What To Do If Unable to Afford Home Heating Bills

A blast of cold air across much of the country combined with a sputtering economy has made for some tough times for those trying to keep up with home heating costs.  In a neighboring town close to where I live, residents were offered assistance through local churches and community organizations on a first come, first serve basis.  Residents lined up in droves and far exceeded the number of spots available for help.  In fact, at one event over 400 citizens showed up in need of financial assistance keeping their utility bills current, but the church was only able to accept around 100.  That left a few hundred others out in the cold.  I suspect the numbers are even worse in larger cities.

Where To Find Help

There is never a good time to have your power cut off, but when temperatures are extremely hot or extremely cold seems to be the absolute worst time possible. Unfortunately, it is the very young and very old that suffer most.  While none of us have an unlimited supply of money to go around paying electric and gas bills for people, there are ways to make a difference in your community.

Here are a few places to start if you find yourself having trouble making utility payments this winter.

Contact churches, community organizations and The Salvation Army. These organizations are on the front lines and are often the first line of defense for those displaced by the cold.  To those looking for ways to help, these organizations are always in need of financial assistance, blankets, coats, gloves, hats, etc.  I recommend contacting one in your area to find out what they need most.

Investigate energy assistance programs through your utility company. Many power companies offer energy assistance programs and will work with customers by offering one-time assistance such as prorated billing.

Be prepared to help pay a portion of the bill.  Unfortunately, charitable organizations are unable to foot the entire bill for someone in need of help.  In most cases they can only offset a portion of the overall bill, so be prepared to cover the remaining amount.  If you are unable to, contacting multiple organizations could pay off as often times they will pool resources to cover the cost of the entire bill.

The first step if you find yourself in trouble is to sit down and complete a budget of your entire household expenses, and any income you have.  Next prioritize these expenses based on their importance to your survival–food, shelter, lights, clothing and transportation is a good start.  Literally write the number “1” next to the highest priority, “2” next to the second highest priority and so on.

You will find things like credit card bills, subscriptions, and cell phones are near the bottom of the list.  That’s acceptable for now.  If credit card companies call looking for money, politely explain your situation and promise to notify them when you are able to make a payment.  Hang up the phone the instant they become abusive or threatening. No one deserves to be mistreated or talked down to by some idiot in a cubicle 500 miles away.  Do not be intimidated into putting credit cards before the mortgage, or other basic needs.

Hopefully any financial setback is a temporary one, and soon those in trouble will find a reliable source of income.  When that happens more money will be available to work further down the list of priorities and catch up any amount in arrears.


  1. I have read somewhere that in some municipalities (I don’t know if this is everywhere or just in some places) that a power company can’t shut off your heat if the temperature dips below a certain reading — even if you’re behind on your bill or can’t pay.

  2. Having been through the experience (it was summer), I would also add that the utilities company will usually require a large down payment (a few hundred dollars usually) to reconnect your service. This can be a challenge if you are facing financial difficulties.

  3. One of the main ways is to be ultra frugal. If you are having problems paying your utility bills you need to stop eating out, stop going to movies, cut out your cable and so on and so forth. You also need to shut your lights off when you’re not in the room and keep your settings at frugal levels. When we first bought our house we had no clue what our gas bill might be once we turned the heat on. We set it at 65 degrees to start with and turned it down to 60 at night. When we got our first bill it was reasonable and we knew we could afford more so we upped it to 67. It does feel a bit chilly if you’re doing nothing but sitting watching tv or playing on the computer but I have blankets and throws stashed all over the house and my children know better then to think that they can wear shorts and a short sleeve shirt in the house. It is after all winter.

    I get irked sometimes when I hear people moan and complain because they can’t afford their heat bill (or other necessities) and they keep their setting on 75-80 degrees and I see the rest of their lifestyle. It’s not that they can’t afford it it’s because they want to spend their money on other things. It makes it hard for the people who really are in need of some help.

    I’ve been known to call people out when they say “they can’t afford” things. I know good and well they can, they just choose to spend their money in other ways. There’s not a thing wrong with that, in most cases, just don’t say “I can’t afford” it. Just say I choose to spend my money in other ways or don’t say anything at all. I myself used to be one of those people but I have since been enlightened. 🙂 We tell our kids we choose to spend our money in other ways. They now quote it to us before we get the chance!

  4. Some other ways to help with the heat bill are to check for drafts around doors and windows. Sometimes a little caulking or rubber strip will help with the insulation. Also, if your home is poorly insulated or the windows are older, hang blankets in front of windows to keep the heat in and drafts out!

  5. Investing in your own power generation, like solar photovoltaics and solar thermal, will make you independent from having to pay power companies every month. Isn’t that what we all want?

    A federal tax expansion for residential renewable energy was expanded this year, so you can do this easier than ever. And prices for solar panels will be getting much cheaper in 2009, thanks to a glut of new manufacturing plants coming online.

    Maybe we should all be investing in ourselves, instead of 401ks for the next few years, and secure your self-sufficiency at the same time.

