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Do I Need to Leave Hawaii?
A lot of my friends have left the islands. I can keep working multiple jobs and hold on, or move elsewhere for a better quality of life.

About the Author

  • Denise Laitinen
    Denise Laitinen is the owner and chief coffee cup cleaner of DLC Hawaii Media. She lives on Hawaii Island where she works as a journalist, social media trainer and marketing consultant. She has authored more than 1,000 articles and her work appears regularly in newspapers, magazines and blogs around the country.


It’s a great number if you need eggs or are a New England Patriots fan. (As a lot of people in Boston know, Tom Brady, the Patriots’ star quarterback, is number 12.)

It isn’t so great when it marks the number of colleagues and friends that have fled Hawaii for greener professional pastures and fatter paychecks on the mainland.

That’s 12 people in the last year alone.

These are smart successful people who own their own companies in a range of industries.

They lived in Hawaii for years and loved it here, but could not pass up opportunities on the mainland that would never be available to them in Hawaii.

And did I mention the fat paychecks? Even former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle is earning roughly $81,000 more as an aide to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner than she did as governor of Hawaii. That is $198,000 versus her old chief executive of Hawaii salary of $117,306.

This departure trend makes me wonder. Are my friends the smart ones? Do they see some special invisible writing on the wall?

Having worked multiple jobs for years to afford to buy a house, should I now sell it — most likely at a loss — to pursue better options elsewhere?

Is it too late to start over in a new city and possibly even a new profession?

Those questions hang in the air, but there’s a reason I haven’t called my realtor and packed my bags. I’ve been down this road before, and I ended up right back in Hawaii.

Denise Laitinen

Laitenen on the job on Election Day in 2014 when she interviewed U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard who was on duty with the National Guard at their main base in lower Puna to respond to the lava flow.

Courtesy of Denise Laitinen

I had a hard time finding work when I first moved to Hawaii. It was the early 1990s and I had moved to Maui on little more than a whim. At the time I had a successful massage therapy practice in Los Angeles and I hosted a cable television show on holistic living. I was young and ambitious with a shiny new diploma from UCLA. I’d never lacked for work. How hard could it possibly be to find a job while taking the classes I needed to earn my Hawaii massage license?

Upon my arrival, I discovered that Maui’s sugar cane industry was in its death throes. Jobs were hard to come by, but the aloha spirit was plentiful. I marveled that total strangers would smile and say hello walking down the street — something unheard of in my native Boston.

I wound up managing a holistic monthly magazine. That led to other publishing gigs, including launching a Japanese-language shopping magazine and a seven-year stint writing lifestyle features for the Maui News.

I had to make it work. And I was too broke to even consider moving anywhere else.

The beautiful beaches, snorkeling and diving were mesmerizing. I spent nearly every weekend at the beach with friends. You could feel the aloha spirit as easily and naturally as the sun’s rays. While I enjoyed my budding writing career, it took a lot of hard work. I usually had at least two jobs, sometimes three, just to make ends meet.

Getting paid 5 cents per word for a feature newspaper article and working part time at a book store while holding down a full-time job kept a roof over my head — but it was a roof I rented, not one I owned. Even back then home prices were so high that buying a small condo was out of reach.

Meanwhile, my college roommates and friends on the mainland bought houses and took exotic trips while I struggled at multiple jobs. But I loved living on Maui. To me it truly was paradise.

I had to make it work. And I was too broke to even consider moving anywhere else.

Over time, though, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was missing out. I became one of the few people in my circle of college friends who did not own a house.

I also watched as friends and acquaintances left Maui in droves. During a six-month span, 11 people I knew moved back to the mainland.

A few hundred published articles and two broken engagements later, I threw in the towel and moved back to my hometown of Boston in 1999. I thought it would be forever. I still remember the sadness I felt as I looked out the plane window, down at the azure waters of Maui’s north shore.

The pain of leaving paradise was easily assuaged, at first. I quickly found a publishing job for a national magazine. I was earning twice as much as I did at my last job on Maui.

