Extra Utility Assistance Available to Iowans affected by COVID

Iowans who have experienced a COVID-related income loss any time since March 17, 2020 may be eligible for extra assistance with utility bills including electric, natural gas and water bills if they are at risk of disconnection. Many households whose incomes are above the regular guidelines for energy assistance may qualify for this help.

The Residential Utility Disruption Prevention Program went into effect about a week ago, with an application deadline of November 20, 2020.

Applicants must meet income guidelines (80% of median income, which is more generous than regular utility assistance), and must already have an unpaid utility bill. More eligibility details, as well as required documentation, are found at the program’s website.

You must apply on-line; if internet access is a problem, families are encouraged to get help from a trusted friend. A local Community Action Agency may also be able to help.

Barb Wollan

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.

More Posts

Managing Winter Heating Costs During the Pandemic

When prioritizing expenses, a major household bill is utilities (e.g., electricity, gas, water and sewer, landline and cell phone, and internet/cable). The highest utility cost is typically heating the home.

Plan for increasing home heating costs over the next six months. COVID-19 may increase these costs because many families are spending more time working and/or learning from home.

Average Iowa household utility expense of $2,580 varies widely according to the size of a home, climate, and utility usage patterns. Regardless of what you pay for utilities, there are ways to pay less. 

Step 1: Check Eligibility and Request Energy Assistance. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) assists households with a portion of the home heating bills, particularly those facing disconnection or who have trouble paying their utility bill. Early applications for LIHEAP started October 1 (for elderly and disabled applicants), with November 1-April 30 as the annual application timeframe through a local community action agency.

A general overview of the LIHEAP program is available in multiple languages.  Information on where to apply, through your local Community Action Agency, is found on the Iowa Department of Human Rights website. It is generally necessary to call ahead for an appointment.

Step 2: Ask for A Winter Moratorium. You may avoid a utility shut-off during the “winter moratorium” if you apply for and qualify for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

  • If you are certified eligible for LIHEAP, utilities cannot shut off your gas or electric services from November 1 through April 1.
  • You should try to pay as much as you can on your utility bills, even though you cannot be shut off, because the bills will come due in April. If you have made a good faith effort to pay throughout the winter, the utility company is more likely to work with you on a payment arrangement.

It is always best to keep making payments to the maximum extent possible during any period when your utility provider is prohibited from disconnecting your service. Making payments during the winter moratorium creates “good will” with the utility company (with whom you may be negotiating a payment plan) and also keeps the problem from getting worse.

Step 3: Manage Utility Bills

-Know How Much to Expect:  Ask your utility provider for how much the utility bill was last year for your home or apartment. Electric and Natural Gas average monthly costs start at $215 and go higher depending on the size of your home and weather conditions. Pay as much as you can afford monthly.

-Weatherize: Leaky or old windows can account for 10%-25% of heating costs due to warm air escaping. Replace windows with double-pane windows or installing storm windows. Get help from the Iowa Weatherization Assistance Program https://humanrights.iowa.gov/dcaa/weatherization

-Lower the Thermostat- Dial down the thermostat saves energy in the winter by setting the thermostat to 68°F while you’re awake and setting it lower while you’re asleep or away from home. Even one degree lower can make a difference.  Industry figures for every degree you turn down your thermostat (and leave it for 8 hours) you save between 1 and 3 percent of your heating bill.

To provide help in making decisions about bills and expenses, free financial consultations are available to all Iowa residents through ISU Extension and Outreach’s Human Sciences Specialists in Family Finance. We can help revise budgets, prioritize spending and link you to community resources. Find your local contact at our webpage or by contacting your County Extension Office.

Barb Wollan

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.

More Posts

Prioritizing Bills

What’s unique about the COVID-19 experience is the financial stress we’re also experiencing at the same time. My colleagues and I (all ISU Extension financial educators) are listening and learning from people facing financial challenges who contact us for unbiased information and ideas.

 “When the crisis hit, I was glad I knew how to pay attention to the most important bills. Obviously rent and groceries were our priority.”

What expenses should I pay in a time of crisis? Step One is to Separate your essential and non-essential expenses. Prioritize bills to keep you safe, help you survive and stay employed— they include: Food, medicine, rent or mortgage payments and utilities. Iowa Legal Aid recommends paying water and energy bills in full to avoid accumulating debt and facing potential utility service disconnection.

