Diane Maxwell was wearing jeans, very pointy boots, a short-sleeved T-shirt over a long-sleeved T-shirt and lashings of glittery green eyeshadow. This is what she wears to work most days, except when she has important meetings with people in suits, and then she too wears a suit. (I'd be willing to bet that she sticks with the eye shadow.)

It was 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon and so a work day but we were at her "funny little house" in Remuera and she said: "Chardonnay, Prosecco or Pinot Gris?" I had been told that wine would be on offer, but it was 2pm on a work day. Were we really having wine? She said: "We can. It'll stop me talking about dependency ratios and intergenerational equity." She is the Retirement Commissioner.

The ostensible reason for going to see the Retirement Commissioner was that next week is Money Week, a series of worthy and worthwhile events, such as seminars to help people manage their money, and their attitudes to money but also, for schools, a selfie photo competition. I can guess whose idea that was. She's good, as you would hope, at making money matters less frightening.

She changed the name from the Retirement Commission to the Commission for Financial Capability, which was a clever shift - it serves as the perfect riposte to people like me who say: But retirement plans are only for middle-class people with good incomes. "No way! Not if you've read our stuff," she said, giving me a look which made it clear that she knew that should she decide to grill me on the stuff, I would fail miserably.


I must admit that I would not normally have entertained the idea of an interview with a retirement commissioner (or a commissioner of just about anything), but I had an inkling she might be an unusual sort of commissioner. That offer of seeing her home, for one thing. And the offer of wine, at 2pm on a work day, for another.

She said she had told her media manager, "'Most of the stuff I do is about politics and policy and money'. And she said, 'You're not allowed to talk about those things'. If we're going to succeed in that, we'll do it in the lounge with a glass of wine and then I'll shift my mind set."

We had the Prosecco. I was a bit worried about drinking her wine because she has said that her idea of a good retirement is being able to afford a bottle of wine, when she feels like a bottle of wine, and that rather than have the bottle now, "that's a bottle set aside for when I'm not earning".

So we were drinking her retirement plan. How many bottles did she have stashed? "I haven't stashed any." Honestly, that is hopeless. "No! No! It's the money. I've started to stash the money." All right. How much money is she going to need to have stashed to fund her slightly tipsy retirement? "Not nearly enough and I don't know." She's the Retirement Commissioner. "Yeah, I know. But I know the psychology of it, and I know that if I tried to put a figure on what I thought I really needed, it would be so far away from what I've got that it would be depressing and daunting and therefore it would demotivate me and that would make me spend badly."

That is very clever (and I don't mean in a tricky way.) People ask her all the time, "How much do I need to retire?" "Yeah. And I say I don't know." The asking drives her a bit nuts, because "that kind of depends on what you want today. And also, if you say, a million dollars, for most people that is ridiculously daunting." So if she doesn't know either and if a million dollars is ridiculously daunting for her, too, then she's not some remote and probably rich commissioner lecturing us about our spending habits.

It is not the most glamorous sounding job in the world. It sounds a bit fuddy-duddy for her, you think, after meeting her. I wondered whether people did think that and she said: "I think they think that it's a kind of ... figurehead who might say grand things every now and again rather than someone who is actively sleeves-rolled-up and getting stuff done. And when I first explained to people that I really haven't been very good with money over the years, a couple of people said, 'Oh, my God. You shouldn't be saying that'."

She ought to be rich - she spent her 20s in a high-powered agency job, as a consumer strategist earning big money and big equity; she became a partner at a young age. Her strategy as a consumer was to blow the lot on clothes and shoes and partying.

She did buy a flat in London and sold it before prices went crazy (this still makes her feel a bit sick.) Then she took four months off to come back to New Zealand - which her family left when she was 10 - to see her father (her parents are divorced and her mum lives in Britain.) She was told that if she was back behind her desk within four months, her job and that equity would still be there. If she wasn't back by then, no job, no equity. The day the four months ran out, she was standing on the Franz Josef glacier. "I'd been back-packing and drinking cheap wine and wearing shorts and I remember thinking what day it was and thinking: 'I've made my decision'."


She never had a plan, for anything, really. She studied philosophy, psychoanalysis and propaganda at university, fell into consumer strategy, worked in banking and telecommunications. She has had money and she has had very little money and it is the very little money parts of her life that are the "perfect" qualification for her job, she says.

