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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.

 

 

Kenji and his wife live in Laie with their two children. He is a firefighter and his wife stays at home — a painful medical condition prevents her from having a steady job.

On Kenji’s income plus overtime, their family makes $105,000 a year. Federal guidelines consider an income of up to $93,300 to be low-income in Honolulu for a family of four.

Kenji and his wife are careful with their spending and have made it their mission to stay out of debt. Thanks to a promotion, they are able to worry about money a little less, but saving up for a house still feels just out of reach.

Kenji says he and his wife live simply on a daily basis and prioritize saving for retirement and a rainy day, as well as trips to see family on the mainland and in Tahiti. They buy used cars, do their own repairs, budget carefully and save as much as they can. Here’s their story:

Kenji

Age: 43
Location: Laie
Occupation: Firefighter
Annual Household Income (pre-tax): $105,000
Marital Status: Married
Children: 2
Monthly Rent: Under $2,000, utilities included
Monthly Car Payment: $0
Total Student Loans: $0
Life Insurance: $120
Health Insurance Premium: $300
Auto Insurance: ~$100
Union Dues/Other Firefighter Funds: ~$100

 


Can you take me through an average day in your life?

My work shift is 24 hours, so there are some days where I’m at the station all day long. A full 24 hours from 8:00 in the morning until 8:00 a.m. the next day. When I’m not at the station, it just depends on what I have to do that day.

I have a second job that I was doing, but the schedule changed so I haven’t been going in as much. That job was working with a friend to go collect laundry money around the island. Just a little side job. I also have a small farm plot in Hauula, kind of like a welfare plot with our church. I’ll go there and try to get stuff growing and things like that when I have the time.

But other than that, it’s just whatever I have to do that day, if we gotta go to town for something. There’s stuff that I do every day — the kids come home, I see what’s up with them, ask how was school. But the good thing about the job that I have is that I do have every other day free, and then I get four days off in a row. So that allows me the time to spend with them and plan to do other projects. I surf a lot too whenever I can, whenever it’s good.

Do you work a lot of overtime as a firefighter?

I try to. I’m ranked, so our overtime is limited. If you’re a Firefighter 1, you can work as much overtime as you want. When you get some rank, then you fall into a scheduled system, so it’s a little bit harder to get overtime. But I mean, you do get paid more with the rank, right? So it kind of works out. Firefighters usually get part-time jobs or side jobs. Mine was that laundry thing, but it’s really slowed down, so I haven’t been in for a few weeks.

Living on one income, are you strict budgeters?

We are pretty strict budgeters — we’re both pretty thrifty to begin with, but out of necessity we’ve always been strict budgeters. It’s better now that I got a promotion about a year and a half ago, but before that there were times where if I could get in a lot of overtime we didn’t have to worry, but then there were other months where we had a strict budget, and had nothing extra.

I basically take home about 40% to 45% of my paycheck — 55% to 60% is gone before it comes into my hands. Granted that 55% to 60% does include retirement, savings, taxes, medical, dues, etc. But keep that in mind when I say I make, with maxed overtime, $105,000. That means we have $47,000 to live off of for food, rent, gas, clothes, insurance, etc.

Still, at least for now, we’re in a place where we can actually enjoy some things we always had to cut back on or eliminate, like eating out now and then, splurging sometimes when we go to Costco, worrying less about things that used to be a daily thought.

We don’t do a whole lot of extras like going to hotels and having staycations and things like that. You know, I see a lot of people do that but we’ve always been like, okay, we can’t do this, we can’t do that. But at the same time, because my wife is from Tahiti, I’ve made sure that I save up for my family to go at least once a year. My family is spread out all over — there’s a bunch of us still in Hawaii, but others have moved to the mainland because it was cheaper. So a lot of times we’ll have a reunion every couple of years on the mainland.

So I will either save up money for that or to send them to Tahiti. I know that takes money, but the sacrifice has been worth it for them to know who their family is. That’s always been important to us.

Are you trying to buy a house or save up for a down payment right now?

Most people I know, both partners work, so that makes it easier to afford a house. Right now we’re trying to do that just on my salary, which makes it difficult. So the junk thing is we’ve always just been a year or two behind where the market is. There were opportunities we had to buy houses in the past, but either they’re really buss up and you don’t want to deal with it or just other little things. It seems like we’re always just behind — so it’s a little frustrating.

