I Need Help Paying My Electric Bill
One of the consequences of falling behind on utility bills is the damage it does to your credit score. For relief, check into government help, charity organizations and even utility company programs that will help you catch up.
Choose Your Debt Amount
Electric Bill Debt in the U.S.
Nobody worried about their electric bills before 1882.
That’s when the first home in America got the electric juice flowing. It belonged to Henry J. Rogers. He helped invent the telegraph and was the president of a large paper company.
In other words, paying for the amazing new juice wasn’t a problem. Things have certainly changed.
Paying the electric bill has become a terminal worry in America. More than 20 million U.S. households are behind on their utility bills, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA).
Utility debt has doubled from pre-pandemic levels as moratoriums ended. One out of six homes is behind on utility bills, and the average debt is $788, the NEADA reported in August 2022. By the end of last year, 4.2 million households had their utilities cut off.
Living without electricity wasn’t a big deal in 1882. It is now. The good news is there are assistance programs available. They won’t fix the problem, but they can keep the juice temporarily flowing.
Where to Get Help with Electric Bills
If you’re in danger of having your electricity cut off, don’t just sit there. Reach out to the utility company or agencies that offer help.
“We are mindful that energy affordability remains a challenge for U.S. families, particularly those who are the most vulnerable, and there continues to be a need for energy assistance in our service areas,” said James Gherardi, senior manager of corporate communications for Exelon Corp, the country’s largest public utility company.
Monthly electric bills are usually due within 30 days of receiving them. Once power is cut off, the utility company will charge reconnection fees and may ask for a deposit. Help paying utility bills can come from three sectors:
- Utility company programs
- Government assistance
- Charity aid
A good first step is to reach out to the utility company to see what relief programs it offers. The answers may provide a pleasant surprise.
Utility Company Programs May Help with Your Electric Bill
Utility companies take no joy in leaving customers in the dark. Like any business, they need customers. But like any business, they need customers who pay their bills.
“Disconnection is the last resort when are unable to work with a customer to make payment arrangements,” said Scott Blake director of media relations and policy communications. For American Electric Power. “AEP’s top priority is to help all customers maintain their electric service.”
Utility companies work with people who are sincere about paying delinquent bills. They may spread the unpaid balance over several months or suggest ways to reduce your utility bill.
Some utilities offer budget plans which divide your total yearly charges by 12. That way you pay the same every month and avoid big increases in winter months in the North or summer months in the South.
Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
This federal program helps low-income households that pay a high percentage of their income on home energy. Annual funding averaged between $3 billion to $4 billion. The American Rescue Plan, which passed in March 2021, added $4.5 billion.
LIHEAP defines a low-income household as one that’s below 150% of the poverty threshold or 60% of the state’s median income. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated that 5.9 million families received LIHEAP benefits in 2022.
How to Qualify for Energy Assistance
Eligibility for the LIHEAP program varies by state, but generally it starts at the $22,020 income level for a one-person household (150% of the federal poverty line which was $14,580 in 2023).
You are automatically eligible if you meet one of these criteria:
- You’re a low-income family that meets the financial requirements. The government provides an online calculator to determine if you qualify.
- If you participate in other federal benefit programs, including SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), SSI (Supplemental Security Income), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).
- You meet certain needs-tested veteran benefits.
Individual states regulate LIHEAP and have varying application rules. A list of state and tribal LIHEAP offices is available here.
LIHEAP can help in the long run, but if you’re in danger of having your lights cut off in the next 24-48 hours, you need immediate help. Call local churches and social service agencies and ask if they have emergency/crisis funds available to pay utilities.
When you’re unable to pay your bill, you’ll be tempted to use your credit card. Resist that urge.
The debt you pay this month could get compounded with interest charged by your credit card company and make your overall financial situation worse.
If credit card debt got you here in the first place, you should look into credit consolidation help from a nonprofit credit counseling agency as a way out. In the meantime, take advantage of the charitable aid that is out there.
Dialing 2-1-1 is the financial help equivalent of dialing 9-1-1 for this type of emergency. A regional operator will direct you to a local organization that can help you with a variety of problems, including utility assistance.
In 2022, the 2-1-1 network answered more than 18 million calls and 2.4 million emails, texts and web chats. These are some of the organizations you might be referred to:
- Salvation Army
- Catholic Charities
- Love Inc.
- Lutheran Social Ministry
- St. Vincent de Paul Society
- Jewish Federation of North America
- Urban League
There are many more programs, especially at local churches, which assist in financial crisis situations.
Electricity Shut Off Laws
Some states have laws preventing utility companies from shutting off power under certain circumstances, such as during cold winter or hot summer months.
Families with children or a customer with a medical need may also be protected by disconnection laws. The laws vary by state. Ohio, for example, requires a 14-day notice before electricity is disconnected.
What Can You Do If Your Electricity Is Disconnected?
If you find yourself in the dark, there are a few options you can try.
- The Energy Crisis Intervention Program (ECIP) helps low-income households in crisis. Getting a 24-hour disconnection notice from your utility company qualifies as a crisis under ECIP guidelines.
- See if you qualify for relief under your state’s Low Income List Administrator.
- Contact your electricity provider to see if has emergency relief options or will work out a payment plan that will maintain service.
- Consider filing bankruptcy. It’s a desperation move and probably not worth the long-term consequences, but utility companies are usually prohibited from cutting off service to customers who have filed bankruptcy petitions.
Simple Steps to Save On Electricity
There are easy ways to save money on your electric bill. Most are just common sense.
- Heating and air conditioning are the biggest reasons your bills soar. Recommended settings for air conditioning in the summer is 78 degrees. In winter, the recommended setting is 68 degrees.
- Water heaters eat up electricity. Stop using hot water to wash clothes and try to avoid it for other uses.
- Pull curtains or blinds shut in the summer to keep your house cooler. Leave them open in the winter.
- Turn off lights and fans in rooms that aren’t occupied.
- Cover dishes you put in the refrigerator. Food releases moisture, which makes the fridge’s condenser work harder to keep things cool. Invest in Tupperware or similar containers, or at least some plastic wrap and aluminum foil.
- See if your utility company offers free energy audits of homes or other money-saving programs.
“We’re empowering customers to take advantage of these programs, which enable customer savings through home energy audits, lighting discounts, appliance recycling, home improvement rebates, equipment upgrade incentives and innovative programs like smart thermostats and combined heat and power programs,” Gherardi said.
Other Utility Bill Help Resources for Low-Income Families
LIHEAP and private charities aren’t the only potential sources of relief. Among the programs that offer help are:
- The Community Action Council, which has been in operation since 1964.
- The Veterans Relief Fund provides assistance for those who’ve served in the military.
- The Lifeline Program, which is run by the FCC. It helps reduce cell phone bills.
- Rental Assistance can be found through various federal, state and private agencies.
- LIHEAP also offers funds to buy air conditioners, heaters and weatherize houses.
Speak to a Credit Counselor About Your Debt
If you can’t pay for utilities, you probably also struggle to pay your other bills and it would be wise to contact a nonprofit credit counseling agency to get relief.
It’s a great feeling to have your financial house in order. Especially when that house has plenty of electricity.
About The Author
Pat McManamon has been a journalist for more than 25 years. His experience has mainly been in sports, but the world of athletics requires knowledge of business and economics. He also can balance a checkbook and keep track of investments with Quicken quite adeptly. McManamon’s experience includes covering the NFL for ESPN, LeBron James for the Akron Beacon Journal and AOL Fanhouse, and the Florida Gators and Miami Hurricanes for the Palm Beach Post.
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