Book review: Meet the Frugalwoods

Meet the FrugalwoodsThere are a lot of great personal-finance books out there — here are a few of my favorites — but despite the diversity of titles (and subject matter), they all share a remarkably similar format. These books are money manuals in which the author shares prescriptive advice. They tell the reader how to get from point A to point B.

From time to time, somebody will publish a book like David Chilton's The Wealthy Barber, which provides financial advice in the guise of a story, but these attempts are very, very rare. (It's a bit ironic that one of the oldest, most revered personal-finance books — The Richest Man in Babylon — is story based, yet few have followed in its footsteps.)

All this is to say: For years, I've believed there's a hole in the market waiting to be filled, a place for a story-based book about money.

Enter Meet the Frugalwoods, the brand new book from Elizabeth Willard Thames. Liz writes the excellent Frugalwoods blog, which chronicles her young family's experience with extreme frugality. (Her site also documents their adventures owning a 66-acre homestead in rural Vermont, a subject I love.)

Meet the Frugalwoods isn't a money manual. It isn't fiction. It's memoir. The book covers ten years in the lives of Liz and her husband Nate, from their post-college job-hunting experiences in Kansas to purchasing the afore-mentioned Vermont homestead.

Through their story, Liz shows readers it's possible to move from a life of consumerism to a life built around frugality and purpose.

In some ways, the book seems to contradict the blog. On the blog, Liz maintains that she and Nate have always been savers: “Mr. Frugalwoods and I have always been frugal — it’s just how we’re wired.” In the book, she paints a picture of a couple that succumbs to run-of-the-mill American consumerism before being liberated by a philosophy of extreme frugality.

A Regular Middle-Class Lifestyle

After graduating from the University of Kansas in 2006, Liz and Nate experienced typical young adult struggles. While he got job using the skills he'd developed, Liz struggled to find work that made use of her degrees in political science and creative writing. As a stop-gap measure, she took a position preparing files for digitization in a document scanning center. (This reminds me of the worst job I ever had, selling insurance door to door after I graduated from college. Haha.)

In a quest for more meaningful work, Liz took a position with AmeriCorps in New York City. Her job was to raise money for a small non-profit organization. The experience was formative. It taught her the essence of extreme frugality. (Her monthly food budget was her $120 food stamp allotment. She ate on four dollars per day!) Still, she managed to save $2000 of her $10,000 annual salary.

Liz lived in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, where people were poor and struggled to get by. During the day, however, she hobnobbed with billionaires, seeking contributions to her non-profit. It was a jarring juxtaposition.

In time, she moved to Boston to be with Nate (who had found work there as a computer programmer). She found a job doing fund-raising for WGBH, Boston's public broadcasting station. They fell into a regular middle-class lifestyle, complete with lifestyle inflation.

I was promoted to senior development associate, accompanied by a raise, and decided to start getting my hair cut at a chic salon in Harvard Square that a woman in my office recommended. They massaged my neck, brought me herbal tea, washed my hair, cut and styled it, for just $120. The fact that I used to eat for an entire month on that same dollar amount didn't register at the time. I worked hard, so I reasoned I deserved to treat myself. What was the point of this job otherwise?

Over the next few years, Liz and Nate moved to Washington, D.C. — and then back to Boston. Liz went back to school to get a masters in public administration. They bought a house. They got a dog. From the outside, everything seemed rosy. On the inside, however, it felt like something was missing.

“We stopped micromanaging our spending,” Liz writes. “By which I mean I had no clue what we spend in any given week, month, or year.” But the increased spending didn't bring increased happiness.

Now that I'd experienced a life of spending $40 a week on artisanal cheeses and $120 on haircuts and $200 on dinners out, I realized it wasn't what I wanted. What was the point of being able to buy whatever I wanted if I didn't control my time?

Something had to give.

