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.
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.
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.”
But the couple soon realized Dallas wasn’t where they wanted to raise their daughter. On par with their move-every-two-years track record, the family moved back to Honolulu in 2011. Jacinto says he wanted Gabbie to grow up in the same environment he did, a place that embraced Filipino culture and traditions, a place where children learn to swim in the ocean, a place where aloha is a way of life. “People spend thousands of dollars to get a tiny bit of that, I have it 24/7,” he says.
Bringing Home the Bacon
Median Household Income
Coming back to the Islands the second time was more difficult. “We had to be 100 percent sure that we’d be able to make it work when we made the move.” Jacinto says it ultimately took a year of saving money and six of months of active job hunting before they came back.
Hoping to sell their Dallas house when the market improves, they currently rent it out to cover their $1,500 mortgage payment each month. They want to buy a home here. “It’s a challenge to buy a house here, it’s a bigger commitment,” he says, adding that moving back meant taking a pay cut.
“There’s ways that you don’t have to spend as much money living here if you’re smart about it,” says Jacinto. “On the Mainland, you don’t have to try so hard.” To cut back in the Islands, the Jacintos eat out less, shop less and cancelled their Netflix and the premium cable-channel subscriptions.
“To offset that, I step out of the house and go to the beach; it’s priceless,” he says. “That’s the reason you get those things in Dallas, because you don’t have as much there.”
Gabbie goes to Star of the Sea, where Jacinto went as a child. He says he’s committed to “do what it takes,” to keep her in the private, Catholic school, even if it means more financial sacrifices ahead.
And, this time, he says with all confidence, they plan on staying. “This is it. I don’t see myself growing old anywhere else.”
Making the Jump
Susanna Ok will always think of Hawaii as home, but, says the 31-year-old, “I’m one of those people that doesn’t need to live at home. I always knew I was leaving … I always knew I was not meant to stay and live in Hawaii.” Born and raised in Kaneohe and Makakilo, Ok left the Islands after graduating from St. Andrew’s Priory. (She applied to UH as her “just in case school.”) After studying abroad in Argentina and a stint in the Peace Corps after graduating from Ohio’s Kenyon College, Ok discovered that a career in psychology wasn’t for her, after all.
“I realized I needed a career and I got a job at a restaurant and really liked it,” she says, although she never thought she’d be a cook. Despite her lack of culinary training, Ok’s talent took her to Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room; she later was part of Ed Kenney’s original Downtown crew, eventually becoming the restaurant’s chef de cuisine.
But she was restless. So, despite the booming organic, farm-to-table scene in which she had immersed herself, Ok left Hawaii in April 2010. “When you’re home you have security, you don’t open yourself up to see what’s out there and meet other people,” she says. “Especially in Hawaii, because it’s an island, we’re so isolated.”
Ok took her time finding a new backdrop for her fast-paced life. After paying off her student loans, her strict saving regime allowed her one-way tickets to San Francisco, Boston, New York City, Pennsylvania, even Panama City, all cities in which she thought she could see herself living. “I had two suitcases packed with everything I needed to settle down,” she says.
The place ended up being San Francisco, a nonstop flight away from Oahu, but far enough for a much-needed change. While volunteering at a street-food festival, Ok met Richie Nakano, who runs Hapa Ramen, a ramen stand at the bustling Ferry Plaza market. The two hit it off and, this May, Ok and Nakano, now business partners, are opening Hapa, a brick-and-mortar ramen restaurant on Fillmore Street. The two have been featured in positive media stories and decent Yelp reviews. Ok, whose Twitter handle is The Noodle Cook, says she loves where she is at, professionally and socially.
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“The city has been really good to me; I’ve met a lot of people, I’ve made a lot of friends, people find me interesting,” she says, adding that, unlike here, San Francisco has been especially good for her dating life. “I’ve met a lot of boys here,” she says with a laugh, but she has a no-dating-in-the-industry policy.
