Reader Case Study: National Park Rangers Figuring Out Finances

Have you ever wondered about the life and finances of the Park Rangers you see staffing America’s most dazzling natural resources? Well, wonder no more as this month’s Reader Case Study addresses the questions of two real life Rangers on how best to allocate their savings now that they’re debt free (hooray!). Case Studies are financial and life dilemmas that a reader of Frugalwoods sends to me requesting that Frugalwoods nation weigh in. Then, Frugalwoods nation (that’s you!), reads through their situation and provides advice, encouragement, insight, and feedback in the comments section. For an example, check out last month’s case study.

I also provide updates from our Case Study subjects at the bottom of each Case Study several weeks/months after their story is featured. To see what past Case Study participants have decided to do, check out the Case Study section and scroll to the bottom of the individual posts.

P.S. Another way to get support on your financial journey is to participate in my free Uber Frugal Month Challenge! You can sign-up at any time to join the over 21,000 fellow frugal sojourners who’ve taken the Challenge and saved thousands of dollars.

I probably don’t need to say the following because you all are the kindest, most polite commenters on the internet, but, please note that Frugalwoods is a judgement-free zone where we endeavor to help one another, not to condemn.

With that I’ll let Mrs. Ranger, this month’s case study subject, take it from here!

The Ranger’s Story

Mr. & Mrs. Ranger at Grand Teton National Park

Greetings, Frugalwoods readers! I’m Mrs. Ranger (age 32), my husband is Mr. Ranger (age 34), and completing our family is our dog Hairy (age 2). We live in the Southwestern United States and we both work as National Park Rangers.

Mr. Ranger and I met eight years ago while working as seasonal Park Rangers and were married in 2011. We are self-proclaimed minimalists, which helps us to be frugal savers, but we’re just now getting serious about financial independence.

Their Careers

About two years ago, we accepted our first permanent positions with the National Park Service (NPS). This was very exciting for us since with a permanent position we now both have a steady paycheck, benefits, and retirement accounts! Before we accepted these positions, we worked as seasonal park rangers, which entailed working six month appointments at different parks all across the USA. We’ve worked at some amazing places including: Rocky Mountain National Park, Acadia National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Yosemite National Park, along with a few smaller NPS units along the way.

Mrs. Ranger at Grand Canyon National Park

We had a fantastic time seeing our beautiful country, but it also meant it was hard for us to save because we never knew what was ahead. Plus, there’s a popular saying among Park Rangers: “we get paid in sunsets and sunrises,” which means our income might not be great, but our office locations definitely are.

To get a position with the NPS, people often assume it works like the military and that after you’re hired, the Park Service sends you where they need you. I wish it were that simple. The way it actually works is that applicants apply to specific positions and then months after you apply, you might hear back from a park. Often, my husband and I had to put in 50 or so applications per season in the hopes of being hired, which was never guaranteed. We never knew where we would end up, or if both of us would even be employed at all by the NPS. This still rings true today.

To advance further in our careers as Park Rangers, we’d have to move to another permanent position, at another park in a different part of the country. We can’t plan this part of our life out, because we never know when or where a vacancy might pop up.  What we do know is that we want to move in the next couple of years to somewhere west of the Mississippi, but who knows where that will be or when that will happen.

The Ranger’s Hobbies

The Ranger’s Dog Hairy

Since we are minimalists, we keep our hobbies minimal too, and they include: walking Hairy, exercising in our home gym, fixing up our yard, hiking, and camping. We have an active little community and often partake in events, which mostly consist of pot-lucks. Our biggest splurge is travel. We try to take at least one overseas trip every year or two, and have visited some great sights throughout the years, while staying on a budget.

Travel is a big motivator for us to save more and buy less, and we hope to continue taking these semi-yearly trips. We generally try to keep our trips as low cost as possible, but end up spending about $2,500-$3,500 per trip abroad. In addition to traveling overseas, we also take short week-long trips about twice a year to visit our families, who live in different regions of the USA, which usually requires us to fly to see them.

Learning About Finances

When you’re a seasonal Park Ranger, you are not entitled to an employer-sponsored retirement account, so during our first seven years out of college, Mr. Ranger and I never took an interest in learning about retirement or long-term savings. During this time we were mostly concentrated on saving up enough money to pay our bills during the winter when we might not be working, or saving for a vacation or a car. It never crossed our minds to save for retirement on our own! I am very grateful to my older brother who finally sat me down at the age of 29 and told me about Roth IRAs. In light of this, I feel like we are playing catch-up with our retirement savings. During our time as seasonal employees, we managed to stay out of debt aside from our student loans and a car loan, all of which we paid off in January 2017!

The Ranger’s Current Living Location

Mr. & Mrs. Ranger at Carlsbad Caverns National Park

We are currently living in a very remote part of the Southwest. We are so remote that the nearest grocery store, hospital, doctor’s offices, and more are an hour and half drive away, and the nearest town with an airport and big box stores is about a four hour drive away. It took time to adjust to where we currently live, but after two years, we have it down.

We go to town about once every two weeks to buy produce, meat, and dairy. We do big stock-ups at places like Target, Walmart, and large grocery stores about every three months. There are some perks to living so remotely: first, we don’t have stores nearby to spend money at, and second, our rent is insanely cheap. But our life is very different from people who live in cities and towns.

Where The Rangers Want To Be In 10 Years:

  • Finances: We want to be on our way to financial independence, with the hopes of retiring in our early 50’s. I would also like to have some funds available in non-retirement accounts.
  • Lifestyle: In 10 years, I see us continuing to be fur parents and maybe having a baby in the next two to three years. Our dream home would be a house that we either own/rent that has about an acre of land, enough to be able to garden and maybe have a chicken or two. We would also still like to be traveling.
  • Career: Mr. Ranger and I both LOVE our careers. I see us continuing to work for the Park Service and hopefully advancing up a level from where we currently are. Our careers would also require us to move and hopefully we’ll be in a location that is not as remote as our present one.

The Ranger’s Finances

Income

Annual Net Income Amount Notes
Mr. Ranger $28,000 After tax, health insurance and TSP (401k)
Mrs. Ranger $19,000 After tax, health insurance, TSP (401k), and Rent. Rent is deducted directly from my paycheck after taxes, it equals to about $500 a month.
Combined Annual Total: $47,000  
Combined Monthly Total:  $3,916.66

Monthly Expenses

Item Amount Notes
Groceries $350.00 This includes all of our food, household, and personal items.
Random $250.00 We seem to have one random expense pop up every month, such as a vet bill, new computer, car expense, or a health-related bill.
Roth IRA contributions $200.00 Split between two accounts
Car Insurance $124.00 For both vehicles
Utilities $120.00 Electric and propane.
Internet $114.00 This includes a landline, which the phone company requires us to have. here is only one internet provider in our location and they only have one option.
Amazon household expenses $75.00 Includes dog food, protein powder and anything else we might need with a two-day notice.
Restaurants $50.00 We treat ourselves to a meal out each time we go in to town
Gas for cars $50.00
Friday Treat $40.00 To celebrate the end of the work week we purchase a 6 pack of craft beer for the weekend.
Cell Phone $35.00 We share a cell phone. It is the most basic of the basic and we are still on my parents plan.
Medical $30.00 This includes copays and any other medical expenses.
Hobbies $20.00 About $20 a month for home projects
Clothing $20.00 We infrequently purchase clothes, but $20 a month equals about what we spend a year.
Entertainment $17.19 Netflix and Hulu
Renters & Personal Property Insurance $12.00
Amazon Prime $8.91
Total Monthly: $1,516.10  
Total Annual: $18,193.20

Assets

Item Amount Notes
Savings $24,000 $20,000 is our emergency savings and what is left over is for travel.
Mrs. Ranger TSP (401k) $13,338 5% match from employer and contributing 24% ($13,000 per year)
Mr. Ranger TSP (401k) $10,386 5% match from employer and contributing 24% ($13,000 per year)
Mrs. Ranger Roth IRA $6,910 Contribute $100 a month, plus any extra month left over
Mr. Ranger Roth IRA $3,464 Just opened a few months ago and put in about $100 a month
Total: $58,098

Cars

Vehicle Year and Make Notes
Mr. Ranger’s vehicle 2000 Jeep Wrangler Paid off in full
Mrs. Ranger’s vehicle 2014 Toyota Corolla Paid off in full

Debts: $0

The Ranger’s Questions For You

Mr. & Mrs. Ranger in Venice, Italy

1) I feel like we are always planning for the known unknown. If we want to advance in our careers, we have to move. Moving may or may not include purchasing a house. In some Park Service locations, the park is able to provide housing for its employees–not for free, there’s still rent to pay–but this makes moving to a new job much easier. However, more often then not, housing is not available and Rangers are required to purchase a home or find a rental. I would like to start saving for a down payment on a home, in the hopes of moving in the next 1-3 years. How do you suggest we go about saving for a house? Continue putting money into our savings account or open a separate account, possibly low-fee index funds?

