Cost of living: Pensioners living in pain, skipping meals as inflation pushes essentials out of reach

This was one of Newshub's top stories of 2023. It was originally published on April 8.  

Pensioners are struggling to survive as inflation pushes the costs of essentials out of reach, forcing many to skip meals just to get by. 

Aotearoa is grappling with a cost of living crisis as mortgage rates, rents and food prices skyrocket - driven by inflation of 7.2 percent. 

But while the cost of everything is increasing, New Zealanders who are on fixed incomes, such as superannuitants, are barely staying afloat - and some have nothing left over after paying rent. 

Research by the Retirement Commission found 40 percent of people aged 65 and over have virtually no other income besides NZ Super. While another 20 percent only have that and a little more. 

Superannuation, main benefits and student support got a boost from April 1. The increase means a couple both aged over 65 now get $102.84 more every fortnight, while a single pensioner living alone receives an extra $66.86.

But the boost is offset by a whopping 12 percent increase in food prices in the year to February - the highest annual increase since 1989. 

Prices are increasing across the board, with data from Stats NZ showing the average household's cost of living increased by 8.2 percent in 2022. 

It's making it incredibly difficult for many pensioners and there is no reprieve in sight. 

Evie, 66, renting in Katikati 

Evie*, 66, lives in constant pain from dental issues she can't afford to fix. 

The grandmother is one of many New Zealanders who rely on the Super to pay their bills. But rising prices are making it nearly impossible for her to survive. Evie can't even afford to pay her $550 a week rent without dipping into her savings. 

She's relying on her KiwiSaver to top up her income, but her minimal savings will run out soon and she has no idea what to do when they do. 

Someone living alone who is aged 65 or older previously got $925.88 after tax (M rate) each fortnight in Superannuation. From April, this was increased to $992.74. But for Evie, even after the increase, her rent alone is more than she gets. 

The pensioner already lives frugally but has been forced to give up necessities like the dentist just to get by. 

She's on a waitlist for surgery for her arthritis but has no idea when that will happen. And paying to get her teeth fixed is such a far-off dream, it's "all the way on the back burner". 

"I am nearly crippled now because I've got arthritis in my feet and my knees. I need a scooter or something but I have no money to buy one," Evie told Newshub. 

"I quite badly need my teeth fixed but I can't even think about it at the moment, well... or ever really." 

She no longer eats meat because it is too expensive and often has to skip meals because she can't afford enough groceries. 

"I just mainly live on fruit and vegetables and I don't have any extras. But a lot of the fruits and veggies I get have doubled and tripled in price from what they were a year ago. It makes them completely unaffordable." 

Cost of living: Pensioners living in pain, skipping meals as inflation pushes essentials out of reach
Photo credit: Getty Images

Evie is wracked with anxiety about what she will do when her KiwiSaver runs out. 

"I try not to think about it at all." 

She never imagined this would be how she spent her retirement. There's "no enjoyment" in her life. Instead, it's a groundhog day of pain and stressing about bills. 

The hopelessness is only amplified because she has no way of changing her financial situation now that she no longer works. 

"I have only got so much savings left and I don't know what I am going to do when I've had to use that because I won't have money to survive."

She is looking for a flatmate but hasn't been able to find one and every day brings her closer to running out of money. She has looked for other rentals as well but can't find anything cheaper. 

"I don't smoke or drink alcohol or anything like that. None of my income is wasted and I only buy petrol once a month. 

"There are no outings or anything like that. But I am lucky, I am in a place with a pool on the premises and I can play mahjong a couple of times a week with other like-minded people. So I try to just think about those sorts of things," she said.

The constant struggle to survive takes a toll. Evie wishes she had enough money to visit her daughter and grandchildren in Wellington, but sadly it's out of the question. 

John, 75, renting in Hamilton 

Evie isn't alone. John, 75, also has to regularly skip meals and put off dental care because he can barely afford to survive on his Superannuation payments. 

The Hamiltonian used to be financially stable with his own home, several nice cars and a nest egg for his retirement. But an investment gone wrong meant he had to sell his home and cars. Now, he is trying to get by on the Super alone - and it's no easy task. 

His rent takes up the vast majority of his income and the little that's left barely covers his bills and groceries. 

He can't afford to go to the doctor or dentist and has stopped driving because he can't afford to pay for his car's warrant and registration. 

After his rent and bills, he's left with "virtually nothing" to live on and has to make do with between $90 to $110 a fortnight for groceries. 

He's had to cut down to two meals a day because food prices have increased so much. 

"I am losing weight because I cannot afford to buy decent food... It's bloody ridiculous," John told Newshub. 

"I've cut down to two meals a day... I can't afford fruit... I am eating sh** and because of that, I am losing weight." 

Every dollar is strictly allocated and he has to forgo not only necessities, but also small luxuries like an occasional steak or going out for a meal with friends. 

"I can't afford to go to the doctor willy nilly… I can't go to the dentist. All these sorts of things...I just can't go anywhere because I can't afford petrol. I can't even remember the last time I went out with a friend or anyone for a meal."

The only steak he's had in the last five years was when his landlord took him out for dinner. 

"I can't even afford fly spray and they're coming around like nothing on earth. Choccy biscuits are a no-show now, absolutely no show of buying those. Fruit, I am limited. If I am lucky I might be able to buy a couple of apples for a fortnight. 

"I haven't even taken a girl out or taken my kids or grandkids out for five years because I can't afford to."

