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Interview with Micheal and Mary Kay – American expats living in New Zealand

Updated 10 Mar 2023

Micheal and Mary Kay Kidd are hoteliers. They met 42 years ago at a California guest ranch. He, a bellman and she, a desk clerk, fell in love with the hotel business and each other. They eventually founded a Californian hotel company, renovating hotels. Twenty years ago, their oldest children came to New Zealand as high school exchange students. The Kidds often returned and decided to retire in New Zealand as a new adventure.

About Micheal and Mary Kay

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: We spent most of our lives on Avila Beach, San Luis Obispo, in the Central Coast region of California.

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: We currently live for half the year – New Zealand's summer – in Taupo Bay, a small isolated beach community in the far north of New Zealand, and New Zealand's winters in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. We did that at first because it was difficult to get a retirement visa, but now it's our preferred retirement plan.

Q: When did you move here?
A: We first moved to New Zealand in 2018.

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: Yes. We spent a lot of time in Mexico, but it's the first time we are expats.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: My wife and I moved to New Zealand together.

Q: Reason for moving?
A: We love the country, its people and its beauty, having made many trips over the years, and because of the Trump election and divisions in the USA, we wanted to spend our retirement years in a bit more sane and peaceful place.

Living in New Zealand

Q: What do you enjoy most about Taupo Bay and New Zealand in general?
A: We enjoy the beauty of the country. We often remark, "It's one of the last great places left." The fact that there are only 5 million people means that, other than Auckland and Christchurch, it's still a very rural country.

We live in a very isolated part – 15km off the highway and another 15km to the nearest small town, Mangonui. It's 65km from the nearest town of even moderate size, Kerikeri. So to live on a beach with very few people is a dream come true.

Q: Have you had any low points? What do you miss most about home?
A: Distance from the family is the hardest part, which of course was compounded by Covid, and not being part of our adult kids' lives is the difficult part. Because of the remoteness, we miss restaurants and the theatre and the arts. We are taking a month in Melbourne this year to get our city fix. If it works, it'll be an annual part of our retirement.

Q: Did you experience any difficulties moving to New Zealand?
A: NZ isn't an easy place to retire. The uncertainty of visas at our age became a very daunting task. Unless you have children who are already citizens, immigration is very restrictive on retirees staying beyond a visit. Like most countries, there are ways you can invest and 'pay your way in', though NZ is very cumbersome.

We tried to get Investor 2 Resident Visas, but there were too many restrictions (age and the NZD 3m requirement) that made it nearly impossible even though we had built a home (we bought just a couple of months before the law barring foreign ownership was passed). We could only stay in NZ for three months at a time on our passports, six months per year.

So we found that the Cook Islands (a small group of islands in the South Pacific) allowed us to stay if we built a home there and rented it out for part of the year. In the meantime, we applied and received a temporary retirement visa that allowed us to spend two years in NZ, but with restrictions on entry and a lot of requirements. You had to have invested and keep NZD 750k in New Zealand stocks or bonds, a pension of NZD 60k per year, and very expensive travellers' insurance to fly you home if you became ill. We also had to go through numerous medical and FBI checks.

Because of the uncertainty, we reapplied for the very difficult Investor 2 Visas under my wife's name (the younger of the two of us). It requires more physicals, greater background checks and an NZD 3m investment. The biggest constraint was the 'source funds'. It appears there had been considerable concerns about fraud, so immigration required our funds not to be mixed or borrowed, so we had to sell our last hotel of 30 years in California. That took nearly two and half years, and we had to get an extension. In the meantime, they cancelled the 12-year program. Fortunately, the hotel sold and, after nearly five years of trying, we received our permanent residency.

Q: What are your favourite things to do on the weekend? Any particular places or experiences you'd recommend to fellow expats?
A: In the far north, the water is actually warm (compared to the rest of NZ or California) so we love swimming in the ocean in summer on a barren beach. We still enjoy, after many years, travelling around New Zealand. We've learned the secret is to fly, not drive, so our favourite trips are Auckland, Wellington, Napier, Nelson, Queenstown or Wanaka – great getaways. We fly, then rent a car, rather than drive on NZ's dangerous two-lane highways.

Q: What's the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything especially expensive or cheap in New Zealand?
A: Obviously car petrol is double what we paid in the States, one of the reasons it's often cheaper to fly. But the secret is to use currency exchange. Pay everything, and I mean everything with US credit cards. VISA has great exchange rates (use cards with no foreign exchange fees, like Capital One and Chase Sapphire). By doing so you get an exchange discount on everything you buy (currently 63 cents, so everything you buy in NZ is 37 percent off!)

That makes NZ retirement very affordable… For it to work, you need to have a pension, rental income or dividends in US dollars to pay your credit cards. If you sell your house or business in the States, keep your funds in US dividend stocks and use USD to pay credit card bills. By doing this little trick, everything is 37 percent off. Suddenly everything is on sale!

