Lifestyles in Military Retirement: Living in Hawaii

It must be that time of year again. It’s chilly on the Mainland so people’s thoughts turn to warm tropical breezes, warm beaches, warm surf, and warm sunshine. Yeah, I know, I’m killin’ ya. I won’t talk about how it gets so cold on the North Shore in winter surf that I have to wear a 3mm neoprene shorty rashguard just to be able to stay out there for a couple hours.

But I’m getting a lot of questions about moving to Hawaii and living here on a budget! Let me answer them in one post.

My first caution would be that if you haven’t lived in a foreign country yet, then Hawaii’s multicultural environment will be a big change.  We think it’s great from our years of overseas duty, but not everyone wants to leap into a strange culture to try to make a new life (even if the military sends you there on orders). So if you’ve never even visited here before, then spend a few weeks before making up your mind to live here. And if you want to live here, then rent for a few months in a non-visitor part of Oahu or on a neighbor island. Try to live like a local.

My second caution would be that no matter which island you live on, they’re all a lot smaller than the Mainland. It’s never been an issue for me, but I made a career out of living in tiny enclosed spaces. You may not enjoy it.

Finally, don’t depend on this blog as your sole source of Hawaii advice. I’d strongly encourage you to register at and start reading their malahini threads. If this post doesn’t answer your questions, then they will.

In no particular order, here are a few observations about Hawaii life:

You’ll either love the islands or hate them. You won’t be ambivalent. I’m a steely-eyed killer of the deep who has only cried a handful of times, and one of them was when I had to contemplate yet another military move from the islands. (We didn’t move.)

If you have Mainland relatives then visits will always be complicated. They won’t want to visit because it’s so expensive. Some island residents chafe at not “being there” for Mainland parents.  Other island residents miss out on a lot of grandkid moments because their kids “escape” to exotic Mainland colleges and tend to build their careers (and families) on the Mainland until they’re in their 30s. One of the major reasons for island residents (especially military) leaving the islands is Mainland family. Of course if your family is born & raised here, or if your parents aren’t in your life, then it’s not a problem.

Our monthly electricity consumption is about 350 KWHrs, which is considered low yet costs about 25 cents/KWHr. (Depends on the price of oil.) Your home may have a solar water heater, which will provide more hot water than you can ever use. Air conditioning is not essential here, and a heating system is only necessary at much higher altitudes. Hawaii homes are not always designed or insulated for air conditioning, so using it can give you a $400 electric bill.

Those who enjoy “transportation lifestyles” will chafe here. You can’t just get in a car and drive in a straight line for hours. You stay off the roads around rush hours. Most highway speed limits are 55 MPH.  Bumper stickers read “Drive with aloha” and “Slow down.  This ain’t the Mainland.”  A plane flight to the Mainland is five hours (or more) and a neighbor island is over $100. Bicycle lanes are sparse. Buses are not as frequent as they could be. However, walking and hiking are year-round activities. Water sports rule, especially paddling and surfing.

Driving in Hawaii can be very different, and motorcycling even scary. People are so polite here that they violate the rules of the road to let others go first. We’ll brake in panic at the first drop of rain, we’ll slam on our brakes when anyone within three lanes slams on theirs, and we’ll randomly change lanes a mile in advance because we don’t get a lot of lane-changing practice. We will not (will NOT!) use our horns. But an occasional “howzit honk” is fine if you’re doing a shaka out of your car window.

Your clothing budget will be very low. Especially “winter wear” (whatever that is) and shoes.

We use less gasoline in Hawaii than we did in San Diego, Texas, the Bay Area, or Washington DC. I used a lot less gas when I was working because I could commute by bicycle all year long. Gas costs more per gallon here but the total cost is lower here because you drive fewer miles.

Hawaii has some of the nation’s highest personal income tax rates. However, property taxes are low. Excise tax (a regressive sales tax) is relatively low but cumulative, so a consumption lifestyle will quickly drive up your spending.

Hawaii is one of the nation’s most tax-friendly states for retirees, usually ranking in the top five.

