Getting help with your heating bills
5 Tips Home Edition: Try these strategies if you're sitting in the cold.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Punxsutawney Phil is predicting six more weeks of winter, and that isn't good news for your gas bill. This is especially true since home heating bills are up about 35 percent this season.
If you're worried that your budget doesn't have anymore wiggle room, 5 Tips is going to tell you how you can some help when it comes to paying that bill.
1. Know your rights
At this time of year you shouldn't have to worry about the utility company shutting off your heat. It's against the law. Most states have a moratorium so that utility companies can't shut off your service during the winter. Typically that period runs from Dec. 1 to March 31st, says David Fox, executive director of the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance. But that date varies by state.
Remember that when the moratorium ends, you'll still get a bill for the months you didn't pay. Check with your local state public service utility to see what kind of moratorium your state has. About 1 percent of families get their heating and electricity cut off, says Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association. Wolfe is worried that with the cost of energy on the rise, that number is going to rise dramatically.
2. Make friends with your utility co.
Sometimes your best bet in lowering your bills is to appeal to the company sending them to you. Try to work out a payment plan with your utility. Are your monthly bills easier to manage in the spring? Perhaps you can suggest a payment plan that works best for you.
You can also spread the cost of your heating bill throughout the whole year. This is called budget billing. The utility company can estimate what they expect costs, usage and demand to be, and they can work out a monthly estimate. This can help you to keep your month's finances even.
If it turns out that you paid more or less than you were supposed to, you'll get a credit or a bill at the end of the year says Fox. And generally the year-end tweaks aren't that substantial. You may be looking at a $50 adjustment.
Other utility companies may even let you off the hook for a month if you're generally a good customer. "If utilities shut off your electricity, they'll never get your money, so typically they will work with you," says Fox. If you have extenuating circumstances, like you live on a fixed income or you have medical devices that depend on electricity and can't be turned off, you'll have even more leverage.
3. Check LIHEAP
Despite a severe lack of federal funds, there are governmental programs that can help you out with your heating bills. And you'll probably be referred there first. It's called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.
To qualify you must have a low annual income. In most states a family of four must not make more than $24,000 a year before taxes in order to qualify, according to Fox.
The benefits from LIHEAP are also limited. You'll get a one-time payment of $200 to $400, which will go directly to your utility on your behalf. To find out if you quality, call the National Energy Assistance hotline at 1-866-674-6327 or check out their Web site to see what the requirements are.
4. Contact local organizations
If you don't qualify for LIHEAP, there may be local networks or organizations that can help. These funds may be more generous, says Fox. Usually Catholic Charities, Lutheran Services or Salvation Armies operate fuel funds for people in need.
You may also want to consider checking with the National Fuel Funds Network for supplementary funds. This is a network that receives contributions from private sector companies. Utility and non-profit members raise about $100 million a year. There are no uniform eligibility requirements. In some cases, you would be eligible if your electric or gas was in danger of being cut off.
Other cities set a dollar limit. You may be able to get help several times a year, according to Carol Clements, chair of the National Fuel Funds Networks. Go to www.nationalfuelfunds.org to see what funds are available.
"We're the last rung of support for the customer, but coupled with LIHEAP we can help a lot of people," she says.
5. Keep the faith
Let's face it, we've had a milder-than-expected winter. And that could help your wallet. Many utilities are actually lowering the cost of natural gas since there's less demand.
For the average consumer, it's reported that lowered rates will translate into savings of $10 to $80 on a monthly heating bill. Some utilities in Colorado, Texas, Tennessee, and Missouri are cutting rates up to 30 percent.
But don't get too comfortable, according to Jacqui Jeras, CNN's meteorologist. February may be colder than expected, especially for the upper plains and places like Indiana, North Dakota and Minnesota. Temperatures on the East Coast are expected to be about average.
Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.