“But how does your your wife feel about all that frugality and living on a farm?”
You’d be amazed at how often Mr. Frugalwoods gets this question after he shares our unusual life plan to retire to a homestead in the woods of Vermont at age 33. And you might be equally amazed by the fact that no one has ever (nope, not even once) posed the reverse question to me about how my husband feels about our plan.
There’s an ingrained trope in our culture that women are the spenders and men are the savvy investors and financial strategists. People make the automatic assumption that because our plan entails traditionally masculine components–prudent fiscal management, retirement planning, and outdoor labor–it must’ve been his idea in the first place.
The Myth Of Women As Spenders
Mr. FW and I came to the decision to pursue a life of simple, joyful frugality together and we feel fortunate that it’s an entirely joint venture. I can’t imagine it would work too well if one of us had to persuade the other of the merits of financial independence and a homestead existence. Our relationship has never been closer because there’s something about sharing a mammoth goal that deepens our connection.
While the inference that I’m a trailing spouse irks me to the core, I also realize it’s largely a product of the stereotype in our culture that women have little aptitude for finance or interest in frugality. My frustration over this perception is very similar to my frustration over the cultural premise–perpetuated by advertising and the media–that women should spend money in order to improve and adorn themselves.
My Frugal Beauty Manifesto goes into depth about how wrong I think it is that ads are devoted to convincing women there’s something wrong with their appearance, which can be fixed by buying a product.
There are so many more ways in which women are expected, or perceived, to spend money that I can understand how strangers make the supposition that Mr. FW is dragging me along unwillingly on our extreme frugality journey. In many ways, our culture is trapped in the outdated paradigm of men earning the money and women spending the money. While there’s nothing wrong with this on its face, the challenge comes in when it’s assumed that women only want to spend with no regard for fiscal prudence.
When I reflect on our less-than-frugal-weirdo existence before launching our financial independence plan, I realize that I actually did spend more money than Mr. FW. I certainly bought more clothes and shoes (the man seriously owns one of the most efficient/threadbare wardrobes I’ve ever seen). And I spent much more on beauty care products–I totally bought into the notion that I needed this stuff to “correct” my appearance.
But at the time, I didn’t consider either of those categories to be luxury purchases–I thought of them as necessities. I felt that without a frequent parade of new-to-me clothes and the requisite mask of makeup, I wasn’t presentable to the world. Tellingly, no one ever told Mr. FW he needed to wear new clothes or makeup everyday.
Do Women Need Others To Generate Their Happiness?
I’m going to make a gross generalization here, but bear with me: men are often perceived to derive their self-worth from self-created successes, such as their career or how much money they’ve made. For men, success is viewed as something they can bring about all on their own.
Conversely, women’s success is often categorized as brought about by the presence of other people, namely their spouse and children. If a woman is successful in her profession, it’s very likely the follow-up question will be “yes, but is she married and does she have children?” In this way, women are seen as reliant upon others for their attainment of happiness and fulfillment.
And the purchases of things like clothes and makeup are considered a means to the end of attracting a mate and producing children. There’s nothing wrong with women being married and having kids (after all, I myself am married and have a child). But there is something deeply wrong with the assumption that a women isn’t complete unless she has attained these external validators of her self-worth.
The ability to achieve contentment all on one’s own, separate from one’s family and separate from buying things, is probably the truest form of bliss. After all, it’s a happiness that stems from within. While I of course won’t be leaving Mr. FW and Babywoods in order to live alone (I really like them!), I do seek to fulfill myself in ways entirely removed from the easy–and ultimately empty–gratification that stems from buying stuff.
As I’ve continued my adventures into extreme frugality, I’ve discovered that by eliminating my reliance on external validators of my self-worth, I’m a much happier and less stressed person. And this is an ongoing, evolving process for me. Being comfortable–and pleased–with how I look and who I am in the absence of consumerism is incredibly liberating. Not buying clothes for two years (and counting), ceasing to wear most make-up, and having Mr. FW cut my hair at home has certainly helped me overcome my own personal stigmas and lack of confidence about my appearance.
The Questions I Get
Just for fun, Mr. FW and I keep a running catalogue of the heteronormative questions I get asked that no one ever asks him. Especially now that I’m a Mommywoods, I field a rather high volume of queries from friends, family, acquaintances, and readers regarding our plans for raising Babywoods. I appreciate having genuine conversations about child-rearing and I’m thankful for the advice of experienced parents; but, what’s odd is that no one ever directs these inquiries to Mr. FW.
Although there are biological imperatives mandating that I play a more active role in her upbringing at this stage (I’m looking at you, breastfeeding), Mr. FW is equally responsible for her care and growth. Further, people endlessly quiz me on whether or not I’ll be going back to work–another thing nobody asks Mr. FW. There’s absolutely a double expectation of me to be both proficient mother and successful professional.
Moving onto another traditionally female role on the homestead, no one has ever asked Mr. FW if he knows how to can fruits and vegetables–a question I get with almost hilarious regularity. However, Mr. FW is our cook in residence and will likely spearhead the canning efforts out on the homestead. I’ll serve as trusty kitchen assistant along with Frugal Hound.
And never has anyone questioned the fact that Mr. FW rarely spends any money on personal appearance products or clothes (I mean, one look at the guy will tell you that… 😉 ). Yet I’m quizzed on it all the time.