He said his grandkids live slightly out of town and because he can't afford to maintain his car, he's lucky if he gets to see them once a year. 

"I've missed so many of their birthdays. We used to go out every month or we would go to the gardens or somewhere and have a family meet up but now [I can't]." 

The one small joy he gets is meeting his friends for a coffee once a week. And he says without it, he would "go bloody nuts". 

The cost of living crisis is top of mind for the vast majority of New Zealanders. A recent poll showed inflation and cost of living are the most important issues Kiwis are facing. 

Ipsos New Zealand Issues Monitor asked more than 1000 New Zealanders what the most pressing issue was for them and inflation and the cost of living took out the top spot. 

Inflation is stubbornly high, sitting at 7.2 percent for the past two quarters - down ever so slightly from its peak of 7.3 percent in June 2022.

In a desperate attempt to cool the economy, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) has repeatedly hiked the Official Cash Rate (OCR) to dampen spending and bring inflation down. 

The OCR has jumped from 0.25 percent in August 2021 to 5.25 percent in April. The last time it was this high was in October 2008 - during the Global Financial Crisis.

The OCR increases have seen mortgage rates jump and high inflation has pushed food prices up to a 14-year high. 

Retirement Commissioner raises concerns 

High prices are impacting everyone, but retirees are being hit particularly hard. Recent research by the Retirement Commissioner shows the number of elderly Kiwis struggling to get by is increasing. 

Commissioner Jane Wrightson said even with the Super nearly one in three people don't think they will have enough for retirement unless they continue working past 65. 

She said Super rates are based on someone owning their house outright, but as homeownership rates decline and house prices increase, this needs to change. 

"Currently one in five retirees are still paying a mortgage, and we are looking at 100 percent more older people paying rent by 2048 compared to 2020.

"The statutory annual increases to NZ Super are excellent. And for those who need it, there is extra support available but we need to make sure it's accessible."

Wrightson said one of the key findings from their research was the need to increase the asset limit for the accommodation supplement. 

"This helps contribute to a person's accommodation costs but requires them to have less

than $8100 in assets to be eligible. This is clearly inadequate and unfair - it hasn't been changed for 30 years," she said. 

"It is important that we keep discussing these issues. Retirement is a concept that is often out of sight, out of mind until it's just around the corner. But we can have so much more control over it if we have time to prepare and plan.

"This is the most important aspect of NZ Super - it is part of a stable and consistent policy that allows people to plan over a long period of time. It is an essential lifeline for those over 65."

She believes everyone has a role to play in checking in on retired people in our whānau and community. 

"We can't just assume they're doing okay financially, often pride can come in the way of sharing these things. For many older New Zealanders, it can take a lot before they ask for help," she said. 

It's an issue Grey Power is all too aware of. The organisation advocates for the welfare and well-being of people aged 50 and over. Grey Power's David Marshall told Newshub while the superannuation increases will provide some relief, it's not enough alone. 

"For those on a fixed income the 12 percent increase in food costs over the past 12 months has been particularly challenging, and while the announced increase will bring some relief there will be ongoing concern about how many retirees with minimal savings will make ends meet," Marshall said. 

He said a survey of nearly 3000 Grey Power members last year found the majority were needing to supplement their NZS by $10,000 to $20,000 per year to maintain a modest lifestyle.  He said more than 50 percent had less than $50,000 saved which was causing "significant pessimism about how they would cope in the years ahead". 

"Grey Power has advocated, along with the Retirement Commissioner, to increase the threshold for eligibility for accommodation supplements, and in particular remove the silo regulations that allow some to have less than $8200 in reserves, while others are allowed up to $44,000 to qualify for support.

"With the increasing cost of energy and Council rates, an annual increase in the winter energy allowance and raising the income eligibility for rates rebates would be helpful to those who are most vulnerable." 

What the Government is doing

Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni told Newshub she recognises many older New Zealanders have issues meeting basic costs, which is why the Government introduced the Winter Energy Payment. 

"This is due to kick in again on 1 May this year. Alongside this, Superannuation has been raised every year in line with the CPI or average wage. As of 1 April 2023, the new rise came into effect meaning couples on Superannuation will be better off by over $100 per fortnight." 

Sepuloni said other supports are also available including the accommodation supplement, disability allowance and hardship grants.  

"We have increased accommodation supplement and widened eligibility for hardship grants and there may be some people out there who are not receiving their full entitlement.

"I encourage anyone who needs additional support to contact Work and Income to see if they may be eligible for more support." 

Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni.
Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni. Photo credit: Getty Images

She added the Government "inherited a housing crisis" and has "embarked on an ambitious public house building programme". 

"We are on track to deliver 18,000 new public houses by 2024. MSD has recently implemented a new programme of housing support assistance to help people obtain and retain private rental housing.   

"The new programme includes increased assistance with the cost of tenancy bonds, rent in advance and rent arrears," she said. 

Minister for Seniors Ginny Andersen told Newshub she's aware it's a hard time for many, which is why the Government increased superannuation.

"I know it's tough for many whānau and our older population across the country at the moment. The Government [raised] the superannuation from April 1. This increase will help people who are feeling the impact from the rising cost of living, particularly those on fixed incomes," Andersen said. 

"We also have the Winter Energy Payment to help older New Zealanders have a warm home. Every little bit helps, and I am aware many older New Zealanders appreciate every cent of support they receive."

*Evie is not her real name. Newshub agreed to keep her anonymous to protect her privacy