For generations, people have dreamed of retiring in, or to, Hawaii. The magnetic pull of the islands to the baby boomer generation — people born in the 18 years after World War II — runs deep.

The allure of island life and changing demographics explain why Hawaii is expected to have a huge elderly population by the year 2040 when nearly one-quarter of us will be seniors. If that state forecast proves true, it will amount to a near tripling of the senior population since 1980. Clearly, a lot of people who live, or visit, the islands saw — or still see — it as the ideal place to retire.

All clichés about mai-tai sunsets, turquoise seas, the laid-back vibe and long and healthy lives aside, Hawaii’s high prices and its fast-growing elderly population are stirring up complex challenges for middle-class workers as they eye retirement.

So, while Hawaii may remain prime retirement turf for rich people, it has slid down to 44th on’s list of the best states to retire in for people like you and me. Yes, despite the weather, the mellow pace and the aloha, Hawaii is just six slots from the bottom. One of the main reasons is the state’s cost of living, which is the highest in the nation.

So it is worth exploring why the islands remain a good place to settle for one class of non-wealthy retirees: the men and women of the Armed Forces. Hawaii is the 12th best state for military retirees, according to a survey released in May.

Memorial day services held at the National Cemetery of the Pacific. Punchbowl cemetery. 25 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

During Memorial Day services at the National Cemetery of the Pacific on Monday, active and retired military men and women honor those who paid the ultimate price.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

What makes Hawaii so appealing to people who hang up their uniform? The islands score well on a plethora of metrics that appeal to people who have completed their military service — although on a few key ones, Hawaii could do better.

Military retirees are very different from traditional retirees. For one, the average officer retires at 47, while the average enlistee stops at 43. So when they give up their uniform they are usually just transitioning to another career, often in the middle of their productive professional lives.

People leaving the military face entirely different challenges from civilian retirees who are, by definition, exiting the work force. Many of them are looking to enter the nation’s labor force, so a state with an unemployment rate hovering around just 4 percent sounds very good. Hawaii’s limited range of job opportunities — and salaries that are low compared to prices — helps to explain why the state ranks a middling 28th on that front.

On the negative side of the ledger — and this is the greatest single reason why Hawaii doesn’t score higher than 12th on the military retiree list — is the state’s high cost of living.

But given how much of the islands’ economy is linked to the military, there is no shortage of opportunity for people with suitable military experience. Hawaii is 14th nationally for the value of its Defense Department contracts compared to the population. Around 10 percent of Hawaii’s total employment is made up of active duty and Department of Defense civilian personnel.

Beyond employment, a large military retiree community can facilitate the transition back to civilian life for people at the end of their service. The 117,000 military retirees that the Rand Corporation counted in the islands in a 2011 study — and the support infrastructure for them — can translate into a better understanding of some of the unique challenges that former military face.

Hawaii is ninth in the nation in the number of military retirees as a percentage of the population, according to WalletHub, and military personnel and their dependents make up more than 100,000 people in the state.


Former military man Richard Keener and his wife Lois moved to the mainland after his military and then professional retirements. Hawaii’s high cost of living was a key factor.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A substantial number of people who served in war zones leave the service with physical or psychological ailments that require access to VA facilities and support services, and Hawaii has an extensive network, particularly for a state with such a small population.

The state ranks 15th for the number of hospitals — federal, state and local — as a percentage of the population, according to WalletHub’s assessment, and the state ranks second for the number of VA benefit-administration facilities compared to population size.

There are also businesses started by veterans, who might be more likely to hire others who have served as they adapt back to civilian life.

While Hawaii may have some of the highest taxes in the country for certain categories of poor and middle class residents, it doesn’t tax military pensions at all.

The military retiree ranking also lauds the weather and diverse leisure opportunities Hawaii affords former soldiers.

But on the negative side of the ledger — and this is the greatest single reason why Hawaii doesn’t score higher than 12th on the military retiree list — is the state’s cost of living. In particular, the Hawaii’s housing costs, which are out of sync with most residents’ incomes, even weigh on military retirees. The state ranks dead last nationally when it comes to affordable housing.

This can be something of a surprise to military retirees who aren’t prepared for life after the service. Military men and women who are stationed here enjoy generous housing allowances, but military retirees do not, meaning that retirement involves wrangling in the rental or real estate market alongside the rest of us, in some cases for the first time. The Basic Housing Allowance, often referred to simply as the BAH, can cover rent or monthly mortgage payments and even utilities, and be worth thousands of tax-free dollars each month to people in the service.

But broadly speaking, both active and retired military are among the most insulated groups in Hawaii when it comes to many core elements of the cost of living.

In terms of salaries, the majority of Department of Defense civilian and active-duty personnel earned between $70,000 and $100,000, according to the Rand report. While they might be able to earn more on some parts of the mainland, that money tends to stretch further in Hawaii for military retirees than it would for the rest of us.

For one, military retirees can sometimes buy homes without a down payment.

And while Hawaii may have some of the highest taxes in the country for certain categories of poor and middle class residents, it doesn’t tax military pensions at all. (Similarly, non-resident military personnel are not taxed on their income by the state.)

Military retirees can also avoid some of other taxes that place a particular burden on the poor and middle class in the islands.

Services held on Memorial Day at the National Cemetery of the Pacific. Punchbowl Cemeteryt. 25 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In exchange for their service, military men and women are able to avoid elements of Hawaii’s high cost of living that residents cannot.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Take food. Retirees, like those in the active service, enjoy access to heavily subsidized on-base commissaries where they can buy far cheaper food.

And shopping pretty much anywhere on military bases — whether at fast-food chains, restaurants or stores — is tax free. They don’t pay the general excise tax that is applied to nearly everything sold in the rest of the islands, so that is an additional saving of at least 4.5 percent on the purchase price of goods and services.

If veterans have served long enough, they can also enjoy quality health care for life, and some who have little means can avoid co-payments and fees sooner.

Active and retired military also enjoy a wide array of discounts around the islands.

There are, of course, historic and strategic reasons for these benefits. People give up various freedoms when they serve in the military, including being moved around and forgoing more lucrative work.

And people in the armed forces pay in other, more significant ways. Hawaii is the state where the largest percentage of residents have died for their country, and it has the third highest percentage of homeless veterans living on its streets, often battling physical and emotional scars etched into them during their time in the service.

But there is no doubt that one of the best ways to avoid much of the high cost of living in Hawaii is to be in the military, or to be a military retiree here.

Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands, whether about you or someone you know? If so, click on the red button with the pencil and share it through Connections, or drop me a note at

You can also continue the broader conversation and discuss practical and political solutions by joining Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii.

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