New Zealanders have been scared into saving for their retirement, says Finance Minister Bill English, but retirees here will be better off than their counterparts in Europe, Britain and the United States.

"There is going to be an awful lot of uncertainty about retirement savings around the world. Hopefully we will be an island of calm in that sea of confusion."

Mr English said that across the developed world, the end of debt-funded retirement was coming - "the end of the free lunch just at the time when a lot of people were looking at cashing up that free lunch".

Tensions would rise in various societies where high expectation had been built on economic growth rates and asset growth rates which have been significantly debt-funded, expectations which now would certainly not be met.

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Mr English was speaking in Wellington at the launch yesterday of a Westpac-Massey University-Workplace Savings NZ University survey on how much New Zealand retirees spend, in order to set guidelines for how much is needed for a "modest" or "comfortable" lifestyle in retirement.

Mr English said the information the survey would focus on would really matter to people because it would give them a sense of control over retirement income in a world which was going to look pretty "shambolic" outside of New Zealand and one or two other countries.

"In Europe they are spending the first five years of this difficult period pumping up their debt to make sure it is going to take another 10 or 15 to get on top of it, and then 20 [years] to start getting it down.

"You are talking about a generational change about the way retirement income is perceived.

"Fortunately in New Zealand we have better choices than that and I think we are going to feel more and more fortunate as we watch the implications of these changes across Europe, the US and the UK wind out."

Mr English said that if New Zealanders hadn't been saving before, it was because in a rational way they thought they didn't have to.

"And actually, they've been right. Now they're scared and fear is a good thing in the right place."

While the savings industry had been trying to make people save, "we are out there telling them there is lots of free stuff".

"You can get pretty cheap childcare, your education is free, your tertiary education is heavily subsidised, particularly your debt, then we'll make sure you've got significant tax credits in case you have children and when you retire you'll get 67 per cent of the average wage and ... health care is largely free as well."

New Zealanders now knew there was no free lunch and they had got the message that debt was a bad thing.

Household debt in New Zealand was now declining for the first time in decades from 154 per cent of GDP in 2007 to 144 per cent now.

In 2007, New Zealanders were spending $1.11 for every dollar earned whereas today they were spending $1 for every $1 earned - or probably closer to 99c by mid-year.