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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 Stephanie, a fifth-grade teacher at an elementary school in Ewa Beach. She has been teaching for seven years and has a master’s degree.

Stephanie says that her teaching salary isn’t enough to make ends meet, so she drives Uber and Lyft in her spare time, working seven days most weeks.

A divorce left her with full custody of her children, but just one income to provide for her family and pay her mortgage. She was left teetering on the edge of foreclosure, but managed to find a way out.

Stephanie is originally from New Jersey, but has lived in Hawaii for 18 years. Cost of living aside, she believes Hawaii’s unique culture got her through one of the hardest times in her life.

Stephanie

Age: 48
Location: Mililani
Occupation: Elementary School Teacher, Uber/Lyft Driver
Annual Household Income (pre-tax): $55,000
Marital Status: Single
Children: 2
Monthly Mortgage: $2,100, two-bedroom
Utilities: $600
Monthly Car Payment: $446
Total Student Loans: $250 per month, $70,000 to pay off

Total Monthly Fixed Spending: $3,396


What are your biggest concerns when it comes to money?

As a single parent, it’s difficult without having another source of income coming in. I should not have to have more than one job, but I also work part-time driving for Uber and Lyft on the weekends. So I work seven days a week. I don’t have a day off, per se. That takes time away from raising my kids. My ex lives on the mainland and I have full custody of my kids, so having to put in more time working instead of raising my children, it concerns me that I’m not able to be independent, with just one job.

I even have help from my family — they send money every month if they can. But it shouldn’t be that way. Having a professional degree and being in education, I think that’s almost like a crime to not even be making $60,000 after seven years with a master’s. But I do my best.

My kids have a really good life, and a big concern of mine is maintaining the quality of life and not being in a position where my kids feel a sense of lack. I don’t want them to feel that we don’t have enough. And that’s not to say that I’m trying to keep up with the Joneses, trust me, but just to be able to go to the movies is a big deal. Or to get them a Jamba Juice, or an ice cream or something like that. That’s a big deal.

If there was an emergency, I don’t have the money. That doesn’t even exist. So that’s super concerning.

We hear all the time about how difficult it is to retain teachers in Hawaii. Have you thought about leaving?

I was feeding the chickens outside my house recently, and I was thinking about how much I could be making in New Jersey, which is pretty similar in cost of living. I could be making $80,000 easily in New Jersey with a masters at this point. But then I thought, oh my gosh, if I leave, who’s going to feed these poor chickens?

And I was thinking about it more and I got sad. If I leave, who’s going to teach our kids in Hawaii? I see such a shortage of certified, highly qualified teachers in our schools, and I can’t do that. I can’t leave these kids.

And for my own two children, the quality of life here just so far surpasses what they would have back in New Jersey. Having them be able to connect to the land and the Hawaiian culture is priceless, to grow up in this type of environment.

So many times I hear teachers complaining that they have to leave because they just can’t make it here. But there are ways to be able to stay here, and I think it’s just a willingness to find your comfort point. And I think I found it. I feel comfortable that I’ve been able to balance the life that I have. It’s not easy, by any means, but in spite of all that, I truly love my life. I think it’s about appreciation for where we live that keeps me going.

I hope teachers that come here can make that connection to the community, and then they’ll be able to find a way to stay. I think that’s really important for people coming here.

Do you have to pick up the slack elsewhere due to the teacher shortage or work longer hours or anything like that?

That’s not the effect of not having enough teachers. The effect is in the quality of education for our kids. Teacher efficacy — being confident in what you’re teaching — is huge. Feeling like you know what you’re doing and that you’re making a difference is what provides quality education. And that can’t happen in Hawaii when you’ve got teachers here for a year.

Every year, just in my school, we have a turnover of about 10 to 15 teachers, especially in special education. So what happens is the kids who need it the most, the kids with special needs, end up getting teachers who are first-year teachers and have never taught in their life. They’re not qualified, they don’t have degrees in special education, they’re not trained. It’s a hot mess — and that’s across the whole state.

It’s not the teachers who are necessarily getting hurt by the shortage, it’s the children. You can’t have qualified, certified teachers long enough to make a difference. I think that’s where the State of Hawaii is just falling apart in education.

Can you take me through an average workday?

I get up at 5 every morning. I have three dogs, all rescues, so I spend the first half hour of my day taking care of my dogs. Then I get my kids up for school and both of them take the school bus.

I leave my house at about 6:45 in the morning and I try to get to Ewa around 7:30. The school is literally a block from the beach, so I go for 10 minutes to the beach maybe three times a week if I can, to just try to center myself. That’s like my only alone time that I have — my commute to work and the 10 to 15 minutes I spend at the beach. Then I start school.

I get off at 2 p.m. A couple times a week, I turn on the Uber and Lyft apps and I drive. I end up in town most of the time, so I try to leave town around 6 so I can get home by 7.

My kids, thankfully, are old enough where they’re able to get themselves in the house and get homework and chores done. If I get home by 7, we can have dinner together. Then I get up and do it again.

On Saturdays and Sundays, I drive Uber and Lyft about five hours each day.

This past week, I had a really bad case of bronchitis and I was out literally all week. But if I’m sick, that means I’m not able to do the ride sharing, so I lose out on $100 a day. That’s a lot to me. There’s no room for error.

It sounds like you’re sacrificing a lot of your time to stay here.

The time that I do have when I’m not working, I spend with my kids. I don’t have a social life to speak of. I mean, none at all. My children need me at 13 and 14 years old probably more than any other time in their life. What I try to do, especially on the weekends, is get up at 5:30 or 6 so I can drive for about four or five hours, get home and take them to the beach or for a hike.

