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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.
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.
This HI-Priced Q&A features Ilihia and Kirstin, an engaged couple living in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island. They welcomed a new baby girl a few months ago and are working out how their new family member fits into their financial plan.
Ilihia and Kirstin live in a two-bedroom condo with Ilihia’s father and their newborn daughter. They both work out of the home, Ilihia running a strategic communications firm and Kirstin working in community health education.
Their annual household income is higher than Hawaii’s median for a family their size (and much higher than our previous installments of HI-Priced) but they still feel the pain points of our high cost of living.
Both Ilihia and Kirstin are Native Hawaiian and their families have lived in Hawaii for generations, and they say they wouldn’t want to raise a family anywhere else.
We asked them how they make it work on a day to day basis. Here’s their story:
Age: 32 and 35
Location: Kailua-Kona, Big Island
Occupation: Ilihia owns a communications firm. Kirstin works in community health education
Annual Household Income: $150,000 – $175,000
Marital Status: Engaged
Monthly Mortgage/HOA fees/Insurance: $2,200
Total Student Loans: $21,000
Monthly Car Payment: $700
Kirstin: I think it’s definitely housing cost. The reason I’m a homeowner right now is not necessarily because I can afford to be a homeowner. I didn’t think I would qualify by myself when I first got this condo. But as I was looking for rentals on the Big Island, especially in Kona, I found that a lot of people turn rental options into Airbnb’s or vacation rentals, so the rental market is very few and far between.
So what I was finding is that rental costs were really high, and I noticed that if I could qualify for a mortgage to get an apartment or condo to buy, then I would be paying less per month than renting.
Ilihia: When I was born, we were living on Pupu Street in Ewa Beach, which runs along the ocean. My parents owned the house, but the land was leased, so when that lease came up for renewal and the price skyrocketed, they decided to look for a more affordable option and so we bought a house on the east side of Hawaii Island. We had a big yard, it was a big house — room for everybody.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom and my dad worked his job at ACE Hardware. He was a retail hardware store clerk. We also had my grandma with us who was retired. And we could afford to buy a house in the early 1990’s. A good-sized house on a good-sized lot. I don’t see how a family of 5 with one person working retail could pull that off today.
In the span of my lifetime, to go from a family of five — two kids, grandma retired, stay-at-home mom, dad working retail — to go from that to there’s no way you’re gonna buy a house, just in my lifetime, is … it’s amazing to me how quickly that happened.
Kirstin: I grew up on Oahu in Kapolei, so it was the new community to be able to afford to buy a home. It was in the middle of nowhere at the time. Kapolei was sugarcane fields and then they started building homes there. For my family to buy their first home, Kapolei was one of the only options for them because it was affordable. We moved there in 1990 and it was the first subdivision on the first street in that first community in Kapolei, so we were one of the first families to move into that area.
Now it’s a second city as they call it — much bigger and developed and diverse. But at the time, what drew them to those homes is the fact that it was something they could afford. Go to the middle of nowhere in Kapolei because you can own a home — the dream of owning a home.
Kirstin: When I turned 18, I went away to college in the Midwest. I was at a college in southern Indiana and then I also lived in St. Louis, Missouri, so two different parts of the Midwest, but it’s one of the most affordable places in the United States to live.
I lived there for 14 years, including undergraduate school, grad school and professional work. I actually finished my master’s right before the recession started, and I just felt like, gosh there’s no way I can go home and afford to live. There’s no way I can get a job in Hawaii where I could afford the cost of living, so I decided to wait out the recession in the Midwest.
During my professional career in the Midwest, my salary almost doubled in every change of job. So I moved up the ladder fairly steadily, which was really a blessing for me and I could see my hard work paying off.
But the call to move home was just so great. I lost my father five years ago, and that was a transition where I realized that I’m losing time with my family. I was away all by myself having a fairly good professional career and my money went further, I could afford to have more of a lifestyle that I desire, but my family was all in Hawaii. So I thought, I don’t know if I can afford to move home, but I’m going to try and look for a job.
I was looking at Big Island instead of Oahu because my mom and my grandparents had relocated back here where my mom grew up. I honestly thought that with the quantity of jobs available on the Big Island, that if I moved home it would have to be to Oahu and maybe I would be able to move to the Big Island later. Miraculously I was able to find a good job that offered a little bit less than I was making, but close enough to the same salary that it didn’t seem detrimental. But to decrease my salary and move home knowing how high the cost of living is coming from the Midwest, it was really scary. But I took the leap thinking that, no matter what, my family is here so it’s gonna be worth it.
I was just telling Ilihia the other day that for the size of the condo we own, in St. Louis I could have something double the size for half the price. And to have that, and to have as many people as we have in this house — for me, it’s actually a little difficult because I experienced something for about 14 years that was much different. So there are some growing pains and adjustments that have to be made and being okay with a downsized home life.
