Please note that this article is from a previous issue of the magazine – some information may have changed since the publication date. Virgin Money cannot be held responsible for the accuracy of this content.

Don't let winter catch you out!
Don't let winter catch you out! 

While some may feel summer is barely over, the last few winters have been severe in terms of weather. And while experts are struggling to agree about what we might expect this year, it pays to be ready, particularly as inflation and energy bills have also risen steadily.

Here are a few tips to help you get ready for the cold season without spending a fortune. If you have any of your own, be sure to let us know. We’ll pay £100 to the writer of the ‘star letter’ we publish in a future issue.

Click to link to any of the following sections:

Preparing at home - link

Preparing the garden - link

Preparing your wheels - link

Preparing your animals - link

Preparing yourself - link

Preparing at home

Maintenance ensures any minor problems are spotted early and nipped in the bud before they develop into expensive major ones. So before the temperature drops, get your boiler and other appliances serviced by a qualified engineer from the Gas Safe-register.

Your central heating should never be switched off, but remain on low to prevent burst pipes. The extra few pounds in energy are more than worth it in preventing water damage.

Ice on the roof

Insulate any exposed pipes and tanks, such as in attics and cupboards. And if you are out a lot, or going away, it may be worth leaving doors surrounding these open so warmer air can circulate. Ensure you know where your stop cock is, in case you suffer a burst pipe and need to turn it off. Don’t assume your home and contents are fully insured against accidents like this. Review your policy.

Make sure you’re on the best value energy tariff available for your needs. Talk to your provider and use a comparison site such as uswitch or gocompare to weigh up different deals. Include both dual fuel and separate gas and electric packages.

Some providers offer discounts for online tariffs, paperless billing or paying by Direct Debit. Your supplier may offer to match rival deals to keep your custom. Remember – if you don’t ask, you don’t get!

In case of power cuts, set aside some essentials like blankets, a torch, candles, matches or lighters and any portable heaters so they are easy to find in the dark. As well as comfort, boredom is a factor in these situations, so a pack of cards or a board game may also be a good idea, especially with older children and teens.

"Maintenance is crucial around the home"

Plug gaps in nooks and crannies where cold air can cause a draught, like walls, letter boxes, door frames and roofs. Draught excluders can be picked up cheaply at most DIY stores. And visit the Energy Saving Trust to assess your home’s energy efficiency, or to see if you qualify for a grant or discount towards the cost of cavity wall or loft insulation.

Get ready for dark nights by checking for broken light bulbs and make sure you have spares. Energy saving bulbs are cheaper to use. Don’t make it easy for thieves who use winter darkness to their advantage. Never leave valuables on show, and think about installing a burglar alarm and automatic security lights.

If you have an alarm, get it serviced. And when you go out, set up timer switches so some lamps, TV or a radio come on in the evening. Timer plugs can be purchased at DIY stores, larger supermarkets or on the internet.

Many modern freezers are frost free, but if yours still needs to be defrosted regularly, start using up the contents in plenty of time so it can be cleared, cleaned and restocked.

Preparing the garden

Don’t forget to check and clear outside areas like drains and guttering. Autumn leaves can block these, creating overflows and damp. Check roof tiles aren’t loose in case of leaks or high winds. And turn off and lag outside taps with plastic foam which can be picked up cheaply from DIY shops.

Weatherproof fences and decking to lengthen their lives. Gardens should also be checked for furniture and ornaments that need to be secured or put away for the winter.

Carry out any essential pruning, if necessary enlisting the services of a reputable tree surgeon. A legitimate tree surgeon will be happy to let you check their qualifications with the NPTC (National Proficiency Tests Council) or in some cases the Royal Forestry Society. Secure any stray branches or foliage that may break and cause damage in high wind and heavy rain.

But don’t over prune. Wildlife need shelter from the winter too, and fallen leaves can provide foraging for birds, frogs and insects. If you have a pond, clean it out to keep vegetation healthy. If it freezes over, break the ice for aquatic wildlife who may struggle to breathe.

Birds depend on human assistance in the winter so clean and stock bird feeders and tables and clear old nesting sites, making sure they remain secure to be used in the spring.

Preparing your wheels

Check your car thoroughly before cold weather sets in, and regularly throughout the winter, especially if you travel a lot. Ensure water, anti-freeze, coolant, washer fluid and oil levels are topped up as recommended by the vehicle manufacturer. Check your wiper blades and ensure your heater and windscreen defrost fans are working.

Check the bulbs in your lights and indicators. And make sure you have plenty of tread on your tyres, including the spare. Three to four millimetres is needed to avoid skidding in snow and ice. Check for damage that could cause a puncture, and make sure tyres are at the right pressure.

Many people are opting to fit special winter tyres designed for use when temperatures drop because they have more natural rubber. This makes them better for gripping in the cold. A cheaper option is a set of snow chains or socks, but these are only suitable for short trips at lower speeds.

