Times are tough for many people right now. So tough, that some families aren’t able to pay their utility bills every month. After a few missed bills, the utility companies will often send a shut off notice threatening to terminate service.
A utility shut off notice in the mail or on the door is no fun. It’s a scary situation, especially if you don’t have the money to pay the amount you owe. However, understand that there are steps you can take and options you have to prevent a utility shut off.
Know the Laws
It’s winter and you have kids, so they can’t shut off your utilities, right? Right…? Not necessarily. While it is true that some northern states do have laws to protect utility customers against shut off in the winter, some do not. In Pennsylvania, for instance, a utility company can shut off your utilities at any time of the year, and you can expect them to show up right on time to shut it off too! The same is true when you have children in the household. Just because you have children does not protect you from a utility shut off.
Chances are, if you got a utility shut off notice, it won’t matter what time of year it is or if you have children in the household. However, make sure you do a little research and find out the laws in your area. If someone in a household is seriously ill, for instance, most areas prohibit a utility company from terminating service if a letter from a licensed physician is provided.
Nearly every state has laws or regulations stating that a utility company must give you a utility shut off notice within so many days before they shut off your service. In Pennsylvania, for instance, you’ll receive a 10-day utility shut off notice in the mail as well as a three day shut off notice in person or on your door. Both of these notices must give you information regarding the actual date of utility shut off as well as how much you must pay to avoid the shut off.
The key is to act fast when you receive the first notice. Don’t wait until the utility company is banging on your door to cut your service. Receiving a utility shut off notice is not just a scare tactic to get you to pay your bill. It’s real, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they can and will come to shut off your service.
Contact the Utility Company
The best way to get help for a utility shut off notice is to contact the entity that sent it – the utility company. Do this as soon as you get your first utility shut off notice. This can be pretty nerve wracking and even embarrassing, but it’s a necessity. The utility company may be able to work something out with you to prevent termination, such as setting up payment arrangements. Keep in mind that you aren’t the first person that’s ever had a shut off notice, and many utility company employees are typically helpful and understanding.
If you have little to no money for payments, you may also qualify for assistance. You’ll usually be required to provide proof of income for these types of programs. Many utility companies have in-house assistance programs funded by donations as well as back utility repayment programs. A utility company may also be able to refer you to government programs like LIHEAP that can help you pay your bill to avoid shut off.
Pay as Much as You Can
If you have the money to pay your back utility bill, it’s usually in your best interest just to pay it. You may be able to tap into your savings, for instance, or borrow the money from a family member. I really don’t recommend a payday loan, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Paying the entire amount to avoid a utility shut off, though, sometimes just isn’t possible.
In this case, pay as much as you can, but understand that if you don’t pay the whole amount to avoid shut off without an official arrangement with the utility company, your service may still be at risk of being terminated. However, paying something as you can as a sign of good faith and making arrangements to pay the rest of your bill is usually all you need to do to prevent a utility shut off. In some cases, you may only need to make the payment arrangements, and you may need no money up front.
Prevent Utility Shut Off in the Future
Once you’re over the worst of it and your utility service is no longer at risk, take action to avoid the threat of utility shut off in the future. Ask your utility company which programs you might qualify for. If the problem is high utility bills in the winter, you might want to consider enrolling in a program that averages your monthly bills throughout the year. ‘Round these here parts, it’s called the budget plan, and you pay the same amount each month, thereby eliminating those nasty seasonal spikes in your bills.
If you own your home, you may also be able to take advantage of a utility conservation assistance program. When you participate in these free programs, the utility company will help weatherize your home or make it more energy efficient at little or no cost to you. A few simple changes to your home can actually lower your monthly bill quite a bit.
To find a program that can help you avoid utility shut off or lower future bills, be sure to check Benefits.gov.