Living on Less in Hawai’i

My favorite Kaua’i activity is less than five minutes from our house and it’s free!

It’s great when a 20 something says ya, move to the islands its a great place to live, but when your talking kids, spouses and a mid-level standard of living, it becomes a different kettle of fish. Yes, if you refuse to buy new clothes, quit eating meat, forgo medical/dental care or insurance, walk instead of drive, sit in the dark instead of using electricity, no worries. But really, do you want to live like that? Your kids will NEVER need braces? Never break an arm? Never want a car? College? I think the islands are a great place to live. But I would never have relocated with children in school unless I had the means to place them in private school. (Which we did not). Better to delay that gratification than to subborn your childrens future.

The cost of living is high in Hawai’i – there’s no denying it. But, you don’t have to be wealthy to live the good life here. The above is the “advice” I received from an anonymous poster when I wrote to a Hawai’i forum in 2013, a full year before we moved to Hawai’i, asking whether our proposed budget for living on Kaua’i was realistic or not.

Most of the answers I received to my question on the forum were thoughtful, full of good advice and encouraging. For most budget items I was told I had actually estimated too high, which was a good place to be. But, even with our budget outlined, and with the explanation that we were retired military with healthcare provided, and with a low tax burden because of our income sources, this person predicted nothing but gloom and doom for us. She was backed up by another frequent contributor to the forum. According to them, with an income of less than $100,000 (after taxes) we were sure to find ourselves in dire straits sooner rather than later.

None of her predictions have come true, nor are they likely to happen either. And, our income is nowhere near $100,000 per year.

We primarily use a “solar dryer” on laundry day

There are three reasons I believe that we have been able to live well here on a smaller income. And, not only live well but have money left over to save for travel and other activities:

  1. We have no consumer debt.
  2. We live within our means, which in our case means renting right now instead of buying, owning only one car, and sticking to our monthly budget.
  3. We practice everyday frugality – we didn’t change our frugal habits just because we moved to Hawai’i.

Without any one of these three things in place there would be more of a possibility that our income might not be sufficient, and we might be living closer to the life predicted by the poster. Many people move to Hawaii’i convinced their income will be enough, but make no adjustments to their lifestyle to accommodate the higher cost of living, and end up leaving in a year or less, poorer but hopefully wiser.

No food waste around here: Brett had the last of some guacamole, hummus, feta cheese and rice for lunch one day

We are not minimalists by any stretch, and live a very rich, full life in my opinion. But, we live a simple life. We take advantage of the benefits we have earned. We are thoughtful about our purchases and the choices we make, but we don’t deny ourselves anything. Kaua’i offers abundant recreation for free (beaches, hiking, etc.) and there are discounts offered to residents. Our children stay very busy thanks to school clubs and sports, and work hard to earn scholarships to pay for college. The amounts I budgeted back in 2013 did turn out to be much higher than we actually spend, meaning more has been available to put away for travel and other extras. Less has really meant more here.

I may just write back to the forum one of these days to let them know that we are still here, that we’re living the good life in paradise and not sitting in the dark wondering where we went wrong. We eat what we want including occasionally going out to eat, and we don’t worry about turning on the lights. We’ve got college covered so far.

I wonder if that “helpful” poster is still reading?

22 thoughts on “Living on Less in Hawai’i

  1. I remember that comment well. You know, if a person has to replicate mainland/suburban life, yes, it will cost. But, why bother moving to Hawaii? The last thing we wanted is a mainland lifestyle. We downsized. . . . a lot! We simplified as much as we could. The winter we spent here as snowbirds was kind of a dry run. I had figured it would cost us $3,000 a month for just living expenses. The rental car and condo rent were already paid for so the only thing left was food, gas, and tourist stuff. We ate out our late afternoon, early evening meal every day. We had cereal in the morning and snacks. We ate what we wanted. We went to my favorite restaurant in Hanalei once a week and I enjoyed the shrimp and huge salad. The rest of the time we ordered or ate out locally. I kept detailed records. Well, we never hit $1700 in any given month. Everything goes on our rewards Mastercard which helps with record-keeping. (that sum also included prescriptions, etc) I knew after those 4 months that living here was possible. We love our little condo with the loft bedroom on the golf course up here on the north shore. We did luck out with the world’s best landlords. Even if we hadn’t been that lucky, I know we still would have been able to live the same type life here. We’re thankful that we get to live here!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Coming for a while and living as close to a local as possible is one of things that’s recommended but I think that few people do before they move here. We were able to come for only three weeks, but it was eye-opening, and we used to the time to do extensive research on prices, neighborhoods, etc. We felt though that it was doable, but knew that changes would have to be made so we made them before we moved.

      The two things we couldn’t observe or know in advance were about the schools and about utilities. We were sold on the private school here, and took a tour – the girls hated it. So, we did our research, picked the public school we thought was the best, and when Brett and I came back to house hunt we talked with people who sent their kids to that school. It turned out to be the right choice for us – the girls have thrived. We lucked out with utilities – they were included in the rent in our first house, but we’ve discovered here that if we’re careful they’re not as bad as we were led to believe.