Diana Maxwell in 2013. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Diana Maxwell in 2013. Photo / Sarah Ivey

She is a policy wonk, really, but she makes being a policy wonk look rather cool. She reads Christopher Hitchens and A. A. Gill and Robert Hughes and she pretty much insisted I take a book home with me. It is Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, about declining years and how to live them.

I said, about her not having that bottle of wine now so that she can afford it when she's 70: "You might be dead. And then you'll have stinted on the wine for nothing!" She said: "We won't be dead. We'll be vibrant and exciting."

She thinks she has never been very interested in being rich. She is paid almost $260,000 a year, which would make her rich by most people's standards. So she ought to be doing all right now.

She said: "Oh, God. I've been terrible with money most of my life." She always says this, but it really is true. She does live in Remuera but her house really is a funny little house. She paid a little over $600,000 for it seven years ago and she'd like to knock a wall or two down but she can't afford it. She has an enormous mortgage. She had her 88-year-old neighbour, who knew the house in the 1950s, over and told her about the wall-knocking-down ideas. Her neighbour said, "Why?" So now she thinks: "Yeah. Why? What for?"

I suppose she will get around to fixing the door frame in the loo - Harry, her 3-year-old son, locked himself in and they had to break the door down to get him out - but she doesn't seem all that fussed, really.

She and Jamie, her daughter who is now 13 - "she's five foot eight!" - had been living a fairly impecunious life before they moved here. There was a series of rented houses and she would buy Jamie a small bit of steak and she would have eggs.

Jamie has ADHD and Asperger's. Her mother asked her whether I could put this in and she said I could and I have because, "It's a big part of who she is and she's got a view that it is who she is. She's wonderful and smart and fantastic and difficult ... and opinionated and forceful". Much like her mother, I thought, remembering that look about that stuff I hadn't read. She said, about being opinionated and forceful: "Probably. But I'd say I was self-aware with it."

She said: "When I say I raised Jamie on my own, I raised Jamie on my own - physically and financially." Jamie goes to her dad's for holidays and, "you know, she's really lucky. She's got two crazy parents and two lovely step-parents".

The earlier bits of her life might have been a bit rackety, I suggested. She said: "You know what my uncle said? He saw a piece that was done in the paper and said that it made my life look a lot tidier than it actually was. Look, I have to tell you I think it took me a long time to grow up. This is the longest I've ever lived in a place. It took me a long time to stay still."

She was frightened of stability. She was a restless person. "Yeah, and there is this phrase: What your restlessness produces. So, if you're restless, what does your restlessness produce? And I moved through different industries, different sectors, different relationships, different houses and then for some reason I got to a point where I could put down roots."

She was married, briefly, in her 20s to an Iranian; in her 30s she had Jamie with her then partner, who is Zimbabwean. She is now with the great love of her life, Mariota Smutz, chief adviser of policy and external affairs at Auckland Regional Health, and 10 years younger than her. He's Samoan. She said: "I'm sure I've got a photo somewhere of a palagi [boyfriend]." She didn't let Mariota in the house until they'd been going out for two years. "Well, I wasn't sure that it was a good idea bringing around somebody who is 10 years younger than me." And she didn't want to cause any disruption to Jamie's life but she finally let him in the door and he and Jamie got on "like a house on fire". She had one firm rule: No more kids. "And he said 'fine' and we have a 3-year-old. So I stuck to my guns."

She has Harry's placenta buried under the mandarin tree and Jamie's under a potted plant on the deck and the two moggies, Psycho and Monster, are under a blue glass dome in the garden. (She has a pedigree cat, Juno, now but thinks she's a bit boring. Poor Juno.) She says that she has, at the age of 48, "even become romantic!" For Valentine's Day she stuck, over the bed, in large letters: Always Kiss Me Goodnight.

I thought I'd better ask a retirement question: Was she going to end up in a retirement home? "You've got to remember, my man's 10 years younger than me. Now that I planned!"

The Retirement Commissioner said: "I'm going to give you a kiss!" She did, too. And she'd only had one glass of wine. She is very good fun now. I'd like to see her again - perhaps when she is a vibrant and exciting 70-year-old wearing glittery green eye shadow.