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How a Family of 4 Lives Paycheck to Paycheck on $83,000 a Year in Hilo, Hawaii

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This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.

Shayla Marie Ma-e, 28, has spent her whole life in Hilo, Hawaii.

It's where she grew up; where she began dating her fiance, Matthew Piianaia-Ishii, nine years ago; and where the two are raising their 3-year-old twin daughters, Sienna Belle and Sierra Jane. The best part of life on the Big Island, Ma-e says, is being close to family, including her mom and four cousins, who she considers as close as siblings.

But she's also quick to say that life in Hawaii isn't "all sandy beaches and coconuts."

"I would not recommend moving to Hawaii," Ma-e tells CNBC Make It, noting the state's high cost of living, tourism-dependent job market and exodus of young residents who move away for college and work: "It's really hard to live here."

Like many families, 2020 was an especially tough year. Ma-e lost her job and couldn't find new work because of child-care needs, so the family relied solely on the $50,000 yearly income Piianaia-Ishii, 33, earns as a concrete foreman. Ma-e says the family has always lived paycheck to paycheck and gets by charging essential expenses on a credit card some months, getting help from family from time to time, and with government assistance programs.

The new year is a fresh start for the young family: Ma-e started a job in February working with a child-care subsidy program, where she'll earn roughly $33,000 a year. With the additional income stream, Ma-e and Piianaia-Ishii are hopeful they'll have more money to pay off their debts and save for a better future for their daughters — a house, the girls' schooling and a life with more opportunity beyond the islands.

Here's how the family of four lives on $83,000 in Hilo, Hawaii.

Living paycheck to paycheck

As a foreman, Piianaia-Ishii earns an average of $25 per hour and up to $80 per hour depending on the project. His earnings fluctuate week to week, which makes budgeting a challenge. Ma-e was a full-time stay-at-home mom for the past year, while Piianaia-Ishii took on as much work as possible.

During months that Piianaia-Ishii's income alone couldn't cover everything, Ma-e charged some essential expenses to one of her three credit cards. She accrued roughly $2,300 in credit card debt as of January 2021, which they are currently paying off.

Piianaia-Ishii also has two children from a previous relationship and owes roughly $29,000 in child support back payments, accrued during a three-year period he was out of work and unable to afford payments.

Because of this, Ma-e keeps all financial accounts for the household under her name. It's also why the couple are engaged but not yet married.

Living paycheck to paycheck is common among friends and family nearby, Ma-e says.

"We make enough to cover our bills and essentials, but we don't make enough to move forward and [get] ahead in life," Ma-e says. "It's hard, the way we live, because we make too much for government assistance, and we don't make enough to move ahead. We're like most families here, stuck in the middle."

The couple currently don't have retirement savings or other investments. They're able to save every now and then if there's money left over after bills are paid — a good month might yield $1,500 to stash away. But they've had to dip into savings more than usual lately, between living on one income and paying for unexpected but necessary expenses like car repairs.

At the time of filming, Piianaia-Ishii had about $700 put away, while Ma-e had $20 in her savings account just to keep it open.

How they budget their money

Here's how the couple budgeted their money in January 2021, right before Ma-e started her new job.

Ma-e and Piianaia-Ishii's monthly spending in January 2021.
Elham Ataeiazar | CNBC Make It
Ma-e and Piianaia-Ishii's monthly spending in January 2021.
  • Rent: $1,250 (3-bedroom house)
  • Child support: $700
  • Transportation: $659 (car payments, gas and insurance)
  • Food: $600 (including $500 for groceries and $100 for eating out)
  • Utilities: $303 (for electricity and Wi-Fi)
  • Phones: $299
  • Discretionary: $210 (personal care products, household supplies, laundry and dog food)
  • Health insurance: $191 (Ma-e and Piianaia-Ishii are covered through work; the twins are eligible through Medicaid)
  • Credit card debt: $101 (minimum payment)
  • Subscriptions: $79 (Amazon Prime, Apple TV, iCloud storage, Cricut design, Disney+, Microsoft, Netflix, Pandora)

The family pays $1,250 per month to rent a three-bedroom house in Hilo, which Ma-e considers fair considering how close it is to parks, shops and restaurants around town. Living on Hawaii Island, which has around 200,000 residents, is less expensive than tourist destinations on Oahu island (the biggest island with roughly 900,000 residents), though there are fewer job opportunities.

