With a 5% deposit, you'll be paying a lot more towards your mortgage. (Photo: Getty)

Why KiwiSaver is still important in the age of lifelong renters

Young Millennials and Gen-Zers are the first generation to have had KiwiSaver accounts for their entire working lives. Many aren’t worried about becoming homeowners, so why is it important they stick with the investment scheme?

My first job was waitressing part-time at a Mexican restaurant with my best friend Mollie. She’s a lot smarter than me, and despite being 16 she became my financial advisor, telling me to put 9% of my small income into my KiwiSaver as soon as I started the job. 

I was living at home, there was no rent to pay, no food costs, and electricity, water and internet were all still being taken care of by my parents. But for some reason, I thought the $150 I earned each week should be going straight to my pocket, to be spent on chicken nuggets and raspberry Cruisers. 

I didn’t want to give my money up to some mysterious account I couldn’t access, so I ticked 3% on the IRD form and forgot about it for four years. 

Now at 21, I’ve watched my Kiwisaver balance more than quintuple under a high risk, high reward scheme, and it took me – a complete financial rookie – less than 10 minutes to sort out.

I now contribute 10% of my income to KiwiSaver. It’s money I don’t notice disappearing from my pay, and it’s become so rewarding to check in on my savings each month and see the fund growing. 

Saving for retirement is something a lot of my peers don’t seem concerned about just yet – 40 years until we get to hang up our spurs seems too far away to think about. We have KiwiSaver accounts but there always seem to be more important things going on, like the imminent collapse of entire ecosystems because we can’t stop catching planes and eating meat, or that Nazis are back. 

I’m also part of a generation that’s leaning further and further away from the ‘dream’ of owning property than any generation before. House prices seem completely unattainable, especially while I’m living and working in Auckland.

A lot of people my age will probably be renting for life. We’re not spending our money on smashed avo: we’re spending it on command strips so we don’t damage any walls in a house we’re about $1 million off owning.

A magazine that sits on a coffee table at The Spinoff dated 1988 says the average price for a house in an outer-central Auckland suburb was – adjusted for inflation – just over $500,000. Now, the average price of a house in the same area is around $805,000.

Older generations sometimes seem more worried about our house-buying prospects than we do, though. Things considered key parts of life 50 years ago – getting married, having kids and buying a house – have become far less important to younger generations. For many of my peers and I, the idea of owning a property was never one we spent our time dreaming about or worrying over. 

The good thing about KiwiSaver is that without realising or having to worry over it, so many of us are on track to one day purchase a place of our own if we want to, or travel the world when we retire. We’re opting to get a little less now, so we have more options later on.

The few years of part-time work my friends and I did through high school and university turned into, for some of them, a few thousand dollars in their KiwiSaver accounts. For me, a measly $400 was all I had invested by the time I left university, and by that stage I’d been working in part-time jobs for almost five years.

I’ve always had the mindset that by ignoring problems, particularly financial ones, they’ll eventually go away. It’s a stupid way to go about life, and it’s contributed to at least a few hundred dollars worth of bills and overdue fines. I realised after leaving university I didn’t want to be a 65-year-old retiree with $400 in the bank.

When I finally sorted out my KiwiSaver, prompted by embarrassment at the comparatively huge amount of money my boyfriend had stored away in his, I realised pretending my KiwiSaver didn’t exist for the previous four years had not helped me in any way. I had stopped contributing to it at all and was losing money because the account fees were higher than the return I was getting on my $400.

I knew something needed to be done, and the first step towards that was finding out where my Kiwisaver account was held. Out of over 200 possible funds, I had no idea. Luckily, the IRD did know, and once I’d worked out my RealMe login, I could see where my Kiwisaver was hosted, how much I had contributed and how much my employers had contributed, too. 

Getting my account in order and reading up about how to maximise my savings, I learnt a lot about the investment side of the process and what happens to the money once it’s taken from my pay. The most important thing I learnt is not all funds are created equal.

KiwiSaver isn’t just about money. It’s not just a retirement fund or a first-house piggy bank. I learnt KiwiSaver can also be an easy way to stage a small-scale protest. Today’s young people are more vocal than ever about climate change, corporate greed and the destruction of our environment, and it’s surprising to learn that many KiwiSaver funds invest in areas like fossil fuels, weaponry and human rights abuses. Only one fund has a policy against animal abuse and most funds that run through the big Australian banks are not only taking money out of the country, but investing KiwiSaver funds on deforestation, gambling and tobacco. 

But not all of them are like this. Websites like Mindful Money provide a short quiz to determine an ethical fund to fit personal values, and Sorted has a guide to choosing a provider, explaining what to do if your provider is destroying the planet with your money. Both websites say the clearest message an individual can send with their KiwiSaver is by switching to an ethical provider. 

KiwiSaver doesn’t just matter for retirement. It doesn’t just matter for buying a house. It matters for the planet, too. If people are unaware of the destruction their money is, in a small part, making to the earth, businesses will keep pretending it’s all fine. But just with my KiwiSaver, ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. 

Engaging with KiwiSaver early, even if only in a small way, can dramatically impact the things you’ll be able to do in your retirement, and if it’s something you’re wanting to do, can take a huge amount of stress off when you’re scraping together a first home deposit. 

But what it really comes down to is free money, and nobody is too good for that.


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