Story: Household management

Page 4. The wider world

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Household management also involves dealings with the outside world. Food is bought; power, telephone and internet services organised; rates, insurance, bills and mortgages or rent paid; and tradespeople organised.


Whoever managed a household’s money paid the bills, arranged insurance and paid the rent or mortgage and rates. In some households ‘mother was treasurer, budget-controller and administrator, father was the outside earner’.1 In the 19th and early 20th centuries the poorer the family the more likely the woman was to control the money. Pay packets were brought home by fathers and working children, and given to mothers. From the mid-20th century both women-controlled finances and a family budget that included children’s earnings became less common.

Making ends meet

Some poorer and middling households kept lodgers, took in washing, sold surplus eggs, cream, butter or honey, or did sewing or knitting for other families. These strategies built on existing household routines, and helped make ends meet.

In other homes, the father was not only the outside earner, but controlled the household’s money. In many, perhaps most, middle- and upper-class families, it was usual for the man of the house to give his wife a set amount each week (the ‘housekeeping’). From that she was expected to buy food, pay for transport, and usually clothe herself and any children in the household. What was done with the rest of the family income was not her business.

Ways of managing family money also varied according to ethnicity. A study in the 1990s found that many Māori and Pacific households shared family income with wider whānau. Within some Pākehā households money continued to be pooled, while in others household expenses were shared but earning adults had separate bank accounts and managed the surplus independently.

Getting a home

For many New Zealanders, finding a house meant getting a mortgage. From 1894 finance was often provided by the government, along with building societies, lawyers and accountants. Regulatory change in the 1960s and 1970s meant that banks took over. Getting a mortgage was a job that had to be done by the man of the household – until the 1970s women were very seldom given a mortgage in their own right. Homes for rent were advertised in local newspapers, but were also found through word of mouth or by asking at shops in an area.

Homes with a history

Name-dropping in ‘to let’ ads was standard in the 1850s. A ‘commodious’ house in Bank Street had been lived in by Dr Parks, while another was ‘lately occupied’ by the Hon. C. A. Dillon. An ‘excellent Brick HOUSE’ at Coopers Bay was advertised while the surveyor general was still in residence.2 Including the name or position of the previous occupant was intended to impress potential tenants and assure them that time spent looking at the house would not be wasted.

Māori, whether living on ancestral land or not, found it difficult to get a mortgage or loan. Banks did not accept communally owned land as security. In addition, Māori faced prejudice and were sometimes stereotyped as unable to manage money. One result was that Māori were less likely to own their own homes: in 1961, for example, just under 50% of Māori owned their own homes, while nearly 70% of Pākehā did.


Neighbours were linked by friendship and favours. Children were looked after, meals cooked, tools lent and help given with big jobs. City neighbourhoods (particularly working-class ones) and farming communities were criss-crossed with links between households, but the strength of these networks diminished in the later 20th century. Links were strongest when one of the adults was at home and able to help or to arrange assistance by another member of the household. This became less common after the Second World War, as the percentage of women in paid employment climbed, from 25% in 1951 to 55% in 1995.

Do-it-yourself and the local council

Until the mid-20th century repairs, maintenance and renovation required nothing more than a willingness to do the work or the ability to pay someone else to do it. Introduction and enforcement of regulation by councils was patchy.

Build your own

Farm work was all the training Nigel Cook needed to build his first home in central Wellington in 1951. ‘I’d been working on a farm at 14. There was constant hammering, nailing, doing gates, fences, repairing farm buildings. I was comfortable with handling timber and that was all one needed to build a bach.’3 Although Cook had moved into town, getting a permit didn’t occur to him.

A building act passed in 1991 resulted in a more uniform approach, with all work on the external envelope of a house requiring a permit. Homeowners had to provide far more detailed documentation, and many minor parts of a job – the distance between balcony railings for example – were subject to regulation.

In 2012 a new regime was introduced. Work on the structure and external cladding of a house had to be carried out by a licensed builder. An exemption for homeowners allowed them to do such work under the supervision of a licensed building practitioner.

  1. W. B. Sutch, Women with a cause. Wellington: New Zealand University Press, p. ix. Back
  2. Daily Southern Cross, 19 November 1850, p. 2. Back
  3. Nigel Cook, personal communication, September 2012. Back
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Household management - The wider world', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 Sep 2013