Mr. Frugalwoods and I celebrate nine years of marriage this month. We got married young–at 24–and reflecting back on the people we were when we met at age 19 during our second semester of our freshman year of college, I realize we’re quite different now. The languid unfurling of maturation that awaited us at 19 was a mystery as are the years yet to come. The key for us, and the reason we’ve stayed married and deepened our relationship, is that we’ve changed together.
We’ve aged, matured (hopefully), and charted new iterations of ourselves as a team. One of the aspects of our shared life that’s brought us closest, and enhanced our connection most profoundly, is our frugality. And I’m not just saying that because this is a place where I write about frugality. This is a place where I write about my life, and frugality is a central, pivotal aspect of my worldview. Indeed, it’s about much more than the money it saves me.
Shared Longterm Goals
The most significant contribution frugality yields for Mr. FW and me is our shared longterm goals. Money and life are remarkably intertwined. How you spend (or save) your money has the ability to dictate the type of life you’ll lead. The absence of a clearly articulated path through life can cause us to overspend on the insignificant ephemera that marketers blast us with: new clothes, new furniture, more, more, more.
When we’re not sure what we want to do with our lives, one of the simplest answers is to spend money. There is no shortage of ways to waste your cash–it’s an endless, ceaseless stream of junk peddled to us and promoted as the solution to our problems. Conversely, when we define the trajectory of our lives–and don’t allow others to define it for us–we step into a position of leadership. We have power over our money and over our time. With concerted goals and inventive frugality, it’s possible to craft a life of meaning. A life we want to live, not a life we feel we must live.
When Mr. FW and I got married, we had an ironclad first financial goal: to buy our own home. It was a pretty ridiculous, aspirational dream at the time since we had $8,000 in our joint savings account (the sum total we’d managed to save from our first post-college jobs) and we lived in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world: Cambridge, MA.
We knew it would take us years to accumulate the six-figure downpayment we’d likely need, but we weren’t deterred. Sharing this goal became a central feature in our relationship: we were on a mission together, we were planning, plotting, and discussing. We went to open houses every weekend, we discussed the merits of condos vs. single family, we analyzed market trends, and we talked incessantly about our future first home. This single-minded focus did two things: it prepared us for home ownership and it kept our goal top of mind even though we were years away from bringing it to fruition, which in turn, made forgoing short-term expenses easier.
Money As A Regular Fixture Of Conversation
We didn’t know it at the time, but our house-buying goal provided us with a format for regularly discussing our finances in a non-combative, non-judgmental way. Since we were both bought into our shared dream of home ownership, we both became invested in how we spent our money. We’d check our balances together regularly and make projections on how much more we could save and how many more years until we could afford a down payment.
Money was never a divisive issue for us mainly because we went about managing it through the lens of goal-setting. It was never a conversation built around “you spend too much!” or “why on earth would you waste money on that!”; rather, it was always a conversation framed around where we wanted to go in life together.
It was a pretty simple equation for us: we wanted to buy a house and so we made the determination not to buy a bunch of other stuff. Embedding both longterm goals and frugality into our lives gave us a platform of intentionality around how we manage our money and how we direct our lives.
The Failure Of Our Goal-less Years
All of my epiphanies over the importance of longterm goal-setting are retrospective and I had no clue at the time that this was the secret sauce of our early success. I had no idea this goal was why we never went into debt, never fought over money, and were able to buy our first home in Cambridge, MA at age 28.
Lacking as I was in this awareness, after we bought our house we spiraled into a goal-less spending abyss. Mr. FW and I’d achieved what we’d set out to achieve: we owned a single-family home in a red hot real estate market, which we planned to one day transition into a revenue-generating rental property (which we’ve since done).
In the absence of a new goal, we started to bleed money. We made decent salaries, we contributed to our 401ks, and we felt financially secure. So we spent. We went out to dinner all the time, I went to expensive yoga classes several times a week, we bought more stuff that we could ever possibly need.
We hewed to this spendy path until we had the watershed awakening that birthed Frugalwoods: we were not happy. All of this spending, all of this stuff, all of these balms of consumerism that promised to soothe our discontent weren’t working. We spent most of our waking hours in cubicles, droning away on projects dictated to us by other people and that didn’t allow us the time, space, and mental energy to uncover our passions. We’d become cogs in the consumer machine: we made money in order to spend money and had no greater purpose to our lives. That is, until we hatched our plan to become financially independent, leave the city, quit our jobs, and pursue a wholly different existence on a rural homestead.
The Power Of A Lifelong Goal
After defining the life we wanted to live: one freed from the constraints and stressors of urban life and 9 to 5 office work, we were on fire with frugality. Mr. FW and I were once again running in the same direction, towards the same aim.
