A million bucks — it sounds like a lot of money, doesn’t it?

And no wonder. Millionaires once made up a select micro-class of people with virtually unimaginable buying power.

They were the outsized embodiment of America. Their iconic names — John Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Howard Hughes — line street signs, plazas, universities, corporations and philanthropic foundations.

By today’s standards, these guys would be multi-billionaires. Millionaires aren’t what they used to be, especially not in Hawaii.

People who don’t pay attention to real estate markets might not know it, but the days of the million-dollar mansion in the islands are long gone. Today that kind of cash would barely buy this 1,100-square-foot eight-decade-old home in Manoa.

2637 East Manoa Road honolulu real estate . 4 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This scruffy three-bedroom, one-bath property on East Manoa Road is one of the unkempt homes on sale on Oahu for about $1 million.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Looking for a million-dollar crash pad outside of the big city?

A buyer with $990,000 to splash down for a dilapidated 928-square-foot structure in Kailua (visible on this link) would even have a few thousand bucks to spare to pay the title company fee.

The way things are going, it may just be a matter of time before telling someone they “look like a million bucks” is an insult.

The declining value of a million dollars is just the latest sign that our terminology about incomes and economic classes is outdated.

The way things are going, it may just be a matter of time before telling someone they “look like a million bucks” is an insult.

This is particularly true in Hawaii, where many people earn what would be an upper middle-class salary in much of the country, but their buying power — due to the cost of living — is that of an average middle class person on the mainland.

Someone who earns what would be a middle-class salary in the nation’s heartland has the consuming power in Hawaii of a lower middle-class worker. And a “lower middle-class” worker is taken down a peg by our prices so that he or she is effectively part of the working poor.

So what happened to that one-time touchstone indicator of wealth in America: being worth a million bucks?

The answer, of course, is fast-rising prices on core personal costs, combined with salaries that haven’t kept their value in any real sense. Much of America’s once vibrant middle class, especially in big cities, has withstood decades of financial stagnation that has relentlessly eaten away at the dream of upward mobility.

This is particularly true in the islands where, in real terms, family incomes for the counties of Oahu, Maui and Kauai peaked in 1989. On the Big Island, that peak came in 1969.

The decline has been easy to miss, partly because there are deceptive components to it. For one, the typical middle class family can afford gadgets — including powerful cell phones and computers — that were once out of reach. But our incomes relative to the big, regular costs of life have slid sharply.

The problem is that flat screen televisions are optional, while rents or mortgages are not. Transportation costs, health insurance, electricity and many other basic expenses have soared too, but housing remains the dominant cost.

The Old-Fashioned Way

It still takes a lot of work to bring in $1 million, especially for those who do it the old-fashioned way, by earning it through salaries rather than through investments. (Setting that much aside, obviously, is far more difficult.)

At Hawaii’s median family income of $80,316 in 2013, it would take 12.5 years to gross $1 million before taxes. After taxes, it would take closer to 15 years — and that doesn’t take into account the bite of local and state taxes on incomes in the bottom 80 percentile of the pay scale.

On the flip side, Hawaii does have a large proportion of millionaires — the real ones, not just people whose homes, largely owned by a bank, are valued at a million dollars.

In fact, Hawaii ranked fourth in the nation in 2014 for the number of millionaires as a percentage of all households, according to Phoenix Marketing.

The group counts 32,829 authentic millionaires — 7 percent of all households in the islands. That is more than half the raw total in California where there are about 30 times more households. So some people in Hawaii are doing pretty well, especially since the report defines “millionaire” the traditional way, as someone with $1 million in liquid “investable assets,” so it excludes the value of the homes they live in, employer-sponsored retirement plans, pensions and the like.

How Far Will a Million Go?

The ever-rising cost of living, not to mention salaries that haven’t kept up for the middle class, have broad implications for the American dream. For generations, that dream was profoundly connected to owning a home, sending your children to a good school — which for many people in Hawaii means a private school — and enjoying the occasional road trip.

In places like Honolulu — as well as San Francisco, New York City and parts of Los Angeles — it is possible for a millionaire household to struggle to pay for what has long been known as a middle-class lifestyle.

How long, for example, could a median home-owning family on Oahu make it on a million bucks when the home is included? The answer, for those who want to skip several accounting paragraphs, is less than four years.

To avoid the complications involved in calculations of a mortgage, we will say that the family of four purchased a two-bedroom home in Honolulu in cash in November at the median home value: $719,000.

Home ownership brings plenty of expenses. The average residential Hawaiian Electric bill is $2,496 per year ($208 per month), although prices are in flux due to shifting oil prices, while the sewage and water bill add up to $1,271 annually (or $105.93 per month). Collectively, that’s $3,767 per year. Over four years, that’s $15,068.

Nationally, cable, Internet and phone bills add up to $160 monthly, which totals to $1,920 per year — not counting cell phones. In four years, the total bill is $7,680.

The average person in Hawaii spends $358 monthly on food. Families tend to consume differently — and often more efficiently than individuals — but multiplying the personal food expense by four family members would bring it to $1,432 per month. Annually that’s $17,184. Over four years — at current prices — that’s $68,736.

Other bills like hurricane insurance, homeowners insurance, gas bills and others can easily cost a family about $2,000 per year. Over four years, that’s another $8,000.

And then there is transportation. Most families have two cars. The average national used car costs $16,355, so the cost of buying two would be $32,670.

The average monthly cost of having a car — including insurance, maintenance, depreciation and possible financing — is $886.05 per month, according to Forbes. Multiplying that amount by two cars over four years adds up to $85,061.

Hawaii has enjoyed low health insurance rates relative to much of the country, but despite that and even with bosses forking out for much of employees’ family insurance premiums, the average annual employee contribution is $3,603, which over four years is $14,412. (Self-employed people tend to pay far more.)

This average family in Hawaii has a small child in need of child care, which costs $12,473 annually. Estimated four-year cost: $49,892.

The family’s second child likely requires after-school care, which costs an additional $9,000 or so per year. Tack on another $36,000 over four years.

The total tally for the home and expenses adds up to $1,036,519.

To summarize, this means a family enjoying many elements of a mainland middle class lifestyle would burn through more than a million dollars on a common house on Oahu and their basic costs in under four years. On other islands, where the home prices are lower, this average family could make the money last longer.

2637 East Manoa Road honolulu real estate . 4 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The entrance to a property advertised for sale for nearly $1 million.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In reality average families would face numerous other expenses, including things like property taxes, private school and public college tuition in Hawaii. Other substantial potential costs include supporting grown children who can’t earn a living wage, or parents who were never able to save enough for retirement.

And then there are secondary but often crucial expenses, including things like clothing, furniture and appliances, not to mention, you know, fun.

Add it all up and it suggests that just because a local middle class family is worth a million bucks — or at least blowing through that much money in a few years — it doesn’t mean they can afford to live the old middle-class American dream.

• Civil Beat intern Marina Riker contributed to this report.

Do you have a compelling story about the human impact of the cost of living, whether about you or someone you know? If so, drop me a note at epape@civilbeat.com.

And join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation and discuss practical and political solutions.

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