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Kate Leary lives in such a small space that the first-year schoolteacher calls herself an “accidental member” of the tiny home movement.
The third-grade instructor and her half-blind, 10-year-old Maltese-poodle, Spunky, share a 200-square-foot studio in Honolulu. The place has no real kitchen; she gets by with a mini fridge, a toaster oven and a blender. Leary, 31, sleeps on a twin bed and washes her dishes in the bathroom sink. “I’m pretty much here because the price is so amazing,” she explains.
When it comes to housing — the largest single cost in many people’s lives — Leary seems to be at a great advantage. After all, the fair market price of a studio in Honolulu is $1,334; Leary pays just $550 per month, utilities included.
It is why, she said, she thought she’d be able to get ahead on a high-end beginning teacher’s salary.
So far things don’t seem to be working out that way, even though if any new teacher should be able to live independently and make financial progress in Hawaii, it is Leary.
After all, she wasn’t new to the state’s nation-leading cost of living when she began teaching here in July; she got used to the paradise tax while earning a master’s degree in Education at the University of Hawaii. The advanced degree meant that her first-year salary at the Waialae Charter School in Kaimuki is several thousand dollars more than most other teachers, at a pre-tax, pre-health care coverage income of about $49,000.
But that salary boost came at a price. Graduate school added about $50,000 in debt to $40,000 she owes from other schooling.
“I feel like it will all work out, like it should,” she explains hopefully — just after noting that she sometimes has to use a high-interest credit card to bail herself out on important purchases.
Such is the life of a young schoolteacher in the islands.
In raw numbers, accredited teachers salaries here run from $44,538 into the low-$80,000s for highly educated teachers with decades of experience, placing Hawaii in the middle of national rankings for average teacher pay. But when the cost of living is factored in, teachers’ salaries in paradise drop to dead last.
The situation is often most extreme for young teachers who come from outside the state, like Leary, and don’t have local relatives able to reduce or eliminate major expenditures ranging from our high housing costs to child care.
It is clear from Civil Beat’s interviews with about a dozen teachers, mostly in the first decade of their career, that Leary is not alone. All have struggled — or continue to struggle — mightily. Some have shifted life paths, leaving the islands in search of a more sustainable financial situation, while those who remain are, at best, treading water.
Even Justin Hughey, the vice president of the state teachers union, waits tables to make ends meet more than a decade after he moved to Hawaii to teach special education.
All spoke of streamlining their spending, sometimes in extreme fashion. One teacher recalled putting off filling cavities to pay more pressing bills. Another said she had to suddenly reduce her grocery budget and lost 8 pounds in one month. A third long-time teacher said she has taken just about any non-illicit work she could get — including appearing in a bikini on “Hawaii Five-0” — and that she now barters for baby formula online.
Others spoke of choosing between expenses, such as whether to pay to register their vehicle or their utility bills. Many expressed the fear that a single sizable unexpected expense, like a health problem or the breakdown of their car, might send them into a downward spiral. One new-arriving teacher, who had been unaware of Hawaii’s unique cost challenges, quickly declared bankruptcy.
Forty percent of teachers take on side work, according to a teachers union survey of 400 full-time public school teachers in the state in January.
“Hawaii teachers shouldn’t be the worst-paid teachers in the nation. It’s bad for our education system when we have a high turnover rate and teachers can’t afford to be teachers,” said Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee.
Tammy Jones, of New Jersey, has gone to remarkable lengths to get ahead while teaching in the islands.
Upon her arrival in 2003, while working a full slate as an unpaid teacher in training at Kailua High School, she also filled 4:30-to-midnight shifts at a retail clothing chain in Waikiki.
While working those double days, she enjoyed a financial advantage over many other teachers. She lived rent-free with family — an uncle, aunt and cousin — in Pearl City, which gave her the ability to put some money aside.
“It’s bad for our education system when we have a high turnover rate and teachers can’t afford to be teachers.” Corey Rosenlee, president of the teachers union
That facilitated moving into her own one-bedroom apartment around the time she was hired as a salaried teacher at James Campbell High School in 2005.
In the hopes of securing better professional prospects, she decided to go to graduate school at the University of Hawaii — even as she continued to teach full time and sell surfwear to tourists.
Unlike many mainland districts where teachers can expect automatic pay raises as they rise in seniority, teachers in Hawaii earn salary bumps only by taking additional college courses or earning advanced degrees — or when the union negotiates an across-the-board increase for all teachers.
In Hawaii it’s the state, and not the Department of Education, that sets pay as a part of contract negotiations with the teachers union. When the economy is sluggish, there is less room to negotiate and teachers have gone years without a pay increase, union leaders say.
For Jones, getting ahead meant waking up at 5:30 a.m. and spending 45 minutes commuting to a high school in Ewa Beach, where she taught English and sometimes stayed on campus as late as 6 p.m. advising student clubs. The school has faced persistent criticism over its sweltering and overcrowded classrooms, and Jones said she often taught as many as 40 teenagers at a time.