An Epiphany (or Two)

The FrugalwoodsLike me, Liz notes the dates of important events in her life. On 21 May 2011, on a day she was feeling particularly flustered, Nate suggested that they go for a hike. “After an hour and half on the trail, I began crying with relief,” Liz writes. “I felt an absence of pressure for perhaps the first time in my life.”

Although this small epiphany led the couple to spend more time outdoors (and to question their consumer tendencies), they still had a few years to go before they'd experience their big breakthrough.

On 29 March 2014, Liz and Nate agreed to discard the life they were building and move to the woods instead. They crunched the numbers. If they embarked on a crusade of extreme frugality, they figured they could be financially independent by 2017. And when they achieved financial independence, “we'd have enough money to move to a homestead in the woods-filled countryside of Vermont.”

They dove into extreme frugality with gusto.

On their quest to squash as many expenses as possible, Liz and Nate employed a variety of methods.

  • They used barter and trade, exchanging goods and services. When Liz decided she couldn't live without yoga, for instance, she trained to become an assistant at the studio she attended. In exchange for her time, she saved $288 in class fees every month.
  • They became masters of DIY. With the internet at their side, Liz and Nate learned to remodel their home, repair and upgrade appliances, and give each other haircuts.
  • They became Craigslist masters, patiently waiting for the things they wanted and needed to be offered for cheap. This saved them big bucks on furniture — and more.
  • They started salvaging — or “rescuing”, as Liz puts it — used items, such as lamps and dressers set out for trash pick-up.

“These types of frugal substitutions and alternatives were all around us,” Liz writes. “We marveled at everything we'd been unwittingly overpaying for. By bringing creativity and ingenuity to our consumption, we were able to drastically reduce our overall spending.”

She continues:

I don't think the route to successful frugality entails brutally slashing everything from your budget, because you're bound to end up in that deprived state…Rather, the key is to identify less expensive options that'll yield the same or a similar end result. Thus, you end up not feeling deprived, you save a boatload of money, and you are then motivated to find more opportunities for dramatic changes…

And then she makes what I consider the most important point of the entire book: “Since we were working toward an ever-crystallizing goal of decamping to the woods, frugality wasn't about what we were giving up; it was entirely about what we were going to gain.”

Exactly.

Finding Freedom

In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietszche wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” This is why I'm so insistent that GRS readers take some time to think about what they want out of life, to craft a personal mission statement.

Their new-found frugality allowed Liz and Nate to regain control of their lives. “Frugality gave us options,” she writes. The less they spent and the more they saved, the more control they had over their destiny. She continues:

It's a virtuous cycle of low spending and high saving that's self-perpetuating. The less money you need to live on, the more you save, and the less you need to earn.

The next two years brought a lot of changes. Rather than resenting the process of extreme frugality, they found that they enjoyed it. (“Like, a lot.”) They began prepping their Boston home to act as a future rental property. They diligently scoured the Vermont real estate listings, hunting for suitable properties. And they welcomed the birth of their first child.

Along the way, they documented their experience at a blog they dubbed Frugalwoods.

In late 2015, after just over eighteen months of saving, Liz and Nate toured an almost-perfect property. Located on 66 acres in central Vermont, it was close enough to civilization that they'd have access to everything they needed (and wanted). It wasn't crowded by neighbors, was wired for high-speed internet, and included lots and lots of trees. They bought the place. In January 2016, they moved in.

Liz and Nate's story is inspiring. I like reading how people find purpose, then restructure their lives to achieve their goals. And I like reading about evolving relationships with money. “Money doesn't make you happy,” Liz writes in Meet the Frugalwoods, “but money provides the freedom to find out what does make you happy.”

The Frugal Homestead

A Missing Piece to the Puzzle

Meet the Frugalwoods isn't perfect. To my mind, it's too much of a memoir and not enough of a money manual. Because it's so much about Liz and Nate's story, there's very little information on how others can do what they did. In some ways, it seems like a black box: “Cut back on spending for 21 months and you can buy a farm in Vermont!” Obviously, there's much more to the process than that.

