Cost of living crisis: ‘Food or fuel’ decisions facing some
Families in Mullingar are already turning down their thermostats and flicking off lights in a bid to try to keep a lid on their skyrocketing electricity bills. Last week, as a further round of hikes was announced, Eilís Ryan went to test temperatures ahead of what is looking like a particularly tough winter – and found some people are making some tough decisions already.
Families bracing themselves for a chilly winter
When Jessica Craig received her most recent electricity bill, the reality of this new more expensive world really hit home: the amount owed to the electricity company came to an eyewatering sum.
“I just rang my electricity company to change providers. I had been with the same company for about two years, but my bill came in at nearly €900 for two months.”
The family was taken aback: “We nearly had a heart attack! It’s insane. We only live in a small little cottage in the outskirts of Westmeath at Clonkill.”
The bill represented a tripling of what they were used to: “Before that, our bill would have been about €300.”
When Jessica began ringing around to see if there was a cheaper provider with which she could sign up, she was offered a contract that would have seen her unit cost reduced by 35 per cent from what she was paying: “And then when that happened, my original company rang me back and then they gave me a better discount, so it pays to shop around: if you ring around the different companies you do get better value.”
As the mother of school-age children, Jessica’s planned strategy to keep costs down is to try and have everyone switch off what they are not using, and the family are also using timers to regulate the use of some devices.
Also the mother of schoolgoing children, Sandra Scally from Mullingar does her best to keep within budget – but a fourfold hike in her electricity costs has made that task challenging.
“I am definitely concerned about it,” says Sandra.
“We are now paying nearly €90 a week – and that’s on prepay. It used to be €20 a week.
“We’re doing without food to put ESB in so the kids can have things normal. It’s impossible, it’s absolutely impossible.”
Sandra can’t look at changing provider as they have been with their current firm for less than a year – but then again she’s not sure if it would even make much difference: “They’re all the same: the prices are sky high.”
There are three children in the house and the family are using a range of strategies to try to cut back on usage.
“When you have kids, it’s very, very difficult to cut back on your electricity usage.”
That said, she is using tricks such as trying to do as few washes as possible: “The cooker doesn’t even go on as often,” she says.
The struggle is very real: “They’re expecting us to live on nothing – and there are people out there worse than us, going hungry and everything. It’s ridiculous; absolutely ridiculous. It’s either keep warm and have ESB, or have food. It’s one or the other.”
“It’s going to get worse,” is the prediction of Ballymore man Gerry Byrne, who is not convinced the current payment system is doing anything for the consumer.
“The turbine folk are getting so much in levies and you pay a levy on your electricity bill for that,” he says, exasperated by what’s happening.
Gerry has already noticed a substantial increase in the cost of his electricity bill: “It’s gone up 30 to 40 per cent, and that’s for a one-person household – although there is a pump for the cattle going a good bit of the time during the fine weather, but the pump wouldn’t be severe.”
When it comes to keeping his house warm for the winter, Gerry will be relying on solid fuel.
Will it do the job? “Hopefully: I can’t afford to emigrate!” he jokes.
Jerome Carpio of Lakepoint finds himself switching off lights, and reminding his children to be clever in the way they use their gadgets as he tries to effect a reduction in the amount of electricity the Carpio family consume.
It’s hard to make teenagers see why they now need to conserve electricity, but, says Jerome, the energy crisis is making “loads of adjustments” necessary.
“I am concerned because in the last few months our energy bill actually went to more than another €100 extra.
“Before we were paying, I estimate, around €220 or €210. Now our last bill was around €340.
“If you actually have just a normal income of like, probably like €500 or €550 a week, just imagine: they’re taking that much extra off your savings.”
Jerome works as a food and beverage manager at a restaurant and the soaring cost of energy has meant staff there are having to do things differently as well.
“In our work environment, we have to turn off some of the ovens – so rather than having them turned on for 10 to 12 hours, you know, we turn them off after just working for eight hours. Everything is affected now. We probably we won’t use any more Christmas lights any more.”
Businessman Tommy Kelly, director of the engineering firm TEG, is highly conscious of the rises in power charges. “Private bills are going crazy and the business bills also are crazy: for TEG they have more than doubled on what they were last year.”
Say it quickly and the scale of the impact doesn’t really register – but when Tommy puts it in cash terms and explains that last year’s electricity bill was around €120,000 and this year’s is set to be a quarter of a million, the significance becomes clearer.
TEG is an engineering firm, engaged in heavy machining and precision, which makes it an energy-hungry enterprise.
“It takes a lot of electricity to run,” he says.
“It’s really difficult to tighten costs because you have the same units as we were using before and probably doing more work. So we’ve tightened almost any road we can on usage – but the prices just…
“It’s certainly going to cost jobs across the country,” he continues. I’m not saying it will cost jobs in TEG: we’re managing fine so far – but we’re certainly hurting because of the added costs.”
Not a shock
Martin Aughey of Killucan reckons that in the last few months, his power bills have gone up “by at least 30 to 40 per cent”. It wasn’t, he admits, a complete shock: “We’ve all known it was coming, but sometimes seeing the numbers can make it a lot worse.”
Like most people, he is concerned about how bad it could get from here on. “You just never know what’s around the corner, especially with the way the world is.”
Living in a 300-year-old house makes installation of insulation difficult, so Martin’s plans for getting through this winter without freezing or going broke are to be more mindful. “That’s all you can do,” he says. “Put a kettle on the range instead of boiling a kettle too much; use the hot air fryer instead of the big oven all the time. Little things like that.”
Pensioner Joan Colgan from D’Alton Park has always had to budget carefully to make her pension cover her living expenses but it’s never been as challenging for her as this year is shaping up to be.
“I got an electricity bill only this week and it was €178. Before this it was only ever in or around €75.” She points out that her bill is especially high when one factors in that the bill is that high after the discounts she receives as a senior citizen are deducted.
“Of course I’m worried: you would be when you’re on 200 quid a week,” she states
To try and keep costs down, Joan switches off lights; does fewer washes but fills the machine fuller. She sops uptown just once a month to save on the cost of the taxi fare to bring herself and her groceries home.
“Look at the price of fuel,” she continues. “It’s €7.50 for a bale of briquettes. I’d always have my fuel every year at this time, I have the shed full of briquettes and my bit of timber. And this year, I got absolutely nothing with the price. Even the timber now has gone up to €500 for a trailer load.”
Dean Harris is a newly-qualified carpenter and for electricity he uses a pre-pay metering system at his apartment. “I was paying probably €15 for a week for electricity; now it’s €25 for the week.”
Happily, the apartment is well-insulated so he does not have to worry unduly about being cold for the winter. The cost of electricity is a concern for Dan as a lot of the heavy-duty tools he uses have to be charged before use.
“We charge all our own batteries,” he says, adding that sometimes that could mean as many as 10 items to be charged overnight.
In a bid to keep a lid on costs, he tries, where possible, to charge his tools when out on a site.
And like every true Irish person, he will be cautious with his use of the immersion heater.