Living in NZ: The ultimate post

snow mountains north island - living in nz nzmuse

When I was asked to write a post about life in New Zealand, I kinda thought “how much can there be to know?”

Nonetheless, here is my stab at summing it all up.

By way of context, I am 23 (25 – post updated as of Feb 2014), reside in Auckland, have lived here since I was 8, and am firmly working/middle class. Bear that in mind as your frame of reference.

Business/employment/work in NZ

We still largely rely on commodities – primary is a huge pillar of the economy. We’re also good at food production and science and tech/hi-tech, health and have some great web businesses (though often they head overseas or are sold to overseas companies).

It’s easy and cheap to start a business here, though we don’t yet have much of an entrepreneurial ecosystem – connectedness is something we  need to work on. That’s slooooowly starting to change. Startup weekends have arrived here. It seems like incubators, accelerators, economic development agencies, and entrepreneurs starting to work together more. And there are more business/startup competitions popping up – the BNZ/Webstock Startup Alley, the BNZ/Virgin challenge, the government’s Business Plan competition, the GO UK business plan competition, etc.

We have a few great success stories but we need more innovation and more risk taking. And there’s definitely consensus that many don’t dream big enough – once you’ve got the bach (holiday house), boat and Beamer (BMW) that’s where we stop. On the flipside, work-life balance is prized by a lot of us here. It’s said a lot of our startups are taken aback by the 24/7 nature of Silicon Valley when they get there.

There’s plenty of talk about lack of capital, though I’ve talked to some who say investors are very risk averse, forcing them to look overseas for cash. On the other hand another view is that if you’re amazing enough, money is never an issue. There’s the NZVIF (which just set up a new tech fund with help from Peter Thiel), the national angel association, Ice Angels and other investment groups (Sparkbox, No 8 Ventures, Southgate Labs, Movac, Angel HQ, Powerhouse Ventures, and more). See here and here for a little more on funding – but there’s a lot of bootstrapping and a lot of mortgaging the house.

There was the Knowledge Wave and the likes of the late Sir Paul Callaghan advocating for an economy increasingly weighted toward weightless exports driven by science and technology, but progress is slow. See here, here, here, here and here.

At the government level we’ve gone from the ministry of research, science and technology to the ministry of science and innovation and now to the ministry of business, innovation and employment. With any luck the proposed Wynyard Innovation Centre on the Auckland waterfront will go ahead, providing a business hub.

There are some large companies, Telecom, Fonterra, the banks, etc; but most businesses are SMEs.

Migrants have it tough. Employers want NZ experience and aren’t keen to take risks on outsiders (as above, they’re often very small businesses). Except, apparently, at the highest exec levels – the men (almost always men) running the biggest companies are often shipped in from abroad.

Environment in NZ

I’m thankful New Zealand is a relatively safe place to live. We don’t get bushfires and floods like in Australia or hurricanes like the US. We don’t have scary animals that will kill you. The Christchurch earthquake was unprecedented. The mid-lower North Island does get frequent mild quakes, however.

In Auckland, the worst you’ll get is rainstorms and the odd random water spout. The heat isn’t extreme – summer is usually in the 20s (Celsius, obviously). We don’t get snow; that’s restricted mainly to the South Island and at heights in the North Island – ie Mt Ruapehu. We all got exceedingly excited last winter when Auckland experienced new low temperatures and, apparently, the first “snow” in decades. Here, I present a photo of what said snow looked like in our carpark at work:

Okay, so no snow, and no tornadoes. What do we have?

Well, everything – lakes, mountains, islands, snow, beaches, bush. You are never far from the coast, we have dormant volcanoes scattered all around the city – Mt Albert, Mt Eden, One Tree Hill etc – so usually you’re not far from one of those little hilly paradises. There are parks everywhere – so much greenery! We have amazing beaches both in Auckland and around the country, and great skiing further south. Everything! Diving! Jetboating! Sailing! Bungy! Skydiving! Snorkelling! Tramping! You name it!

(See herehere and here for a few examples of stunning scenery.)

Most of the country is still largely rural with that oh-so-charming farm smell. Lots of small towns are very white and/or Maori. I got a fair few stares in Whakatane along with my Indian classmate on a field trip there, and encountered surprise from T’s family in Thames upon seeing me for the first time (nothing to my face, but he hilariously recounted their reaction privately to me later on). Oh, and Maori is everywhere, especially out of the cities. A lot of place names (the ones that sound most alien to you, probably) are Maori.

Our roads are narrow and curvy, which can be a shock for some. Driving the Pacific Coast highway in California, for example is nothing for a Kiwi.

And we have basically no ozone layer, so you may get sunburnt in a matter of minutes. Watch out.

Culture in NZ

There’s a huge drinking culture. A huge weed culture. A huge culture of thoughtless driving, though by international standards it’s not really all that bad (I do my bit by staying off the roads as much as possible).