On the other hand, the city has been hard on her wallet, not that she’s particularly worried. “I don’t make a lot of money right now,” she says. “It’s an expensive city,” she says, estimating that Hapa’s opening costs will be around $600,000. “But living and working in Hawaii, it’s expensive there, too. So it’s not something I don’t know how to do.”
Ok rents a one-bedroom apartment for $1,425, and says she feels lucky to have found that—there’s a lot of competition, she explains. She doesn’t have a car—her trade-off for living in the city—and catches the bus to and from Hapa Ramen, a 1.5-hour commute each way.
At a Glance:
Does Ok miss anything back in Honolulu? “No,” she says flatly. While her two younger sisters, one of whom just graduated from a San Francisco university, and the other, who goes to school in Washington, might end up back in the Islands, Ok—who hasn’t been back in two years—says she’ll probably only return if there’s a big family event, such as a wedding or a funeral. “I can’t imagine having grown up anywhere else and I have great pride for being from Hawaii, but it’s not where I want to be as a person,” she says. San Francisco gives her a sense of freedom, she says, whereas Honolulu doesn’t. “It’s the ability to get up and leave. Should this city not work for me today, I could pack up and take off tomorrow for somewhere else.” Just not Hawaii, she adds.
Gary Fontaine is looking forward to traveling and working on a few long-overdue side projects. Fontaine has been a professor in the School of Communications at UH since 1982, and is retiring at the end of this semester, in May.
“I think it’s time to explore some other parts of the world,” says the 66-year-old, who grew up in Washington. “I’ve been in Hawaii a long time, but I imagine I’ll come back and forth. It’s been 30 years, there are other things to see and do.” Specifically, Fontaine is helping further develop international studies programs for university institutes in Shanghai and Singapore. While it’s not an official retirement—he says he’s not quite ready for that—Fontaine is looking forward to relocating to Boracay, “the Riviera of the Philippines,” he says. He and his wife, Lorna, have a home there they built and paid for. She’s already there: Last year, Lorna opened the Bridge of Paradise Restobar, an indoor/outdoor restaurant in Aklan specializing in Filipino cuisine with Hawaii touches.
The Daily Grind: Ever feel like you’re just scraping by paycheck-to-paycheck? “Generally speaking, by category, people make less in Hawaii than they could make elsewhere,” says Randy Roth, UH law professor and editor of The Price of Paradise books. “If you’ve got enough people willing to pay that added paradise tax—not just the high cost of living, but making less money—that supply and demand will help explain the income disparity.
“Boracay is an extremely nice, very international destination,” he says. “It’s a very vibrant community, probably one of the more international, vibrant communities on Earth.” For him, that means better hiking trails and skin-diving spots than he’s found here. “I hike and skin dive here, but it’s better in Boracay.”
At a Glance:
It doesn’t hurt that the currency exchange is in his favor, too—one U.S. dollar is nearly 43 Philippine pesos. In fact, that’s one reason his wife opened her restaurant there. “She found it financially too difficult to do here, and governmentally, in terms of all the requirements,” he says, adding that she was able to open Bridge of Paradise for around $10,000. “At some point she more or less decided she wasn’t going to make it happen here.” The Fontaines were able to save money for the startup costs needed for the eatery and, while opening a restaurant is always risky, he says so far things have been going well.
Fontaine’s daughter and two sons still live here, but he says he thinks they will probably head to the Mainland or abroad within the next couple of years as well. “Hawaii was a good place in many respects for them to grow up,” he says. “We have a multicultural family and this environment was better for them then some other places on the Mainland.” He adds it was also a smooth transition for Lorna, who grew up in the Philippines.
When Fontaine eventually stops working altogether, he says his UH pension will go further in the Philippines, and allow him to travel more easily throughout Asia. “I have a noncontributory plan, so I didn’t accrue as much money, but I didn’t have to pay in, so we used that money to build a house in the Philippines.” Fontaine adds that he knows a few people who retired there because it’s cheaper.
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When he leaves, Fontaine says he’ll miss his friends, but he adds that he has close friendships in the Philippines as well. “I’m happy I made the decision to come to Hawaii, and I’ll be happy when I leave.”
