OMG I Can’t Pay My Bills: Getting Help When You’re In Trouble

The subject of financial need and the stress it brings may be a topic that some personal finance blogs shy away from. It seems that many PF bloggers are concerned more about the folks that have money now and want even more of it (doesn’t everyone really?). The idea is that if you take some specific action(s), you can get rich fairly quickly and retire at age 30 or 40…and maybe you can do that. But what about the other side of life? What if you’re thinking “I can’t pay my bills!”? So you can’t pay your bills…what can you do?

Man with empty pockets thinking of money representing I can’t pay my bills

Many people have been financially crushed and even more so during and after the pandemic. What about those who just need help when they can’t pay their basic bills?

Where Can You Turn to Get Help with Money?

Assuming you have exhausted the simple resources, like you asked your Mom and Dad and your Uncle Fred in Cleveland for help and it just wasn’t in the cards, what do you do next?

If you can find a great blog like Super Saving Tips (he said modestly), that may be a start.

But really, there is some other good news about getting help with financial issues around. Putting aside the time frame and urgency/emergency issue, you can begin by looking on the internet for local resources. The answers you need are there and the internet helps in so many ways. But before you go there, here is where to start when you can’t pay your bills.

Don’t Ignore Your Creditors

Often when people don’t have the money to pay their bills, they stop opening their mail. They just can’t bear to look at all the balance they owe, but it’s important to know where you stand. Ignoring your bills and your creditors will just make things worse when your services are shut off or your debts go to collections.

Instead, contact your creditors and explain your situation. If there are extenuating circumstances like you’re temporarily unemployed, had unexpected medical bills, or something similar, let them know. Tell them that you want to pay your bills but you need a little flexibility right now, like a lower minimum payment, an extended due date, or a lower interest rate. Creditors would rather have some of what you owe rather than none at all, so they may be willing to negotiate the terms. This is true whether it’s student loans, credit cards, or other types of debt.

Find Some Additional Income

Sell your junk. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Your old music CDs, video games, books, clothes, etc. can get you some fast cash. Even items that don’t work can have value…I sold an inoperative PlayStation3 on Ebay years ago so that someone else can repair and resell it.

Ask your boss for a raise if you think you really deserve one. Make sure you review with them all the contributions you’ve made and the reasons you’re worth more. It doesn’t hurt to ask and it will give you at least some feedback as to whether you’re progressing at work and will see more money in the near future.

Get a second job or a side hustle to earn additional money. Even a part time gig at a fast food outlet 10 hours a week will earn you several hundred a month and maybe some free food. Or work for yourself by babysitting, dog walking, selling crafts, or one of hundreds of other ways you can make a little extra dough.

When you find that additional income, make sure it goes towards paying off your bills and doesn’t get squandered.

Track Expenses and Start Budgeting

Do you know where your money goes? Do you have a budget? If not, start tracking your expenses to see what you’re really spending each month. If you already have a budget, it’s probably just not managed well. Your income can only go so far and when overdoing the credit cards or other things like car loans, disaster approaches. You may find upon examination that you’re spending all or even more than you’re making. Perhaps your income is irregular, like earned on commission, tips, bonuses, or overtime. Whatever it is, it can make your finances difficult to manage. This in turn can damage your credit rating, which you are going to need more than you may even realize. Your credit score can affect many areas of your life including your employment chances.

Right now you may not be in the right job and are not getting paid what you think you deserve. Or you may have run up debt on things that aren’t necessities in life and now you’re paying it off at something like 23% interest. The first step is to make a real budget. Reduce your expenses wherever you can. Be aggressive to give yourself a chance to get back on track.

Cut Your Expenses

If you can’t pay your bills, you need to cut your expenses to save money for those critical payments. It may be time for a roommate to share your basic household expenses. That can save you hundreds a month and be put towards your debt.

Eliminate use of all credit cards until you can pay them off in full. After that, only use credit cards when it figures into your monthly income plan or don’t use them at all. (If you do wind up using a credit card, make sure it has no annual fee, some kind of reward program, and an interest rate that’s as low as can be.)

Save on your utilities: wear a sweater in winter and open the windows in summer to save on energy costs if you’re paying for them.

That car you drive at $300-$400+ per month may have to go as well. Look at a used car and see if you can save money with it. Right now, reliable transportation is more important than fancy. And while you’re at it, shop around on your car insurance to see where you can save.

Find ways to reduce your grocery bill. Shop the sales, use coupons, plan your meals, and make smart choices to reduce your food budget while still eating healthy.

Get Some Help With Your Critical Expenses

Whether you have hit hard times during the pandemic or are in between jobs and need help, paying for your monthly expenses like food and utilities are often the first and biggest concerns you have. Learn more about which programs you are eligible for.

For utilities, programs work like loans, which you will at some point have to repay. But there are many others that are gifted as a charity through various organizations.

All states in the U.S. offer some form of utility relief programs as well as food programs such as food banks and of course there is the federal SNAP program formerly known as food stamps.

Low income resources

There are local, state, and federal resources that can help eligible low-income individuals avoid a monetary crisis. If you are struggling to pay your utility bills, then the government (both state and federal) is there and offers multiple programs. Most of these assistance programs are only temporary, to help you get out of a tough situation and back onto solid financial footing, but some of the programs are offered as grants which means they never have to be repaid and are indefinite!

There are wide ranges of trusted financial opportunities including assistance for personal bills, transportation, and medical needs offered as benefits and/or grants.

LIHEAP

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) block grant is funded by the Federal Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and provides two basic types of services.

Eligible low-income people, via local governmental and nonprofit organizations, receive financial assistance to offset the costs of heating and/or cooling dwellings and/or have their dwellings weatherized to make them more energy efficient. The information on LIHEAP is listed by state.