2) I’m a bit dumbfounded about how to allocate our savings now that we are out of debt and have extra money to save. We’re not maxing out our retirement accounts and might be able to, however, this would leave us very little savings for anything else. Should we try to max out our retirement accounts before allocating money to other things, such as travel?

3) I love the thought of investing in low-fee index funds outside of our retirement accounts, but is this an option for us since we are not maxing out our retirement accounts?

Mrs. Frugalwoods’ Recommendations

The Rangers at Sitka National Historical Park

The Rangers win, hands down, for the coolest jobs. Ever. Their photos alone are incredible! I commend Mr. and Mrs. Ranger for pursuing careers they love and that bring them so much personal fulfillment–that’s where it’s at!!! I also want to highlight the fantastic fact that they are debt free! This is no small accomplishment and I laud them for focusing their money on paying off all of their debt.

Paying down high-interest debt (I do not include home mortgages here) is the first step towards any other financial goal. It is job #1 and the Rangers rocked it! Given this, they are starting from a position of strength. While I understand that they feel they’re playing catch-up, they’re actually in a terrific financial state to move forward and plan for their future. And now, I’ll address Mrs. Ranger’s questions in turn.

Question #1: How do we save for a house?

The first consideration here, in my opinion, is actually not about money at all. Mrs. Ranger noted several times that in order to advance in their careers, they will need to continue their trajectory of moving every few years. If this is the case and they foresee several moves in the next ten years or so, then I’d say it does not make sense to buy a home from a financial perspective. Renting is not a bad thing and buying a home DOES NOT necessarily equal financial security.

Home ownership, in fact, is not a prerequisite for financial stability or financial independence. It is 100% possible to be financial independent and financially secure without owning a home. In fact, you’ll often get there faster if you don’t incur the massive capital expense of buying and then maintaining a home. The challenge with the Ranger’s awesome lifestyle is that, if they move every few years, it will be difficult for them to accrue enough equity for a home purchase to be financially viable. The transaction costs alone of buying and selling mean you need to live in a place for a certain number of years before you can expect to break even.

While some housing markets lend themselves to rentals, others do not and can make home ownership a money-draining, exhausting experience. I myself own two homes (one that I live in and one that I rent out) so I’m not a homeowner-hater, merely a pragmatist. And I want to disabuse the Rangers–and everyone else reading this–of the notion that home ownership is a guaranteed slam dunk financial decision. It’s often not, especially if you foresee lots of moves in your near future.

The Rangers in Sintra, Portugal

For the sole reason of their frequent moves, I’d advise the Rangers to continue renting until they enter a phase of life where they’re no longer moving every few years. Once they’re settled in a location that they can reasonably expect to stay in for five or so years, then–and only then–would I consider buying a home. They’ve done an admirable job of finding very inexpensive rent, which means they’re able to save at a high rate every month, which is superb!

Here are a few other resources to peruse in considering whether or not home ownership makes sense for the Rangers:

Kids!

Another factor to consider is whether or not the Rangers want to have a baby. Mrs. Ranger mentioned that they might want to have a baby in the next few years and I want to discuss that for a moment. Moving frequently with kids is not impossible and many, many families make it work beautifully. However, it is undeniably more challenging to move frequently with kids in tow. Mr. FW and I moved four times in six years pre-kids and, while difficult, those moves were a breeze compared with our one move post-kid. And that experience made us vow we’ll never move again…

The physical act of moving as well as the uprooting of schools, friends, community, etc is all compounded with a child. Packing the house alone (with a kid) is akin to torture (in my opinion and that might just be me… ). Also, if both Rangers plan to continue working post-kids, they’ll need to account for the cost of daycare in their budget. I’m living proof that raising children can be very inexpensive, but daycare is an often exorbitant expense that all prospective parents need to carefully research and consider.

Emergency And Travel Fund

Let’s talk a bit about how the Rangers will save up their eventual down payment. I want to heartily congratulate the Rangers for building up a robust emergency and travel fund. Way to go! Having a well-stocked emergency fund is a requirement for financial stability and I typically recommend folks save three to six months of living expenses in an easily accessible savings or checking account. The Rangers currently have a whopping $20K in their emergency fund and another $4K in their travel fund. This is fantastic! If this were purely an emergency fund, I would actually recommend the Rangers keep much less in there since they only spend $18K a year; hence, $20K is overkill.

Mr. Ranger at Grand Teton National Park

However, if the Rangers think they might be in a position to buy a home in the next five years (i.e. they won’t be moving as frequently), keeping this much cash liquid makes sense as this will become their down payment on a home. On the other hand, if they don’t foresee buying in the next five years or so, it will probably make more sense for them to reduce their emergency fund to circa $9,000 (which is roughly six months of living expenses) and put the rest into low-fee index funds, where it can grow over time.

Travel is important to the Rangers and they’ve managed to do it very frugally indeed. I see no reason for them to stop traveling every year. They’ve done a great job of saving up for their trips and I don’t recommend diverting funds from travel towards retirement. Living a financially stable life is all about creating a life you love to live every single day and I think the Rangers are doing fabulously at this! So I say, travel on!

Question #2: Should we try to max out our retirement accounts before allocating money to other things, such as travel?

In a word, no. At their current income levels, the Rangers are doing a STELLAR job of putting money into their 401ks. I am a huge proponent of saving into a 401k or 403b, especially if your employer matches your contributions, because this is FREE MONEY (more on that here). Not contributing to a matching 401k is like turning down a free $20 bill someone is trying desperately to give you. Seriously, it’s that dumb. So the Rangers get an A+ in this category. However, a 401k is only one way to save and it’s a limited method because you can’t access the money in a 401k (without hefty penalties) before you’re 59.5 years old.

Let’s run through a bit of terminology on 401ks for the edification of everyone:

  1. “Maxing out” a 401k means contributing the maximum annual amount allowed by the IRS, which can change yearly, and which you can look up here. For 2017, the maximum allowable amount is $18,000 per person. The IRS recently announced that this limit will increase to $18,500 in 2018. Hence, it’s good to check on this every year! Don’t expect your HR department to know this dollar amount because, uh, not very many people do this and, in my personal experience, it’s best to do your own research (which takes 30 seconds on the IRS website) to determine the annual maximum allowable contribution and then tell your HR department how much of your paycheck you want diverted into your 401k.
  2. “Contributing to reach your employer match” means you contribute enough to your 401k to receive a matching amount of money (aka free money) from your employer. This amount varies by employer; ask your HR department for the details as this is their area of expertise.

Everyone should do #2; but doing #1 is optional and largely dependent on the rest of your financial picture because $18K is a lot of money and, again, 401ks are only one way to save.

Whether or not the Rangers choose to bump their contributions up to $18K each is ultimately a personal decision–it’s not like it would be the wrong things to do. But, in my opinion, they probably shouldn’t because it represents a very large percentage of their net worth. If their salaries were higher and they were able to swing the $18K in addition to other savings methods, then I’d say go for it. However, at their current income levels, I probably wouldn’t recommend it, though there’s no hard and fast rule. Additionally, we need to consider…

The Ranger’s Roth IRAs

We need to spend some time on the Ranger’s Roth IRAs (individual retirement accounts). Roth IRAs are also traditional retirement savings accounts and are generally used by people who do not have access to an employer-sponsored 401k or 403b program. In an ideal world, the Rangers would’ve been contributing to these IRAs for all seven of the years before they had access to 401ks. But, there’s no reason to fret over that now.

401ks and Roth IRAs are both tax-advantaged, but in opposite ways. Here’s the rundown:

  • 401ks (and 403bs): You contribute to 401ks pre-tax, which means you don’t pay taxes on this money now. You do pay taxes on this money when you withdraw it (after age 59.5), however, the crucial thing to remember is that you will likely be contributing to your 401k during your highest earning (and thus highest tax) years and then withdrawing from it in your lowest earning (and thus lowest tax) years, also known as traditional retirement. If you still have a high income at age 59.5, it’ll probably be wise to wait until your income drops off before withdrawing from your 401k.
  • Roth IRAs: Roth IRAs are the opposite of 401ks in terms of taxes. You contribute to them post-tax, which means you pay taxes on this money now, but you won’t when you withdraw it (after age 59.5). So, again, the opposite of a 401k. However, Roth IRAs can be a particularly good choice for people with a lower income (and thus a lower marginal tax rate) because in this case, you’re not sacrificing much in terms of tax savings.

A primary reason to contribute the full $18K annually to a 401k is to avoid paying taxes on that money. However, since the Ranger’s income is on the lower end, it’s not likely they’re actually avoiding very much in taxes by contributing to their 401ks at such high rates.

The Rangers at Big Bend National Park

Are you still with me? Soldier on, folks, we’re getting to some good stuff! I’ll reward you with more of the Ranger’s incredible photos soon too.

