One-in-three consumers in north struggling with debt - survey

Consumer Council research finds many households cutting back on food spending

Woman sitting on floor examining bills and financial documents.
New research published by the Consumer Council shows 90% of adults in Northern Ireland are concerned about the rising cost of basics. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

One-in-three consumers in the north (34%) are struggling with debt, while around half of adults (54%) admit to hiding their financial struggles from friends and family, new research suggests.

A survey of 1,033 people for the Consumer Council found 90% of respondents concerned about the rising cost of basics such as energy, food, house and utility bills.

Energy is the biggest concern (91%), ahead of food (80%), transport costs (71%), phone and broadband costs (67%) and mortgage/rent (64%).

The survey found people are responding to financial pressure by cutting back on food spending.

One-in-four (27%) said they were eating poorer quality or less nutritious food, and 24% said they had been skipping meals or eating fewer times in the day (23%).

Almost half (49%) of consumers are dipping into savings and others are taking out additional loans (15%) or using high-cost credit like buy now pay later (8%).

Some 6% said they are accessing support from food banks, and 3% say they have turned to illegal money lender.

Philippa McKeown-Brown from the consumer body said: “Food is commonly seen as the most ‘elastic’ part of household spend which will shrink or stretch first when prices go up, or there’s a change in personal finances.

“Consumers see food costs as the least complicated area to cut back on compared to an activity like switching energy or broadband provider.

“There are no binding contracts, and for most it’s easy to shop around and compare prices. Plus, food shopping is something many of us do daily or weekly, so there is a familiarity with food shopping.

“However, while cutting costs on food spend may be ‘easy’ for some consumers, this research highlights it can come at a cost to health for low-income and vulnerable households.”

Over half (56%) of consumers said the current cost of basics is having an adverse effect on their mental health.

Of these, over half (59%) report increased worry, stress, and anxiety.

In terms of physical health, over a third (37%) say rising costs has had a negative impact.