“There are actually only three variables in the financial independence equation: income, expenses, and time,” Liz writes. Yes! She talks some about time in Meet the Frugalwoods, but the rest of the book is all about expenses. The book focuses far too much on “defense” (expenses) and not enough on “offense” (income). In fact, there's nothing about income here. It's like giving a recipe for baking bread but failing to mention you need yeast.

Liz doesn't share detailed income and spending numbers after 2008 (at which time they were earning $69,730 take-home), but it's clear that their household income grew quickly from these entry-level positions. Despite a consumer lifestyle, she and Nate were still able to save a ton.

Before they began their excursion into extreme frugality, while they were enjoying $120 haircuts and $200 restaurant meals, the couple was already saving between 40% and 50% of their after-tax income (and that doesn't even count maxed-out 401(k) contributions and mortgage principal!). Once they kicked their frugal efforts into high gear, their saving rate peaked at 82%. (According to the blog, their saving rate was over 93% if you count 401(k) contributions.) They were able to achieve financial independence in just over eighteen months.

Liz and Nate embarked on their adventures into extreme frugality on 29 March 2014. They submitted an offer for their Vermont homestead on 23 November 2015 (and closed the deal on 15 January 2016). That's a pretty quick turnaround.

The only real acknowledgement of the role income played in the process comes during the book's introduction: “In order to save large amounts of money, you have to have a sufficient amount of money coming in,” Liz writes. “You can't frugalize income you don't earn.” That's great, but it comes in the midst of a seven-page apology for “privilege” and not in the meat of the book. I think it's a vitally important point, and the fact that the subject is wholly missing from Meet the Frugalwoods is a mystery to me.

Tell us more! Give us details! Show us how others can do the same thing! There's no shame in earning a lot of money. Why hide it?

A little sleuthing turned up some numbers from which we can make some extrapolations. According to this Forbes article, during 2014 Liz and Nate spent $13,000 on non-mortgage expenses and their mortgage payments amounted to around $24,000. Because their saving rate was 71%, that means this $37,000 represents 29% of their take-home pay. Plus they maxed out their 401(k)s, which is another $35,000. More math shows that the Frugalwoods' after-tax income was probably around $162,000 in 2014 and they were able to save in the neighborhood of $125,000. Nice!

The Bottom Line

Look, my complaint about the lack of income info isn't meant as a knock against Liz. She's one of my favorite people in the financial blogging universe. What it does mean, however, is that the target audience for this book is not a person struggling to get by on a low salary, which is what you'd typically expect the readership of a frugality book to be. (If that describes you, check out Your Playbook for Tough Times by Donna Freedman.)

If you're in a two-income household with typical salaries, however, you can apply the book's lessons (perhaps on a smaller scale) to pursue your goals. And if, like Liz and Nate, you're well-educated with high incomes, you can absolutely achieve financial independence in a short time — if you're willing to make the short-term sacrifices necessary to get there.

Meet the Frugalwoods is a welcome addition to the ever-expanding library of personal-finance literature. It covers a relatively new topic (financial independence) in a relatively new way (story). Liz and Nate's story will be relatable for many people. It's my hope that through her experience, she'll help a lot of new folks discover the path to financial freedom.

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S.G.
S.G.
2 years ago

Frugalwoods is probably my second favorite financial blog, behind GRS and tied with Physician on FIRE. I’ve noticed the same thing about seeming to shy away from reporting on income. My other complaint is that they consider themselves retired, but I believe Mr Frugalwoods is still working, or at least he was the last time I took note of their status (though I freely admit I could have read between the lines incorrectly). But I’ve already confessed to being a member of the “retirement police” (a subset of “word police”, of which I am also a member). I also find… Read more »

Cory J
Cory J
2 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I read the preview of her book and was immediately put off by the soapbox she jumped on about privileged.

