(First published on LifePart2.com, at What Does it Cost to Live for a Month in Honolulu?)
When people found out that I work and live in Honolulu, Hawaii, they usually say, “Wow…I wish I could do that! Must be great to constantly be around the beaches, surf, hikes, and beautiful things in bikinis. Man, aren’t you lucky?” This is usually followed by, “Isn’t it kind of expensive to live there, though?” The answer to the first question is always, “CHEE-HOO!!! (Hawaiian island scream, when totally excited)” and the answer to the second is, “Not always, brah!”
There’s this misconception that the beautiful islands of Hawaii are some of the most gorgeous places on Earth, but also come with an unaffordable, heavy price tag. I moved here about 9 years ago for a job, thinking I was going to only stay a year. One year turned into two years, time slipped by as the sun and surf kissed my skin over and over, and now nine years later, I can look back at my time and tell you confidently that Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, is way more affordable than most people realize.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. I’m lucky to have a career where I make a decent amount of money, probably more than most. I have a love of flying and travel, eating out and hitting the bars, living in nicer places that most people either don’t want or can’t always afford, and I’m a single bachelor in his late 30’s that doesn’t have mouths to feed, a wife or girlfriend, or baby mama drama to bleed me dry. But at the same time, I came to Hawaii saddled with a lot of student loan debt, financial obligations to my immediate family, and I was determined to save money for retirement and other things that I knew were coming down the line.
Honestly, Hawaii is an expensive place overall. The cost of living, rent, gas, and food essentials are some of the highest in the country. But at the same time, so many of the amazing things that Hawaii has to offer are completely free and able to be enjoyed free of cost. The gorgeous beaches, the absolutely breathtaking hikes, the epic waves you can surf, the beautiful reef you can snorkel…All these and more are Hawaii’s free gifts for you to enjoy. Yeah, you may spend more to live here than other places in America or the world. But if you compare the costs to other American cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or other larger cities around the world, especially in Western Europe or East Asia, I personally think you are getting a great deal in order to live on a beautiful piece of paradise!
So lets start with the most expensive thing: Housing in Hawaii. On the plus side, Oahu is probably one of the cheaper Hawaiian islands to live on, compared to Maui or Kauai. If you want your own 1-BR, 1-BA apartment or condo with about 500 – 700 sq feet in Waikiki, where I live, this will probably cost anywhere from $1500 – $2200 dollars a month. A 2-BR or 3-BR apartment, condo, or small house somewhere may cost upwards of $2000 – $3500 a month. Most rental places require a 6-month to 1-year lease, a credit check, and first and last month’s rent (or a deposit, which is usually the same thing).
Now I know that figure probably makes most of your jaws drop to the floor, especially if you are from the middle of America or another cheaper country, and not used to the astronomical prices of places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Just keep in mind a couple things. Usually, this rental price covers most, if not all, utilities, including unlimited gas, water, electricity, central A/C (if your apartment is equipped), and even basic cable, which probably adds up to a few hundred dollars a month for most people. It usually doesn’t include internet/WiFi.
Remember, most of the Waikiki apartments and condos come pre-furnished, so you don’t have to worry about furniture, beds, sofas, or even plates, cups, and utensils, as long as you don’t mind the previous owner’s or tenant’s tastes. A lot of times, you will have an amazing ocean or sunset view from your high-rise apartment, have your own private lanai (“balcony” in Hawaiian), be only a few minutes walk away from the beach, and your condo will have some decent amenities, such as a pool, sauna, hot tub, and exercise room. So you are potentially getting a lot for that hefty $1500 – $2200 monthly rent for a 1-BR, or $2000 – $3500 a month for a 2-BR or 3-BR
For those of you on much more of a budget, there are always a lot of rooms in apartments and houses scattered around and just outside Honolulu. Especially if you are okay living away from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki, and don’t mind a roommate or two, you can probably rent a room in an apartment or house for about $700 – $1000 a month. Keep in mind that utilities aren’t always included in this figure, especially if it’s an apartment or house outside of Waikiki, or not a condo. I have known people who have paid less per month, in the $400 – $600 a month range, but this is rare and sometimes involves multiple people sharing the same bedroom.
