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Welcome to HI-Priced, a Honolulu Civil Beat newsletter about living, working and making ends meet in Hawaii, one of the most expensive states in the nation.

As the saying goes, lucky we live Hawaii. But our luck comes with quite a price tag. Rising rents, stagnant salaries, soul-crushing commutes and more plague locals’ lives. In fact, a recent study determined that $93,000 is considered “low-income” for a family of four in Hawaii.

That statistic sparked the idea behind HI-Priced. We want to know how everyday people stretch their salaries to live in the Aloha State — and is the price of paradise really worth it?

In each email, you’ll hear from a different family or individual trying to make it work in Hawaii. We’ll introduce you to people of all backgrounds, salaries, neighborhoods, living situations and more.

Our first HI-Priced Q&A features Casey, who works for the state of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and also has a part-time job at a fitness studio. She rents a two-bedroom house with her fiancé and his brother in Kaneohe.

She grew up in Hana, Maui, but now lives and works on Oahu, where she says higher salaries make the cost of living more manageable. Still, between grappling with student loans, saving for retirement and trying to find the time and money to cook healthy meals at home, making ends meet requires planning and sacrifice. Regardless, she says she’ll never leave the islands.

We asked her how she deals with Hawaii’s cost of living on a day to day basis. Here’s her story:

Casey

Age: 37
Location: Kaneohe
Occupation: Land Division Specialist, Department of Land and Natural Resources
Annual Income: $71,000 (Net Income: $41,000)
Marital Status: Engaged
Monthly Rent: $800 ($2200 split between household members)
Utilities: $400-$500
Total Student Loans: $80,000
Monthly Car Payment: $418

Other than fixed expenses, what is your biggest spending area?

Food is a big one. You almost can’t buy a lunch here for under $10. I try to cook at home as much as possible, but when I’m leaving home at 7:00 or 7:30 in the morning and getting home at 7:00 or 7:30 at night it doesn’t leave me a lot of time to cook at home. But eating out is very expensive. Most of the time, it’s just eating a bowl of cereal and going to bed.

It’s also hard to eat healthy on a budget. I try to buy local produce and support local but it can be time-consuming and hard and expensive. You know, with everything else, some days I just don’t have it in me. I have no idea how people with kids do it. I have zero idea. I don’t know how they’re even still walking around and conscious.

What are some of the unexpected cost of living burdens you’ve experienced in Hawaii?

I have two dogs, so that’s another expense that you have to take into account. It’s very hard to rent with dogs so we had to pay a deposit and also get renters insurance to have our dogs; and that’s with a landlord that likes dogs. It was very difficult to find a place that would allow two large dogs. If you have a little chihuahua, I’m sure it’s easy, but if you have anything larger than 20 lbs, it’s very difficult and your choices are very limited on places you can rent. They’re usually much more expensive. I love dogs so I don’t care, I will take care of them, I’ll get another job if I have to, but it just seems like our state isn’t very friendly to people with pets.

Is living with your fiancé and his brother a financial or personal decision?

Kind of both. It’s a financial decision for my fiancé’s brother too because he wouldn’t be able to afford a place on his own. My fiancé and I could probably afford a one-bedroom, just us, but we wanted something bigger and we weren’t going to just leave his brother to fend for himself. It does help us to have him around and have another set of hands around the house, but also to take care of him. He’s working at a restaurant and makes $15 an hour plus some tips, but he wouldn’t be able to afford an apartment on his own.

Have you considered moving to the mainland for a cheaper cost of living?

No. I’m staying here. I’m Native Hawaiian, so this is my homeland. I wouldn’t feel at home anywhere else. 

I’m originally from Hana, Maui, and I think about moving back there all the time, but it’s hard to find good-paying jobs in Maui. I make a lot more than what most people make in Maui. But the cost of living is almost the same or even more, so I have no idea how other people do it.

 

What do you feel like you’re sacrificing to continue to live here?

I might be sacrificing career advancement but I’m not sure because I haven’t worked in any other area. There’s definitely limited room for advancement.

You know, we live a long time here, and I’ve noticed that a lot of people forego retirement, so a lot of the positions that would be available to me and other professionals in my age bracket — we have to wait for other people to retire for those positions to open up.

Are you saving for retirement? Do you think you’ll be able to retire in Hawaii?

Fortunately I work in the public sector so we have a retirement plan. I have the Deferred Compensation Plan that’s offered with the state so I set aside about $100 per month in pre-tax savings for my retirement.

But do I think it’s enough? No. I really don’t know at this point. Especially with the student loans, because the way that it’s looking I’ll be paying back a million dollars total for less than $100,000 in loans. And I will be at retirement age before I’m done paying them. So I really don’t know what my retirement looks like but I am saving for it as much as I can. Without the state retirement plan, there’s no way I could retire here, especially not on the types of salaries that are typical.

What’s your overall philosophy when it comes to money? Are you a budgeter?

I try to budget and stick to it. I make sure to pay all of my recurring obligations first and immediately and I schedule those to be due around when I get paid or directly afterwards, so I either pay them in person or autopay them, so that all of those are taken care of. And then after that I budget for food, gas and a couple of other things, and then anything else extra — which you see isn’t very much — I put it toward savings.

Do you have any tips or tricks for people trying to make ends meet in Hawaii?

Anything that I know is from my mom. My mom is a rock star. She was a teacher for public schools here for over 40 years, raised four kids, owned a house, has perfect credit. So anything that I know, or any good habits are from her. But I’m nowhere near as good at it as she is. She has even told me that the economics and the finances are much different now for me than they were for her when she was my age. So anything I know I learned from her: Never buy a new car. Set up auto-pay and budget.

But I really don’t have any advice for anybody else because I feel like I’m barely treading water most of the time.

How do you think Hawaii can change to make it easier for everyday locals to make it work financially?

I think people would be helped a lot if the state could figure out how to have renters eliminate the financial burden of security deposits. A lot of people can afford rent, but it’s very hard to save up a whole month of rent for a deposit. I think that if they could create some sort of public fund, some sort of renter’s fund, then landlords could use that as a source of security if they need it.

That also goes for buying homes. My fiancé and I could afford a mortgage, but can we afford to save up $60,000 for a down payment? No. I think the state and other organizations, government and nongovernment, could be working a lot harder to address those two issues. It’s really the down payments that are a huge burden for people.

Despite the cost of living, are you happy in Hawaii?

Yes! Yes. Hawaii is the best place in the world.

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