My wife stayed home with the kids before they were in school, and then once they left for school, she developed a condition called endometriosis that causes inflammation and pain. We’ve said ‘oh you’ve gotta get a job, you’ve gotta get a job,’ but it’s hard for her because one day she’ll be okay and the next day she can’t move she’s in so much pain. So it makes that aspect hard.

But we’re always saving. Sometimes things come up, like we have to buy a car or something like that. I don’t think we’ve ever had a brand new car — we always try to buy used cars and keep it to a minimum. Right now, both the cars look like they’re gonna go pretty soon. That might cut into our budget.

My truck is old and rusty and pretty buss up. My wife’s car is pretty decent, but it’s starting to rust and the engine’s starting to act up. I’m not a mechanic, but I do the majority of all our repairs and stuff. I just try to save money with YouTube and Google. For the most part, I’ve been able to take care of it that way. But it’s still humbug. It’s hard because something that would take a mechanic maybe half a day is gonna take you a couple days.

But the thing is we have no debt. That’s been a major factor for us is we’ve really tried hard not to stay in debt. If we don’t have the money for it, we don’t buy it. And if we do use our credit cards, it’s almost always for the protection you get from it, but we have the money to pay it off. We pay it off in full every month. We’re not always actively looking for a house, it just depends on the market.

You’re born and raised in Hawaii. Do you think it’s harder now to make ends meet than it was for your parents?

Definitely. Land and houses were a lot cheaper back then. My dad, on a single salary, was able to buy a property and build a decent-sized house. We had seven of us in the family, so he built a big house and he rented out part of it. It was good, you know, we could afford it. But they don’t have it anymore — I think that property is super expensive now.

I think it’s harder now because you have so many outside people coming in and buying, which isn’t necessarily a problem so much as there are a lot of people who are buying that aren’t investing in the community. They’re either foreigners, or they’re from the mainland and they’re looking for rental properties rather than actually living in the house.

I don’t know how you feel about Airbnb, but I know for me, from what I’ve seen at least, it makes it a lot harder for people in my community to buy houses. There have been times when our real estate agent will come back and say somebody offered cash. We can’t compete with that. Who has $500,000 or $600,000 cash? Not a lot of people. Not me.

Have you run into financial challenges raising kids here?

I think it’s just a lot of little things. The funny thing is, if I had this job with the same pay someplace on the mainland or elsewhere, I’d be living large, you know what I mean. But even with the money I make, I still fall within that low income bracket.

Having said that, it’s all the little things. I remember when the kids started going to school and we found out about programs like free lunch and things like that. We were like, oh let’s try it, but almost all the programs we looked into at the time, we just either didn’t have enough kids or I’d be shy like a few hundred dollars to qualify. So it’s like you’re in that middle zone where you’re making too much to receive help, but you’re not making enough to really prosper. It’s that hard middle ground that I think a lot of people here fall into.

Do your kids go to public or private school?

My kids go to public school. There’s no way I could afford private school unless my kids become good athletes when they’re older and can get scholarships to private schools. So public it is.

However, I did make the choice to send them to Hawaiian immersion for a number of reasons, one of them being that they have smaller class sizes and seem to do a lot more activities and include more material than the standard STEM. More well-rounded education, you could say. Plus they’re adding to the three languages they already speak, thanks to their mama from Tahiti (French and Tahitian).

Has your family ever considered moving anywhere else for a more affordable cost of living?

We’ve talked about it, but my wife hates the cold. She’s said we’re never living on the mainland which is fine by me. I’ve lived there at different times and I’ve visited. Like I said, I’ve got brothers and sisters up there, and I’ve spent enough time up there that I know what it’s like. I don’t prefer it. I prefer it here. The only other place that we’ve talked about living is in Tahiti, which is expensive as well. It can be more expensive, in fact. But if you live a simple life — which we’re happy to do — then I think it’s easier to make it in Tahiti than it is here. But if you’re chasing after the latest cell phone and all that stuff, it’s going to be more expensive in Tahiti.

