I’ve just finished reading Elizabeth Willard Thames’s Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence through Simple Living for the second time (affiliate link). Whoever thought that personal finance books were dry and impersonal has not read this book, which is my very favorite work in this genre.
I’ve been following the Thameses’ journey with extreme frugality for a loooong time now…probably five years now. Elizabeth and her husband maintain the blog Frugalwoods.com, which they previously published under the pen names of Mr. and Mrs. Frugalwoods. Elizabeth has one of those voices as a writer that makes you feel like you are her longtime friend: she’s personable, funny, and encouraging in a non-holier-than-thou way. She’s also incredibly intelligent and inclusive, which makes her writing all the more enjoyable to read. She knows and identifies her privilege, she advocates for causes that matter (e.g., extended parental leave, better welfare programs, comprehensive medical and dental coverage for the working poor), and she puts her money where her mouth is—in charities, via a donor advised fund (learn more in chapter 9 of her book). So when I found out that Elizabeth was writing a memoir about how they achieved financial independence while in their mid-thirties, I knew it was going to be an entertaining and informative read…and it was!
Elizabeth’s story itself is very relatable, at least for this humanities grad (two thumbs pointed at myself). She graduated at the top of her class from an R1 university and yet struggled to find a job. After a less-than-desirable temp job, she is offered a year-long position in fundraising through AmeriCorps, with a “service stipend” for a measly $10,000—in NYC. And yet! And yet, Elizabeth is not only able to live on this small sum; she’s also able to save some of it. I’m not kidding. She then details her long-distance relationship with her now-husband Nate; eventual marriage and move to Cambridge, MA (one of the highest cost-of-living areas in the Northeast); relocation to Washington DC for graduate school; a move back to Cambridge, this time to buy a house; and finally relocation to a homestead in rural Vermont, the latter of which was her and her husband’s core goal throughout years of extreme frugality.
It’s in her early years of marriage that Elizabeth realizes that something is amiss. She and Nate are “successful” in many of the ways that society defines this metric: they both have lucrative jobs with a promising career trajectory, they are homeowners in an area boasting endless cultural events, and they are able to partake in life’s “little luxuries” like dining out, practicing yoga in a studio, etc. And yet despite all these achievements, they feel unsettled and anxious, like they’re just going through the motions, repeating a pattern of living that isn’t bringing them fulfillment and that is instead sapping their energy and lust for life. So they hatch a plan to amp up their already-impressive savings of 40 to 50 percent and retire to a homestead in Vermont in about three years and five months. And indeed, thanks to a variety of frugal hacks, they are able to maintain an inordinately high savings rate of around 82 percent (not including 401K contributions and their mortgage principal). Their trial run with extreme frugality shows them that not only can they live on less; they can live a more abundant and meaningful life while spending less.
A crucial concept here that Elizabeth introduced to me was that of hedonic adaptation. Hedonic adaptation essentially means that we become accustomed to all those “little treats” we give ourselves—and need more and more treats (or larger treats) to derive the same level of (fleeting) satisfaction from them. The hallmark of modern consumer culture is the “treat yourself” mentality, but Elizabeth strikes through the heart of it by arguing that at its core is a deep-rooted fear that we won’t achieve our largest dreams and so we have to YOLO it up in the present. But because we’re busy YOLO’ing, we’re preventing ourselves from making headway on those dreams. By rejecting the incessant demands to “buy more NOW” from mainstream culture, we can learn to find satisfaction in ourselves and our relationships. It’s not a new idea, but Elizabeth’s honest narratives, imbued with her characteristic wit, make the concept both accessible and compelling. For instance, consider the following excerpt:
We’re taught we can pay for everything we need. Our very lives can be purchased, and by extension, we can buy the rights to a fragmented community of like-minded consumers. Our unifying activity as a culture is shopping, and the one thing we all are is consumers. Consumption has become our spiritual outlet, our means of building relationships, of identifying ourselves by the brands emblazoned on our clothes, cars, shoes, laptops, and it has supplanted our interpersonal dependencies. (Thames 210)
As you can see from the above quote, this is decidedly not your average personal finance book: touching on themes as wide-ranging as the value of intergenerational relationships; the fulfilling nature of interdependent rural community life; the benefits of DIY for strengthening marriages; the trials of infertility, pregnancy, and postpartum life (and one of my favorite takeaways—the “baby-industrial complex”; more on this here on her blog), Meet the Frugalwoods will help you grow your money AND your self. There is literally no way to read this book and not emerge a better human being, unless you are so ingrained in consumer culture that you cannot fathom finding meaning outside of it. And let me tell you, as a recovering shopaholic, I struggle to untether from it myself, but each time I read this book it fills me up and encourages me to dive more into my passions so that my work can be a means of fulfillment rather than a way to stay afloat financially. For Elizabeth, this meant leaving her career in nonprofit fundraising to become a full-time freelance writer. For me, it means continuing my editing and writing work but doing so in a way that allows for a greater balance of “free time” and “work time,” personal and professional.
At a certain point, you have to stop striving and start living. You have to arrive. (Thames 211)
What does financial independence mean to you? How do you picture your ideal life scenario in 10 years? Does remote or freelance work play a role in this vision? Share in the comments below!
Be sure to pick up a copy of Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence through Simple Living.
Bonus! Today marks Day 1 of the 30-day Uber Frugal Month Group Challenge. If you sign up today, you won’t miss any of the daily e-mails with pro tips and encouragement from Elizabeth Thames (Mrs. Frugalwoods). You can sign up and learn more about this 30-day experiment with extreme frugality here. I’ve completed this challenge two times already and am embarking on my third attempt…it’s always pushed me in ways I find incredibly rewarding. I encourage you to discover what the Uber Frugal Month can do for you!