Brazilians manage to stay positive despite having much less than us

Finding something positive to write about this week has been difficult. Not because there aren't opportunities galore for those who wish to manage their personal finances better.

It's more that I'd just landed back in cold New Zealand after five "trip-of-a-lifetime" weeks at the 2014 Fifa World Cup.

Sitting down to read the comments on my articles after such an amazing experience wasn't a good move. There was much complaining by people who have many more opportunities than the millions we saw in Brazil who were grinding out a living on next to nothing.

Yet in our wonderful land of opportunities where state house kids of single parents can become prime ministers, some readers were doing their best to clutch at the negative. They were looking for excuses why they couldn't succeed and why others don't deserve to.


I wrote several articles in advance of my trip that were printed in the weeks I was gone and one that made readers gnash their teeth was about two young people, one from a financially challenged household in South Auckland, who had bought rental properties in their 20s.

As a teenager, one had written a budget so her single mother could make ends meet and the pair pooled a very small amount of money to buy a rental property. This was interpreted by readers as the young woman being able to buy her first property because she had parents to help.

On our second-to-last day in Rio de Janiero we were driven into the formerly infamous Rocinha favela (slum) by a Brazilian who had relatives living there. I've seen Latin American poverty up close before, but it never ceases to shock. One-room shacks containing few possessions were crammed in their thousands higgledy-piggledy up the hillside.

By our standards it was a miserable existence, which the disgruntled on couldn't even imagine. The financial challenge of living on $372 a month in Brazil — if you have a minimum wage job, or less if you don't — beggars belief.

I read that the cost of living is about 40 per cent cheaper in Brazil than New Zealand, which is what we experienced when paying for things. Even so, living on just under $86 a week with no government benefits such as Working for Families is beyond imagination. That's not enough for a week's food at Brazilian prices, let alone to pay $3 a day to get to and from your minimum wage job on public transport.

I am always thankful that we have a social welfare system in New Zealand. Although not the most generous in the world, it provides the basics for the country's least fortunate.

In Brazil, where the state is not so generous, we saw lots of people finding unique ways to make money — such as the guy with a push-along coal barbecue selling kebabs on the beach.

You'd think that the millions of people living on much less per month than tourists were spending in a few days would be bitter and twisted. That wasn't our experience. What struck me over and over again in Brazil was how cheerful people were, despite often working much longer hours than Kiwis for significantly less disposable income.

In all the time we were in South America, we met only one person who clearly despised us for being wealthy foreigners. We had the ill fortune to pull over in our hired dune buggy to buy pasties — a Portuguese pastry — from a street seller. A drunk man seized the opportunity to lean into our buggy and request money, presumably to buy more booze, although he said it was for food.

Failing to find the words in Portuguese to deal with the situation, I crunched the 30-year-old buggy into first gear and drove off, feeling satisfied that I had injected a tiny bit of extra money into the local economy by way of the street seller.

Large numbers of people we saw were doing something to make a buck and were chuffed when we bought from them. Plenty were going to Rio de Janiero's huge city market, where we saw first-hand that they could buy a vast range of tourist tat for a pittance. They then carted it off to Copacabana beach, the stadium and other places where tourists congregate and sold their hauls for a 400 per cent profit or more. Good on them for their enterprising approach to making a few bucks.

It reminded me of a friend who sneered when I suggested she get part-time work to supplement her benefit. Apparently $80 a week, which she was allowed to earn without jeopardising her benefit at that time, wasn't worth getting out of bed for.

So what is it in our beautiful, safe country with its social welfare and public health system that the readers who take the time to post on my columns so often see as negative?

As David from Meadowbank commented on the young investor article: "It's a New Zealand cultural mindset to look for reasons and excuses why something involving money should not, or cannot, be done, rather than to look for ways or reasons why it can or will be done successfully."

There are of course people in our society who have the cards stacked against them. They are fewer than many would claim. Not everyone with a disability, for example, is subsisting on benefits.

What's more, plenty of young people from cash-strapped backgrounds are doing their best to improve their lot - as the young interviewee a few weeks ago showed.

This week, I spoke to Neil Watson, principal of decile 1 Otahuhu College. Watson said many of his former students were doing well academically and financially, despite not being born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

Six students from last year were accepted into medical school and plenty more are studying to join high-paying professions such as engineering, says Watson. One such former student has just completed a master's degree in architecture.

Many of the Otahuhu College students' parents came to New Zealand in the hope of giving their children a better future, which is turning into a reality.

Often the children have to pay their own way through university, but succeed nonetheless. One former student who is studying criminology had two part-time airport jobs, says Watson. The school employed her as a teacher aid. This benefits both the former student financially and current students who see a role model they can identify with.

Another reader who posted on doesn't buy the "no future in New Zealand" argument. "Meta" from the North Shore posted that he was constantly in debt until he read the book Money Made Simple. Within two years, he paid off his debt and saved a deposit for a two-bedroom property. "While I was applying these rules [from the book] most of my friends did the opposite - then complained about how 'lucky' I was."

Readers will no doubt mutter — as one did to me recently — that I must be rich to afford our trip to Brazil. Our trip of a lifetime, however, was paid for from a single income. A little bit of research will show that journalists aren't well paid. Saving has a lot to do with the can-do attitude.

For some it takes better money management, working at more than one job or being very focused on a career trajectory that involves earning better money. Even a cleaner can become a cleaning supervisor or set up a cleaning business and make more money.

If there's a lesson from Brazil, it's be happy — and look for excuses to make your situation better.