Thrifty Rich Locals: 4 Money-Savvy Locals Give Finance Tips for Living in Hawai‘i

How they’ve made it, saved it and are passing it on.
Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino



It’s an eternal question, one expounded upon—after making allowances for local language differences—by sages from Aesop to Confucius to Warren Buffett. What makes one person a money honey hive and another a financial sinkhole is an issue of special relevance in Hawai‘i these days.


This isn’t an abstract question for us at HONOLULU, because we live here, too. And so we asked about, then interviewed, a cross-section of akamai folks who seem to have found a path. Read on for their journeys—and their tips (because, let’s face it, we’re all about the tips).


Oh, and one more thing.


Although they certainly have assets, own or have owned homes and exude prosperity, none of our subjects are “crazy rich” in the current pop sense. What they have is a mindset that is itself a form of wealth. In our opinion, that makes them among the “really” rich—not least because they can live in our beloved Hawai‘i nei.


“Growing up, money was a big secret. No strategy whatever in the family. It’s really a shame. We’ve got to make sure our son, when he gets older, makes sure to plan, especially if he’s planning on staying in Hawai‘i.”
— Keoni Vaughn



What Keoni Vaughn remembers about his Waimānalo childhood is the elephant. “My grandfather worked for the state as a Section 8 housing inspector, but he always had his hand in different things: politics, business. He leased an elephant and rented it out. It was the mascot for Pepsi. Can you imagine?”


Vaughn, 46, also recalls snorkeling around in the fishpond at the swank John Dominis restaurant while that grandfather, Bill Young, a part-owner, joined the staff for lunch. “He wasn’t your typical guy who does his 9 to 5 and then goes home.”


Vaughn’s grandparents helped raise him while his parents worked long hours at Amfac and Empire Tours. What he doesn’t remember from this time is any discussion of finances, or life strategies, at home. Today he knows he paid a price for it. “I’ve been working since I was 15. Through high school I gave my family my paycheck to help out. They gave me a stipend. When I went to college, I was kind of left to figure it out on my own. I was paying my own way and had a hard time keeping up with the payments. I stopped after six months.”


He has felt the lack of a college degree his whole life. “I always started at the bottom of the ladder.” A tour driver, he applied five years in a row to be a manager. “This was at a major tour company and they said, ‘You’ll never be a manager.’” He would rise to assistant director of operations.


But disaster struck in 2001. “I had a 401(k) and then after 9/11 the stock market crashed and I watched the money I put in there disappear. I freaked out. I had no financial education, so all my buddies and I cashed out. We paid the penalty, like 40 percent, and the next thing you know we blew it all. I had no retirement left.”


He’d also lost his job in the economic downturn. By 2003, he’d gone from assistant director of operations to picking up stray cats for the Hawaiian Humane Society. “It was a very humbling experience. Very. But I found a mentor—Pamela Burns,” the late, and beloved, leader of the Humane Society. As he worked his way back up the ladder, he says, “I knew I had to plan to have something to retire on. So I enrolled in a 403(b), a plan for nonprofit employees. Every time I got a raise I would increase my contribution instead of spending that money.”


He was back on his feet, on the rise to vice president, when his family blew up into full conflict after his 104-year-old great-grandmother died. But by then he’d married a woman whose family’s radically transparent approach to finances showed how he could grow his money, while sorting out the mess left by generations of secrecy.


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