It’s not the lack of money for groceries that gets me in the end because I don’t notice the difference. It’s the stress; the feeling of tightness in my chest when I think about the bills, the weird anxiety when I consider getting the car past the NCT, and the massive gulp when we pay the mortgage every month. Then absolute screaming frustration when another niggly thing crops up that we have to pay for, that I have to fit into the budget. Somedays I feel like I’m wandering around in an empty house, in an empty town, in an empty country, with nobody to talk to about how it feels to be constantly worried about money.
Last week Safe Food announced a new research paper which reckoned that the average family (2 adults, 2 children) need to spend at least €141 but sometimes as much as €160 per week on a shopping basket with enough healthy food for a week. We’re a family of 5. I’m guessing that that figure should be somewhere in the region of €200 per week for our family size. That’s around twice what my food budget is every week.
Earlier this year we exited the MARP (Mortgage Arrears Resolution Process) with Ulster Bank. Up until then we had been in an arrangement to pay less while we got back on our feet after a few rough years financially. While we were in the MARP we got our household bills right down to a very small figure. We cleared the credit card every month, my husband learned how to service the car himself to pay money, we grew our own food, learned to be more energy-efficient, and I managed to get the grocery bill down. That much is no secret. When there were 4 of us living here full-time my budget was around €70 per week for food. I’ve since increased it to €80 for food with another €20 for cleaning materials and other items because there are 5 of us (the teenager now lives here full-time).
We eat very well for that €80 and never go without. There is always plenty of food in the house thanks to a combination of meal planning, budgeting, and me having decent culinary skills. It helps to know how to stretch a roast chicken beyond one main meal or bake my own bread. We do manage takeaway food every now and again on that budget too!
The other €100 per week that we should have to spend on food according to Safe Food we use elsewhere. We try to make it so that the children don’t feel left out when it comes to things like holidays or day trips. You’d be surprised what you can do, and where you can go, on €30 per week over a year, trust me! There’s also stuff like grinds for the Leaving Cert student (I feel old), after school club for the 5-year-old so I can collect the two boys at the same time in the afternoon, long-term savings like back to school, and obviously Christmas.
In the Spring (at the same time we left the arrangement) we received professional advice that our mortgage with Ulster Bank was one of those mortgages that you might have heard in the news last week. One of the mortgages that was being charged at the wrong rate of interest. We wrote to the bank, and have been writing to the bank since. A lot. The mortgage amount we’re paying at the moment is more than half of our net income and this makes life quite difficult as you can imagine.
If we were being charged the right rate of interest however, and the overcharge adjusted to the right level, our mortgage becomes completely affordable again. As far as we know, the bank will change the interest rate to the correct amount first, then afterwards (many months we think) fix the overcharges which have accrued over the past 7 years. Even changing the interest rate will make a big difference on a weekly basis. Once all the adjustments are made, by my estimation it’ll be the equivalent of receiving a 25% net income increase for us.
In the meantime, I start every morning by checking the bank account, then checking the budget to make sure we’re on track. I follow this up by a keyword search online to see if any other customers have received those magical letters that are due to arrive before Christmas. I check online chat forums, and social media, for keywords and references to the same issues that we have. I wait for the postman everyday and pounce on the letters as they arrive in the hopes that we have some positive news. The radio plays in the background all day and I listen out for any snippet of information that might indicate that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Last Thursday morning, for example, was spent watching the Oireachtas Finance Committee questioning Ulster Bank on an online stream. That led to a glimmer of hope that maybe we might get a letter before Christmas, but no certainty.
Which is why I end up crying for a good bit last Thursday (oh okay tears are shed most days at the moment). And why I didn’t write this blog post last week when I had originally intended to.
The stress is omnipresent. Especially at this time of the year.
We will not go without. The children will have an amazing Christmas (like always); we will focus on what’s important to us as a family.
I just worry so much for the future at the moment because I have no idea when Ulster Bank will actually get back to us and fix this wrong; make it right. We need to get the car through the NCT in January and at some stage in the next year we need to replace it. There’s a student who will be (hopefully) going to college next year and she will need all of our support for that, even with grant aid. Then another child who will make their First Holy Communion; let’s not even talk about pensions, what are they? The list goes on. All of this would be far more affordable if we weren’t being hammered by our mortgage every month.
This has not been an easy post to write, I’m sure you’ll appreciate that. My husband and I have discussed at length this year when would be the right time to explain how we are managing. Talking about personal finance is something that Irish people aren’t great at doing. We hope that by sharing our experiences at the moment that the other affected families won’t feel so alone. I say ‘we’ because I couldn’t have written this blog post without the help of my husband. At this stage we are both propping one another up.
I’m very aware of how lucky we are. We still have a home, our bills are paid every month, our children are warm, clean (occasionally, we have boys), well-fed, happy, dressed, and nurtured. This is unlike the estimated 15 families who have lost their homes a result of this mischarge by Ulster Bank, and approximately 51 families who have lost their homes as a result of the industry-wide ‘error’.