Minimalism By Circumstances?

During the 2011 – 2013 period I was working on a project that took me to Hawaiʻi – the island of Oʻahu specifically – 14 or 15 times for something around 200 days total I would guess.

Coffee SelfieI hadn’t launched this blog at that time so I wasn’t thinking in terms of personal finance and lifestyle choices during the occasions I interacted with locals. If so, I might have asked questions to glean more information about their chosen lifestyles. However, in thinking back to my interactions in Hawaiʻi, I am left with the impression that the minimalism practiced by many locals is not necessarily one of choice – at least not in the way I discussed in Destination Minimalism and have recently read about and practiced by others, one in which a choice is made to ‘reduce’ after experiencing dissatisfaction with making more money and buying more stuff – but one more dictated by culture and circumstances.

A recent trip to Guam (an unincorporated and organized territory of the United States), another island located in the western Pacific Ocean, combined with a recent post about minimalism, brought my observations and experiences in Hawaiʻi back to mind. During my month-long trip, I visited one of two coffee shops each morning, engaged in a few conversations and overheard a few more.

There is no doubt that the geography, climate, and a slower paced lifestyle – often referred to as Island or Hawaiʻian style – contribute to a culture that has less of a need (desire?) for the relentless pursuit of money and stuff. However, I have to believe that the more laid back lifestyle and embrace of minimalism is also the result of circumstances. Simply put, if you’ve only known an environment where there is less of that’s available, or the cost of living is prohibitive, it’s easier to learn to be happy with less. On an island, there is limited real estate which means the housing is more expensive. Because of that expense, buying a smaller house is likely the result of financial limitations as much as consciously practicing minimalism.

Similar story with goods. Anyone that has been to Hawaiʻi or Guam will tell you that most things are more expensive – a lot more expensive in a lot of cases – than on the mainland. I believe that also applies to employment opportunities and earnings. To get an idea of the differences in cost of living in Hawaiʻi or my home (city) state of Arizona, I checked out the CNN Cost of Living Calculator. A $35,000 salary here in Arizona would need to be $67,623 in Honolulu, Hawaii. While the barista, retail clerk, and waiter in Guam or Hawaiʻi are likely making more than their counterparts in Arizona, I’m pretty sure it isn’t enough to bridge that gap. Check out the percentage differences, particularly for groceries, housing and utilities …

Comparable Salary

Sure, residents of Hawaiʻi and Guam could move to the U.S. mainland any time they desire for more opportunities. However, what if they wanted to stay home to be near friends and family or were bound for some other reason? The reality is that inherently there are limited opportunities, for no other reason than an island is only so big and there is a lack of diverse industries compared to larger geographic areas. What you are left with, for a large percentage of the population, is expensive housing, expensive goods and expensive services in an area that pays comparatively more, but the money doesn’t go as far. In such locations, minimalism may not necessarily be just a matter of choice.


Blogger-in-Chief here at RetirementSavvy and author of Sin City Greed, Cream City Hustle and RENDEZVOUS WITH RETIREMENT: A Guide to Getting Fiscally Fit.


  1. Hawaii is a beautiful place…went there with my wife for our honeymoon. I can definitely understand minimalism by circumstances. We live in the NYC area and not only is the cost of living high…the housing options (generally apartments) are small. You can’t have a ton of stuff if there is no room!

    • “You can’t have a ton of stuff if there is no room!” Indeed. Having been to New York a couple of times, and having some familiarity with the high cost of existing there, it strikes me as a place that would lend itself to minimalist behaviors, not necessarily by design, but because of other factors/pressures.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, my friend.

  2. Hawaii is on our bucket list as a place to visit, but with the high cost of living I’m pretty sure that all it will be. I will consider a cheaper cost of living location once we are ready to retire, but need to factor travel costs to visit family.

    • Definitely a great place to visit, particularly if you enjoy beaches.

  3. Wow what took you to Hawaii that many times? I’m so curious. My wife applied to the psychology PHD program in Hawaii a few years ago. We fell in love with the islands after going there for her sister’s wedding. We went to Oahu a little over a year ago and again it confirmed that we really love Hawaii. I think you’re right, though, that some people must practice minimalism out of necessity. Too often it’s easy for us to not realize that.

    • The travel is one of the things I like best about my job. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve seen quite a bit of the world.

      While I enjoy visiting Hawaiʻi, I don’t see it as a place I would consider living. The cost of living is too steep and it’s too far removed from the mainland for me.

      Thanks for stopping by, my friend.

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