Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell: 'Women need to get tough about money'

The former single mum believes many women still fall short when it comes to financial responsibility - despite all our achievements juggling career and family.

By Nicola Russell
On the day she was supposed to return to her partnership role in a top advertising firm in London, Diane Maxwell was standing on Franz Josef Glacier, about to return to a backpacker hostel and drink cheap wine.
Being away from London, where she’d work all day, entertain clients at night and had become used to a life in which being flown to Paris for lunch and the French Open was normal, she had found perspective again. That was 16 years ago – and what was meant to be a holiday in New Zealand became a life here.
Animated, vibrantly dressed and a keen longboarder (think long skateboard), Diane is not what you might expect in a Retirement Commissioner. She’s known hardship growing up, and then again as a single mum in her 30s, and she’s also been frivolous with money when in her high-flying advertising career.
In her four years as Commissioner she’s introduced a fresh approach to the role, changed the name from The Retirement Commission to The Commission for Financial Capability and used her advertising background to change the way people think about saving for retirement in New Zealand.
The name change reflects her focus, which she says is 80 per cent about building financial capability throughout life, rather than just for retirement.
“One of the main things I have done in this role is I have translated finance into English – we are taking the jargon out of it and we are making it interesting. Most of our work is with people under 60 – we work a lot with schools, teenagers and people in their 30s, 40s and 50s and we are doing a lot of work with women.”
Born in New Zealand, Diane lived here until she was 10 before moving to London with her parents. She doesn’t want to say much about her childhood; just that her family moved constantly and money was scarce. She started working part-time at 13 and didn’t stop – from washing hair in a hairdressing salon to selling hot cross buns in a rabbit suit. She got through university by working relentlessly during the holidays: cooking during the day at a restaurant and working into the night at a nightclub.
At university, she studied philosophy, propaganda and psychology – in a nutshell, learning about the human brain and decision-making. Initially, she says, she used those “powers for evil” and landed a job in a top London advertising firm as a consumer strategist. She planned to be in advertising for six months but became a high-powered, high-rolling executive and remained in the game for 15 years.
When she moved back to New Zealand at 32 (forfeiting her share in her London advertising agency) she was headhunted by a top Auckland advertising firm, but didn’t stay there long. The concepts she’d been working with in London hadn’t reached New Zealand and she was met with resistance when she tried to introduce them.
So she became a consultant (more flexibility, better money), which included working with banks. That’s when she discovered her love of finance. She moved into retail banking at BNZ, became the Regulator at the Financial Markets Authority and then assumed her current role as Retirement Commissioner.
She admits that while her childhood resulted in a tenacity to work hard, it didn’t make her financially responsible – she earned big during her 20s but also spent big, and when she became a single mum in her 30s and had to tone down her career, she cursed herself for not putting enough away.
When daughter Jamie, now 15, was born, Diane decided to work less, sell her house and “burn through her savings” to make up the shortfall. She’s glad she made the decision to be at home with Jamie, who has ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), but she does regret not building a nest egg for herself in her 20s when she could.
“We had some really stressful times financially, and while I had made that choice, I had those 3am moments of ‘how the hell am I going to pay for things?’ What annoyed me most was I’d earned so much money for so long and I had nothing to show for it – I had spent it, spent it, spent it and that was because I kinda wasn’t driven by money – I had always earned good money and knew I could get a job, and I thought it would always come in.”
Diane says she often hears similar attitudes from women, who tell her money is just not important to them. So she has set up events targeted specifically at women, which are relevant to them and show what money can do for them.
“When I talk about women getting financially sorted I am not talking about aspiring to owning yachts, although they are welcome to; I am talking about the kind of financially sorted where you sleep well at night because you know you have a buffer, you have got savings, and if the shit hit the fan you could deal to it.
“Having money aside as a buffer means you can kick out a bloke who is bad for you, make choices about jobs and your life partner and where you live – and all of that matters.
Diane with daughter Jamie. After being a solo mum with Jamie for several years, Diane met her husband, Mariota Smutz.
“In my 20s I had never read anything about money that seemed relevant to me because so much stuff is written by men in men’s language. A lot of what we are doing now is translating it. I wish someone had said to me then, ‘Put enough away so that you can have your own home and you can make the choices you need to make in tough times.’ That would have got through.”
While her daughter is now thriving, ahead two years at school and with a talent for special-effects make-up, Diane says raising Jamie alone for years wasn’t easy. Her family lives in the UK and Jamie’s father lives in Gisborne and has her four weeks a year. The rest she has done on her own.
Diane returned to work at BNZ when Jamie was five, where she was the head of nine business units. She remembers the work-life juggle well.
“We had so many crazy moments. I’d drop her at school and she would say, ‘Mum, you have to come back for sports day,’ and I would drive to the bus stop, get the bus to town, have a meeting about core funding ratios, leap up to get the bus back to the car, drive to school and race to sports day in my suit and heels.
“When you think of single parents you tend to think of someone who is on a benefit raising kids, but there is an army of single mums in New Zealand who are working big jobs, and you don’t tend to be talked about as much.”
She says because so many mums are busy, it is common to focus on what’s imminent, with little time to focus on their financial future.
“There is a lot of research that shows women are really good at day-to-day budgeting but they are not as good at the long-term financial planning. We are too busy raising children and doing all the things we do – working, housework, juggling, juggling, juggling – so we make it through today, we make it through tomorrow, but we don’t think about 10 years. Men are more likely to think about 10 years.
“The saddest stuff we get is the women who have been single mums and have spent a lifetime raising their kids and worked hard every day… and suddenly we look up and we are 45 and the kids are leaving home and we go, ‘What about me? I have got nothing.’ I get a lot of people writing and telling me that.
