Reflecting on Nine Years of Frugalwoods
April is the ninth anniversary of Frugalwoods! Hard to believe I’ve been doing this for so long yet am still invigorated and excited to type words at you and help people with their money!!!! This is–by far–my longest tenure at a job and I’m not ready to quit or fire myself!
To celebrate, I’m going to write a series of reflections on my own writing over the past nine years. Do I agree with my old self? How have my views changed? When I started Frugalwoods on April 9, 2014, I had just turned 30, I lived in the city of Cambridge, MA, I’d been married to my husband for six years, we were both working 9-5 office jobs and we had zero kids.
A lot happened in the intervening nine years!
- I just turned 39
- This is the 718th post I’ve published on Frugalwoods
- My husband and I have two kids, ages 5 and 7
- We’ve been married for nearly 15 years
- We live on our dream homestead in the woods of Vermont
- Our former city home is now a rental property
- My husband fully retired in 2021 when we reached financial independence
I now work part-time (~23 hours/week) on Frugalwoods, which has grown to include:
- The Reader Case Study series, which has featured 95 different peoples’ financial lives to date!
- My one-on-one financial consultation services, which allow me to work with folks to create holistic financial plans for their futures
- My book, Meet the Frugalwoods, which was published by HarperCollins in 2018
- The Frugalwoods Instagram and Facebook communities
- ….and who knows what’s next!!!! (I’m always taking suggestions!)
I feel lucky to do this work and deeply grateful to all of you for going on this winding (and often long-winded) journey with me!!! Thank you for being here and for sharing your stories with me.
How I Got Here
I started writing Frugalwoods because I felt lost.
I’d just realized I didn’t want to work at a desk in an office under fluorescent lights every Monday through Friday for the next 35 years. I was only 30 and already counting down to 5pm every single weekday. And I had a great job. A job I was fortunate to have. A job at a nonprofit that paid pretty well. But those facts–those checkboxes–didn’t make me content or fulfilled. I felt like I was bumping through life as a balloon just ricocheting off of other people’s expectations. I wanted to change how I lived. I wanted more freedom and self-direction. I wanted more space.
The way my husband, Nate, and I decided to achieve that was through financial independence. We figured if we lived frugally enough and saved well enough, we could obviate work-for-pay from our lives. We’d no longer be beholden to an employer’s schedule, demands or location. We’d also, of course, no longer have that employer’s salary, retirement benefits or healthcare. So… just a few things to figure out!
The full story of our evolution is in my book, but the outline is that we dove into the concept of FIRE (financial independence, retire early) and determined that if we were ruthless, we could probably eek our way to financial independence by our mid-30s.
I define financial independence as no longer needing to work for money.
That means we now have enough in assets (taxable investments, retirement investments, real estate and cash) to be able to drawdown a sustainable percentage of these assets every year in order to cover our living expenses without running out of money before we die. We determined this is through a great deal of math, online calculators and modeling in excel.
If you want to run your own numbers, and research how to reach FIRE, I highly recommend the following resources (since this is NOT back-of-the-envelope math):
- The Rich, Broke or Dead Post-Retirement FIRE Calculator: Visualizing Early Retirement Success and Longevity Risk
- Everything from the MadFientist
- Early Retirement Now’s Sequence of Returns Risk posts
- JL Collins’ famous stock series, or, his book The Simple Path to Wealth
How We Reached FIRE in 23 Simple Steps (hah!)
We graduated college without debt and both found jobs right away. This is an immense privilege due to the fact that our parents helped us pay for school.
- We got married at 24, so we grew up together and started planning for our financial future at a really young age. The earlier you start saving and investing, the more years you have to reap the benefits of compound interest.
- Post-marriage we were low income and didn’t have much in savings, so we lived in a basement apartment and were frugal by necessity. No inherited money, trust funds or family money for us.
- We were able to avoid debt, which enabled us to put all extra money into savings, as opposed to servicing debt.
- We steadily climbed the ladder in our respective careers and increased our salaries over time.
- We lived below our means and socked away extra money into retirement and savings.
- Early on, we set a goal of buying our own home. This seemed ludicrous at 24 when our net worth was like $2,000, but we plugged away at saving up a downpayment.
- Now we do… not-so-good. After buying our house, we failed to set another big financial goal and so… I’ve dubbed these years (ages 27-30) the “pre-Frugalwoods hedonistic heyday.” We were DINKS (dual income, no kids) with salaries that had increased over the years. We lived in a fun city and went out to restaurants, coffee shops and bars. A lot. We started buying more stuff, we inflated our lifestyle and our spending kept right up.
