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.
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Learn About Electric Bill Help
Utilities might seem to be one of the more easily addressed debts on your list of monthly bills. It’s not difficult to adjust the heat and air conditioner settings to save money or turn off unused appliances and lights in uninhabited rooms.
But in times of trouble – think the COVID-19 pandemic — keeping the lights on can be a real struggle. Fortunately, there are agencies and organizations that will provide assistance. Unfortunately, even with help, thousands and sometimes millions struggle to keep up.
The average electric bill in the United States in late 2021 was $124.93 per month (up from $113.59 in 2020) and ranged from a low of $84.67 per month in Utah to a high of $178.02 in Hawaii. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, energy costs consume between 5% and 22% of a family’s monthly budget.
The National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA) estimated that entering the summer of 2021, Americans were more than $20 billion behind on utility and water bills. The winter of 2021-22 could present significant challenges. The price of natural gas, which many use to heat their homes, increased by 60% from December of 2020 to 2021, and homes that use electricity for heat expected an increase of 15% in price.
For much of 2020 and part of 2021, federal, state and even utility companies put a moratorium on shutting off the electricity. Some cold-weather states kept moratoriums in place in 2021, but for much of the nation, the pause on payment is over and bills came due for an estimated 37 million households.
Typically, an electric bill is issued 21 days after the meter is read. Once you receive the bill, you have up to 30 days to pay it. If you don’t pay, the fallout depends where you live. Many cold-weather states do not allow shutoffs in winter. But a utility will send a notice that the bill is unpaid a few days after the due date. Once you receive that notice, and depending where you live, you then would have a few days to a few weeks before the electricity is shut off.
If it sounds harsh, it’s because it is.
Where to Get Help with Electric Bills
Help is available for those who want to keep their electricity on. It’s important to get ahead of the process if you’re behind on payments. Use any time you have to reach out to the utility company itself, or agencies or organizations that offer help. Do not be shy about applying for assistance
Do all you can to keep the power on. Once it’s turned off, the utility company will charge reconnection fees and may ask for a deposit.
Help paying utility bills can come from three different sectors:
- Utility company programs
- Government assistance
- Charity aid.
A good first step is to communicate directly with the utility company. They may offer programs or assistance that can help. Reach out. The answers may provide a pleasant surprise.
Utility Company Programs May Help with Your Electric Bill
Many utility companies offer financial help to those in need.
One simple option is to go on a budget plan, which divides your total yearly charges by 12 so you pay the same every month. This helps avoid a huge utility bill increase in winter months in the north, or summer months for air conditioning in the south. And it tells you what to expect the cost to be every month.
In other words, it allows you to budget for the electric bill rather than adjusting during peak usage season.
Utility companies also will work with those who are sincere about paying. They may spread an unpaid balance out over several months, or suggest ways to decrease costs. The utilities are not Robin Hood giving away money, but neither are they squeezing every penny they can from consumers.
Consider the state of Ohio. The state encourages utilities to use either a one-ninth, one-sixth or one-third plan. The one-ninth plan allows consumers to pay off what is owed in nine equal payments while joining the budget billing plan. Under one-sixth, the past due amount is paid in six installments in addition to the regular bill. The one-third plan means consumers are allowed to pay one-third of the amount due (past and current) during the winter heating season.
Ohio also offers a Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP Plus) that allows income-eligible customers to pay a percentage of their household’s monthly income rather than a bill based on actual usage. Households with an income at or below 150% of the federal income guidelines are eligible.
The examples from one state illustrate why it’s wise to seek local help and know your options, and why it’s logical that a sound first step is to contact the utility company itself.
Federal help also is available. The three stimulus bills passed by Congress to deal with the pandemic provided $9.1 billion to help people pay phone bills, medical bills, electric bills and other expenses.
A big part of the federal assistance comes through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.
Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program
LIHEAP helps low-income households that pay a high proportion of their income for home energy.
The American Rescue Plan, passed in March of 2201, doubled LIHEAP funding. According to numbers provided by the White House, the recent average annual funding for LIHEAP has been between $3 billion and $4 billion. The funding typically serves five million households. The American Rescue Plan provided an additional $4.5 billion that is available until September 2022.
