How do people afford to live in Hawaii? Before you throw your favorite flip flops and aloha shirt in your sayonara suitcase, heed our best advice for moving to Hawaii.
It’s deep midwinter on the Mainland as I write this and with it, a virtual polar vortex of emails and blog visitors who are wondering:
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Sensing a trend? Lots of visitors to this popular vacation destination dream of making it a permanent stay. 🙂
While this post will stop short of a “should I move to Hawaii quiz” we will try to answer the majority of all these related questions here.
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How do people afford to live in Hawaii? Let’s take a look at the basic expense categories as they pertain to the Aloha State:
How Does Anyone Afford a House in Hawaii
This is the big one that freaks people out. We won’t lie; housing is expensive in Hawaii, particularly if you’re a buyer. It’s the most expensive state in the United States to own a house. If you’re coming from a mainland housing market like San Francisco or New York City, your sticker shock will be less. For the rest of us, particularly coming from areas that have been slow to recover economically, housing prices here will seem ridiculous and totally out of reach.
The median price of a single-family home in Hawaii exceeds the national average by a lot. As of February 2023, it actually dipped just below a million dollars: $999,000. (Last year, the median was well over $1 million.) But the average sale price of a home came in at about $1.4 million.
With prices like these, home ownership can seem out of reach, particularly if you’re a working single person, where the financial strain is compounded by low minimum wage and a high state income tax affects the median household income. In fact, it’s a situation that has forced many native Hawaiians to leave the state in search of more affordable lifestyle in the continental U.S., where housing costs take up a much smaller proportion of income.
But what the locals know, and you’ll confirm with a little research, it’s still possible to find a rental you can afford. This is how a lot of people can afford to retire cheaply in Hawaii.
There’s a lot of vacation rental inventory, as you might imagine, and owners get tired of turnover. These can be the best places for a transplant. The two-bedroom apartment we rented was in a former vacation rental home, so we not only scored fully-furnished, but a tricked-out kitchen, linens, small appliances in a totally turn-key situation.
Is Kauai a good place to live? Yes, we paid more rent on Kauai than we paid in Minnesota. But the difference in high cost of our new home was more than made up by the fact that we spent far less supplementing the household than we would have in an unfurnished place. And, since we opted out of shipping household goods to Hawaii (do you really even want to consider this? $$$$), our Kauai living expenses were relatively the same as they had been on the mainland. If you choose a different island, you may see better deals. Try the Big Island of Hawaii for comparatively less expense.
Many property parcels throughout the Hawaiian Islands contain more than one housing unit. Whether in an Ohana ( from the Hawaiian word for “family,” an apartment on the lower level or back of the main house) or separate studio or guest house structure for extended family, living arrangements can be part of a multiple household grouping that you share with family members.
The property we rented has the main house where we had two floors, and our landlord lived part time in the lower level, which was sometimes rented as a vacation unit. Additionally, behind/above us were two other structures with insane views of our lovely valley: a one-bedroom house and a studio arrangement. All are private, and set among a series of terraced gardens and pathways.
Since we moved here, we’ve seen a variety of living arrangements. The most difficulty is for lower income singles. We know two people who’ve spent time living in their cars or camping on the beach. Fortunately, this is more comfortable here than you might first imagine.
Availability on Kauai at lower prices is very tight, so you’ll need to rely on networking just as much as you would typical outlets like Craigslist, etc. Do your research long before you arrive, and be open to a less traditional arrangements than you might find on the mainland. Each island has its own characteristics, so you’ll want to weigh aspects against each other.
Household Belongings and Setup
Getting your stuff out here will probably turn you into a minimalist faster than any of our preaching. It will cost you thousands to transport your mainland household in a surface container, and it doesn’t arrive quickly.
If you’re in the military or a corporate type, you may be in luck with an allowance. But honestly, if you’re wondering about how much does it cost to move to Hawaii, we recommend you use this opportunity to get rid of your stuff.
It’s easy to set up a household on Kauai, even if you wind up in an unfurnished place. There are several outlets where you can purchase gently-used hotel and resort furniture – we outfitted our home office with upholstered office chairs and mahogany desks for less than $300.
With the constant flow of people going back to the mainland, yard sales and auctions are common. We picked up a set of everyday white china for $10, bought a better coffee maker at Walmart, and took advantage of Amazon Prime when we needed office supplies and bathroom rugs.
This is a conundrum when evaluating the cost to move to Hawaii. There are two options: ship your car to Hawaii or buy when you get here. Neither is 100% best. We sold both mainland vehicles before we left. Pete missed his Jeep (irrationally, I thought).
You can ship your vehicle; that cost to ship your car to Hawaii starts at around $1200 from the West Coast and the car can’t have any stuff in it.
Our neighbors shipped their extended cab diesel pickup truck from New Jersey. Then they incurred thousands in repair bills and were without the truck on multiple occasions: its diesel engine couldn’t get going fast enough on the winding, mountainous highway between our neighborhood and town to run optimally. And, the truck was so long it was a hassle to turn around on our narrow road. In our view, shipping this particular vehicle was a costly mistake.
Cars are expensive to buy on island. We bought a used 2001 Lexus SUV for around $9000 when we got here. It worked well; it was a comfortable and reliable vehicle. Other, newer vehicles were running $15K and up.