On the plus side, I hear we have amazing coffee (I don’t drink coffee so can’t comment). I love the kiwi accent, but I admit it can be hard to understand. People are pretty friendly. Perhaps not so much in Auckland; it can be hard to make friends. On the other hand, it is very multicultural and we have some seriously amazing Indian and Asian food. Not so much when it comes to other cuisines – guess it’s a measure of distance. On the other other hand, you can’t beat Wellington for being vibrant, colourful, artsy, inspiring, compact and walkable. You’ll need to like the wind, though.

Our media are pretty parochial; you’d be surprised at what is front-page news, most likely. Radio, online, print and TV are dominated by 2-3 players, and as Seth Kugel notes, we still love our broadsheets, though we do have our tabloids too. And we have a butt ton of magazines – there’s one for every niche. And he’s right; there’s lots of walking around barefoot, no tipping (though many restaurants increasingly try to encourage it) and price tags are honest. No extras slapped on at the till.

There’s also definitely a bit of tall poppy syndrome. We’re pretty self deprecating, but defensive of NZ (as I imagine most people are about their own country – I can talk shit about my mother, but you can’t – that kind of thing).

Money in NZ

Here’s an understatement: housing is expensive. We have an obsession with property, as well as a housing shortage (especially in Christchurch since the quakes). The average house price? More than 6 times average income. Interest rates are high, which is good for savers, and obviously, bad for borrowers.

There is no way we can afford to buy in central Auckland; we will be forced further out (we’ll be going west).

We currently pay $280 a week for a one bedroom with two-hob gas burner (no full kitchen). Before that, we paid $320 a week for a two bedroom place although the second room is barely deserving of the title ‘study’ or ‘office’ and we certainly couldn’t rent it out. We have a single garage, deck and huge yard. Before that we paid $250 (later $280) for an apartment -type dwelling on the bottom floor of our LL’s house (bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, no lounge).

Apartment living isn’t big here; houses are the norm. While fixed-term leases are getting more common, periodic (open-ended) tenancies still exist. To move into a place, you’ll have to pay up to four weeks’ bond (held by the Department of Building and Housing), up to two weeks’ rent ahead, and if through an agent, a week’s rent plus GST to the property manager as a letting fee (rare these days is the private landlord who does their own letting)Rent is usually paid weekly, by auto-payment (cheques are basically extinct, and we’re pretty advanced in regard to EFTPOS and electronic banking and that kind of thing).

What most people do is rent a room in a house (could be anywhere from $100-300 a week depending on area). General market rents can be found here, although I caution that the reality is actually higher, especially in Auckland. Oh, and if you have pets? Good luck. Nobody will rent to you (the odds are very, very, very low). If you want animals, buy a house.

Houses themselves…steel yourself for lack of insulation. I can tell you all about damp, mould and being able to see my own breath in front of me in my bedroom. Every time we’ve been house hunting, I’ve sunk into a fresh state of depression. The state of some of these places is unbelievable and downright unliveable. There’s lots of awful shabby stock, though new houses can be just as bad as old, because we had a huge problem with leaky homes and new construction not long ago.

In Auckland, we tend to be snobbish about what areas we live in and it’s tough to get around without a car (though we get by with just one car).

Speaking of … Cars are expensive. Car registration is pricey ($300 plus for a year) and motorbikes even more so. Insurance, too (more than $1k a year for full coverage for our 1998 car, worth $5-6k. Downgrading that next renewal). Petrol is now $2.20 a litre.

Wages tend to be low; taxes run from 10.5% to 33%. Getting paid weekly is quite common, especially in more blue collar industries, and government/student benefits are paid weekly. We get four weeks of annual leave every year and our retirement scheme, Kiwisaver (recently introduced) is optional – if you are enrolled, your employer has to chip in and the government puts in a little every year as well. It’s common for people to take off overseas (usually the UK, sometimes Australia) shortly after graduation to spend a few years abroad working and travelling.

Healthcare won’t bankrupt you here, nor will education. The ER is free; subsidised prescriptions are $5; and while I haven’t been to a doctor since uni (where it was either free or extremely cheap) I suppose at $40ish a pop it could be worse. There are no financial barriers, technically, to getting a university education – government student loans are available to all and if you don’t qualify for a student allowance you can borrow a certain amount for living costs (which I wouldn’t recommend…)

Food, on the other hand… I used to get frustrated with comments on my grocery posts. No, I can’t cut costs any lower. Yes, this is what food costs. I shop at the cheapest supermarket, and try to get to the butcher and grocer separately. Let’s go over a few supermarket staples (ranges vary based on season/brand/sales)

  • onions/potatoes – from $2 a kilo
  • pasta – from $1 for a 500g bag
  • bananas – $2-$4 a kg
  • capsicums – $1-$4 each
  • cucumber – $1-$3 each
  • tomatoes – $2-$8 a kg
  • grapes – $4-$10 a kg
  • spring onions (not even proper food! A garnish!) $1 to $3
  • bread – $2 to, I don’t know, $6?
  • milk – from $3.50 for two litres
  • flour/sugar – from $2 a kilo
  • eggs – $4 or so for a dozen

There are great local farmer’s markets, and also lots of Asian grocery shops, thankfully.