Ilihia: For me, this is where my family is from. This is the community that shaped me, that taught me the values that guide my life day to day. I want that for my child. It’s a reciprocal relationship too. As much as I love and need this place, I feel like this place needs us too. Hawaii without local people would be so different that it could lose what’s special about it. That’s frankly a scary thought to me. So when we talk about cost of living, we’re really talking about the future of this place and the future of the people whose families have understood this place for generations. So for me, leaving isn’t really an option.
In college, I never went away. I went to UH Hilo, and it was a complicated decision. There was a group of folks trying to get me to one school on the continent, but with my mom’s health situation at the time, there was no way to tell if I would be missing out on her final weeks or final months or final years. She passed away in the middle of my sophomore year of college, so in my mind I made the right choice to stay home. But even if I did go away it would have been with the intention of coming home and adding my energy, adding my contribution to this place.
Kirstin: I was away for a while so I don’t have any intention to move away although I see the financial pressure and burden that it takes off of you and your family. But when I was away, one of the things I always thought of is that I wanted to raise a family at home. I could be away in the Midwest as long as I needed to, but I could never see myself raising a family there.
Now that we have a daughter, I really want to raise her here in Hawaii where we can instill our cultural values in our child, and have her experience that as a community, not just at home. I think it will shape our child. For me, the sacrifice of cost of living is unfortunately something we have to deal with for the sake of being in our community and of our community and instilling those values within our family.
Kirstin: We’re not willing to exchange an easier way of life for being away from home. And for some families, that’s not an option. We’re lucky that we have that option. We’re in a financial bracket where we’re still challenged by the high cost of living, but we can’t say that we’re suffering. We’re much more blessed and in a much more comfortable financial situation than a lot of others. So that gives us a little bit more choice than other people.
I was also fortunate to be able to buy my condo because my grandparents had land that they kept in the family. When my father passed away, the land came to my brother and I and we were able to sell it and have that money to invest in something for our kids and family. My brother bought a home on Maui, and I was able to put a down payment on this condo. Maybe we wouldn’t have been able to do that if generations back, my grandparents didn’t have land that started as macadamia nut farms that could be passed down for generations.
It wasn’t lots of land or tons of money, but it was something to help with the down payment. You know, we’re not wealthy landowners, it was just small properties, but it’s one part of the equation that has made living in Hawaii a little bit easier for us in comparison to other people.
Ilihia: On one hand, there’s what we can do as a family to ensure that she has a solid foundation going into adulthood. So making sure that we have some property, some assets to pass onto her, as a result of us working hard every day to make sure that that happens.
On the other hand, if we as a community don’t do what we have to do to make sure that our kids who were born here, whose families go back for generations… if we don’t figure out what we need to do to make sure that they can stay here and raise their families in the same place, then we have failed them. That’s on us, that’s on our generation, that’s on us as parents, that’s on us as community members to make sure that our kids can raise their kids here too. I will consider it the biggest failure of my generation if we don’t do that. If we don’t figure out affordable housing, if we don’t figure out the cost of living, that’s on us.
Kirstin: I’m currently on maternity leave, so one thing I’m freaking out about is how to actually spend time with my child and afford to be on maternity leave. I work for a company where I’m only getting full pay for about two to two and a half weeks.
It’s hard work to be a parent with a newborn, and our baby was born five weeks early, so she’s a preemie and we really want to spend this developmental time with her. Right now, I’m only taking three months off — the maximum of what will allow me to keep my job — but we’re talking about whether I need to go back to work early because we don’t know if we can afford it as a family.
What I’ve learned in this process, this being our first child, is that parents have to make very difficult decisions of not being with their children in those developmental stages because they can’t afford to.
But a lot of people in Hawaii can’t afford daycare either for a newborn, or even as they get older, because it’s too expensive. So they have grandparents or aunties or uncles that help with that. Some families do have that opportunity, and that works for them, but other families don’t.
Kirstin: Absolutely. We want to send our child to one of the best private schools in Hawaii when they’re at that age — but can we even afford to? That’s our goal, but what do we have to start thinking about now? I used to work in higher education and the joke is ‘uh oh, I have to start looking for a job at Punahou to get tuition discounts.’
Plus, we’re already in our mid-30s thinking that maybe we want one more, but we’re also wondering if we can afford one more. That is a real thing that people in Hawaii have to think about. Hawaii’s very family-oriented, so I think there are some families who don’t think about that, they just think about wanting a big, loving family and figure out how to pay for it later. But we’re a little bit more scientific on whether we can afford to have another one.
I will say that my biggest fear right now in life is how are we going to pay for this child and, more immediately, how are we going to get through maternity leave and pay our bills? We’re still new at this, so we just have to go day to day and look at those decisions and numbers and figure out how to make it work, but it is scary.
Ilihia: The opportunity to have my daughter’s grandfather with us was big for me. I think about my grandpa who died when I was 7 or 8 and there are just really general things that I remember about him, but I feel like there’s so much more I could have learned from him given more time, or me being a little older to soak in that stuff. So yeah, the multigenerational household thing oftentimes is a result of the high cost of living, but there’s also a lot of benefits to that in terms of having those intergenerational learning and teaching moments and passing values down.