      I guess the short answer to this is to do your research before you move here. Or anywhere, actually. Get rid of the rose-colored glasses and look at the whole picture. Know why you want to move. And then research some more!! And don’t believe the first thing you read.


  2. Thanks for posting the picture of Brett’s frugal/leftover lunch. Looked pretty good, although I would need a cracker or chips to complete it. Leftovers are THE BEST! Must be freeing to know that you have succeeded in living the good life of your dreams, on a budget. You did it.


    1. Brett is the kind of leftovers – he will put the most interesting things together and make a great meal. It’s just one piece of a frugal lifestyle that allows us to live comfortably here.

      We still pinch ourselves now and again – our dream really did come true!


  3. I’ve stopped posting on the Tripadvisor travel forums for Hawaii because there are some pushy people there who sound a lot like your helpful friend.

    One such nut insists on continually stating that Ko’Olina is isolated. Honey, I live in Australia. A daytrip for us is at least 4 times the length of the island. Ain’t nowhere isolated on the tiny island of Oahu! On our last trip I actually went out there to see this isolation with my own eyes and I came to the conclusion she is just plain nuts.

    There are some others on the Big Island forum who insist that Kailua-Kona is a drug dealer infested horribly unsafe place to go, full of homeless people. I spent 3 days there last trip, I never felt even slightly concerned for my safety. Nobody offered me any drugs, either!

    Idiots, they be everywhere.. 🙂


    1. There’s one of those on the Kauai forum who would argue with a fence post. Even when someone proves she’s wrong, she still sticks to her story! It gets real old, real soon. They also try to scare the daylights out of tourists who might leave a piece of luggage in their trunk. They make it sound like breaking into cars is constant, plus never stay on the ground floor in a condo!! Could be dangerous, dontcha know. Do a search on the Garden Island newspaper and the crime rate is pretty non-existent for the most part. But, the urban legends prevail! I’ve read that the BI forum has some grumpy people.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I think the key to understanding and using the forums is that you’ve got to read them over a long period of time and get to know some of the “personalities” and their agendas. I picked up valuable information along the way from the forum I participated in, but I had to sift out a lot of not-so-valid stuff along the way.

      Any and all information is all relative too, isn’t it? For you, distance and space has a whole different meaning than it does for someone living here. And for someone else, one reported drug deal or one homeless person is the end of the world – they want “their” area to be gated and pristine (and there are probably still drug deals or whatever going on where they live; they’re just oblivious to it).


      1. Don’t you know it! There were a few on city data that I knew what they’d say before they said it. Laura, you were always such a beacon of positive perspective.


  4. To people moving from mainland USA it’s isolating. There are seasons, driving 40 minutes does not mean returning to where you began, it means another state. Going to another island for medical care seems scary. To be honest within two years the ones who have children with years of school left and who are working in Hawaii move home. This family is used to living in a new place, has three sources of small but stable income, has girls almost done with school and family who made it to college. With online education any classes the school doesn’t offer could be taken. My husband born and raised didn’t get those classes which meant less choice for college and harder go once he got there. If we moved there it would have to be private from his perspective. Since the rent if they hated that first year of school they could simply move into another school boundary. I think too many places in Hawaii are like smaller towns and share those issues. Most moving are from suburban communities near major cities. Driving 40 minutes to Costco is fine if you are not doing 40 hours of work each week and don’t have lots of kid activities to go to. It is safe to spend a week in Chicago for fun or for business but there are still dozens of shootings each weekend. Half of the sibling and cousins in my husband generation growing up on big Island left the state or island. The half still in the state have tons of help from family to live there. And they all have jobs.


    1. You bring up many valid points, especially from a local’s point of view. The biggest thing is it is different here from the mainland. The schools are different. The distances are different. The culture is different. You’re living in one of the most isolated places on earth. Locals have family here which makes a big difference.

      But even if you are from here, and have family here, it can be difficult to live here, and like you said, many locals leave. But that’s true for lots of places. Portland has become an increasingly difficult place for young people to continue to live – kids who were born and raised there can not afford to stay or raise a family. It’s the same in Southern California and many other places.

      With all the differences, you have to do your research and figure out why you want to live here. After you know why, then you have to do more research and figure out if it’s a good fit for you and your family. Many people who don’t make it here have not done any research. They come here on vacation – which is totally different from living here – fall in love and decide they want to live here full-time. And so they come, but then want to live just like they did on the mainland and become frustrated when they can’t because it costs more. Jobs don’t pay as much and housing is expensive. They get frustrated when they or their kids are not welcomed with open arms by locals, who have seen far too many people come and leave in a short time, or who are frustrated themselves by outside investors buying up property and driving up housing prices. But, people still do come and succeed, even those with modest incomes.

