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Is it Time We Bid Aloha to Oahu?
About the Author
Rod TodorovichRod Todorovich is a retired public school teacher who works part-time in the College of Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He teaches children of all ages, as well as educating adults about our island keiki.
I have a hard time deciding whether to stay in Hawaii, or to try to seek a better life somewhere else. I’ve been debating myself on this for a long time.
In fact, I’ve been here for 47 years. After spending my adult life here, could it still make more sense to go?
My back story goes like this. I came to Honolulu in 1968 to teach both Spanish and English as a second language at a small private school called Hawaiian Mission Academy on Pensacola Street. I instantly adored my students for their warmth, curiosity and respect. I was young; my students were only six or seven years younger than I was.
Many, like me, loved sports. I earned respect in 3-on-3 basketball games with the best student players. To them, I knew how to “make chalk.” Not the white dusty stuff in classrooms. Chalk was slang for nailing clean jump shots that landed smoothly in the bottom of the net. And at 6 foot 3, I was hard to stop. Unplanned games in the gym often ended perfect days for a young teacher like me. Those early games also brought instant status with my students. Teaching was fun and, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t taking any classes.
Despite my meager $4,000 salary in 1968, life was mellow, memorable and even affordable.
As a young adult, I was fine with living alone in simple staff housing a mile from school. To wrap up a fun weekend at the beach, sometimes I’d cruise my stylish red TR-3 down to the Outrigger Hotel, park right in front and order a Flaming Mauna Loa banana split for $1.75 in the evening. Yes, you could get still get something for $1.75.
Back then, except for the 30-second burst of flame atop my banana split, there was no life around Kalakaua Avenue at 9 p.m. on Sundays.
In the 1970s I mostly taught Spanish at Radford High. I had no interest in leaving the islands then. My life was amazing. I finished two Masters degrees, sailed to the mainland four times during summers, played lots of basketball and went to Europe twice on flights that cost just $550. How could I not stay in Hawaii?
Our boy’s education and well-being are central to our lives. That raises a lot of financial complications in a place as expensive as Oahu.
Even as Hawaii changed considerably during the 1980s, I continued to fulfill my interests. I taught, did graduate work in child development, sailed, traveled and did photography. In May of 1994, I finished my doctorate in developmental psychology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
But there were challenges. A divorce in 1989 was a significant setback. I was actively involved in my young daughter’s life during those years, especially for the three weekends each month she spent with me. We lived in a rustic old beach house in Hauula. It’s gone now — termites and dry rot. That area of Oahu south of Laie, however, keeps me in the islands as much as anything in Honolulu. I used to listen to the “rhythm of the ocean” there; now I endure the cacophony of sirens and the din of Ala Wai Boulevard.
But stepping back, on a more practical level, what does keep me here on Oahu? For the most part, it’s my part-time employment at UH Manoa, my “second-life family,” and an ill-timed purchase of a Waikiki condo in February of 2006, when the market was peaking.
In early 2004 I took a three-month trip to South America to celebrate retiring after 33 years as a public school teacher on Oahu. It was the trip of a lifetime. It started with four weeks in Brazil, including the incredible Carnival celebration (referred to as Mardi Gras in the U.S.). I also took an unforgettable boat trip along the southern coast of Chile down to Puerto Natales and then traveled by bus to the southern tip of South America, Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. The Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru wrapped up the journey.
While in Brazil, I met a woman — a younger woman — with a strong interest in psychology. Two more trips to Salvador in the Brazilian state of Bahia in 2004 allowed us to spend several months together. Her English was limited so my fluency in Spanish was essential as it morphed into “Portiñol” — slang for Portuguese that is heavily-laced with Spanish words and a Spanish accent. We communicated well enough to fall in love and on Christmas Eve, 2004, we celebrated our engagement in Maceió, Brazil.
Our son goes to public school, but Hawaii finds so many ways to, as we say, “eat our money.”
My fiancée arrived in Hawaii in May of 2005. In mid-August we exchanged wedding vows at Waimanalo Beach, three days after I turned 60. Six months later we bought a home we could afford, which was a one-bedroom condo in Waikiki. We couldn’t afford anything bigger. And just after New Year’s Day in 2008, we welcomed a newborn son, who is now seven years old.
