1 in 6 American Homes Are Behind on Utility Bills. Here's What to Do if You're One of Them

Many or all of the products here are from our partners that compensate us. It’s how we make money. But our editorial integrity ensures our experts’ opinions aren’t influenced by compensation. Terms may apply to offers listed on this page.


  • As heat waves hit parts of the country, rising costs mean some families can't pay their bills.
  • If you've fallen behind, start by talking to your provider to see what support is available.
  • Be proactive and try to find a solution before your power gets cut off.

Costs are rising and people are struggling to keep up.

It feels like our finances have been slammed from every direction in the last few years. The cost of groceries, gas, and utilities are all spiraling upwards and wages aren't rising at the same pace. Hot on the heels of the economic impact of the pandemic came sky-high inflation and crazy gas prices.

The result? Americans are having a hard time paying their bills. According to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, over 20 million households are behind on their utility bills. That's one in six households grappling with the fear of being cut off just as a heat wave sweeps parts of the country.

Four steps to take if you can't pay your utility bills

If you don't have enough in the bank to cover your utility bills, you're not alone. Tempting as it may be to ignore the problem and hope it goes away, the sooner you take action, the better. If you get disconnected, not only will you be without power, but you'll also have to pay an extra reconnection fee.

1. Talk to your provider

Make your utility company your first port of call. Find out what support it can offer and whether it has any programs for people in your situation. You may be able to agree on some kind of payment plan or qualify for additional assistance. These types of calls can be stressful, but try to stay calm, be polite, and stress your intention to pay. You're more likely to get a good outcome if the person on the other end of the phone is on your side.

2. Look for help

The main source of energy bills assistance is LIHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Visit its website or call the National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) hotline at 1-866-674-6327 to find out what support is available in your state and how you qualify.

Another potential source of support is United Way, which you can contact by dialing 211. The 211 network helps people who are struggling to pay their bills, food, or housing costs. It's also worth looking for local charities and NGOs, such as local churches, the Salvation Army, or state social service agencies. It isn't always easy to ask for help, but if that support helps you keep the air conditioning running, it could be worthwhile.

3. Understand your state rules and protections

Every state is different, so it's good to understand what protections exist in your area. Some states won't allow utility companies to cut people off during the extreme heat of summer or cold of winter. Others have specific provisions for the elderly or people with disabilities. Find out whether your state has any measures or programs that might apply to you. Your state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is a good place to start.

4. Cut your energy consumption

Find out if your utility company will carry out a free energy conservation consultation. Many do, and it can dramatically reduce your bill. A few of the measures you could take to cut your consumption this summer include:

  • Raise your thermostat. Every degree higher could cut your energy consumption by 1% to 3%.
  • Keep the blinds drawn to keep the worst of the sun out. Covering your windows can significantly lower the temperature inside.
  • Do chores, such as laundry, at non-peak hours. Many states have different tariffs for peak and off-peak times, so if you're able to switch your consumption times, you could reduce costs.
  • Wash clothes in cold water. Not only can you shave some money off your utility bill, a cold wash can also mean your clothes last longer and colors don't fade as quickly.
  • Unplug appliances at night. Leaving your TV and other electronic items in standby mode means they're consuming energy even when you're not using them. Switch them off at the plug.

Minimizing the damage of unpaid bills

There's no easy way to magic up money when you're barely making ends meet. If you're having trouble paying your utility bills, there's a good chance you're struggling with other costs as well. Prioritize the most urgent payments, such as food, utilities, and housing, and cut back on all non-essential spending. You might try a budgeting app to see if there are areas where you can shave a few more dollars off your monthly costs.

Missing payments can impact your credit score and make it harder to borrow money in the future. All the same, try to avoid using your credit card to cover any shortfalls, as this could generate more problems further down the road. Rising interest rates mean this is not a good time to carry high interest debt. It may already feel as if there aren't enough hours in the day. But if there's any way you can take on extra work to bring in more cash, this could help you get back on track.

Don't be afraid to ask for help. See what assistance is available in your state and what support you might qualify for. Finally, make sure any creditors understand your situation. These are extraordinary times and the more you can do to proactively manage the problem, the better.

Alert: our top-rated cash back card now has 0% intro APR until 2025

This credit card is not just good – it’s so exceptional that our experts use it personally. It features a lengthy 0% intro APR period, a cash back rate of up to 5%, and all somehow for no annual fee! Click here to read our full review for free and apply in just 2 minutes.

Our Research Expert

Related Articles

View All Articles Learn More Link Arrow