- Special Projects
Here’s a little advice: If you travel away from the islands — whether on a trip to the mainland or just about anywhere else on Earth — eat lots of bread.
This isn’t health advice; it’s financial. If you do, you’ll almost certainly be saving money. We, in Honolulu, eat the third-most expensive bread in the world, according to the crowd-sourced price data website Expatistan.com.
The site’s data doesn’t include every city in the world, but it does include data elements for more than 1,900 cities.
And, of course, it is hardly just the sliced bread at the supermarket that consumes an outsized chunk of our income in Honolulu. Expatistan, which compares prices of a wide array of consumer goods, transportation, rent and other things, ranks Honolulu as the seventh-most expensive city in America and the 17th most expensive city in the world.
And the trend over the last year has moved in the wrong direction: Honolulu has become comparatively more expensive, rising two slots in the ranking of cities.
There is little solace in the possibility that the Silicon Valley city of San Jose may pass us before long, given that it rocketed from 63rd to 29th in the same 12-month period. San Jose’s rising prices are elevated by demand, thanks to the city’s juiced-up economic activity and a corresponding increase in incomes.
For the moment, the handful of U.S. cities that are more expensive than Honolulu, according to Expatistan, are New York City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Boston and — just barely — Miami. Beyond America’s borders, we come in just behind the original cheap baguette-eaters in Paris and Doha, but a little ahead of Copenhagen and Tokyo.
Workers in American cities Expatistan found to be more expensive than Honolulu also tend to earn higher — sometimes far higher — salaries
Expatistan’s data is based on hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have entered more than 1.3 million prices into its database, with hundreds of people contributing information on the prices they pay in Honolulu.
Given the evolving data, the comparative numbers invariably shift, so the price rankings today won’t necessarily be the same tomorrow. But mulling some outsized prices in Honolulu suggests areas where it might be possible to bring costs down. Think of those high prices as an invitation to other businesses to try to undercut bloated pricing for some goods or services.
Among U.S. cities, for example, people in Honolulu pay the most for a standard “expensive” summer dress at a clothing-store chain. We also pay nation-leading prices for things like taxis, deodorant, fancy sports shoes, local cheese and toothpaste.
Residents’ overall utility bills are the second-highest in the nation. This is partly due to our electricity rates, which are by far the highest in the country. (This recent article from Civil Beat’s Living Hawaii series explains why.)
We come in second in the country for products like milk, a boneless chicken breast and tampons. Honolulu’s prices for apples, gasoline and Big Mac-style combo meals rank third-highest nationally. Our cell phone prices, tomatoes, shampoo, toilet paper and clothes are fourth.
In many ways, buying power is more relevant to residents’ lives than actual prices, so it is worth remembering that workers in American cities Expatistan found to be more expensive than Honolulu also tend to earn higher — sometimes far higher — salaries.
It isn’t just Honolulu of course. Hawaii remains the most expensive state overall for a host of reasons.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s recently released American Community Survey for 2014 suggests that over that 12-month period the middle class in the state made little if any progress in reclaiming any of its buying power, which has declined for most of the last three decades.
The resulting data, which is based on a vast survey of nearly 2 percent of the state’s population, allows for comparisons to 2013.
In 2014, the median household income rose by $565, to $69,027, marking an increase of less than 1 percent. And even then, there are some caveats behind that small improvement, as well as the fact that such homes in Hawaii enjoy the sixth-highest median household income nationally.
For one, Hawaii has the largest number of people living in each home — and each bedroom. The ACS survey indicates that nearly 9 percent of bedrooms in Hawaii have more than one person or couple inside, versus just 3.4 percent nationally.
Beyond that, Hawaii’s low unemployment rate, which continues to hover around 4 percent, indicates that more people in each household are likely to work than in the vast majority of states where unemployment rates are higher.
All of this suggests that more people per home are working to generate that relatively high raw household income than in other states.
The same goes for Hawaii’s median family income — which is distinct from household income. But despite that, the median family income actually fell by $1,705, down to $79,187, although that was not deemed statistically significant by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
The Census Bureau calculates Hawaii has by far the largest percentage of multi-family households in the country — 7.9 percent of the population in the islands, compared to 3.8 percent nationally, so there are likely to be more people working to make that money.
When it comes to housing, which is the largest single cost in most people’s lives, the census numbers suggest that it is becoming less affordable for most of the middle class.
The median value of a home in the islands rose from $500,000 to $528,000, far outpacing the median increase in household salaries, meaning that the dream of middle class homeownership slipped a little farther away for middle-income earners.
Twelve states saw a decline in the percentage of people in poverty in 2014; Hawaii was not one of them.
Financially, the mainland would likely be much easier on such people given that the median national value for a home across the country was just $181,200; about one-third the price in the islands.
Census numbers for 2014 indicate that renters in Hawaii paid a median monthly housing cost of $1,448; that is about 55 percent more than the mainland average of $934. It is just the latest indication that people in Hawaii pay the highest median rents of any state, and it is likely to get more expensive.
The census data highlights how such factors are affecting some low-income residents of the islands. Twelve states saw a decline in the percentage of people in poverty in 2014; Hawaii was not one of them.
In 2013, 7.1 percent of families in Hawaii were in poverty. A year later, there were 7.8 percent. And overall, the number of people in Hawaii officially living below the poverty line rose from 10.8 percent of the population to 11.4 percent.
While there doesn’t seem to be too much good news in the census data, people in Hawaii have seen their purchasing power increase somewhat thanks to a notable drop in oil prices from mid-2014 to mid-2015.
Lower oil prices have translated into much cheaper gasoline, which currently sells for under $3 per gallon in some places, and less expensive electricity, with the average bill falling substantially since mid-2014.
There are a lot of things residents could spend their savings on — rising mortgage and rental costs, for example.
But if you want to splurge, you could just start buying more bread in the islands.
Check out DBEDT’s analysis of the American Community Survey data here.
Read our ongoing report on Hawaii’s high cost of living and the search for what can be done about it 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.