F.I.R.E. (financial independence retire early) has become wildly popular in recent years. The idea is that if you take some specific actions, you can get rich fairly quickly and retire at age 30 or 40. But what about the other side of the coin? What if you’re thinking, “I can’t pay my bills!”? So you're struggling and can't pay your bills…what can you do?
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 friends, neighbor, and your Uncle Fred in Cleveland for help, and it just wasn’t in the cards, what do you go next?
Putting aside the time frame and urgency issue, you can begin by looking on the internet for local resources and ways to get help in the form of free grants or other assistance. The answers you need are there, and the internet can be incredibly helpful in many ways.
But turning your finances around takes time. Here are six tips to help you figure out how to pay your bills.
1. 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 ultimately make things worse when your services are shut off or your debts get sent to collections.
Instead, contact your creditors and explain your situation. If there are extenuating circumstances like temporary unemployment, 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 reduced 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.
2. Find Additional Income
Sell Your Stuff
It's time to hustle and find some additional money. 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…as many people will purchase electronic or mechanical items for parts.
Ask For a Raise
Ask your boss for a raise if you think you really deserve one. Make sure you point out 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.
Start a Side Hustle
Get a second job or a side hustle to earn additional money. Even a part-time gig at a fast food restaurant 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 the hundreds of other ways you can make a little extra dough.
When you find that additional income, make sure it goes toward paying off your bills and doesn’t get squandered.
3. 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 possible you're not managing it well. Your income can only go so far, and when overspending on credit cards or other debt payments, 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. Any of these factors can make your finances difficult to manage.
Which, 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 and aggressively reduce your expenses to give yourself a chance to get back on track.
4. Cut Your Expenses
Ditch the Credit Cards
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 the 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, a good rewards program, and a low interest rate.)
Reduce Utility Bills
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.
Save on Transportation Costs
That car you drive at $300-$400+ per month may have to go as well. Do some research to see if you could trade in your car or find a less expensive option. 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.
Save Money on Groceries
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.
5. Get Help With Critical Expenses
When you have fallen upon hard financial times and need help, paying for monthly expenses like food and utilities is often the first and biggest concern you have. There are many public assistance programs in place to help people who are struggling. Learn more about which programs you may be 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 grants through various organizations.
All states in the U.S. offer some form of utility relief program as well as food programs such as food banks, and of course, there is the federal SNAP program, formerly known as ‘food stamps.'
There are local, state, and federal resources that can help eligible low-income individuals struggling to pay their utility bills. Most of these assistance programs are temporary and meant to help you out of a tough situation and back onto solid financial footing. However, some 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 or grants.
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 free energy-saving methods. Contact your state websites to find where help is offered.
The 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 functions similarly in most parts of the country. It is often used in conjunction with the weatherization program.
Weatherization Assistance Program
This 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 Conditioner
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.
Get 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 get your power turned back on. The programs are offered at the federal and state level for aid with electric, utility, water, or heating bills.
You can even receive 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 qualify for free or low-cost fuel. The same is true for homes that are heated by firewood. Government programs and 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 and manage your bills. These plans provide the customer a way of paying their electric bill at a monthly flat rate year-round 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 Should You Contact?
A struggling customer should always contact their utility company to find out about any programs they offer. Call the customer service number on your bill. They even may cancel the charges you owe if you are income-qualified.
Other Utility 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 homeowners identify where improvements or updates can be made to reduce energy usage. Some utility companies will even contribute towards the expense of fixing the home if you meet the income criteria.
LIHWAP (Low Income Household Water Assistance Program)
Many companies offer payment plans, rebates, or financial help with your water bill. They also receive grants from charities that allow them to provide free audits to help reduce your usage.
Dollar Energy Fund
Check out the Dollar Energy Fund participates in a 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 utilities from this fund.
The Dollar Energy Fund is available in the following states:
This assistance program, offered by many utility companies, provides cash grants to help pay utility, heating, and other bills. You can also get help with rent, medical expenses, or food. Operation Round Up is also provided by many small utility company cooperatives.
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
Most states have non-profit law firms that can advise low-to-moderate-income individuals, the elderly, and the disabled on their legal rights when it comes to utility service disconnections. Priority is given to the elderly and people with medical conditions. Lawyers can provide free legal advice to help individuals keep their power on.
6. 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 fall short, look at your current circumstances to determine where you can improve.
Do you need more education?
Can you get additional training to supplement your skills at work?
If you have settled for a dead-end job, 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.
Emergency funding, loan options, and financial management are big issues for many people. Needing help is nothing to be ashamed of, but you need to take action to remedy the situation.
Whether it’s your local food bank, utility, a government agency, or your local bank where you can borrow (perhaps from the equity in your home), there are places to turn to.
Your financial worries may lighten as inflation eases, but it's impossible to know if that is on the horizon or if further hard times and financial worries are in the near future.
Build your emergency funds, find out where you can get help (even before you need it, if possible), 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 help, you can balance out your income and expenses to be sure you’ll be able to pay in the future.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.