Getting ahead or just getting by?

Tracy Watkins What do you think? Email sundayletters



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My favourite story this week is about Lyn Webster; she’s only stepped into a supermarket twice in the last couple of years and has reduced her grocery bill to hundreds of dollars a year, from thousands. When I think of my weekly grocery bill, that seems quite humbling. Webster started on her spending crusade more than a decade ago, after the global financial crisis. But her story resonates as much now, if not more, in the face of the latest cost of living shock. Webster says she used to spend $300 a week on groceries. If you add up what she must have saved over the years since, that’s a tidy sum. I’m now ruing my own missed opportunities. Like Webster, I remember making a few promises to myself to cut spending during the global financial crisis; but I quickly went back to my bad old ways once the good times rolled around again. Will we bounce back from the pandemic the same way? Maybe not. Increasingly, it feels like we’re in for the long haul. The Covid hangover seems to have brought to a head many of the problems we’ve kept kicking down the road. Unaffordable housing, low wages, low productivity, a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots and the problems that come with that – child poverty, abuse, a mental health crisis, along with deferred insfrastructure and a creaking health system. Now we’ve got record inflation to throw into the mix. Many of our problems are shared around the world. But we also have the tyranny of distance and a smaller economy to deal with. So is it getting harder to make a life in New Zealand? Is this still a great place to bring up kids? For some Kiwis, including some of those who found their way back during the pandemic, it’s complicated. I spoke to one recently who was heading back overseas with her partner; it wasn’t that they didn’t love New Zealand, she said, but they couldn’t get ahead. They had returned home with money in the bank and brimming with optimism about life in NZ. But they found themselves falling further and further behind, with limited opportunities compared to overseas. If you look on Trade Me any given day, it’s not uncommon to see entire houselots of nearly-new furniture listed by people who are selling up and heading back overseas. For years, we painted over our problems by bringing in scores of skilled and unskilled immigrants; during the pandemic, we replaced the immigration sugar rush with a spending sugar rush. We were all as guilty as the Government of going on an all-time spending spree. Tradies were rushed off their feet as people leveraged soaring house values to renovate, put in swimming pools and buy new cars. But there’s no free lunch, as the economists say. Inflation, and rising interest rates, and possibly even a recession, are the price we have to pay. We are lucky to be here, in New Zealand; it’s still a great place to live, especially if you’ve got a good job, a financial buffer and a home of your own. None of these things are prerequisites for a great life – I’ve met many happy people who have very little. But these used to be things that we saw as a birthright, not reserved for the privileged few. And while we can all admire and hope to emulate Lyn Webster, we shouldn’t have to just to get by.