The LIHEAP funds can be expedited to households that are faced with immediate shut off of their electric or utility service. It may even provide grants within 24 business hours in some cases.

Other assistance programs

Many states offer additional assistance programs, in addition to LIHEAP, that can help you and your family. They also help you save energy and reduce your electric bill through easy and sometimes totally free energy saving methods. Contact your state websites to find where help is offered.

HARRP (Heating Repair & Replacement Program) is another federal government funded program that is offered in your local community. It may be called slightly different names in each state, but it works the same in most parts of the country. It is often used in conjunction with the weatherization program.

The Weatherization Assistance Program offers weather stripping, wall and attic insulation, minor home repairs, and furnace tune-ups. There may be other related energy-saving measures that will help people lower their electric bills and save money. It can provide for the repair or replacement of heating units, appliances, furnaces, and other home upgrades.

Free air conditioning units and window fans are available during the summer months. The assistance is usually provided as part of LIHEAP or charities such as the Salvation Army provide them to low-income families. The free air conditioning units are often combined with emergency utility bill assistance to help keep a struggling family cool. Many states, in particular those in the south and west, provide financial assistance during the summer for paying cooling and electric bills. Emergency cash assistance, grants, and more may be offered, such as free box fans or air conditioning units.

Help to turn on your electricity back on

If your electricity has been shut off, it can be difficult for you to reconnect in a timely manner. There are assistance programs you can use to turn on power, whether it is lights, electricity, or heat. The programs are offered at the federal and state level for aid with electric, utility, water or heating bills.

You can even get grant money to pay electric or energy bills, apply for emergency hardship funds, and get assistance paying any deposit to reconnect utility service.

If you use oil for heating you can also get free or low-cost fuel. The same is true for homes that are heated by firewood. Government programs as well as charities will help low-income households that use this as a source of heat.

Finally, it’s fairly common when difficulty arises, to get a utility company to offer you a payment plan to prevent shutting off service to you.

Balanced payment plans

These are offered by many utility companies as a way to help pay as well as manage your bills. These plans provide the customer a way of paying their electric bill at a flat rate per month so families can budget for the seasonal spikes in their heating or cooling costs.

The payments you need to make do not dramatically increase during the winter or summer months. For example, if your annual electric bill is $1,800 per year, you may pay a flat fee of $150 per month, rather than paying a higher amount in the summer or winter.

Who do you contact?

A struggling customer should always contact their utility company to find out about any programs they offer. Call the number for customer service on your bill. They even may cancel the charges you owe if you are income qualified!

Other utility company assistance programs

Home energy audits

Utility companies will offer HEAs as a free service or provide it for a very low fee. These audits will help a homeowner identify where your home needs to be improved or updated in order to help reduce your energy usage. Some utility companies will even contribute towards the expense to fix the home, if you meet their income criteria.

LIHWAP (Low Income Household Water Assistance Program)

Many companies offer payment plans, rebates, or financial help with your water bill. There are also grants for them from charities. Companies also provide free audits that can help reducing your usage.

Dollar Energy Fund

Check out the Dollar Energy Fund if you live in WV, TN, PA, OH, MD, CA, TN, CT, TX, KY, or VA. They participate in this charitable program that has been in existence for almost 30 years and relies on donations. Hundreds of thousands of people have received grants for paying their utility as well as heating bills from the Dollar Energy Fund.

Operation Roundup

This is an assistance program offered by many utility companies that can provide cash grants to help pay utility, heating, and other bills. Your can even get help with rent, medical expenses, or food. Operation Round Up is also provided by many small utility company cooperatives.

Your telephone and internet

Low income families can receive discounts on their monthly phone bills from Lifeline, free cellular phones, or even savings on their high speed cable internet connection. Some of these services are combined with other electric bill programs as well.

Free legal assistance about your utility payment problems

Most states have non-profit law firms that can advise low- to moderate-income individuals, the elderly, and disabled on their legal rights when it comes to utility service disconnections. There is priority given to people with a medical condition or that are elderly. Lawyers can provide free legal advice and will do what they can to help the individual keep their power on.

Solve the Long Term Problem

To make sure you can pay your bills in the future, and even start to set aside some savings (especially that all-important emergency fund!), you need to live within your means. Simply enough, you either need to earn more, spend less, or most likely do both.

If your earnings and career are falling short, then you must look at yourself and see what you need to do to improve. Do you need more education? What about training that will supplement your job skills at work? If you have settled for a dead-end job, then it may be time to start looking for another opportunity while you’re still employed. It’s always easier to find work when you’ve still got a job.

But don’t ignore the other half of the equation. Reducing your expenses should be an ongoing effort. The lower your spending, the more flexibility and security you will have.

Final Thoughts

Emergency funding, loan options, and financial management, these are big issues for many people. If could happen to you and in a blog post like this, there just isn’t enough time here to list every option you can find that will help you.

But if you need help, you can’t just sit there and moan nor depend on your uncle for help. The point here is that there is help for basic bill paying and it’s not something to be ashamed of if and when you need help.

Whether it’s your local food bank, utility, a government agency or even your local bank where you can borrow (perhaps from equity in your home), there are places to turn to.

The financial worries you have may lighten as inflation eases, but that’s not just a few months down the road as the talk about a recession continues to be part of the news these days. That may mean further hard times and financial worries.

My call to action this time is to get ready and in fact always be ready for financial hard times. Build your emergency funds before they are needed, find out where you can get help before you need it, and be someone who is smart with your money all the time. Not being able to pay your bills is a terrible feeling. But with some effort and some help, you can balance out your income and expenses to be sure you’ll be able to pay in the future.

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