Facing off with the high cost of living in the islands can be a lonely battle.

There are mornings where I sign checks at the dinner table, place them in stamped envelopes and then say goodbye to chunks of my middle-class income.

There are days where the supermarket checkout counter employee rings up the troublingly high total for a single bag of food. I may be in public at such moments, but my shock at high prices leads me to a brief internal dialogue that sometimes includes an expletive or two. I muffle it and swipe my credit card.

In the evening, illuminated by the dull glow of a computer screen, I transfer funds from my savings account.

Work. Add money. Spend. Repeat cycle.

It can, as many people know, be worse during the night. That is when the accumulating stress about looming bills, rising debt, insecure employment and unsatisfactory salaries can blur into troubled dreams — before the start of another work day.

tourists at Kilauea

We can feel disconnected from each other in the islands, but there are universal forces that affect us. One is the high cost of living.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

I’m not unique. Many people face the same pressures, as well as other challenges that are far more intense. I’ve spoken with many who have left the islands because of the cost of living, like the Young family.

People have been writing to share their stories about facing off with the high cost of living with me for many months. We talk on the phone, write back and forth or meet to dicsuss economic pressures that can lead to isolation, anxiety and battered pride, as well as what it all means and what the solutions might look like in Hawaii. It has all helped to nourish Civil Beat’s cost of living series.

“It’s been a hard road and I’m still traveling it, but … an outlet to share has emboldened me to continue to trek on, and been very therapeutic … I needed to write this.” — Cora Spearman

Those personal accounts are also beginning to fill Civil Beat’s Connections section focusing on the high cost of living in Hawaii. It is a place for personal stories about people facing off against high prices.

I recently got back in contact with the initial Connections contributors. Several said the reaction to the stories they shared made them feel less isolated and more, well, connected.

Feeling like you are losing ground to the cost of living leads some people to feel shame. Local entrepreneur Cora Spearman was struggling with such issues until she wrote The Cost of My Cancer, about epic health problems that led to a medically induced bankruptcy, and her recent efforts to rise again.

Spearman, whose morale was low when she first agreed to share her story, said the experience — as well as the response to it — has been “educational, motivating and therapeutic.” Many people commented on the story on Civil Beat’s Cost of Living Facebook page, while others reached out to Spearman and her family, including some people she didn’t know.

A colleague of her husband, who she has never met, sent her a note to say that her story inspired him to want to tell his own story because hers included humor, facts and “emotion without the victim mentality.” Spearman wrote me to say that it is “awesome to feel so connected.”

“It’s been a hard road and I’m still traveling it, but … an outlet to share has emboldened me to continue to trek on, and been very therapeutic… I needed to write this.”

The experience taught Spearman that “we are not alone.”

Stan Fichtman’s Connections story, “Alone in Paradise,” is about the growing sense of isolation he feels after watching his extended family and many of his friends leave the island, mostly in search professional opportunities and a better living standard on the mainland. It inspired mostly empathetic reactions on our Facebook page, especially when he mused about how long he will be able to hold out in the islands if his job ends.

“This is one of my greatest fears,” wrote Justin J. Pequeño. “I sympathize with him.”

Fichtman told me that many other people have reached out to him to echo the sentiments he expressed in his story.

“At times, life in Hawaii feels like a sadistic game of musical chairs with the growing legions of rear ends competing for fewer and fewer chairs.” — Rose Darling

“Oh Stan, I just read your narrative and it’s so heartbreaking,” Rose Darling commented on his story. It inspired her to comment that rising real estate values in the islands have, over time, become “like a cruel eviction based on economics or worse still. At times, life in Hawaii feels like a sadistic game of musical chairs with the growing legions of rear ends competing for fewer and fewer chairs.”

“The Price of a Place Called Home on Oahu,” by Keopu Reelitz, focuses on a couple’s dream of buying a home on the island where she and many of her ancestors have lived. Reelitz and her husband can’t afford that, so they hope to get a more affordable piece of land in Waimanalo, where some of her relatives have lived. But rising property values even in some of the less expensive parts of Oahu may outpace what she and her husband can save, despite their hard work and decent middle-class incomes. It is a sentiment I hear often.