I don’t want to come off like, oh my god, I have no time for myself, but I think it’s important. It’s an important mental health factor in your life that you’re able as an adult to socialize. I feel like that part of balance is really difficult for me.

I actually like the ride sharing because it’s all adult conversation. That’s my social stimulation, being able to talk to strangers about all kinds of amazing things. But that’s probably the extent of my social life.

Dating is totally on the back burner. However much I would like a male companion, where would I even fit one in? It just doesn’t make sense to me how I would introduce that into my life. There’s no space for dating — not right now anyway.

Are you saving for retirement?

Based on what people say I should have at this point, at 48, to retire comfortably — there’s no way. I’m just trying to figure out how I’m going to get $5,000 to $6,000 for my son’s braces.

As a public school teacher, do you have a pension?

Yes, they do have a pension plan. I’m not too familiar with it, but that’s huge. That’s one thing that I’m super thankful for. Granted, I’ll be 70 by the time I get the full pension benefit. I think it’s 30 years, which would put me at about 70 years old.

I would love to travel once my kids are situated, but because of the pension I would probably stay here and just travel in the summer if I can. That would definitely keep me here, because, like we talked about earlier, there’s no way I can save up for retirement.

Are you a budgeter?

I’m a loose budgeter. My friend is amazing and she helps me. We’ve tried to do the cash method where you take out cash and allot it for each expense and only spend the cash you have for each of those things. But that’s really difficult. It’s not an easy thing. I’m doing it and I’m managing, for sure, but it’s not super practical when you’ve got two kids and their 14-year-old friends eating you right out of the house.

One fortunate thing that I do say to people as to why I stay here, is going to the beach and hiking is all free. You can’t put a price tag on experiencing nature and, had I been anywhere else in the entire country, I don’t think we would get that. That’s why I’ve remained grateful and feel like I’m leading a fulfilling life because I turn to nature. Once you start practicing appreciation for the smallest things, and the rainbows, and the people who stop to talk and take the time to see how you are — that’s what keeps me here.

I don’t think I could have gone through what I went through with almost a foreclosure and a really hectic time had I been anywhere else except Hawaii. Because I think the community is just like no other.

“Going to the beach and hiking is all free.”

Can you tell me more about the foreclosure?

So when my husband left, that was it. There was no more money coming in from him at all. So that was a choice that I had to make, whether to pay the mortgage or to pay living expenses. There was just no way that I could do both.

I was behind on my HOA fees, I was behind on my equity line of credit, and it just snowballed into a total disaster. This was also at the time that I filed for divorce, so I had both of those things going on at the same time. I had no attorney — I couldn’t afford one so I didn’t have a foreclosure attorney or a divorce attorney, I just educated myself in both of those areas as much as I possibly could in addition to teaching and raising my two kids. I had absolutely no energy left at all.

I took advantage of a couple of legal aid options to help me with both situations, and after two years of being in the house and not making any payments, the mortgage company filed for foreclosure. By the time I responded, I had started to put my house on the market in hopes that I could get it sold. Thankfully, this really nice guy who’s an investor came in and literally saved my house.

He gave me money towards my equity in the house so I could catch up, he got everything caught up with HOA, the equity line, everything. He helped me bring everything up, and then just took it off of the equity that he was going to pay me out.

So after maybe five months of getting everything in order, I got to foreclosure court where they were going to foreclose on me and the judge would make a decision — I was by myself, no attorneys — the mortgage company agreed to pull the foreclosure and not proceed. It was amazing. It was truly amazing that that happened. So I saved myself from foreclosure.

I can just hear people saying what are you living in Hawaii for? It’s your choice living in such a high priced place. But the reason I made it through was because I live here, if that makes sense. The reason I made it through without a nervous breakdown or falling off the deep end is because I had the ocean and I had the mountains and I had the culture and the community. That’s why I’m here.

I just hope that people going through a hard time can find that appreciation again — that really does make a difference. It’s not some fluff. You know, I’m proof that turning to the community, your friends and the environment really is the difference between the happy journey or the not-so-happy journey, which defines your ending too. You can’t have a happy ending without a happy journey.

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

Cook at home, don’t eat out. If I spend any extra money outside of my budget, it’s on food. Whether it’s lunch food or just eating out for dinner. It’s just so much healthier to cook at home.

Yes, we pay way more money here in Hawaii on our food, but I recommend going to Costco and meal planning for the whole week to get the most out of what you’re buying. Just really being more conscientious about that food.

If I’ve got my refrigerator full, I literally don’t have to spend any money. No money is going out other than my bills. It’s the best feeling ever. We’ll go to the beach and make musubi or sandwiches and bring all homemade food.

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

They need to really take into account the cost of living and what’s being paid to people. There’s no balance. I think that’s the problem. When I think about New Jersey I’m like, yes, it’s really expensive there, but you also get paid a lot. As I said, a teacher in New Jersey at my level is making $80,000. So the pay is relative to the cost of living. I think that is one of the hugest things.

Stop paying attention to tourism so much and start paying attention to the people that live here and have invested here, because otherwise there will not be anybody left. I’ve seen so many families leaving, not because they want to, but because they have to. And when that happens, you’re also losing the culture — you’re sacrificing generations of people that have created this culture that has single-handedly gotten me through one of the hardest times in my life.

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

Extremely. I couldn’t think of living anywhere else or raising my kids anywhere else.

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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