25th anniversary of this column!
Over more than a thousand weekends — or sometimes Monday mornings — I’ve opened my email inbox with a sense of anticipation.
Who’s going to write this week about my latest column? Will they be angry, amused, confused? Have they got extra insights, or further questions? Then come other emails — or in the early days sometimes handwritten letters — about new topics.
It’s this flow of inspiring, worrying, or intriguing thoughts from readers that have given me the energy to churn out columns year after year, for 25 years. In all, there have been more than two million words, and a good portion of those have been your words, not mine.
The First Q&As
People sometimes assume some letters are made up. Not even the first ones were — I asked friends and acquaintances to contribute. Since then, there have been far more than enough real letters.
The first, 18 April 1998, column included three Q&As — it was shorter then. I started with someone who was seeking investments with 50 per cent returns! The second, contrasting, letter was from a conservative investor who needed nudging towards more risk. The third asked why the new BankDirect — ASB’s early foray into online banking — wouldn’t let under-18s open bank accounts.
Too much risk. Too little risk. Complaining about banks. Not a lot has changed. This was long before KiwiSaver, but back then I was suggesting unit trusts — which are similar to KiwiSaver funds but without contributions from employers and the government.
One interesting difference. The first correspondent was saving for a house deposit of $30,000 to $75,000. Multiply those numbers by ten these days!
Sometimes the column community has discussed an issue for weeks. A few years back, capital gains tax was aired from every angle imaginable. How NZ Super interacts with overseas pensions has been thrashed. Landlords and share investors have often differed over which is better.
Scams and ripoffs pop up every now and then — hopefully before the reader has lost money. If it’s too late, at least others are warned.
Quite often, at Christmas or Mothers’ or Fathers’ Day, we’ve looked into giving gifts without going broke. Here’s one letter I liked: “For Father’s Day I and my daughter cook a meal together and invite the other fathers and family around. Spending a day in the kitchen with her is one of the best days of the year. Feeding a dozen people for less than $20 shows her how to be creative and good with money. Lasagne this year, yum. No gifts.”
While some readers worry that they spend too much, others spend too little. In response to people’s reluctance to spend on travel early in their retirement, one reader told how he and his wife had travelled far and wide for 17 years — and after her death how glad he was that they had done that.
We’ve been through a few market downturns, with readers panicking and me urging them not to switch from higher-risk funds, or sell their shares, as their balances dropped. Some people had already moved. I hope they learnt, for next time, to stay the course.
And the classic questions — where house prices are going (“I don’t know”) and where share prices are going (“I don’t know”) — keep popping up. The trick is to invest so short-term movements don’t really matter.
Another topic that will never go away is active versus passive (or index) share funds. I’ve been recommending low-fee index funds since I first learnt about them in Chicago in the 1970s. Slowly but surely, they have become more and more popular around the world.
Weird and Wondeful
Then there have been the more unusual topics for a financial column: private versus state schools, religion versus atheism, safety braces on stepladders, even the angle of a young woman’s foot in a photo. Also: cleaning up a property used as a P lab, sadness that arose from a young prostitute’s letter, growing your own veggies, and many relationship issues between partners or parents and children.
How about medical advice? After a reader mentioned that she suffered from arthritis, another reader wrote: “Many years ago my late eldest sister was treating her disabling arthritis by consuming two prunes that had soaked in gin for 24 hours.”
Mostly, I’ve been happy to pass on readers’ tips. But I drew the line when a reader with romance in mind wanted an introduction to a correspondent. “Let’s leave the matchmaking to the many websites already doing it,” I replied. “Give one a go, and good luck!”
High and Low Points
A high point was the introduction of KiwiSaver in 2007. For all its flaws, it has made saving much easier for more than 3 million New Zealanders — especially now that everyone, at every age, can join. I’ve written over and over about how to work out your risk level and how to pick a good provider — and still those questions, presumably from newcomers, come in. It’s a balancing act to decide how often to repeat the basic messages. I just hope the wonderful long-term readers bear with me when I try to help newcomers.
Other high points have been when readers reported how the column had helped them. One realised she should have been receiving a higher pension. She got the “pay rise” — and arrears. And after I encouraged a couple to buy a holiday home in Italy, they reported back months later how happy they were with that decision.
Low points? There haven’t been many. Years ago, an American man — who was promoting an “investment” — threatened to sue me and the Herald for libel. As so often happens, the practical solution was to run a grovelling apology. I hated it, but that’s life.
But most angry letters have been fine. I run them, and point out their wrong thinking — or apologise. I well remember being put in my place about family trusts, when a reader with a disabled child said that not all trusts are set up to make well off people wealthier.
Over and over, readers have sent in helpful advice for other readers.
In 2016, a reader offered in-depth information to others about living on a boat. I was able to put several readers in touch with him, including a Waiheke real estate agent, a boat builder about to launch aluminium houseboats, a New Zealand couple who live aboard a boat in England, and another couple in London thinking about living in a houseboat when they return to New Zealand.
