This story originally appeared as an email newsletter — want to receive it in your inbox? Subscribe here.
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.
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 Aria, who works as a full-time office manager at an outrigger canoe company, part-time helping to run Kuleana Academy for the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and does freelance graphic design work on the side.
Aria grew up on Kauai, but currently lives with her boyfriend in Kailua. After attending college in California, she moved back to the islands and worked as a graphic designer for a resort on Kauai, but moved to Oahu to pursue a more fulfilling path.
She works 40-hour weeks for her full-time job and 10-20 hours a week for her part-time job, depending on the time of year.
She earns a total of $45,000 a year, and says making ends meet requires budgeting and occasional help from her parents.
Location: Kailua, Oahu
Occupation: Full-time office manager, part-time project manager, freelance graphic designer
Annual Household Income: $45,000 pre-tax
Monthly Rent: $725 (splits $1,450 rent with boyfriend)
Monthly Car Payment: $0
Total Student Loans: $35,000 (pays $300/month)
Health Insurance Premium: $0 (covered by employer)
Credit Card Debt: $1,000
I wake up in the morning and hopefully go to the gym. Then I make breakfast and check my work emails for my part-time and full-time jobs. I start my full-time job at 9 a.m. and I’m there until 5 p.m. At lunch, I’ll check my HAPA email and try and see if there’s anything else I can do and kind of make a list of the responsibilities I have to take care of in the evening.
Then I go home and cook dinner while I’m watching TV or listening to podcasts or something. Then I’ll do HAPA work.
I went to college in Los Angeles, and after I graduated, I was working $10 an hour internships. I was trying to find more lucrative pay, but it was really hard and there wasn’t really anything that made a lot of sense.
I got a job alert that the Grand Hyatt Kauai was hiring a graphic designer, and I was really surprised. I didn’t realize that there would ever be a job on Kauai that would be good for me as a graphic designer.
So I took it as a sign and moved back home for a little while. It was a really good starting job. Working in hospitality is very luxurious, but it also felt a little unfulfilling to me.
I worked there for five years and I got into working with the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action. In 2016, HAPA started Kuleana Academy. (“A four-month leadership development and non-partisan candidate training program,” according to the HAPA website). I was traveling to Oahu for the sessions, which was kind of a lot of travel for me. I left the Hyatt in 2016 to come to Oahu and try to work for HAPA and do freelance work.
I did that for about a year, but between paying for my health insurance and not having a steady income, it just wasn’t really working out for me. That’s why I decided to try and find a full-time position. Luckily, Kamanu Composites (an outrigger canoe company) was hiring. They align with my values. It’s a small business and it’s the last place that we manufacture canoes in Hawaii — all of our competitors have moved to China for manufacturing.
I love working with people that like being out in the ocean, and I also loved working in Kailua.
I think I would probably move back as I get older — if I get married and have children. There’s really not that much opportunity as far as jobs go, but I do miss it. I really wish I could go home more, but the flights are so expensive.
I tried to go home for Christmas, but it just didn’t make any sense. It was going to cost me $250 just to fly home. I had just bought a ticket to visit my sister in Los Angeles for $350, so the prices to fly to Kauai are really just ridiculous. My mom asks me all the time to come home and visit, but it just doesn’t make any sense financially.
Yeah, all the time. It’s so crazy to see the prices of how much people pay for rent, how much people pay for food, the job opportunities that there are there. But I would feel really guilty leaving.
I think that Hawaii is such a special place. I’m so lucky to be born and raised here, and I hate the fact that we’re getting priced out. The more that we just give up and move, the more that other people who have more financial means of retiring here or buying their second or third or fourth home will come here. It will only get worse.
I budget a lot. I’ve gotten a lot better at it, because last year I wasn’t really able to do much of anything fun. I wasn’t able to travel as much as I used to. I have been trying to budget a lot more just to be able to travel to see family on the mainland or to go out of the country.
When I worked at the Hyatt and lived on Kauai, I lived at home, so the added expense of paying my own rent is astronomical. With that comes food and laundry and all of the other expenses that you are so lucky to have taken care of when you are living with your parents — the expenses that you don’t really even realize.
I also would love to be able to buy a car. Not a brand new car, but something that’s a little bit more stable that I can kind of not stress about so much.
I’m just hoping and praying every day that my car is fine. In the last year, I’ve had two instances where I’ve had to pay around $1,000 to get it fixed. Those are always stressful situations. It really cuts into my savings, and I don’t really have that much savings. Or I have to really watch my budget for the next month to make that work. In some instances, I didn’t even have that much cash on hand to fix it. It’s just very stressful.
I just started using You Need A Budget. It’s $84 a year, so it is expensive, but I really do like the tool that it comes with. It has an app, so you can review stuff every single day.
It’s taking me awhile to get used to because I’m very reactionary. You’re supposed to anticipate the cost of everything beforehand and then after everything is cleared through your bank account, you reconcile it.
But I still find myself forgetting certain costs or going to the grocery store and instead of spending the $25 that was in my budget for the trip, I spend something like $45 and then make up that difference somewhere else. It’s a habit I’m still trying to get myself into.
I’ve totally given up on trying to think about owning a house anywhere. I think that that’s never going to happen unless I inherit it from my family or my potential husband’s family. It just seems so out of touch.
I think I’ll definitely have to make it work. I don’t know what that looks like.
I don’t plan on working at my current jobs forever, but hopefully when I’m back in the kind of field where there’s more of a corporate structure that can give you retirement options, that would help.
Work does take up a lot of my time. I’m definitely not able to go to the beach as much as I want to. I do work a lot, but I should actually be working more because I need more money. I should try and work harder to get more freelance gigs. But I am 31 and I want to enjoy my life. I don’t want to be working all the time.
I’ve seen a lot of different articles on the internet that show people who talk about their finances, and they are all people that are making $90,000 a year or $100,000 a year. I want to hear stories about people who make $25,000 a year and see how they’re surviving. Hopefully that will become more of the norm.
I do get help from my parents once in a while. If I was living on Kauai, I would probably still be living with them. I think that there’s still a stigma, maybe not so much in Hawaii, but in the world about that. I’m 31 years old and people think I shouldn’t be getting help from my parents, but I think that’s a reality that a lot of my generation is facing, but we don’t talk about it.
I think that we should just accept that that’s just a new normal, and it’s okay.
A lot of my friends still live at home with their families. There are a lot of people whose families need them to be at home because as an adult, they’re contributing to the household. Whether it be financially or with childcare or just helping them at home as they get older. That’s just something that’s a truth here.
I would love to see affordable housing built and see some kind of rent control. I think way too much of the housing available on Oahu is going towards military families that get a really large stipend to be able to afford to pay the rent.
On the other islands there are too many houses that are going unoccupied for vacation rentals, and I think that needs to be regulated and addressed.
Hopefully someday, with all of the development that’s happening in Oahu especially, there should be some sort of a one-for-one trade. If they build a $20 million condo in Waikiki they have to build an affordable unit somewhere close to town or along the rail line or wherever. We need housing in Kailua and on the east side really badly as well.
Yes, I am. Hawaii is absolutely my home, and I feel very blessed to live here. I enjoy it every day, and definitely don’t take it for granted.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. We are allowing contributors, upon request, to remain anonymous in order to protect their privacy.
Want to share your story in HI-Priced? Fill out the form below:
Have a story idea or question about the cost of living in Hawaii? Share it with us.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.