Diane Maxwell

Diane Maxwell



Retirement Commissioner for The commission of financial capability.

(At the time of publication the Commission was known as the Commission for Financial Literacy and Retirement Income)


What does your position as the Retirement Commissioner involve?

The role covers three areas: building the financial capability of New Zealanders, reviewing and reporting on retirement income policy, and a monitoring role for retirement villages. It sounds dry but I find it an incredibly interesting area with some big challenges and thorny questions. I’m often asked why I’m spending so much time on issues affecting people in their teens and twenties and the answer is that my focus is on retirees of tomorrow as well as retirees of today. 

Building financial capability for New Zealanders of all generations is a big focus, as we understand more about the demographic changes occurring here in NZ. By mid-century one in four New Zealanders will be 65 plus. In a nutshell we are living longer and having fewer children. I’m working hard on getting the next generation of retirees in good financial shape and ready for quite a different future. As longevity increases and we live into our nineties, we could spend thirty years retired. It’s a sobering thought when it comes to finances.

What is the National Strategy for financial literacy?

The National Strategy for financial literacy is literally that, with a goal to galvanise and consolidate efforts. We developed it within the Commission, consulted with stakeholders, and now have 127 organisations signed up to deliver it. The strategy is clear and pragmatic with five work streams: talk, learn, plan, debt-smart, and save and invest.

What is the best part of your job?

Seeing the change we bring about in people’s lives. Actually it’s much more accurate to say the change they bring about in their own lives. We provide insights, tools, strategies, stories and a better understanding of the issues, but ultimately they’re the only ones that can bring about change. What our face-to-face programmes provide is the space to step back and think long term, which is something people often don’t have the time or the mental bandwidth to do. 

We work with people through community and workplace programmes who start the course saying they don’t have enough money to live on, but by the end they are not just surviving, they are making savings. The difference that makes for parents, who can then pay for school trips, pay the power bill and get the car fixed can’t be put into words. It brings the stress levels down in the house, improves health and brings about better long term planning.

What are some of the challenges you face in your role?

There is a healthy tension between the degree to which we focus on today versus tomorrow. Some believe that the role of the Retirement Commissioner should only help New Zealanders who are 65 plus, but the reality is the future holds some very real challenges for our children and our grandchildren. They are our future retirees and the time for them to start thinking about it is now. 

'Intergenerational equity' is a clunky phrase that simply means what do we owe the next generation, and what do they owe us? And what have we inherited from those that have gone before? It’s an important question for us as individuals but also as a society because it helps us understand what we’re prepared to ask the government pay for, and what we believe we should provide for ourselves.

How does New Zealand compare with other nations for financial literacy?

Broadly we do well when you look at OECD data, and on one level our results are above average. But a breakdown of the numbers reveals that Maori and Pacific have consistently lower levels of financial literacy, from school age through to adulthood. We are building and running programmes that recognise a different model of ‘wealth’ and tensions between the roles of the collective versus the individual. 

Can you specify and briefly describe some of the initiatives the Commission is currently involved in to further improve the financial literacy of New Zealanders?

We have the Sorted website, which is visited by just over a million New Zealanders annually. It has calculators and tools, including the KiwiSaver Fund Finder, so you can sit at home and crunch through some numbers in private. 

But a self-service model doesn’t work for everybody. If your finances are in bad shape, and debt is spiralling, Sorted may be the last place you want to go because you just don’t need another reminder of how bad things are. For those groups we run a series of face-to-face programmes, often across nine weeks, which bring about an underlying shift in the way people think about and manage their money. The programmes draw heavily on what we’ve learnt from behavioural economics about present bias, social norms and the mentality of scarcity. A key theme throughout is that when today is bad, it’s harder to think about tomorrow. They cover everything from managing expenses to insurance, wills, KiwiSaver and more. m