Mr. Frugalwoods and I had a conversation last night about how much more frugal we’ve become since formalizing our plan to retire in 2017 to a homestead in the woods of Vermont and it got us thinking: could we–or anyone–be this frugal without a destination in mind?
I’m fond of saying that when you’re working towards a goal, frugality isn’t about what you’re giving up, it’s about what you’re going to gain. I think a frugality-fueled goal could encompass a range of things from paying down debt to putting kids through college to having the ability to travel the world. But what if you don’t have a goal set at all?
The Frugalwoods Frugality Journey
I’ll be honest that our journey through, and to, frugality hasn’t been terribly rocky. We’ve never had any debt (other than our mortgage), we don’t have a secret passel of jet skis hidden in our basement, and we’ve always been mostly aligned in our approach to our finances. I think Mr. FW and I are both naturally frugal and inclined towards efficiency, optimization, and getting a good deal.
Plus, neither of us derives much pleasure from spending money. We use money to procure stuff we need (like groceries) or really, really want (like vacations across Europe). But here’s the thing: even with this ingrained sense of frugality, there was a period of time in our lives when we weren’t as frugal as we are now.
In college, Mr. FW and I were frugal out of necessity. We didn’t make much money at our on-campus jobs and thus, didn’t have much money to spend. It’s also fairly easy to be frugal in college–there’s so much free entertainment and free food (though there isn’t free beer…) on campus that you’d have to try hard not to take advantage of those opportunities. And our mode in college wasn’t that different from our peers. Nobody had loads of money so we all scrimped together, shopped at thrift stores, and used two-for-one Chinese takeout coupons. Mr. FW and I also joined every single student club we could find that offered a free meal at their meetings. It was a strategic approach to extra-curriculars, in our estimation. College was truly our training ground for future frugal weirdo status.
After graduation, I moved to New York City and worked for AmeriCorps, which is a story I should share in more depth at some point. To boil it down, I received a stipend of $10,000 along with food stamps, and managed to save $2,000 of it by the end of the year. Not too shabby. Mr. FW was similarly judicious with his incredibly low entry-level salary.
By the time we combined forces and got engaged in 2007 and married in 2008, we were already in a rare position for our age group: we had no debt, we didn’t live paycheck-to-paycheck, and we earnestly wanted to buy a house. And so, we started saving even more. With the objective of homeownership guiding us, we were content with our uber frugal status. In the same vein as our current style, we rarely ate out, we didn’t pay for entertainment, we didn’t own a car, and we always shopped used. Plus, we lived in a supremely inexpensive basement apartment, which enabled us to ramp up our savings.
After buying our house in 2012, I’d say we experienced something of a spending Rumspringa. We suddenly looked at each other and realized we’d not only managed to buy a house, but, we were saving enough that we had a hefty little nest egg. And then something dangerous happened: we didn’t have a plan.
The Frugalwoods Adrift and Aimless (Sans Plans)
We’d barreled through our early and mid-20’s with a laser like focus on our aspirations: first to graduate college, then to get jobs, then for me to go to grad school, then to buy a house, and then to advance in our careers. And we’d done all that. Gulp.
While we were thrilled with our accomplishments, we started to wonder what might be next in our lives. And that’s when we began to spend more… Neither of us was very pleased with our jobs, or with the 9 to 5 grind, but we didn’t see a way out yet.
Instead, we did what most people do–we inflated our lifestyle to make up for not enjoying how we spent our Mondays through Fridays. We reasoned that this was just what people did, right?! Fortunately, we were both still guided by our internal frugal clocks and so our increased spending wasn’t rampant by any means. But we went out to dinner once a week, we grabbed coffee in eponymous shops, we bought more clothes than we needed (from thrift stores mostly), and we were just generally looser with our wallets. We were the very definition of not tracking our spending! The horror.
I’m deeply grateful that our version of increased spending was rather tame and still had us doing our own home renovations, cooking most of our own meals, contributing to our 401ks, saving a hefty percentage, and avoiding debt. However, we weren’t saving at a rate that would enable early retirement.
We’re Saved: A Plan Is Hatched!
Luckily, we had our watershed moment together and hatched our financial independence plot in early 2014–well before we’d had the chance to do irreversible damage to our savings. I shudder to think what might’ve happened if we’d allowed the lifestyle inflation train to dog us for another few years. In addition to mapping out a timeline, a homestead plan, and sketching our ideas for alternative revenue streams, we realized we’d need to take a careful look at our spending. We decided to live the next month as frugally as possible–and that month became the inspiration for the Uber Frugal Month Challenge.
We lived that month like some hardcore frugal weirdos and realized: this is totally possible! Not only was it possible, it was a ton of fun! Frugality requires creativity, teamwork, a sense of humor, and a willingness to do some unusual things. It also necessitates teaching yourself new skills, relying on your own abilities, and having a clear idea about what matters to you in life.
In other words, frugality makes life more real. Spending money is an easy way to numb our true emotions. That’s exactly what Mr. FW and I were doing–we’d go out to dinner because we’d had a hard week, we’d reward ourselves with a treat because we didn’t like our jobs, and so on. But that’s not really living–that’s numbing the pain. Or at least it was for us. Conversely with extreme frugality, we were forced to face what our ambitions are, how strong our marriage is, and what we actually want out of life. There’s no easy paid-for solutions to hide behind. And what we found is that we love living like this–true, honest, and without expensive distractions.
Can You Be Frugal Without A Goal?
What I wonder is if this level of frugality is possible without having a specific goal to work towards? For us, every financial decision we make is grounded in our ultimate desire to quit our jobs and become self-employed homesteaders. And thanks to that goal, frugality isn’t a struggle for us. But would we be happy in our frugality in the absence of such a clearly articulated plan? I honestly don’t know.