As employees of the federal government, some quick googling revealed that the Rangers likely have access to a Roth TSP account through their employer, which operates in the same tax-advantaged structure as a Roth IRA (see my above explanation). The Rangers are currently in a 401k TSP account and I have a hunch that it would be more advantageous from a taxation perspective to switch their employer-sponsored accounts over to the Roth TSP option.

I’m going to stress that I can’t recommend specific action without digging into their tax returns (plus I am not an accountant!), but, I suspect it’s highly possible it would be more advantageous for the Rangers to switch over to Roth TSPs, for reasons of when they’d pay taxes on their money. If the Rangers make this switch, I’d recommend ceasing contributions to their Roth IRA accounts–there’s no reason to have two separate Roth accounts since they operate in the same way.

I recommend the Rangers dig into their taxes and figure out the most advantageous option for them. All that being said, I wouldn’t recommend they contribute more to retirement accounts than what they’re already doing.

Question #3: Is investing in low-fee index funds outside of our retirement accounts an option since we’re not maxing out our retirement accounts?

Yes! This is totally an option and one that the Rangers could start doing now. However, I’ll refer them back to the above discussion about purchasing a home. If the Rangers plan to purchase a home in the near future (let’s say roughly the next five years), then they should probably keep their money in a savings account, as it is right now. The reason for this is that investments in the stock market should be made for the long-term.

Mrs. Ranger at Big Bend National Park

While you can liquidate index funds at any time (unlike 401ks), that’s not the way to build your wealth. Money grows in the stock market slowly and over time, thanks to the power of compounding interest. Pulling money in and out of the market on a short timeframe doesn’t allow for longterm growth. Plus, should the market experience a downturn, the Rangers could lose their downpayment. Market downturns are perfectly normal and aren’t as much of a problem when you’re invested for the longterm because, historically, the market always corrects itself and rebounds.

Additionally, as you near traditional retirement age, and thus plan to begin drawing down on your investments, you need to decrease the risk in your portfolio in order to insulate yourself against such downturns. For a more robust discussion of investing, please see here and here.

Another option for the Rangers is to contribute less to their 401ks (I’m using that as a blanket term to refer to their TSPs and Roth IRAs) and instead funnel that money into low-fee index funds. No matter what, they should continue contributing enough to their 401ks to quality for their employer’s match, but they could siphon off contributions above that limit and instead buy low-fee index funds. If the Rangers decide to invest in low-fee index funds, I recommend either Fidelity or Vanguard as a brokerage as they both offer excellent low-fee index funds that you can set up yourself online (more on that here). However, there are two primary factors to consider before doing this:

  1. Timeframe for buying a home (discussed above)
  2. Whether or not financial independence is a true goal (discussed below)

If you’re working towards financial independence and early retirement, then it’s almost a requirement to have money invested outside of traditional retirement accounts (401ks, Roth IRAs, etc). Additionally, if you have enough money leftover every month after: 1) contributing to your 401k; and 2) building up your emergency fund; then it’s usually a wise decision to invest in low-fee index funds. However, if you plan to work at least until age 59.5, and you don’t have much extra money leftover after contributing to your 401k and stocking your emergency fund, it becomes a more nuanced decision.

Financial Independence

Mrs. Ranger mentioned that they’d like to work towards financial independence (FI) and I encourage them to think this through very carefully. If they’re serious about achieving financial independence, then they will need to either increase their salaries or understand that their timeline for achieving FI will be a bit longer. Financial independence does not need to be your goal in order for you to live a financially stable, happy life.

And if the Rangers love their jobs–which I think they do–then I see no reason for them to leave those jobs for higher wages elsewhere in an effort to reach financial independence more quickly. I’d focus on increasing their salaries as Park Rangers, since that’s clearly their passion and continue on with their lifestyle of sustainable, joyful frugality. They also might consider taking on secondary sources of income, such as side hustles or other part-time work. Here’s a full list of the many different unconventional (and usually part-time) ways in which Frugalwoods readers supplement their income.

Getting second jobs isn’t a requirement and it’s not something the Rangers need to do; however, if reaching FI is a true goal, then it’s something to consider. However, if the Rangers both envision themselves happily working as Park Rangers until they reach traditional retirement age, then they are doing a fabulous job! They should stay the course with their high savings rate and continue loving life.

I think the ultimate questions for the Rangers to ponder are: 

  1. Do you want to be Park Rangers for the rest of your careers or do you want to reach financial independence quickly?
  2. What would you do after reaching FI that you’re not able to do now? If the Rangers are already living their best lives–doing jobs they love and pursing hobbies they adore–then this is a really important consideration.

There are no wrong answers here!

Expenses

No Frugalwoods Case Study would be complete without a run through of expenses! The Rangers are already incredibly frugal, but we’ll take a stroll through their spending to see if we can sniff out any opportunities for additional savings.

  • Car insurance: $124/month for two cars seems high to me. I’d suggest they shop around to see if a lower quote exits.
  • Cell phone: I recommend they look for a cheaper provider. I pay $19.99 through BOOM mobile. Ting and Republic Wireless are two other low-cost providers to investigate.
  • Restaurants/Friday Treat/Entertainment: I am not necessarily advocating for the elimination of these three categories because the Ranger’s spending is SO LOW in all of these areas. However, depending on how aggressive they want to be in achieving their financial goals, these are the proverbial low-hanging fruit. If the Rangers decide that they want to take their frugality to the next level, eliminating these three items would net them an additional $107.19 in savings every month (also known as $1,286.28 per year).

These are minor tweaks the Rangers could make to decrease their spending as they’re already living an extremely frugal lifestyle for which I commend them! For the Rangers, the real opportunity is in the area of increasing income. At a certain point, there’s not more to frugalize and you have to look at the other end of the equation: income. If they’re interested in reaching their financial goals more quickly, the route to get there will be through augmenting their income.

In summary, I advise Mr. and Mrs. Ranger to do the following:

  1. Investigate their employer’s options for a Roth TSP account and determine if it would be more tax advantageous to switch to this account from their 401k TSP accounts. If they make this switch, I’d recommend ceasing contributions to their Roth IRAs as there’s no reason to contribute to more than one Roth retirement account–make life easy and consolidate.
  2. Look into my expense reduction suggestions.
  3. Map out their potential work-related moves (as it’s possible) for the next ten years or so to determine when and if it will make sense to buy a home.
  4. If they won’t be buying a home in the next five years or so, consider reducing their emergency fund to circa $9K (six months of living expenses) and invest the remainder in low-fee index funds.
  5. Once they’re relatively certain they’ll be in the same location for circa five years (or so), buy a home if they so desire.
  6. Determine if financial independence is a true goal. If so, brainstorm ways to increase income. Begin investing in low-fee index funds.
  7. Consider the ramifications of having a baby as it relates to frequent moves and finances (especially daycare).
  8. Plan their next trip abroad and enjoy this wonderful life they’ve created!

Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice would you give to Mrs. Ranger? She and I will both reply to comments, so please feel free to ask any clarifying questions!

Would you like your own case study to appear here on Frugalwoods? Email me (mrs@frugalwoods.com) your brief story and we’ll talk.

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98 Responses

  1. These pictures are absolutely amazing. Such cool jobs and definitely something that I would love to wake up to everyday.

    Working for the federal government they should be able to allocate their money into Roth TSPs. Which as Mrs. Frugalwood suggested means they could cease contributing to the Roth IRAs. The TSP is one of the best run 401k like plans out there is it’s incredibly hard to beat their low cost fees.

    In terms of everything else.

    They have such low expenses that it’s probably up to them whether or not they want to cut anything more from their expenses. While there is some fat in their expenses its not crazy. So it’s just a matter of figuring how much they really want to buy a house down the line vs. enjoying life.

    Great story!!!

    • Mrs. Park Ranger says:

      Wow, it only crossed my mind once before the benefit of contributing to the Roth TSP. Switching it to the Roth TSP is super simple, just a click of a button. This is something I thing Mr. Ranger and Myself will probably be doing soon.

      • Juli says:

        Check with your employer about their match before doing so, though – my agency (also federal) contributions will only go into a traditional account, even if your contributions are Roth. You’d want to regularly move those contributions over (as possible given potential TSP and Roth restrictions) or you’ll end up with multiple TSP accounts (one roth, one traditional). I just recommend discussing with HR before making the switch!

  2. First, wow! Those pictures are incredible!! I recommend doing photography as a side hustle!! 😊
    But in all seriousness, I agree with Mra. FW on so much!
    I can’t help you with the 401k and all that, but here’s my advice on the other.
    Kids are as expensive as you make them. That said, y’all’s income is relatively low, and I’m not sure how daycare or one income life would work. But it is definitely a possibility. But like Mrs. FW said, having kids doesn’t have to be expensive. We are one income and have made it work. And you’re spending habits show you could too.
    Moving regularly makes buying a house seem unnecessary right now. When would you think you would be more likely to stay somewhere long term? Because until then, you should just save some each month for a future house purchase. You can do that aggressively or just a bit each month, since it’s down the road.
    And my last point, (sorry so long !!) You both seem to truly love your jobs. So, although working to be financially secure, I don’t think you need to work towards FI. You have the type of love for your job that so many ppl want!! Enjoy it!
    And takes lots of pictures so we can all enjoy it with you!!
    Y’all are doing awesome! I am super impressed and am excited to hear y’all’s decisions!

