Sunday 20 April 2014

I paid €700 for a bag -- a testament to my stupidity

President Mary McAleese chats with the Govenor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger during her official state visit to the United States this week

FINALLY someone we elected is giving it to us straight. The President has pointed out that during the boom, our desires outgrew our pockets.

We were transformed from a community into a collection of consumers. But that punch- drunk spending spree did not leave us any happier.

Mary McAleese is right when she says we are emerging from dangerously unbalanced times, on the rebound from unbridled materialism.

The unfortunate element in this wakeup call is the human cost: 17,000 people lost their jobs in October alone, and nobody expects much in the way of a happy New Year.

Blame figures are easy to identify. The banks were reckless, the Government is rudderless. But we are all culpable.

We must take responsibility for our own greed. For borrowing more than we could afford to repay. For buying lavishly -- luxury cars, holiday homes, fancy gadgets. For being flash.

We deceived ourselves that the Irish had hit on an economic formula for running a small nation with virtuoso genius. The rest of the world simply hadn't cottoned on to our dazzling wealth-creating strategy.

Anyone who warned it was unsustainable was shouted down hysterically.

It interfered with our spending plans. With our pomposity. With our delusion.

Abdication of responsibility was the pervading culture during the boom. This influenced a host of foolish decisions and we're now paying the price. Yes, there was institutional greed, but there was also avarice at grass-roots level.

The runaway success we enjoyed was ultimately detrimental to Ireland. We proved unable to deal with it in a mature fashion, behaving like wayward teenagers whose parents had gone away for the weekend after handing over the keys to the drinks cabinet and the family car.

We were seduced by the idea of wealth. But the more trappings of notional success we accrued, the less humanity we had. Something fundamental was lost during this radical shift in values, as the President indicated -- and in offering her diagnosis, she addresses the key philosophical question posed by the recession. Brian Cowen just growls at us.

We need to re-examine ourselves as a community and consider which values matter to us. During the boom, we gained a few status-symbol trappings, but lost all concept of modesty or humility. Not much of a swap.

Vestiges of that era of greed remain, despite the recession. Only yesterday I heard about an engaged couple sending guests their bank details, along with the wedding invitation, asking for a cash present. They helpfully suggested cheques would be acceptable as well.

The ads for second-hand car sales offer a window into the state of the economy: they are bulging with 08 models. Their owners can no longer afford to drive them, either because of unemployment or being financially over-extended. It's as if we all participated in a mass hypnotism session. We took economic growth for granted -- it never dawned on us it could end, let alone be reversed.

In 2006, when we believed the good times would roll into infinity, we owed €2.7bn on our credit cards -- a 19pc increase on the previous year. Demand for credit was 2.5 times the eurozone average.

WE partied hard as a nation and cannot now hold the Government solely responsible for our hangovers. Each of us made independent decisions about our spending habits and we cannot abdicate responsibility for the consequences.

Yes, we are in the throes of an international downturn of epic proportions, but we were covetous and arrogant and that has complicated the situation in Ireland.

When we borrowed for a larger house than we could afford, or took out an equity release to buy investment properties, it wasn't the Government's fault. It was our own lack of prudence. Some of us bought holiday homes in countries to which we can no longer afford the air fare.

It's tempting to blame the banks for lending out too much money.

If you walked into a car showroom and the salesman showed you a Rolls-Royce, you'd laugh at his suggestion you buy it. "I can't manage that," most of us would say.

But we reacted differently when a bank official offered to double the size of our mortgages. We couldn't wait to sign up. Both bank official and car dealer are working in sales, however. Both receive a performance-related bonus.

Persuading someone to buy a financial product is no different to persuading them to buy a car. We should have realised it all hinged on generating profits.

We knew about 90-year-old women being sold financial products that would not mature for years; we knew about banks overcharging customers. It's no good wailing: "But we trusted them". Our homes are cluttered with possessions we don't need and only thought we wanted. Our wardrobes are full of reckless, spontaneous purchases.

I paid €700 for an Italian handbag I've used twice -- it's too small for my needs. But it was reduced from €1,000, it had a designer label attached and I bought into the status myth. It's lying at the back of my wardrobe, testament to my stupidity.

Change is under way. Sales of thermos flasks and coffee makers have surged as takeaway lattes are deemed too frivolous.

Bottled water sales are falling, with the more frugal option of tap water making a comeback.

Drastically dwindling incomes mean we have no choice but to alter our lifestyles. This isn't a blip, it's a new era.

But not necessarily a worse one.

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