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Gas, electricity and other household bills top the list of worries for almost half of UK households, according to research by insurance provider Zurich.

More people are worried about their bills than family issues, pressures at work or relationship problems. That perhaps isn't surprising, given that energy prices have risen sharply over the last few years. Indeed, several energy providers recently announced further price hikes ahead of winter.

So how can you protect yourself against the impact of rising bills this winter? Here are some of our tips.

Pay by Direct Debit

Most energy suppliers offer a discount if you pay your bills by Direct Debit, sometimes in the form of an annual rebate. It's also easier for you, because payments leave your account automatically.

And most importantly, it enables you to spread your energy costs evenly across the year, instead of paying more during winter. As long as you have a good estimate of how much energy you use in a year (using previous bills, for example), your energy provider can set up your monthly payments accordingly.

Fix your energy tariff

At a time when energy prices are rising, it could pay to find a fixed-price tariff. These tariffs start off slightly more expensive than the cheapest deals on offer, but are immune to price rises for a fixed period (usually more than a year).

Of course, the downside is that you also wouldn't benefit from any price cuts - but they're looking increasingly unlikely these days, so fixing could be your best bet if you want to avoid any nasty shocks.

Stick to a budget

Limiting how much energy you use can only go so far. To really protect your finances, you need to put together a budget that helps you plan all your essential spending.

The easiest way to do this is to work out how much all your essential living costs come to each month, and subtract the total from take-home pay. You can safely spend (or save) whatever's left over.

If you think you may struggle to keep track of your finances, there are services that can do it for you - such as the thinkmoney Current Account. This account automatically puts money for bills to one side at the start of each month. You'll also have your own Money Manager a quick phone call away, who can help you with any concerns about your finances.

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