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HI-Priced is a 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.

 

This HI-Priced Q&A features Marjorie, who lives with her husband and two children in Waianae.

Living on the West Side and working in Honolulu means hours in the car each day and less family time at home. Both children are currently in preschool, so childcare costs are a big chunk of their expenses each month.

Marjorie and her husband don’t have any student loans that are so common with millennials, but have about $120,000 in credit card debt and a debt consolidation loan. After buying their home in Waianae in 2014, expensive repairs to the house meant their debt ballooned.

As family members have relocated to Las Vegas over the years, they have remained in Hawaii — but staying has come with a price. Here’s their story:

Marjorie

Age: 35
Location: Waianae, Oahu
Occupation: Program specialist for the state
Annual Household Income: $110,000 ($83,000 after tax)
Marital Status: Married
Monthly Mortgage: $2,100
Utilities: $500
Total Student Loans: $0
Phone: $200
Health Insurance Premium: $700 for family of four
Childcare: $1,560

Does your family budget? Do you have much wiggle room with your spending?

We don’t budget every dollar, but we have a healthy dose of fear that we may not be able to pay bills. So we are somewhere in the middle. I think we’re pretty average, where we don’t budget every dollar, but we still kind of live paycheck to paycheck.

How did you buy your house?

I became obsessed with owning a home here, and when I get obsessed with something, I can’t stop thinking about it. So we looked at every avenue. We tried to do it on our own, but with our income there was just no way. There is a great organization called the Hawaii HomeOwnership Center. They help Hawaii residents buy a property.

HHOC looked at our circumstances, our income and what we could afford. Then we nailed it down to a United States Department of Agriculture loan. For a USDA loan, you don’t need a down payment, but you have to pick a property in a rural area — and Waianae is rural.

This was in 2014 and the house we bought was $350,000. There was no down payment and no closing costs. The home is 2500 square feet, but the property is 7000 square feet. There’s no way we could find anywhere even close to that in Honolulu for the price.

So that’s how we bought our home back when we had a $75,000 shared income. However, my husband lost his job when our house was in escrow. Because he’s a videographer, he was able to find freelance work in the industry because everyone’s so tight knit. That’s a great thing about Hawaii — he was able to find someone in the industry who hired him to do editing work for videos. That’s how we were able to secure the loan and show proof of future income.

Are you happy that you bought the house?

It’s funny that you ask that — I kept thinking about that after I filled out your survey. We kind of swing back and forth. We’re really grateful that we have the house. However, it’s so far and traffic is really bad. I’m happy with the house purchase. It’s more house than you can ever get for that price in Honolulu. There’s just no way we could buy anywhere in Honolulu with no down payment. So yes, we’re happy, but it does come with a lot of sacrifice.

How long is the commute?

While school has been out, it has been wonderful. It has taken us only about 45 minutes to get from Waianae to Honolulu. But once school starts, it takes us an hour and 45 minutes or longer to get to get to work. It’s a huge difference.

How does the commute affect your daily life?

It’s stressful. A day in our life is we wake up at 4 a.m. or sooner and we don’t get into town until 7:45 or 8 a.m. It may seem like a long time, but it’s just getting the kids ready — two very small children, preschool age children, trying to wake them up before the sun, getting them ready for preschool, making sure we have everything and then leaving. That comes with all the tantrums that you can possibly think of and any accidents that might happen before you leave the house.

It affects what time we get off work and what we do after work. We try to get to work as soon as possible so we can leave sooner than when traffic starts. If we can start earlier, we can miss some of the traffic going home. It affects when we go grocery shopping, what errands we can do after work, when appointments are made for the kids or ourselves, car repairs — any of those things. Any detour after work that takes longer than 30 minutes adds a significant amount of time before we can get home.

Do both you and your husband work in Honolulu? And do your kids go to preschool in town?

Yes, we do. I’m very lucky that my kids’ preschool is across the street from where I work. The commute is hard, but at least we’re together.

Can you tell me more about preschool costs and the price of raising kids in Hawaii?