But it’s possible to find a vehicle within your network, too. The closer someone gets to moving back to the mainland, the more they lower the price on their car. $2000 for a nice 2004 Honda Accord? A friend scored that from someone who was running out of time.
Midwesterners will appreciate the fact that older, no-rust options are widely available. Short story? Get over your mainland expectations. You’ll want something that’s fun and practical, and you won’t be judged by your car.
For a full treatment of what to do about a car in Hawaii see our post: Moving to Kauai: What About My Vehicle?
Gas prices in Hawaii are the highest in the nation; the fuel has to be shipped here. The good news is you won’t be driving as much, unless you’re commuting into Honolulu from an Oahu ‘burb. We spend far less on gasoline here, so the expense differential despite having the highest costs in the nation was a budget wash.
Many people we knew didn’t even own a car. They hitchhiked, biked or took the Kauai bus. That’s a little more extreme than we were willing to commit, but we saw it working for them.
Say goodbye to shoes and anything else that’s leather. It will mold faster than Louis Pasteur’s petri dish. You’ll wear less clothing in Hawaii – yay! And it will be far more casual.
Keeping up with the Joneses’ wardrobe expectations has no relevance here. You’ll be in flip-flops (call them slippers here: “slippahs”), board shorts, bathing suits, pareo, tank tops, simple dresses, and maybe a sweatshirt if the temperature dips below 65F. Our closet has just a little more than 30″ of hanging space, and it’s completely adequate.
The downside of clothing/climate simplification is that if you travel back to colder climates, you’ll need to replace outerwear and boots. We’ve had to do this for our trip to the Olympics. We opted for inexpensive footwear that we plan to leave behind in Russia. We also had our daughter send us two bins of winter clothing we’d kept stored in our unit on the mainland. It was like opening another life. 🙂
How much is a gallon of milk in Hawaii?
Grocery prices in Hawaii will certainly contribute to the cost of living in Hawaii, but the good news is that healthy lifestyle = healthy food, which is grown in abundance here by committed organic producers. You can get everything your stealth vegetarian sensibilities would ever want at the many Farmers’ Markets.
Grocery store prices will send you into sticker shock if you’re loading your cart with processed foods and traditional dairy products. Step outside your mainland food comfort zone and buy local whenever you can. Kauai grass-fed beef is among the world’s best, and grocery-store roasted chicken is not much more than on the mainland.
Eating out is going to be your budget-buster. We head into Hanalei daily for lunch and early happy hour. This is one of our main expenses every month. But, since we work at home, we’d be hermits and at each other’s throats if not for the regular socializing that takes place on these trips. 🙂
Okay, so how to make money in Hawaii?
How to move to Hawaii without a job – If you’re coming here without a job, you’ve got to be prepared to be versatile. Come with several months worth of living expenses to tide you over. There’s lots of turnover in retail and the food/entertainment sector, so if you’ve got capabilities, you could start there. Just be aware that low-wage service jobs were depleted during the covid pandemic due to business closures and the like, so competition is high.
Resources like Workwise Kauai and Kama’aina Jobs (kama’aina means “local”) are typical places to start looking for job opportunities. Big Island-specific and general options are discussed comprehensively here: Getting Employed in Hilo
If you’ve designed yourself a location-independent business like we have, it’s a matter of getting your household established for a seamless transition. We were working consistently within several days of our arrival. It’s also possible to start a location-dependent business similar to one you may have had on the mainland here in Hawaii. Research your options and potential markets. We chose to keep our Minnesota LLC and file the appropriate documents with the State of Hawaii to conduct business and earn revenue here.
What skills can you leverage? We were amazed at all the ways people hustle income. Artists are housepainters and landscapers, bartenders are carpenters, waitresses are preschool teachers or salespeople, office workers sell their crafts at weekend tourist markets. It’s quite common to have several simultaneous part-time hustles going to ensure a steady income with an average salary that’s higher than minimum wage.
Think outside the traditional ideas you may have and commit to versatility. We knew lots of people who were working to surf, or to subsidize another passion. It’s almost a given that your ideas about career, a living wage, and life will shift on the islands.
Have we mentioned how peaceful and relaxed Hawaii lifestyle is compared with the mainland? No doubt if you’re even considering whether you can afford to live in Hawaii, you’re a fan of the island lifestyle. There can definitely be much less stress.
While it won’t be exactly like your vacation when you’re busy working, it will seem pretty close! Yes, it will be tempting when winter winds blow to take a screen shot of the weather app local temps and post it to social media. For me, just seeing the ocean, wondering what color it would be and how it would behave, was one of the highlights of my day. And after we lived there a while, we even began to notice subtle seasonal changes!
Even though we travel full time now and no longer live on Kauai, we still feel like it’s home. It was a good move for us; we wound up a lot happier and healthier.
Hawaii is the happiest state in the nation. Hawaiian culture comes out so far ahead in all the ways that are important to us now when we evaluate our standard of living that the high prices on some things were an appropriate trade. Your mileage, of course, could always vary. But if you’re planning a move to Hawaii, and particularly Kauai, we urge you to go for it with heartiest Aloha!