Hard up Kiwis tapped into their retirement savings in record numbers during March and KiwiSaver trustees say application numbers are rising.

Inland Revenue figures show 1390 people made hardship claims against KiwiSaver during March - the latest data available - the highest monthly claims since the scheme launched in July 2007.

Those people took out just under $7.2m out of their savings pot just shy of the record amount withdrawn in one month in December 2016 when 1371 people took out $7.5m.

Hardship applications have been steadily rising along with the growth in KiwiSaver membership.


In the year to June 2016 10,666 people took $59.4m out of their retirement savings account because of hardship.

That was up from the 8,248 people that took $41.1m in the year to June 2015.

So far in the nine months to March 10,657 people have taken $54.6m out for hardship reasons and there is another three months to go.

Gerard Field, senior manager of client services at Public Trust, which handles hardship claims on behalf of a number of KiwiSaver schemes said it had seen application numbers rise from 63 a week in 2015 to 121 a week this year.

"It certainly is increasing."

Field said he couldn't put his finger on any one cause for the rise but said membership of KiwiSaver had grown by around 100,000 people between 2015 and 2016.

At the same time balances were growing and the average KiwiSaver pot was now around $12k to $13k.

"I think people see that and see the credit card bill....Four to five years ago balances would have been half of that."

Field said claims were often seasonal with more applications coming in around Christmas time or in January and February when the credit card bills hit home.

He said anecdotal evidence pointed to most claims being linked to an event in a person's life such as a redundancy, the death of a partner or ill health.

Field said the claims were often heart-breaking to read.

"They have realised in the end this is their last port of call."

Mark Jephson, general manager of corporate trusts at Guardian Trust which also handles hardship claims on behalf of KiwiSaver providers said his team had noticed a rise in claims in recent months and also pointed to rising balances.

"KiwiSaver member numbers are increasing year on year which all things being equal will likely result increased significant financial hardship withdrawals.

"However, member balances are generally increasing and members are often able to easily view their balances online.

"This may result in members being more inclined to make a significant financial hardship application to alleviate their hardship rather than incurring further personal debt."

Jephson said as KiwiSaver balances continued to rise some members would not request all of their money or the value the value of the withdrawal approved would be limited to the amount needed to alleviate the significant financial hardship.

"Often, depending on the circumstances, the amount released will be limited to an amount to enable the member to meet their minimum living expenses for a period of 13 weeks.

"This enables the member time explore other options such as re-employment or WINZ assistance."

But he said sometimes people came back for a second application which could also be a driver of higher withdrawal numbers.

"These members will sometimes re-apply for significant financial hardship as after a period of time significant financial hardship has returned.

"Therefore some the of statistics you have referred to above will be related to members who have made multiple significant financial hardship withdrawals.

Jephson said the reasons why people made hardship applications varied a lot but typically related to macro and micro economic factors combined with an unforeseen change in circumstances for the member meaning they are no longer able meet their day-to-day living expenses including repayment of personal debts.

"Common reasons are a reduction in work hours, redundancy, illness and unforeseen expenses such as car or house repairs."

Around 2.7 million people are in KiwiSaver with around $38 billion invested.