Large numbers of people in Northern Ireland are rationing their fuel and borrowing cash from moneylenders to meet household bills, a new survey has found.
The first research of its kind by the Irish League of Credit Unions also revealed that consumers fear the next year will see further economic decline.
The group has 103 Credit Unions in Northern Ireland, and a total of 494 on the island of Ireland as a whole. Its first Household Income Tracker for Northern Ireland produced evidence of families falling into debt as they struggle to pay their bills.
The organisation's report found 65% of consumers fear 2012 will be more difficult than 2011. Some 87% ration fuel in cold weather, and 150,000 people turn to payday loans and moneylenders.
The Credit Union's Rosemary O'Doherty said: "The launch of the tracker is an important initiative by our movement as we identify the issues facing people, including our 409,000 members, in communities across Northern Ireland. It is clear that people are expecting a year of new challenges and financial pressures.
"The fact that people have to turn to high interest loans from moneylenders and payday companies in such large numbers is of particular concern. In the case of moneylenders loans are being offered which are up to 15 times more expensive than those available from local credit unions.
"Payday loan companies are currently quoting loans of £400 over 31 days at a cost of £129 - the same loan from a Credit Union costs about £4. I would again encourage anyone facing financial difficulties to speak to their credit union first. Unlike other lenders we are a not-for-profit community owned organisation and exist solely to meet the needs of our members."
The report's findings, based on a representative survey of 500 people, were broken down into key areas. On disposable income it found a quarter of consumers are worried about their ability to manage their finances over the next 12 months. The tracker estimated around 170,000 people (12% of all adults) have no money left after paying their bills, while 670,000 (44%) have less disposable income than this time last year.
Of the 35% of adults (493,000) who have less than 5% of their income left over after they pay their bills, over 400,000 worry about their ability to meet unforeseen expenses, while 296,000 fear about coping if income tax or welfare rates were to change.
On the impact of energy costs it found a total of 83% said the increased cost of energy and fuel has impacted on their spending ability. Almost nine in 10 adults (87%) said they switch off heating during cold periods to save fuel, while half of residents (51%) say they were forced to sacrifice other household spending to pay for fuel this winter.