Exactly nine years ago, I was on foodstamps and my husband-to-be was unemployed. I was living in Brooklyn, New York with two roommates in Crown Heights–a neighborhood that no one would describe as “safe” in 2006. Mr. Frugalwoods had just finished up a contract job in Kansas and was furiously applying for every position on the East Coast that he was even remotely qualified for (and a lot that he wasn’t qualified for at all). I was working with AmeriCorps, which is essentially the domestic Peace Corps, and receiving an annual stipend of $10,000 along with those foodstamps.
Mr. FW and I had graduated from college the spring before and weren’t quite sure what to do with our lives. When I think back, our future was fairly uncertain: we had no money, we weren’t married (or even engaged), and neither of us knew what type of career we wanted to pursue, or even where in the country we wanted to live. In many ways, navigating this period of extreme uncertainty is how we ended up so aligned in our goals–we had to create them together with the other person in mind.
A great deal has changed for us this past decade, but the constant throughout is our commitment to each other and the life we want to create. We’ve come a long way from being essentially broke to now being close to financial independence and I thought it would be fun to illustrate how we made it happen.
Our First “Real” Jobs
I ended up working for AmeriCorps in part because I wanted to serve people and in part because, honestly, nobody else would hire me. I applied for more than 50 jobs at the end of my senior year of college and, shockingly enough, not a single one wanted to hire a fresh-out-of-college kid from Kansas with basically zero work experience (I had jobs and internships throughout college, but not the requisite “real” job).
So, I was thrilled when I discovered that AmeriCorps
was desperate enough to would take me. After being placed with a non-profit in Manhattan, I packed up and moved to New York City having never been there before. Luckily, I had two friends from college also making the Kansas to NYC trek, so we lived together in a tiny, dingy apartment along with half a dozen mice and a coalition of cockroaches.
This was a tough decision because my boyfriend (aka Mr. FW) had a job in Kansas and wouldn’t be following me to the big apple. I worried that our relationship wouldn’t survive this geographic separation. But, it was the only job I’d been offered so I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I was bound and determined to support myself, even if it was with the assistance of foodstamps.
Mr. FW, for his part, was working 90-hour weeks on a political campaign for a pittance. He believed in the candidate and in the mission of his work, which is a good thing because he certainly wasn’t making much money. Since this job ended once the campaign concluded, he then spent two unemployed months job searching. He wanted to come to the East Coast to be closer to me and Boston was as close as he got. We are eternally grateful to the organization that hired him because he was coming dang close to being totally broke with a girlfriend who was also almost completely broke. It’s rather apt that he met the person who set him up with this job at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen that served free hot dogs… you can guess why we were there.
Frugal By Necessity (and choice)
In these first jobs out of undergrad, we both netted ridiculously modest salaries, but still managed to save a rather hefty percentage. Of my $10,000 annual “salary,” I scraped together a savings of $2,000 and Mr. FW similarly stashed away a tidy amount of his earnings. We were living frugally by necessity, but also out of an ingrained desire to avoid debt.
Our parents didn’t give us huge gifts of cash when we graduated college, nor did they subsidize our living in any way post-college. We were both on our own and proud to be that way. I do want to note, however, that while our parents weren’t supporting us financially, we enjoyed the inherent privilege of knowing that they would bail us out if something catastrophic happened. I can’t underscore this point enough because it allowed us to take risks and skate pretty close to the line of having almost no money in the bank. I believe that Mr. FW and I are extraordinarily privileged in many ways and it’s something I cover in depth in The Privilege of Pursuing Financial Independence.
How did we save so much on so little? In addition to the standard spate of extreme frugality tactics we now employ, we enacted some rather creative (stupid?) strategies. We both got especially inventive with furniture–I made myself a dresser out of old banana boxes and duct tape, which was pretty ingenious in my humble opinion (the major issue being that it was top heavy and fell over all the time… ). Mr. FW couldn’t afford a bed the first month he moved into his apartment and, rather than go into debt, he slept in a sleeping bag until he could comfortably pay cash for a real bed.
I slept on a yoga mat until I could afford a mattress (let me tell you what: I made sure to save for that mattress real quick–sleeping on a yoga mat basically sucks). We ate tuna and beans. We are more tuna and beans. And, hey, sometimes even some peanut butter! I was dependent on my $130 in foodstamps every month and stretched it to cover all my meals. We didn’t wash our clothes every week in order to save on laundromat expenses. I didn’t have internet at my apartment. We walked as much as humanly possible in order to avoid paying subway or bus fare.
In short, we trimmed every last extraneous expense (well not every expense, we did have to buy beers at the free hot dog bar… ). These lean, early years gave us a baseline for understanding just how little we need to live on. Although I will say, they also made us aware of how lucky we are to now be able to afford things like a real bed and furniture. While it was possible for us to live like this, I won’t say it was exactly fun.