Back in 2013, a woman wrote, “It is with fear, trepidation and shame I write to you. I am quite lost.” The family business had failed, and her husband was struggling to find work. A flood of readers sent suggestions, and at the end of the year she wrote again. “Thank you for your kind consideration to print and then send on some of the responses. I sit here gulping back the tears because if nothing else I feel less lonely than I was when writing…. The simple act of writing to you focussed me, and with that I shall spend more time thinking of practical solutions rather than swilling in despair. Thank you again.” That thanks goes to everyone who wrote.
Sometimes a reader has done more than write a letter. In early 2022 a man wrote that he couldn’t get a bank loan to help with his Covid-hit tourism business. Another reader wrote, “I am an immigrant, came here in 1985, and a 1/4th owner of two businesses…I would be willing to help with an interest-free loan while they look at options etc.” The loan happened.
Battle of the Generations
There’s been a bit of this. Sometimes it’s the young taking potshots at the old. More often — probably because they are retired and have more time — the old take potshots at the young. Issues have included whether everyone should get NZ Super, house prices and mortgage rates in different decades, and attitudes towards saving.
It’s a pity when it gets angry. But quite often it’s fun. I loved one reader reporting that a young professional couple “wanted my bank account number to start rent payments. I pulled my chequebook out to get a deposit slip from the back. They were amazed to see a chequebook and wanted to know what it was.”
A reader once objected to my saying the government pays for something. It should be “the taxpayer pays” I was told.
Another objected to NZ Super deposits being labelled “welfare” on their bank statement. And, in a different year, someone objected to superannuitants being called beneficiaries.
One reader didn’t like my use of “rule of thumb”. “It comes from the law that you could beat your wife with a stick no wider than your thumb — definitely a term to banish please.” But then another wrote, “I am an Ancient Briton, and many years ago my woodwork teacher taught me that if you do not have a rule handy you can take the width of the top joint of your thumb as one inch to make a rough estimate. That’s at least as likely as the wife-beating theory! So just carry on.” I did.
There have been battles over grammar. When to use “I” and when to use “me”. Whether it’s okay to start a sentence with “And” or “But”. And probably whether it’s okay to use “okay”.
Last year a reader objected to the use of the Maori words “kai” and “Aotearoa” in quotes in my reply. I’ve never before had as big a response from other readers — the vast majority appalled at his attitude.
There’s been heaps.
A reader wrote that, despite being wealthy, he couldn’t get himself to buy more expensive beer, and was reluctant to take his wife out for dinner. I urged him to be more generous with himself and her. The following week we heard from him again. “My wife read your column on Saturday, pointed it out to me and said, ‘Golly there are other people out there just like you!’ I came clean. She thought it was great. That night we drank a bottle of bubbly the family gave her for Mother’s Day. No cost to me.” And, I might add, no hope for him!
In one letter, we learnt that boys working in the holidays in a Mangere Bridge market garden in the 1970s earned 35¢ an hour, while girls earned 25 cents. I asked the reader if the boys worked harder. His reply: “My friend invented a speedier way to weed tomatoes. He pulled everything in the 50-metre row out, then put the toms back in. The fruit may have come out smaller and fewer, but very flavoursome I’m sure.”
Another reader’s reminiscence went like this: “Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s when I worked for a brewery in Wellington we used to have the AGMs at the Hotel St George, along with the company’s fine products being served with afternoon teas. A lot of the shareholders drank too much and had to be lined up along the wall outside the hotel to sober up!”
There was the story of a girl who received a refund cheque from Inland Revenue for 4 cents, followed by a man who received a 1 cent IRD cheque — now framed and hanging in his dining room.
Then from one reader, who often wrote rather angry letters, came this: “I was absolutely appalled that you used the totally misleading and erroneous example of Mt Albert as an exemplar in your last column — 30 per cent house price drop etc….If I sound a little more aggrieved than in my other communications with you — that is because I am!!!” (with three exclamation marks).
Really? I pointed out in the column that his earlier published emails included these shots at me: “Amazing that you can talk about unbiased experts without recognising that you yourself are one of the most biased.” “What about a bit of intellectual honesty?” and “Your column on Saturday left me breathless for its utter hypocrisy, even by your standards.”
Next week he sent this: “Thanks for repeating my ‘one liners’ back to me. That’ll teach me (fat chance?) to be more temperate in my comments. I did have a good laugh (at my expense) when I read them BTW.”
Just recently a reader proved that my column could be written by a computer — competently if a bit boringly — using ChatGPT to reply to a question. Rosie Robot replied that she is already writing the column!
Over the quarter century, the Herald has had several business editors since Rod Oram first proposed the column. But the people who have mattered more to me have been the subeditors — who critically read the column, find a suitable illustration, lay out the page and write the headline. Many a time a good sub has saved me by pointing out an error. Anthony Doesburg and Mark Fryer — yes the same man that poses those tricky questions in the Canvas quiz — have been particularly helpful. Thanks guys.
