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Hawaii’s High Cost of Living Leads to Trade-offs on the Big Island
A Kona resident knows why he lives on the Big Island despite limited career options, but he is wondering if that will still make sense as he gets older.

About the Author

  • Jeremy Withrow
    Jeremy Withrow works for the Federal Aviation Administration in Kona.

Living and working in Hawaii is a trade-off.

This means that for most of us, we are giving up something valuable to be here. I read, “So, How Long Have You Lived in Hawaii?” by David Morgan and was motivated to reassess what is really keeping us on the Big Island after eight years.

The cost of living in Hawaii is the highest in the nation. So, is paradise really worth it? I suppose that depends on how you look at it. Hawaii ranks as one of the happiest states in the nation, and unsurprisingly, we live the longest too.

However, if you have to work 65 hours a week on three jobs until you are 75 years old, then what is the point of living in a paradise that you don’t have time to enjoy?

There are basically two types of families that live in Hawaii: the rich and the poor. The middle class in Hawaii is such a small sliver, I wonder if it even counts as a cohort anymore.

My wife and I work 50-plus hour weeks in what seem like good-paying jobs to keep our middle-class status. Still, the main difference between our family and the working poor in Hawaii is that we are a few extra paychecks away from default.

I am a military veteran and have worked for the federal government most of my adult life. All federal employees get a locality pay added to their base salaries to offset the cost of living in different parts of the country. In Hawaii, I receive a 16-percent locality pay adjustment. A federal employee in Oklahoma City, which has a cost of living index 40 percent below Honolulu, receives a 14 percent locality pay.

Jeremy Withrow understands the upsides of living in the islands, but he knows there are trade-offs.
Jeremy Withrow understands the upsides of living in the islands, but he knows there are trade-offs. Courtesy of Jeremy Withrow

A few years ago I asked an executive from Washington D.C., why Hawaii’s locality pay was so low and his response was that we live in paradise and I shouldn’t complain. My wife is a teacher with a master’s degree in elementary education. Teachers here, when the cost of living is factored in, earn the lowest salaries in the nation.

So one of the trade-offs that our family makes to live in Hawaii is that what would be our disposable income in many other places goes toward what I call the “aloha tax.”

We didn’t come to Hawaii for Ironman but, in a sense, I have traded my career for it.

But if you are waiting for the government to come up with a solution to the high cost of living in the islands, I have some bad news. There is not going to be any cost relief from our elected representatives. The politicians may come and go, but they have the same old ideals in different wrapping, especially since Hawaii is basically a single-party state where the same party remains in control.

In general, Hawaii is tough on professional advancement, but the neighbor islands, in particular, are where good careers go to die. Many friends who I started my career alongside are now one or two pay grades higher than I am because they work in Oahu or on the mainland and I work in Kona. My career has stagnated after eight years here.

That said, I possess something that none of those same friends have. I am an Ironman World Championship finisher, which is widely considered to be the single toughest day in sports. This is something I would never have contemplated doing, or been able to complete, if we had not moved to Kona. We didn’t come to Hawaii for Ironman but, in a sense, I have traded my career for it.

Jeremy Withrow completes Hawaii's Iron Man competition.
Jeremy Withrow completes Hawaii’s Iron Man competition. Courtesy of Jeremy Withrow

I had a conversation with a peer who works in Washington D.C., who knows that I have a Ph.D and live in Kona. “I have been to Kona,” she said. “Why would you live there?”

The truth is the only way to answer that. I responded, “It’s simple: Sun, surf, sand, and Ironman.”

She also asked why I am not her boss?

I am rapidly approaching my 40th birthday. Retirement is far away; I am still in the most productive years of my professional life. But I need to figure out what my trade-off will be if I stay in Hawaii later in life. I wonder if I will have to work an extra 10 or 15 years in a career where I could have thrived elsewhere.

Did I mention that I am an Ironman finisher?

Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands? If so, click on the red pencil button to share it through Connections, or drop a note to epape@civilbeat.com.

And join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation about this story, or to discuss broader practical and political solutions for the islands.