After a Year in California
January 20, 2013
Aloha Nui!
Wow! A year has certainly flown by quickly. My apologies for not keeping up the Updates during that year, but it has taken me that long to actually collect my thoughts about the big picture.
We've fallen into step with our new California lifestyle. Sort of. Maybe one reason that is has been fairly easy after 19 years in Hawaii is that both of us are native Californians and spent much of our lives living in and around the Bay Area. Where we live now is about 60 miles north of the actual Bay Area, but doesn't resemble that area much at all. Where we live now seems far from any town or city. We're deep in the redwood forest, with streams and rivers here and there, and small villages of cabin-like homes scattered along the length of the Russian River from where we are out the 15 miles to the ocean. It's really quite beautiful, and at this time of the year, most of those little homes have a twist of wood smoke coming from their chimneys.
But all this serenity morphs into city life quickly when we make the 15-minute drive to our nearest city, Santa Rosa. With a population of 170,000, some would say, “City? That's not a city!” To us, anything bigger than Hilo is a city. There are more people in Santa Rosa than on the entire Big Island!
Santa Rosa, as cities go, is actually a very pleasant one, with a lovingly restored “Old Town,” and of course everything we could ever need is right there. It's the drive back home that I always enjoy: Two minutes after leaving town, we drive through about 7 or 8 miles of beautiful vineyards (this is California's famous wine country) and then in an instant, we're in the forest. The forest gets thicker and taller and then we get to our twisty little road that takes us to the top of our hill. For California, it's sweet.
We got lucky in finding this area. This is, to us, one of the most beautiful parts of California, and yet the housing prices here are comparable with the Big Island. At this writing, however, the prices are going up and the inventory is practically non-existent. Fact is, though, you can still buy a small house needing repairs for under $100,000. Just like on the BI, you can buy a pretty nice one needing no repairs for twice that amount.
Which brings us to my next subject, the one about which Affordable Paradise was written. Is Hawaii still affordable compared to the mainland, or is it more like what so many keep telling us, at least 30% higher cost of living, across the board?
When we found our little community here, we were sure that our cost of living would be lower here, what with cheaper gas, groceries, same cost of housing, etc.
Well, after a year back on the mainland, I can say with authority that our cost of living in Hilo was substantially lower than it is here. Some examples? How about property taxes? On a $250,000 home in Hawaii, with our over-sixty exemption, our property taxes were about $200 per year. On our home here, we pay a whopping $4200. That comes to $350 per month just for property taxes.
In Hawaii, we were paying HELCO anywhere from $150 – 250 a month for electricity. Here, our electric bill averages $100, but we pay over $300 per month half the year for heating gas. During the warm months the gas bill pretty much goes away, but our total cost for those utilities is still higher than it was in Hawaii. Also, we got a real shock on our first winter electric bill here. The cost per KWH was the same as we were paying HELCO! The way that works is that if you use very little electricity, the cost per KWH is about a third of HELCO's charge. Then when your consumption goes up, there's a break when the cost doubles, than another break when it triples. We went over that break with some electric heaters we were using when we found out how much gas our furnace was gumping. We don't do that anymore. Now we keep our house at 65 degrees and wear warm clothes indoors. This is the part where we really miss Hawaii!
Our auto insurance, same company, went up by about 30% because we're in California where everybody drives like they're in the last race to nowhere. Even our Kaiser Permanente co-pays doubled.
How about auto expenses? Gas prices in Hilo are $4.05 right now, and $3.60 here. But when we lived on the BI, we drove about 10,000 miles a year, combined mileage for our car and pickup. Here it's doubled. Granted, much of that is Camille's several trips a week to help out with two of our grandkids, but that is the reason we moved back here, so it is a part of our lives and the cost has to be accounted for. Bottom line, we're paying nearly twice as much for gasoline now, not to mention the other costs of driving more: tires, oil changes, maintenance and repairs, etc.
Let's move on to groceries. Oh how envious we used to be when our Bay Area friends would talk about grocery shopping at Trader Joe's! I just perused the online today's specials at the Hilo Safeway and didn't see anything more expensive there than our own Safeway store here. Oh yeah, milk. But not by much. But then, a can of Spam costs $5 here, about twice as much as in Hawaii. We have a “Huli Chicken” guy near here on weekends. He gets $10 for a chicken! I believe they're still around $6 in Hilo, and they're way better, too.