Then, two or three days a week, she would head to her grad school courses at UH after work. On Friday evenings and one of the weekend days, she worked at the clothing shop in Waikiki.
She did her best, she explains, to make sure to have a “weekend day off” — so she could do her graduate school coursework. “I don’t know how I did it,” says Jones.
The grueling pace helped her to earn a master’s in Education and, in 2012, her Ph.D. in Curriculum. Thanks to those degrees, she secures side work stints teaching for the America Institute for Management Science in Japan and as an online instructor for Johns Hopkins University.
And yet, it is hard to say Jones has really gotten ahead financially. Eight years of graduate school saddled her with about $90,000 in debt. She says she pays about $600 a month just to cover the interest, without touching the principal.
The union offers the cheapest courses that a teacher can take to earn a pay increase — about $150 a for a three-credit class, Rosenlee said. Beginning teachers without a master’s degree have to take 30 credits to move into a different pay grade, and then another 15 units to move up again. Scraping together the cash even for the union classes can be difficult for some teachers, he said. Even more challenging for many is finding the time to take the courses.
“I think about the fact that if I stay here, I’ll never own a place.” — Teacher Tammy Jones
And then there’s deciding if the increased earning potential is worth possibly accruing debt. Rosenlee says his salary was in the low-$60,000 range in 2015 — despite having worked his way into the highest pay grade that a teacher of his seniority can earn through merit-based increases alone.
Two years ago, Jones transferred to a small charter school in Kaimuki. She says her job is satisfying and her day-to-day life feels more manageable.
But Jones, 36, acknowledges the personal sacrifices that seem to be inherent in teaching here. “I think about the fact that if I stay here, I’ll never own a place,” she says. “If there are other things that I want, like getting married and having kids, I don’t see myself doing that.”
At least not in the islands. She knows she could move to somewhere like New Jersey because teachers in parts of her home state earn far more and their incomes go much further. In fact, public school teachers in many places earn substantially more than in the islands.
Jones’ one-bedroom apartment would represent a big step toward independence for fourth-grade teacher Juna Alvarez.
Alvarez came from Seattle five years ago and her housing options have invariably involved roommates. These days she lives with two of them in a house where her share of the rent, for the smallest room, is $750, without utilities. That’s a pretty good deal since the average cost of a room in the typical two- or three-bedroom rental in Honolulu is just over $900.
For several years, in addition to the 50 hours weekly Alvarez puts into teaching, she spent another 15 to 20 hours working at an after-school program. She tutors students as well.
Alzarez found that as long as she put in at least 70 hours per week, she could “have a good quality of life.” The downside is that she ends up “living to work,” rather than the other way around.
Overworked, she quit the after-school program. That meant more time to enjoy her life, but less money.
How did that turn out? A month ago, she says she had to ask a friend for a short-term loan to help pay her share of the rent.
Debt is nothing new to Alvarez, who has a master’s degree. The last time she checked, she still owed at least $60,000 on her student loans.
“I don’t think I could afford a pet right now, much less a child.” — Rebecca Reichert Arlander
In such circumstances, her longstanding hope of saving up to one day purchase a home, even in a less expensive mainland real estate market, seems like something of a mirage to keep her pushing forward. Not only has she not saved money after five years working in the islands, she has burned through the $30,000 financial cushion that she brought to Hawaii; money that could have been part of a down payment on a home.
“A lot of my teacher-friends in Seattle have homes already, whether they’re single or in couples,” Alvarez says. “I don’t have any savings, any cushion to rely on.”
“I hear a lot that, ‘The cost of living is high, but the ocean is your back yard, and there are beautiful hikes in your backyard.’ … And I’m really fortunate that I love where I work, she says.
But the Waialae Charter School teacher says it’s not realistic for her to stay in Hawaii in the long term unless she makes working and saving money her top priority — bringing her back to the dilemma of working more than one job and losing the chance to enjoy those intangibles that make the islands so enticing.
She is currently hunting for a second job, preferably in retail.
Hawaii is home to Rebecca Reichert Arlander, who moved here from Boston to teach a decade ago.
“I love it here, I love teaching here and I love the kids here,” she says.
But many events have led her to question if teaching is a sustainable career for her here. For 18 months, she lived in a 15 feet by 15 feet studio with another teacher.
“It was really cheap,” Arlander says. “It was going to be $1,000 a month, but we said, ‘Hey we’re teachers,’ so they knocked it down to $700.”
Bartering for discounts as a teacher may be a more common tactic in Hawaii than you’d think. At the start of each school year, Craigslist displays dozens of postings from teachers pleading for help obtaining affordable or discounted housing.