“The really hard thing is that by the time you have done a day’s work, picked the kids up and done the bath, dinner and bed routine – are you going to sit down and do a 10-year plan?”
She says the commission is encouraging women to make time for themselves to focus on finances. This month they will launch a social media campaign that urges women to take an hour out on July 30 to plan for their financial future. Diane will issue a letter online for women to print out and present to their family that will have instructions not to bother them during that time.
The women will then be able to fill in an online quiz about their current situation, which will point them in the direction of more information and tools to help them get their future sorted. The Commission will also have a team of experts standing by – live online – to answer any questions they may have.
“It’s about taking a step back. Forget about today, forget about next week, forget about the phone bill. Ask yourself, ‘Where do I want to be in 10 years and how will that change what I do today? Am I putting enough into Kiwisaver? Do I have Kiwisaver? Do I have the right fund? Am I saving anything? Am I going up or down? Do I want to be a homeowner?’ That’s what we don’t do enough.
“Many women will sit in the hairdresser’s chair for a couple of hours every few months and invest in their hair so I say, ‘Think about the time and money you would spend on your hair in a given year, save 10 per cent of that and you could be much better off.”
The financial research is grim for women, who generally reach retirement with less money than men, live longer and are more likely to be single.
“While it is a generalisation, women’s financial capability through all the research we have got is lower than men’s. That is because women say things like, ‘I can’t do this stuff.’ They grow up being told they can’t do this stuff, so it’s partly a confidence issue.
“I would like women to get a bit fiercer about money – I would love them to get bolder. I would love them to sit in front of a banker or an advisor and go, ‘I do not understand what on earth you are talking about, and I am going to sit here until I do, and last time I looked I was the client and it is your job to put it in English for me.’ I would love women to be tougher on the financial services sector.”
She wants them to ask for what they deserve.
“One of the reasons women have less money is they earn less, and sometimes they earn less doing the same job. Part of that is women don’t ask for a pay rise and part of it is women don’t think money matters as much.”
Our strengths as women can be our weakness. Diane says we are too quick to make the best of bad circumstances.
“When women find themselves in a hole, they tend to plant flowers and make it look like the most beautiful hole they have ever lived in. If men find themselves in a hole they will tend to dig their way out. If women don’t have enough money coming in, all our work suggests they will cut their costs or expenses, whereas men will look for new revenue streams – so the problem is sometimes we are really good at making bad situations good, when we should be saying, ‘I won’t accept this.’”
Women also need to protect themselves around the money they do have.
“What I say fiercely to women is, ‘If you get into a relationship, get a Relationship Property Agreement [RPA].’ It will cost you about $1000 – invest the money. Women in their 40s and 50s, who have either been on their own for a long time or come out of a marriage and then fall in love… it’s all overwhelming and wonderful, but within three years [if they break up] he gets half – half of your Kiwisaver, half of your house, half of savings.
“The problem is women don’t like to sit down, get the calculator out and get a bit hard-core when we are in love – but if anybody you meet is resistant to an RPA, get a bit tough on them. Say, ‘I am looking after myself; if you love me, you would want me to look after myself.’”
Diane, now 50, met her husband, Mariota Smutz (a 41-year-old regional advisor for the NZ Transport Agency), seven years ago in parliament, where they had both been invited as part of their roles in government. She was Commissioner, he a chief adviser at Auckland Regional Health.
The chemistry was immediate, but they spent two years as friends – she would not let him into the house until after that time.
“I had been a single parent for five or six years before then and you get really wary of bringing people into their [your children’s] lives. I wanted to protect that but then after two years you go, well, he is not exactly fly-by-night is he?”
Diane and husband Mariota – they spent two years as friends before becoming a couple.
A couple of years later the couple welcomed baby Harrison, now aged five. She was in her 40s, and hadn’t planned to have a baby but says they were both “open to it”.
She says having a baby later in life was easier than doing it as a single mum.
“I was on my own with Jamie for so long and the fact that there are four of us this time makes things so much easier.”
Despite (or because of) being in big jobs, Diane and Mariota have maintained their sense of fun. Their longboards hang above the couch in their living room, doubling as art when not in use.
“You have children and you get a lot more serious, so we just made a decision as a couple that we were going to make time to do the things we love.”
So when her last toy – a Kawasaki 500 – was sold, they got the longboards.
“I didn’t want to get a new motorbike and we both really wanted to try longboarding, and so we said, ‘Right, let’s do it,’ and I love it! I always wear a helmet and pads because I don’t want to hit my head or break my arms. I need them. It is fantastic – at night-time in the summer we would jump in the car with our longboards and then drive around finding places to board. There is a carpark at the train station that has a really good slope!”
Her son Harrison’s arrival made them a family of four, which Diane says is “much easier”.
Diane is about a year into her second three-year term at the Commission and is considering her next step.
“I could go back into banking and earn some decent money but over the years I have thought more and more about going into politics – you do a job like this one because you believe in what you can do and I have the determination to do it. Nobody works in these jobs to chase the money, so you make a decision.”
What party would she join?
“In the US, after that revolting election, lots of groups started trying to encourage women into politics; what they are saying is politics is moving into a different space and it’s no longer extreme debates about left or right – so it would depend on where the parties are.”
She worries there are not enough people going into politics because of the personal vitriol that comes their way – something she has experienced as Commissioner.
“Being in the public eye is hard,” she says. “I have people email me daily with some quite nasty stuff. Sometimes it’s funny – someone told me my watch was too big, I was wearing a man’s jacket and they didn’t like my glasses. Sometimes it’s vicious.”
But it will take more than that to bully Diane Maxwell out of doing something she wants to do.
“I kinda just don’t care. Frankly, if you can sell hot cross buns in a rabbit suit you can do anything!”

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