Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence through Simple Living, by Elizabeth (Liz) Willard Thames, was released on March 6, much to the delight of Frugalwoods fans. I’ve followed the Frugalwoods blog over the years, sharing in their happiness when they moved to their Vermont homestead and in their grief when Frugal Hound died. But I have to admit, I bought this book for a younger friend who has latched on to the Frugalwoods. She was kind enough to loan it to me during my cross-country flight to San Francisco.
Liz is the blogger behind Frugalwoods, where she describes herself and her husband (Nate) as “ex-urban, rookie homesteaders finding contentment on 66 acres in rural central Vermont…” Liz and Nate have two young daughters and credit frugality for making their dream come true. Here’s how Liz describes her philosophy.
My philosophy is that frugality enables you to pursue unusual aspirations and opens up a world of options. Through frugality, my family and I have created a life that we love living every single day–not a life beholden to consumerism or the drive for material perfection or the incessant clarion call for more.
It’s important to remember that Meet the Frugalwoods is a memoir…it’s not a guide. Liz lays out her journey to the Vermont homestead and financial independence, beginning with that all-American dream, the bachelor’s degree. Many can relate to the opening chapter in which the young bright-eyed idealist who worked her tail off to get a 4.0 GPA can’t land a decent job. She joins AmeriCorps to gain experience and relays her survival tactics of living in New York City for one year on $10,000. Liz’s new career path? Fundraising for non-profit organizations – a career that she never really enjoys.
Liz is upfront about having a conventional mindset, in which the goals are laid out by society’s traditional expectations – get your degree, find a husband, buy a house, have babies. It’s a 1950s mentality with a 21st century twist – leave the consumerist society and live off the land. And that’s the twist that has brought her so many fans. And like any memoir, some people will connect with Liz’s story, while other’s won’t.
Liz introduces the book by acknowledging how privileged both she and her husband (Nate) are. They were born to happily married stable parents in Midwestern families who offered plenty of love and support. She recognizes that not everyone is so lucky and that the goal of financial independence will feel out of reach for those struggling to make ends meet.
Both Liz and Nate inherited a frugal gene, if there is such a thing. They managed to graduate from college without student loans and live their entire adult lives without debt beyond the mortgage. Liz even manages to save $2,000 of the $10,000 income she earned during her year in New York City. Who does that? And Nate lives in a gloomy basement apartment though he could afford much more. So not only do Liz and Nate start their lives as members of a privileged class, they are the rare people who shun credit cards and understand the benefits of delayed gratification.
I had a long discussion with my frugal much younger friend about Meet the Frugalwoods. We share similar philosophies (and dreams) about gaining financial independence. But I’m in my 50s while she is in her 30s. If I was in my 20s or 30s, the book might inspire me to leap to a higher paying job and become uber-frugal to buy my freedom fast. That is, if I can tolerate the added miseries the job might bring! And there are lessons in the book for everyone on how to align spending with priorities. But the book’s message doesn’t resonate as much for me. I’m at the tail-end of my career and even if I saved 80% of my income for three years and left my job, I’d be struggling with the uncertainties of health insurance and income.
Here’s my biggest issue with Meet the Frugalwoods: It’s Missing the Details! As a Frugalwoods follower, I was anticipating that Liz would finally be forthcoming in this book. She’s not. Yes, it’s a memoir so it’s a story of her experiences. But let’s face it – readers want to know how to apply this strategy to their own lives, and that’s where the book fails. An Amazon reviewer tracked down Nate’s salary from public records (nonprofit organizations have to list salaries of key staff). And given Liz’s promotions, it’s reasonable to project that the power couple pulled in over $400,000 per year. That makes all the difference in the world! For most of us, that kind of earning power is just not attainable – at least not without creating income outside of the traditional job (see my review of Side Hustle).
The other critical piece missing from this formula is the cost of health insurance. Current efforts to destroy the Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”) are frightening to people who have to find their own health insurance. Many of us stay in the workforce longer than we want to take advantage of employer-provided health insurance. Liz shares her story of having a difficult birthing experience for both herself and her baby that required hospitalization. Yet she fails to mention medical costs and insurance premiums. Since health care is the biggest cause of bankruptcy and financial ruin in the United States, I’m especially disappointed by the lack of details.
I’ve written about my ongoing journey to financial independence and how I became mortgage-free. For most people, the road takes decades, not years. Liz and Nate took the “fast and furious” approach, but they were able to do so because of their high incomes. That being said, financial independence is possible for many people, but it requires careful planning and disciplined execution.
Final Note: If you’d like to learn how to create your own plan, incorporating your dreams, income, and expenses, my 30-Day Million Dollar Challenge might be for you. While I recommend Meet the Frugalwoods as a lesson on frugality, the Million Dollar Challenge will round out your education by introducing you to 15 bloggers and bestselling personal finance books. To learn more about the 30-Day Million Dollar Challenge, check out the Challenge Page.