I don’t mind answering these queries as they all lend insight into our bizarre and joyful frugal lives, but I do sometimes mind the inherent assumptions of the roles I’ll take on as wife and mother. And I’m perplexed by the archaic social conventions they harken back to.
The Disservice Of Downgrading Women
When we, as a culture, presume that women aren’t fiscally astute, we put ourselves at a grave disadvantage. Books, conversations, and media that posit women aren’t on board with frugality and need to be cajoled into accepting it are offensive and off-putting for women–whether they’re frugal or not! We don’t need to be convinced of the merits of frugality any more than spendy men need to be. Yet, it’s rare to find an article about the “101 ways to get your husband to trim the household budget.”
However, I know from my conversations with you fine readers that in many of your families, it’s the women who spearhead the frugality efforts. And it’s the women charting a better financial future. And it’s the women who are earning more and managing the direction of the household budget. There’s nothing wrong with a man leading a family’s financial path, but there’s also nothing wrong with a woman leading it–or for two partners to lead side by side. I hope we can get to a place of parity where women aren’t continually cast as anti-frugal and pro-spending, but rather as the unique, flawed, nuanced, and interesting people that we genuinely are.
When we automatically put women in a box, we limit their potential. When women feel they must prove their worth through their appearances, the beauty of their homes, and the grooming of their children (or dogs), they’re put at a disadvantage and subject to the expensive whims of marketers. And I don’t want to levy those expectations on men either–I’d like to do away with them entirely.
I think the best way to combat these unfair stereotypes about women is to prove them wrong. Let’s assert ourselves as smart, frugal, financially savvy women who aren’t at the mercy of what corporations tell us to buy in order to “improve” ourselves. And above all else, let’s take responsible, proactive steps towards ensuring sound financial futures.
Take Charge Today
Not only do I disavow our culture’s clarion call for women to spend incessantly, I also reject the notion that we’re unable or uninterested in productively managing our money. Rather than leave you all with a generic missive to “take charge of your finances,” I want to provide a concrete call to action. Today, I implore you (whether you’re woman, man, or greyhound) to do either one or both of the following, depending on your current financial situation.
Option 1: Begin tracking your expenses.
I use Personal Capital to track and monitor our expenses, which I like because it consolidates all of our accounts to provide a holistic overview of our finances. If you’re not already using the magic of the internet to organize your financial life, I encourage you to sign up for Personal Capital and give it a whirl (P.S. the best part is that it’s free to use).
Option 2: Log into your 401K account and check on the funds you’re invested in and the fees associated with those funds.
If it turns out you’re invested in anything other than low-fee index funds, you might want to re-evaluate. I’m of the opinion that low-fee index funds are the way to go as they’ll save you huge sums over your investing lifetime. I used to be terrified by the mere word 401K—what does it mean? Why is it both a number and a letter???!!! So if I can do it, so can you.
Extra frugal weirdo bonus points to anyone who does both options 1 and 2! I realize that if you’re reading this, you’re probably far ahead of the curve in handling your finances and so this advice might be elementary for you.
However, I bet you know someone who cringes every time you mention the words ‘retirement savings’ and who might benefit from taking these specific, decisive steps. So, forward this post to them or better yet, spend some time helping them gain control of their money.
I chose tracking expenses as the first option because I firmly believe that’s the #1, top, chief, primary way to get a handle on your finances. Before you can make a plan for your money, you’ve got to know what your money is getting up to every month. Are you spending in line with your values? Is every purchase you make guided by your overarching goals?
We all have vastly different dreams, incomes, levels of frugality, and interests, and I will never judge how you decide to allocate your resources. The key is that you feel enfranchised when it comes to your finances and that your spending is truly in alignment with what you want out of life. If you keep your goals at the forefront, your money will follow.
I find that financial management is much like anything else–sometimes the hardest part is acknowledging that we need to get started. Well, acknowledge away! We owe it to ourselves to take charge of our finances. After all, no one else will.
How We Talk To Our Daughters
Now that I have a daughter, the idea that women are second-class citizens in any sense is beyond abhorrent. It’s undeniable that my generation enjoys significantly greater gender equality and opportunities than my mother’s generation, but I want to see an even more profound transformation for Babywoods’ lifetime. And I think it starts with how we talk to our daughters.
I’m not going to impress upon Babywoods that she needs to be pretty or cute or nice. I’m going to instead tell her that she’s smart and inquisitive and creative (at least, I sure hope she’ll be all of those things… at three months old, she does a pretty good job of flailing her limbs and looking at toys so that’s an A+, right?). Our focus in her upbringing will be on encouraging her to expand her mind, learn new skills, and take smart risks.
If she wants to play dress-up, that’s fine, but it’s equally fine if she wants to stomp around in the mud. There will be no mention of “girls don’t do this” or “that’s only for boys.” While it’s fantasy to think we’ll be able to raise her in a gender neutral environment, I do believe that Mr. FW and I can lay the groundwork for her self-confidence and self-direction from an early age.
I can’t change how the world treats women, but I can impact the way that I raise mine. And if I can put an intelligent, confident, thoughtful feminist out there into the world, then I hope I’ve helped transform this conversation at least a little bit.