Cash-strapped families are seeking budgeting advice in record numbers with some having just $50 to feed a family of four after paying weekly bills.
In Hawke's Bay and Poverty Bay alone, 4731 clients accessed budgeting services last financial year. Their average debt was $22,083, of which $4240 was overdue.
Mortgages made up the top debt category for Hawke's Bay and Poverty Bay families, with $10 million owed. Second was money owed on finance company loans ($7 million), followed by debt to government departments ($5.6 million), and bank loans ($4.2 million).
Local clients paid back $2302 on average while accessing budgeting advice.
Hastings Budget Advisory Service co-ordinator Greta Wham said she had definitely noticed an increase in client numbers.
Many clients were struggling to pay power bills, and higher rents were difficult to meet so clients were trying to withdraw KiwiSaver funds under a hardship clause to pay debt.
New clients using the service last year had amassed a total of more than $27 million worth of debt, she said.
More clients were also accessing the local foodbank, with 22 parcels handed out on Friday alone.
"What happens when people owe money is the only way they can meet that debt is to cut down on food.
"That's the only item in their budget that they've got any control over."
The past two weeks have been the busiest in history for calls to the Federation of Family Budgeting Services' national free helpline, with the Federation's single helpline advisor handling 300 calls.
Federation chief executive Raewyn Fox said in 2009 it took two months to get that many callers.
"Up until 2009 our budgeting services saw about 30,000 client families a year, in total, and this was pretty steady. Since then our numbers have skyrocketed and we're now handling over 50,000 client cases a year.
"This places significant pressure on our services."
Although clients were seeking help earlier, meaning their debt levels were lower, people now faced tougher financial circumstances, Ms Fox said.
"The basic outgoings of rent, power, food, petrol have risen ... and people's wages just haven't risen.
"The common thing we see is people that pay what they really have to pay [each week] and they've only got $50 left to feed a family of four."
Little disasters such as a car or fridge breaking down, or having to buy new school shoes, could blow out a family's debt.
"Sometimes you make the decision to pay the person that's threatening you the most first.
"You have to get people off your back, you have to have coping mechanisms."
The worst affected areas were South Auckland and the Far North, due to extreme poverty, unemployment, high-interest third-tier lending arrangements and language difficulties.
The jump in demand related to the global recession, but also Work and Income's Future Focus legislation which required beneficiaries receiving multiple special needs grants to undertake budgeting, Ms Fox said.
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said the Government boosted budgeting services funding by $1.5 million in the last Budget and services were now under review.
Poverty Bay/Hawke's Bay budgeting services statistics July 1 2012 - June 30 2013
*Total client cases: 4731
*Total advising hours: 33,101
*Average presenting debt per client: $22,083
*Average presenting arrears per client: $4240
*Average debt retired per client: $2302
*Average debt arrears retired per client: $800.50
*Top debt category: Mortgages ($10 million)
*Second top debt category: Finance company loans ($7 million)
*Third top debt category: Government departments ($5.6 million)
*Fourth top debt category: Bank loans ($4.2 million)