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Traveling? Tips on prepaying bills: Money Matters

August 19, 2018

Traveling? Tips on prepaying bills: Money Matters

Q: I learned a lot in your column about what’s the best way to pay bills when traveling. In your column last week about the pros and cons of allowing utilities to automatically debit your checking account or charge your credit card, I had another thought. I wonder if you could also overpay (prepay) the utilities with enough cushion to take care of the bills while you’re away.

C.J., Medina

A: Yes, this certainly would be an option too. However, I don’t know that I personally would be comfortable estimating what future bills would be for utilities that can vary widely, such as your electric bill in the summer or your gas bill in the winter.

On bills with fixed amounts, such as your cable or cell phone, it would be easy. Even sewer and water are a bit easier to estimate, although they can vary somewhat, especially in the summer, when the kids may be home from college or you may be filling up wading pools for toddlers.

I asked Dominion Energy, one of the major local natural gas suppliers, your question.

“The direct answer to the question is: Yes, customers can prepay their gas bills and make overpayments to their accounts,” said spokesman Neil Durbin. “The credit that results due to the overpayment will be used to satisfy future billings.”

Before you do that, though, you should contact Dominion Energy at 1-800-362-7557, so the company can make a notation on your account, he said.

“We often see this happening with customers who travel on extended vacations or who spend the winter months out of state,” Durbin said. “If a customer’s extended vacation is part of a heating season, it would be difficult for the customer to accurately estimate a monthly bill. Therefore, it would be risky to estimate an overpayment that may not cover higher heating bills during the vacation.”

A better option, he said, may be switching to budget billing so your bill would be the same every month. (However, I’m not a huge fan of budget billing as a go-to strategy for everyone. For some people, sure.)

Customers can also opt to pay online or enroll in automatic bank draft.

Over at FirstEnergy, customers can also prepay their monthly bills and settle up when they get back in town, hopefully with an account credit rather than a balance due.

If a customer does choose to overpay/prepay, she doesn’t need to notify FirstEnergy.

“A much better option would be to sign up for our e-bill service and have the monthly bill deducted via autopay,” said FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin. “Customers using the e-bill service would receive a bill electronically and they could access the bill regardless of where they are.”

Here is the link for more information: www.firstenergycorp.com/ebill

On a separate but related note, I’ve heard that in some cases, an overpayment on a utility could go toward programs that help poor people with their utility bills. In one case, I was told that someone accidentally overpaid her bill and it went toward such a program and she couldn’t get the money back. I asked FirstEnergy and Dominion about this.

“This is not how FirstEnergy operates,” Mark Durbin said. “Any overpayment – on purpose or accidental - would be listed on the account as a credit.”

At Dominion Energy, if an overpayment was a specific amount, it could go toward the gas company’s EnergyShare winter heating assistance program. Here’s what the company says on this program: “Dominion Energy covers the program’s administrative costs, allowing all donations to go toward paying heating bills. How to Contribute: Simply add $1, $2, $6, $12, $18, or $36 to the amount due on your bill.

“Overpayments in these exact amounts are automatically recognized as a contribution and will be documented on your next bill. Or, mail a check for any amount (made payable to EnergyShare) to EnergyShare, The Salvation Army, and P.O. Box 5847, Cleveland, OH 44101.”

Dominion chose these amounts “because generally, they are specific enough that our system would interpret them as if the customer had intended to make an EnergyShare contribution,” Durbin said.

If a customer made an overpayment that went for the EnergyShare program and that wasn’t the customer’s intention, “affected customers can contact the company and that contribution amount will be reversed and credited to the customer’s own account,” Durbin said.

In addition, customers can ask Dominion to block any future contributions to EnergyShare if they regularly make overpayments on their accounts.   

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