Our situation was a typical Hawaii family situation where I had my mom helping me raise my two children. She moved in with us after we bought our house. It made no sense that she paid rent on an apartment when she could move in with us and retire early because she was only working to pay rent. She moved in with us and provided childcare. Then my sister who lives in Las Vegas became pregnant, had a child and needed my mom’s help, so my mom, being the grandmother she is, went to Vegas and is still there helping my sister with her newborn child. That’s why my two kids are in preschool. But to come up with that money, and the stress of looking for a preschool was so hard.

For all the schools we had looked at, there was nothing less than $700 per child. And because my youngest at the time was 2 and not potty-trained, it’s more costly and there are fewer options. So we were looking and freaking out, because we had a deadline since my mom was going to help my sister. Finally, we were very lucky that there was a school that took both kids in. They potty-trained and it was less than $1,000 per child per month.

We were just lucky that somebody dropped out and we got off the waitlist, because we had nowhere else to go. It would be that or take my kids to work with me.

I asked a lot of my coworkers who are parents what they do and some of them said they took out a Home Equity Line of Credit on their home to pay for a private school to take them. I was like, I’m not going to take out a HELOC for childcare. So we’re putting it on a credit card, and we’re just having it automatically charged. We are very acutely aware of that, but there is no other option for us to come up with another mortgage payment each month to pay for childcare, and it makes us feel better that our kids are learning there. The difference between hiring a private babysitter and having them go to a preschool to learn was not a significant difference in price.

Do you see childcare being more or less expensive in the future?

My husband works at Punahou School, and if you work there, you get one child that can go there for free.

My child is not accepted yet, because she’s trying to test in. We’re hopeful. She’s going to be six, so she’ll be able to go into kindergarten this year. My youngest will be the only one that will be in preschool.

It also depends if my mom decides to stay in Vegas to help my sister. That has caused contention, because I had my mom to help me for three and a half years, but she might decide to stay there if she wants to.

But that’s going to be a huge cost for us because my youngest is three and she can’t go to school until she’s six because of the cut-off age. She has a late birthday, so that’s another thing.

So once both kids are old enough for kindergarten, we will either do public school for both — or one Punahou, one public school and make it a social experiment.

How did your debt accumulate?

The $120,000 is everything that we owe – all current credit cards, debt consolidation and home improvement loans we’ve taken out. When we purchased our vehicle, the interest rate was high. When we were able to, we consolidated the car loan into a debt consolidation loan along with some credit cards that we had balances on. It’s ballooned as things have happened over the years – roof leaking, water heater gave out, car repairs, etc.

Do you have a plan to pay off your debt?

We’re doing the snowball method where you take different balances and pay off each one as soon as you can. For instance, we’re almost done with our air conditioning that we put into the walls. And the next thing is the water heater that broke and we had to fix that, and the sewer line was like $7,000. We’re slowly paying those things off.

I’m sure when this comes out, people will be like, how did they get into so much debt? It’s because things break and they’re very expensive. And then the only thing that we could put it on was a credit card. So that’s the reason why. So we just take things chunk by chunk and we start paying it off. We’re not even looking at the childcare thing. We pay it every month and it gets automatically deducted, it’s in the balance somewhere.

But that’s our plan. We’re doing it little by little. We’re hoping that we move up in our careers and get more pay. So that’s maybe part of the plan is to look at better-paying jobs or a second job somewhere, or hustling on the side, just something to help bring in more income.

Do you ever consider moving to the mainland?

Here’s what we’ve been thinking: if it gets too hard here, we could sell our home, take the equity and start fresh. We would have no debt and we would be able to buy somewhere on the mainland. I guess that’s a lifeline for us, knowing that if it gets really hard here we would be able to find jobs in the mainland. Good jobs, I hope. But maybe it’s a cheaper cost of living so maybe we don’t need successful jobs, but we would be able to start fresh and get rid of all our debt if we sold our house and moved to the mainland.

And that is our lifeline right there, knowing that. That’s my exit strategy if we start to drown and are not able to pay bills, even with our income. We are very cognizant of how higher income looks on paper, but that does not take into account all the debt we have.

Do you want to raise your kids here?