  3. Mrs. Kiwi says:

    Wow, you have awesome photos and cool jobs for sure! Congrats on being debt free and having some retirement savings! Especially with mostly having seasonal employment up until now!

    You live quite frugally! There is no need to cut anything from your budget, and I agree with all of Mrs. Frugalwoods recommendations. The only other thing I question is if you need two cars? I guess it all depends on your work schedules and how far you live from the national park.

    I rarely advocate for Roth IRA or Roth TSP contributions unless you are in the 0% tax bracket, but it may be appropriate in your case! I would also consider your state income tax. If you are in a zero income tax state, then the Roth IRA would be a better fit. If you are in a high income tax state, there are benefits to lowering your taxable income farther. To figure all of this out, look at your tax return last year.
    I recommend checking out Brandon’s article: https://www.madfientist.com/traditional-ira-vs-roth-ira/
    You may choose to allocate your money to a Roth after reading that, but you can access 401k/TSP/Traditional IRA money early with planning!

    I am not super familiar with the mechanics of TSPs, but from reading the TSP guidelines they appear to function almost exactly as 401ks. The TSP.gov website also have a section on Early Retirement:

    “If you receive a TSP withdrawal payment before you reach age 59½, in addition to the regular income tax, you may have to pay an early withdrawal penalty tax equal to 10% of any taxable portion of the payment that is not transferred or rolled over. However, if you separate from service during or after the year you reach age 55 (or the year you reach age 50 if you are a public safety employee as defined by section 72(t)(10)(B)(ii) of the Internal Revenue Code), then the 10% early withdrawal penalty tax does not apply.”

    This makes another good (but complicated) point, that if you retire at/after age 55 the 10% early penalty does not apply. Since your current FI plans have you retiring around 50, you may be willing to continue working to simplify your retirement strategies. Also, I’m not sure if NPS Park Rangers qualify as Public Safety Employees, but it’s worth investigating. Then you can access your money even earlier!
    After reading this I’d recommend you contribute to your Traditional TSP up until you hit the 0% tax bracket and then switch over to Roth contributions. All of the following is very nuanced and uber-optimized, so we are kind of splitting hairs, and this may not be worth the stress for you! Best of luck to you and congratulations on paying off your debt and finding great jobs!

    • Lauren says:

      THIS! MadFientist’s blog actually discusses how to convert an employer plan early without the fees (takes five years before you can start withdrawing). It’s rare that I see such a glaring issue from FrugalWoods, but it does not have high early withdrawal fees if you take the proper steps.

      • Terri says:

        @Lauren. As a former Federal Employee (go ZION NP!), I can tell you that contributions to the TSP is tied into your eligibility to return (ie it will determine your STEP range within that pay grade). So. If the Rangers ever leave federal service and decide to return (perhaps Mr. R will stay home with baby since child care within regions Parks are located is VERY hit or miss, etc), they could be talking about losing 6k+ of annual salary. That is one reason I did not convert my fed retirement plan over to another provider when I left my term position – I would love to return to the NPS but I’m not currently able to move.
        @Mrs. Park Ranger Also, STAY IN PARK HOUSING. Once you leave, 1) hard to get back on the waiting list and 2) you become subject to that state’s tenant laws re lease breaks / early termination fees. Had this happen to a LE ranger – moved out of park; signed 12 mos lease; got a PERMANENT offer at next grade up; tried to break lease and couldn’t. Had to pay the ENTIRE 12mos of rent plus lease breakage fees PLUS rent at new park. Completely wiped out their savings plus some.

        • Mrs. Park Ranger says:

          Wow, good to know! We LOVE our park housing and as long as we are at our current park we plan to stay in it. Just never know if the next park will have housing available. I wish they all did, makes it so much easier.

  4. My adventurous side was in overdrive reading this… I love that you pursued careers you love!

    I have one suggestion/idea to throw in the mix. You mentioned that you are interested in buying a house, but often have to move and do not necessarily have a stable location. You also mention being minimalists…

    Have you ever considered buying and living in a van or RV/trailer? While I do not have experience in this area myself, I do know there are many resources and a whole sub-culture of people living out of vehicles. My brother and his wife are considering it for his job as well. He works as a wildland firefighter or a hotshot and often applies to jobs all over the West. They see a potential van/RV life as a good way to have a “home” without the need to move in and out of apartments all the time. Might be a fun idea to entertain 🙂

    And while it has been said above, I want to echo a “Bravo!” for your diligent savings and steps towards FI!

    • Mrs. Adventure Rich – Great advice!

      I also suggest they consider buying or building a Tiny Home which may feel more “homey”. 🙂

      • Kate says:

        This is a great idea I didn’t consider to suggest. Buying a Tiny Home or RV to take with them wherever they go is a perfect way to have a “home” and also be able to move around the country as per their careers. Love it!

    • Kristine says:

      That really is an awesome idea! I bet they could park it at/near the national park they are working in, although they’d still have to pay “rent” for the lot. It would probably eliminate the need for one of the cars and make for a lot of fun cheaper vacations.

    • This is a brilliant idea, Mrs. Adventure Rich! By getting an RV, Mr. and Mrs. Park ranger will have the best of both worlds: a stable home and the flexibility to travel.

      I personally have been dreaming about living in a tiny house, at least for change. Mr. FAF said that we can try the RV life for a week or so when we travel in the future. I just can’t wait to see what it’s like! 😀

    • Buying a tiny house or an RV is a great idea! We owned and lived in an RV for several months with our child and cat… If you’re good with the tiny/minimalist lifestyle, it can work very well. There are DEFINITELY expenses associated with this – including lots of maintenance – but compared to a mortgage or rent, RV costs are often a lot less (they were for us, anyway). You’d also want something that’s suitable for all four seasons.

      Kudos on being debt free and on your amazing savings! Great work!

    • This had my adventurous side going too! I think they’re a great example for anyone heading towards FI on a normal salary.

    • Lyna says:

      I’m wondering if they could buy/work up to a fairly large RV/5th wheel that would not be relocated except for major moves. Then, hire someone with a proper tow vehicle; no need to own a large truck for rare uses.
      As rangers I’m sure they see every possible RV option on the market. Talking to owners of likely looking options would give them lots of useful tips, pros and cons!

    • Another ditto, exactly was I was thinking while reading it. They seem to fit the profile for that lifestyle perfectly!

    • rocket says:

      But the environmental/financial cost of fueling a trailer….

    • MBP says:

      My husband and I lived full time in an RV (27′ travel trailer) for 8 years with two children, usually with no hookups. We were on the road most of that time, moving from place to place (from fishing hole to fishing hole) as the spirit took us. It was great! Your situation is a little different, and if you decided to go that route, a larger travel trailer or fifth wheel is the way to go since you wouldn’t be moving constantly. It is definitely a frugal option, since it is a small space and utilities are minimal. There is also no temptation to buy a lot of stuff since there is nowhere to put it.

  5. Thank you for your service! It’s great that you both have found a job that you love. The photos are absolutely stunning!

    I was looking at your expenses to see where you can cut, but I think you have done a good job keeping your expenses low. That said, I think you can definitely save more for a house by lowering or cutting the following expenses:

    – Either Netflix or July
    – eating out budget. It could be cut to $20 a week. I know Mrs. Frugalwoods has stopped eating out altogether.

    I would lower the 401k contribution to save for a house. Best of luck!

  6. WantNotToWantNot says:

    Congratulations for creating such a great life from your love of the outdoors—and thanks to you both for the work you do at our national parks that benefits all of us who love our natural heritage.

    Like Mrs. Adventure Rich, I’m addressing the “want to buy a home” idea. What a great idea she has about an RV or trailer—inexpensive and entirely portable for the next decade or more as your careers may require. You could probably find something really adorable on wheels that you could make your own.

    I agree whole-heartedly with Mrs. FW that homeownership is absolutely not the only–or even fastest–path to building wealth or becoming FI.

    While the vision of settling into a home is appealing, and home-flipper shows on TV promote the fantasy that you can make a killing in real estate, the reality is that most people spend far more on a house than they will ever get out of it. I write this as someone who has lived in our fixed-it-up house for 15 years, but then we have been FI for quite some time. My husband calls our home and garden “our sailboat”— yes it is our hobby and I don’t think of it as an investment.