> Nate does something that combines both political science and computer programming. Not sure what they means exactly…

You piqued my interest, so I looked into a bit. It seems he worked the DNC’s fundraising arm “ActBlue”

https://secure.actblue.com/about

Fervent Finance
Fervent Finance
2 years ago

I’ve been reading the Frugalwoods blog since the beginning. Love their story. I plan on reading the book as well. With that said, I definitely agree with you on only sharing half of the equation. It’s tough to sell a lifestyle and frugality when income isn’t shared as well. I believe from an older post Liz shared they were both six figure income earners. Also, a reason that pushed them into FI so quickly is they bought their home in Cambridge and realized a ton of appreciation in a few short years. That enabled them to rent it out and… Read more »

Cindi
Cindi
2 years ago

I found that anyone dispensing financial advice, without also divulging their actual numerical numbers are just people to pass by. Otherwise, whatever they say makes no sense. If, for whatever reason, actual figures aren’t dispensed, then to me, that means they aren’t telling the truth, the whole truth. They have something to hide. Are ashamed of something or other and are not authentic. Why would I take advice from people like that? MMM (Mr. Money Mustache) not only gives you his dollar amounts, but a spread sheet to go with it! I’ve read this couple’s blog. Once or twice. Then… Read more »

NotCindi
NotCindi
2 years ago
Reply to  Cindi

I’m not quite sure where the hostility here is coming from (“Someone earning $162,000 a year, on 60 acres in Vermont is a joke”), but the reality is, they don’t owe you an explanation. Their experience IS reality. They went to college and got degrees, worked at real life jobs in a region where their skills were in demand and paid accordingly. Lots of people out there like them. Living in the Hamptons is great, but you likely sacrificed earning power for lifestyle at the beginning (ie before retirement) as opposed to post retirement. and so what if he is… Read more »

notCindyeither
notCindyeither
2 years ago
Reply to  NotCindi

Didn’t a first marriage into money and a later inheritance play a large part in your money over time? Yes, you and your second husband have worked hard and been frugal, but that leg up is an important (and good) part of the story. There are many paths to FI. There are many ways to stay FI once you reached a major goal. Being frugal and resourceful is what I take away from the Frugalwoods.

ISR
ISR
2 years ago
Reply to  Cindi

Cindi, you say “It’s people like me, who made less than $50K (combined with spouse) a year, that made themselves FI that I am interested in” – but then you say you admire MMM and his blog. He made a lot more than that before he retired if I remember correctly. Yes, the Frugalwoods were privileged and had good incomes, but so do many if not most people in the FIRE community if you read their blogs carefully. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have something to share. I don’t quite understand why you specifically hate the Frugalwoods, they have… Read more »

Tom
Tom
2 years ago
Reply to  Cindi

Cindi, congratulations to achieving what you have achieved.
And yes, you are completely right about this “Mrs. Frugalwoods” pseudo early retirement “scam”. Not only make they 162k, but in 2014 he mad alone 230k. Its published as he is the executive director of Actblue. Therefore the entire Frugalwoods story is just a “story” made up to gain revenue.
Congratulations again to you.

Anne
Anne
2 years ago

I have read the Frugalwoods blog a time or two and they seem like lovely people and I would not want to denigrate them in any way. However, the message I’m getting from your summation of their book is that they have had a great deal of trouble finding happiness in life. They moved and changed jobs a number of times in a fairly short period of time. I’m happy that they’re happy in rural Vermont, but they have only been there a couple of years. How is this going to play out in the long term? Will this phase… Read more »

FoxTesla
FoxTesla
2 years ago

Does the book (or the blog; I didn’t find a search option to look myself) discuss health insurance? A quick perusal shows pictures of their children being born in a hospital, so insurance has come into play…I’m curious what their approach is, especially since this falls on the cost side of the ledger. Keep employment to have an employer-provided plan? Is there an affordable state marketplace? Have $XX cash on hand to pay after negotiating a lower payment?