  6. @Susan: Thanks for pointing us to Modest Needs! I could not for the life of me remember the name of the site, but I remembered the service. Definitely a great cause!

  7. If you have wood heat and are elderly, try connecting with senior services. The trees that are cut from county right-of-ways, and the storm debris cleanups are available to the low-income elderly, at least in our area. The wood will be split and delivered to you by the county. The allowable income is very low tho – about $800/month for singles, more for couples.

    I figure tho if people have money for cigarettes and booze and fake fingernails etc, then they should have the money to pay the electric bill… one would think so anyway. That is not a comment to those who really cannot pay the bill tho and already do without those things and many others.

    I’d love solar – but it has to come down a long long way to make me want to trade in my $40/month average electric bill for a solar panel payment. But sometime in my older age, it would be nice not to have to hustle for firewood the 3 or 4 days a month I usually spend doing that. Right now I just consider it my exercise time 🙂

  8. Where I live (Québec, Canada),
    Power company (this is monopoly in my province), doesn’t really have the right to cut off the power during winter time since temperature can drop below minus 20 degrees.

    I guess that if you contact the company and you offer an alternative way to pay them back (smaller payment with a payback payment plan), they might give you a second chance.

    Worst thing to do would be to ignore or avoid their calls and written notices. Creditors hate to be ignored and are much faster to react when goodwill is not shown in the first place.

  9. Another place to consider looking for help with your utilities is your local community action agency. Many provide the LIHEAP program, which is a federal utility assistance program, and often they are in touch with a variety of community agencies and can put you in contact with resources you might not be aware of. You can find your local community action agency at http://www.communityactionpartnership.com/index.php?option=com_spreadsheets&view=search&spreadsheet=cap&Itemid=188

  10. I have had good luck in negotiating with utility companies about bills – and getting on payment plans and so on. TRY anyway! And then get on a low income rate plan.

    Plug all the cracks in your windows with putty!
    Put something to keep the drafts out under the door(s). Put up heavy curtain to shield you from the cold. Consider black paper on some windows facing the sun to absorb heat. Close down some rooms and don’t heat the bedrooms at night…

    I also had a kerosene heater when I was a student in London and it worked great.

  11. I live in IL and it’s hard on my family for the heating bill. thank you for putting up this guide!!

    This kinda fits in to what you’re talking about – I bought a fuel conditioner for my home hot water heater and another for my furnace last year from the guy at http://www.SaveMoneyOnHomeHeating.com

    It saved me about 14% last year, which in my home was more than the cost of the products. I live in a very inefficient home, and this thing lasts forever. It’s guaranteed to work and my brother had one, so I have it a try. I put it on in about 10 minutes.

    Anyways, keep up the good writing frugaldad!


  12. Our family (my husband and I plus children then aged 5, 4, and 1 year) moved into a rural area in Ohio last winter and our heat was fuel oil. We had a 300 gallon tank, and when we moved in it was half full. Not knowing how quickly it went, we kept the heat above 65 deg. and ran out of fuel oil before November ended! Since we were just barely able to afford the rent payments (my husband is a contractor and builds new homes–a great career choice 11 years ago, not so good now!) buying more fuel oil at last winter’s gas prices was out of the question. The company had a limit, they wouldn’t even come out to your house if you were buying less than 150 gallons, which was approximately $600. So, we learned a few tips about generating and holding heat without using your furnace.

    Obviously, do the weather proofing plastic and seals for windows and doors. It helps to fill the space between window and plastic with packing peanuts on windows that don’t face the sun. On the sunny sides of the house, cut a piece of cardboard to fit the window, wrap it in foil, and paint the foil black. Then set it inside the window, this catches and intensifies the heat from the sun during the day.

    At night, we all slept in one room. We slept in sleeping bags, which are designed to hold in your body heat. We used one space heater, which helped a little even though all the bedrooms had really high ceilings. We closed the door and wedged a foam camping pad against it to keep the heat from escaping around the cracks.

    In the morning, it was usually down below 40 degrees in the rest of the house. My husband would get up, move the space heater to the kitchen, and cook a good breakfast to warm up the kitchen. Then we would set the oven to broil and leave the door open to generate enough heat to make it to the other downstairs rooms.

    To generate heat throughout the day, we disconnected the hose that vented the dryer to the outside so that the hot air would come into the house. With the kids and using cloth diapers for the baby, I always had something to wash then dry, and if I ran out I would just wash blankets without any soap. They make a filter for this purpose that you can route the hose through it and it uses water to filter the lint out and moisturize the air at the same time, but we didn’t have it so I don’t know what it’s called or how much it cost.

    We were also lucky enough to have a fireplace, but it was in the draftiest room of the house–it was on the end and had 6 old, ill fitting windows, so it wasn’t good for heating more than just that room.

    I hope these tips help someone!

  13. @Caeli:
    I hope you weren’t using a gas dryer, because if you were then you were being exposed to massive amounts of carbon monoxide!