The second step is figuring out how much cash you must have to pay the essentials.  You’re responsible for paying all your expenses on time. When we don’t have enough to cover our needs consider building a short-term plan. This plan may involve paying some bills late and needs to consider the consequences of failing to pay certain bills.

Feeling more in control will be worth the time it takes to plan. Research shows that taking these steps builds financial confidence and reduces anxiety.

Establish a short-term plan and reduce the financial stress during these tough times by contacting an ISU Extension Family Finance Specialist near you to talk through ideas and find a place to start. You can also connect with your local educator by calling Iowa Concern 800-447-1985.

Barb Wollan

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.

More Posts

Defining Financial Wellbeing: A New Way of Thinking

What comes to mind when you think about your financial wellbeing?  It may be paying bills on time, understanding your credit report, keeping financial accounts in balance, managing investments, or a long list of other financial tasks.  Although these items are important aspects of our financial lives, recent research has found that other key factors may be critical to our financial well-being

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau talked to consumers across the country to learn what financial wellbeing means to them.  Based on those interviews they found that four elements were mentioned:

• Feeling in control

• Capacity to absorb a financial shock

• On track to meet goals

• Flexibility to make choices

Financial wellbeing is not based on income level.  It’s more personal and based on satisfaction with your financial situation. Based on their research the CFPB developed a definition of wellbeing as having financial security and financial freedom of choice, in the present and in the future.

To measure your financial wellbeing, link to the wellbeing tool. Answer ten questions to get your score. You will not share any personal financial data. Steps to improve financial wellbeing are included.

Guest Blogger Phyllis Zalenski Family Finance Field Specialist…Providing Financial Management education for individuals and families including spending plans, budgeting for your needs, consumer decision-making, dealing with credit and debt, and planning for your future – savings, insurance, and retirement.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

More Posts

If You Don’t Need It, Don’t Buy It

As we experience consumers’ hoarding of a few items like toilet paper we might be under the impression that we’ve fallen on “Tough Times.”  Powerful memories exist for my senior parents who lived during World War II, when rationing meant you couldn’t always buy a wide range of the things you wanted. Like many Americans they learned and practiced “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.”

It might sound like the advice of frugal parents, “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT,” but to meet the needs of US soldiers during World War II, commodities in short supply had to be rationed.  So in 1942 Americans back home were given numbered ration books with stamps inside to control people’s consumption of things like coffee, fuel and shoes and provide equal distribution of scarce goods.

A person could not buy a rationed item without also giving the store the right ration stamp.  Once a person’s monthly ration stamps were used up, they couldn’t buy any more of that type of product. It was like being on an allowance.  

This meant planning carefully, being creative, not wasting and self-control. My father’s ration book represents just one way in which World War II changed the spending behaviors of families.

So, what of these valuable consumer behaviors can we practice today? Do I have a list and know what is already on hand at home before shopping? Can the “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT” ideal give me confidence to wait during a temporary product shortage? How might my kids, family, friends be encouraged by a different perspective than what they are seeing happen?

My grandparents and parents, like many American households, learned and practiced modest family living, to do without and to sacrifice for the common good because “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.”

Being guided by the rule “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT” printed on American’s WWII ration book covers could prove to be a life lesson for the historical event that impacts us all these days.  The ration book of my 82-year-old father, a Soil Conservation Contractor and Southeast Kansas farmer, re-appeared this week as he continues to live by the motto “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.”

Guest Blogger: Carol Ehlers, Human Sciences Finance Field Specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

More Posts

When Income Goes Down…

bar graph showing 7 months income and expenses; first month income and expenses equal, then income suddenly drops, while expenses decline slowly, until in the seventh month they are in line with lower income.

When income goes down, it often goes down suddenly – one month it is normal, and the next month it is suddenly much less. People may be much slower to reduce their expenses, often taking many months until their expenses are finally in line with their new (lower) income. Why? Denial, unwillingness to modify their lifestyle, lack of needed skills, or other reasons.

That slow response will, unfortunately, delay their recovery and increase their financial problems. The graph (above) depicts a family whose income declined by $800/month. It shows five months where the family’s expenses continued to exceed their new income. During those five months, their spending exceeded their income by a total of $2,000.

Where did that $2,000 come from? Perhaps they had an emergency savings account – if so, the balance in that account is now depleted. If they, like many Americans, had no savings, then they had no choice but to go in debt — they may have made partial payments on some bills, or built up the balance on their credit cards. They are $2,000 in the hole. And while it only took a few months to get into that hole, it may take years to repay that $2,000! (or to rebuild their savings)

The second graph depicts the same situation, but in this case the family rapidly reduced their spending to match their new income. This family also spent more than they earned, but only in the first two months, and only by about $500. They will recover much more quickly from this financial setback.

