This week, the Herald profiles our finalists for New Zealander of the Year. We have chosen people who we believe made New Zealand a better place in 2012, whether they responded heroically to a moment of need or have worked consistently to improve the lives of others. Our sports and business teams have also compiled their lists and the overall winners in each section will be announced in the Weekend Herald this Saturday. For our entertainment winner, see today's TimeOut.

As a woman who rebelled against the glass ceiling and promoted equal opportunities in state services, Diana Crossan will likely wince at being depicted as the nation's (very) wise aunt. Yet that's the public face of the Retirement Commissioner who, for 10 years, has politely but firmly directed us towards paying off debt and saving for our future.

It is a message we appear to be heeding, even in straitened times.

With an ageing population, flatlining economy, ballooning student debt, falling home ownership and mishap-prone investment sector, it is easy to build a struggle street scenario for New Zealanders in old age. It's rule-of-thumb that people will need 60 to 70 per cent of their income to cover costs and most of us can expect to live for 25-30 years beyond the qualifying age for NZ Super of 65. Throw-in the she'll-be-right attitude when it comes to tomorrow, and the commissioner's task might seem thankless.

But Ms Crossan recognised early that scaring us into putting money aside would not work. Instead, she adopted practical strategies - the website, education in schools, bus shelter campaigns and becoming a media go-to with advice on financial planning and pitfall stories.


"The more information you've got, the easier it is to find ways [to manage finances]. Different behaviours have to be treated in different ways."

She likes to get her ducks in a row. Savers fall into four groups, there are six elements to retirement planning, financial literacy has eight components ...

Her call to raise the pension age to 67 was rejected by John Key but Ms Crossan believes younger New Zealanders now accept they will be working for longer than their parents.

At 62, she is moving on after 10 years, making it timely to acknowledge the difference she has made to our attitudes towards debt and savings.

She is not retiring just yet, though it is a safe bet she will be well prepared when she does.

The former Probation Service social worker's managerial skills clearly go beyond money: her career path skipped through other government departments, including the State Services Commission and consultancy work. A project exploring ways to help parents save for children's tertiary education led to work on the development of KiwiSaver and roles with Ngai Tahu and not-for-profit organisations.

Her canniness, she said, stemmed from an Otago upbringing where her parents struggled at times to raise four daughters on a teacher's salary. "I remember a couple of occasions when mum and dad sat us around the table and talked about going into the red, a term we didn't really understand.

"It meant from a young age we were quite careful - we grew up with the concept of saving. There was nowhere to get credit in those days."