    A house purchase is for most the largest single financial decision. Houses are very seductive and play into aspirations and fantasies about how life will unfold. There are many hidden costs to purchasing, maintaining, and selling property, costs that are often ignored in the excitement of house-hunting. Taxes, insurance, capital improvements, repairs, tools, the labor (if you do it all yourself, the cost of your time), and all the associated costs of buying and selling have to be taken into account, and factored against the possible appreciation of the property (often over-estimated) and the unquantifiable pleasure of owning. That’s a bit of complex math! It’s the kind of thinking that should be done in advance. You would want to go into the purchase of a property with a clear-eyed budget made in advance, before ever looking around at houses.

    For anyone contemplating the purchase of a home, I recommend reading (or re-reading) the posts by Mrs. FW from a few years back, as the Frugalwoods went into their multi-year plan to move from their city apartment to their country homestead. After years saving for their downpayment, the FWs spent a lot of time analyzing what they really wanted and could afford; they did an enormous amount of research into where they wanted to live; they had a realistic and detailed budget; they looked at multiple properties before finding just the right place. As a couple, they were also on the same page. Their process was a very smart template for real estate purchase, something we can all learn from!

  7. You’re annual expenses are impressively low! Great job!

    I FIREd in my early 50 so I understand your desire to hit FI. If you assume an annual budget of $20,000 then you need at least 25 times that or $500,000 to be FI. Some people would argue you need more, but $500,000 is probably the bare minimum unless reduce your already low annual expenses further. I suggest you take a look at FIRECalc if you want to investigate further.

    • Mrs. Park Ranger says:

      Thanks for the tip on the FIRECalc. We have only thought about when about we would like to be financially independent, but haven’t run the numbers since it would be in the far off distance for us. But we’ll definitely use the calculator now to give it more thought.

  8. Chris Upchurch says:

    “Cell phone: I recommend they look for a cheaper provider. I pay $19.99 through BOOM mobile. Ting and Republic Wireless are two other low-cost providers to investigate.”

    One note of caution: I’ve found that MVNO carriers like Ting that do not own their own networks often have poor coverage in the rural areas of the west and southwest. I would be leery of switching off of one of the major cell carriers unless you can talk to someone in your area who uses one of the alternative carriers and ask them how much coverage they get.

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      So I use BOOM in a very rural area and the key is finding a low-cost provider that works correctly, but, it is entirely possible and a wonderful way to save a ton of money! MNVOs are typically re-selling mainstream (ie. Verizon, AT&T) providers, so the coverage is usually the same.

      • Chris Upchurch says:

        Not always. My parents have Ting (using a phone on the AT&T network) and I used to have AT&T. We ran into plenty of situations in the southwest where I had coverage and they didn’t. We also found that there were places where they could get voice service, but not data. It’s very tricky.

    • Mrs. Park Ranger says:

      We have been reluctant to switch from our current major cell phone carrier because of coverage. We are so remote here that our cell phone only works at our residence and a few spotty areas within a 10 miles radius. But, as Mrs Frugalwoods points out they are able to get reception at their rural location, so Mr. Park Ranger and Myself will probably be looking into one of these carriers soon.

      • Sarah D says:

        As a resident of the southwest with family in VT/NH, I’ll caution Mrs Frugalwoods that things in rural VT are NOT the same as in remote parts of the southwest. I live in my state’s biggest city and coverage is fine on one of these providers that borrows towers, but the second I cross city border (into either tribal or federal land) my phone is worthless. I experience nothing even remotely the same when I visit relatives in rural VT/NH.

        • Morgan says:

          As a former resident of Rural New Mexico (recently moved in to “town”), I can confirm that Verizon has better coverage than every other phone provider, even providers that claim to use the Verizon network. I switched to Xfinity Mobile, which is nearly free with Xfinity internet and claims to use the Verizon network, but I do not get service in many rural areas where I did get service with Verizon.

          • Sheila says:

            I’m in a not so rural area of northern Arizona, and our experience is also that Verizon is the only carrier with decent service. Even AT&T didn’t work inside the city limits. I have looked many times at trying to switch to something cheaper, but found over and over nothing else gets decent service here. At least not yet. 🙂

  9. Rachel S says:

    No advice, but I want to comment on how impressive you two are and how inspirational!! Thank you for sharing your story with us!

  10. Mustachian says:

    Love the lifestyle! I’m a 30 yr old fed working at NARA and there’s a few things to keep in mind. All the money your agency matches (5%) will be added to the traditional not Roth, even if you contribute 100% IRA. If you max out your TSP with $18,500, you are able to squeeze more into that tax shelter with a Roth because 18.5k after tax is worth way more than 18.5k before tax. I, too, believe you should switch to ROTH, but if you are hesitant to fully commit, you have the option of contributing any % blend of traditional/roth.

    If you are both under FERS, every full year you are increasing your pension amount by 1%. Check to see if your time as seasonal employees contributed towards your pension. You can leave your job and wait to claim the pensions until you reach an age where they will not reduce it for an early distribution.

    And lastly, don’t forget that some states do not tax federal pensions at all.

    • Mrs. Park Ranger says:

      I think we will definitely be switching to Roth for our TSP, I did not know you could do a blend of it though, good to know. Unfortunately our seasonal time does not count towards our pension.

      • GSA Fed says:

        Another federal worker here – I do all of my retirement in the TSP, and a blend of 401K and Roth, and my agency’s online system makes it (relatively) easy to select both. I make sure I get the agency match for 401K, and then the rest goes to the Roth.

  11. Kristine says:

    The biggest piece I wanted to reiterate was that “Financial independence does not need to be your goal in order for you to live a financially stable, happy life.” You clearly love your jobs, and the fact that you’re paid do to something you love is… well, everything! Financial independence is a nice feather in your cap, but an even nicer feather is the one you got living your best possible life. 🙂

    • Kristine says:

      Also, kudos to Mrs. Frugalwoods on the recent string of cases you’ve been choosing! I love that most of them haven’t been “What do we cut out to reach financial independence” but instead have been focused on living the best life possible. #priorities 🙂

    • Chris says:

      I did really like seeing the perspective presented here that FI is a nice and laudable goal, but being paid to do what you love is also really hard to beat. I think frugality and building financial stability are important , as life is full of surprises. Layoffs, health issues, and changes of priority can all be more easily weathered when on a firm financial footing. But if you truly love your work, doing it indefinitely is not daunting but fulfilling.

  12. Sarah says:

    I’d suggest looking into the Roth TSP to get their full match, then maxing out their Roth IRAs, and then going back to the TSP for any further retirement investing. A Roth IRA is so much more flexible! Contributions to Roth IRAs can be taken out penalty free (not advisable, but maybe if they want to retire at 50 that is something to consider!) and you can choose your investments from the entire market instead of the more narrow TSP options.
    Also, now I want to go hiking in the southwest. 😉

  13. Since you are not sure where you will be living in the future or how far out buying a house might be, I would recommend getting low-fee index funds through Vanguard and dump most of your extra money in it. You still need to keep your emergency nest egg in a stable savings account, but any extra could be put in index funds and could be working to make you money. If, for some reason, the stock parket plummets, you can absolutely just continue to rent for a couple more years until you make your money back, plus some. In my opinion, it is better to have your money making money than to let it sit earning basically nothing while you wait to decide.

    My husband and I both put our 5% plus some into TSP, but most of our savings goes into Vanguard (we plan to retire in 6 years at the age of 35, and with kids). We recently bought a rental property with money we made on our investments, but if we had lost money, we would have chosen to wait it out a few more years.

    I also like the idea of getting a small house or RV. It is super portable, and you can get long-tem lodging fairly cheap all over the country. Being out in nature all of the time and ‘perpetually camping’ would be a dream of mine. The Mr. doesn’t share that dream – video games are his love language.

  14. Anne says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I work for a semi-related agency and my concrete jungle has nothing on your views.

    Something to keep in mind for federal employees thinking about FI is the limited withdrawal options for TSP. Roth IRAs are much more flexible. After considering this, my personal order of preference became:

    1) TSP contributions to receive full agency match.
    2) Fully fund Roth IRA.
    3) Increase TSP contributions, up to maximum.

    One thing I would recommend is looking through eOPF/SF-50s to make sure all of your time as a federal employee prior to your permanent appointment has been properly documented. As you may be aware, the hours of annual leave you receive increases at 3 years and 15 years, so make sure your service computation date is correct. For many employees, the service computation date is the same for retirement and leave. This can lead to a different date being overlooked.

    Sick leave can eventually count toward years of service for retirement. Therefore, I prefer to use credit/comp/annual leave before sick leave in most cases.

    I have heard good things about FERSguide, but I haven’t actually read it myself. IIRC, I believe that NPS has a union, which may have some additional resources. There are also some feds and military on the MMM forums. There are many free online resources for feds. If it is an option for you, the HR provided webinars can be useful, particularly if you have questions.

    If it interests you, the pension and retirement rules for law enforcement officers (LEO) has some differences from that of non-LEOfeds. I think it is worth looking into.

