Today we’re meeting a New York native who has lived in Hawaii for 19 years! That’s definitely a big climate difference, and it’s totally something I could see Lisey doing because she really, really, REALLY hates cold weather.
1. Tell us a little about yourself
I have been a secondary school English teacher on the island of Oahu for the past 19 years (I’m 42).
I’m originally from Glens Falls, New York, and moved to Hawaii after college because I was sick of the cold weather in New York (I went to college near Rochester).
I went to a teacher recruitment fair in the spring of my senior year in college. Multiple districts in the nation offered me a job, but I chose Hawaii because it sounded like a crazy, fun adventure. I’d never been to Hawaii and I didn’t know anyone there.
I was placed at a school on the windward side of Oahu, which turned out to be one of the most mainlander-friendly, beautiful places I could have landed.
It was such a great place to start my career as a teacher that I never left, although I did switch schools after eight years to teach at a private high school in Honolulu.
I am married and have two school-aged children. I love to read and to go to the beach, and I love surfing!
2. How long have you been reading The Frugal Girl?
I can’t remember, but I think at least ten years or so.
I remember when Kristen’s kids were a lot younger and she would write a lot about homeschooling them. My church had a lot of homeschooling families and one of my research projects for graduate school was about homeschooling, so I found Kristen’s blog very interesting.
But I think I stumbled on the blog originally because I was looking for frugal tips.
3. How did you get interested in saving money?
I have always been a frugal soul. When I was a kid, I biked around the long, winding roads of my rural town, collecting bottles and cans for five cents each. I did lots of odd jobs and babysitting for pocket money, and got my first real job selling t-shirts in the tourist town nearby when I was 14 years old.
Living in Hawaii is very expensive, and public school teacher wages are extremely low here relative to the cost of living, so I had to continue being very frugal to stay here for so long.
I was single for my first ten years out here, so I really had to watch my pennies carefully. I was always buying things for my classroom!
4. What’s the “why” behind your money-saving efforts?
Ultimately, stewardship, I guess.
I have a lot of respect for intentionality in all things, and time and money are at the top of the list. I always want to make sure that I’m spending money on what I truly value and that our money reflects our true priorities.
We value generosity very highly and have always made that a central part of our marriage. We also value education for our children. So we want to make sure that our resources are prioritized towards those values.
5. What’s your best frugal win?
I have a lot of them, but probably the best one was “buying low” on the marriage market (that’s my joke with my husband). He was an “undervalued stock”–a social worker with a student loan, and I snapped him up! Since we got married he had his loan forgiven with the PSLF program, and he has increased his income quite a bit.
He has the same values as I do with money and is happy to be on the frugal train with me. When we got married, he was driving a car with a loan, which I paid off with money I’d saved.
He then sold the car and paid cash for a ’99 Corolla (same car as mine!) to replace it. We drove matching ’99 Corollas for a couple of years. He’s a wonderful man–a big frugal and life “win”.
Another big frugal win was buying our 850-square-foot highrise condo out here in 2015. We already had our first child at that point and knew we wanted a second. The condo had 3 bedrooms and 2 baths, but it was tiny.
We knew it had all the space we needed, two parking spaces, laundry in the unit, and a dishwasher, so we figured we could live with the small space. We had our second baby and were able to make it work in the small condo for six years. I am an expert declutter-er.
We just bought a 1400-square-foot townhouse in January, and we’re really glad that the equity in the condo made it possible for us to upgrade.
6. What’s a dumb money mistake you’ve made?
From a purely financial perspective, moving to Hawaii was extremely dumb! You would be dismayed at what we paid for our townhouse. Hawaii was never going to be my long-term plan, and I actually tried to move to the mainland in 2009 because the cost of living here was getting me down.
But the recession meant schools had hiring freezes and I couldn’t find a job. There are ways to “hack” the expenses, but getting around the massive cost of housing is pretty difficult.
7. What’s one thing you splurge on?
I get a haircut for $100 including a tip about three times a year.
My hairdresser is amazing. She gives me a massage and doesn’t talk unless I want to chat. Her work is incredible and I feel like a million bucks afterward.
I don’t color my hair and have chosen to let it go grey naturally, so I consider the pricey haircuts to be a reasonable expense relative to what I’d spend if I had a more high-maintenance look.
8. What’s one thing you aren’t remotely tempted to splurge on?
I have a big imagination, so although I don’t splurge very often, I understand the temptation to splurge on most consumer items.