Thanks, too, to all the experts and spokespersons who have given me info over the years. And a special thanks to the thousands of people who have written to the column, including the majority whose letters didn’t make it into the paper. Without you…
Last week I asked readers to send in their stories of how this column — not just me but readers and experts — have helped them over the years. Thanks so much for the big response. There are too many great letters to run them all today, but I will publish some more of them over the weeks to come. And all the published readers will receive one of my recent books, if requested.
Some people wrote about their financial journey but not really how this column affected it. But their stories are good, so many of those will also feature among future Q&As.
QI’ve been reading your column for about 20 years. I’ve taken on board “Save for a rainy day” and “Don’t get into consumer debt.”
We’re now mid-fifties and we only work a few months of the year thanks to having investments and no debt. We get told often how lucky we are. Not really luck, just setting a path and living within our means for years.
- Any money you need to spend in 1–3 years in cash or a cash fund.
- Any money you need to spend in 4–10 years in a conservative fund.
- Any money you don’t need in that time in a growth fund.
- KiwiSaver is awesome.
Motto “Stick to the plan and enjoy the ride.” It’s worked a treat since I started reading your column 25 years ago.
AYou’ve got it! My only modification: 4 to 10-year money could be in a somewhat riskier balanced fund or bond fund.
QHi Rosie Robot!
Congratulations on achieving twenty-five years of offering ideas and opinions to us mere mortals!
Recent Q&As relating to laddering bring to mind that at one stage I was laddering at monthly intervals, due to the low interest we were getting at the time. Two reasons: One, be ready to re-invest when/if interest rates increased, and two, at my age (82), I could have ready cash when required.
I found it to be very convenient for my purposes.
Thank you Mary, may you continue with your column for another twenty-five.
Warm regards, Roger Robot. P.S. Incidentally, can robots marry?
AIf you’re flirting with Rosie, take care. She can be cold-hearted.
QI am 18. Every Saturday, my father reads highlights from your column. Here is what I have learnt and actioned over the years.
The first shares I invested through my parents were new energy shares. My parents invested, so I thought, why not me? At 8, equipped with an IRD number, I set out to buy my first shares. You have said: the earlier you start investing, the better. My aim is to invest long term.
I have since heeded your other advice — diversify. It is mainly ETFs (exchange traded funds) via Sharesies now.
Two other important messages: Don’t panic and sell when the prices are down (that’s hard to do), and use “dollar cost averaging”. Whether 16 and still at school with a part-time job or now with a full-time job while pursuing tertiary education, I use the dollar cost averaging method to invest.
I put in hours of hard work. My father reminds me: LUCK. stands for Labouring Under Correct Knowledge. Your columns should be made mandatory reading at schools.
AYou’re off to a great start.
QThank you for educating me, finance wise. My education stopped at NZ School Certificate level. Over the years, I’ve read your columns and learned a little about a lot.
Now, when my wife and I have to make an important money decision we inevitably ask: What would Mary Holm say? Would she rebuke us, discourage or encourage us? Surely she’ll say tread carefully. Mostly we’ve got it right.
Thank you for your no-nonsense, forthright and candid advice over all those years. And bless you for educating me.
ARebuking you? Oh dear. I like “discourage” better!
QI am absolutely sure that we have read every one of your columns over the last 25 years! The first 10 as we were heading to retirement, and for the last 15 years, very happily in retirement.
Your advice, looking back over the years, has always seemed sensible, comprehensive and instructive. You’ve never been an up-themselves, academic bean-counter. You’ve always talked to the average person who is trying hard to understand and get ahead.
Diversification, laddering, don’t panic, long term, time-in not timing, index funds, pay down debt etc. etc.
We can say without any doubt all, that we have richly benefited from following your advice. We now have investments out to 2028, mostly in high quality bonds for stability and liquidity, maturing at approximately 6-month intervals, with term deposits filling in the odd gaps.
Our share portfolio has been wonderful over the last 12 years — declining now as interest rates rise — but we are reducing the level of these and are not too concerned, you’ve taught us that!
Thank you for the years, thank you for all the help, thank you being you.
AGosh. You’re too kind. But thanks so much.
No paywalls or ads — just generous people like you. All Kiwis deserve accurate, unbiased financial guidance. So let’s keep it free. Can you help? Every bit makes a difference.
Mary Holm, ONZM, is a freelance journalist, a seminar presenter and a bestselling author on personal finance. She is a director of Financial Services Complaints Ltd (FSCL) and a former director of the Financial Markets Authority. Her opinions are personal, and do not reflect the position of any organisation in which she holds office. Mary’s advice is of a general nature, and she is not responsible for any loss that any reader may suffer from following it. Send questions to [email protected] or click here. Letters should not exceed 200 words. We won’t publish your name. Please provide a (preferably daytime) phone number. Unfortunately, Mary cannot answer all questions, correspond directly with readers, or give financial advice.