The other way we use exchange is by moving chunks of savings when the currency moves more than 10 percent either way. For example, a year ago the NZD was 74 US cents. When it dropped to 56 cents, we moved our savings to NZ and got a bonus of 18 percent. That's an incredible return on our money in a down-year stock market. We keep it in NZ dividend stocks until it swings the other way, bring it back to our US stock market portfolio and get another guaranteed 10 percent better exchange. We make as much as we do in the market or pension by doing that one little investment trick. Over the last ten years, it moved 10 percent seven times – every 15 months on average.

Q: What's public transport like in New Zealand?
A: Other than Auckland, non-existent… Get a used hybrid car if you are in Auckland or live in one of the larger towns. Electric cars are the future in NZ, with the price coming down. Join Air New Zealand's frequent traveller newsletters to get limited-availability cheap fares not advertised. It's cheaper than driving and saves days on rather poor roads.

Q: What do you think about the healthcare available in New Zealand? What should expats expect from local doctors and hospitals?
A: Healthcare is a bargain even if as an expat you have to pay for it… At least compared to the USA. Long-term traveller's insurance can be insanely costly. If you get national insurance, routine care is cheap and decent. The problem is if you need or want elective or needed surgery, waits can be extremly long. Don't risk it; pay extra private hospital insurance (think of it as a Medicare supplemental in the States). There are several different plans, and you get surgery in a better private hospital with little waiting time.

If you have an accident in NZ, you're covered whether you're a citizen or not. NZ has a separate national accident insurance scheme that's way better than national health insurance. As a result, doctors and hospitals declare everything an accident because they get paid more and faster.

Q: What's the standard of housing like in New Zealand? 
A: The standard of housing is poor.  We built, but we had to fight with our builder to put better-quality materials in our new home. Rentals are getting harder by the moment for two reasons. Because NZ has passed very tough tenant rights, landlords have either sold their rentals or switched to Airbnbs. As a result, there is a national long-term rental shortage. Housing is a big compromise… Foreign ownership laws prohibit ownership until you get permanent residency, and then after a year's wait, you can buy like a local.

Q: Any areas or suburbs you'd recommend for expats to live in?
A: I like the smaller cities – Nelson, Wellington, Wanaka, Napier, Kerikeri and Manaka – over the big three. Christchurch, Hamilton and Auckland have all grown too fast and have limited infrastructure. In rural areas, think Montana. You buy, freeze it and cook it at home.

Meeting people and making friends in New Zealand

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: NZ residents are very friendly on a casual basis, but they will not be close friends. That's reserved for high school mates and some work friends. Interestingly, our closest friends are gay and lesbian couples and expats who married Kiwis.

The exception is in the Cook Islands. All our close friends there are expat Kiwis, Aussies and Brits on three-year contracts.

Q: Have you made friends with locals, or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
A: Making friends with locals is difficult. Read up on 'tall poppy syndrome'. It's real… You will be resented if you have a nice home or drive a nice car.

Family and children

Q: How has your partner adjusted to your new home?
A: My wife has always made friends easily, but in NZ she has a lot of casual friends but no real ones other than our gay friends. In the Cook Islands, she has a tribe.

Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for them during the move?
A: My California surfer-skater son was a celebrity in high school, but got a very poor education. Our daughter, a much better student, was a year or two ahead of her classmates at a good NZ high school. She enjoyed her year but was behind when she returned to the States.

Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in the city?
A: The outdoors is incredible.

Q: What are the schools like; any particular suggestions?
A: Kiwis that can afford it go to private schools.

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to New Zealand?
A: As I mentioned, read about the 'tall poppy'. It's real. Kiwis have inferiority complexes – they are wonderful people at heart but insecure. In the States, we talk very openly about money, jobs, buying homes. Don't. And don't ever pick up a check ever or pay an even share even if you didn't drink… You're insulting them by paying more than just your bill. If you are invited to go shopping, treat it as a scouting trip. Don't buy. Again, you insult by comparison.

If you get invited to any event, go. If you don't, the person who invited you will be offended, as they will feel you turned down the invitation because you are too good for them. Show up, bring some booze or a plate (pot lucks expected), but go! Drinking… Even if you don't drink alcohol, never walk around empty-handed… again, they might assume you are 'too good' to drink with them. If invited to go fishing, go. It's another insult to turn them down. It's religion.

All important: just because they look like European Americans doesn't mean their culture isn't very different.

Vacations, time off work? Americans work too much… Kiwis don't get ahead because they don't work enough. If you're working too hard, expect to be critiqued by peers. If you are happy with less and want more time for family and leisure, then in NZ you've found heaven. None of this is saying one lifestyle is better, just different priorities. If you're retired and have US dollars, you found heaven. Enjoy.

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