I do. My relatives who have moved, I think the goal when they first moved was to stay on the mainland for a couple of years and then come back home and raise their children. But it became so hard to come back home after moving to the mainland. But I think that’s the sentiment of a lot of people from Hawaii is that you want to raise your children here.

I think it’s the idea of what Hawaii meant to you when you grew up. It means community, it’s that island mentality, however you want to define that. It’s that feeling you get when you meet somebody from Hawaii when you’re traveling on the mainland or out of the country. It’s that connection.

Usually when I meet people that have moved away and I ask them if they miss it and if they wish they could come back, the answer has always been yes. But the cost of living is so high that they can’t afford to.

That kind of sticks with me, because we know that if we did sell our house, we would never be able to come back. If we sold our house and got rid of all our debt and then tried to start afresh, we wouldn’t come back. There would be no way to come back.

What are you sacrificing to live here?

I would say time. Time spent at home, in the home that we bought that we’re very proud of. Progress, maybe. Hawaii can feel like it’s a little bit backwards at times. New experiences. But what we have at this point is more valuable than what we’re sacrificing. So that’s why we’re here still.

Do you think about retirement?

I personally do. My husband was freelancing, so there was no way he could save. But now that we both have stable jobs, we are looking at saving for retirement. We try to do a little each month, even if its 20 or 50 bucks.

As a state employee, we have to put in money for retirement, so I just let them take out money for me, which is nice because I’m forced to save money for retirement.

Any tips or tricks for people trying to make ends meet here?

For people who want to buy a home, take a look at what kind of programs are out there. I’ve already preached this a lot to friends who want to buy a home, but the Hawaii HomeOwnership Center, HHOC, is really great at helping people buy homes. For first-time home buyers, there are so many great programs and grants out there. It also depends where you want to be. For us, that meant we ended up in Waianae, but we have the home we wanted. I know it’s location, location, location, but that’s something you have to think about as well — what would you sacrifice?

Also, try to keep in your perspective that everyone is going to have debt. That’s what keeps us sane at the end of the day. I mean, I know that there are people who don’t have debt, but everyone is dealing with something. We don’t have student loans, but we have tons of credit card debt. We work on it little by little and we pay off what we can, we move things where we can.

It’s kind of like a game, like which card can we move or which card can we open in order to transfer a balance? But we’re saving and we’re paying our bills still, and we still live here, so I think it’s doable. Everywhere you go, you’ll have debt. You’ll have a car payment or something will break and need to be fixed. So where do you want to be when that happens? For us, we want to be in Hawaii. So that’s why we’re here.

How do you think Hawaii can make it easier for people to make it here?

As a state employee, I would strongly suggest more telecommuting. There are some state employees — not all — where a majority of their job is either sending out emails or answering phones are having teleconferences. Why can’t people telecommute? Or stagger peoples’ start times? I’m sure there are people who want to start at 9 a.m. instead of 7:45 because it makes such a difference when people are out of school or if there’s a holiday. So if we could telecommute or have networking hubs or offices on the Kapolei side. Why aren’t we utilizing the West Side more? Kapolei was supposed to be that second city, so why isn’t it being utilized more instead of downtown Honolulu? I would love that option. I feel like that’s where we need to go.

Also childcare. State agencies should have childcare in their buildings. That just makes sense to me. The federal building has it. That would be so helpful for some government workers, at least.

Hawaii is very smart. There are a lot of innovative solutions. The technology exists that we can telecommute or we can create these solutions. But we also have island mentality, so I’m not sure how quick to change we’ll be.

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

I am happy in Hawaii. On the weekends, when we don’t have to absolutely go into town, we hang out at our house and look out past palm trees and see the outline of the ocean. We are happy, it’s just that nagging voice in the back of our minds telling us that the grass is greener on the other side of the ocean. We could get out of debt, we could travel to different states, we could go apple picking, but who would we be living next to? What cultures are represented near us? Are our children going to be happy in school?

It’s always solidified for me after we travel or go on vacation to another state. When we come home, I am relieved that we’re back home in Hawaii.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. We are allowing contributors, upon request, to remain anonymous in order to protect their privacy. 

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