My dad fought in a war, he worked on a plantation — these are experiences that I’m never gonna have. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but he grew up when times were hard, and that’s something I’ll never know. So to me, there’s a lot of value in having a grandpa in house to teach some of that.
Kirstin: I think I find it more challenging because I lived in the Midwest with more space. The transition for me was really difficult in terms of space, having lived alone for a long time. When I grew up in Kapolei, it was just my parents and my brother and I, so it’s more challenging for me, but I think the value of having family around is really important.
Ilihia: Is anybody? I had the privilege and honor of working in government for about seven years — a couple years at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs earlier in my career, and later for the County of Hawaii. The state and county government share an employee benefit plan, so I am vested in that, but because it was only seven years, it’s not much. It’s something, it’s a start.
I did start an IRA recently, but there’s not much in it yet. I know that saving for long-term expenses is important, but when you’re faced with the day-to-day realities and the most immediate and pertinent challenges, it’s very easy to put the later-on aside. And yet I know that the little that I save now will make a big deal later.
Kirstin: I have a retirement account — a 403b since I worked in higher ed. It’s basically the higher-ed version of a 401k. That’s my major area of saving for retirement.
When I first moved to Hawaii, my first employer didn’t have a retirement option and that was really concerning for me. Moving to Hawaii and being here for three years, this is the only time I’ve never saved for retirement. At every job before Hawaii, I would give the maximum that you could get benefits back for. So here in Hawaii, my first employer didn’t have an option and at the second I just haven’t had time. Again, when there are bills you’re paying and things seem pretty month-to-month, I just didn’t take the time to make sure I get on the retirement train with my current employer. So I’m not contributing right now except to what’s growing in my current retirement fund.
Kirstin: We’ve only lived together since December. At the end of November, we moved in together. About three weeks later, we found out we were pregnant, so it’s been kind of a whirlwind to fuse our lives together fully. We’ve kind of been on autopilot and haven’t gotten to where we need to budget and how we need to get our finances in order as a couple. I would say I’m better at money managing and I need to get the rest of the family onboard.
Ilihia: She’s the responsible adult.
Kirstin: It’s a work in progress, and now that we’re a family, we really need to do that as a family. We’ve been on autopilot since we moved in together and getting pregnant was a whirlwind.
Kirstin: I would say going out to eat or buying things already made is really expensive — especially on the Big Island and maybe Kona in particular because everything is marketed for tourists. I think in Hilo or on Oahu there are ranges of affordability, but we don’t have as much of that. That’s something we’re working on as a family is cooking at home and going to the grocery store. Especially if you’re trying to eat healthier, that’s the way to go.
Ilihia: My tip is a little more philosophical. If you really come to terms with the fact that there is no better place to live in the world than right here, and if you truly believe that there is no better place in the world to raise your family than right here, you can figure out the rest. If that’s your guiding star, you can figure out the rest. And yeah, there will be tough times, but you work through them because you know that staying here is the best thing you can do for your family. And everybody’s calculation of that is gonna be different.
We all have friends and family whose calculations came to a different conclusion. One of my best friends, her whole flock ended up in Arizona, some for school, some for work. But all three of her kids and their other halves, their kids and everything, they’re all in one nest in Arizona and that works for them. That’s the choice that they made, but for me, knowing what my decision is, and knowing why, it just helps clarify everything else. So I don’t ever wonder how it would be because I know that this is where I need to raise my family.
Ilihia: There needs to be some intervention to create more affordable rentals. And not just for the lower end of the income spectrum, I mean even for folks approaching our range, just a place to start out. We have people commuting ridiculously far distances to work at jobs that are not great paying jobs, but they’re jobs.
Kirstin: Another thing is to start taxing people who have vacation rentals. They are really pricing people out of housing and they keep paradise way more expensive. So making sure that there are laws in place and people are fairly paying taxes for having a vacation rental versus a place for a local person to live in and pay month to month, I think that’s really critical.
We also talk about having a tax incentive for people who go away to college and move home if they’re in higher level degrees. Of course we need more doctors, but are there other areas of terminal degrees that we want to incentivize? Or do we want to bring back everyone that’s local, went away and, not only has a bachelor’s degree, but has a master’s or a doctorate or a PhD? Maybe you get a tax break for moving home for the first two or three years to incentivize that brain drain, because we are losing some really educated local people who feel like they have to leave because the cost of living and availability of jobs.
Ilihia: Without a doubt, no question, nowhere else I’d rather live.
Kirstin: I’ve been fortunate to be able to travel to over 30 countries, and having that experience, I’ve seen that Hawaii is very one of a kind — there really is no other place like it.
Some places that I’ve seen around the world, what is beautiful there is deteriorating because people don’t have environmental laws and they’re just building and not caring about their local assets. In Hawaii, we have a chance to keep that and sustain that.
So, yes, we love it, but it has changed in our lifetime and could continue to change. So do we want it to change for the better? We have to look to our leaders to make sure that it stays this unique place.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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