Also, these cheaper lodgings may be located up in the mountains or valleys of Oahu, farther away from the beaches and oceans, and possibly even farther away from bus stops and other public transportation. There are even hostels that will charge you about $30 a night, but the quality is often pretty poor and the hostels tend to be quite loud and messy. In the end a $30 a night hostel will cost you about $900 a month anyway, so it’s better to just try to get your own lodging or room in a more stable and quiet Honolulu apartment or house somewhere else.
One last piece of Hawaii lodging advice: If you are going to be here awhile, I strongly advise you to invest in a cheap $40 – 50 tent. Camping under the stars and waking up on the beach is one of the most wonderful and awe-inspiring things you can do in Hawaii. You can BBQ and party on the beach, sleep under the gorgeous stars and full moon, wake up early to snorkel with dolphins, and potentially even save on a few days of rent! Keep in mind that “official” camping in Honolulu/Oahu is only technically allowed from Friday – Tuesday, for about $30 for a group, although a lot of people “unofficially” camp all week long in certain places and just shower at the beach facilities. Most people would call these “unofficial” campers “homeless”…You say “Tomato,” I say “Tomatoe”! Bring plenty of water, toilet paper, sunblock, warmer clothes and sleeping bag for some colder weather at night, and be careful where you park your car, because cars at campsites are notorious for being hit by break-ins. But the experience of camping on Oahu is absolutely unforgettable and once-in-a-lifetime. I wish I had found this out sooner!
I should mention that there are also some rarer opportunities to help out on farms, WWOOF-ing, and other shared community “lodging-for-labor” sort of opportunities that are “free,” but again, they often require at least a bunch of hours of manual labor a day and usually offer little to no privacy. Also CouchSurfing, a traveler social network that matches up travelers from all over the world and interested hosts for a few days at a time, is very popular on Oahu, but it’s definitely not a long-term way to live on Hawaii.
There’s no way around it: Living in Honolulu, Hawaii is not dirt-cheap. And it’s definitely not Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Central America, or some other affordable foreign beach destination, but paradise comes at a cost. Housing is one of the big ones! So on the high end, on average you will spend about $1500 – $3500/month for a nice 1-BR to 3-BR condo or house on Oahu, and on the lower end, on average you will spend about $400 – 1000/month for a room in a shared room, apartment or hostel on Oahu. Or possibly live for free or $400 a month, if you are super adventurous and camp, CouchSurf, or work on a WWOOF-ing farm.
When you’re living in Honolulu, Hawaii, you don’t absolutely need a car but it really helps to have one. You can get away with walking or biking around Honolulu for free, or the cost of a bike, but most people usually want to get out of urban Honolulu and explore the islands. If you are one of those people that would rather use public transportation, then a monthly bus pass costs about $65 a month. Taking the bus more than once a day makes it more than worthwhile, since a one-way ticket is $2.50. You can go pretty much everywhere on Oahu on a bus, but it can be fairly slow-going and you may not get to some of the more remote streets, neighborhoods, or hike spots very easily on a bus. Most of the beaches, cities, and popular tourist destinations are easily accessible by bus, with a little patience.
If you want to speed stuff up a bit and be more mobile, a moped rental can cost about $30 a day, about $600 used, or maybe about $900 new. Renting a car here will cost you about $125 – $200 a week, depending on how nice a car it is. The cheaper rentals are always located closer to the airport instead of in Waikiki. You can also ship your entire car here from the west coast of California and Los Angeles for a little more than $1000, which is something I did when I moved here. It takes about two weeks to get here. I highly encourage you to rent a car for at least a week, if you will be here in Honolulu for a month or longer. You will be able to see and get to more gorgeous and far-away beaches, hikes, lookout points, and other things that make Hawaii so famous, and you can do it way easier than if you just tried to take a bus or moped it.
