Before spending, think: will your nest egg last once you stop working?

We love to dip into our savings. Sometimes we don't even realise we're doing it. But there's a group of us aged 45 to 65 for whom it has become the norm.

The scenario might be that we've got the mortgage under control or paid off and there's more cash on hand. Or our money is no longer being siphoned off by the school for NCEA fees, or going on overseas trips and the rest.

What do we do then? Increasingly we think: "I deserve it, I'm going to (enter your own favourite spending here)." What we don't realise is that we're often beginning to spend our retirement savings by ramping up debt long before we get our hands on the money.

We do this in a number of ways. Perhaps you're living in a perfectly good million-dollar home, which is more or less the average these days in Auckland. You think, "We deserve the next notch up". In the bubble that is the Auckland housing market, that means $1.6m, or a whopping $600,000 on the mortgage.


You're "investing" in your house, after all, so it's not consuming your future wealth, is it? The answer to that can be seen across the ditch. Australia's superannuation scheme is a few decades old now and there's a box in standard mortgage applications asking how much super you have.

The idea there is that when you retire, your super can be used to pay off your supersized mortgage. The problem here is that you've just consumed your retirement savings in one fell swoop paying off the bank. It won't be long before the banks here want to know how much KiwiSaver you're expecting when you turn 65.

Then we "invest" in making our homes flash. Typically, says Blair Vernon, director of advice and sales at AMP, people make that "investment" decision to upgrade after reading a magazine that shows that their current kitchen doesn't conform to the latest aspirations.

Our easy finance culture makes it simple to borrow to get the things we "deserve", and coupled with a dose of excusitis, we convince ourselves that we've made an "investment".

If it's an "investment", why aren't we going into a mid-range bathroom supplies stores and saying, "What will the return on investment for this bath be compared to that one"?

No, let's be real here. We're going to high-end suppliers and drooling over the bath of our dreams " if there is such a thing. The difference between the nice bath and the to-die-for one is consumption, not investment, which is okay if we're honest with ourselves.

"They have often heard the spiel from reading home improvement books that they will get $1.50 for every dollar spent," says Vernon.

The other thing is that we're not adding the new bathroom and kitchen immediately before we put the house on the market. We're doing it to reward ourselves when we intend to stay. So by the time we do sell, we would have consumed some or even all of the added value there may have been. For people who care about trends, a five-year-old bath or splashback won't be the height of fashion any more.

Vernon has a good analogy for the 45 to 65-year-old age group. He says we know we have a bit of money in the house and some investments, but most of us don't plan enough for our retirement.

He likens our retirement to driving from Auckland to Wellington. If we are doing it in our half-decent Toyota Corolla with a full tank of petrol, we'll probably make it - although the distance is more likely to be Auckland to Christchurch.

If, however, you've upgraded to a Mercedes but have reached retirement without the cash for petrol, you won't make it as far as the Bombay Hills.

Most people make it through to their 50s with the proverbial Holden Commodore of a house, says Vernon. It's then that they suddenly want the Merc or at least to add mag wheels to the Commodore. They think their nest egg will last in retirement because their parents' money did.

Vernon doesn't expect people to live with the frugality of past generations, but they need to realise that the "spend, spend, spend" of today means they'll need more capital than their parents had. With a decumulation plan they can see exactly how far their savings will go and it might change behaviour.

There are other ways we pre-consume our retirement funds before we Pass Go and retire. A common one is children (and sometimes elderly parents) depleting the savings, says Vernon.

The reality is that parents are always parents and if your 24-year-old daughter gets breast cancer and you've failed to check that she's adequately insured, you're almost certainly going to spend what it takes to cure her, says Vernon. Few parents would put their own retirement savings ahead of saving their children.

Vernon says he often sees Givealittle pages set up by parents in exactly the situation of wanting to help adult children.

Health is sometimes the catalyst to pre-spending the retirement capital. No one envisages the home run to retirement being one of illness, injury and an inability to work, with the retirement savings being eaten up simply to live. In the case of KiwiSaver, serious illness is a valid reason for early withdrawal, but wouldn't be needed if the person had suitable insurance.

The big problem with this type of spending in the last two decades before retirement is not necessarily that we do it, but that we don't have a plan giving a clear view of what our financial future entails, says Vernon.

We meant to get around to it, but in the meantime our regular friendly rates reminders listing the home's capital value make us feel wealthy, so we don't worry. If there is a problem, people think they'll sprinkle pixie dust on it, says Vernon. That just makes them vulnerable to scams.

Ever the optimist, David Boyle, investor education general manager at the Commission for Financial Capability, says he believes that this pre-consumption of retirement savings will stop when KiwiSavers start to appreciate the huge sums of money they're accumulating.

Currently, many see the lump sum on their annual KiwiSaver statements as a windfall. Boyle hopes that his and other organisations' education programmes will help change the perception, from the balance being an amount to spend on "wants" to being seen as a source of ongoing income.

That is if your KiwiSaver money hasn't already been sucked down the drain of Italian basins and baths.