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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 6, 2008

Hawaii families tighten budgets

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Stephanie and John Madriaga play with their children, from left, Tatiana, 8 months, Teia, 7, and Tiani, 5, at their home in Makakilo. Staying in saves money.

Photos by REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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  • Properly inflate tires and tune car engines, which can save $100 per year.

  • Choose a free checking account, or one with no minimum balance requirement, to save more than $100 per year.

  • Shop around for prices on major purchases and ask if the price is the lowest that can be offered.

  • Have a home-energy audit conducted, which could save hundreds of dollars per year.

  • Review phone bills and check for optional features that can be dropped; shop for the cheapest phone plan that meets your needs.

  • While grocery shopping, compare price-per-ounce or other unit prices and stock up on those with the lowest per-unit costs.

  • Buy foods that are in season.

  • Sign up for store membership cards.

  • Ask for less-expensive generic drugs and look for store-brand versions of over-the-counter medicines and vitamins.

  • Call several pharmacies for medication prices, which can vary widely; consider using mail-order pharmacies.

    From "101 Ways to Save Money" by Albert Perkins, owner and founder of CNRG Corp.

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    Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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    Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

    John Madriaga and daughter Teia wash the car together. He recently traded in his Toyota 4Runner for a Chevrolet Prizm.

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    Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

    John Madriaga of Makakilo shares a laugh with daughter Teia, 7, as she jumps rope outside their home. Teia and her sister will be going to public school this fall as the family cuts back on spending.

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    John and Stephanie Madriaga recently traded in John's Toyota 4Runner truck for a more fuel-efficient 2001 Chevrolet Prizm, pulled their daughters out of private school and will probably throw one birthday party for all three girls in the fall, instead of hosting individual celebrations.

    The sudden changes for the young family from Makakilo are the direct result of coping with higher food, gas and energy prices, which are forcing people like the Madriagas to reconsider their lifestyles and spending habits.

    "Everybody has to think about what they can afford now," said Stephanie Madriaga, who commutes into Waikiki each afternoon for her job as a hotel concierge. "Over time, everything's adding up. We don't have all the answers. We're just trying like everybody else."

    Across the Islands, the strain on family budgets is changing the way and what people drive, rapidly draining their savings accounts and causing them to postpone or cancel big-ticket niceties like vacations.

    For the long term, some families are also cutting back on how much they contribute toward their financial goals, such as college funds for the kids and retirement.

    "Even for working couples making a good living, the increased costs of fuel and groceries mean they're not able to put away as much each month," said Steve Davidson, senior investment program manager for HawaiiUSA Investment and Insurance Services.

    Tighter consumer spending is just one more unwanted force tugging at Hawai'i's drooping economy, which has seen tourism drop and construction slow.

    "We don't have too many bright spots right now," said Leroy Laney, a Hawai'i Pacific University professor of economics and finance. "Usually these slowdown periods last more than a year. Don't expect an immediate turn around."

    So consumers are learning to adapt.

    Everyone should start with a realistic budget of income, necessary costs and expenses that can be trimmed, said Martin Arinaga, past president of the Hawai'i state chapter of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors.

    "I would say that only 20 percent of the population has a budget," Arinaga said. "Be brutally honest. People don't like to visit me because they know what I'm going to tell them: 'Make a budget.' But you have to know where you're going."

    Financial planner Albert Perkins, the owner and founder of CNRG Corp., is finishing a list of 101 things that everyday people can do to save money.

    At his own home in Kane'ohe, Perkins' wife, Keala, has run a pipe from the washing machine out to the garden. The runoff waters the plants, saving water, and the biodegradable soap kills pests, Perkins said.

    "It works all the way around," Perkins said.

    His family also has trimmed its Costco runs from twice to once per week while now dividing bulk purchases with Albert's parents.

    "We don't need that much toilet paper," he said. "Yet it's a good value."

    John Madriaga teaches P.E. at a private school in town and made a big sacrifice this year for a guy who has to spend so much time commuting 24 miles to work: He offered to trade in his 1995 4Runner, which was costing Madriaga $70 per fill up, compared to $45 just a few months ago.

    "The gas was killing us, just killing us," Stephanie said. "You have to rethink what you can afford now."

    John used to drive their 7- and 5-year-old daughters to school each morning while Stephanie made her own, separate afternoon commute in the family's 2005 Toyota Sienna van.

    So Stephanie is looking forward to the positive side of sending their daughters to their neighborhood public school this fall.

    The switch means the girls can sleep in another hour. And Stephanie's work schedule allows her to walk them to school for the first time.

    "It'll be really nice," she said. "And we'll be saving gas, too."

    Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.