TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Ashley Tatum was three months behind on utility payments after leaving her job at a coffee shop because of pregnancy complications. The mother of two owed $648, and the tough economy did not offer many options.
The Milwaukee resident had one small reason to hope: The winter has been mild and her heating bills low, offering an unexpected chance to catch up on overdue payments.
"It was helpful because then I wouldn't have to stress about getting all this extra money," she said.
Although there have been some cold snaps and storms, the moderate weather has been a boon to millions of Americans, allowing them to save money on snow removal and permitting outdoor activities to continue well beyond autumn. But few have been more grateful than low-income families, who are getting a break from high heating costs.
Tatum first noticed the lower charges in November. Her bill covering most of December was $164, less than half the price from a year earlier.
"I was surprised," Tatum said. "I called my sister and said, `Girl, is your bill cheaper, too?' I'm happy that we had those nice warm days."
Initially, forecasters made grim predictions that this winter could rival or exceed the cold, snowy assault of 2010-11. But average temperatures have been well above normal across the Upper Midwest and Northeast. Combined with a lack of snow and ice, the unseasonable conditions have been a blessing for many families who normally devote much of their budgets to natural gas, propane or heating oil.
In Michigan, temperatures have been 15 percent above normal since October, and plentiful fuel supplies are driving down natural gas prices.
"It's helping all customers," said Judy Palnau, spokeswoman for the Michigan Public Service Commission.
Utility company Consumers Energy says its 1.7 million natural gas customers in Michigan are paying about 20 percent less than a year ago. The average residential bill for January will be $112, down from about $140.
Marc Ryan of Traverse City is living in a friend's trailer for the winter. His latest utility bill was for $90 – about $25 less than last year.
"It's not a lot, but 25 bucks is 25 bucks," Ryan said. "It's half a tank of gas in my pickup truck. I'll take that."
Advocacy groups and government agencies agree the weather has been helpful – to a point. Demand for heating assistance remains high, they say, partly because so many Americans are unemployed or working at low-paying jobs.
Congress in December slashed the federal program that provides low-income heating and utility subsidies from $4.7 billion to $3.5 billion for this year. But because of the moderate weather, assistance agencies that had been turning people away now have money to give.
Still, many recipients will be getting less. Minnesota's average grant is now $400, down from $500 to $600 a year ago. The state is helping 190,000 households with heating expenses – more than last year, despite a 23 percent drop in federal payments.
"There are households that are calling. They're wondering, `What are we going to do? The grant I was provided will barely get me one fill of my propane tank,'" said Judd Schultz, housing director for Minnesota Valley Action Council, one of 28 nonprofit agencies through which the money is distributed.
In Indianapolis, employment coach Janice Duffey of Southeast Community Services said she's been flooded with calls for heating help and expects no letup anytime soon.
"The weather could go berserk in a week," Duffey said.
The owner of an oil company in Scarborough, Maine, said heating oil usage among his customers dropped about 25 percent in November and 18 to 20 percent in December.
Les Thomas, who runs Cash Energy, has two tanks in his house. "I've usually filled them up again around Christmastime," he said. This year, he didn't need to.
One couple's oil supply lasted so long that they stopped checking it regularly.
"I got home last night and realized my tank was just about empty. It's been so warm, I forgot about our oil," said Angie Tapper, a waitress who lives with her husband in Lewiston, Maine.
She also got used to having some extra money. "It's been a welcome break for our bank account," she said.
Still, Tapper knows there's still plenty of winter ahead.
"I've got to get into a January-February mindset," she said, "until I see flowers."
Associated Press writers Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee; Kathy Barks Hoffman in Lansing, Mich.; Corey Williams in Detroit; Carrie Schedler in Indianapolis; Alexandra Tempus in Minneapolis; and Glenn Adams in Augusta, Maine, contributed to this report.