Family cutting back as income fails to keep up with bills

By Jamie Morton

The Johansson family (from back left) Hyrum, 15, Martha, 11, James, 17, and parents Martha and Adolf, with 5-year-old Adolf at front, have had to make sacrifices to cope. Photo / Steven McNicholl
The Johansson family (from back left) Hyrum, 15, Martha, 11, James, 17, and parents Martha and Adolf, with 5-year-old Adolf at front, have had to make sacrifices to cope. Photo / Steven McNicholl

If households in New Zealand are consuming more goods and services than in the past, the Johanssons of Waikowhai must have been living in a different country.

The family of six's household income was at around $60,000 a year when the Herald surveyed them four years ago.

Little has since improved in that regard and what have grown are the appetites of two teenage boys, bills for food, water, power, rates, phone, petrol and nearly everything else.

With a Government report showing how household consumption expenditure has swollen 35 per cent since 1992, Martha Johansson said she bought more goods in the early 90s than she did now.

"Things were a lot cheaper then in the sense that kids didn't eat what they eat now, and we are paying school fees."

In the space of a few months their rates bill shot up from $1300 to $2000, and they have had to stop using the dishwasher.

"Watercare contacted us because our consumption dropped off and they thought we were doing something illegal," Mrs Johansson said.

These days, travelling and shopping is limited to one trip, "going out" is considered taking a plate to a pot-luck dinner and porridge has replaced Weet-Bix.

"A bag of porridge will go for a week and a half. Two big boys can do a box of Weet-Bix in two days."

Yet she considered her family middle-income, and knew of many in far tighter situations.

Family Budgeting Services Federation chief executive Raewyn Fox said the financial picture had changed for Kiwi families since 1992, and not for the better.

There was now a growing number of middle-income families among budget service clientele.

"Back in 1992, unless you were a beneficiary, you were pretty much surviving okay unless a disaster happened," Ms Fox said.

"Now it's right across the board. We are seeing families that may have had reasonable mortgages on a good income, and then there's been a redundancy and all of that changes - we are seeing people really struggle to replace their jobs."

Client numbers had sat between 29,000 and 31,000 for three to four years before leaping up to 41,000 last year and to a record 55,000 this year.

There had also been a near doubling in total debt by clients, jumping from $230 million in 2008 to $441 million this year, of which $110 million was in arrears.

"We are seeing people get in to debt just to tick off the basics, borrowing money to replace the car or because the fridge is broken."

The top five sources of debt were mortgages, government departments, finance companies, bank loans and retailers.

Budgeting services had not seen more consumption, she said.

"Power bills have just soared in the last few years. For a family that is just coping, every time the power goes up $10, that's $10 to take off the food budget - there's nowhere else to take it from."

- NZ Herald

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