When I first started working at a cafe in high school, a basic flat white cost about $3.50. Now coffees are closer to $5. Expect to pay $15-20 for brunch/breakfast out. At Subway, the six-inch sub of the day is $5 and meals at McDonalds and the like are around $8ish. A beer in town will be close to $10, a cocktail closer to $20. We do have good bakeries and fish and chip shops, amazing seafood depending on where you are and our dairy is second to none. And if you can find a good pie these days, well, then you’ve just experienced a key slice of kiwi life. We have a ton of great Asian food but no good Mexican food (sadface). And while you can get pizza delivered, food delivery overall is not very common here.

What else? Clothes are expensive and poor quality. Electronics are expensive. Well, everything, really, as we’re so far away from everywhere else and don’t make any of this ourselves. We have horribly slow internet (even Stephen Fry says so) though at least unlimited internet plans have finally arrived; mobile calls and data are expensive, hence texting still rules.

Anything I’ve missed?

21 thoughts on “Living in NZ: The ultimate post

  1. Such a fantastic post with some gritty insight! It kinda ruins my vision of Auckland and NZ as paradise, but that’s OK!

    What’s the per capita GDP there, and how’s your Kiwi accent going? Do you think you can speak in a passable American accent if the secret service recruited you? :)

    Sam

  2. Great round-up. Though I’ll add that accommodation down here in Christchurch isn’t nearly as bad as Auckland – and so far I haven’t noticed too much of a price increase, despite what the papers keep telling us (though perhaps that’s because tend to look in the lower-mid quartile range?). Rents have been pretty stagnant since I started flatting around 7 years ago. 2 bedroom units/flats are generally around $250pw, with 3-bedroom houses starting at $300pw.

    A decent 3 bedroom “starter house”( freehold, 550 – 750m2? section) goes for around $250,000 – though I snapped mine up for just under $200,000 because there’s bugger all land, needs cosmetic work, on a busy road and it’s a cross-lease.

  3. Gah I went to type out a comment on my phone and it got ate…

    Anyways, what I was going to say is that sounds a lot like Canada. That’s about what McDonalds, Subway and beers run here. Housing prices are also high here, especially in BC. I’m constantly shocked by the kinds of houses my US friends are buying for the same price – or less – as our tiny townhouse. I pay about $2.50 for a regular ‘ole coffee (unless it’s at Tim Hortons) and maybe $8 – $12 for cocktails depending on what they are. I think we have access to better quality / priced clothing here because of our proximity to the US but I’m still often shocked at the amount we pay up here vs. what they pay in the USA. I ran into that with bridesmaid dresses. The exact same dress was $280 in BC and $150 in the states and our dollar was pretty much par too. Ridiculous.

    Great post, very informative!

  4. Neato–I had no idea about the first quarter of the post (the business section).

    I’d say (as an outdoorsy person) it’s important to add that NZ has everything you’d ever want to do, if you can get the right weather. There are NO snakes here, nor poisonous spiders, nor poisonous plants. HUGE PLUSES!

    But Auckland isn’t that safe–we live directly atop an active volcanic field!! And there was an eruption at Ruapehu in 1995-6 during ski season! We are at risk from tsunamis (the Japan disaster could easily happen here), there are dozens of volcanoes all around, and we are earthquake central, particularly on the S. Island. It is scary stuff but otherwise, NZ is relatively safe from natural disasters and scary bite-y things.

    Also, I think the cheese is absolutely awful here, and it is crazy expensive. No sharp cheddar to speak of–Tasty, Edam, Gouda, Mild–it all tastes the same to me!

  5. I had a great time when I visited the North Island a few years ago. The groceries were expensive, but I love the relaxed vibe of the whole country (outside of Auckland.)
    Thanks for the nitty gritty. I guess being a tourist is different than living there. I wouldn’t mind an extended visit, maybe a year or two would be great.

  6. New Zealand seems like such an amazing place to be. Haven’t been down there, but it’s a must-see place before I die. P.S. Had no idea the housing stock was so bad — and for those prices!

    1. I honestly couldn’t say. My uneducated guess would be – we have quite a macho culture, we didn’t have Prohibition and we have liquor stores all over the place.

  7. Love this blog post.

    My wife lived there for years (South Island and the Bay of Plenty). Always wanted to go but I never figured that the grocery prices would be so high!

    We live on Vancouver Island and the prices are high for food but not like that.

    Every kiwi I know reckons that their is a lot of drinking down there.

    She misses the fresh seafood and the friendly people!

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