After the studio, Arlander found some financial stability living with two roommates in an apartment where they paid just $600 apiece — at least until the place was sold out from beneath them. These days her share of the rent is $780, which she says she can afford partly because she finished paying off her car.
For a while, she picked up three or four shifts a week at the Cheesecake Factory, while also working as a full-time social studies teacher at Washington Middle School.
“A lot of my teacher-friends in Seattle have homes already, whether they’re single or in couples. I don’t have any savings, any cushion to rely on.” — Juna Alvarez
Has she set anything aside? “I can’t save any money, no,” she says, noting that she almost never eats out or shops for frivolous things.
Her school includes many poor children, which puts her own financial challenges into context. “I know they are facing bigger problems than I have,” she says.
The average annual salary in the state in 2014 was $45,201.
And she notes that most extracurricular activities she enjoys — hiking, going to the beach, snorkeling and swimming — are free.
“But as I’m getting toward my mid-30s, I am starting to think about a family,” she says.
“I don’t think I could afford a pet right now, much less a child. The reality that has started to hit me in the last couple years: I don’t think this is sustainable.”
Nina Birge did have a child, a son, eight years ago.
The birth came early in a teaching career in Hawaii that she was intensely committed to. She earned her master’s degree from UH, partly while living on Kauai, and prepared for her work by taking courses in Hawaiian history, literature, music and regional anthropology.
She began teaching at a Hawaiian immersion charter school there, while living rent-free with her parents, her boyfriend and their son.
But in 2012, they moved to Oahu — without her parents — and started to pay rent. “That was an eye opener,” she recalls. She started to teach at Campbell High, while her partner worked in the hospitality industry and earned less than she did as a teacher. “It was,” she says, “a constant struggle living paycheck to paycheck.”
“We never went out to eat; we never went to movies,” she says, adding that the couple eventually broke up.
There were times when she decided not to drive her car to the beach to avoid paying for gasoline.
“It isn’t to be a millionaire. But you should be able to afford a life for yourself and your family.” — Nina Birge
Birge says she paid far more rent than she otherwise would have so that her son could attend a high-quality public school in Mililani.
The tradeoff was that Birge, 33, was in no position to even start paying off her student loans, which meant that more ambitious goals were even further off.
“I realized,” she says, “I would never be able to own a home on the income paid to a teacher. I realized last year that it really wasn’t realistic anymore, and I had to let that dream go, and return to Colorado.”
Many other teachers have come to similar conclusions. About half of new teachers quit teaching public school in Hawaii in their first five years on the job, whether leaving for another profession or to teach elsewhere, according to the teachers union.
By the Hawaii Department of Education’s count, about 200 of 751 resignations during the 2014-2015 school year were linked to the high cost of living in Hawaii.
“If individuals cannot afford to plant roots here, they will leave,” DOE spokesperson Donalyn Dela Cruz says. “If they were originally from Hawaii, it is hard to lure them back from another state where their income can stretch a lot further.”
Birge is subbing in Colorado this year as she searches for a good district to apply to next year.
But even as a substitute teacher her finances are already in much better shape, largely because Colorado is so much more affordable. She and her son live in a vast home where the electricity bill is the same as it was in their small apartment in Mililani — even when she liberally uses the air conditioning or heating, because Hawaii has by far the most expensive electricity in the nation.
Birge is still disappointed about how things went in Honolulu.
“I really cared for my students and I really wanted to make a difference. I wanted to be a part of Hawaii and its culture and its people,” she says. “I felt I had the aloha spirit and I wanted to give back to my community, and it makes me sad that I wasn’t able to make Hawaii a part of my forever home.”
“When people say, Why did you leave? I say financial reasons. Hawaii is a beautiful place, but it is difficult to live there. You get your degree and want a brighter future for yourself and your family and your kids, and I realized that wasn’t going to be the case.”
When she taught in the islands, students sometimes told her they were thinking of becoming teachers. Birge says she told them not to.
Nobody, she said, goes into teaching for the money. “It isn’t to be a millionaire. But you should be able to afford a life for yourself and your family,” she says.
Rosenlee says he would never discourage anyone from coming to Hawaii to teach. But he would advise anyone moving here to be prepared to be politically active, to try and change what he says is simply a financially untenable situation.
As for Leary, the first-year teacher who is living small, she hopes to start paying $200 to $300 per month on her student loans next summer, and then to pay the minimum amount for 20 years. At that point, she hopes to benefit from a public-service loan forgiveness plan.
A two-decade career that hinges on the possibility of debt forgiveness hardly seems like an inspiration for the teachers of tomorrow in the islands.
But Leary’s not dwelling on that. In the big picture, she says, “I try not to let it overwhelm me.”
Do you have a compelling story about the human impact of the cost of living, whether about you or someone you know? Are you struggling to get by, or have you found the answer to the financial challenges here? If you want to write it up, or share it with us, please drop a note to email@example.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.