    • Mrs. Park Ranger says:

      Great Tips! Good to hear from a fellow GOV employee. Mr. Ranger and I will definitely be looking into how to allocate our retirement funds based on this suggestion and the others. I have checked my SF-50s several times to make sure my service comp date is correct. We are also looking into buying some military time back.
      As like you I am hoarding my SL, and try not to use it when possible and would rather flex my time then take SL. Both Mr. Ranger and myself are not LEO or Fire so we do not qualify for their early retirement benefits/ rules.

  15. Marleigh says:

    As stated above, I also second the notion of an RV/van/travel trailer. With your awesome jobs, it would be wonderful to simply drive your abode to your next station and so on and so forth. And since they come in so many different sizes and layouts, you could definitely find something that you’re comfortable with and if it’s a travel trailer, your Jeep Wrangler may already be equipped to tow. Plus some used RVs/vans/travel trailers will be priced under 10-15K and even some new{er} RVs/vans/travel trailers will set you back less than 20K. So it’s not a humongous debt we’re talking about. Everything else I agree you guys are doing great on a smaller income, and that’s very impressive. Keep up the good work.

  16. firstmute says:

    My YNAB-loving heart has to pop in to say that your random expenses are not random! Car insurance, vet bills, registration–these happen every year (or six months, or, in the case of repairs, erratically but still predictably) and you can and probably should be saving regularly for them. That’ll give you even more control over your income and savings–although your control is already impressive!

  17. Barbara says:

    What is their rent amount

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      They pay $500/month in rent, which is directly debited from Mrs. Ranger’s salary (see the notation next to her take-home pay).

  18. Liz says:

    I’m wondering how often the Rangers order from Amazon (maybe it’s a necessity given their rural location?). After analyzing our orders last year, I realized that we almost always order a bunch of stuff at once, going over the $35 threshold for free shipping. If you can deal with slower shipping speeds, you might be able to save the $99 annual fee by getting rid of Amazon Prime, especially since you already have Hulu and Netflix for entertainment content. Also, have you considered homebrewing beer? After an initial equipment investment, you can buy pre-made recipe kits and make gallons of beer for cheaper than $40/month.

  19. Steph says:

    This is one of the best case studies! It’s inspiring how you guys don’t bring in six figures, but are still able to save so much and build a life you love!! You need to come help me redo my budget and life haha.
    I don’t have much advice to offer you (honestly, you guys are doing GREAT), but I’d def wait to buy a house. I’d also keep on keeping on with the retirement accounts and traveling balance you guys have now! Once you have kids or your own house with more extensive honey do lists, traveling will be tough! Like Mrs. FW suggested, there are other expenses you can cut back on further fund travel and retirement.

  20. Shelby says:

    Firstly – LOVE Park Rangers and interact with them any chance I get! Couple thoughts:
    1. Investigate the tiny house idea which would allow you to take your home investment with you and not limit your work locations.
    2. If you love your work, why limit your working days to early 50’s. FI by early 50’s yes … but even with only one of you working after that point would keep you funded for travel etc, plus keep you covered for employer medical etc.

  21. Mike Schultz says:

    If I were them I would purchase a used travel trailer camper that is comfortable to live in. In addition, they probably can find a camp site or some where in national park or outside for virtually free. They are doing pretty well and I love what they have going on. Keep up good work!

  22. Iris says:

    I heartily agree with your comments on home ownership. Our daughter is making noises about buying something in the city she’s working in, but she also hopes her employer will send her to Italy for a few years – an option since they have a manufacturing facility there, and they do this kind of thing regularly. Her housing is currently a rental house with 2 other girls, but they don’t think they’ll stay together that long. I think she’s concluded that if she does buy, it should be a condo, because renting it out while she’s gone (if she goes) would be much easier than renting a house. Even if she were to relocate to another city, she could continue to rent out the condo, at least initially.

    One other option for them could be the so-called tiny house, which could also be relatively easy to move to a new job location.

    Cell phones – the National Park Service used to have a deal with Verizon for coverage in parks – maybe they offer a Park Service discount?. If this is still true, they might do better with coverage to use Verizon or study Tracfone and use their Verizon-based options. To decide what carrier works for you – most major carriers will refund nearly all of your money if coverage where you live is bad, but you have to make that decision in the time they allow, 15-30 days usually. There are also some phones that will work on all US carriers (mostly Motorola) – that would save money if you end up switching carriers because of a move. Don’t sign a contract!

  23. Sarah says:

    I love your blog, and you’re a wonderful writer, but the apostrophe issues here are making me twitch. Since there are two rangers, you should be discussing the rangers’ finances, and the rangers’ budget. The apostrophe goes after the s.

    • Beck says:

      Yes, there are two rangers, but they’re calling themselves Mr. And Mrs. Ranger. Ranger: singular, capitalized, as their last name for the anonymous purpose of this case study. Hence, “the Ranger’s finances” and “the Ranger’s budget” is completely correct.

      • Sarah D says:

        We still pluralize last names when we’re talking about them as a couple/family (think about how we address holiday cards – not to “The Smith” but to “The Smiths”). So “The Ranger’s Hobbies” is a good example – it needs to be “The Rangers’ Hobbies”. The other Sarah is correct!

      • Denise says:

        Not necessarily. If you are talking about both Mr. and Mrs. and the possessive is involved, then s’ is correct. For instance, if writing about the finances of both Mr. and Mrs. Ranger, then it should be “…the Rangers’ finances…”.

        I love this blog, so for the first time in my grammatically-pedantic nit-picking life, I hereby grant absolution to the wondrous Mrs. Frugalwoods, if (which is not admitted), she even made a punctuation error in the first place!

  24. Laura says:

    I was so excited to read this. My dad was a Park Ranger for 33 years so every statement made me go “Yes exactly!” (I lived 1 hour drive from a Walmart until I went to college. I still have to remind myself I do not have to stock bread in the freezer anymore). I can tell you some of the things my family and other rangers we got to know did that may (or may not) be helpful.

    My dad was a ranger/superintendent for the NC State Park system. I’m sure other states have similar set ups but I’m not sure. There were a decent number of rangers that used to be NPS within the system because they wanted more stability to start families. I don’t know if you have looked into switching agencies but it can be done. The nice thing about NC Parks is they provide housing to all superintendents and a lot of the ranger positions, especially in the high cost of living areas like the Beach parks. I think technically you have to pay rent but its about $150 or something equally trivial and they take it out before taxes. My parents basically made a “mortgage payment” to themselves so they could build their house once they retired since they basically had free housing. You also get free camping/cabin usage/etc. at all other NC state parks which my family took advantage of for our vacations growing up. It took us a while to explore the state.

    Most ranger couples that I knew were able to get positions at nearby parks. One of the ranger’s husband at the park my dad was at was superintendent at a different park about 40 min away. This could get tricky if both jobs came with a residence so it is something to keep a close watch about. There were other situations where one partner worked in the state system and the other at the county or city system.

    I will say if you are considering having kids, growing up on a park was awesome! I highly recommend it for your future family 🙂

  25. Tracy says:

    I want to second the cell phone bit. I also switched to boom (red) recently and tested it out by traveling to my childhood home and comparing it to my moms service. This is also a super rural area and only a couple of providers work at all…historically with my previous provider I had to stand on a specifc part of the sidewalk, not fun in winter!

    Anyway. My boom service worked identically to my moms… She subsequently also switched to boom.

    Related point, she uses a portable wifi (think mifi type device)for all her internet instead of going with the expensive local companies. Depends on how much internet you need, but something to think about /check into.

  26. Love hearing about people who are doing life differently. I had no idea that park ranger employment could be so unpredictable. As with most things, there are ways to make it work. Solid advice, as always.

  27. Mike Kauspedas says:

    I haven’t read this case study yet, but I am very jealous.

  28. Joseph says:

    Assuming your schedule works out, I would look at selling one of the two cars. If you sold the Jeep, you would be $3000 or $4000 richer instantly and $1000+ richer each year.

  29. Wow what a story! They’re so frugal! When I was young I wanted to be a ranger at Yellowstone and oh I don’t know, run with wolves haha.

    I think reducing their emergency fund a little is fine, they should put it into I Bonds if they’re not looking for any large purchases or liabilities in the next 1-5 years.

    This was a great case study! Wonderful photos to boot!

  30. Michelle says:

    Oh man… just looking at those pictures makes me drool with envy…

  31. Louise says:

    Thank you for sharing your story with us!
    Is the income difference between spouses due to differing years of experience? (The $500 a month rent might be part of that). Is there some continuing education or certification you could do to increase your salary? Are park rangers good at sharing ideas with each other? Is the national park system notably better for employment than the state systems?
    Having children would be healthiest in the next few years. Would you be able to live on one salary for a while if necessary?
    Is there some other way you could make money using your professional experience? I don’t know what a free-lance park ranger would be, nor what government rules would permit. (Watch me avoid the dreadful phrase “side gig”). Consider writing or being interviewed for travel magazines (airlines, Amtrak, AAA, AARP) or online sources about the best ways to get the most out of your trips to national parks, ghost stories, legends, strange things tourist do, preparing for an outdoor adventure, animals, rock formations, equipment reviews, activities for children, and so forth. Or post photos for sale on one of the online places where people buy them by the use. You have a whole world of information and images that most of us do not. Best to you both!