We no longer derived pleasure from the nonsensical money drains we’d been enslaved to, we now saw them for what they were: distractions from our ability to craft a meaningful life we’d be proud to live.
When I worked in an office, I constantly worried about how I’d define my life, how I’d infuse a sense of purpose into what I did. I wondered what my legacy would be. But after Mr. FW and I decided to radically transform how we lived, I was confident I could match the way I used my time with the person I wanted to be.
An Agreed-Upon System of Money Management
At the outset of our extreme frugality launch, Mr. FW and I sat down and had the mother of all financial conversations: we hashed out how we’d use our money for the rest of our lives. Before that, we’d been bumping along, adrift in a sea of spending, careening from one minor goal (a vacation!), to the next (dinner out on Saturday!) with no plan for longterm sustainability. But life–and money–don’t do too well with weeklong or monthlong goals. Life and money have a way of slipping through our fingers if we’re not on top of what we want in the long range.
Mr. FW and I became dictators: we would now be telling our money precisely where it would be going and precisely how we’d be using our time. This determination also opened the door for us to have a comprehensive, transformative conversation about what makes both of us happy.
We had to sit down and write out our goals, define the people we wanted to be, and be honest with one another. Too often, we compromise on a life that’s mediocre in its rendering. A life that halfway meets our dreams, a life that partially encompasses what we love, a life that sort of does it for us. But what’s the point of that? To be obnoxiously cliché here, you only get one chance at life and there’s zero point in living it half-assedly.
Sidenote: For the purposes of this story, I’m glossing over a tremendous amount of nuance here, so check out these posts if you’re interested in that missing insight: The Privilege of Pursuing Financial Independence and Striving For Compassion In A World Of Judgement.
My point is that by challenging ourselves to define our vision for the future, Mr. FW and I realized we weren’t happy and that we needed to change some things in order to get there. The easiest thing is to skate on by, to ignore the stuff we don’t like about our routine, to think maybe someday it’ll get better without our doing much of anything about it. But we all know that’s folly. Nothing changes unless we muscle it. Unless we get in there and alter how we use our money, how we communicate with our partner, and how we plan our future.
By defining these goals, Mr. FW and I were able to define a shared financial management system, which is detailed here if you’re curious. This system incorporated both of our longterm aspirations and became the infrastructure on which we hang our lives. You can mold a life around many different constructs, but without managing your money in a holistic manner, it’s unlikely you’ll bring any of those dreams to actualization.
Check-in Regularly, Forever
Now that Mr. FW and I have achieved our biggest goal of moving to our 66-acre homestead in rural Vermont and becoming financially independent, we don’t rest on our laurels. We still discuss our finances and our goals on a regular basis. We know all too well what can happen when we stop dreaming about the future and stop communicating about our money.
By remaining in close communication, Mr. FW and I are able to adjust as our lives change. When Babywoods was born, we didn’t have to change much about our finances because we were already dialed into extreme frugality and committed to our vision of a simplified, rural life. Just as our financial infrastructure allowed us to pursue fairly outlandish goals on fairly regular salaries, we’re now able to accommodate changes–and additions–to our dreams with ease.
It’s not that we have it all figured out–we have no idea what life will throw our way–rather, it’s that we have an enshrined system for navigation and communication. I’m of the belief that you never know the challenges or opportunities that life will drop in your path and I, for one, want to be financially ready for either.
I know that mindless spending doesn’t bring me lasting, deep happiness and so we’ve eliminated that from our lives. And we know that we require longterm projections in order to remain consistent and committed–both to each other and to our frugality.
What Do You Want Out Of Life?
Your longterm goals are likely very different from mine, but I’m certain that your true goal isn’t to slog through life frittering away money and wondering why you can’t do the things you’ve always dreamed of doing, but can’t ever seem to afford.
People–myself included–experience so much anguish over their money. Disagreement over money is the leading cause of divorce in the US; financial failure is a cause of depression and suicide; and money is a source of shame and secrecy the world over. But there’s another way. By acknowledging that money is something you need to actively manage and discuss, you can enfranchise yourself to wrest back control. And by committing to open, honest, ongoing conversations with your partner about what you want out of life, you can start to create a system of intentional living that strikes at the heart of who you are–not who marketers tell you to be.
If you’d like support on your journey in identifying your longterm goals and if you’d like guidance on how to have these conversations with your partner, consider signing up for my Uber Frugal Month Challenge. This month-long Challenge, which starts on July 1, 2017, provides a framework for holistically managing your money, and by extension, your life. I hope you’ll join us.