Get help with your heating bills

Man and woman with calculator

More families will be struggling with natural gas and heating oil bills this winter.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration says utility bills for homes using natural gas should increase 30% to 50% while those with oil-burning furnaces will spend 50% to 100% more to refill their tanks.

If you find yourself with bills you just can't pay, here's what to do.

Start by calling your utility company and asking whether it has a plan that allows you to average your payments over an entire year. You'll pay more in the summer but avoid sky-high bills in the winter.

A reader told us that her utility company, NSTAR Electric in Massachusetts, did an energy audit on her home and pointed her in the direction of EnerBank USA, which provided an unsecured, interest-free loan to install a more efficient furnace.

Credit unions also have unsecured low- or no-interest loans to help with your monthly bills or to install a more efficient furnace.

The colder your state, the more likely you'll find this kind of help. In Maine, for example, about two-thirds of the state's credit unions offer these kinds of loans.

Utility assistance charities are an option if you're seriously short of cash.

Look on your utility bill to see if there's an option to donate to a charity that helps families pay their gas bills. If so, call your utility company and ask how you can apply for a subsidy.

Even if you don't see one, call and ask if there's one your utility company works with but doesn't list on the bill. You also can search for utility assistance charities at charitynavigator.org.

If your household's gross monthly income doesn't exceed 150% of the poverty level, you could qualify for the federal government's Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

It can provide money for utility payments, fixing broken furnaces and paying back bills to keep your heat from being turned off.

That help is available through most states, many of which supplement the program with other sources of money. Here's where to locate the LIHEAP in your state.