Book Review: Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living by Elizabeth Willard Thames
If you have checked out my 2019 book list lately, or read any of my recent devotions, you know that I am ever so slightly obsessed with the idea of minimalism. I love Marie Kondo for telling us how to downsize our possessions, and I love Joshua Becker for helping us discover why we should do so. It seems to me that most people approach minimalism as a way of downsizing their things and their purchases, and the financial savings that come from doing so are side benefits. Elizabeth Willard Thames and her husband approached things the other way - they sought to be extremely frugal and to save as much money as possible, which led to a minimalist lifestyle.
The book is a memoir about how they set a goal of retiring early to a homestead in Vermont, and everything they did in their personal, professional, and financial lives to achieve this goal. I appreciate that right at the outset Thames acknowledges their extreme privilege in setting and reaching this goal - neither of them had student debt, no significant health problems, held good jobs, and had no small amount of white privilege. They realize that they started on third base, not home, or even behind as some people in our society do.
She also talks a lot about why they were motivated to live frugally and acheive the goal of independence - and it was these thoughts where I found her echoing my own. Towards the beginning of the book she describes the unrest she felt in her life, saying, "I had everything I'd wanted, namely a husband and a career, but I didn't know how I'd maintain this routine and this monotony for the rest of my life." I literally highlighted that line and annotated it with "Me in 2016." That same feeling was a lot of why Joel and I sold most of our stuff and set off on this world adventure in 2018.
Now, granted, Thames and her husband did a lot more planning and saving before they made their massive lifestyle shift. When they determined that leaving their regular jobs and living independently was their goal, they immediately shifted the way they handled money and made a plan for the course of the next few years of their lives. They started living on less than 50% of their income and saving the rest. Thames does an excellent job detailing what kinds of things they cut from their lives and what sacrifices they were willing to make.
However, before that, they had lived a pretty typical American consumeristic life. They spent "$40 on artisanal cheese and $120 on haircuts and $200 on dinners out" but it took that spending, what she called a "spending Rumspringa," to realize that that way of life was not fulfilling for them. She said "it was only through trying on the lifestyle of a typical American consumer that we were able to discern it wasn't for us." That also exactly describes mine and Joel's experience with our previous way of life. Sometimes I feel really guilty about all the money we spent back when we had well-paying jobs, two practically new cars, and a house we filled full of stuff. I felt a little better when Thames reframed it this way: "The money we spent wasn't wasted. Rather, it was sacrificed in service of figuring out what we wanted to do with our lives."
What Thames and her husband wanted to do with their life is not at all what Joel and I want to do. They retired to Vermont homestead where they live in the country, near a teeny-tiny town, and they garden, farm, and are pretty self-sufficient. They eschew a lot of the modern conveniences of life and have no use for things like going to a movie in the theater (she had some pretty disparaging words about the experience of going to a movie theater which made me laugh but also made realize how different we are.) Yet despite these differences in what an ideal life looks like, reading their story was inspiring, and has given me plenty of ideas about how Joel and I want to manage our finances in the future.
We have lived very frugally over the past year, mostly out of direct need. The more we spend in one country the less have to we spend in another, and when we started we didn't know how long this travel lifestyle would go on. Now we know that by September 2020 we will be settling in the UK and I will have a regular job again, but we've learned a lot about what we do and don't need to actually be happy. We also realized how much debt is a weight around our necks - throughout this wandering we are still paying on our home, our student loans, and until just this past June we were paying on furniture we no longer owned.
Our goal going forward is to become debt-free (as much as possible, the mortgage likely isn't going anywhere anytime soon) and to not take on anymore debt. This is where the lessons Thames shares will come in handy. I appreciated that she didn't at all come across as someone saying "here's how you need to live your life to be frugal" but rather it was more "here's what we did and maybe it will work for you too, or give you ideas of what will work for you."
There were two overarching themes that I took away from this book that will stay with me forever. The first was the idea that our lives should not be something we long to take a vacation from, but rather something we enjoy as much as a vacation. Thames said, "We've smoothed out the happiness curve of our lives. Rather than living for vacations or weekends, we've created a life that delivers ongoing happiness on a daily basis." This is what I did not have before in my life, and what I seek to find when we settle down again.
The second was something she said about money. We've all heard the common phrase "Money doesn't buy happiness," right? Thames goes on to clarify that in this way:
"Money doesn't make you happy, but money provides the freedom to find out what does make you happy."
I think she hit the nail on the head with this one. People who aren't financially stable, who struggle, who live from paycheck to paycheck, don't have the time or the luxury to think about what would make them happy, they are too busy just trying to survive. But when we have money and some stability, we can take the time to think about what we truly want out of life.
Unfortunately, many of us still don't do that. We get stuck in the rat race, in the cycle of consumerism, in lifestyle creep that has us buying more and more stuff the more money we make so that it always feels like we never quite have enough. Thames gives us the tools to step out of that loop, examine what we do with money, and put money to work in our lives, rather than us spending our lives working for money.
I found her story incredibly inspiring, and if you choose to read her book, I hope you do, too.