“Mainland” food is a luxury item here. I’m referring to raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, grapes, potatoes, many kinds of bread, cow’s milk, and most cereal brands. However, I chuckle when I see people actually pay money to eat a mango. It’s also easy to grow papaya, pineapple, bananas, tangerines, oranges, avocados, lemon, tomatoes, and many Asian/Indian fruits high in vitamin C whose names you’ve never heard of. If you want to live in Hawaii on a budget then you must eat local cuisine. A fruit tree wouldn’t hurt, and a veggie garden is a bonus. Fish is plentiful and relatively cheap, as is beef and chicken. Pork is not.

Mainland franchise restaurants are expensive. Local restaurants are generally cheaper. The good news is that there are over 20 cuisines to choose from, although Hawaii is may be lacking in Tex-Mex and Indian. That’s not a complaint–I think the Mainland is lacking in Korean BBQ, kimchi, and curry powder. Hawaii’s lunch wagons and takeout are the world’s best.

Hawaii’s public school reputation is undeservedly poor. All large multicultural school districts with multilingual populations struggle with the same issues. Private schools offer more individual attention, smaller classes, and better tech. However, the “lifestyle cost” of most private schools is also very high: long commutes to downtown locations during rush hours, living too far away from the school for frequent visits outside of school hours, not being able to easily participate in sports. Private school logistics can all be worked out, but families end up sacrificing a lot for it. Nearby public schools (and parental attention) are almost always better than remote private schools.

In my opinion the most important criteria for any high school is: distance. Our family benefited tremendously from being only a mile away from a public high school, close enough for our daughter to ride her bike at all hours. We parents also benefited by being able to attend any school event with minimal advance planning… especially if that plan had to come from a teen.

Cell phone connectivity on Oahu is not that good, especially compared to the Mainland, although 3G service is widespread.  Same for Internet bandwidth. Limiting factors include terrain (ridges & valleys) and undersea cables. However, it’s relatively straightforward to make a good living here from the Internet… unless the surf is up.

Sure, Hawaii has four weather seasons. Summer is a few degrees hotter and drier with higher surf on the south shore, winter is a few degrees cooler and rainier with bigger surf on the North Shore, and spring/fall are in between. During winter it also snows on Haleakala and Mauna Kea.

I don’t know whether NASCAR is available on TV here. If this is important to you then you should investigate cable TV choices, but I don’t hear much about the sport here.

If you were not born here (or raised here for at least 10 years) then please don’t try to speak pidgin. You can let Hawaiian words into your vocabulary if you don’t put verbal quotes around them. Japanese is welcome here, as are over 200 other Pacific and Asian languages.

Pidgin won’t tell you anything about the person’s education level, literacy, or intellect. They could be testing you, your assumptions will be wrong, and they won’t tolerate your attitude. Exhibit A for this syndrome is a former Mainland elementary school teacher and holder of a bachelor’s degree in English. Whenever she heard pidgin she began to speak slowly and loudly, using simpler words. During five years here she never figured out why she had trouble getting help in banks and stores…

Nobody in Hawaii cares about your Mainland stuff-– where you’re from, who you were, what you did, who you knew, what you drove, what you owned. Seriously. No, honestly, we just don’t care. We’re not hostile or envious– we genuinely don’t see how it has any relevance here or why you would still care either. We may seem polite but… we just don’t care, and pretty soon you’ll be standing in the corner talking to yourself. Get over your Mainland culture. Give yourself a fresh start and learn local culture.  We’re eager to share.  Japanese culture is fine. Korean, Chinese, and Filipino culture are good too.

If you want hostility, then try saying “Well, back in … we used to do it this way!” Do not suggest that island life could be improved by “doing it like we did it back in on the States Mainland.” You can actually see the body language turn against you when you say “Well, back in Michigan, we did it this way… ” Delete such words from your conversation. If you must insist on improving Hawaii by making it like it is in Cleveland, then do it by going back to Cleveland. (Thanks to poster Ko’olau for making this point!)

Respect hula. It’s a serious part of Hawaii culture, and you do not make hula jokes unless you’re also a hula student. Some families have been kumu hula for generations, well back into the 19th century. Some halau have been living hula for decades, and they may practice 10 hours per week. You wouldn’t tease Chuck Norris about his karate skills, and it’s the same way with hula. If you’re going to make culture jokes then start with your hometown sports team. Oh, that’s not funny either? Now you understand a little better how locals feel about hula.