You can also ship your entire car here from the west coast of California and Los Angeles for a little more than $1000,
Gas is about $3 a gallon, at the writing of this blog post. No way around it, Hawaii still has some of the most expensive gas in the nation. The good thing is that most locations are very close by to each other in Oahu. You can circle the entire island in about 4 – 5 hours driving, if you don’t stop and stay under the speed limit. I drive about 25 miles to and from work in a small city near North Shore, Oahu, which is a little more than the average commute. Usually, I have to fill up the tank of my beat-up ’99 Camry once every 10 days or so, with a monthly cost of about $100 – $150 for gas.
So in the end, average cost of transportation on Oahu is as low as $65/month for a bus pass up to $650 – $900 for the monthly cost of a moped or car rental plus gas. Or it can cost just $150 – $200 a month, plus car insurance, if you already have your own car here on Oahu.
After lodging and transportation, Hawaii gets considerably cheaper. I’m sure a lot of people have told you that eating out and shopping for groceries in Hawaii is super expensive. They are both right and wrong. Sure, there are tons of high-end $$$$ restaurants, and milk, fresh fruit, or produce can be way more expensive than the rest of mainland USA. But there are also tons of hole-in-the-wall cheap eats for under $8 – $10 a meal and bulk-item stores like Costco or Sam’s Club to help take the bite out of an expensive food budget.
… if you know where to go, and follow the locals, you can get great deals on meals.
Of course, if you are made of money, you can get all the exquisite sushi, Asian-fusion food, seafood, and steak you want in Waikiki and hotels for more than $100+ per person per meal. Most of us don’t have that kind of money. But if you know where to go, and follow the locals, you can get great deals on meals. Anything from Japanese noodles to pizza to hamburgers to Korean food to ahi tuna poke bowls to Mediterranean food to Hawaiian plate lunches can cost just about $8 – $15 per meal. And you can often get a “mini” size for a lot of plate lunches in Hawaii for about 60 – 70% the cost, which is usually large enough to feed most normal-sized people. I know one Japanese udon noodle place where you can stuff yourself for under $5 and one awesome beachside steak plate place where you can gorge on steak, salad, and rice for just $8.
Also, a lot of places have cheaper deals for lunch, also at about 60 – 70% the normal dinner entrée price. And because of fierce restaurant competition, a lot of local bars and restaurants offer happy hour pricing (or pau hana, in Hawaiian) on food and drinks not just once, but twice a day, usually from anywhere from 3pm-ish – 7 pm-ish and then usually again from 9 pm-ish until closing. If you can manage to eat at non-traditional times, you’ll save a lot of money. Pau Hana/Happy Hour food can run from $4 – $8 for a small to larger sized dish and about $3 – $6 for select beers, well drinks, and wine.
I’d estimate that if you plan it out right, and go to the cheaper places to eat, you could easily eat for less than $20 – $25 a day in Honolulu. If you cooked a bit for most of your meals, this would probably be more like $10 – $15 a day. In the end, this comes out to $300 – $450/month if you plan on cooking a bunch or $600 – $750/month if you plan to eat out a bit.
As for a night out in Honolulu, when you really want to celebrate, most if not all bars and clubs are free to enter. Occasionally, some bars and trendier nightclubs will charge $5 – $10 on busier nights. The most expensive clubs will cost about $20 to get into, usually on the weekends. On some of the busier weekday nights (e.g. Monday – Wednesday), this entrance fee will get you access to some great drinks specials, such as 2-for-1 drinks or even $1 drinks. It can get quite dangerous! Thursday is Ladies Night at a few places, and so the lovely ladies of Oahu can get into some trendier places for free that night.
