Dec. 22 marks the official start of winter, and the memories of last year's polar vortexes and the heating bills that came with them probably still sting.

Dec. 22 marks the official start of winter, and the memories of last year's polar vortexes and the heating bills that came with them probably still sting.

If there is any silver lining, it's that the U.S. Department of Energy expects this winter to be milder, and home-heating costs to be 5 percent lower for homes that heat primarily with natural gas; 15 percent lower for heating oil; 27 percent lower for propane; and 2 percent lower if heating with electricity.

Winter utility bills can still bite, though. Luckily, there are many low- and no-cost ways to lower utility bills, and there are places to turn for help if the bill is astronomical and there is just no way to pay it.

First, set out to lower the bill. For starters, turn down your thermostat. The U.S. Department of Energy said you can shave up to 1 percent off your heating bill for each degree you lower your thermostat. They recommend setting it at 68 degrees while you are home and lower (by as much as 10 to 15 degrees) when you are at work or school. The notion that any energy savings are erased when the furnace kicks on to heat up the house again is false.

Another free tip is to keep "curtains open during the day to let the sun in, then close them at night to prevent heat loss," said Betsy DeMatteo, a consumer educator with Ohio State University Extension.

She also recommends low-cost solutions such as sealing air leaks around doors, windows and outlets: "Anything you can do to block air, even putting plastic over windows, will reduce heat loss."

Other recommendations from DeMatteo include: lowering the temperature on the water heater, installing more efficient light bulbs, hanging clothes up to dry, and reducing phantom electric load by plugging all electronics into power strips and then switching them off while sleeping or at work.

Closing doors and turning off heat to rooms you aren't using, cleaning and replacing the furnace filter once a month, and adding more insulation to the attic and walls also are effective.

Sometimes cutting usage to the bone still isn't enough. If the bill comes and there just isn't any money to pay it, there are options. The first step is to "call the utility company and see what they say," DeMatteo said. They may be able to sign you up for a level-billing program, which spreads the cost of higher bills over the entire year and creates a more stable monthly payment. They also may sign you up for a bill-forgiveness program or direct you to local agencies that provide heating assistance.

The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel is the central spot to look for heating-assistance programs. Call their hotline (1-877-742-5622) for help. They can help with information on programs such as the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP Plus) or the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and can help with the paperwork needed to qualify for those that require medical certification, DeMatteo said.

If you need help, pursue it. "Heat isn't something you can do without," DeMatteo said. "A $400 emergency is enough to send most families over the brink. Every winter is terrible if you are on that bubble. (The bills) are enough to send families spiraling into trouble."

Stay out of trouble. As with all money matters, calling your provider and asking for help sooner rather than later yields better results.

Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, and