Brutal winter chilling Americans’ pocketbooks

This winter is creating a bone-chilling arithmetic for many consumers.

With record-low temperatures across much of the country, home heating costs will reach almost $119 billion this winter, up nearly 21 percent from last year, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.

But the pain isn't distributed equally among Americans. The worst off? People who heat with propane, given the 57 percent jump in the average propane bill this winter heating season. For low-income and middle-class Americans, that means strained budgets and less discretionary money to spend at Walmart (WMT) and other stores.

"Because it's been such a cold winter, everyone is paying a lot more," noted Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association. "Middle-class families are getting hit as well. Just because you are better off doesn't mean you can afford it. The shopping cycle is down not just because it's cold, but because there's $20 billion less" in Americans' wallets.

Walmart and other retailers cited wintry weather as one reason for weaker sales in the first two weeks of February. While storms may keep consumers from getting out of their homes for a shopping trip, the bigger issue is the money drain of this year's home-heating costs, Wolfe said.

Making matters worse is winter weather that just won't quit. While spring officially started last week, it still feels like January in much of the country. In Vermont, the maple-sugar industry -- which relies on warm March days -- is off to a slow start because of below-zero temperatures. The typically moderate mid-Atlantic region, meanwhile, was forecast to see another four inches of snow today.

Some consumers are falling behind in paying their utility bills, while others are asking for emergency assistance.

In Iowa, residents are $46 million behind in paying their utility bills, the highest deficit since 1999, the Des Moines Register reports. The United Way of Tarrant County in Texas recorded a 62 percent jump in assistance requests.

"I was completely shocked," Marlene Harmon told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about her $325 electric bill. "My bill was almost double what I usually get this time of year. It was upsetting."

The issue is not only that some fuels are more expensive, but also that consumers are using more given the unrelenting frigid days and nights. This past winter was the 34th coldest in 119 years, according to NASA. For propane users, that means their average bill is over $2,300 this winter, up from $1,500 last year, according to the NEADA.

Right now, one fear is that residents who are behind in their utility bills will see their power and heating shut off come April 1, when the winter moratorium on utility shutoffs ends, Wolfe notes.

"There are probably a large number of families who fell behind and can't catch up," he said. "It's a ticking time bomb."