If you can’t pay your utility bills, you’re in a vulnerable and scary position. Fortunately, there are agencies that can help you cover the costs whether you’re already behind in your payments or you don’t think you can make your next one.
Learn what happens when you can’t pay your utility bills and which organizations can provide financial assistance.
What if You Can’t Pay Your Utility Bills?
Service providers generally won't disconnect your services the moment you miss a payment, so you can breathe easier if you've missed a payment by just a day or two. However, it's important to act quickly.
Missed payments can have a domino effect, making it more difficult to get caught up, and even impacting other parts of your finances. You may pay a late fee or even your provider may disconnect your services after missing a payment. Some companies may charge a reconnection fee to re-establish services.
Another important concern is your credit score. While energy companies don’t regularly report utility bills to the credit bureaus, unpaid utility bills can affect your credit score. Your provider may send your overdue balance to a collection agency, which may send your past-due account information to the credit bureaus.
Having accounts in collection can affect your credit score and your ability to get approved for credit-related products and services. You may even have to pay a security deposit when you start services with a new company.
You may be under a moratorium from service disconnections depending on your state and the time of year. Under the moratorium, service providers may not be allowed to disconnect services in extreme weather situations, for low-income residents, or for residents who have applied for government emergency assistance.
If you are on life support or have other medical needs that require utility services, your utility company may be prohibited from disconnecting services, provided you have notified your provider. Check with your state utilities commission to become familiar with the regulations and protections in your area.
Working with the utility company proactively before you get too far behind can help you stay caught up and keep your account from going into default.
Options for Relief
There are a few places you can seek help with paying your utility bills. Your service provider is the best place to start. Reach out to customer service to explain your situation and ask about the options available to you. Your provider may allow you to request an extension, pay your bill in installments, or connect you to a partner organization that can help.
Depending on your income, you may be able to get assistance through the following federal and local programs and organizations.
Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
LIHEAP is a federally funded program administered through the Department of Health and Human Services that assists with home energy bills and other energy-related issues like crises and weatherization.
Assistance is available to low-income households with a child, disabled member, or senior. To qualify (in most cases), your total household income for the previous month must be at or below 150% of the federal poverty level:
|LIHEAP Maximum Income Limits|
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You'll need to provide a copy of your utility bill and proof of income for all household members. Contact your state program administrator to get more information and to apply. Some states may have different eligibility requirements.
You may be automatically eligible if you participate in other benefit programs like SNAP, SSI, TANF, or certain need-tested veteran benefits.
The Salvation Army
Your local Salvation Army may have a partnership with utility service providers to provide emergency assistance with utility bills. Eligibility requirements may vary depending on the local program, but generally, programs help individuals with limited income, or who are elderly or disabled. Other situational eligibility requirements may apply—a current unpaid utility bill, no access to other help, and the need to submit a payment to continue or restore services.
Contact your local chapter of The Salvation Army to find out more about program eligibility.
Dial 2-1-1 anywhere in the country to get a referral for community-based organizations that can assist you. Some local organizations that provide emergency utility assistance, like the Jewish Family and Community Services, require you to be referred from a local 211 agency.
Tips for Lowering Your Utility Bills
Reducing your utility service costs can make your bills more affordable and easier to balance with your other expenses. Your utility service provider may offer billing options to help lower your monthly costs.
For example, budget billing smooths out seasonal fluctuations and allows you to pay the same amount each month. “Time-advantage” or “time-of-use” billing allows you to save money if you're able to use more electricity during non-peak hours.
Make sure your home is using energy efficiently by having a home energy audit performed. The audit can help you discover places where your home is losing energy. Some government programs help with weatherization costs for low-income households.
Lowering your energy usage can shave some money off your future utility bills. Even small things like unplugging unused electronics, turning off lights you're not using, and washing clothes in cold water can lower your energy usage and make your bill more manageable.
- Your utility service provider is the first place to explore options for delaying your due date or working out an installment plan.
- Low-income households may qualify for government assistance through LIHEAP.
- Local nonprofit, charitable, and religious organizations may offer financial support or connect you with other resources.