Otherwise, if you buy beer or cocktails normally in the bar, expect to pay $4 – $7 for a bottle of beer, $5 – $10 for a drink, and $10 – $15 for a specialty cocktail or nice glass of wine. Of course, you can go the way cheaper route and get a six-pack of local Hawaiian beer, like Kona Brewing Company Fire Rock, for $10 or a cheaper $5 – $15 bottle of wine and just drink on your beautiful apartment balcony or lanai, if you have one. Pre-partying at home before going to the club, like in Scandinavia and Europe, is fairly common here. Drinking in public isn’t usually tolerated though, and there are plenty of DUI checkpoints around Honolulu on any given night, so don’t ever think about driving. A $10 – $20 cab or Über will get you to basically most places around Honolulu really easily. (TIP: Unlike Hawaiian beer, Hawaiian wine is horribly fruity and pretty disgusting. It’s more like cooking wine. I wouldn’t buy it in the stores, and there’s a reason why it’s not found on most restaurants menus!).
So in the end, assuming you go out for drinks or to party in Waikiki and Honolulu about twice a week, average about 2 – 3 drinks when you go out, possibly pay for cover at a nightclub, and spring for a cab or Über here or there, you’ll spend about $180 – $240/month to live up the nightlife. Significantly less if you pre-party at your place, walk or take the bus to the nightlife, go to places without cover or before they start charging cover, or are (again) a cute girl in a very small bikini who constantly gets her drinks paid for.
Aaaaah, the best part of Hawaii…the absolutely free and stunning activities that cost you nothing to enjoy on this island! Once you have a way to get around the island, most of these totally awesome sights on Hawaii are yours to enjoy. To quote Achilles (Brad Pitt) in Troy: “Take it…IT’S YOURS!!!” For all the gorgeous and jaw-dropping hikes through lush rainforest and to beautiful waterfalls, all you need is a good pair of hiking sneakers that you don’t mind getting completely muddy and destroyed.
For all the stunning and panty-dropping beaches and look-out points, all you need is a pair of board-shorts or a hot bikini and an $8 bottle of sunblock. If you want to try something like snorkeling, body-boarding, or surfing, all it takes is a $15 – $20 snorkel set from Wal-Mart, a $30 – $40 body-board, or a $200 – $300 used surfboard on Craigslist from some crying person moving away from the island who doesn’t want to leave.
Sure, kayaks, kite-surfing, deep-sea fishing, skydiving, sailing & boat rides, whale-watching, and scuba-diving can cost anywhere from $60 upwards to $400 or so (plus any cost of lessons/training), but sometimes you can find a good local Hawaiian friend to take you on this stuff for free. At least for the kayaking and sailing, it can often be free. Once again, as with all things in life, it really helps if you are a cute female who wants to adventure around with a surfer, just arrived on the island, and don’t know anybody.
Aloha, Mahalo…and Aloha!!!
So in the end, if you add up all the costs, besides the cost of a plane ticket, your average cost of Lodging, Transportation, Food, and Nightlife is from as low as $965 a month on the low end (e.g. shared room, monthly bus pass, cooking your own food, not going out to expensive nightlife) to as high as $4250 a month or more on the high end (e.g. high-rise condo bachelor pad, rental car with gas, eating out, and going out twice a week). More if you have extra family members. Plus the cost of on-island activities, which again are mostly free or fairly cheap in Hawaii!
The hardest part about living on Oahu and Honolulu is meeting the large number of inspiring and awesome people, locals, and travelers from all over the world, and then eventually having to say a fond farewell to many of them. I always say to new transplants to Hawaii that it’s no wonder that “Aloha!” means “Hello,” “Goodbye,” and “Love,” because you end up having to say “Aloha!” so many times when you are on the island: It’s just easier when it all means the same thing! I hope this blog post has inspired you to create your own life-changing adventure on my island, and I sincerely hope that I’ll be able to wish you all “Aloha!” in person some day soon.