Before Christmas may not be the best time to mention ‘consumerism’, which is probably the single greatest addiction on the planet.

I confess to a seasonal prejudice on the subject, Christmas not being my favourite time of the year for various reasons that have no relationship to consumerism.

However, notwithstanding that, I also find the obsessive spending spree strangely unsettling, being potentially one of the last people in the country with no credit rating – for the simple reason I do not engage with the financial notion of ‘credit’.

For me, it is a polite word for ‘debt’, even if you avoid interest on the debt by paying it back within the same month in which it acquired.

I am not saying it can be entirely done without, just that I avoid it like the plague.

I know from childhood experience that there is often little option for families but to rely on paying by instalments.

The dictionary defines instalments as ‘sums of money due as several equal payments for something, spread over an agreed period of time’.

You rarely hear the word mentioned these days, but the ‘ credit’ principle remains, and consumerism is a global disease.

In the pre-Christmas period, I find myself watching people spend money they may not have, and worrying on their behalf about the interest on the debt, how long it might take them to pay it off, and if they wonder at all about some unforeseen and real need, as opposed to desire, that could financially derail them completely.

This may indeed be residual traumatic memory. Although I have no memory of the experience of poverty being traumatic, it was a way of life common to most of us reared in our neighbourhood, and was lived in ‘old money’.

That was when £1 was worth twenty shillings; every shilling was worth twelve pence, and you could buy a ‘ha’penny chew’ in Mick McNally’s shop in Cookstown, and in Dungannon, a ‘penny shot’ of lemonade at the bottom of Perry St., or threepence-worth of broken biscuits in Wellworths in the Market Square for sharing on your way to catch a bus home from school.

On Saturdays, my sister and I shared the task of the weekend ‘messages’ – or ‘shopping’, in modern parlance – and carried them home between us in one stout carrier bag – Meat from McMahon’s; groceries from Harbinson’s, and the comics from Sheehys.

It was also our job to hand over the weekly instalments which kept us fed, clothed and housed.

We started on the left-hand side with T. J. Eastwood, the Busy Draper.

He supplied the young widow Devlin and six children with their everyday clothes and got five shillings a week most weeks, sometimes half-a-crown (two shillings and sixpence), and an explanation for the deficit, which was always generously accepted by the man himself at the back of the shop, to whom we would be referred.

Next was ‘Lennox’, the shoe shop, where long-lasting Sunday shoes cost 2/6 per week, then Alexanders, who received the same amount for the supply of ‘good clothes’ – for communions and funerals.

The style and occasion, rather than the difference in quality, determined the ‘good clothes’ category.

We crossed the broad Cookstown Street at the cenotaph, then the only stopping point in the middle of the road.

Having collected and paid cash for the comics and the meat parcel, Mr. McSwiggan carefully packed Harbison’s grocery list into the bag, took our money, and sent his regards to our mother, and we continued to Charles Eastwood Esq., who got two half-crowns for everyday shoes, ‘gutties’ and wellingtons.

We were old enough to call in to Hamilton’s Walk Around Stores where Santa dealt, and then detoured off the Main St. to Davy McCullough in Molesworth St. who got the last five shillings.

Every new artefact of furnishings in our house was supplied by Mr. McCullough from the day we first got the house in 1948.

On the days that the busy draper got two half crowns, Mr. McCullough contented himself, with equal grace, with just one.

Mr. Bedi, and Billy, the mobile grocery man, sold their wares at the door on the same basis, and the Housing Trust rent-man called fortnightly for his cut, and marked it off in the long yellow rent-book.

Whatever was left each week from the ‘Welfare’ and Children’s allowance was ‘disposable’ income. My mother had no forward plan for this ‘roughness’, as she called it.

On a bad week, it didn’t exist – on a good week, she spent it all. We ate ice cream and tinned pears; chip shop fish and chips, or queued up for the ice cream van, and once, she bought a real pineapple – the first to appear in the window of Warnock’s vegetable shop.

Every child on our ‘avenue’ joined in the exotic excitement – and all declared a preference for the tinned (and cheaper) variety!

I have no idea nor, in hindsight, do I think my mother had either, of when we were ‘in front’ or ‘behind’.

When ‘in front’, we were paying for things not yet bought, and when ‘behind’, for those already in our possession.

There was a degree of mutual trust in the complexity of the transaction – the difference in the price of paying up front, and the higher price of paying by instalment, and then the balance for things that fell in-between.

There was also a mutual sense of obligation on both sides that took need and reliability into account.

Your debt was to real people you knew, who asked how school was going, if your mother was well, or sent a message home to tell her not to worry – that 2/6 a week would be fine over the ‘run-up’ to Christmas.

Some chance of MasterCard, payday loans or the doorstep lender telling anyone that in today’s credit schemes!

A happy and peaceful Christmas to all.

P. S. If you need to talk to someone about money or managing your debt/repayments, make it your New Year Resolution to do just that.

Confidential expert advice is free through your local council-funded advice centres, at Fermanagh: 0286 632 4334, alternatively, email:; Omagh: 0288 224 3252; text: 078 8900 2207; email:; Dungannon: 0288 775 0211: email:; or Freephone: 0800 915 4604, and ask to be referred to your local advisor.