Happy to be Home
Moving to a new place is something to which Vanessa Katz can relate. Born and raised in Wahiawa, a Leilehua grad, the 29-year-old left for the Big Apple after graduating from Hawaii Pacific University and landing one of 70 spots in the national Multicultural Advertising Intern Program. After three months in the city, Katz was determined to find a job there. Flash forward a few years and she had become an art director at Saatchi & Saatchi, a prestigious, international ad agency.
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“It opened so many doors to have gone away to New York,” she says. “People look at my portfolio and you can’t get those brands in Hawaii to work on.” Katz took classes at the reputable School of Visual Arts and, after climbing her way up the corporate ladder, she was working on half-a-million-dollar ad campaigns for Olay, Iams and more.
In addition to a great job and bringing home $63,000 a year, Katz says the city was a great place to live; there were things going on everywhere she turned, even if it cost her (there’s a sales and use tax in the city of almost 9 percent). She met her best friends during her internship. Katz even managed to score a studio in the West Village for $1,350 a month—she says normally studios in the area start at around $1,700. She would know: During the seven years she spent in New York, she moved every year, to Tribeca, Chelsea, Midtown, Brooklyn and the lower east side. “I was completely happy,” says Katz.
With a great job and a bustling social life in the city that never sleeps, why would she return to Hawaii? “I was freezing cold, I missed my family, I was just done,” she says. Katz says it hit her in November 2010, when the New York fall hovered around the low 40s (only to drop to between 25 to 30 degrees in the following months). “My sister called me and she put my niece—who, in my head was still a baby—on the phone and she said, ‘thank you for my gift, Auntie.’ I had a breakdown and thought, What am I doing here?”
In April 2011, Katz left NYC and has never looked back. She says it came down to career versus personal. She realized she’d never have the same high-paying, high-profile job she’d had in New York, and yet, she missed her parents, her two older sisters and her niece and four nephews. And the weather. “I miss Saatchi & Saatchi and I miss the big brands, the big TV, print and radio production side, that’s where the sacrifice came in,” she says. “But I’m so happy to be home and be with my family. If I could have my job [that I had] there, here, things would be perfect.”
Since returning home, Katz moved in with her grandma in Kaimuki. While she says there’s a stigma to living at home, she doesn’t completely mind. “I miss living by myself, but I don’t miss the New York rent,” she says. Katz is focusing more on Neon Republic, the freelance graphic design company she started. Katz works with clients such as Aloha United Way, Prudential Locations and M.A.D.D. Hawaii. She admits it’s been challenging to find clients and, because she does most of the work herself, she is usually limited to working with small to medium companies, often with smaller budgets. “I get to do what I love, but I don’t get to do it on a big scale,” she says. But, adds Katz, having a portfolio featuring nationally recognized companies helps. “New York gives you a lot of cred.”
Katz doesn’t equate her recent lifestyle changes with a diminished quality of life. “I have the seven years of cold ingrained in my memory,” she says. “I’ll go out to surf and tell my friends, ‘We’re in paradise!’ and everyone thinks I’m crazy because I say it all the time. I don’t take a minute of this amazing weather and my family for granted.” She even bought a Lonely Planet Oahu guide and says she wants to hit up all the surf spots, hikes and restaurants in the book.
And unlike in New York City, Honolulu is a place where Katz wants to someday get married and raise a family, giving her children the same upbringing she had, including the diverse culture, the laid-back lifestyle and weather that always allows you to wear short sleeves and slippers. “I’m done, I’m not going anywhere else,” she says. “I love to travel, but, as far as living, I want to stay here.”
Keeping the Lights on:
Average Number of Minutes It Takes to Get to Work
Taxes Going Up: “Small increases have nickeled and dimed people,” says Lowell Kalapa, executive director of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii. “There were [recently] increases in the motor vehicle registration, driver’s license fees, the increase in the rental car fee and the barrel tax went up $1.”