I have friends all over the island, but we’ve decided that this is where we want to live. Laie is a good community. But even that makes it harder. There were a couple of times we could have bought out in Waianae, but why would we move out there? I mean we’d have a house, but the majority of my friends and family are here. So we just stick it out over here.

You mentioned in the survey that you’re saving 12% to 15% for retirement. Is that paying into your pension?

The majority of that is paying into the pension, but we also try to save money on the side. But our pension is not as funded as it should be. So there is that worry that when I do retire, how will it be? So we try to save whatever we can. But it’s hard when you’re trying to save for a house and trying to save for a rainy day.

Do you have any tips or tricks you want to share with people who are trying to make it work here?

If you have a lot of family support, then it’s easier, obviously. And I think that’s how a lot of people do make it.

I know out where I live, a lot of homes have multiple generations, up to sometimes like five different families living in a house that’s not that big. You know, one family per bedroom because it’s so expensive. I think you probably just have to be willing to live wherever. Like I said, we could have had a house if we wanted to live out in Ewa or Waianae, but there’s nothing for us out there. Everything I love is out here. My kids can go right down the street and go to my mom’s place, and it’s great. There are aunties all over the place, things like that.

Other than that, I guess you just gotta do what you can. I know guys out there that work three different jobs. I was kind of doing that for a while, but I would hardly see my kids and they would always be crying every time I left. So I backed off on that. I made the choice where my time with my kids was more important than trying to bang out as much money as I can to make things work.

Also, take the time to become business-minded. Learn about creating side businesses and hustle. With the cost of life here, you have to find ways to make that extra money. I’m trying to change my mindset and figure out options to do that.

We’re lucky right now. Our rent hasn’t changed in a while, we’re very blessed. But that could change at any moment. If we had to move, I think with the way the rents are right now, we’d be in trouble. We’d be hurting. So that has helped us out a lot. Other than that, you gotta budget — you just gotta be strict. I see a lot of people that get nice cars, they get this or that, but I know their job doesn’t pay that much. So, you know, the assumption is how much are they in debt? That’s something we’ve avoided. So I think just educating yourself on what’s out there, and learning how to budget will help a lot.

But in the past, even with all our budgeting, we’ve had months where the expenses caught up to what was coming in and there were struggles. Right now we’re in a better time where we have the ability to do things with the family that cost a little bit of money. But it’s still not enough to buy a house. We could cut all of that out of our life and just be as thrifty as we can and we’re still not gonna make enough to keep up with the market.

Do you feel like you’re making a lot of sacrifices to live here?

Oh, guaranteed. Obviously a house is one. We always joke and tell my family we basically choose to live in Hawaii and be poor than live on the mainland and live good.

There are so many good aspects here — the people, the culture. You know, you go to the mainland in a lot of places, and nobody will give you the time of day. I mean there are places that are just as friendly on the mainland, but you gotta pay the price of living here. You know how that saying goes, right? You gotta pay the price to live in paradise.

I would rather live here and have my kids grow up here and have the local mindset that I really love, to take care of each other.

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

Oh, man, there are so many things. Number one is Airbnb, they gotta figure out something with that. I think it’s causing a whole lot of trouble and problems here in the islands. In the last 10 years, I’ve seen properties and houses go off the market one after another. Then we’ll see them listed as rentals. We should have some kind of fair regulation, as far as maybe you need to be a resident to be able to have an Airbnb.

And all those condos that were built in Kakaako — we keep catering to the rich. I know Singapore came up with some excellent ideas as far as affordable housing. There’s a lot of things that could be done. Unfortunately, I don’t have the faith that it will get done because I don’t have faith in our elected leaders just because of the corruption and things that you keep seeing pop up time after time. I don’t think they have the integrity to make the changes that need to be changed to help us out. It’s sad to say — I’m not trying to be all pessimistic, but it’s more just like that’s what I see.

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

I would say overall, yes. But money is always a stress. That’s always a big part of any conversation I have with my wife and where we are in our life at the time.

My job is my dream job, and because I have my dream job, I’m not rolling in the dough, but I have the time to spend with my kids, to take them to the beach, to take them hiking.

We love where we live and our great community — I have neighbors who I love, they take care of me, I take care of them.

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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