Yet I was miserable. It was great to be around family again, but the pain I felt being far from Maui was palpable. It felt like I was missing a limb.

The very traits one needs to thrive in Hawaii were quashed in Boston. People were rude. Drivers were crazy. It was cold — a lot. I lasted three years.

Then I moved back to Maui.

I was thrilled to be back. My career changed tracks. Thanks to my mainland job experience I was able to get better paying work on Maui. I became the statewide coordinator of a national wildfire safety program.

Denise Laitinen and other members of Social Media Club Hawaii

Laitinen was part of a four-person social media and tech panel at the Better Business Bureau conference a year ago. Two of these people have since moved away from Hawaii for better paid jobs.

Courtesy of Denise Laitinen

I still worked side jobs. But instead of earning 5 cents per word writing for the Maui News, I was making $50 an hour as a technical writer.

Life was good. I juggled multiple jobs, and boyfriends. I could afford things not possible before: concerts, designer handbags and the latest fashions. But home-ownership proved elusive.

I didn’t appreciate just how soft Maui’s real estate market had been in the 1990s until I saw housing prices climb and climb, and then climb some more after I came back.

I wanted to stay on Maui, but I didn’t want to wake up one day in my 50s with nothing to show for all my hard work. I had saved up a small nest egg — meant as a wedding fund. But after a bad breakup I decided to buy a house instead of waiting for Mr. Right.

I found a nice home on an acre of land with mature fruit trees and plenty of space — on the Big Island. I couldn’t afford Maui.

If I hadn’t spent those three years on the mainland, I would never have gained the skills and experience that enabled me to land jobs upon my return that allowed me to buy a home, even if it was not exactly where I wanted to be.

The county I live in now has the highest rate of poverty in the state. The district I live in has the highest rate of poverty in the county. Many of my neighbors are locals who, like me, left Oahu or Maui for the cheapest real estate available where they had a chance of working. I am talking about people who are willing to live on the flank of an active volcano. We enjoy a sort of volcano discount.

I can count on two hands how many times I’ve sat on a white sandy beach in the last two years. I’m too busy working.

But still, I am getting déjà vu as I watch friend after friend move to the mainland. I wish them well as they move on toward new, financially lucrative chapters of their lives.

I count my blessings. I know I am fortunate to have a home. That said, it has come at a price. I’ve had to work two, three or even four jobs to make it ends meet.

To save money, I have learned the art of the coupon, and taken on additional freelance writing assignments — anything and everything to save my house. There were years that weren’t pretty and a lot of good people lost their homes. I feel grateful that I still have mine.

I’ve now spent the majority of my adult life working multiple jobs. These days I’m a social media trainer and I write for a variety of media outlets. I teach classes on “couponing” and frugal living.

Mainland relatives and friends think I must be rich to live in Hawaii and that I spend my days at the beach. I can count on two hands how many times I’ve sat on a white sandy beach in the last two years. I’m too busy working.

Aloha fence

In addition to her multiple jobs, Laitinen photographs life in Puna. This aloha sign is one of many in downtown Pahoa.

Courtesy of Denise Laitinen

The irony is that I write about luxury real estate — multimillion dollar homes I couldn’t dream of affording.

As more people around me announce their departures, I wonder if it is worth it to stay.

Is the non-stop grind of work worth it just to have a roof I can call my own? After all, my roofing is leaking and it needs to be replaced. I haven’t yet figured out how to pay for that, on top of the other bills I juggle. I wonder if I should even bother.

After all, Pele has been knocking at my neighborhood’s door for months. Things have quieted down recently, but who knows what path the lava will take?

I wonder if I would be better off moving somewhere cheaper with warm weather and sandy beaches, like Mark Heilbron, who left Hawaii for a more affordable paradise in Central America.

Then I remind myself that I lasted just three years on the mainland last time.

I think of the life I’ve built for myself here and I wonder if I will one day announce to my friends and colleagues that I’m the one leaving. Will I be number 13?

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