Reducing expenses isn’t easy. But in the long run, people who quickly adjust to the new situation are more satisfied with the outcome. Even in situations where the income reduction is expected to be temporary, people who adjust quickly come out of the situation in a stronger financial position.

Barb Wollan

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.

More Posts

Choices: Cut to the core

When you face unfamiliar financial stress, the choices are difficult. But they are still choices – and we know how to do that. We’ve been making choices since we were small children deciding what book we wanted for a bedtime story, or which treat to order at the ice cream store.  I know – these days we would LOVE to face such simple choices, right? Sometimes the key to dealing with difficult choices is to make them more simple — cut through the extraneous details and get to the core of it.

Faced with a budget shortfall, the hard truth is that we no longer have the money for the lifestyle we enjoyed in the past. To put it simply: I can’t still have everything. So which do I need and want the most?

Think about something special to you – maybe it’s a monthly subscription, or your favorite soda or beer, or planting flowers in your pots and your yard. Whatever this special thing is, we’ll call it  your “treasure.” It’s hard to give up. But ask yourself: would I rather have “my treasure” or running water? If the answer is running water, then you’ll pay the water bill. Would I rather have “my treasure” or keep my car? Your financial decision will follow your answer.

Sometimes we say “I was FORCED to give up ‘my treasure.'” But it’s not really true. We could have kept the “treasure” and given up something else. We kept the “something else” for a reason. Instead of feeling defeated and deprived, we can feel PROUD of the decision we made. We gave up something less important in order to keep something more important.

Looking at the bare facts can help us feel a little better about choices we wish we weren’t facing. Simplifying makes some things really clear.

Really? Of course, it’s not always as simple as I’m trying to make it. Sometimes we have more options. Perhaps I can keep “my treasure” and just delay my car payment. That means I’m choosing to make extra payments later. In order to do that, I need to be REALLY certain that my income will go back up sometime soon. – it’s a risk. Having the option to delay or make partial payments dilutes the simplicity I’m trying to convey. After all, real adult life IS more complicated than childhood decisions.

Even so, if we cut through some of the static, we get down to the bare choices. It’s always about choosing what is most important to ourselves and our families. Sometimes it’s also about carefully weighing future risks and deciding if we’re willing to take them. If we choose to take on the risk of extra payments in the future, we know we need to start now to plan for them. Accepting that reality is also part of cutting through the details and looking at the core of the decisions we’re making.

Barb Wollan

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.

More Posts

Managing Personal Finances in Tough Times

Audio Blog

Concerned about your finances during these uncertain times, but not sure where to start? ISU Extension and Outreach invites you to get in touch with one of our Human Sciences financial educators. They can help walk through ideas and options to revise a budget, prioritize bills, pay down debt, connect with community resources to stretch reduced incomes, and other personal finance topics—totally free of charge.

Our 11 financial educators are listed below with the counties they serve and are available to talk with anyone in Iowa. Because Extension and Outreach staff are currently working from home, please send an email. They will get back to you during regular business hours within 48 hours. You also can leave a phone message at Extension and Outreach’s toll-free Iowa Concern Hotline (800-447-1985) to have someone get back to you.

Contact an ISU Extension and Outreach Financial Educator

Central Iowa – Kalyn Cody  [Dallas, Madison, Polk, Warren]

North Central Iowa – Barb Wollan  [Boone, Hamilton, Hardin, Humboldt, Marshall, Story, Webster, Wright]

Northern Iowa – Brenda Schmitt  [Cerro Gordo, Emmet, Floyd, Franklin, Hancock, Kossuth, Mitchell, Palo Alto, Winnebago, Worth]

Northwest Iowa – Jan Monahan   [Clay, Dickinson, Lyon, Monona, O’Brien, Osceola, Plymouth, Sioux, Woodbury]

West Central Iowa – Carol Ehlers  [Audubon, Buena Vista, Calhoun, Carroll, Cherokee, Crawford, Greene, Guthrie, Ida, Pocahontas, Sac, Shelby]

Southwest Iowa – Sandra McKinnon  [Adams, Adair, Cass, Clarke, Decatur, Fremont, Harrison, Mills, Montgomery, Page, Pottawattamie, Ringgold, Taylor, Union]

