How to reduce cost of living on Maui – energy consumption

As “cost of living” is the most searched term on my blog, I thought I’d harp on this topic, on the anniversary of the 300,000th visitor to my first WordPress site – the Concertblog.

Reducing the cost of daily living on Maui boils down to scrutinizing which expenses are least relevant and most flexible. In other words, what are you willing to give up?

As residents of the State of Hawaii pay the highest electricity rates in the country, it makes sense to understand our monthly electricity bill.

If you switch everything off except the refrigerator when you go on vacation, and you still get a bill for $35, maybe it’s time to replace that 20-year old refrigerator. Energy efficient experts say the worst thing is to move that old refrigerator to the garage and keep using it.

The next biggest expense is the water heater. If you can’t get a solar water heater, at least try to get a new electric water heater with a timer switch. You can control the timer and the temperature setting. My bill went down by 20% because of the timer switch.

Wait! Do you have an electric stove and oven? Do you cook a lot? Go on an elimination diet the way you discovered that you needed to replace that old fridge. Unfortunately, I don’t cook much, so I can’t help you with this.

Apparently dishwashers, washing machines, and washer driers also consume a lot of energy. Batch processing is the way to save. The sun is the best drying machine.

A friend of mine spent over $300 buying LED light bulbs in bulk at Costco. After replacing all the lights in his 1,000 sq. ft. house, he noticed a reduction of $40 in his monthly electric bill. In addition, he feels more free than before to leave his lights on.

My question: What did he do with the replaced energy-saving CFL bulbs and incandescent bulbs that still work?

Answer: give them to someone whose rent includes electricity usage.

For more information about buying or replacing lightbulbs, read this guide.

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Cost of living woes

I caught myself confessing to a stranger that I am doing everything I possibly can to live on Maui. All the reasons that attracted me here are the ones that lure me to stay.

Besides teaching 7 classes to 90 students, running two grant-funded projects, giving private piano lessons and ad hoc gigs, I’m also looking out for grants to apply during the three months each summer when I receive no income and need to revert to COBRA for healthcare, effectively doubling my health insurance payments. 

But I can’t keep digging into my savings if I plan to retire with a peace of mind. 

Recently I noticed many articles in the Civil Beat and Huffington Post about battling the unaffordable cost of living in Hawaii.

It’s nice to know I’m not alone.


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Another perfect day in paradise

My friends who are buried under six feet of snow in the North East are probably wondering if it’s possible to have 365 perfect sunny and warm days and not get bored.


This is what I wake up to. On the mornings I don’t oversleep and rush breakfast to get to work, I savor every moment of sitting on my patio and enjoying the view.

Each Sunday, the cruise ship docks into Kahului Harbor and sits overnight. It’s a reminder that there are other islands in the Hawaiian chain, other residents like myself who have come to paradise on a one way ticket to take stock of life. My neighbors in Utrecht had hopped on such an island cruise and told me about the sights. Each island is different, they had said.


Lately I’ve been telling myself that I’m not a “newbie” anymore. I’ve completed four years, and I have no more excuses not to make a firm decision. Am I here on sabbatical or am I making Maui my permanent home?

Hey, I’m not ready to retire yet. I guess the best excuse for not leaving is that these sunny days are compensating for the cold, wet, dark, windy, and grey days in England and Holland — those years of being wrapped in layers of clothing, socks, shoes, hats, scarves, and gloves in centrally-heated rooms, offices, and concert halls. Seeing the sun didn’t guarantee feeling its warmth.

I became starved of not only sunlight but also seeing my bare limbs and flesh. There’s no better place than Maui to be a sun worshipper 365 days a year.

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Reality check: living on a remote island

Isolated. Remote. Vulnerable. Limited. Out of stock.

These are words that do not describe the tropical paradise known as Maui. We residents know better.

Forecast of any storm or tsunami heading this way will cause panic and frenzy buying. People over react and hoard. After several years of witnessing this response, I’ve become jaded. Just head uphill and everything will be all right.

