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 Linda, a 56-year-old GIS cartographic technician for the city. Linda has lived in Honolulu since 2009, when she moved to Oahu from Oakland.
After taking a major pay cut when she moved, one of the essential factors in making ends meet was increasing her salary by going after a supervisory position. Now, Linda makes $51,200 annually and plans to retire within a decade.
Linda says saving for retirement has always been a priority, so she feels prepared. But leading a frugal lifestyle, getting rid of her car and walking pretty much everywhere have helped her save money.
Location: Lower Punchbowl
Occupation: Supervisory GIS Cartographic Technician
Annual Household Income (pre-tax): $51,200
Marital Status: Single
Monthly Mortgage: $1,550
Monthly Car Payment: $0
Total Student Loans: $0
Health Insurance Premium: $145
Union Dues: $50
Flex Spending Account: $85
Total Monthly Fixed Spending: $2,050
I’m a loose budgeter. I don’t write it down. It’s kind of a mental calculation in my head, so I know approximately where I am in terms of credit cards and how much I potentially owe at the end of the month for my credit cards. So I try not to spend that much, and I try to use cash perhaps more than the credit cards. I take out maybe $500 from my bank account every four to six weeks, and I like to get $20 bills because I’m a little bit more conscious about breaking them versus a $50 bill.
Yes, because you feel it, right? Every time you pay that $20, it comes out of your wallet and you feel it.
While supervising seven cartographic technicians, I am currently assisting the Real Property Assessment Division to convert the tax plats (maps) to a digital format within the City & County’s Geographic Information System (GIS). Most of the maps currently exist on linen and were originally drafted in the early 1900s.
Before we convert the plats to the digital format, we do extensive research on the individual parcels using old maps, deeds and other historical information to verify the accuracy of the data.
I have a little wiggle room. I have a government workers’ equivalent of a 401k. I’m only putting in like $25 a paycheck. I’d like a little bit more to go that way, but I can’t afford much more than that. So outside of putting $168 per month into the city’s pension, I’m not really saving anything additional for retirement. But I do have earnings or retirement savings from a previous job that I had on the mainland.
If I can live on what I make now, retirement should not be too difficult.
Surprisingly, it’s about equal. People here complain that it’s so expensive, right? But people over there complain it’s expensive too. People over there, they look over here and they say, oh, paradise, right? It must be so expensive. I’ve looked online to see how the cost of living pans out between the Bay Area and Honolulu, and it almost comes out even. Their housing is actually more expensive, but we get taxed on everything. Their sales tax over there is almost 10%, but they don’t get taxed on food. Their gas is a little bit cheaper most years than our gas is. It’s kind of a wash, you know?
However, salaries there may be much higher, depending on which industry you’re in. I started with a much lower wage here, but over the years have built it up to nearly the same wage I was earning when I left.
I bought it right at the bottom of the market in early 2011 for $180,000. After I bought it, the value started going back up. When I was living in the Bay Area, I could never make enough for a down payment based on my salary. So for years, I lived with my parents. If I wanted to save for retirement, I couldn’t do it unless I stayed with my folks. So I stayed with them for years. I was fortunate to have an hourly paying job that paid me every hour that I worked, so I got paid a lot of overtime. A good chunk of my paycheck went into retirement savings, but I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t stayed at home.
I could only afford places that were less than $200,000. In terms of inventory of housing at $200,000 or less, there’s almost nothing on the island — and certainly not here downtown. So when I went to the Realtor, he could only suggest 18 places to go check out in this area.
No. I think I’m just going to stay here and I’m going to retire here. I do have a brother that lives in Kaimuki and my dad lives here. My dad and I moved here after my mom passed away. My dad was born and raised in California, so we’re not locals in any way, shape or form. We just sort of wandered over here from California basically.
I’m pretty happy with what I have. I had to cut the cable, but television is now kind of alien to me. Cable was just all of these channels I never watched anyway, and the price was going up and up and up. By the time I cut it, it was costing me like $96 a month. And I’m thinking that’s just really stupid.
The second thing I gave up was my car. There was a point in time where I was thinking, how many miles do I actually drive a year? So I looked it up and it turned out I only drive 500 miles a year. Then I thought, how much is it costing me for the privilege of driving the car? Even without the gas, you still have to pay yearly your maintenance, registration and insurance. So I added those up and I came up with a figure of $2,000. $2,000 for 500 miles, and that doesn’t include the gas.
That’s ridiculous. That’s $4 a mile. So I thought about it and I got rid of the car four years ago.
I pretty much just walk everywhere. When I bought the condo, I looked it up on a map and I put a pin where the condo was and I drew a 3-mile radius around where the condo was. I made a deal with myself that anything within the circle, I had to walk. And anything outside that circle I could drive or take the bus, so I still go by that rule even without the car.
That includes the grocery store, that includes Costco, that includes a whole lot of things. But for anything outside of the circle, I can take the bus.
I guess there are some instances when I miss having a car — like if I want to go to places like Kaena Point, someplace that the bus doesn’t reach. But I’ve made a few friends who have the same interests and are willing to go out there with me.
And then there’s always Lyft and Uber if you really need to, but I’ve only used those once. So when I leave the condo, my first thought is which direction do I need to walk? The first premise is walking.
Probably in the next decade.
The city pension is just part of my overall retirement, because I do have retirement savings from the mainland, so it’ll be a portion of whatever it is that I will be able to quote-unquote earn, I guess. Whatever the withdrawal will be from both my existing retirement funds and the pension.
My one big tip is that I always walk to the supermarket, and I always carry the stuff back. When you’re carrying everything, you can only buy so much. It kind of makes you stick to your budget and you can’t buy any junk.
Even Costco. People say, wow, how do you bring anything home? I’m limited to four to six items. And that’s all I can buy. You have to be very selective.
Being frugal is an important aspect to living in Hawaii. There were many things I had to learn to do without to be able to get by on such an initial limited salary. It took a lot of experimentation. I took a 45% pay cut moving from the Bay Area to Honolulu, and it took 10 years for me to build up my salary to what it was on the mainland when I left.
The one thing that really bothers me is that Kakaako was sold to us as a residential area for Honolulu’s workers. And as we now see, it’s not exactly becoming that. I look at my co-workers and I think wow, none of them can afford it. You know, I can’t afford buying a place in Kakaako at $450,000 or whatever the “affordable” housing price is. And if you look at City & County workers, I would say that probably 70% to 80% of them can’t afford to buy a place. It’s kind of sad.
The unfortunate thing for the millennials and future generations is that they’re going to suffer unless something’s done about the job market. I believe that Hawaii needs to focus less on the tourism industry to provide better employment opportunities for its residents. The state needs to get into technology, innovation or some other industry so that it can ensure that graduating UH students can have well-paying jobs outside of the service sector. For the ones who choose not to attend college, there should be more opportunities and training in the trades. The state should also provide more support for entrepreneurs and small businesses.
When I first moved here and snagged my job, I was making not much more than $3,000 a month. The first three years were hit with furloughs and reduced pay.
My housing costs today are a little higher than they were when I first moved and was renting an apartment. But if you do the math, in 2011, nearly 50% of my income was going towards housing. Since then, I applied and was promoted to a higher paying job in 2016, but I needed those early years at lower wages to gain the work experience that allowed me to qualify for the advanced position.
Oh, definitely. I’m not cold anymore. I’m really happy here. The weather is great, the people are great. I love the cultural aspects of the population — people are more community-oriented. I don’t want to be so cliche, but I’ll use the term melting pot. People are more tolerant here, I think that’s really what it is.
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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