LIHEAP can help pay heating or cooling bills (not water or sewer), and help pay for low-cost home improvements such as weatherization to lower utility bills. It also can pay for emergency services in a time of crisis, including during utility shutoffs. On average, about 20% of U.S. households that are qualified for LIHEAP receive benefits.
How to Qualify for Energy Assistance
Eligibility for the LIHEAP program varies by state, but generally it starts at the $19,200 income level for a one-person household (150% of the federal poverty line which was $12,880 in 2021).
You would be 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.
LIHEAP applications are guided by states, and each state has different rules for when and how to apply, and the criteria need to get help. A list of state and tribal LIHEAP offices is available here.
Enrolling in LIHEAP will help in the long term, but if you’re in danger of having your lights cut off in the next 24-48 hours, you need help right away. 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 bills, the one option you want to avoid is using your credit card. The debt you pay this month could get compounded with interest charged by your card company and make the 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 aid that is out there.
Dialing 2-1-1 is the financial help equivalent of 9-1-1 for this type of emergency.
These are some of the organizations you could be referred to:
- Salvation Army
- Catholic Charities
- Love Inc.
- Lutheran Social Ministry
- Vincent de Paul Society
- Jewish Federation of North America
- Urban League
There are many more, especially at local churches, which usually have specific ministries within the church that cater to financial crisis situations. Call the churches in your area and ask if they have a crisis assistance program that could keep your utility from being shut off.
Dialing 2-1-1 is a little-known solution for those having trouble paying a utility bill. This number is the financial help equivalent of 911. A regional operator will direct you to local organizations that can help with a number of problems, including utility assistance.
In 2019 the 211 line made more than 2.1 million connections to resources to help people pay utility bills or find low-cost or free services.
Electricity Shut Off Laws
In addition to the orders by states for utility companies to suspend disconnections during COVID-19, some states have laws preventing utility companies from shutting off utilities under other circumstances.
These laws typically state that power can’t be disconnected during the cold winter or hot summer months. Families with children or a customer with a medical need may also have utility disconnection laws protecting them.
Rules and laws govern shutoffs 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 none of the above steps work and you don’t qualify or can’t find assistance to prevent your electricity from being shut off, there are a few options you can try.
The Energy Crisis Intervention Program, or ECIP, helps low-income households in a crisis situation. Getting a 24-48 hour disconnect notice from a utility company qualifies as a crisis and an opportunity to contact ECIP. Much of this assistance is through LIHEAP.
Simple Steps to Save on Electricity
There are steps you can take to make electricity more affordable in your home. All it takes is a common sense approach.
- Your heating and air conditioning system is the number one cause for soaring electric bills. Adjust the thermostat up 4-6 degrees in the summer and down 4-6 degrees in the winter to save money.
- Your water heater may be next in line for costing you money. Stop using hot water to wash clothes. Most of the electricity used on a load of wash goes to heating the water. Same is true with kitchen or bathroom sinks. Only turn on the hot water if you absolutely want hot water.
- In the summer shut the curtains, or pull the blinds closed. Keeping the sun from heating up your home will save you a ton of money on air conditioning costs. During winter, open up the drapes and blinds to let some warmth into a cool home.
- Turn off the lights and fans when you leave a room. Why pay for power to a room when you’re not in there benefiting from it? Remember: Fans cool people, not rooms.
- Cover all dishes in the refrigerator. Food releases moisture when it’s uncovered, which makes the condenser in your refrigerator work harder to keep things cool. Help it out by putting leftover food in a Tupperware container or, at least, covering it with plastic wrap or aluminum foil.
- Check if your utility company will conduct an energy audit on your home. The audit may give you specific actions that can reduce your bill.
Other Resources for Low-Income Families
Low-income families can find help through various government or private programs. These programs are designed to address a number of challenges, including paying the utility bills.
Among the options that provide help:
- The Community Action Council, which has been helping low-income families since 1964.
- The Veterans Relief Fund provides help for those who have served in the military.
- The Lifeline Program run by the FCC is designed to help low-income families achieve a lower cell phone bill.
- Rental assistance can be found through various federal agencies or private groups.
- LIHEAP can help with oil and home heating bills.
- LIHEAP also provides funds to low-income individuals and/or families for air conditioning and window fans, and for weatherization to make the home more energy efficient.
Those in serious financial crisis may do well to speak to a nonprofit credit counselor, who can go over various programs that offer debt relief for low-income families.
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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