Cherie Howie

Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Lifestyles hit by forced austerity

Many are forgoing the good things in life in a bid to make ends meet financially.

Debbie Howard now plans meals more carefully to save money. Photo /  Janna Dixon
Debbie Howard now plans meals more carefully to save money. Photo / Janna Dixon

We're ditching the fun things in life to pay for the basics - and new research shows the problem is forcing many people to change their lifestyles.

Research carried out for the Herald on Sunday shows people are putting aside more money than a year ago for power, insurance, rates and petrol - and ditching the dining out, takeaways, pay TV subscriptions and the booze.

It's almost certainly the reason Statistics New Zealand figures out last week for the March quarter showed retail sales fell 2.5 per cent - the largest decrease since those records started being collected in 1995.

With petrol back near its historic highs, insurance premiums surging more than 10 per cent in some cases in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake, rates rises continuing unchecked despite the Supercity merger (Kaipara is planning 31 per cent rises this year), and power continuing to consume more of the family budget before winter has even begun, there is little hope of a bounceback any time soon.

And people will be anxiously awaiting Thursday's Budget from Finance Minister Bill English to see whether they will be hit further in the pocket - he has promised another austerity document aiming to help pull the country back into surplus earlier.

The online survey of 3000 readers of the New Zealand Herald, Herald on Sunday, NZ Woman's Weekly, The Listener and the Herald Online contained some stunning figures. Nearly 75 per cent of respondents said they were spending more on power than last year, 68.7 per cent had more set aside for rates, 66.6 per cent had noticed increases in insurance, and 44.5 per cent said petrol was a major increased cost worry.

It meant they were spending less at restaurants (43.4 per cent were spending less), on takeaways (39.5 per cent), alcohol (32.7 per cent) and movies and concerts (35 per cent).

Hospitality Association of New Zealand chief executive Bruce Robertson said 64 of his members had gone out of business since August and the figures were no surprise.

"The last three years have been pretty challenging and the consumers are looking for deals and bargains," Robertson said.

He said the downturn was leading some small businesses to take drastic action. A members' survey showed 28 per cent of bosses were actually paying themselves less than the minimum wage.

"I think the last three years are certainly among the toughest the industry can remember."

It won't just be hospitality worrying, with the respondents giving a very detailed indication of other cutbacks.

Hamilton man Mike Pritchard was one example, his belt-tightening causing a bit of belt-buckling.

The Fonterra factory worker ended his squash club membership this year because the annual $220 cost, coupled with the cost of petrol for his twice-weekly 40-minute return journey to the clubrooms, was too much.

But he was feeling the repercussions - he had put on about 4kg and felt less fit. His replacement exercise, walking around the block, was "a bit boring".

"I had to do it, it was costing too much. I struggle as it is to pay for enough petrol to get to work."

Other people's stories were more moving.

Deb Parkes had cut down visiting her mother. "Even though it's only six hours away, the petrol to get there in our people mover (we have four children) is just too much. My mother has seen my son once since he was born and he turns 2 soon."

Davina McAllister said her children's music lessons had gone on hold. "I am unable to manage the rest of the budget to offer them the opportunity to extend themselves musically."

Alex Stone had changed his diet. "I've pretty much given up on red meat - too expensive."

Spending was up at the supermarket as more people ate in. Despite the pressure, many who replied said the adjustments were all about good planning, and that they were still having fun, just cheaper fun.

Auckland psychologist Ian Lambie said the changes were unlikely to lead to long-term unhappiness.

In fact, careful management of finances was likely to have a positive effect, Dr Lambie said.

"Managing your budget is a good thing, as long as you're not scrimping on the basics. When people are in debt they drink more alcohol, gamble more, there's more domestic violence. When people have some control over their life they feel happier."

Those struggling to get by should not be afraid to ask for help, he said.

Up in smoke

Auckland grandmother Anne Keller was sick of seeing her hard-earned money go up in smoke every time she lit a cigarette.

The 63-year-old was smoking a packet every second day and realised her budget couldn't afford the habit any longer.

"It has been great for my health but I actually just couldn't afford to do it any more - smokes were getting too expensive," Anne said.

The former retail worker, who started smoking as a 15-year-old, went cold turkey and isolated herself from friends who smoked until she was over the worst of the cravings.

"I was smoking the cheapest cigarettes you could buy and it was still too expensive, it was around $23 a packet and I couldn't do it any longer."

With the savings, Anne treats herself every now and again to clothes from second-hand store Savemart.

Sporty duo get saving

Sports-mad Debbie and Glenn Howard have trained themselves to eat at home.

Six months ago the pair found it easier to grab a quick bite out before basketball or soccer instead of making a home-cooked meal - until they realised it was costing them close to $100 a week.

Now they make more of an effort to save cash.

"We really had to look at cutting back with power prices and everything going up, everything except for my pay," Debbie, an events manager with the Breakers basketball team, said.

"We would normally have eaten out a few times a month and gone to the movies a few times a month as well but those things have been cut back to once a month."

By limiting themselves to their favourite Thai restaurant once a month, and a kebab takeaway treat once a week, the pair have saved an average of $350 each month for the past six months.

"It doesn't seem like much at the time but when you look at the monthly saving - or what you were spending - it is quite a bit," Debbie said.

- NZ Herald

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