WantNotToWantNot
WantNotToWantNot
2 years ago

I’m always gobsmacked by how much hostility, envy, resentment, and second-guessing, there can be in the FI community. Geez. Money, by its very nature, invites comparison and therefore brings up a lot of negative emotions. These FI/FIRE blogs and people’s stories are individual and personal—I say good on all of them for putting themselves out there to show how they did it, in hopes it might be helpful to others, whether they include their numbers or not. Their choice; and I can choose whether to read them or not. As far as Frugalwoods goes, I’ve always been impressed positively by… Read more »

Steve
Steve
2 years ago

I didn’t notice any hostility or envy in these responses. Rather it seemed to me that mostly people had more questions about their lifestyle and exactly how they were paying the bills.

Some people go out into the country and really get off the grid. Sometimes they find themselves in really teeth-grinding poverty. I think most of us are just trying to figure out exactly where the Frugalwoods fall economically. I think they are just a bit further up the ladder than one might think by reading their blog. No one is resentful.

S.G.
S.G.
2 years ago

There’s a difference between counting your blessings and being embarrassed by them. There are definitely people who do well and feel like they somehow cheated. Guessing at their politics from reading them I get it. But I’m with JD that their story is their story and holding back a significant part of it almost makes it more conspicuous. Omitting their income doesn’t change their story, so what is the purpose? They don’t want people to read it and feel bad? That seems…weird? Pointless? Psychological? I’m not entirely sure.

Lady Dividend
Lady Dividend
2 years ago

Wahoo! I have this book on hold at the library and I’ve enjoyed all the press about the Frugalwoods lately. What they have done is certainly respectable and I enjoy Liz’s sunny outlook on things.

rosarugosa
rosarugosa
2 years ago

Health insurance: “We are extraordinarily fortunate that Mr. FW’s generous and progressive company pays not only for his healthcare but for mine too! Babywoods will be covered in full as well. Can’t tell you how grateful we are for this!”

http://www.frugalwoods.com/2015/09/02/august-2015-expenditures/

FoxTesla
FoxTesla
2 years ago
Reply to  rosarugosa

Excellent, I had tried looking under the “health” tag and “kids” tag, but hadn’t dug through the spending tags. Thanks.

dh
dh
2 years ago

“That’s great, but it comes in the midst of a seven-page apology for ‘privilege.'”

Which, to my mind, renders the book unfit for reading.

Frogdancer
Frogdancer
2 years ago

Hello! As an English teacher, I was absolutely gobsmacked to read an honest book review from someone in the FI community. It seems like you all know each other, so anyone who publishes a book gets fawned all over by their mates when it’s released. That’s ok; it’s human nature to want to support your friends, so I was expecting more of the ‘same old, same old’ when I came home from work, poured a shiraz and sat on the couch with my dogs and my laptop and started reading. I was skimming through and then was pulled up short… Read more »

Mike in NH
Mike in NH
2 years ago
Reply to  Frogdancer

I don’t comment often, but I came to specifically make this same point. For what it’s worth, I think the FI community has cost themselves some credibility to me lately in that regard. Everyone is very smart/mindful so if I can’t chalk it up to herd mentality. Like you mentioned it’s understandable to want to support your friends but seeing everyone churn out the equivalent of a puff-piece advertisement to help sell books is disingenuous. Buy this because my friend wrote it and it’s great makes you no better than go buy Nike because Lebron said so. It leaves the… Read more »

KLE
KLE
2 years ago

Clearly Liz loves “joyful frugality” and she loves writing about it. In a consumer obsessed culture, her enthusiastic and concrete examples of finding what you want but not always via usual price, are welcome and useful. I have saved hundreds of dollars from her recommendations (ie internet mattress for <$300). Every blogger has to decide how much they want to reveal about their own lives, and since Liz doesn't want to tell the world her income numbers, she doesn't. I respect that she has a boundary and keeps it. While I agree the book could be stronger (I'm about a… Read more »

