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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.

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 Amy, a 23-year-old hairdresser who works at a salon in Honolulu and just picked up a second job in retail. Her income varies based on commission, but she says she hopes to make $36,000 this year.

With the help of her parents, Amy was able to graduate from cosmetology school with no student debt. She lived with her family in Pearl City until late last year, when she moved to Makiki to live with her boyfriend and his two roommates. He pays the rent and she will often pick up the tab for groceries.

Because her only big monthly cost is her car payment, Amy is able to funnel much of her money into maxing out a Roth IRA ($5,500 annually pre-2019 and $6,000 in 2019) and saving for future investments on top of that.

Amy says she knows how lucky she has been to have the financial support and education to get her to this point — and she has big financial goals for the future.

We asked Amy how she budgets, spends and saves. Here’s her story:

Amy

Age: 23
Location: Makiki, Oahu
Occupation: Hairdresser, Retail
Annual Household Income (pre-tax): $36,000; varies year-to-year
Marital Status: In a relationship
Monthly Rent: $0
Utilities: $0
Monthly Car Payment: $250
Total Student Loans: $0

What does an average day in your life look like?

Normally I get up anywhere between 5 and 5:30 and I go to the gym. Then I get ready for work and I’m at work from about 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sometimes it’s really busy at work and sometimes it’s not — that’s just the life of a hairdresser. After work, I’ll come home and my boyfriend I will try to cook with our limited cooking knowledge, but a lot of times we’ll eat out.

There are times when I’ll have soup I made at home for three days in a row, but there are also times where I will have Shokudo for three days in a row since my boyfriend works there.

When did you move out of your parents’ house and in with your boyfriend?

It was probably around October, but I was in denial about it until December. I do help pay for some of their groceries — he has two roommates. But I don’t come home very often.

How did you decide on your career path?

I knew I wanted to work with something more creative, so the beauty industry was something that always interested me. But I didn’t realize I wanted to be a hairdresser until I went to the Paul Mitchell School, where they teach hair, skin and nails.

My parents did not originally agree with me; they’re both schoolteachers, so they believe in 401k’s, and pensions and lots of benefits.

How much did cosmetology school cost?

When I went, it was about $24,000 for a year. It takes 1,800 hours to finish, so most people will graduate anywhere between a year and 18 months. It just depends on how much you show up to school.

I did get a little bit of scholarship money, which helped, but my parents also had a college fund that we were going to use. Whatever the type of college fund they had, it had to be used for a traditional university. Luckily, my parents were financially smart enough to have investments and be able to save, so we were still able to pull money through to pay for it even though we couldn’t use the college fund.

Do you feel like you make enough money?

I make enough for my lifestyle, but not enough for my life’s goals. I want to own a home and have a family and I know my income needs to improve for that.

As a hairdresser I’ve been fortunate enough to see my income go up every year, but it can be a struggle. Last year I earned about $26,000 but the year before that I think I only got $19,000. My boss has even admitted that it’s a very hard job to have (income-wise) for the first few years but it does get better.

Why did you take a second job?

The main reason is that I am focusing on saving money for a down payment for a house one day and I want to do whatever I can while I still have the energy to do so.

I will probably be working there about six to 13 hours a week since I can only work on my days off. It’s good because it brings in more income but also having a day off here or there is good for my mental health. With my second job I won’t be making much — maybe $200-400 a month — but it’s better than nothing since I technically have no retail experience and my availability is limited.

Has adulthood in Hawaii been harder/easier/different than you expected?

A little bit of all of the above. I’m fortunate that my parents have been really supportive of me — they’ve been very helpful financially. And as I started to excel as a hairdresser, they supported me a lot more in my career.

But it is a little bit hard. I didn’t realize how fast groceries spoil. I didn’t realize how much more our housing is than it is on the mainland. It’s really hard when you read a lot of articles about how things are in the mainland and how people are getting out of debt and investing money. It’s just not the same here.

Do you think that you would be able to make ends meet here if your family wasn’t here?

I think I would. I’ve just been on a very different path in life. I believe that I should never say I can’t do something — it’s always how can I achieve something. Even if I didn’t have my family, even if I didn’t have my boyfriend who pays for the rent with his roommates, I think I could do it. I would just have to reconfigure my life and how I approach things.

You mentioned you’re maxing out your Roth IRA — did you learn your savings habits from your parents?

Yes, absolutely. When I turned 21, my mom started making me save for retirement. She has a pension and a 401k, so her main concern was for my financial future. Of course it was very hard because I definitely was not making $36,000 when I was 21. So saving — at the time it was about $500 per month — it was devastating socially. I couldn’t go out as much, but it was just something that they instilled in me. I had to do it because I’m young and I don’t have kids, or a mortgage or other things like that.

You have goals of owning a home — how do you foresee yourself getting there?

I definitely know that I have the discipline to save money. I’m working on trying to get the education on how to make that money work for me. This year I’ve just been reading a lot of books and looking into seminars because I want to be able to handle my money on my own. Currently I’m working with a financial advisor, and he’s kind of helping to guide me. I am trying to save for a down payment even though it’s very, very hard.

So you’re saving even more than just maxing out your Roth IRA?

I’m trying. Being a hairdresser, I never know how much I’m going to make. I’m not an employee in the sense that I get paid hourly — I’m straight commission. So if it’s bad some months, it will set me back from my goals. But on months where it’s good, I have to remind myself not to blow it because I have extra money. I have to remind myself to save for the months where I lack a little bit.

