Is Hawaii Worth It?

Four local families talk about the price of paradise—and whether they’re willing to pay it any longer. Also, check out some eye-opening stats on the cost of living in the Islands.


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“It doesn’t really matter where you are, you’re going to be busy working if you have a job so you might as well be doing it in a place you love,” says 36-year-old Raffy Jacinto.

photo: mark arbeit; Photo Illustration: Michael Brittain

It’s something we’ve all asked ourselves. Maybe it was after sitting in H-1 traffic for two hours after a hard day of work at your subpar job, for which you had to be on the road at 6 a.m., just to make it on time. Maybe it was after you forked over $7 for a minuscule box of Frosted Mini-Wheats, or after you opened your HECO bill for $450.

Is it really worth it to live here?

Economist Paul Brewbaker dubs our high cost of living “the paradise premium: The amount we observe people in Hawaii are willing to pay … to be here,” he says.

Here, four Hawaii families share their answer to the Big Question. For half of them, it’s Hawaii—no matter the cost. For the other half, it just isn’t worth it anymore.

The weather, the culture, the Aloha spirit. The bills, the cost of housing, the lack of professional opportunities. They’ve weighed all the factors and made the decision that was best for them.
 

Back and Forth

Monday through Friday, Raffy Jacinto is usually driving home at the same time many people are caught in traffic (although he’s sitting there right along with them). Jacinto, age 36, is a water-science and dive technician at Aulani Resort and Spa and works either the graveyard shift from 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m., or the swing shift from 4 p.m. to midnight. He and his wife, Margie, 34, along with their 2-year-old daughter, Gabbie, live in a two-bedroom townhouse rental near Kahala Mall, but he doesn’t mind the commute. “I get to tuck my daughter in at night and then I go off to work and see them the next day when I come home,” he says. Jacinto says he’s happy working at Aulani, and prefers to live in town, despite the travel time and $4.45-a-gallon gas. But he wasn’t always so content. In the past six years, the Jacintos have moved back and forth between Honolulu and Dallas twice.

House Hunting

Median Single-Family Home Prices

Source: national association of realtors, 2011

The first time the couple moved to Texas was in 2005. “There were not a lot of opportunities available here,” says Jacinto. “After awhile we felt like we were stuck in a rut. That’s kind of what got us looking to move to the Mainland.” Jacinto worked at Sea Life Park and, while he was putting his biology degree to use, he felt he had peaked there. Margie worked in retail.

Jacinto was born in the Philippines, but his family moved to Oahu in 1984 and he attended Star of the Sea Catholic school and Punahou. He went to college in the Philippines, where he met Margie. The two moved back to Hawaii and married in 2002. They managed to find a one-bedroom apartment in Waikiki for $1,250 a month and loved the area. “I wasn’t really making enough to move forward with the plans I had mapped out for Margie and I,” he says, adding that the two had talked about starting a family in the near future. “Rather than sit and wait and see what happens, I thought it’d be more proactive to look somewhere else.”

Dallas felt sensible. It was cheaper, plus they already knew people there—Jacinto’s brother-in-law and his family lived in Dallas. “It seemed like a logical place.”

The effects on their bank accounts were immediate. Jacinto says in addition to cheaper rent, everyday costs such as groceries, gas and utilities were all lower than Honolulu, even with the more than 8 percent sales tax. They also both got to keep more of what they earned; there’s no personal income tax in Texas (although property taxes are high).

For less than the price of their Waikiki apartment, the Jacintos found a two-bedroom apartment close to downtown Dallas. Jacinto landed a job as an entry-level aquarist at the Dallas World Aquarium.

Two years later, they decided Dallas wasn’t where they wanted to be. “We got homesick,” he says with a laugh. “Dallas is a great city and, in general, the people are nice, but it’s just not Hawaii. It’s flat and nondescript. In my head I’m like, It’s a whole lot of nothing, no wonder it’s so cheap out here!”

So, in 2007 they sold their cars, packed up their belongings and flew back to Oahu. He went back to Sea Life Park and she started writing for a local publication. They took advantage of their old Waikiki neighborhood, and the familiar surfing and fishing spots.

But a sense of déjà vu set in for Jacinto at Sea Life Park. Shortly after, his old boss from the Dallas aquarium offered him a job as a staff supervisor. He couldn’t refuse. The Jacintos moved back to Dallas in 2009, thinking this time they were in it for the long haul. The couple bought a house for $250,000 in a nice neighborhood. Soon after, their daughter was born. “We had found all the different things that we wanted. We had good jobs, we had our house, we had cars, we had our daughter and friends and family,” he says. “If you put it down on paper it was great.”
 

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