"Preparation can help save money in the long run"

To prevent rust, make sure vehicles are clean and dry, and touch up any scratches. Don’t forget about vehicles and appliances sitting in garages and sheds such as bikes, motorcycles and lawnmowers. Wipe these with an oily rag and spray WD40 where needed to repel any moisture. Drain excess fuel for winter storage and rub petroleum jelly into chrome to maintain lustre. Bikes and motorbikes should be kept covered with breathable material, and your windscreen can be protected from frost by using a specially designed anti-frost windscreen cover from only a few pounds.

Before setting off, clear fallen snow from your car roof and windscreen. This is a legal requirement. Keep a rag in the car to wipe the inside of your windscreen if it steams up, and make sure you have a scraper and plenty of de-icer with you.

Despite the best preparation, sometimes accidents do happen. So keep an emergency kit in the car. Include items like a blanket, spare old clothes, maps, a shovel, torch, spare batteries including a mobile phone charger, water and high energy snacks. For longer journeys, take a flask of warm soup, tea or coffee.

You’d be surprised how many people never read their car manual. But it’s worth familiarising yourself with the different warning lights you may encounter and what you should do if they turn on. Consider breakdown cover, particularly if you notch up several thousand miles a year or have an older car. Use a comparison website to compare prices and cover.

Preparing your animals

Stock up on food and bedding for your pets ahead of any cold snap when slippy roads and pavements make it harder to get out. You may be able to get some items delivered with your groceries, but plan ahead for anything else.

"It may be a good time to review your pet insurance requirements"

Clear out sheds and outhouses for animals who usually live outside to be brought indoors. Consider investing in a dog jacket if your pooch is small or sensitive. They’ll still need plenty of exercise, whatever the weather and a jacket can be purchased from between £10 and £20 on Amazon.

Cat under cover

Keep dogs on a lead in darker weather or near frozen water to avoid expensive and upsetting accidents. And make sure dogs and outdoor cats have a reflective collar so they can be seen easily by motorists. It may be a good time to review your pet insurance requirements. Again – shop around to find a good deal.

It’s important outdoor cats aren’t left in the cold for too long. Give them access to somewhere warm if they happen to be outside when you go out. You could consider installing a cat flap so they can come and go as they please.

Keep an eye out for any wildlife that may struggle in the cold, like hedgehogs. Have a supply of cat food at the ready if you know you have regular visitors like this.

Preparing yourself

The winter can seem to draw in very quickly. It can make some of us reach for the thermostat, while others head straight to the shops for tonnes of warm new clothes. Before you do either – stop!

Take some time to assess the contents of your wardrobe. You may have cosy blankets and warm woollens you had forgotten about. Rarely worn items like gloves, hats and scarves are often stuffed in the back of drawers and cupboards. And remember that a few thin layers worn together are more effective at keeping you warm than one thick layer of clothes.

"Make a list of the things you still need"

Try to mix and match with what you already have. Select a few basic pieces in neutral colours and liven them up using inexpensive accessories in different styles and colours. Make a list of the things you still need so that when you go shopping you aren’t tempted to buy anything else. Quality fabrics like pure wool and cashmere tend to last longer, so treat yourself to save money in the long run. It’s always worth having some thermals for the whole family and thick socks that can be worn with wellies.

If you or a friend or relative can sew, see what new outfits you may be able to create. And if you can’t – consider learning so your clothes last longer and you don’t have to rely on alteration shops to make basic adjustments or accessorise plain pieces. Tutorials are easy to find on YouTube.

Check the soles of your shoes and boots for grip wear and get any re-heeling or re-soling done ahead of time. To avoid slippages around your property, grab a large bag of gritting salt from a builders merchant for around £5.

Ensure smoke alarms and carbon dioxide alarms are working and that electric blankets are serviced. If in doubt, the fire service can carry out a free home safety inspection for you.

A cheap and simple solution to cold nights in is a hot water bottle. Or for kids and those who are concerned about scalding, a plush toy specially designed to be warmed in the microwave. But don’t use either of these together with an electric blanket.

"eat well and stay active"

Stock up on painkillers, cough mixtures and cold remedies in case of any chills, and order repeat prescriptions in advance in case you’ll find it difficult to get around. Consider a seasonal flu vaccine from your GP. If you aren’t in a vulnerable group you may have to pay or wait to see if there are left over stocks. Many large pharmacy chains now also offer the jab for around £10.

Sniffles are rife in winter and prevention is better than cure, so eat well and stay active. Taking care of yourself and your family means you are less likely to need time off to nurse any winter bugs.

Links to external websites are for information only. Virgin Money receives no income from them and accepts no responsibility for the website content. The information in this article is correct as at 12 September 2012.

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