Yet, when I walk into the stuffy sauna where I work for the second consecutive week, I am reminded that I must exercise patience. The air conditioner broke two Thursdays ago. Thankfully the parts have been ordered. When will they arrive? We don’t know. In the mean time, I am shouting over the fast-spinning sound of four standing fans and sweating saltwater through my sundress.

I went to Costco to get four items: eggs, flatbread, underwear, and dried, sliced shitake mushrooms. The shitake was completely out of stock. There was only one box of underwear my size. All the rest were Large and Extra Large. The colors were not my preference, but it was better than nothing.

When I was shopping for curtains, I had to visit five different stores in Kahului: K-Mart, Walmart, Ross, Macy’s, and Savers. None of them carried the right size, fabric, or color of what I wanted for my windows. I gave up and used the ones that I had — ones that neither fitted nor matched.

Then there was the hunt for an electric kettle. Walmart had two models in stock. One of each. One was missing a lid. The other was more expensive than worthwhile. I had no choice. I bought the fifty-dollar kettle. I wasn’t about to visit five stores again.

I ask older residents what they do about getting what they need. They learn to live without. They grow it. They make it themselves. They fix it themselves. They swap with others. Or they order online.

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How to survive on Maui

Living on Maui is very different from visiting. The key to surviving on an island known for high cost of living, few jobs, and low wages is to be able to live within one’s means. Another is to have income independent of the local economy.

All my training in living frugally has come in handy. I grew up in a family conscious of costs and mindful of waste. My father taught me to save from a very young age.

Think of living frugally as a process of optimization, a fundamental principle in a discipline known as Operations Research or OR for short. You optimize your return on what you spend by minimizing your costs and maximizing what you can get with as little as possible. Stretch your budget. Practise the four R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, and Recycle.

The field of operations research (OR) grew out of the industrial revolution — efficiency in manufacturing had a direct impact on competitiveness. Later OR was adopted in the military (logistics), hospitals (queueing theory), and air transportation (optimal routing).


What does this mean in practice? First you need to develop an awareness of costs and improve your ability to control your spending and saving. Here are a few tips.

  1. Freebies can’t get any cheaper. Go to free events, free concerts, free tastings. Costco gives free tastings in its store. Visit when you are hungry and have no money on you. You do need to be a Costco member. Be on the lookout for freebies — free outdoor movie nights at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, free live music at Queen Ka’ahumanu Mall and First Fridays. Swim at the beach or at public swimming pools, if you don’t have access to hotel pools or have one yourself.
  2. Only shop if you need to. Otherwise, don’t.
  3. Barter. Example: trade your home-grown papayas for apple bananas someone else grows at home.
  4. Don’t waste. Always buy only what you need and consume ALL of it.
  5. If you have to shop, do it wisely. Choose optimally — where, when, how often, and how much. Become a smart shopper. Know where to get the cheapest price for your item. Example: tofu is cheapest at Cash and Carry in Kahului. It’s about $1 cheaper than at Safeway or Foodland.
  6. Use your credit card instead of cash, cheque, or debit card as much as you can. Always pay off your credit card in full.
  7. Buy in bulk to get quantity discount and then divide the bulk with your family, neighbors, friends, colleagues, etc. Example: shop at Costco
  8. Buy second-hand. Shop at garage sales, Ross Dress for Less, Savers and other thrift stores (especially when they have SALES!)
  9. Shop online. Check Craigslist. Check Amazon. Compare prices.
  10. Control your energy use. Electricity tariffs in the state are the highest in the USA and twice that of the next highest (New York) and three times that of average in the USA.
  11. Because we have the highest gasoline prices in the country, it really does not make sense to drive far. Live close to where you need to be most of the time. In other words, be able to walk to work, school, shops, etc. If you do need a car, get an efficient one — not a gas guzzler.  Consider carpooling. Consider riding a bicycle. Walking is the best exercise though.
  12. Get Costco gasoline. It’s cheaper than any other petrol station. Honest.
  13. Switch off your hot water breaker switch when you are away for a minimum of 24 hours….. unless you have solar water heater.
  14. House sit. Homeowners with pets and plants who travel or go off island from time to time need help caring for their pets and plants.
  15. Always ask if there’s a “kama’aina rate” — in other words, on production of a Hawaii state identification card or a Hawaii state driver’s license, in certain off-peak seasons, restaurants and hotels offer special rates to local residents.