So while I wouldn’t buy, say, a fancy purse, I can imagine wanting to buy such a thing. I’m not tempted by cars. I think cars are probably the “splurge” item that I feel the least tempted about.
9. If $1000 was dropped into your lap today, what would you do with it?
Buy plane tickets to the mainland. Getting to the mainland to see family is a major thing we save for.
10. What’s the easiest/hardest part of being frugal?
Easiest: feeling little anxiety about money most of the time.
Hardest: having to be disciplined with routines and habits like cooking at home, cleaning routines, shopping at thrift and consignment stores and Facebook marketplace, and tracking expenses.
11. Is there anything unique about frugal living in your area?
1. Only need one season of clothes
2. People are pretty informal and low-key (because everybody’s money is going to their mortgage or rent!) so keeping up with the Joneses on appearances is less of a thing, at least in my experience
3. Lots of fun free things to do outdoors, since all beaches have public access
4. Buy pretty much all of your groceries at Costco–it’s the only affordable place in town, except Chinatown grocery stores (no Aldi, sadly).
5. Get-togethers with friends are always potlucks–get good at making a couple of yummy dishes that aren’t too costly
6. You can buy cheaper high-mileage vehicles because the commutes aren’t very long (this doesn’t apply to everyone, but it has been our experience)
7. We did a house-swap vacation this summer, which is a new hack that we had never tried. Living in Hawaii means we’re a pretty desirable house-swap.
8. We do a lot of credit card hacking because we have to fly to see family. This works for us because we’re obsessive budgeters and keep track of all purchases quite meticulously.
9. Very few furniture stores ship to Hawaii. There’s no Ikea. HOWEVER, there is a massive military presence, and when they PCS the government pays for them to ship their furniture. This means that the Facebook marketplace used furniture section is pretty active. I have bought and sold quite a bit of used furniture out here. When we buy new, it’s almost always a piece from either Costco, Home Depot, or Target. Most of the other furniture options are very expensive and not very high quality.
12. What frugal tips have you tried and abandoned?
I tried being a mystery shopper for about a year after my first child was born. I was trying to increase my income, which is a common frugal tip. It was really fun getting so many restaurant meals for free, but man it was a lot of work.
Teaching isn’t exactly a low-stress job that you can leave at work, so I found myself constantly working, which isn’t ideal when you are also taking care of a 1-year-old.
I decided to just be happy with the income I already had and not try to develop a side hustle.
13. What single action or decision has saved you the most money over your life?
Probably going to a state university for college and graduate school.
I only had to take out a $5k loan for my undergraduate degree. I got a lot of scholarships and my parents were able to cover almost all of the rest. The lack of student loan debt made it possible for me to move to Hawaii as a teacher.
And then I went to the University of Hawaii for my master’s degree in education–that was also heavily subsidized by grants, so I only paid about $5k for that degree, which I cash-flowed.
14. How has reading the Frugal Girl changed you?
I became a Christian while living in Hawaii, and I love Kristen’s understated faith. I’ve found a lot of inspiration in the blog.
When I discovered the blog, I was single and longed for a family of my own, so I loved living vicariously through the Christmas cookie baking and the furniture painting, and the kids all sprawled out on couches, reading. Simple living and being frugal not to become wealthy but instead to have a smaller footprint and greater mindfulness have resonated with me enormously.
I’m also an ATK subscriber thanks to Kristen–I’d never have ponied up the money for that if it weren’t for all of those Dinner Illustrated endorsements.
15. Which is your favorite type of post at the Frugal Girl and why?
Thankful Thursdays and the five frugal wins.
16. Do you have any tips for frugal travel or vacations?
Don’t go to Hawaii! Nah just kidding. But it’s getting harder to vacation in Hawaii in a frugal way. They’re banning vacation rentals in most areas on Oahu now, so the rentals that are legal are becoming as expensive as hotels.
Our go-to frugal Hawaii vacation spot is Volcanoes on the Big Island, because the rentals have historically been quite affordable and we love the chilly climate compared to our usual very warm weather.
Also, we love Volcanoes National Park and find it a very frugal place for fun with all the incredible hiking. If you have any kind of military connection, that is a huge hack for traveling in Hawaii. We don’t really have access to any military stuff here, but we’ve had military friends and they get some great hook-ups on hotels.
We also really enjoy camping at the private campsites on Oahu; they are actually not that cheap relative to camping on the mainland, but it’s still a lot cheaper than a hotel. One of our favorite spots has little wooden shacks with bunk beds.
