Prioritizing Bills

When money is tight, we sometimes have to make VERY difficult choices. 

What do I mean by “difficult?” I’m NOT talking about “which sweater should I buy?”  That does not qualify as a difficult choice in the true sense of difficult choices. I am talking about “I have 8 bills to pay, and I can only pay 5 of them.”

When you need to consider which bills to pay, a key is to ask “what would be the consequences of not paying each bill?” With that in mind, there are three types of bills that generally need top priority. These are bills that are necessary to:

  1. Keep you safe and healthy (for example, picking up your prescription medicines)
  2. Keep you housed (for example, paying rent or mortgage)
  3. Keep your employment (for example, renewing your professional license, or keeping transportation to work)

These three priorities go beyond actual bills, too. For example, buying groceries is not a “bill,” but having healthy food is essential to keeping you and your family safe and healthy. Likewise, if driving is the only way to get to work, then your car needs gas. Applying those three priorities will help you make the difficult choices about what bills to pay and what money to spend.

Asking for help is important too. Sometimes direct help is available for your bills; for example, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) can help with heating/utility bills if you qualify. In other cases, getting help with something else can free up some money for your bills. For example, getting food from a food pantry would make money available to pay more of your bills.

Using these three priorities is a short-term solution. When you’re in a difficult situation, you need a short-term plan to get you through the week or the month. But when the problem continues over time, the short-term solution is no longer enough. Longer-term changes will be needed, such as increased income, or a permanent reduction in expenses.

If you face a situation where long-term changes are needed to resolve your financial challenges, it is often wise to seek help assessing your situation. ISU Extension and Outreach specialists can help you examine your options. We cannot tell you what to do – only you can make that decision – but we may be able to help you identify new options, or thoroughly assess the pros and cons of various actions. Find and contact your local educator here.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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