cards, incorrect bills and more. It's always worth trying to call your provider first, but if not then…
Free tool if you're having a problem
This tool helps you draft your complaint and manage it too. It's totally free, and offered by a firm called Resolver which we like so much we work with it to help people get complaints justice.
If the complaint isn't resolved, Resolver will escalate it to the free Ombudsman Services.
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