I Said Yes! (don’t worry, we’re still broke)
After our first year post-college, Mr. FW asked me to marry him in the lecture hall auditorium at the University of Kansas where we’d met in a class our freshman year. It was a perfectly sentimental and frugal proposal–he didn’t spend money on a fancy dinner out or flowers or chocolates or even a ring (I have an inherited family ring)–yet it was the most touching proposal I could’ve imagined.
It was, in many ways, the ideal encapsulation of what our relationship and our lives represent: simple, genuine connections with people we care about and very few material goods. Money can’t buy a moment like that.
Also, it was hilarious because he was so worried about losing the ring that he carried an entire backpack around all day containing only the ring. Also, the lecture hall was locked when we got there and so he hunted down a janitor and begged him to unlock the room for us. The janitor then popped in during the proposal to ask when we’d be leaving. Really sums up our future as the Frugalwoods quite appropriately: squatting for free in a public building and then getting kicked out. Yep. Needless to say, we did not ask the janitor to take our photo…
Just How Much Money Did We Start With?
Ok moving past the mushy stuff, I estimate (records were spotty back then because I had no idea I’d be sharing our finances on the internet for you fine people… ) that at the time we got engaged we probably had a combined net worth of a whopping $8,000. This was the sum total of our savings from our first ‘real’ jobs, plus what we’d managed to save from our college jobs (which was obviously not a lot. Beer had to bought, ok people?).
Most importantly of all, we had no debt, thanks in large part to the fact that we had no student loans–a feat we managed by attending an inexpensive public university along with a combination of scholarships, working through college, and help from our parents. I’m extremely cognizant of how fortunate we are to have received assistance from our parents with our undergrad tuition and it’s honestly the greatest gift they’ve ever given us (thank you, mom and dad!).
In our second post-college jobs, we bumped up our salaries but continued to live the super frugal life. After getting engaged we moved in together, which dramatically reduced our expenses. We’d been maintaining our relationship long distance (first from Kansas to NYC and then Boston to NYC) so eliminating the cost of plane/bus/train fare to visit each other was revelatory.
Our housing costs plummeted when I moved into Mr. FW’s weird/gross one-bedroom basement apartment in Cambridge. It was a pivotal decision that we didn’t scale up our housing–splitting his cheap rent for three years was absolutely central to our ability to save the downpayment for our single-family home in Cambridge. Plus, who doesn’t want to start life together in a dank basement apartment with odd odors and tons (yes, tons) of house centipedes patrolling around?
I also want to note for the record that when I moved in, there were leaves in the foyer. Not a couple of leaves, I’m talking a whole pile of actual leaves that used to be on actual trees. I asked Mr. FW what the deal was and he said, “oh they blow in when you open the front door.” What went unsaid is that he didn’t bother to then sweep them up… he just left them there in a growing indoor leaf pile. And when I asked him where his toilet bowl brush was, I received a blank stare. Let’s just say housekeeping improved after I arrived.
Our Early Frugal Fails
Although we were smart about some stuff (principally our cheap rent and the fact that we didn’t own a car) we had some epic frugal fails in these early years together. Namely, I hadn’t yet discovered the awesome merits of Craigslist and the used market. We actually–get this–rented a car in order to go shopping at IKEA for our furniture. A totally dumb thing to do. Plus, we nearly broke off the engagement after fighting so badly at the IKEA over which bed frame to buy.
This is also about the time when we started up our dirty little habit of treating ourselves with take-out and restaurant meals. We figured that since we were both working hard, we deserved to treat ourselves… and so we did! I think we probably ate out once a week and a got take-out once a week, which was quite a lot considering how little money we were making.
Since I was working an office job, I reasoned that I should get expensive haircuts in order to look the part. So, I trotted off to the salon every few months for a $100 cut. It pains me to think about how much money I threw away on my hair, especially now that I know Mr. FW does a fine and dandy job cutting it for me himself.
And, I bought most of our clothes new. Yes, I shopped sales, but I could’ve spent far less if I’d gone the route of thrift and consignment stores. Another totally dumb move since I doubt we even wear most of those clothes anymore. Big time waste of money.
Watching Our Savings Grow (like a couple of frugal weirdos)
At this nascent stage of adulthood (we were both 23–babies!), we still had no idea what we wanted to actually do with our lives. We had some vague notions about hoping to pursue a non-traditional path and be “creative” blah, blah, blah… but those plans were essentially formless. What we did know, however, is that: 1) you need money in order to pursue dreams and, 2) we didn’t have very much of it. We’ve always had bigger plans for our money and we’ve always believed that spending money just because you can isn’t a very good rationale and doesn’t create a purpose-filled life. Buying stuff does not constitute creating a life.