Our boy’s education and well-being are central to our lives. That raises a lot of financial complications in a place as expensive as Oahu. After all, our son’s grandparents (here and in Brazil) are all deceased, so we are on our own.
I have a fixed term-life insurance policy that will protect our assets until I get to my 80s. My wife and I have both subscribed to long-term health care plans. Our son goes to public school, but Hawaii finds so many ways to, as we say, “eat our money.”
Unfortunately our condo is worth $30,000 less than what we paid for it, but hopefully it will one day be worth more than we owe on it. The thing about buying at the peak of the real estate market is that you never know you are doing it at the time.
I’ve tried to plan for our boy’s future. In 2026, when my guaranteed level premium term life insurance policy lapses, our son will hopefully be well on his way to a college degree with adequate family resources to finish his undergraduate studies thanks to a 529 college savings plan. Older parents need to think about these sorts of things more than others.
Despite setting aside a few hundred dollars each month, I cannot shake this gnawing sense that Honolulu’s unrelenting cost of living robs us of quality-of-life opportunities.
Now I don’t mean to suggest we are living on the edge of poverty. But that doesn’t mean things are easy. Despite bringing in three revenue streams — at least until I fully retire from university teaching — we don’t do anything extravagant. Our medical costs are currently minimal, which is helpful, but like many middle-class residents on Oahu, we are “cash poor.”
When I weigh the pluses of being here, I think of some things I appreciate. As a father, I feel fortunate that our son can enjoy weekly swim lessons, as well as twice-weekly capoeira (Brazilian martial arts) classes at Mestre Kinha’s Besouro capoeira school in Kaneohe, not to mention weekly male keiki hula courses at his public charter school. And, oh, yes, Kaimana Beach isn’t bad.
Despite setting aside a few hundred dollars each month, I cannot shake this gnawing sense that Honolulu’s unrelenting cost of living robs us of quality-of-life opportunities. In addition to the high prices in our lives, our condo maintenance fees have soared about 250 percent, from $212 to $519, in less than a decade. It is hard to see prices on Oahu going back down.
While we juggle a lot economically and educationally, I am glad we avoided private school — and the bills that would come with it. That would have required me to return to full-time employment. I love teaching but as a 69 year old, I don’t see how I could go back to a full-time job for another five years.
Looking ahead, how can our family of three fend off Oahu’s incessant stream of high costs? If we stay and I fully retire, we won’t be able to do too much in the way of enjoying what makes life so special here.
Last summer we spent 47 wonderful days in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Croatia — one day for each year of my long professional career. One year later, we aren’t looking forward to any more such trips. We have to deal with a second mortgage that has a nasty 8.75 percent ARM that comes due soon. So, I joke to friends that our trip this year will be to our lanai — so we can pay for it.
That isn’t all. The kitchen needs remodeling, the range is as old as our 1968 condo, and our 11 year old Toyota RAV4 has 102,000 miles. We can’t combine our two mortgages into a single loan until we accrue more equity. My wife’s small business needs to get up and running.
It is possible that, by the summer of 2016, we will opt for the last meaning of aloha and be gone.
After a lifetime of work, it pains me to contemplate reducing the money set aside to put our son through college to pay for such basic costs. It makes me doubt our long-term capacity to afford a life here.
It makes we wonder if we could have a better quality of life in other fascinating — and more affordable — places. I am particularly drawn to Barcelona, Spain, for its rich history and unique culture and because we have close friends there.
My wife, a ceramic artist, might thrive there. And our son could become trilingual. On the cost of living front, if we made Spain our permanent new home, his university education there would be free. His university saving plan could be used for graduate study in the U.S.
Spain is also much closer to Brazil, and flights are less expensive, which are real benefits for my wife and our bi-cultural son.
Now I feel I have my own homework to do. I am closely weighing it all before we make such a big decision. It is possible that, by the summer of 2016, we will opt for the last meaning of aloha and be gone.
If so, we will become one more Oahu statistic, a family seeking another home with equally blue skies because it is more affordable.
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