Piianaia-Ishii considers the cost of living in Hawaii to be "outrageous" because the majority of goods must be shipped to the islands. A typical grocery trip for the basics can run upwards of $300 and last a few weeks.

The family qualifies for aid from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), but they earn too much to get benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

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Piianaia-Ishii considers Hawaii's cost of living "outrageous" because many goods, like food, must be shipped to the islands.

Ma-e is able to return to work this year because the girls are now in school full-time. They spend the morning in special education and speech therapy classes at a public elementary school. When they turned 3, they became eligible to go to preschool, where they spend the afternoon. Normally, tuition is $700 per child per month, but the family is able to get the $1,400 monthly cost of care covered in full through a federal child-care subsidy.

"Child care is hard to come by, especially in Hawaii," Ma-e says, explaining why she took the year off to care for the twins full-time in 2020. Her new job is as an advisor for the program through which her daughters now receive tuition aid (although that doesn't influence their eligibility for aid). Ma-e is passionate about the work because she understands how hard it is to secure child care, but also how crucial it is in order for parents to work and earn enough to support their families.

Hawaii ranks at the bottom of states with access to public preschool, and the average cost of child care is among the highest in the nation as a percentage of median income.

"If I wasn't working, we wouldn't be able to pay for child care; I would be a stay-at-home-mom forever," Ma-e says. "You really have to be working two jobs in a household to send your children to preschool ... it's about the same as a mortgage."

Blended families

Both Ma-e and Piianaia-Ishii grew up in busy households and saw their parents work hard to support them.

Though Ma-e is an only child, her mother took in and fostered her sisters' children (Ma-e's cousins). Her family didn't have a lot growing up, but Ma-e says she had everything she needed. She didn't have any savings or sufficient financial aid to go to college, so she began working full-time right after high school.

Piianaia-Ishii grew up with seven brothers and his mom worked full-time as a restaurant manager while his dad, who sometimes found work as a chef, was the primary caregiver for the household. "We weren't poor, but we weren't rich. We were stuck in the middle," he says.

Ma-e is able to return to work after her twin daughters received a $1,400 monthly child-care subsidy to be in preschool.
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Ma-e is able to return to work after her twin daughters received a $1,400 monthly child-care subsidy to be in preschool.

Piianaia-Ishii earned his GED and spent five years training to become a sheet metal worker. After meeting Ma-e in 2012, he moved from Honolulu to Hilo and shifted to concrete masonry because there was more work in the trade.

He doesn't have a strong relationship with his two children from a previous relationship — a 12-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter — who now live in Washington State.

"We would like to have a relationship with them so they can meet their half-siblings," Ma-e says, adding that Piianaia-Ishii's older daughter came to the hospital when the twins were born in 2017.

Having the twins was both a blessing and a shock for the couple, Ma-e says. She had been told that, due to health complications, she had a 50/50 chance of ever becoming pregnant. But soon after the couple stopped trying for a baby, a doctor confirmed she was expecting twins.

"It came as a very big shock financially," Ma-e says. Although she receives financial help and support from family, including extra child care and $100 to $600 in cash gifts as needed, "having children is very expensive. I love my children, but keeping up with the cost of child care and the needs of a child is a lot to save up for. And if you're not ready, it's going to blindside you."

Planning for brighter days ahead

With both parents now working again, Ma-e and Piianaia-Ishii hope to be able to save more and put away money for a future home purchase and their daughters' college educations.

Of course, some discretionary spending will go toward fun: They like spending their Sundays on family outings visiting the parks and beaches around the bay, getting shaved ice and playing arcade games at the Fun Factory.

Ma-e and Piianaia-Ishii have a goal to save up and move to Oregon in the next 5 years.
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Ma-e and Piianaia-Ishii have a goal to save up and move to Oregon in the next 5 years.

Ma-e and Piianaia-Ishii are also considering leaving the islands so they can become homeowners. In the next five years, they want to move to Oregon, which they fell in love with during a family vacation. They're hopeful for a lower cost of living, more affordable housing options and better opportunities for themselves and their daughters.

Piianaia-Ishii says providing a bright future for his daughters is his main focus, and he thinks he and his fiancee have done well with what they have. They're excited to build even more financial and familial support for Sienna and Sierra moving forward.

Ma-e agrees: "Everything that we do is for them."

What's your budget breakdown? Share your story with us for a chance to be featured in a future installment.

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