What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

What a well-off couple learned from cutting consumer habits

A software engineer and professional fundraiser in Boston decided four years ago to purge some of their consumerist habits to save more than 70 percent of their salaries. The result was a big move to rural Vermont and the release this month of the book, “Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living.” NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    So is this a typical Monday, Tuesday, weekday?

  • ELIZABETH WILLARD THAMES:

    Yes, yes, yes, we try to get outside everyday. And we really do, with the rare exceptions of really heavy rain.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    34 year-old Elizabeth Willard Thames, her husband Nate, and their two daughters, live in a home on 66 acres in central Vermont. And spending a weekday hiking around is vast departure from the 9 to 5 cubicle jobs that Thames and her husband had just three years ago.

  • ELIZABETH WILLARD THAMES:

    This is where we are happiest, this is where we are most at peace. And so we thought, 'instead of running away to the woods every weekend, we should really just move to the woods.'

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Just live in the woods?

  • ELIZABETH WILLARD THAMES:

    Just be there all the time.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Thames is the author of a new book called "Meet the Frugalwoods." It takes its name from the blog she's been writing since the spring of 2014. It was around that time that Thames and her husband Nate began to reconsider life choices they had made. They were very comfortably living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Elizabeth working as a fundraiser for a public media station, Nate as a software engineer.

  • ELIZABETH WILLARD THAMES:

    We were sitting in a coffee shop and I was looking at our reflection i n the mirror of this coffee shop and I was wearing I think like 200 dollar leather boots. And my husband is wearing like a hipster outfit and he's got a hipster beard. And I was thinking Who are these people? How have we gotten to this place where we used to live in a basement apartment and really sort of scrimp by but we've been able to buy a home and we'd reached that sort of very pivotal financial goal. And then we just coasted.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    The couple – then childless – knew they were extremely fortunate. They had graduated debt-free from a state university, and both found well-paying jobs that allowed a more-than-comfortable lifestyle. They knew they were better off financially than the vast majority of Americans. But that day they decided to radically change their lives and live as cheaply as possible. The idea was to save as much money as they could in order to quit their jobs, leave the Boston area, and move to the woods.

  • ELIZABETH WILLARD THAMES:

    My husband asked me, "when are you happiest?" And I said, "I'm happiest I'm out hiking in the woods you know obviously that's when I'm happiest." And he said, "Why are we living in the city? Why are we spending all this money on this lifestyle that is not really bringing us that high level of contentment."

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Before they started, they were already saving a lot, about 40 percent of their take home pay.

  • ELIZABETH WILLARD THAMES:

    I've always been a frugal person and I've always wanted to be financially comfortable and safe and stable and to have a good emergency fund built up. But going from 42 to, you know, 70, 80% … that is a question of holistic transformation. So it's not just well, 'I'm going to sort of cut out one restaurant meal a week; we're not eating out at all ever again.'

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Saying no to restaurants was just the beginning. They pledged to buy no new clothes. They learned to cut each other's hair. They even occasionally searched through dumpsters, taking home everything from winter coats to stemware. In 2014, they managed to save 71% of their income.

    How does the joy of saving money translate for people who don't necessarily have the same financial situation that you and your husband were in?

  • ELIZABETH WILLARD THAMES:

    I am very aware that my frugality is elective and there's so much privilege that goes into choosing your lifestyle whatever it is. I think it's very important for me to recognize that the way in which I experience frugality is not going to be the way in which everyone experiences it.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Do you see a reality where you could achieve the same things without the privilege that was kind of ingrained to your starting point.

  • ELIZABETH WILLARD THAMES:

    I come from a very stable loving middle class family not wealthy. I didn't inherit any money, but certainly came from a very privileged upbringing and that I went to excellent public schools you know lived in a safe neighborhood, had loving parents. And I think it would be very myopic to say oh you know my success is due to my own good decisions. I don't believe that at all.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Although the Thames's don't disclose hard numbers about their income or net worth, they do blog about how much they spend. Each month they catalogue their expenses: from mortgage and property taxes, to groceries, to the occasional splurge on beer. And for items they haven't been willing to give up – like seltzer water – they've found workarounds.

  • NATE THAMES:

    I went on the internet and was, like, 'has anyone attached a big tank to a seltzer machine,' and it turned out that people had!

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    The Thames's found that a 20 pound CO2 tank could produce a liter of seltzer for less than a penny.

    Why the decision to share this with the world?

  • ELIZABETH WILLARD THAMES:

    Frugalwoods began really for myself just as a way to sort of articulate our thinking and explain to our family and friends here's what we're doing. And then it grew into this much broader mission of reaching people. And I can share with people what I've learned. I'm not a financial expert. You know, I don't have a degree in finance. I'm not a certified financial planner but I think I have a unique and very personal approach to how to manage money.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Unique and personal approaches to manage money are not hard to find on the internet. Frugalwoods is part of a robust and varied online community advocating spending less to retire early. But what they all have in common is they acknowledge you need some money to live on.

  • ELIZABETH WILLARD THAMES:

    The snow cave has gotten snowed in, I think…

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Less than three years after that reflective moment in a coffee shop, the Thames's moved to this home in central Vermont. The full-time transition to life in the woods is made possible – in part – by being able to rent out their house in Cambridge for a premium, a calculation spelled out in detail on Frugalwoods.

    Thames gave birth to their second daughter earlier this year, and believes that parenthood, particularly for stay-at-home parents like them, can be done for less than you might think.

  • ELIZABETH WILLARD THAMES:

    The marketing is targeted right at new parents. You know you're terrified. And I had those moments where I thought I will spend anything right to help my child sleep, eat, learn, grow, develop and since I already have this frugal mindset and enshrined I was able to step back and say, no, I know that nothing I buy is actually going to yield the desired result. All of our daughter's things are used. So the furniture, the clothing, the shoes, the coats, the boots, it's all used.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Though he says he doesn't have to, Nate chooses to continue to work for a political non-profit from their home in Vermont. The job also provides health insurance for the family. Although Elizabeth has left her fundraising job, she prefers to say she is "financially independent," as opposed to retired. In fact, she earns money from her blog, and now her book, too.

  • ELIZABETH THAMES:

    Retirement evokes this idea of sort of doing nothing and laying around on a beach which you know which would be nice. But my husband I are both people who love doing and love working and love having projects. Being financially independent means that we do not have to work in order to live and eat and feed our children. But we do work that we're passionate about.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest