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How to Cover Rising Utility Bills

Home heating costs are soaring as we head into the winter

spinner image Woman in sweater doing paperwork for utility bills
Daisy-Daisy / Getty Images

Electricity and natural gas bills are rising in many states. The cost of natural gas has more than doubled this year, putting upward pressure on both gas and electric bills in many places. It’s getting so bad that Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has urged residents to fill their heating oil tanks now in case of fuel supply disruptions this winter due to the war in Ukraine.

As it stands, tens of millions of Americans are at risk of getting their utilities shut off because of big summer electricity bills and potentially bigger winter heating costs that are just around the corner. Facing a choice between putting food on the table and paying their utility bills, many households are skipping the latter, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which represents the state directors of the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

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Many householders were protected by state moratoriums on energy shutoffs during the pandemic, but most of those have expired. Now 20 million households — roughly 1 in 6 American homes — have fallen behind on their heating and electricity bills and are at risk of having their power shut off. The energy assistance directors group says the total bill for those in arrears is about $23 billion, up from about $10.5 billion at the end of 2019.

If you are among those at risk of getting your utilities shut off or need assistance paying your energy bill, help is available.

Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program

Benefits generally come in two forms: regular help with your utilities applied annually or emergency benefits if you’re in immediate risk of having your utilities shut off.

LIHEAP operates on a first-come, first-served basis, with most states accepting applications beginning in the fall. Typically, households with a person over age 60 can apply a month in advance, giving older adults priority. To apply, contact your state LIHEAP office or reach out through the National Energy Assistance Referral hotline at 866-674-6327.  

Weatherization Assistance Program

Weatherization is the best way to cut utility bills. The federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) helps low-income families lower their energy bills by making their homes more energy efficient. 

Via this program, the U.S. Department of Energy distributes funds to states, U.S. territories and Native American tribes. Those governments use a network of nonprofits, community groups and local agencies to provide weatherization services to qualifying households.

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Special preference goes to families with someone 60 or older, children, or one or more members with a disability.

Utilities can help

Your utility company can help, too. If you are having trouble paying your utility bill or want more information on how to lower your energy bills, your utility should be your first contact. Many offer budget-billing programs that let you pay a set amount each month.  

Some offer special protections for customers who have disabilities, are on Supplemental Security Income or are on medical life-support equipment. The utility company will devise an affordable payment plan or put you in touch with a nonprofit that may be able to help. 

Ask about rate options as well. Some utilities offer a low-income rate discount. Others offer time-of-use rates that lower bills if you can move your consumption off-peak.

4 ways to cut utility costs

With or without help from government programs or your utility, you can still take steps to curb rising energy costs. Here are some ways to save. 

Banish power vampires. The modern home has lots of devices that suck electricity even when turned off, costing an average of $100 per year, according to the Department of Energy. Chargers for phones, tablets and other cordless devices drink juice even when they are not charging anything, so unplug them when not in use. Likewise, turn off or unplug televisions, computers, cable boxes and game consoles — anything with a little indicator light.

Cover your windows. Homes lose about 30 percent of their heating energy through windows in the winter, and 76 percent of sunlight that falls on double-pane windows becomes heat in the summer. Consider blackout curtains.

Upgrade to LED lighting. You can cut the amount of energy used by your light bulbs by up to 90 percent if you switch from traditional incandescent bulbs to light-emitting diodes. LED lights also last 25 times longer, meaning you won’t spend as much on new bulbs over time.

Get all rebates and tax credits. States and some municipalities offer incentives for everything from installing solar panels to buying an electric car to upgrading home appliances. DSIRE, a searchable database of renewable-energy and energy-efficiency incentives maintained by North Carolina State University's NC Clean Energy Technology Center, can help you find programs in your state.​ 

Editor's note: This story, originally published on August 31, 2022, has been updated to reflect new information.

AARP Fights for Consumers on Utilities

ARP state offices advocate on behalf of consumers around the country for safe, reliable and affordable utilities. So far this year, there have been 45 utility advocacy wins across 25 states, including things like expanding broadband access, preventing utility shutoffs, lowering utility rate increases and helping to ensure consumers have a voice in the utility rate-making process. Some examples:

  • New Jersey: With a COVID-19-era moratorium on utility shutoffs set to expire, AARP New Jersey fought for the passage of a law that protected thousands of residents who were at risk of having their utilities disconnected, but who were eligible for assistance to help pay their bills and make them more affordable.
  • Oklahoma: Over the past year, 14,366 AARP Oklahoma members made their voices heard: No more utility rate hikes. With their support, the Oklahoma state office fought back against three rate-increase requests. Low-income customers who qualify for LIHEAP will also see a $3 per month reduction on their bills, thanks to AARP’s advocacy.
  • Oregon: In response to the heat-wave-dome phenomenon that killed hundreds of older Oregonians in 2021, especially those living in rental units without adequate AC, AARP Oregon fought for the passage of Senate Bill 1536. The new law restricts the ability of landlords to limit the use of portable cooling devices, and, among other provisions, sets up a program for distribution of AC units to eligible individuals.​

Donna Fuscaldo is a contributing writer and editor focusing on personal finance and health. She has spent over two decades writing and covering news for several national publications including the Wall Street JournalForbes, Investopedia and HerMoney.