I try to pay myself first if I can. Currently I’m trying to save about $500 a month at least. That’s in addition to the Roth IRA. One really good piece of advice that my financial advisor told me is that I should be saving like I’d pay a mortgage. He suggested $1,000 a month. I thought I was going to faint. As a 23-year-old, that’s a lot of money. But realistically, I should be saving about two grand a month, which is even more money. So I always try to pay myself at least $500 first, then pay my bills, just so I can make sure that I’m meeting my goals.

What are your overall financial goals?

In the next five years or so, one thing I really want to do is find something that can be an asset to me. That could be anything from real estate to investments, where even if I have a slow month and I’m on my own, I can still have a little bit of breathing room. For example, my mom inherited a condo from her mom. And that brings in a few extra dollars after paying the mortgage and utilities and condo fees. So that’s the kind of path that I want to do.

I know that real estate in Hawaii is very hard and very expensive, but that’s just an example. I’m still trying to educate myself and learn about what my options are. I feel like I grew up in a relatively modest, but comfortable family environment. And I want that for my future family too.

Are you a budgeter? Do you have a system for your spending?

Yes and no. I definitely have a budget for certain things that I can always count on like gas and groceries, but it’s a little hard to follow sometimes. I think that’s because of being young — you always have FOMO, fear of missing out. There’s always someone’s birthday coming up, there’s always a cool new event that everyone wants to go to, like Punahou Carnival and Chinese New Year just happened in the same month. You want to hang out and do things with your friends, but that makes sticking to a budget a little hard.

Do you find yourself saying no to a lot of things?

I definitely say no to a lot of things. I had a whole period when I was about 21 where I was barely getting by and I was spending almost every dollar that I possibly could because I was 21 and I could go all with all of my friends.

But now I rarely go out, which is my choice. For me, I feel like I’ve been there, done that. I think it’s important for people to feel like they’re not missing out on anything. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.

Do you use any tools to help you budget?

For the past few years, I’ve been using an app called Mint. It’s a great way for me to see my investments, including my Roth IRA and all of my accounts. I have three banks that I use, so I like to be able to see all of those and two credit cards in one place. Seeing how much I have and how much I owe all in one place is really great. It also automatically keeps track of my spending.

Are there any tips or tricks you want to share with people who are reading this who are trying to make ends meet?

I think it’s just important to save, even if you half-ass it. Even if you save $5 a month, you’re closer than you were last month. Even my boyfriend says things like ‘$5 doesn’t make a difference,’ but it can when you have absolutely no money.

I mentioned that I have three bank accounts. Two of them I don’t have a debit card for and one of them takes three days to transfer money from, because it’s an online bank. So to be able to have that delay, or to have to go to a bank in order to pull out that money really helps me to save. It gives me a second to think ‘do I actually need this item?’

Another tip for people is to just educate yourself. I try to listen to a lot of audiobooks about people who are successful. Currently I’m really into Robert Kiyosaki — he’s actually a local guy from Hilo. The more educated you get, the better you can make your own decisions. I’m not going to do every single thing that every person says, but I can figure out what I want based on their experiences.

It’s always very scary to do things like investing money and saving for retirement because a lot of us need the money now. But you know, we go to the bar and we spend $200 and we don’t blink an eye, so sometimes you just need to say no. In the long run, if you think about your future, it should be a lot easier to say no and save a little bit of money. That goes back to the idea of paying yourself first and then enjoying whatever you have left.

I know there are a lot of other people with disposable income, and I want to help bring awareness to what they can be doing with that.

Do you see yourself having to pay rent in the near future?

I have talked about it with my boyfriend and I told him that I would probably move back home before I have to pay rent because I’m working my way to my goal. My mom is the one who always told me that rent in her opinion is kind of a little bit of a waste of money. She’s originally from Hilo, so coming to Oahu back in the ’80s, it was a shock to see how much money people spend on rent versus a mortgage. She would rather I live at home.

I realize that I’m very blessed to have parents who were able to support me and help me with college. I realize that not everyone has that. The majority of people don’t have that.

Do you think you’ll be able to retire here?

I believe that if you can make it in Hawaii, you can make it anywhere. My goal is to make it as a hairdresser in Hawaii. I’m hoping that right now, because I’m young, I can try and make all of my financial mistakes and learn from them while I don’t have children or a family who depend on me. Hopefully, when I’m older, all of my plans will come true.

Do you have any ideas for how Hawaii can change to make it easier for locals to make it work here?

My biggest thing is always education. I feel like the more people are educated about the rights that they have and how they can make their money work, that definitely helps.

Amy and her boyfriend

Even though my parents have always been talking about these things, I’m still new to it. Only this past year have I started trying to really educate myself and see what my options are.

But as for Hawaii as a whole, I’m really not too sure. I currently work in a more upscale salon, so I do see people who have a lot of money and then I see me and my friends on the other side who don’t have a lot of money. I’m really not too sure, I can’t really say.

Are you happy in Hawaii?

I am. Even if I did have to pay rent or a mortgage, I enjoy Hawaii. I enjoy the people, the culture, the weather. Of course the cost of living is a little bit high, but there’s always a way. It’s not about I can’t afford this, it’s how can I afford this.

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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