And that makes sense when home values have increased by as much as 1,000 percent in some parts of the islands in the last three decades, while real incomes, as is fairly obvious, have not.

Reelitz’s story sparked a vibrant — and sometimes charged — discussion on the Civil Beat Cost of Living Facebook page, and some of the nearly 200 comments highlighted other people’s similar struggles. In the real world, she said, she’s heard from friends, family and co-workers about their own related struggles.

I was genuinely surprised by reactions to Mark Heilbron’s story, “A More Affordable Paradise — Hawaii Is Dead, Long Live Hawaii!” Oahu-local Heilbron, who left the islands last year after six decades, moved to a far more affordable place in Latin America that reminds him of the Hawaii of his youth. The surprise wasn’t his story. I’ve traveled across much of Latin America and know there are many places with similarities to Hawaii.

The surprise was in the reactions. I figured some locals might lambaste Heilbron for talking stink about Hawaii. Instead, many wrote to say that the country he ended up in, as well as others near it, is or seems like a great place to leave Hawaii for. More than half a dozen people nearing or at retirement age even asked me to put them in touch with him so they could ask him practical questions about his move. Why? Some are mulling affordable places to retire, which largely excludes Hawaii.

It is a recurring theme in reactions to the Living Hawaii series, as well as to the Connections writings on the cost of living. As Florence Hulihee commented, “We will probably have to leave if we ever want to retire. It’s just too expensive here. Been here 25 years and it will be sad to go, but it’s either that or work until we are 80+.”

In my follow-up communication with Heilbron, he recalled the price-induced exodus of Hawaii locals to Las Vegas that hit a high gear in the 1990s as people sought a better job market and lower prices. Unlike them, Heilbron wasn’t interested in moving to a desert, regardless of the thriving economy in and around Vegas. He scouted for his affordable tropical beach paradise. “I found it,” he wrote me, “and I am going to be here the rest of my days on this planet.”

An undercurrent of these Connections stories, and much of the traditionally reported cost of living series, is the difficulty that many people in Hawaii have in projecting themselves into the future.

“My children don’t even pretend that they will be able to do what we did to live in Hawaii. I don’t think it’s possible any longer.” — David Quitt

Students struggling to find jobs to pay enough to become independent, working adults can rarely afford the accouterments of what was once considered middle-class adulthood, like a “starter home,” and people at the peak of their earning power often don’t see how they will be able to afford to stop working and retire here with any meaningful financial security.

Heilbron was pondering such issues before he left. “Based on the exorbitant costs of continued residency in Hawaii,” he predicted, “there is going to be another mass exodus … of local people who have had enough.”

Fichtman, who doesn’t want to leave after spending his whole life here but knows he may have to, expressed hope that his own story will inspire others to share theirs. “I really do want to just have my piece out there, with it being the driver of a conversation between other people,” Fichtman wrote. “I would say that I feel less alone now than I did before.”

The point of these personal stories isn’t just to help people to feel less solitary, but to paint a broader picture than one article or even an entire series could otherwise do. It is to highlight the broad human impact of our high cost of living, in hopes of making the search for solutions a higher priority.

David Quitt and has wife showed up as backpackers with a little pocket cash in Hawaii two decades ago. They got jobs, bought a home in Kailua at the bottom of the real estate market and started a family. But as long as they live in the islands, Quitt says he has no idea how to save money for his daughter’s looming college education.

“Most of our money goes to mortgage, food, utilities, and keeping an automobile on the road,” he commented on one cost of living story in the Connections section. “My children don’t even pretend that they will be able to do what we did to live in Hawaii. I don’t think it’s possible any longer.”

As far as Quitt’s future plan goes, it may involve selling the house and retiring to the mainland. “The standard of living in Hawaii is probably as good as it gets as long as I have a good job and a house to live in,” Quitt wrote. “The day I lose my job, is probably the day we move out. So we live in a state of, ‘ready to evacuate,’ which is a ding on our standard of living here in the islands.”

It surely isn’t enough to make the problem go away, but Quitt should know that he isn’t alone.

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 epape@civilbeat.com.

And 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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