Bleak midwinter: The added costs of the cold season could be more than €5,000

From utility bills and our urge to eat, to GP bills and Christmas, it’s a costly time of year

Winter has come, and if facing into six months of cold, dark days and a lot of rain and wind – not to mention the endless stream of Covid stories – wasn’t bad enough, we are also at the start of what is, generally speaking, the most expensive half of the year.

By the time April ends, most Irish households will have had to spend many thousands of euro more than they have spent in the six months just gone.

And this winter is set to be the most expensive we have seen for a very long time thanks to spiralling energy prices, supply chain issues causing spikes almost across the board and a rate of inflation that is making almost everything climb in price.

But where does the money go over the winter months? And is there any way we could stop even some of it going there? Here are nine ways the seasonal shift sees us spending more.

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1. It obviously costs more to heat and light your home in the dark months than it does in the summer months. This year – thanks to some steep price hikes introduced across the board by utilities – the higher costs are likely to be savage.

Multiple price increases have been introduced by all the providers in recent months – some have increased their prices four times in almost as many months. The true impact of those increases is only likely to be felt in the weeks ahead and, depending on the provider you are with, you can expect to pay as much as €800 more over the next 12 months for your energy than you did over the previous 12. Most of that spending will be squeezed into the next six months.

Keeping your home lit over winter will cost you about 70 cent a day in winter, compared with virtually nothing in summer, meaning you will pay €128 more between now and April than between May and October.

You won’t be able to dry the clothes you wash on the line in the months ahead, so you might find yourself using the tumble dryer. If you use it three times a week, every week, that add up to about €150 over winter.

Then there is heating. If you like a toasty house and keep the heat on for six hours each day over the six months of winter, it will cost you €1,576. By contrast, your heating bills in the warmer months should be close to zero, all going well.

So just heating and lighting your home and drying your clothes will cost as much as €2,000 more in winter than in summer.

But what can be done? You could turn you thermostat down and wear more clothes, which you could dry indoors on a clothes horse, and you could make sure to only light the rooms you are in, for a start. The big thing you can do – and we have said it before and will say it again – is to be an active switcher. If you haven’t changed provider in the past couple of years – and most of us haven’t – you are paying more than you need to for your power. By switching to a different company today, you could see your annual costs fall by €500 or even more if you are a heavy user.

2. The cost of eating also climbs significantly in winter in terms of what we eat and how much we eat. Most of us eat more food over the winter months than we do in summer.

According to one University of Exeter study we came across, “people have evolved to have subconscious urges to overeat, and limited ability to avoid becoming obese, especially in winter”. The study found that “storing fat is an insurance against the risk of failing to find food, which for pre-industrial humans was most likely in winter”.

But how much is this primal urge costing? Well, if we eat just 30 per cent more over the course of winter than we do in summer, it will end up costing us about €700 more.

Apart from eating more, we eat differently in the winter. We want roasts and casseroles. Cooking them comes at a cost, too. If you use your oven for two hours a day four days a week between now and the end of April, that will add a further €125 to the cost of winter.

But is all that money being spent wisely? Do we really need to eat all around us today just in case our hunter-gather skills let us down and we can’t find any wild boar to eat in January? If we shopped in winter more like it was summer, we could easily save about €300 this season. But we have to be realistic here. No one wants salad for dinner when it is cold and miserable outside. But even if we ate just a little bit less, we could probably see our shopping bill fall by maybe €150 or so.

3. We have been warned to expect a Christmas like no other. Food prices are going to climb, as is the cost of toys and tech and pretty much everything associated with the most expensive time of the year. So when we talk about the cost of winter, we have to include the cost of Christmas because – for many of us – it is one of the few things that keeps us going in the darkest hours.

Christmas in sunnier places is much cheaper than in colder places and, based on virtually all the studies we have seen, an Irish Christmas will cost most households about €1,500. You could probably get by on half that if you were in Australia.

Is there anything that can be done? Well, buy better presents by allowing yourself plenty of time to get them. A last-minute shopper is a panicked shopper, and a panicked shopper always spends more money. And maybe don’t go completely mental when it comes to the food shopping this year. Have yourself a merry little Christmas but don’t stock up like you are heading into a nuclear winter. The shops will open again very soon after the big day.

4. Working from home has saved those who have been lucky enough to be able to do it over the past 18 months or so a fortune when it comes to clothes. Barely worn shoes have lasted longer, and all the clothes that we might once have worn when travelling from A to B and then back to A again have been able to stay in the wardrobe as we wore tracksuit bottoms and shorts on our bottom halves while dressing up a little for Zoom meetings on our top halves.

But despite the shift, it remains true that winter wardrobes still cost more than summer ones, and they have to work harder too to keep us warm and dry. People tend to spend as much as three times more on winter clothes than they do on summer ones, which will see the cost of dressing yourself over the next six months climb by more than €400 compared with the six months that have just passed.

5. When the weather is nicer, we can do more outside at no cost. Once the evenings draw in and the rain comes, people are more inclined to go to the cinema, to concerts and to plays and all the other indoor things that cost money. And the good news is that this winter – unlike last – we might actually be able to do some of those things. We might even get to spend more time inside pubs and restaurants. By our back-of-an-envelope calculations, the cost of a winter social life is €50 more a month than a summer one, which adds a further €350 on to the seasonal costs.

6. The winter is peak gym-joining season. And it is not hard to see why. In the summer we can go for healthy walks and runs on the beach, and all sorts of other things that cost no money. By contrast, if you join a gym in January, you might spend €250. Even worse, a huge percentage of people who sign up to fitness programmes in January fall away by March, but many of them keep paying their membership.

7. We are far less likely to want to walk or cycle in the dead of winter than we are at the height of summer, so we rely more on our cars and on public transport and cabs. If we put the average cost of a short cab fare at €10 and you take just one a week in the winter that you might not take in the summertime, it will cost an additional €260. The average motorist drives 16,000km every year, and the price of fuel is about €1.50 a litre. Driving the average family car, which does 12.4km per litre, means the average Irish driver will spend about €1,935 this year on petrol. If we divide the spend 60-40 between winter and summer, we will spend €1,161 on fuel over winter and €774 in the summer. That adds another €393 on to our winter bill.

8. Even in pre-pandemic times, people were always more likely to get sick in the winter, so if we put the average cost of going to see your GP at €60, and you need to make two visits, the winter bill comes to €120. We are going to add a further €70 to cover the cost of medicines, cough syrups and all the other things that you might need to see you through.

9. This winter we might be able to dream of holidays in warm and sunny places and, all going well, next summer is likely to be a bumper year for overseas travel. What has that got to do with the cost of winter? Well, January is the peak booking month for summer holidays, given that demand is likely to be high next year, prices are likely to climb with all the best places booking out early, so you might need to get your skates on. When flights and accommodation are added up, a family of four might need to stump up at least €3,000 in the weeks just after Christmas.

Overall, we reckon the cost of winter is going to come in at a fairly eye-watering €8,012, although that does include a hefty summer holiday bill. If we move that from the cold rainy column to the sun-kissed one, the additional spend brought on by winter is still more than €5,00. And it is going to be cold, dark and wet, too.

Sorry.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor