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How to reduce your household bills

Electricity, gas, digital TV, insurance, telephone, broadband; the list of bills for an average family goes on. We all know we could cut outgoings by switching suppliers, but Watchdog has found that you could save hundreds of pounds by threatening to leave your current providers - simply by picking up the phone. We sent Chris Hollins to the village of Billington to investigate.

Video - How to reduce your household bills

Chris Hollins: there's nothing he loves more than a Watchdog experiment, and out of all the places in the UK, he chose Billington, population 1200. BILL-ING-TON, get it?

The Watchdog team has been asking those who live in Billington and in surrounding villages to take part in our 'Bill Saver Challenge' to see if they can get a better deal without switching providers. A total of 18 households took part, and we got Martin Lewis to give some financial tips.

Tip #1: Welcome to the world of don't ask don't get. When it comes to saving money, the perfect solution is to do a cross market comparison to hone in on the very best deal. But you know what? If you don't have the time, sometimes just picking up the phone and saying 'Listen, I don't really like my tariff, have you got anything better?' does work.

We should stress that our test wasn't scientific. The households that took part simply called whichever providers they were with - but how did they get on?

Stephanie Zak was first. She had boiler repair insurance with British Gas, and Orange mobile contract, BT landline and a Sky TV package. Stephanie was paying £58 a month for her British Gas insurance, but she wasn't tied in, so could look elsewhere if she wanted to. She contacted British Gas and they agreed to reduce her bills to £43 a month, which she thought was excellent - exactly the same service and no changes at all.

As for Sky, her husband made the call to them and had no joy at first so he asked to go through to disconnections.

Tip #2: Don't panic that you've been put through to disconnections. Celebrate! That's exactly where you want to be. Internally it's probably called customer retentions because their job is to keep you, and they've got much more discretion when it comes to negotiating to do so.

After speaking to disconnections, Stephanie's husband got the bill down to £39 a month from £52, with no change in service - everything they're getting from Sky is exactly the same. Stephanie also made a saving on BT, but she was already on the best possible deal with Orange, so no saving there.

But in total, Stephanie will save more than £380 over the next year. Not a bad start!

Next up was Julie Oliver. Julie spoke to BT and her gas and electricity supplier, and managed to save around £100 in total.

Kieran Carr was next - he had Sky TV and energy from Southern Electric. He made a great saving with Sky of £10.50 a month, but no savings with Southern Electric as he was already on the best tariff.

According to Martin Lewis gas and electric are two areas you really should compare all suppliers' prices rather than rely on your existing provider to offer a better deal. But there are still potentially big savings to be made in other areas, and your timing can be crucial.

Tip #3: When you are at the end of your contract, you're holstering a huge weapon in the form of your loyalty and companies will often give you really good deals. Having said that, even if your contract isn't over, it's always worth trying to switch contracts.

Carol-Anne is certainly a trier; she called five of her service providers, and four offered improved deals, saving her a total of £583 over the next year. She's spending the money to go on holiday with her pets, for the first time in seven years.

Tip #4: Fantastic deals. But just before you take the plunge with your switch, check how long the company expect you to sign up for if you take their offer. Sometimes it could be as long as a couple of years, but these are fast moving markets so you may not want to be tied in that long. And do ask them "has anything else changed?" just in case they're throwing in any wobblers you're not aware of.

Some of the improved deals offered by the various companies we contacted were already available on their websites, but many of the people we've featured were offered deals they wouldn't have known about if they hadn't asked.

So in the end, what's the total potential saving? After checking over the paperwork for a few hours, Chris met the savers to give them the results over a well-deserved, and now more affordable drink.

First category, Television: nine people called, six people saved money and between you that's a total saving of £616.44 over the year - an average of over £100 each for those that saved.

  • Insurance, total savings £447.33 over the year
  • Gas and Electric, total savings would be £654.16
  • Landline and Internet offered the biggest savings for everyone in the group, with a total saving of £1189.20 over the year

Not bad for a few phone calls! And the total amount saved? A flabbergasting £3093.93!

A great result for our savers, and it just goes to show: if you don't ask, you don't get.

Company Responses

A BT Spokesperson said:

We are always happy for customers to contact us and we'd be happy to review their accounts in order to suggest the best deal for them. Customers can call us on 0800 800 030 and speak to our specialist team between 8am and 9pm Monday to Friday, 8am until 8pm on Saturdays or 9am to 6pm on Sundays.

The two cases featured illustrate that's its often worth our customers calling us to see if we can offer a deal that suits them, like Ms Zakrzekwski, or if they just want to reconsider their options, like Ms Oliver.

A Sky spokesperson said:

"We understand that people's circumstances sometimes change, so we engage with customers on an individual basis to help them find the right mix of products to suit their needs and budgets. When customers call us, they most often find the biggest savings by switching their phone and broadband services to Sky. We always take a personal approach to helping our customers and advising them on the right solution."

A British Gas spokesperson said:

British Gas offers a range of competitively priced homecare products covering boiler breakdowns, central heating repairs, plumbing and drain problems, electrical fixes and help with other household emergencies. We are keen to look after our loyal customers, when Ms Zakrzekwski contacted us, due to her individual circumstances, we felt it was appropriate to offer a 20% reduction her last two payments, which is a total reduction of 3% on her annual contract. We have also invited Ms Zakrekwski to talk to us before her current contract is due to end, so we can review her needs and make an informed offer with the right level of cover and cost to suit her.

An EDF spokesperson said:

We are pleased that Ms Oliver was able to make an annual saving of £73.54 by moving from our standard rate to Fix to March 2013 and would remind customers to always check first with their own supplier before switching to see if they can sign up to a cheaper deal.

Customers could save most money by paying by direct debit or moving to a dual fuel tariff.

An SSE spokesperson said:

We can confirm that Mr Carr was already on the cheapest tariff. It is also correct that we asked him to submit his latest meter readings to ensure that he was only billed for the energy he uses, rather than estimated bills.

An Orange spokesperson said:

"At Orange we are committed to providing the best value and services possible for our customers. That is why, for example, we have made a promise to our customers that they can get a range of great offers when they upgrade which are equal to or better than the deals we advertise for our new customers, such as our latest Exclusive Offer of 200 extra minutes when a customer re-signs to one of the latest BlackBerry handsets.

In the case of Ms Zakrzekwski, as she had only taken out this contract two months ago and was already on one of our great deals, we are not yet able to offer her an upgrade. However we will review her plan twice a year with our Best Plan service to ensure that she remains on the best contract for her and provide the option to switch to it if she is not.

In addition, our customers can take advantage of great money saving offers such as Magic Numbers, giving Pay Monthly customers unlimited calls to up to 3 friends on Orange, 2 for 1 cinema tickets and Pizza Express with Orange Wednesdays, and a £5 per month saving on Orange Home or Mobile Broadband."