Southern Iowa – Joyce Lash  [Appanoose, Davis, Jasper, Jefferson, Lucas, Mahaska, Marion, Monroe, Poweshiek, Van Buren, Wapello, Wayne]

Southeast Iowa – Mary Weinand  [Des Moines, Henry, Iowa, Johnson, Keokuk, Lee, Louisa, Washington]

East Central Iowa – Phyllis Zalenski  [Benton, Delaware, Dubuque, Jackson, Jones, Linn]

Eastern Iowa – Casey Codner  [Cedar, Clinton, Muscatine, Scott]

Northeast Iowa – Jeannette Mukayisire  [Allamakee, Black Hawk, Bremer, Buchanan, Butler, Chickasaw, Clayton, Fayette, Grundy, Howard, Tama, Winneshiek]

The information provided is educational in nature to help you make your own informed decisions and is not intended to substitute for professional advice or serve as an endorsement of any financial product or service.  Consult with licensed professionals prior to implementing any of the information provided to determine the course of action is best for you.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

More Posts

COVID-19 and Unemployment Insurance Benefits

This is a stressful time for individuals and communities across Iowa and we are dealing with many unknowns. Communities are impacted by the temporary closure of businesses, schools and other public facilities or events, and in some cases, quarantines. While these actions are necessary steps to help reduce exposures, it may bring financial uncertainty for many people who could experience a loss of income due to illness or workplace closures.

If you do experience unemployment, remember there are supports in place for you and your family. Iowa unemployment benefits are available to individuals who are unemployed through no fault of their own. If your employer needed to shut down operations and no work is available, you would be eligible to for unemployment benefits. Unemployment claims that are filed as a result of COVID-19 will not be charged to employers.

Many people wonder if they can receive unemployment benefits if they need to stay home from work to care for a dependent, family member or if their child has school cancellations. The answer is, “It depends”. A good approach is to contact your employer regarding potential telecommuting, sick leave, PTO, FMLA, Disability and other options they may be offering.  If those options are not available, you may file for unemployment insurance benefits to determine your eligibility.

Also note, an employer can require an employee to stay at home for the fourteen day isolation period if they have traveled out of state or had contact with someone who visited an area affected by COVID -19. Your employer should attempt to provide paid leave but if that is not available, employees might be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits.

To learn more about filing an unemployment claim, contact your local Iowa Workforce Development Center or apply online at:  https://www.iowaworkforcedevelopment.gov/file-claimunemployment-insurance-benefits.

Mary Weinand

Guest Blogger: Mary Weinand, Iowa State University Extension Family Finance Field Specialist.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

More Posts

Seek Additional Resources

Audio Blog

In all aspects of life, when we face any kind of shortage (time, money, food, etc) we generally have two choices. We can prioritize and narrow down our goals, which we have discussed in earlier posts. OR we can expand our available resources. In most cases, it’s smart to do a little of both!

The current public health crisis is wreaking havoc with the economy at large and with the economic well-being of many individual households; the widespread nature of the crisis has led to availability of expanded public supports for those whose income is disrupted. Find out if you are eligible for the unemployment relief available during the COVID-19 crisis, and apply. Learn about food pantry options in your community; spending less on food can free up funds for other critical needs and bills.

In addition, consider your personal resources. Do you own something you can sell to help you through this crisis?  If you have a boat or a snowmobile or other item of value, selling it can provide a boost. If you are currently laid off from your regular job, is there temporary work available in your community? Keep an open mind and consider all options for dealing with your current situation.

If you have lost your health insurance, check on the free or subsidized health insurance available through the Affordable Care Act: contact DHS at 855-889-7985 to see if you are eligible for free insurance, OR for subsidized insurance through the marketplace, go to www.healthcare.gov or call 800-318-2596. Through the marketplace, your share of the insurance premium is on a sliding scale depending on your income: people generally pay premiums equivalent to 2% – 8% of their income, and the government pays the remainder.

Seek other public or community assistance as well if you qualify. These resources exist because we live in a society that wants to ensure all can stay safe and healthy. Perhaps you are new to seeking help, but consider that others have needed them in the past and others will need them in the future; now is the time when you need them. If you don’t know much about available resources in your area, dial 211 or go to the website. This free service provides information and referral on a wide range of issues.

Barb Wollan

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.

More Posts

    

Subscribe to “MoneyTip$”

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Archives

Categories