How one entrepreneurial family has fared

Sat, Feb 4, 2012, 00:00

‘We feel cheated. We always paid our bills and paid our taxes’

When Noreen Watts (53) and her husband Peter (55) got married, they dreamed that, after working hard to save money and raise their family, they would ease into a life of comfortable retirement.

“We got married in our early 20s and made a lot of sacrifices. We had this idea that when the two kids were grown up the house would be our pension fund, and we would buy a camper van and travel across Europe,” she says. “Now we’re reconciled to the fact that the dream has vanished. We’re in existence mode.”

Until September 2008, her work as a senior staff nurse had helped to pay the bills. But their main income was from her husband’s plumbing business, which employed up to 15 people. It allowed them to build a spacious house, overlooking Galway Bay, that was valued at up to €1.5 million during the boom. It meant they never worried much about utility bills or mortgage repayments.

But when the bottom fell out of the property market, work in the plumbing industry dried up. Contractors went bust, leaving them stung for large sums of money.

“Pete was scalded,” she says. “All the lads had to be let go. The contractors he used went to the wall. It was like everything just vanished.” Determined to pay their debts, they remortgaged the house and took out an overdraft. But soon they were struggling.

Bills arrived with terrifying regularity. Because of her job they were outside the threshold for social safety nets, and Peter’s self-employed status meant he wasn’t eligible for the dole.

In the end, they approached the bank to renegotiate the mortgage to interest-only.

That was 18 months ago. Now every three months they are required to fill out a standard financial statement, which details their day-to-day expenditure. For a private couple, it feels unnecessarily invasive.

“They highlight things you could cut back on. They’d say, ‘Is that for getting your hair done?’ and ‘Do you need to spend that much on diesel?’ I know they have their job to do, but it can feel very intimidating. I think they could be much more compassionate and have more empathy.”

Their lifestyles have changed considerably. She gets the bus to work; her husband’s car is parked most of the time to save diesel. They don’t go out for dinner and often turn down wedding invitations. They have downgraded their health insurance for the first time in 25 years.

Their twin worries are keeping up payments for their mortgage and overdraft, and the gnawing fear the bank could force them to sell the family home at any time.

The downturn has also affected their children’s lives.

Their son was due to take over the plumbing business; he’s going to emigrate to New Zealand next month to look for work and, in time, bring his wife and two children with him.

Their daughter in Australia had planned to return home but now looks set to stay put.

“We feel cheated, I suppose,” she says. “We always paid our bills and paid our taxes.”

Despite their lowered expectations, she feels thankful for other aspects of their lives. They are healthy, they have a wide circle of supportive friends and she knows that many others are far worse off.

“A positive is that people are more open about their circumstances; there’s no shame in it,” Noreen says. “I think people are pulling together, supporting each other, discussing how tough it is to pay the ESB bill.

“Maybe we’re rediscovering what it means to live in a community, which is a good thing.”