    • Turia says:

      These are great ideas! I had thought of the photo licensing option already but there could be a great market for freelance writing with their experience.

    • Mrs. Park Ranger says:

      Great tips! Our salaries differ because Mr. Ranger is a grade above me. If/when Mr. Ranger and I have a kid we are hoping one of us can telework part time. We both love our jobs so much I can’t see one of us taking time off, but working from home for various admin tasks looks very appealing. Great side hustle ideas! I’m always trying to think of things that we could do way out here. Will for sure be looking into photo licensing option.

      • Louise says:

        Maybe you can’t sell photo prints in the park stores; there must be rules about that. But perhaps if you have some great shots that could be greeting cards or something like that, local (hopefully upscale) tourist stores could handle them for you.
        How many of us would buy a set of Frugalhound cards or a sweatshirt with that face staring back?
        But to start, I like the online photo options, as that is sort of self-contained.

  32. Mrs. FrugalBrooklyn says:

    I think I might be missing something but I don’t see their rent expenses in their list of expenses. Can you clarify their rent is? Thank you!

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      They pay $500/month in rent, which is directly debited from Mrs. Ranger’s salary (see the notation next to her take-home pay).

  33. Anne says:

    As Long as you are still working for the government, you can borrow $10k from your TSP for purchase of a home, and then pay it back over several years. I believe you could do this for each of your accounts, so 20k at the ready when you decide to take the plunge.

    • Mrs. Park Ranger says:

      I had forgotten that bit about borrowing up to 10k for purchase of a home. I’ll have to remember that if we ever do pursue home ownership.

  34. jp says:

    That looks like SO much fun! My comment, as far as buying a house with the potential of moving often: might I suggest buying with the intent of turning into a rental? (The Frugalwoods did this for their rental as well – lived in it before renting out). My husband and I move every couple of years (what can I say, we get bored easily). Every time we move, we buy a house well below our “affordability level” (i.e. we were pre-approved for a 450k mortgage, but bought a house for 98k) and one that we could easily rent out for more than the mortgage. They’ve all been fixer-uppers (though cosmetic only – no ripping out walls here). We now have 3 houses in 3 different states (hello diversification!) with a bit of cash flow. We get the joys of homeownership (I made it 3 months in an apartment and couldn’t take it), we are actually investing long term and when we move we get a bit more passive income. In addition, because it is our primary residence first, we get the lower interest rates and lower % down payment. Just some food for thought.

    • Mrs. Park Ranger says:

      That is a great idea! Buying and then selling a home a few years later is a scary (for me) option, but keeping it as a rental makes it a whole lot less scary. Good to hear people that people own homes in multiple states too, makes it seem that much more possible.

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Good point on rentals; however, I do want to caution that not all locations are amendable to rentals and it can become a money-draining/financially disastrous experience. I recommend digging into the resources on the Bigger Pockets real estate investing website before diving into serving as a landlord. Turning a home into a rental is not guaranteed to succeed and there’s a fair amount of risk involved, even in robust real estate markets.

  35. Mr. Tako says:

    Great case story Mrs. FW! They’re already pretty frugal folks, so I suspect they’ll do well in the upcoming years.

    Finding a side hustle might be a good option to help grow income. Since they’re out in the boonies, something online might work best.

  36. Victoria says:

    Well done for enjoying your life! Majority of my NPS knowledge comes from Nevada Barr novels so I’m guessing you guys deal with less murderers 🙂 Rather than side gigs can you upskill up in your roles? Fire fighting, law enforcement, medic etc. I assume it’s more difficult to get two roles at once in the same park so investigate how to make that easier.
    Rather than RE per se, since you seem to love your jobs, FI would allow one or both of you to leave NPS if the politics or physical nature of the jobs get too much for one or both of you at any point.
    I don’t think buying a house would work for you in the next couple of years due to your stated aim of moving to a new park.
    In terms of children, maybe use this time to speak to colleagues with children to see what works and what is difficult. I know that Orlando Soria of Hommemaker blog grew up in Yosemite as his parents worked there and there may be other info that would help you make plans. Or try The Homes I Have Made blog. They have two children and move regularly as he’s in the military.

    • Mrs. Park Ranger says:

      Thank you for the tips. Nevada Barr is a great author, love her books. But you are right the actual day to day of the NPS is a lot less exciting, but we do have our fair share of excitement.

      I think if we do have a kid, one of us will have to tele-work part-time. Which we are thankful we have that ability.

  37. Chris says:

    Echoing what Liz said about not buying a house at this point. It could so easily become an expensive burden, a millstone around your neck the moment you have to transfer elsewhere. Renting is mighty fine for many folks. I’ve bought 3 homes over the years and am currently wishing I was just renting right now due to the economy in my city. 🙁 I want to downsize in the next few years but may be stuck for a while yet due to the major employer in my midsize city doing some downsizing of their own.

    You guys are doing very well for yourselves. Good luck!

  38. I don’t have any advice beyond the great tips above, there are many. I would like to say I’m green with envy about their jobs. As an outdoor sports junkie, a job like that might just be heaven!

  39. Soggysuzzi says:

    Wonderful, WONDERFUL! Not everyone can have what they want so young. You’re doing a fab job to date. Good for you both!

    Housing Situation: I suggest you table this for now. $500 per month is cheap rent and while I really like the suggestions re trailer (or whatever) when you end up in a place where housing costs are much higher, revisit this seriously. It will probably cost you at least $500 per month for space rental, payments, upkeep, new tires, ad nauseum . Also, what about water and waste hookups or composting toilets, water delivery, etc.? The house purchase should be well thought out when you feel your location and time at that location suits you.

    Military time: Yep, get that time on your retirement program. I don’t know how the feds work now (it changed substantially some years ago) but if it is anything like a PERS system, this will be of great benefit down the line. I had 4.5 years of PERS that I bought back when I landed some years later at another PERS job. In that system, if you have PERS time from more than one state you will only get what each state will give you. You will only get the amount for the time from each state. In other words, say you have four jobs in four states you would get a piddly little amount from each state instead of a decent amount by keeping it all together. I tracked my buy back of 4.5 years and I broke even on the buy back in a little less than four years. From then on it was gravy. Check this out for the fed program – I’ll bet you’ll come out ahead by utilizing the military time. In the PERS program I was in military time was added to work time at no cost.

    Also, as ex-military, education benefits are available. You can beef up a degree or in the case of a friend of mine, get a master’s degree over time thanks to this program. You might want to check it out if it could help to advance your careers to a higher income level. Does the Forest Service provide any educational benefits? These days you can do the whole thing on the internet. Also lots of free classes from major universities are available (generally you have to buy a book). Anything to dress up the resume.

  40. Carol Herbert says:

    Wow…..sure beats 40 hours per week in a cubicle…………If I could pick a new career and I was younger I think I would love to be a Park Ranger. You get to meet people from all over the world and educate them about our state parks……our national treasures…………….I think you are both living a responsible fiscal life. It is a shame that such an important job does not pay better….with all the upheaval and moves needed to stay employed in your profession…………But even with a modest salary you two are kicking butt on the savings side of things….Keep up the good work…….

  41. Sarah D says:

    This is a great case study. I love National Parks so incredibly much and have so much respect for the rangers (whose jobs aren’t always glamorous, I know!). I have no major advice except to say that I do think you should divert some of that 20K into low-fee index funds now. There’s no point in letting that much money sit as a lump instead of earning interest. Even if the stock market tanks soon, it should likely be back up to speed by the time you want to buy a house (if 5 years is the timeframe).

  42. Lee says:

    Hi guys, I have a special interest in this, as I just retired from NPS October 1st with 30 years and three days in the service. I am 56 and my husband is ten years older. We own our old house and about 20 acres of land in rural Virginia. I retired as a GS-09 interpretive park ranger and my husband as a veterinary assistant.

    I feel fortunate that I had some great bosses and other NPS mentors who gave me good advice, because no-one ever talked about money in my household growing up. Here’s some info you might find of use:

    1. sock away money in the TSP … we are so very lucky to have such a savings program! My first boss made me put away 5% to start because the government would match your funds; I have almost always kept it in the G fund (what my coworkers called “the coward fund,” but it gave me peace of mind). When Ranger Careers bumped us from GS-7 to GS-9’s, I started saving aggressively and was maxing out what I could stash away (including the “over 50” catch-up amount. This is so important to start early, guys – it can really add up.

