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Hawaii’s High Cost of Living

Living the good life in Waikiki underscores the high cost of living in Hawaii.

I wonder how much that drink was!

When most people from the US mainland visit our beautiful state, they experience “sticker shock” on their first grocery store visit. The reason why the cost of living in Hawaii so high is due to three simple reasons: we have some of the highest costs (if not THE highest cost) of land, transportation, and fuel, all of which underlie the cost of nearly everything we buy.

It is estimated that – in general – things cost about 30% more on Hawaii than they do on the mainland. Shipping the food over the ocean in boats (or planes) is one reason, but another is that the grocers have to maintain huge stocks of food in warehouses to keep food on the shelves all the time, especially in the case of some emergency.

This requires a lot more money to pay the rent and people for running the warehouses.

Another reason is Hawaii’s 4% excise tax. Which is added to just about everything business related.

How home expenses affect the cost of living in Hawaii

Of course the main issue factoring into the high cost of living in Hawaii is the cost of housing – owning and renting homes. As of 2016 the median price for a single family home in Hawaii was $720K. Condos were $389K.

Average rent in Hawaii (Oahu) for a studio will vary based on location but expect to pay around $1,000 with Waikiki studios going from $1,000 to about $1,400.  Average rent for one bedroom apartments in Hawaii (Honolulu, Oahu)  is $1,931. Of course you can find cheaper apartments with more basic accommodations. If you have a family and need more space, the average rent for 2 bedroom apartment in Honolulu is $2,730 for a decent place with enough legroom to move around in.

The reason land and homes are so expensive is simple supply and demand economics. With the rugged terrain there is a lot of land it isn’t possible to build on. Most of the land in Hawaii is prohibited from being built on.  Only a very small percentage of our total land mass is zoned for housing and there are a lot of people (like you!) that want to live here. High demand and limited supply drives prices up.

Want to know the big reason prices are so high?

Demand. There are many people who are willing to pay $700-$1M USD for a regular sized home on Oahu or Maui. In most cases they are moving from Japan or California and have sold their home there – and received about the same amount. It’s a rather affordable move for them.

The number of people that would answer ‘yes’ if you asked them, ‘if you could, would you live in Hawaii?’ is astounding.
I don’t know many that would answer ‘no’ – do you?

Why is the demand so high for housing and rental units in Hawaii?

Well, there is a whole lot to like about the islands! Personally I rate it as one of the two top places to live in the world. Krabi, Thailand is one, and somewhere on Maui is another one. It’s a tough call to label one as better than the other – there are vast differences between them. Hawaii is, without a doubt, the best place to live in the USA. Hands down – the winner if you can afford the high cost of living in Hawaii.

Hawaii has clean air, clean water, what I’d call perfect weather, a wide range of environments – forest, desert, beaches, a great group of people, great restaurants, and decent nightlife.

Hawaii Convention Center - Oahu on Ala Wai Canal. Oahu, Hawaii is a high cost of living area.

Hawaii Convention Center – Oahu on Ala Wai Canal

If you’ve already lived in Tokyo, Japan; Seoul, Korea; Hollywood, California, or New York City, New York you’ll think Hawaii cost of living is reasonable and won’t be affected by it. If you’ve lived anywhere else you will probably become very cost-conscious once you start living on Oahu, Maui, Kauai, or Big Island.

For two people living in Waikiki or downtown Honolulu on Oahu you could spend $1,000 for a studio or maybe a sketchy 1-bedroom. Sketchy is an Aussie word I’ve been using for a little while, hope it doesn’t put you off. It means same thing as “dodgy”.

Car insurance, health insurance, fire insurance, every insurance, is more expensive in Hawaii. If you ride a motorcycle, be prepared to sign away a good portion of your monthly income to insurance. The whole living in Hawaii experience is outrageously expensive and it may go against your common sense to live here – but, you may not be able to resist!

Many Hawaii residents have 2 and 3 jobs to keep up with expenses. It’s safe to say you’ll meet more people working 2-3 jobs in Hawaii than you have ever met anywhere else in your life.

For most folks living in the US mainland, grocery shopping will be a shocking experience. In 2016 you simply can’t spend less that $50 for even a few items and the regular weekly trips will run you between $150-$200.  How much does a gallon of milk cost in Hawaii? Be prepared to pay 6-$8.

