With living costs rising, Southlanders are becoming more reliant on budgeting services for advice on minimising debt, saving money, and resisting clever advertising campaigns to spend beyond their means. Gwyneth Hyndman sat in on a meeting in Invercargill to hear about a few of the challenges people here are facing.
On a Tuesday night in Stadium Southland's Sarah Ulmer lounge, 25 people are gathered around tables, punching numbers, concentrating hard on getting Joe Smith out of debt.
Joe earns $260 a week, has a flatmate that splits the bill for $120 in rent and the $100 grocery bill. But he smokes – an easy $40 a week habit – and every week Joe buys a $12 Lotto ticket.
Combined with car and contents insurance, warrant of fitness, petrol and bank fees, Joe's expenses all add up. Around the tables there is murmuring and comparisons as numbers are punched in and scribbling down the sides of the cash flow charts for Joe during a 12-week period.
"How is Joe doing?" asks Jubilee Budget Advisory Service budget counsellor Simon Tierney, who has co-ordinated the workshop series around Southland free of charge.
The demand for a budget service had increased in the past two years, he says earlier in the day, with about 600 people seeking advice from the service each year, spending on average $1.05 more than they earned. Usually, one workshop was held in Invercargill each year, however demand for the service had grown. About 30 people had turned up for the lunchtime workshop that day. What was interesting, he says, was the variety of people coming to the workshops.
It was not just beneficiaries and the bankrupt, he say. It was people who owned their own homes and those who had no credit history at all, wanting tips on how to live well within their means, create reachable goals, and have enough in savings for emergencies.
It did not matter what one's wealth was – from seasonal workers and single mums to the comfortably retired, the need was the same: financial control and freedom. In the room tonight, the women outnumber men, and at least three generations are represented. The dress code is varied. Some have come from work, others from home. Hair styles range from grey to dreadlocks.
I am at a table with a mother and her two adult daughters; there are two calculators between us and as the velodrome cyclists voom around the track below us and evening walkers circumnavigate the seating area for their nightly workout, we are rolling up our sleeves to save the fictitious Joe from sinking into the negative.
But no matter how you work his budget: it's not looking good. His income is depressingly low and it misses the bottom line by at least $32 every week. After 12 weeks he is more than $689 in debt, with no way of climbing out of it.
After nearly half an hour, we all sit back in our seats, possibly feeling quite righteous. Before us is the harsh reality of Joe's situation. It needs to change. We are here to fix Joe's financial problems.
"What can he do?" Simon asks.
The answers for most of us is clear. The hands go up.
"Cut out smoking," one woman calls out. Mr Tierney nods. "Lotto ticket," another voice offers. More nodding. The suggestions continue: cut out entertainment ($50 a week), sell the car and get a bike, grow vegetables in the backyard, move in with his mum, go on a diet, find a rich woman to marry.
All of the solutions are met with the same nod. Then Mr Tierney makes his first suggestion: Don't cut out the smokes.
We are a bit shocked. Mr Tierney clarifies he is not advocating smoking. The most important thing for budgeting accurately is that Joe is being honest on paper. A woman at the next table puts up her hand, and begins speaking before he even points at her.
"I'm a smoker, and I see people spending just as much on a box of wine each week, maybe more."
And that's fine, Mr Tierney answers, the point is to be transparent. List the smokes, the wine, the Lotto ticket, "otherwise they start coming out of basic necessities – like groceries".
And that's when a budget starts to fail.
The consensus was ultimately that instead of cutting an item out, work on cutting back. The entertainment allowance could be limited to $30; instead of going cold turkey on the smokes, work on smoking less. And Joe should probably look at getting a second job.
A woman slumps in her seat and groans – "It's easier to do somebody else's budget" – probably a common thought tonight, and probably why we are assigned to fixate on Joe's finances, not our own.
Like the rest of New Zealand, Southlanders are steeling themselves against a rise in living expenses that is in contrast to stalled salaries.
Leaps in cost range from the practical – a visit to the GP, milk, petrol – to an $8 increase for a haircut and an extra $2.20 for Sky television.
For some tonight, there is a lifetime of good budgeting practices to weather this; Mr Tierney's advice is just a brush-up on the latest tricks of clever advertising. For many here, there is already a drummed-in aversion to spending what you don't have. One woman in her 50s, and thinking about retirement, likens good budgeting to going on a diet – there are years when you are healthy, and times when you fall off the wagon and need help getting back on. Her friend tells a story of how she used to hold out her hand for petrol money when her teenage daughters wanted a ride across town, otherwise they knew their mother would have to walk to work the next morning.
Simon quotes a participant from the daytime workshop: "We want today what our parents worked a lifetime for."
Across the room, Darcy Willis, 21, says the workshop gave her good tips to start saving.
She and her partner wanted to start thinking about a house, but were "living pay cheque to pay cheque." Money that was spent on alcohol and takeaways should go straight into a savings account and while she did not have a plan, she was leaving the workshop with the intention of making one.
Simon said for many people getting sucked into advertising campaigns to spend more, it was good to keep some sage words in mind:
"Don't buy things you don't need, with money you don't have, to impress people that don't care."Budget meetings continue today in Te Anau and in Queenstown tomorrow; the final workshop will be on Stewart Island on May 22.
For location and times participants must register by calling 0800JUBILEE (0800582453) or text name and location to 0275824533. Alternatively, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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