Here's another interesting thing to ponder. We are pretty frugal folks, but we still find ourselves tossing more spoiled groceries here than we ever did in Hawaii. We've tried to figure it out, and the only thing we can think of is that it is so easy to buy the packaged everything at Trader Joes, like even vegetables come in a little plastic tray covered with plastic wrap, and when we do that we always seem to have to buy more than we need. (Gee, ya think they planned it that way?) And the rest spoils. Also, when we lived in Hilo, we routinely shopped the Farmer's Market. They are everywhere in Hawaii, all year long. Here, we have them too, but they are of course seasonal.
Another thing we find here and it is disturbing to me, is that we accumulate two trash cans of recyclable plastic every week, when I recall maybe on can per month in Hawaii. Everything comes in plastic containers of some sort. Even tomatoes, which even in summer are imported from Mexico. By the way, papayas here are awful and when available, sell for around $5 each.
We also ate a lot better in Hawaii. Fresh veggies were somehow so easy and natural there. Here, we find ourselves heating up a frozen pizza or some other packaged, processed thing. It's just so “California.”
Entertainment. Except for our little local theater group, we can't afford any. Tickets to even “who's that?” performers are routinely $40 and up. If it's somebody you've heard of, you'll pay a lot more. $75 to $90 is not uncommon. We just can't afford that kind of money for an evening of entertainment. Our kids, who earn six-figure incomes, think nothing of it, and I guess that's why the prices are what they are.
In Hawaii, we had year 'round wonderful events that were always very reasonable, and often the charge to get in went to a worthwhile cultural venture so we even felt good about paying it. Besides, there were always parties at any of our many local beaches, and oh how we miss those beaches! I especially miss my frequent visits to the sweet, gorgeous beach parks along Hilo's Four Mile stretch.
Even clothes will cost you more here, mostly just because you'll need more of them! Right now, I'm wearing Levis, warm boot socks, and a t-shirt under a sweat shirt – and I'm not anywhere near dressed to go outside where it's 40 degrees! That will take at least some warm shoes and a thick jacket. How I miss wearing nothing but shorts, tanks and rubber slippahs. Every day of the week. A least I can still do it in the summer, and our local river beach is only three minutes from the house. There's a perk.
Sales tax. Hawaii's use tax is 4%. Here, it's around 9%. “Around,” because in California everything needs to be complicated, so every town in the State has it's unique sales tax.
There are lots of other costs, too, but the overall picture is that my original premise, the one that inspired the First Edition of Affordable Paradise, was and still is valid: The notion that the average person with an average income cannot afford to live in Hawaii is a myth.
Of course, I have to qualify that by saying that an average income will not support you if your idea of living in Hawaii is Honolulu. Or Maui. I've received lots of flak about that in Amazon Reviews. People write a nasty review saying that my title is misleading because the book doesn't say how one can have an affordable life on Oahu or Maui. Well, had I written a book on “Affordable California,” it would certainly not have been about Beverly Hills or San Francisco. Rather, it would have given the reader all of the best places in California that are still affordable. The Big Island (a.k.a. “Hawaii”) is the only part of the State of Hawaii that is affordable. And in the humble opinion of this writer (an opinion shared by many), if I had the opportunity to live on any of the Hawaiian Islands again and even if cost was no object, I would return to the Big Island. It has everything I want Hawaii to be, and the best part is that you can actually live a peaceful, pleasant life there without tripping over tourists at every turn. I like that!
I have no issue with tourists; Hawaii needs them, and I even love to visit the tourist spots from time to time and absorb some of that exciting energy. But for daily life, I'd so rather share it with the “everybody's a minority” ambiance of the folks who live, love and work there.
Guess I better quit this rambling volume for now! I've got to go figure out how to earn a living here now that our retirement savings are disappearing faster than we figured on.

With abundant aloha always,

Skip & Camille
We wish you all the best, and never forget to
Please Live Aloha!
Mahalo for "listening."
Skip Thomsen & Ohana
Updated 1/20/2013