    2. Hang onto your AL so, if possible, you start each year with 240 hours or as close to it as you can get. When you leave NPS, your AL will be paid out to you, and it’s a sweet chunka change … or can be, if you have plenty accrued.

    3. Consider starting IRA’s, just so you will have them in place. When I had a home business for a few years, it was very helpful to have this set up already.

    4. Don’t forget savings bonds! I still have some from years back and I know they are going to come in handy.

    5. If you get any time-off awards, hang onto them. At the end of my tenure, I was able to leave five weeks early because of my awards; I’d always asked the bosses (on the advice of my first boss) for time off awards rather than money. (You cannot cash in time off awards.) Unused sick leave will add to your annuity amount; this is a recent change for FERS employees … and it’s about time!

    6. Start reading about retirement right away; our AO would send us stuff all the time and it’s never to early to start planning. I have about three notebooks stuffed with Federal Service financial information.

    7. We bought our house about five years after we were married because it was equally distant from several NPS sites where I could be happy working. We bought it at the same time I moved to my second park and the move was paid for us. I would not personally buy a house until you are sure where you two want to be. Our old house is great for us, and it’s been paid off for about five years. We got a 15-year mortgage and paid on the principal as we were able.

    8. Have fun being cheap! Be creative! I remember when I started as a GS-4, I used to calculate my salary in terms of pounds of split peas (which, back then, normally retailed for three pounds for a dollar!). Nice thing about NPS, or so I’ve found, is that very few people are into impressing others with pretty much anything expensive. And, at least in my experience, there are always ways to have fun with your coworkers and the visitors which can be so very satisfying.

    9. Take advantage of the knowledge and good will that surround you. I had so many friends and mentors throughout the years … and I have always tried to give back. An especially rich resource for financial knowledge: VIP’s! Wow, I was so grateful for all the help various seniors, retired from high-powered jobs, have offered me throughout the years. Those folks know so much and will be happy to share! Golly, and staff folks, from LE to maintenance to admin’. know so much and I have always been grateful for the knowledge gained.

    Well, that’s what’s coming out of the ranger hat at the moment. I’m sure others will be offering many more useful ideas and advice. Hope you two have a long and satisfying career with NPS – preserving, protecting and providing for the enjoyment of the visiting public! Drop me a line and say hi!

    • Mrs. Park Ranger says:

      Great advice! Its great to hear from a retired Park Ranger! Our AO has offered some great classes on finances and I love talking to our crowd of VIPs, they always have great advice.

      • Lee says:

        Thanks! And don’t forget the visitors, in the advice department. I would give huge tours at time (over 100 people) and, if I had some question, I knew I could ask the group and invite them to share insights with me after the tour. People are so generous, and really want to help you out! For the last year before I retired, I’d ask how many folks in my group had retired, and then solicit their words of wisdom at the end of the tour. Great stuff. And (funny story) I once asked a group how to keep the paint on my old tin roof from peeling off. At the end of the tour, one elderly gentleman told me THE SECRET: have hubby get up there and … er … urinate on the surface. Apparently, it does something to the metal that makes the paint stick better. Mercy!

  43. Sandi says:

    It’s probably been said: GEICO! We have 2 cars (2009, 2013) and pay less than $58 a month for good coverage in a ‘burb of a major city. If less traffic = less likelihood of a wreck, you might get a big rate savings. Also… if Republic Wireless provides coverage in your area, I have basic talk & text with them and pay $15 a month. Daughter has talk, text & 1GB of data (she never uses that much, the phone defaults to the wireless network when there is one & at home there always is) for $20/month.

  44. Sarah D says:

    Mrs. F, is there any easy way for you to alert us when a case study is updated after the fact? I’m honestly worried about the couple from South Africa, but I haven’t yet seen an update on them and I don’t want to be a creeper who keeps checking that post every week.

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Good question! I post to our Frugalwoods Facebook page when I update the Case Studies.

      • Diane C says:

        Hi Sarah D,
        Somehow I’d missed that case study. Based on your comment, I just read it. Interesting, to say the least. If you look very carefully, you will see that Clara has posted her email address in a comment. I expect since she did so, she wouldn’t mind receiving encouraging comments directly. We can never receive too many kind words, right?

  45. Great lifestyle! And your real dilemma is not how or how much to save but what your future lifestyle is going to look like. Your current rent, as deducted from your paycheck, of only $500 a month is so low that it makes homeownership look very expensive. You are currently banking the $1500 or $2000 a month that most people are spending on buying houses. You are already winning. I have friends who (husband) worked in a Park for 20 years and were provided a large house for their use. SUCH a deal.

    I, too, love to travel and enjoy the pictures of your terrific vacations. It appears that increasing your income (of course) would be a good idea, and perhaps settling down in one park area to raise children might be another good idea. Here’s another thought: with federal jobs, savings and pensions, you will have the opportunity to retire in your fifties…be open to all the different possible jobs that might include your love of traveling. With your Ranger skills, you would be perfect for caretaker positions in remote areas (Don’t think about The Shining!)…my cousins were caretakers of a private island in the San Juan Islands for ten years, house came with the deal, a wonderful “job” for retirement and fits in with travel. Good luck to you!

  46. What a great post! They remind me of two of my friends who work as landscape gardeners in summer and work with sleigh dogs in winter. Kudos for finding a lifestyle that speaks to you! I agree that you are already winning by not having debt. What a great place of strength to build from!

  47. Jeff says:

    When I worked for the FAA I raised my TSP contributions by 1% per year until maxed out. I only did this if I got a decent pay increase at the beginning of the year. If I got a promotion I raised it maybe more. This way my income still went up a bit with my TSP contributions.

    TSP is index funds and I never had anything in the G fund until after I retired. Most of my money was in the C fund with equal amounts in the S and the I. I only had a small amount in the F fund and never used the Life funds. I hardly ever changed the percentages going into each fund and allocated to each fund even during the economic downturn. I have been retired for 3 years and TSP continues to grow even withdrawing about 2% per year.

  48. Debra Mize says:

    Please accept I know that this is so not the intended purpose of your article, but, I wanted to see if you can find out the breed of the dog. I have learned a lot from the points you made and I want to put the pup on my ‘work to achieve’ list. Please and thank you.

  49. Pbkmaine says:

    They should explore travel hacking for their big trip each year.

  50. Kris says:

    Thanks for sharing your story about your financial situation and how to get a job with the National Park Services. My wife always talks about being a park ranger so I will definitely have her read your post.
    I would echo Mrs. Frugalwoods’ recommendation about looking for a home. I think you should rent for now until you settle at a location where you guys would stay long term(10+ years).
    In terms of retirements accounts, you guys should max out your IRA since its only $5500 a year and continue contributing the same amount for your 401K accounts
    With your emergency fund, I would take about $10K of it and put it into low index funds since you can have money to grow passively and with the way you two are saving you can build your emergency fund back up in no time.
    Best of luck guys and great pictures of the national parks, definitely cool to work at scenic places.

  51. Norm says:

    First, I think I might become a NPS ranger now just to wear that uniform. Damn, that is a good uniform.

    Travel – My wife and I have taken a bunch of overseas trips in the past couple years, and none have come in over $2,000. Our trip to Thailand this year was about $850! I suggest you look into getting a few new credit cards with frequent flyer mile sign-on bonuses. It will do wonders for you travel budget.

    Cell phone plan at $35/mo is “the most basic of the basic.” Ha ha. Not likely! My wife and I each pay less than $10/mo through Tracfone. Now THAT’S basic!

    Home savings – If you’re using the cash within the next 1-3 years, do not put it in anything like stocks or bonds. Your time horizon is too short. Just keep it in a money market fund or some kind of cash equivalent so it’s there when you need it.

  52. Cindy in the South says:

    I have no suggestions, other than what Ms. Frugalwoods said, but I do have a question, can I be a Park Ranger when I grow up (I am 57)….lol. Seriously, best job ever!

  53. Diane C says:

    A big plus one to travel hacking!

    I’ve read the case study twice and all the comments. Pardon if I ask something that’s been covered.

    Housing situation sounds good. If you had a small RV or Camp Trailer, could you park and live in it for less money per month?

    What are the Rangers/Ranger’s/Rangers’ actual job titles? Why is Mrs. Ranger being paid so much less than Mr. Ranger?

    As an avowed homeowner, I concur with the advice not to buy. If you really, really want to scratch that itch, I’d look into buying a rental property somewhere where the numbers work, including management fees. I do think that’s a sub-optimal choice, but that’s how I got the same itch scratched back when I was just getting started and couldn’t afford to buy where I lived.

    This thought is sure to be controversial, but here goes: Is there any chance you could do what you’re doing for X number of years, then switch to other, potentially less interesting jobs within the system that are higher pay grades while you raise your family during the school years, then switch back to the outdoor work you love later? Moving back and forth, with a specific goal in mind, might make the switch more enjoyable. I’m mostly just brainstorming on this last one, not giving actual advice.

    Best of luck to you!

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