Editor’s Note: This story is part of an ongoing series, “Living Hawaii,” that examines our high cost of living and what it will take to bring down “the price of paradise.” Sign up for our email newsletter HI-Priced to get stories like these in your inbox, submit your suggestions for what cost-of-living stories we should cover, or join the conversation at our Cost of Living Facebook page.
Kristina Ballina’s bedroom is frozen in time.
At age 28, Ballina still sleeps on the same twin bed that she grew up in, eats her mother’s cooking and gets lectured on cleaning up.
That might be unusual for another city or another generation. But in Honolulu, Ballina feels normal.
“I don’t see it as a bad thing,” she says. “I think just living in Hawaii it’s the norm.”
Living at home is how she saves money, affords to travel and overcomes Honolulu’s cost of living.
The median home price in Honolulu was $767,500 in January, far out of reach for Ballina, who earns $12.50 per hour plus commission as a travel agent.
People who are part of Ballina’s generation — known as Generation Y or more commonly, millennials — go to college in far higher numbers than previous generations. But Hawaii residents between the ages of 25 and 34 today are still facing a tough path toward traditional goals like buying a house, saving for retirement and being independent.
Millennials are paying a lot more in rent compared to the same age group in 1990 but their average salary has stayed flat. More young adults were living in poverty in 2017 than in 1990 or 1980.
It’s hard to afford to live a comfortable life in Honolulu but it’s particularly hard if you’re just starting your career.
Ballina isn’t planning to leave Honolulu though. She’s determined to save enough money to one day have her own place
“I put it out in the universe, I am moving out,” she says.
In one sense, Ballina is fortunate.
Life for millennials is a lot different if you don’t have family in Hawaii to fall back on. Ask Rachel Morrison, 30, who moved to Hawaii six years ago and is originally from Maine.
She works as an educational interpreter for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Hawaii public schools and earns about $40,000. Every weekend she picks up an eight-hour shift at the YMCA and sometimes she does freelance work to earn extra money.
Unlike teachers, she doesn’t get summer break or benefit from the same loan forgiveness programs. She still owes more than her salary in student loans, about $45,000.
Her parents do sometimes help her with loan repayments and she manages to find money to fly home each year. But it requires budgeting and sacrifice, making her think about moving back to the mainland.
“It’s always in the back of my mind,” she says. “I could go anywhere else and make the exact same salary I’m making at DOE or more and have a better cost of living.”
Still, she doesn’t want to leave. Right now it’s worth working six days each week and having roommates to do the work she wants to do in a place she loves. In the back of her mind is the fact that she’s not saving enough for retirement.
“It’s reality so at this point the anxiety has kind of become commonplace,” she says.
Ballina’s parents, meanwhile, aren’t upset that their daughter Kristina is still living with them.
To them, living at home is more cultural than financial.
“Never in my mind did it ever enter that they had to leave. They would go because they felt they were ready to go,” says her father, Jose Ballina, explaining that’s what his sisters did when he was growing up in Mexico.
His wife, Sandra, a retired public school teacher who grew up on Oahu, lived at home until her late 20s when she met Jose and got married.
Both Ballina and her 30-year-old sister hold full-time jobs and commute to town. They pay for the family’s car insurance and internet, but their parents handle everything else. That allows them to save and afford vacations to Japan and California.
Ballina feels lucky that she gets along well enough with her parents that she doesn’t mind still living with them.
But she eventually wants to move out. She sets aside 4 percent of every paycheck for retirement to get her company 401k matching funds, and adds an extra $150 per month.
Her parents helped her pay for college so she doesn’t have any student loan debt, which puts her in the minority of millennials nationwide.
But in other ways, Ballina is typical for her generation in Hawaii. She drives more than an hour to town to get to her job. She’s single and says she doesn’t date.
That’s in line with census data that says commute times are up for this generation, and more than half of Hawaii’s millennials were not married in 2017, compared with 35 percent in 1990.
When Jose Ballina flew to Hawaii from California in his mid-20s in the 1970s to win back a girl he loved, he had no plan, no job and nearly no money.
But he quickly fell in love with Hawaii, met his wife and got a steady career at the state’s youth correctional facility.
Now he and his wife are both retired with government pensions and government-funded health care plans.
“Everything worthwhile takes sacrifice,” he says.
Jose still believes that hard work and budgeting will help his kids ultimately reach their goals.
But his daughters aren’t so sure. Sometimes Ballina will peruse websites for new homes at Koa Ridge, an upcoming housing development in Central Oahu. She’s saving for a down payment and working with a financial planner to come up with the funds.
“I want to be able to have my own space, decorate my own space that I want,” she says. “If I want to create a tie-dye wall, I can make a tie-dye wall.”
But the prices she’s finding are still out of reach unless she can convince her sister to move in with her and help cover the mortgage. In the back of her mind, Ballina has a fallback plan.
“Straight up honest, this is just being honest,” she says. “When they’re (her parents are) gone and our immediate family, our uncle is gone, we’ll potentially have two houses.”
It sounds morbid, she says, but her parents are on board. Banking on inheriting relatives’ houses sometimes seems like the only reasonable option in a city where her income is so out of whack with housing prices.
Yet that won’t solve all her problems. Even if she eventually inherits a house, she’s not sure if she can ever afford kids.
“I would want to give them the life I had. And I can’t afford that just by myself,” she says. “There’s no way I can think about a kid when I’m still dependent on them.”
Everyone at Civil Beat feels the weight of heightened responsibility. For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.
The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.
Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.