If you’re going to insist on talking about Mainland sports then you better know the name of every Pacific Islander on your chosen team. You should know the names of their local families, too. The best advice, however, is to start following University of Hawaii sports… and high school football.

All your Mainland family, relatives, & friends think that you have plenty of spare bedrooms and that you live in the middle of Waikiki. Well, maybe they don’t really think that, but they’re shocked to learn that you don’t spend all your liberty in Waikiki and that your favorite surf spot is 90 minutes away from there.

So is Hawaii really that bad?!?  Well, no, there’s a reason it’s called Paradise!  But it is a huge cultural shift, and many many residents have spent unhappy months finding that out the hard way.  If you’re willing to learn a completely different lifestyle than you’ve ever seen on the Mainland, then living here is wonderful.  The first year is full of changes, but after a few years you’ll wonder why anyone would want to live with freezing weather or air pollution… or without surf.

My spouse and I were born & raised thousands of miles away from here, and even after 22 years we’re sometimes regarded as “the new guys”.  But the main reason that we chose to live in Hawaii is because we’ve lived just about everywhere else in the world, and none of it even comes close!

Related articles:
Recommended book: “So You Want To Live In Hawaii” (Thanks again, Ko’olau!)
Recommended blog (Thanks, ClifP!)“How to Live in Hawaii”

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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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6 Responses to Lifestyles in Military Retirement: Living in Hawaii

  1. RonBoyd says:

    Another outstanding post, Doug.Well said!

  2. Jay Woolston says:

    It IS pretty easy to write about paradise!

    Also had (have) much the same perspective after 23 years on island. Either a love/hate relationship.

    Even though I lived various places off base, I really never could say I was “local.” Truly enjoyed my multicultural neighborhood and probably the best part, enjoyed some of the best local food evah with them.

    You did forget to mention the crazyiest local fireworks on July 4th, New Years, and Chinese New Years.

    And most locals are related to an amazing amount of people (Oh yeah that’s my Auntie, Uncle, Cousin,,,,,,). Truly a “good ole boy” island.

    Enjoyed reading and thinking back to trade wind days (and surfacing at sunrise with the island in view).


  3. Doug Nordman says:

    Good point about the fireworks– although that’s getting better as the city council passes more laws against private New Years’ Eve blowouts.

    I really enjoyed the 4 AM surface off Oahu, rigging the bridge with all those stars overhead, and the smell of the first cup of morning coffee as it came up the bridge hatch!

  4. Janette says:

    I couldn’t get used to the idea that my kids were foreign, yet the kid that got off the plane fromJapan at the beginning of the school year- with no ties to the islands- was local.
    I would return to live in a minute ( my aunt and uncle retired Navy and lived there until they were relocated to Punchbowl) since my kids are grown and everyone loves to travel.
    Do you find that you use the bases a great deal for food and clothing?

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Our daughter was born & raised here, so we’ve seen very little of localism. In elementary school she wished she had long straight black hair like her friends. They wished they could have long blonde hair like hers. (She chickened out when we offered to do a dye job.) By high school it seemed less about race and more about clothing, piercings, and tattoos. Thank you MTV.

      One of her college criteria favored a school with a widely international (25%) and multicultural student body. At the summer program of another midwest college there was some teasing about the Ha-why-uh girl, which she thought was very parochial. These days she’s addicted her entire dorm to li hing mui, spam musubi, and manapua, so I think she’ll always feel at home in the islands. Maybe she’ll see this comment and chip in with one of her own.

      “Big box” retailing has changed a lot of pricing here. My “wardrobe” is mostly t-shirts, shorts, & slippers. Our primary suppliers are the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet and Goodwill. I buy a pair of running shoes or walkers from the exchange every two or three years, but prices aren’t much better than the outlet stores. Wal-Mart and Costco are very competitive with the exchanges, so we tend to do fresh fruit/veggies from the commissary (just for the two of us) and bulk buying in Costco (dry goods). It’s roughly 65% commissary and 35% Costco. Costco even prices gasoline as a loss-leader to be very competitive with the military bases, and that attracts a lot of customers.

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