In 2014, Elizabeth Willard Thames, then 30, sat down with her husband to map out how the couple could walk away from their unfulfilling nine-to-five jobs in just a few years. What they settled on was extreme frugality: a combination of buying used goods, bartering, going without, and DIY that let them save more than 70% of their take-home pay. By 2016, the couple had quit their jobs and moved to a home on 66 acres in Vermont. After chronicling her penny-pinching strategies on the blog Frugalwoods, Thames is now telling her story in Meet the Frugalwoods (Harper Business, Mar. 2018).
What did learn as you began to overhaul your spending habits?
It’s easy to get slotted into predetermined societal paths without realizing it. That’s what I did for years. I went to college, got a job, got another job, and commensurately increased my spending. When your expenses approach your paycheck, you don’t have a lot of options other than going to work and paying your bills. When I put distance between my expenses and my income, I realized that there’s a lot more I could do with my life.
Aside from freeing up money to save, what other payoffs did you discover from living a frugal life?
When we started on our journey, it was mostly about saving money. After a couple of months, we realized that there were benefits that far outstripped that. Among them was environmentalism: we consume less, we buy less, we throw out a lot less, and we waste less food. When we no longer want to own something, we sustainably source that to someone else. On the other side of that cycle, almost everything we buy is used. I can’t imagine being frugal without being environmental, and I can’t imagine being environmental without being frugal.
Another element is the peace, happiness, and lower stress that we derive from this lifestyle. Once we said that we had enough, I felt very liberated, like, “I can stop shopping.” That frees up time, frees up money, and frees up a lot of mental space. I was carrying around in my head a shopping list of stuff. I was thinking about that instead of something I could create or do in my world.
What message would you like readers to take away from your book?
My [hope] is that the takeaway from the book will be serious soul-searching—where do I want to be, where am I now? Frugality is a way of doing a wholesale renovation of your life. Both time and money are finite resources. Every dollar you spend and every minute you spend should be in service of your long-term goals.
How about people who aren’t going to practice extreme frugality—what can they learn from your book?
My story is not your goal, and thinking about life the way I did is a privilege. You can derive benefits anywhere along the continuum of frugality. Take a month and see what it’s like to live a minimalistic lifestyle. Be really intentional. Write out where you want to be and see what it feels like to focus on long-term goals. Give yourself time and space, and commit. There are benefits to simply thinking about your spending holistically.
By practicing extreme frugality, do you miss out on anything?
Not if you’re doing it right. I practice what I call extreme frugality, but it’s extreme luxurious frugality. This is not hyperbolic. My family and I—my husband, my daughter, my dog, and our soon-to-be second daughter—we do what we want, we live where we want, we use our time as we want. Frugality isn’t about what we’re giving up; it’s about what we’re gaining. We’re able to spend time with our daughter all day. We’re able to go hiking together as a family every day. It’s really not about creating a miserly life. It’s about creating a life where you perceive everything as abundance.