Where to Get Help Paying Your Utility Bills

If you’re having trouble paying utility bills, you aren’t alone. The consumer price index recently showed that prices are starting to come down, but the cost of everything is still high — particularly utilities.

According to the latest CPI data, the index for electricity rose 15.2% in July, the largest 12-month increase since the period ending in February 2006. If you get natural gas piped into your home, it has been especially costly -- piped gas service has increased 30.5% over the last year. On the bright side, water and sewer and trash collection services have risen only 0.4%.
If you're struggling to pay your utility bills, here's what you need to know. 

What Happens if You Don’t Pay Your Utility Bill?

If you don't pay your utility bill, eventually you'll lose service. Fortunately, you will likely be given plenty of warning, and it's important to let your utility company know that you're having trouble. 
"If you're struggling to pay your utility bills on time, you should call your utility companies first," says Leslie Tayne, a financial attorney at Tayne Law Group who helps clients manage debt.
Your utility may have access to community or government funding. "They also may be able to set up budget billing where your utility payments get spread out equally throughout the year. That way, you won't get unpleasantly surprised by a large bill during the months your usage increases," Tayne says.

[READ: How to Estimate Your Utility Costs.]

Eligibility for Financial Assistance

Federal and state programs, and sometimes nonprofit organizations, often require a household to be level with or under the federal poverty guidelines, currently $27,750 or less a year for a family of four.
This doesn't mean that if your household is earning $50,000 a year that you can't get assistance if you need help paying bills. But it may mean that finding a lifeline will be a little harder.

Organizations That Can Help With Utility Bills

Low Income Energy Assistance Program. The main source of help with utility bills is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

LIHEAPs are found throughout the country, although their names may be slightly different. For instance, in Texas, it is the Comprehensive Energy Assistance Program. You'll find these organizations in all states, including California, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Hawaii and Alaska. Even territories such as Puerto Rico, the Marshall Islands and Guam have LIHEAPs.
LIHEAPs exist to help low-income families with their home energy issues. They often spend money to make homes more energy-efficient so that in the long run, people don't have to spend so much on energy bills. But you also may be able to get assistance to pay heating or cooling bills -- and help with dealing with emergencies, such as your utilities being shut off. It can be a little hard to figure out how to get that money from LIHEAP, but the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has a state and territory map of contacts.

[READ: Why Is My Electric Bill So High?]

Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Another federal program that may be of help is the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, designed to help renters who have fallen behind on either rent or utility bills. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can help you find rental assistance programs in your area. There are more than 500 throughout the country.

You can also contact your local community action agency. (In a search engine, type "community action agency near me.") Community action agencies are nonprofit organizations throughout the country that help households and individuals.
Generally, to qualify, you have to have a low income or be disabled or elderly. Still, even if you think you aren't a good fit, it can't hurt to call and ask if you're truly struggling. 

Churches. You don’t have to be religious to get help with your utilities from a church. You just need to be in need.

Nicholl McGuire, a freelance writer near Atlanta who used to be an apartment community manager, says she often encountered residents who were having difficulty paying utilities, and she sometimes recommended trying a local church.

“Most churches have benevolent funds which are distributed to people who are not members of the clergy but do have a specific need,” McGuire says. “What the church will ask for is a copy of the utility bill, a signed lease or homeowner documents and ID.”

She also says some churches will either pay the utility company directly or provide a check for the visitor to pay.

[See: 10 Ways to Save Energy and Lower Utility Bills]

Charities. Tayne suggests contacting the Salvation Army or United Way. Both of these respected nonprofits have robust programs designed to help people falling behind on their utility bills.

McGuire says some of the renters she has worked with have had success with the National Urban League, another esteemed nonprofit that is in 300 communities in 37 states and the District of Columbia. It has a program that may be able to help eligible applicants who have fallen behind with their utility bills.

Call 211. United Way often runs 211 organizations around the country, but sometimes these chapters are run by other nonprofits or local government agencies. You can go to the website, 211.org, or call 211 on your phone. You should be able to connect with someone who can put you in touch with an organization that can help you pay your utility bills or perhaps get you access to low-interest loans to help pay bills.

More from U.S. News

Why Is My Electric Bill So High?

How to Save Money

How to Estimate Your Utility Costs

Where to Get Help Paying Your Utility Bills originally appeared on usnews.com

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