Add to that the cost of gas, renting apartments that are very small and with pay for parking issues all over Waikiki if that’s where you plan to stay, and it gets expensive. Auto and health insurance is expensive too. Can you earn $50,000 per year and survive Hawaii’s high cost of living? Maybe. But, be prepared to be really frugal and live in a manner you may not be accustomed to (slumming).

In the end, living in Hawaii is not about a quantity of life but a quality of life. If you need material things to be happy, you better be rich in Hawaii. If you need natural things to be happy, Hawaii could work for you, but you will be tested.

How much does kilowatt of electricity cost in Hawaii?

Hawaii’s electrical generators are run on oil and coal for the most part. When the price of oil went through the roof – so did electricity in Hawaii. The islands “boast” (if you can call it that!)  the highest cost for electricity per unit – in the USA. It’s about 300% of the national average.

As of 2016 the average cost per kilowatt of electricity is 37.34 cents! When you consider that most residences in Hawaii use electric stoves and dryers, not to mention air conditioning, the usage can get quite high. Your average bill for a home will be over $200 and probably more like $300.

OTHER UTILITIES?

Water, Gas, Gasoline, Sewage, Garbage are all very expensive.

OTHER EXPENSES?

Going out to movies (cinema) or other entertainment is not any more expensive than in most big cities, for the most part. I think most people on a budget rent movies from Netflix or some other online provider. Amazon and Apple’s iTunes store have downloadable movies you can buy or rent for a fee.

There are activities at the beach – sometimes “Movies on the Beach” in different locations. Waikiki had a long-running activity like this for a long time, then it went away, then it came back. Not sure what the status will be by the time you arrive, but look for it – it’s fun to watch a movie while sitting on a blanket on the sand of Waikiki Beach.

Island fever and high cost of living in Hawaii

One thing that few visitors or residents initially take into account is that there is a cost associated with being stuck on an island of 40 by 60 miles for a long period of time. Many folks feel the need to travel somewhere. Anywhere! They feel trapped or held-in, claustrophobic to be living in a place where you can’t drive for 100 miles straight in any direction.

Living on the mainland USA one never experiences this, or even considers it. Arriving on Oahu, or worst, Kauai or Maui, you are forced to face it. Once you have driven to your heart’s content and explored all that there is to explore you’re going to start thinking about a trip away from the islands. Where to? California? Tonga? Fijian islands? Tahiti? Australia?

Everything is far away and it costs a lot of money to go anywhere. Of course you can start with the other islands, and there is a lot of driving to be had when you combine them all together. Still, you’re going to want to go elsewhere after some amount of time. Maybe you last a year. Two? You’ll have to have some sort of extra savings for long trips. Don’t think you won’t – nearly everyone has to “escape” at least temporarily, every so often.

Living like a local?

Is it possible to live like a Hawaiian local on the islands and save money? Sure it is. Start asking people where they go to save money on food, snacks, fruit and veggies, shirts, shorts, surfboards, cars, and everything you spend money on. There are plenty of very poor people living on the islands, and there are stores that serve them. There are flea markets on the islands during the weekends. There are local produce markets in hideaway spots on all the islands where you can get freshly grown vegetables and fruits. Maui’s upcountry has an incredible selection of delicious vegetables that is worth the drive to go get. You can often just pick produce directly off the farms for a fee. How cool is that?

Hawaii’s high cost of living is formidable. Before moving to live in Hawaii do be certain to give budget your highest consideration. Lack of money is one of the biggest reasons for the high numbers of people that bail out of living on the islands within the first year or so. I don’t foresee, and I don’t think anyone is predicting dramatic (or any) drop in prices for housing, utilities, food, or anything else in Hawaii. Hawaii is one of the most perfect places to live on the face of the earth. As more and more people figure that out, there will only be more people trying to do what it takes to get there. Those that can afford to move will be the ones that make it work for themselves and their families.

Will you make it work for you?

About the author: Vern Lovic started this website in 2006 and has done an amazing job of content development. Peter Kay has lived in Hawaii since the mid ’80s and so loved Vern’s work he bought the website and is working hard to continue the quality and purpose that Vern started. Aloha!

12 comments… add one
  • Sharon Summerfield

    Hi Vern,
    I want to move to Maui and my hubby not so much. He’s 76 and I’m 66.

    We have a good retirement income (100K/year) so pretty sure we’ve got the housing/food thing covered.

