Alarming figures show steep rise in people withdrawing KiwiSaver savings as cost of living crisis bites

By Amy Williams for RNZ

The Retirement Commissioner is joining budget advisors in raising alarm over a steep rise in people withdrawing their savings from KiwiSaver as they struggle with rising prices and paying the mortgage.

Inland Revenue's latest figures show more people in financial hardship are withdrawing their savings from KiwiSaver - taking out a combined $21.5 million in October, double that of October's $10.3m last year.

People can take money out of their KiwiSaver funds if they can no longer meet their living expenses or pay their mortgage.

Retirement Commissioner Jane Wrightson said many people were under significant financial pressure but to see the amount taken out of KiwiSaver double in the latest monthly figures was a worry.

"Doubling over a year sounds pretty significant to me. We've got inflation issues, we've got mortgage issues, we've got cost of living issues, it's understandable that people are feeling the pinch."

Retirement Commissioner Jane Wrightson.
Retirement Commissioner Jane Wrightson. Photo credit: RNZ

Wrightson said using money from hard-earned retirement savings should be a last resort, even in financial hardship.

"It's predictable in the sense that people are currently under significant financial pressure. I think it's always disappointing and I would hope that those people who are having cashflow issues are seeking budget advice before they do this."

The number of KiwiSaver members making hardship withdrawals almost doubled in October compared with the same month last year, from 1570 to 2800.

In the year to June, just over 20,500 people had taken out savings due to financial hardship, 6000 more than the previous year.

FinCap is a non-government organisation which supports 200 free budget advice services.

The financial helpline, MoneyTalks, gets an average of 90 calls a day and team leader Angela Smart said recently many calls were about KiwiSaver withdrawals which covered 13 weeks of expenses.

"Absolutely an increase, it feels like almost every second call is about needing a budget report for KiwiSaver hardship withdrawals," Smart said.

"People are seeing it as an easy way out, it's just kicking the can down the road and the problem is going to be there in another 13 weeks."

She said many people see the retirement fund as their first option to claw out of debt.

"Mainly it's that they can't afford life ... they've gone to try and renegotiate their mortgage to figure out where else can they find that extra dollar or two."

Smart said some are even encouraged to dip into it by the companies they owe money to - which goes against the rules.

"Companies like banks, finance companies, power companies, where the debts are lying, they need to be doing more about encouraging communication and working within their own hardship policies instead of encouraging people to go and withdraw their KiwiSaver," she said.

"We have had some institutions who have encouraged it and we've had to go back and say 'hey you're not allowed to do that'."

'People are taking on more debt '

Auckland Central Budgeting general manager Tim Maurice said KiwiSaver funds should be kept for retirement and all other options explored, for those in financial hardship.

"While it might plug a hole now it's only going to make the hole worse in the future. It's a real issue I hope the government can think about, the cost of living crisis and creating access to credit is only going to delay the issue."

Wrightson agreed KiwiSaver should be kept for retirement.

"KiwiSaver is a retirement fund. It's incredibly important people think about that as funds you don't touch. What you need to do alongside that is build an emergency fund for the periods of life you can't pay your bills," she said.

"I would hope that the providers are requiring financial advice or budget advice before those decisions are made because sometimes you can find ways to find the additional money without tapping into their KiwiSaver."

Maurice said it had been a tough year for many.

"Things are more acute. People are taking on more debt to pay bills and therefore struggling more weekly, so we're noticing more people looking at KiwiSaver for deficit withdrawals."

Maurice said there was a one-and-a-half-week wait to see a financial mentor at the budgeting consultancy.

"We've taken on more staff and still the wait, I feel like I could take on another two or three staff and it wouldn't affect the wait because people are ringing around trying to find a budget service that can help them."

Smart said some budgeting services had wait lists up to a month long and more people were leaving messages for MoneyTalks overnight - a sign of distress.

"To me, that's always our number one indicator of how our community is doing ... people up at night worrying."