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Giving warmth is always welcome

Connie Prater

As you’re shopping for that perfect Christmas or holiday gift this year, consider giving gift certificates to help friends and family pay their winter heating bills.

A 2007 poll found that nearly 12 percent of Americans expected to have to borrow money to pay their winter heating bills that year.


Pacific Gas and Electric, which serves California, is predicting lower energy bills this winter because of lower natural gas prices compared to last year. Still, depending on where you live, winter heating bills can gobble up a large chunk of a family’s budget.

And since credit card issuers have slashed credit limits on many accounts and closed others altogether, it may be more difficult for some families to get the cash to pay heating bills this year. Those who do have available credit to put the winter utility bills on credit cards may be dealing with higher interest rates (as many credit card issuers have hiked APRs in anticipation of new credit card restrictions scheduled to begin Feb. 22, 2010.

The gift of warmth
Many of the major utility companies offer gift certificates. Here are a few:

  • Dominion, a Richmond, Va.,-based natural gas provider serving 12 states, offers gift certificates in $10, $25, $50, $75, $100 and $250 denominations. The company notes that anyone can buy a gift certificate, but they can be redeemed only by a Dominion customer.
  • New Jersey Natural Gas (NJNG) allows you to purchase gift certificates for any amount you like and credit it to the recipient’s account on a date you select.
  • Some energy companies, such as the Central Hudson Gas and Electric Corp. in New York state, allow you to remain anonymous — kind of like a Secret Santa.
  • DTE Energy, which provides gas and electric service to 3.4 million homes and businesses in Michigan, also offers certificates.

“During these tough economic times, it’s an ideal gift for friends on a tight budget, relatives living on a fixed income or children living away from home,” Joyce Hayes-Giles, DTE Energy’s senior vice president of customer service, said in a press release. “It’s a thoughtful and practical present for any occasion, especially now when we’re entering the long winter heating season.”

A few tips
Find out the name of your gift recipient’s utility company and look up the Web site. You can call customer service and ask if they provide gift certificates. Be sure to ask about prices and the terms. (For example, is there a fee for purchasing the gift certificate, and does it expire?)

Remember that many local and state government programs offer energy bill assistance and utilities have charity programs to help people who cannot pay their heating bills.

See related: Interactive: Utilities that allow credit card payments, 7 tips for paying high utility bills, Give the gift (certificate) of warmth this year, Fed issues rules restricting gift card fees, expiration

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