- Then we hit 30 and malaise took over. We asked ourselves, “Is this all there is to life? Working a job you don’t like to make money to spend to assuage your unhappiness over working the job you don’t like????”
- We had a joint quarter-life crisis that ushered in what I now call the “lean Frugalwoods years.”
- We articulated our goal of quitting our office jobs and moving to a rural plot of land.
- To make this happen, we dove into extreme frugality. We saved money with the zeal of the recently converted and there wasn’t a thing I wouldn’t cut in service of our financial independence/rural homestead goal.
The “lean Frugalwoods years” were an extremely effective detox. We eliminated a lot from our spending, including:
All eating out: bars, restaurants, coffee, take-out, work lunches, etc
- Buying clothing
- Buying non-necessities (such as home decor, makeup, etc)
- Paying for haircuts
- Entertainment that cost money
- Exercise that cost money
- Name something and we probably eliminated it
Doing this forced us to identify our priorities. It was a transformational experience that made us realize how much money we’d been wasting on stuff that ultimately did not matter to us. If you want to do this exercise yourself, my free Uber Frugal Month Challenge will lead you through the steps we took.
→Eliminating everything is an easy way to figure out what you value and what you want to add back into your life.
It’s essentially Marie Kondo-ing your finances. You remove everything from the sock drawer of your spending and then YOU are in charge of deciding what goes back in. It was a necessary examination for us, but after a few years, we realized it wasn’t sustainable for a lifetime (at least, not for us).
We needed to find a middle ground, but there’s no way we could get to that middle ground without first dropping down to the ground ground.
During 2014–our first lean Frugalwoods year–we vacillated between saving 65%-82% each month making our average savings rate 71.4%. This was accomplished, yes, through extreme frugality, but also through having good, white-collar salaries. I’m under no delusion here; there are but two variables in this equation:
If we’d had lower incomes, we wouldn’t have been able to save nearly this much. We hit our financial independence number a few years later, but made the decision for Mr. FW to continue working because he enjoyed his job well enough, it paid extremely well and he was able to work remotely from our homestead in Vermont. We also wanted to pad that FI number because more is always better.
Back to our 23 Simple Steps…
15. I left my office job after Kidwoods was born and started working more hours on freelance writing and Frugalwoods.
16. We moved to Vermont full-time in May 2016 and began renting out our Cambridge house in June 2016.
17. We continued to save at a pretty high rate–typically saving all of my husband’s salary and living off of my income combined with the rental income.
18. We had our second daughter, Littlewoods, in 2018… mere weeks before my first book published! I seem to have a knack for birthing children at REALLY stressful/busy times.
19. In the spring of 2021, we made the decision for Mr. FW to retire from his job as a software engineer after being with the same company for 14 years.
20. We paid off our Vermont mortgage prior to his retirement, for reasons that are fully explained in this post.
21. I continued to work part-time at my favorite job of all time: helping people with their money!!!!
22. We’ve never initiated a drawdown of our assets because we’re able to continue living on my income combined with the net profit of our rental property. We “practiced” this for several years while saving my husband’s income, which was a fabulous way to determine the feasibility of this plan.
23. If I decide to stop working, or the rental ceases to be profitable, or some combination thereof, we can always start a sustainable drawdown, per our above FIRE calculations.
All in all, I’m very cognizant of the role that privilege and luck play in our successes.
Sure, we worked hard, but we were also dealt a winning hand at birth and continued to rack up privileged opportunities over the years. That fact is not lost on me and I know I’m a very fortunate person.
Present Day: April 7, 2023
That brings us to the present day and what I identify as the “Frugalwoods financial maintenance phase” (hat tip to my favorite podcast). We’ve settled into a more temperate version of our old selves, which extends its tendrils into every aspect of our lives. This moderation plays out not only in the way we spend money; it permeates everything we do.
We spend more than we did during “the lean years,” but less than during our “hedonistic heyday.” I think we’ve hit that middle ground where we’re not constantly leaning into extreme frugality, but we’re still judicious about our spending.
We continue to invest for retirement (through my solo 401k), contribute to our taxable investments, save into 529 college savings plans for our kids, and add to our Donor Advised Fund for charitable giving. Our income is much lower than when my husband was working, but we live happily and we live well.
Crucially, we have the time, space, freedom and clarity of purpose that we lacked nine years ago.
My early Frugalwoods posts outline those lean years in detail and my hope is that this nine-year retrospective will enable me to illuminate the middle ground, the maintenance phase, the sustainable-for-a-lifetime place we’ve (hopefully) arrived at today.
I look forward to excavating some of my years-old posts, many of which I haven’t looked at since I first wrote them. And since you’re on this journey with me, I MUST know…
What old Frugalwoods posts are you interested in hearing an update on???
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