Rates hike means we're all faced with the big squeeze now
Families in Northern Ireland are facing an even bigger squeeze on their budgets following a hike in the annual cost of rates.
Domestic rates are up by as much as 3.77% at a time when many households are losing child benefits as the Welfare Reform Act kicks in.
It comes against a backdrop of soaring food, fuel and oil prices, as well as bad weather which has exacerbated expenditure on electricity and gas.
Figures from the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) indicate that the average domestic rates bill here is around £800 for 2012/2013.
But this year's bills are set to be higher for many families as they are going up in all but two of Northern Ireland's 26 council areas. Householders in Strabane are seeing the biggest rise of 3.77%, followed by 2.9% in Castlereagh.
Only people living in properties in Belfast and Dungannon and south Tyrone will see their bills remain at the same level as last year.
Figures from Land and Property Services (LPS) said that more people than ever were struggling to pay their rates, with the number of court actions taken over non-payment having risen to about 21,000 in the last financial year.
Ballymena homemaker Margaret Kerr said a 1.65% hike meant her annual bill had increased from £884.64 to £924.24.
"If we pay the entire amount before May 3 we'll get a discount and it will cost £887.27, which works out at £2.63 more expensive than last year's bill," said the retired civil servant.
"We try to pay it in one go, but that's getting harder to do these days as the cost of everything else also seems to be going up.
"Just last week we paid £536 for 1,000 litres of home heating oil which took an enormous chunk out of our small budget."
A basket of goods comprising 13 items, including bread, butter, eggs, milk and teabags, went up 21% between 2008 and 2012 from £27.82 to £33.57, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Over that same period, the ONS found the cost of petrol and diesel rose by 26% and 29% respectively, while coal prices rose 27%.
Meanwhile, home heating oil prices also surged by 28% during that time, while unemployment this year hit a 15-year peak and real incomes fell by up to 8% for workers in the private sector.
Money and debt advisor at Citizens Advice, Eddie Smith, said the number of people asking for help with rates debt had soared.
"There has been an increase of around 26% in the number of cases connected to domestic rates bills this year compared to last," he said.
Economist John Simpson said full-time employees in Northern Ireland are around £810 a year worse off than in 2008 due to the rising cost of living.
He said prices went up by 13.4% between 2008 and 2012, while average weekly earning only increased by 10% in the same period.
Mr Simpson also pointed to a fall in real income of 3.4%, which in monetary terms equates to around £15.60 per person a week.
Richard Ramsay, chief economist for Northern Ireland at Ulster Bank, said: "When everything is averaged out prices are up 20% since the start of the credit crunch in 2007 until now."