Alex, I love that you are an ATK fan now because of my blog. Their recipes are so good! And the Dinner Illustrated cookbook is so super useful.
Also, I smiled at how you and your husband are both working on living the frugal life together. I love that you both drove old Corollas! I think it’s so impressive that you guys have managed to live in Hawaii for so long on a social worker + teacher salary. Good for you guys!
Questions from me: Do you ever miss having changing seasons? And what’s typical weather like for you? Is the weather really humid where you are?
Saturday 29th of October 2022
This was interesting for me to read since we just returned from one week long vacation on the Big Island Hawaii. We purchased Hilton Grand Vacation Club ten years ago. With that program we have certain number of points every other year (while "owing" a week every other year in one bedroom in Hilton property in Orlando, Florida). Points last two years and can be used to vacation either in the place you own or for various combination of number of nights/various places in USA and internationally. We never stayed in the actual place that we "own" because my husband's parents live in Orlando, and we just stay with them when we visit (I keep using quote marks because I feel that it is not a real ownership if you only have access for a few days each year). Normally I would not think to fly to Hawaii because the flight is so long and expensive (two flights six hours each for us, New Yorkers). I always thought that Florida, Mexico, or California make more sense for the sunny vacation. If I want to fly far, I will rather fly to visit Kharkov, Ukraine (where I was born and where some family members still live). However, the tragic war in Ukraine put an end to any plans to visit my Homeland. We had some Hilton vacation points that had to be used before the end of the year and my husband wanted to experience Hawaii. Our two kids are away in college, and we decided to go without them this time. Thus, two airplane tickets instead of four suddenly made a distant place like Hawaii a possibility. Even in comparison to NYC Hawaii is so expensive! We have visited free petroglyph preserve (had to pay for uber to get there from/back to hotel though) and participated in a few free activities at the resort. Watched dolphins up close at the dolphin sanctuary at the resort. Didn't shell out $289 per person for a 30-minute dolphin encounter when you can actually touch them and get your pictures taken. We walked for 25 minutes to purchase groceries in the only store around and it was still expensive: a medium size cantaloupe was $7, bananas were almost $1 each, 8 0z yoghurt container was $2.50, half gallon of milk - $5, 10 oz baguette - $6! There were no regular sales, however a few items approaching expiration dates were 50% off (yoghurt and baguette). Surprisingly, alcoholic bottled beverages (big wine drinker here!) were the same price as in NYC. I came back three pounds lighter due to eating less and walking more. The only two souvenirs I purchased were two local Hawaiian soap bars for my daughter at $9 each. Hawaii was still worth the expense though! We didn't feel like we were in the US, felt like a foreign country. Flora felt very exotic. Mongooses were running everywhere just like squirrels in New York.
Tuesday 25th of October 2022
I'm suddenly hungry for spam musubi. And...I recognized you right away from MMM.
Monday 31st of October 2022
@MM1970, ha, same, although I use a different name there!
Tuesday 25th of October 2022
Hi Alex! I enjoyed reading your stories of life in Hawaii. My older brother lives in Hawaii. He works for Hawaii News Now and also for a local radio station in Honolulu. Two of our sisters have visited our brother and really enjoyed their stay. Maybe someday my husband and I can afford to go there for a visit. From your descriptions ( and all the frugal tips) along with my brother’s , Hawaii seems like a beautiful place to vacation.
Tuesday 25th of October 2022
It was a joy to read your interview, Alex! Thank you for sharing your beautiful life with us! I especially loved your answer to question number 4. And your first frugal Hawaii hack is mind-blowing to me. I'm in the midst of switching out clothes for everyone (it snowed here in southern Michigan on Thursday afternoon and was sunny and 70 Friday afternoon!) so at this time of year it's fascinating to think about only needing one set of clothes.
Tuesday 25th of October 2022
Nice to “meet” you! I live in Kailua, so I was pleasantly surprised to see your post about trying to live frugally on Oahu. And, I wanted to let you know in case you haven’t heard about it, there is a company in Waipahu that sells IKEA products, it is Haul2HI.com. You are absolutely right that the furniture selection on the island leaves a lot to be desired, so being able to get IKEA things from them has been really helpful!
Wednesday 26th of October 2022
@Karen Ziemer, I DO know about Haul2HI...but every time I've tried to order from them, the shipping costs more than the item itself, so I've never bought from them. I've noticed they sometimes have warehouse sales where I'm assuming the shipping costs aren't quite so much.