As we navigated our early years together, we witnessed our peers increasing their spending on larger apartments, new furniture, bar tabs, lunches out at work everyday, restaurants, manicures, movies, concerts, and clothes. Meanwhile, Mr. FW and I slowly began the process of stockpiling our cash (even though we stupidly went to IKEA and ordered Thai food… ).
Every month we’d rejoice over receiving–and then saving–our paychecks. We had a little graph in our Fidelity account that’d tally our net worth and I remember toasting one another (at home with a $3 bottle of wine, thank you Trader Joe’s) when we crested $15,000. And then $20,000 and then $30,000 and so on. By never inflating our lifestyle, we were able to save at higher and higher percentages as our salaries increased. And while yes, we have a much larger margin for savings now (a post-tax 71%), we were always, always, always saving–even when we both made less than $20,000 a year.
Buying Our First Home
After getting married in 2008, we formulated the goal of home ownership. It was a pipe dream for us at the time–after all, our net worth was in the low five-figures and Cambridge is one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. But we weren’t daunted, nay, we were invigorated! We now had a destination for our money and were penny pinching for a reason–a home of our own, which we also hoped would one day serve as a rental property.
It was another four years before we bought our first house, but we steadfastly saved towards this goal that entire time (and did our research by visiting over 270 open houses in Cambridge). Keeping this aspiration at the forefront is what enabled us–on two nonprofit salaries–to buy a home at age 28 in one of the country’s hottest real estate markets. When folks incredulously wonder how we managed this feat, the answer is pretty simple: straight-up frugality.
After settling into our home in 2012, and furnishing it with our sweet used furniture bought on Craigslist and found on the side of the road, we entered a bit of a lull with our goal-oriented frugality. The homestead dream was still a few years from coming into focus and our savings weren’t as robust as they could’ve been. But, our unshakable belief that financial security is tantamount to freedom guided our financial decisions through this goal-less period. We didn’t know what we’d be doing with our money, but we knew that frittering it away on stuff wasn’t a life we wanted to live. I will say though that I find it vastly easier to live frugally with a concrete goal–something about having a plan for my money makes the entire proposition more tenable and fun.
How We Went From $8,000 in Savings To Financial Independence
Our approach to life isn’t all that unusual and our young adulthood wasn’t terribly noteworthy or dramatically different from anyone else’s. But when I think back on our time together–both before and after “becoming” the Frugalwoods–there are a few key decisions we made that enabled our trajectory from meagre savings to financially independent stockpile.
Firstly, we embrace strategic risk-taking. Both of us took jobs in far-flung cities we’d never been to before. By going way outside of our midwestern comfort zone, we were able to eventually earn much higher salaries than we would have had we stayed in Kansas.
Secondly, our philosophy that major life events are not an excuse to spend money has served us well. Our culture encourages us to celebrate each new stage of life by treating ourselves to stuff we “deserve.” But we’re of the mindset that instead of treating ourselves to new stuff, we’ll treat ourselves to financial security. When we got our first promotions, we didn’t rush out and get a bigger apartment. When we each got a bonus one Christmas, we didn’t suddenly decide to lease a car.
We also practice the art of delaying. We’re notorious for waiting years (yes, years) before making significant purchases or life changes. In doing so, we’ve waited until we could afford to have a dog, a baby, a mortgage–much of what we do is an extreme long play.
We’ve managed to do well while doing good. Both Mr. FW and I have always worked for nonprofit or mission-based organizations, which has enabled us to do work that we believe in.
We’re not ashamed to accept help. A wonderful aspect of living frugally is the creation of community and the sharing that naturally arises between frugal folks. We’ve been so incredibly thankful for the assistance we’ve received from friends and family in the form of hand-me-downs, advice, meals, and camaraderie. My reliance on foodstamps during my AmeriCorps year highlighted for me just how transformational that money is each month and I was only feeding myself–not an entire family. I’m keenly aware that for many families, foodstamps are how they’re able to scrape by and so I’m glad that my taxes go towards funding government aid programs and I wish there were even more of them.
Most crucially of all, we’ve created a life that we consider to be frugally luxurious. We don’t deprive ourselves with our thriftiness and we’re not misers; rather, we feel that our lives are richer and more fulfilling now that we’ve incorporated the ethos of frugality into everything we do. The benefits of frugality extend far beyond the monetary, which is a philosophy I’m passionate about sharing.
We haven’t always been extremely frugal, we haven’t always made wise financial choices, and we certainly haven’t always had the goal of retiring at 33 to a homestead in the woods. But all of that is ok–our experiences, good and bad, have informed our choices and made us realize what we value and how we want to live our lives.