Jaime
Jaime
2 years ago

I don’t think there’s anything wrong if life has given you certain advantages. That is not anything that anyone can control. It’s part of the lottery of birth. Also when your grandparents and parents worked really hard for several generations, just so Liz and her husband could have a nice middle-class lifestyle growing up and go to college, what is wrong with that? That’s why most parents work so hard, so the next generation can do better. Pretty sure that generations and generations ago, their families were struggling. That’s how most family lineages start off. Until someone in the family… Read more »

Dicey
Dicey
2 years ago

I appreciate the honest review, JD, and the interesting comments. What I don’t understand is why no one gets the distinction that their “yeast” was not always so, well, “yeasty”. Apparently the FWs are making big bucks now, but they didn’t start out that way. People seem to be watching them cross the finish line at the end of their marathon, but failing to appreciate the work it took them to get there. Who cares if they make big bucks now? There are literally thousands who make more and have nothing to show for it. One could take the critic’s… Read more »

Louise
Louise
2 years ago
Reply to  Dicey

I love reading the Frugalwoods blog, but I have become a little disillusioned… I reserved a copy of the book at the library and started reading through the Amazon reviews. Someone pointed out a link to Act blue’s IRS filings and Nate (whose actual first name apparently is James) made $225,000 in 2014, the year that they decided to be more frugal. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with them making a great income (including Liz’s income from when she worked full time for a w-2, I bet their income was around $300k). But I feel a little cheated when… Read more »

Kstar
Kstar
2 years ago
Reply to  Louise

This response is perfect. Thank you.

Jen
Jen
2 years ago

I have read the Frugalwoods blog periodically, but I have read it less since the move to the farm. I’m glad they are living their dream, and living frugally for many reasons. But their situation is so unique – renting out real estate that appreciated super fast, working remotely for what seems like a fairly high income, etc. Also, buying a 66 acre farm isn’t super-frugal, but it is in line with the life they want and I’m glad for them. But now their expenses include things like tractors, which isn’t super-relatable to me. I’m happy they are happy with… Read more »

Chris
Chris
2 years ago

Refusing to mention an income of $250k+ isn’t like “a bread recipe that negates yeast,” it’s more like a bread recipe that fails to acknowledge the need for an oven, making people believe they’re toaster will do the trick in the same amount of time.

Sara
Sara
2 years ago

Living in the Ct/ Mass area of the country, I see many young, educated couples making $300,000 or more a year and struggling to pay their bills. Keep in mind the state and federal tax burden, property tax bills of over $1000 or more per month on their McMansions, big mortgages, vacations to keep up with the Jones’s, food services because both work outside the home, eating out, expensive haircuts, manicures, furniture, etc. basically keeping up with their social peers. And these folk could learn an important lesson from reading the Frugalwoods blog and book. These young people are on… Read more »

Kstar
Kstar
2 years ago
Reply to  Sara

I like your comment and agree. I, too, have observed this with a few people. I could also learn a thing or two (husband and I order take out way too much). But I would also like to point out the flip-side: I live in MA (have been here for 35 years) and MOST people that I know are doing a lot of the things that the Frugalwoods blog about (DIY, cutting their own hair, buying used goods, cooking at home, etc.) and it would NEVER have occurred to them to blog about it because it is just a way… Read more »

Sara
Sara
2 years ago

A followup to my comment, as my Dad always said: it is not how much you make that matters, it is what you keep!!!

Jason Raivern
Jason Raivern
1 year ago

I was an avid reader of the blog. I’m out, I feel like I was scammed. Would have been nice to know from the beginning that hubby made a quarter million annually by working at a non profit.

Spencer
Spencer
1 year ago

Sorry Frugalwoods, to leave income out of the equation is too curious to overlook. You make it sound as though I could retire to a northeast “homestead” if I could only stop buying $40 cheeses and $7 lattes. You people make $300,000 a year! The irony is that this book is clearly being marketed to the masses when in fact the masses make like $55,000 a year and were never buying $40 cheeses in the first place.

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