A recent discussion on Google+ (hey, take another look at it if you haven’t lately, PassingThru’s page is here, and Pete and I are both using it more) on the cost of living in Hawaii was interesting. More than one commenter thought moving to Hawaii would only be possible with a big lottery win. Others referenced people they knew who dealt with the cost of living in Hawaii by making major changes in lifestyle. No one who actually was living in Hawaii, or even seriously thinking of moving to Hawaii, weighed in, except for yours truly.
We did a great deal of homework on the cost of living in Hawaii before we moved here. We looked forward to the lifestyle changes, and planned as best we could. Still, it’s a valid question for anyone: can I afford to live in Hawaii? Our answer: You can, just don’t try to duplicate a typical mainland lifestyle.
Yet, that’s exactly what people do. They want to plunk their suburban, SUV mini-van, payment-filled mainland life in the middle of paradise. Then they’re all “it costs too much!” Surprise! Basic costs are high in Hawaii. Duh. Everything has to be brought in, knuckleheads. So those inside-the-box-thinkers are right: they could never afford to live here. But what we’ve found, to paraphrase, is: whether you think you can or can’t afford living in Hawaii, you’re right.
Unless you have the cushion of a lottery win, your challenge when moving to Hawaii will be to rethink your lifestyle. Things like building materials that go into making houses, utilities, fuel, cars, groceries, clothing cost more. Stuff that you need every day, and stuff you think you need every day may cost more, too.
The first major expense that could kill your dream: getting your stuff here. When we first thought about moving to Hawaii, our mindset was “we’ll just pack all our household stuff in a container and ship it over there, and we’ll ship our Jeep, too.” This is how a move happens on the mainland, and lots of people figure they’ll do it the same way when they’re moving here. For military and corporate transferees to the Islands, it’s routine – someone else is paying. For us, though, totally cost defective. Fortunately, we were influenced by the many Craigslist ads: “Whole house – $5000, cost me $15K to ship it here, my loss, your gain.” When we realized it was going to cost a couple thousand dollars to ship our car over, we decided to buy an island car on arrival instead.
With about six months to go before moving day, we were still undecided about how much stuff was coming along. As time passed and the deadline loomed, we decided we weren’t going to haul, send or keep as much as we’d originally thought. A big factor in this decision was researching available housing. Fortunately, in Hawaii there are a high number of furnished housing units available. The population is more transient, vacation rentals are converted to long-term, owners are in transition, many different reasons. We decided our worst case scenario (purchasing the furnishings for new digs) was less expensive than shipping our stuff.
If you’re thinking of buying a home in Hawaii, you’ll probably encounter significant sticker shock. Your 4 bedroom, 2 story suburban lifestyle is going to cost you. But again, why would you do that? If you’re looking at a capital gain issue from the sale of your mainland home, yet you don’t have sufficient equity to fund a comfortable mortgage payment, you’ll want to consider alternatives. These might include downsizing or multiple household property units. Lots of Hawaiian homes have an ohana, from the Hawaiian word for “family,” unit on the ground level with the main family unit raised to catch the breezes. Or the ohana might be a separate building on the property. Many folks here are landlords because they need the rental income to fund the big mortgage.
We’d already made the switch from owning to renting on the mainland, so we began scouting furnished rental listings months ahead. From them, we acclimated to prices. We found all-inclusive rentals (utilities, cable, water included) in the size we needed were comparable within a couple hundred bucks per month of our expense load in Minnesota. When we factored in the extra cost of a furnished rental vs. buying furniture, we were shocked to discover it was much the same in Hawaii as we were paying in Minnesota. It began to seem like we’d be crazy not to move. 😉
In Minnesota, we were a two-car couple. Since we both work at home, keeping a two car lifestyle was a convenience that bore scrutiny. We ended up selling my car several months before we moved and got along fine with one car, which we sold right before moving day. Hawaii’s gas prices are the highest in the nation. We decided we would replace the car and if that was insufficient, we’d get a scooter. We haven’t needed the scooter so far, although they sure look like fun. Kauai isn’t a very big place, and the fact is we don’t drive much with our home office. We fill up the SUV’s tank about every three weeks, so our gasoline expenditures have actually gone down. Choose to commute into Honolulu and enjoy a tropical traffic jam on its freeway twice per day, and your mileage and your blood pressure will be higher.
People who come to Hawaii on vacation talk about expensive groceries. They’re shocked by the cost of milk, eggs, bread, meat, snack foods, soda, and on and on. But the reality is, your grocery bill, whether you live here in Hawaii or on the mainland, directly reflects your lifestyle. Eat more fruits and vegetables, many of which you can grow in your own garden with a 365 day per year season, and you can manage nicely in Hawaii. There are so many farmers markets here on Kauai, that what we can’t grow ourselves we can often buy from someone else. It’s fun to support local farmers and feel more independent from traditional food supply chains. Plus, we’ve found we don’t eat as much here for a variety of reasons. Win!
Just like with any major change in lifestyle, moving to Hawaii can be filled with complications and adjustments. Is it worth it? We think so. We’re happy here, for now. Can you afford to live in Hawaii? That depends on you.
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