Some of the above tips are useful anywhere. If you can think of others to share, please comment in the REPLY BOX below.

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Three years on: how to get on and stay on

Three Years On, composed by Anne Ku

Three Years On, for piano solo, composed by Anne Ku (click for page 2)

Three years is the invisible mark of being able to last on Maui. I made it my goal to last three years to convince others that I’m here to stay. Besides explaining that I came here because my family is here, that I bought a one-way ticket, that I took whatever job I could get to live here, it was necessary to pass the three year mark.

Incidentally, it’s interesting that the most searched phrase that reaches this blog of mine is “cost of living on Maui” —- interesting in that if you’re not concerned about cost of living, you wouldn’t need to read this blog. You’d be spending your time doing other things.

Certain behaviors that puzzled me when I first arrived now make a lot of sense.

People who live here are protective of their jobs. They dislike those that sound arrogant or come across as being entitled. They are weary of those who say they’re here to stay and leave after a few months or a year. These are interruptions that cause a jolt in the daily lives of the people who live here.

Plenty of smart, experienced, and accomplished experts come to Maui and expect to get a job — just like that. Unless your profession is in great demand, such as medicine, don’t expect you will get hired immediately. It takes a lot to hire someone better than yourself and risk yourself being made redundant. I’ve heard of army veterans applying for work as security guards, but their own qualifications top that of the head honcho. There are numerous better qualified people but there’s only one job.

It can be intimidating.

I have experienced it both ways. I was desperate to hire someone to help me. I was even willing to pay that person more than my own salary, but the rules didn’t allow it. I tried anyway. In hindsight, I should have taken more time, i.e. do the due diligence of checking the person’s references and having the person go through interviews with others, so that it wasn’t just my decision. In the end, the person quit after a few weeks. A jolt in the system. Poor fit. This has nothing to do with the person’s abilities and competence.

Yes, it’s all about the fit.

Will you fit in? Will you try to fit in? Are you able to get over island fever? Are you able to blend in and be a part of the solution?

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Paradoxes of paradise

When I first started this blog, I simply wanted to record the discoveries I made and share the bits of useful information I learned from others. I was curious if it was possible to fly here on a one-way ticket, make a living somehow, and call Maui my home.

Nearly 3 years later, I daresay that all of the above have been possible.

Everyday is paradise as I had imagined it: predictable perfect weather, friendly and polite people, endless outdoor possibilities, low population density giving to plenty of personal space, slower pace of life requiring one to chill out to adapt, and tropical fruit and vegetables galore.

The low population density translates to one degree of separation. Everybody knows each other — and as long as you’re not in the black book, this is fine. It’s easy to find the person you’re looking for. Transactions are based on who you know and who knows you. The more people that know you, supposedly, the easier things get done. The reverse is also true — a bad reputation travels fast.

If you like variety and choice, Maui may not be the place for you. Pretty soon you run into the same people or see the same faces but don’t remember when or where. Some things you simply don’t get to choose, e.g. electric kettles and book cases. You’re lucky if there’s one model in stock, usually the last item on the shelf!

And so, I’ve passed the honeymoon stage of culture shock. I’m also long past the homesickness stage. Certain activities remind me of what I miss in the places where I have lived before, and that’s when it jolts me. I miss my own tribe — people that I discover by myself (and not introduced) and want to get to know through collaboration and activities.

I am at that stage of culture shock where I feel pretty well adapted and adjusted, except for the paradoxes that puzzle me.

  1. Why are we squeezed between high cost of living and low wages?
  2. Why is it difficult to find a job if you have a Bachelor’s Degree or higher — unless you’re in the health and medical profession?
  3. Why are energy prices higher than average, or rather, among the highest in the country when we see an abundance of wind and sun? Why are we so dependent on petroleum — or rather, dependent on fossil fuel imports — when we are blessed with natural sources of energy, i.e. renewable energy?
  4. Why is there such a big gap between the very rich, famous and in hiding, flown here to retire and those that were born and bred here, juggling 3 jobs to survive?
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