    We’re avid gardeners and love street markets. Where we live (NE CA) we have to travel 3 & 1/2 hours (Reno NV, Redding CA or Bend OR) in three different directions to shop! We live in a SMALL town of 500 and pay $9 for butter and $7 for half gallon of milk. So think we’re good with the high cost of food in Maui.

    We do need advice as to which spot to live that is less ‘buggy’!! Big ‘bugaphobe!’

    Our biggest concern is the only hospital on Maui. Have read lots of horrifying stories on the Internet that virtually say, run and don’t look back! Everyone seems to be airlifted to Oahua? Seems Maui Memorial doesn’t take care of much more than bug bites, has problems with mold to the extent that staff’s health is compromised and lots of misdiagnosis going on? Any help with personal knowledge or search sites would be helpful and much appreciated ✌️

    Thanks Much,
    Sharon

    • Peter Kay

      While I don’t have specific advice about Maui as I’ve only lived on Oahu (since ’84) the best advice I can give you is RENT FIRST as there is dramatic diversity from one square mile to the next. You really have to live here to figure out the kinds of details you are attempting to answer. Hope this helps!

  • lacey

    I live in the midwest where we have very cold winters and very hot summers. I have been to Maui, Oahu and Hawaii. I truly believe that the costs of heating and air conditioning would more than make up for the higher living costs in Hawaii. Also, I see no need for a vehicle on Maui with the mass transportation they have in place there. And for longer distances I could rent a car. Also, I learned that there are different prices at the local grocery stores for tourists and for locals. They have a discount card they can use in the stores that tourists don’t have access to. We spent a month at a very reasonable motel in Maui with cooking privileges and were told to get a discount card at the grocery store; which we did. Quite a discount! I love it there and hoping to move there some day.

  • Trek 3900

    A friend visited Hawaii in winter of 2013/2014. She brought back a newspaper with a Safeway advertisement in it. Food prices were exactly the same as here in Oregon – at least on the items I was familiar with. Maybe she tricked me with an ad from our local paper……….

    Why are you prohibited from building on a lot of land in Hawaii? (Is this typical for all the islands?) I’ve seen affordable lots on the big island on Zillow.

    • R.J

      These were my thoughts too. I currently live in Portland, and the description of prices in Oahu is actually CHEAPER than a lot of things here. Rent at those prices in Portland/Vancouver? I’d be living in a rat-infested box. I don’t have a car and routinely bike up to 24 miles a day, so that is a cost that isn’t concerning either. It’s making it hard to think of reasons why I should stay in this city cold, dark and rainy city when I could be there.

  • Jennifer

    What’s the average shelf life of food on Kauai? I was wondering if the humidity makes things spoil faster? We will be living near Lihue.

    • I think same. Humidity cannot get in or out of a sealed container. Aloha!

    • Bobby

      Hahaha, shelf life? no one eats can goods and insects only attack cereral if open. farmer’s market everyday

  • Austin Mora

    im only 17 but ive always wanted to live in Hawaii .. im going to the marines in about 2 years and might make it a career im not positive yet ,, if not im gonna try serving the marines one term and then become a cop and go to collage right after or while im in but do you think id be set ? if i became a cop in Hawaii and was in the military ? .. i mean benefits ,, a degree .. seems pretty good .
    What Do You Thiinkk ??

    • Bobby

      You can not work here in Hawaii unless you are related to someone, hahaha. better to double dip like all the cops here — 10 years for pension…..

  • Brigid Kim

    I spent a few years in Hawaii and then returned to Saratoga Springs, NY. When I moved back to Maui, I had long forgotten how expensive island living can be. I did spend a summer in Tokyo, in 1999, and that still makes Maui look relatively inexpensive. I think that’s why I have an amazing life… I have a bad memory.

    I have learned to be open to change. I see what is on sale and I buy things that are grown locally. I actually started visiting the farmers’ markets and was able to save. The Green Dragon Farmers’ Market has much to offer and it is an indoor market. I am more of a “city girl,” so growing a garden was huge for me. Huge!!! I learned to enjoy gardening… though I needed manicures more frequently. Still… a nice trade-off.

    We are moving off-island shortly and returning to the East Coast. I will miss the islands. They will ALWAYS be home to me.

    Brigid Kim

    • Thanks for your comment Kim… I like the farmer’s markets and the market in China town on Oahu. On every island there are cheaper places to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, not overlooking the streets where people with mango trees, avocado trees, and other fruits – sell it or give it away on a table in front of the house. If you have any sort of land – growing something to eat makes sense in Hawaii!

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