Meeting the Frugalwoods

A few weeks ago, someone — I no longer remember who — posted a link on facebook to an article in The Guardian entitled “Extreme frugality allowed me to retire at 32 — and regain control of my life“. Well, I think it was that article. The point is, a few weeks ago I was introduced to Elizabeth Willard Thames, aka Mrs. Frugalwoods, who blogs at http://www.frugalwoods.com and whose book, Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living was recently released. I was intrigued; although we are not ourselves anywhere near a position that would let us retire in our 30s (ah ha ha ha ha ha ha) it seemed like it would be an interesting read. And while we do try to live fairly frugally, I wanted to see what that looked like for someone else — and especially what frugality looks like when you add the modifier “extreme” in front of it!

Thames’s book is half narrative memoir, half personal finance guide, a style that I found engaging. She traces their journey from her struggling days in AmeriCorps after college, where she ran up against both the very poor and the very rich, and realised that both parties suffered from an obsession with money, albeit for different reasons. After she and her husband, Nate, got married, they found themselves increasingly subject to lifestyle creep that left them stressed out, burning out, and spending way more money than they ever meant or needed to. Nate came up with a dream — to buy a homestead in rural Vermont and completely shift their lifestyle — and the means to achieve it: approximately 3.5 years of “extreme frugality” that would let them save up the money they would need to both buy a property and to live off the return from their investments. Well, that sounds nice.

There’s one thread running through the book which is both a strength and a weakness: the issue of privilege. Thames acknowledges that they started their frugal journey with the deck heavily stacked in their favour: they were college educated with no student debt, they both landed very well-paying jobs after graduation, their parents had raised them in happy and stable middle-class marriages with a lot of support and a certain amount of financial savvy, they had children relatively late in their relationship, and the list goes on. To Thames’s credit, she does recognise this — sometimes interrupting the narrative a bit jarringly to do reiterate it. But for those who aren’t starting in such a secure place, it’s hard to see what “extreme frugality” can really bring to the table. Many people who are not as well off don’t have those frugal corners to cut. We’ve already cut cable, we don’t have a daily latte habit, we rarely eat out, and we’re certainly not spending $40 a grocery shop on artisinal cheese. That’s not even addressing the fact that they were carrying no student debt, which is an incredible advantage. In her chapter “What is Financial Independence Anyway?”, she briefly touches on the problem of not being able to save:

If you can’t save enough, even with a regimen of true extreme frugality, then you probably need to look for ways to earn more, either through finding a new job or adding on a second job or side hustle. (134)

Gosh, just make more money! I wish I’d thought of that. And that’s my biggest beef with Meet the Frugalwoods: there’s no real getting away from the fact that Nate and Elizabeth Thames are wealthy. They keep track of their spending publicly on their blog (though not their income) and some months their “extreme frugality” still has them spending more money than we bring in. (See also: “Being frugal is for the rich” on theoutline.com)

That being said, there were a few helpful takeaways here. The first is intentionality: the idea of spending/saving/earning your money with deliberation and a real sense of what you are spending/saving/earning for. Are we spending money on things that we don’t need to spend money on? Are we saving for any particular goals, or just to be saving? What are we earning for (besides, you know, food on the table and whatnot) — what are our financial goals for this year? For this decade? For retirement? Being thoughtful with our money encompasses not only budgeting but long-term planning, and that was a good reminder.

The second takeaway is what Thames calls insourcing and what most of us would think of as DIY. We are living in the golden age of DIY — if I want to learn how to do/repair/make/etc. just about anything myself, that knowledge is only a few youtube tutorials away. My hair had been bothering me lately, so on Thursday I watched a bunch of tutorial videos and then gave myself a haircut. It’s not my best haircut ever — but it’s not my worst, either! And while I don’t get haircuts often enough (or at expensive enough salons) for this to be a huge money savings, I do enjoy adding to my skills and cultivating competency. That was another good reminder: there are more things that I can do myself, or that I can learn to do myself, than I always remember.

Overall, Meet the Frugalwoods is a fairly mixed bag. It’s definitely not a financial cure-all or guaranteed blueprint to financial independence (whatever that term may mean to you). But I think there are some helpful things to pick up from it, even if only in terms of reframing some of our thinking.