      Wherever you go, there you are. You are still you. Know why you want to live there. Know what’s happening and what you can expect before you come. Living someplace is a whole lot different from vacationing there.


      1. I’m glad that we’re retired and not dependent on finding jobs here, plus working about 3 of them!! Something else that I forget about when discussing what it costs to live here: We don’t drink. Those cocktails cost a few bucks, money we don’t spend. If we did have a few drinks when we go out to eat, we wouldn’t have done it as much. So, that’s a variable.


      2. I am also grateful we did not have to come and find work here; having an income in place has made a huge difference, and the Hawaiian tax system works for us as retirees. It wasn’t so good in other places we looked at.

        But that’s just it – even though we have an income, it’s not a big one. We’re still raising children too. And we manage. It would be much harder, and maybe impossible, for us to live here if we had to work. People do what they need to do here to make it if this is where they want to live. That goes for both locals and new arrivals. If you’re not willing to change, then maybe this is not the right place for you. It would be the same if we decided we wanted to live near family in the midwest. We would have to change, but those are changes we are not willing to make.

        We are not drinkers either, at least when we go out. We drink wine at home, but that’s it. We’re thinking though of going to Merrimen’s for Happy Hour this year for our anniversary and having one drink and eating from the bar menu – it’s supposed to be quite reasonable and the food is good.


      3. That sounds good, Merriman’s! But, you might want to look at the sabering done at the St. Regis every night. Watching some guy whack the top off a champagne bottle and that killer view might be special, too!
        The fact that you retired here with kids is fantastic. You sure know how to get the best bang for your buck. That’s key, I think.


      4. If there was more building allowed and done sanely reducing housing costs, and more industry so people of varied industries could make a living in Hawaii a lot of people would stay. Jobs are a bit more segregated than on the mainland. It’s infrastructure type jobs, teachers, fireman and such or hospitality or military connected along with some small business. Unless you are in one of the main four sectors it is tough. Agriculture dried up. I don’t blame locals for being aloft because they do see people come and go. Why invest in the relationship? When my husband relocated after getting his degree from a state university in Hawaii he said there was about one company in the state that was connected to his degree. I wonder how many housing units are owned by someone but not even occupied? Or perhaps occupied a few days a month for Airnb?


      5. I read a couple of months ago that 47% (47%!!) of housing on Kaua’i is bought by people not living on the island, to be used as a vacation home or investment property (i.e. rental property). It’s the main thing driving up housing prices. Local families live together so that the kids can (hopefully) save enough money to eventually buy their own place. Our current landlord is local; he built this home to use as a rental property now, but plans to live here when he retires in several more years.


      6. Agreed. There already is a higher property tax assessed if a home is used as a rental or not the owner’s primary residence, but it’s still not very high compared to property taxes back on the mainland.


      7. If they rent it out most the year fine. That will at let keep the rental market prices down. It’s empty that bothers me.


    1. I have no idea what is up with WordPress. I’m registered under Hawaiian Standard Time (HST) but the times don’t connect. For example, my “day” with WordPress starts and ends at 3:00 p.m. instead of midnight to midnight. I have given up trying to figure it out or fix it.


  5. I loved our 18 months in Hawaii and would return in a heart beat, but my husband is not so convinced 😉 One car and a good pair of flip flops made a good life.
    Knowing how to get your kids into college (what classes, sports and activities) makes you far ahead in the education game. We found that no matter where you are, if you are ignorant of what it takes, your children will suffer. We found this to be abundantly true in the elementary. You are good about clearing the decks and moving your children forward.
    Your simplistic way of life is very inspiring. Living in a smaller space was so much better for my kids. They spilled out into the community with ease. Now I have rooms that we do not walk into for months at a time. What a waste.
    I know several friends who have children who stayed in Hawaii long after their military parents moved to the mainland. They attended one of the Universities- Chaminade, Uof H, BYU- H. They are happy and healthy 30 year olds. Do they have a high powered law position? Nope. Are they loving their lives and raising children? Absolutely. Not all doom and gloom from what I hear.


    1. We heard (and hear) nothing but gloom and doom from people who didn’t have kids here, but from people who do it’s a different story. In our case, as parents, education is a priority, and that includes us educating ourselves about what courses our children should take, etc. And, supplementing their education outside of what they learn in the classroom. We would do that anywhere; it’s not just a “Hawai’i thing.”

      Our simple life is what I love best about living here. Yup, one car and a good pair of slippers and we’re good. We would have eventually downsized to something like this in Portland if we had stayed (out of necessity – we were actually being priced out of our home because of increasing property taxes, and we barely could have afforded to buy our own house when we sold it), but I’m much happier that we’re living the simple life here and now. I’ve always liked smaller spaces – the one time we lived in a big house we were miserable.

      We’ll see if the girls come back to live here some day. It will depend on what they end up doing, but they all have come to love it here.


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