By Tom Costello Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/30/2005 5:51:55 PM ET 2005-12-30T22:51:55

At St. Charles Church in Detroit, Mich., Father David Preuss has moved mass to the basement. The upstairs sanctuary is spectacular, but the heating bills have soared through the 56-foot roof — from $1,500 a month two years ago, to $3,400 dollars a month now. It’s more than parishoners can support.

“They’re dealing with the same thing at home and many of them are struggling to pay their own bills so they understand that our house is bigger than their house,” says Fr. Preuss.

After a particularly cold month in much of the country, millions of Americans are getting their first look at sky-rocketing heating bills. They’re not as steep as the government predicted in October, but natural gas still up 3 percent on average.

So far, Congress has authorized $20 million less for heating assistance than it did last year, while the forecast is for a colder winter than last.

At Don and Theresa Babbin’s house in Boston, Mass., they’re keeping the heat down — and staying inafter the gas and electric bills hit nearly $400 this month.

“I don’t know how I’m going to get by. I’ll get by one way or the other, but it’s going to wipe me out,” says Don Babbin.

In snowy Colorado, the governor wants to double energy assistance to 100,000 families. “The choice this winter could be between groceries and heating their homes,” says Gov. Bill Owens.

In the Midwest, families will pay on average almost $400 more for natural gas this winter compared to last. In the Northeast, they’ll pay nearly $300 more: And that’s just the average.  For homeowners who are in particularly cold areas, or have poor insulation, the bills can be 50 percent higher.

For many families on a budget, this winter is bringing some tough checkbook prioritizing. On this, Jean Chatzky, Money Magazine Editor-at-Large  has some advice: “Cut down your cell phone bills, get rid of some of those cable channels, maybe stop stopping for that everyday cappuccino, and by all means file your taxes early and grab that refund.”

Back in Detroit, Fr. Pruess has decided to spend the church’s money not on more heat, but on the under-privileged in his parish. “The heat will be gone, but what we invest in the children will last,”  he says.

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