Budgeting expert says many families have less than $100 for weekly food after they have paid rent and bills.
More than a third of New Zealanders say they are feeling the financial pinch more than they were two years ago with less disposable income.
Rocketing house prices are failing to be tempered by low mortgage rates and, while power bills have shot up, most people are getting only small pay increases.
In that climate 38.6 per cent of people in a Herald DigiPoll said they believed they were worse off now than they were two years ago.
Forty four per cent believed their financial circumstances were the same while 17.6 per cent said they are better off now.
One budgeting expert blamed tough times for producing "a generation of two-minute noodle kids".
But principal economist at the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research Shamubeel Eaqub suggested perception was not always reality. He said average weekly earnings for all workers had increased more than the cost of living, meaning people were, on average, better off.
That had led to households becoming more confident about borrowing as house prices had risen - particularly in Auckland and Canterbury.
He said while there was a strong growth in jobs in Auckland and Canterbury things were down in Wellington and flat in the provinces.
"Canterbury has seen construction wages rise but not for other types of work. Nationally, there are many jobs in financial, business and property services, but less so in manufacturing," he said.
Mr Eaqub said the power of the discretionary dollar varied on what people wanted to spend their money on.
"For example, if you drink and smoke, you are spending a lot more money on these items. But if you buy lots of audio and video equipment and content, your money will go much further."
Since 2011, house prices in New Zealand have increased more than 10 per cent, unemployment is up slightly, as is the cost of power.
Mangere Budgeting Services chief executive Darryl Evans said despite some positives none of his clients had any disposable income largely due to increases they are paying in rent.
"Certainly in the past two years private rentals have risen dramatically and 83 per cent of the families I deal with are paying about 65 per cent of their weekly income to their landlords so there's very little left to buy good quality food.
"After you've paid the petrol and power there's not much left and this is the reason why we are raising a generation of two-minute noodle kids."
Mr Evans said figures from Otago University's true cost of living survey showed that a family of four living in Auckland should be spending $230 a week on food.
But he said an MBS survey of 1500 families in South Auckland showed families of four there could only afford an average of $83 a week on food.
"Some families are lucky to have $100 left over, but more often than not we are seeing people with $60 left over," he said.
Federation of Family Budgeting Services chief executive Raewyn Fox said her organisation had 55,000 clients on its books last year but anecdotal feedback from staff suggested even more were using their services this year.
"The people we are seeing they pay the basics, their rent, power and telephone maybe and there's nothing left, it takes up all their income."
Pay static 'but costs keep going up'
For Max Coyle, increases to his student loan repayments and KiwiSaver contributions have hurt his pay packet the most.
The 29-year-old media sales and marketing consultant, who rents a three-bedroom central Hamilton home with one other, said the increases wiped about $60 off his fortnightly pay.
"Groceries seem to cost more and I feel like I'm spending more to get the same amount of stuff."
Mr Coyle said he paid $200 a week in rent at the house which has no insulation, meaning his last power bill cost $311.
The only thing that is cheaper are his internet and phone costs.
"We've gone unlimited and with fibre it's the only time we're getting more for less from two years ago," he said. "That and my mobile phone bill."
Like many of his friends, his wages seemed fixed and none were getting the regular raises they were used to when they entered the workforce.
"Most seem thankful just to have a job but raises, bonuses and perks are pretty non existent. It makes it difficult planning ahead hoping they don't find a way to outsource the skills you have overseas."
He says the increase in tobacco prices means an occasional cigarette was a luxury so he's switched to smoking a pipe "as it works out cheaper in the long run".