When times are tough, help towards the cost of living can be really valuable. It might be possible that due to any number of your current circumstances, you are eligible for financial assistance from the government. There may be types of benefits available that you aren't aware of but are perfectly entitled to.

If there was once a social stigma associated with the idea of claiming benefits, there certainly shouldn't be any more. Benefits are there for a reason - to help those who are in need of financial support. If you think you might be eligible for benefits, there's nothing to lose in finding out - and everything to gain.

Who can claim for benefits?

Although the criteria set out for who can claim for benefits tends to change regularly, they will generally fall into the following categories:

  • If you are unemployed

  • If you are on a low income

  • If you are ill, disabled or injured

  • If you have dependants

  • If you are aged over 60

  • If you are pregnant, or have recently had a baby

What sort of financial help is available?

If you are unemployed and looking for work, there are benefits available such as Job Seekers' Allowance, which will supplement you with a basic weekly wage as long as you prove that you are actively seeking work. Those who are unemployed can also apply for Income Support, which, if received, will automatically make you eligible for various other benefits too: council tax benefit, housing benefit, free dental care, free prescriptions, and free school meals.

Similarly, if you are on a low income (though your idea of what constitutes a low income may differ from the government's) there is help at hand. Depending on your age, other circumstances and net annual income, you may be eligible for council tax benefit, housing benefit, or reduced earnings allowance, among others.

If you fall into any of the categories above it's a good idea to check through the miscellaneous benefits available at the DirectGov website, where you'll find variously named allowances and grants for those who have, for example, sustained work-related illnesses or injuries, those who are of pension age, and those who are caring for another. Here you can also find lots of useful information about benefits in general.

Another good way to find out if you might be eligible is by entering your details into the calculator on Entitledto.com. This is quick and easy, and you only have to enter a few details such as your salary, your dependants, your age and so on. The calculator will then estimate what kinds of benefits you may be entitled to, and gives you information about how you can go about claiming them.

How can I claim?

After you've discovered what you could be entitled you, you can apply for benefits in several ways. Unfortunately you will still be required to fill in lengthy forms and supply evidence of your circumstances, but this will be worth the time if you find you should be receiving financial help.

For many benefits nowadays you can apply online, which can make the whole process a lot easier. You may apply at the Department of Work & Pensions for benefits such as Income Support, Jobseekers' Allowance, and Child Maintenance, and HMRC for tax credits. Similarly, the DirectGov website offers the option to apply for many benefits online, or download the relevant forms and fill them in by hand, if you prefer.

You can of course still obtain benefit application forms by visiting your local Jobcentre, council, or Citizens Advice Bureau. Talking to someone about your individual circumstances at one of these establishments may also be a worthwhile venture, in order to find out what benefits could apply to you.

Many people are put off claiming for benefits because the system can be unnecessarily confusing, but this needn't be the case if you look carefully into the benefits you may be entitled to and apply accordingly for what you think you should be receiving. If you are successful with a claim, benefit money will be paid directly into your account from the day your claim was made - so it's worth applying as soon as possible.