Extreme frugality allowed me to retire at 32 and regain control of my life

March 18, 2018

Elizabeth Willard Thames abandoned a successful career in the city and embraced frugality to create a more meaningful life. It enabled her to retire at 32 with her family to a homestead in the Vermont woods

As I write this, Im sitting on the back porch of the rural Vermont homestead I share with my husband and our daughter, gazing out on the 66 acres of forest, fruit trees, gardens, ponds, and streams that we feel incredibly lucky to call our own.

Just a few years ago, this seemed like an impossible feat. My husband and I were struggling to conceive a baby and attempting to chart a path out of our frenzied 9-5 grind in urban Cambridge, Massachusetts. We wanted to achieve financial independence, quit the cubicle jobs that made us so unhappy, and create a simpler life of purpose in a rural setting.

My husband, Nate, and I are not exceptional people. Were not rich or famous or geniuses or even particularly good-looking (although we have our moments). Were just some average, middle-class kids from the midwest who decided we wanted something more out of life than what our consumer culture sells us.

While its true that Nate and I are average people, and weve never won the lottery or had investment banker salaries or been the beneficiaries of inheritances or trust funds, Im keenly aware that we are also extraordinarily privileged.

Both of our parents had college educations, had good careers, owned homes, and were in happy, financially stable marriages before we were even conceived. All of these privileges wove themselves together to form the basis for happy, warm, well-educated, well-cared-for childhoods.

But we realized that as adults we were trying to buy our way to happiness. In order to achieve deep fulfillment and lasting contentment, we had to restructure how we lived, what we spent our money on, and how we used our time.

Back in March 2014, on day one of this journey, Id seen frugality as the necessary means to our end. We would spend money only on the fundamentals of life, the very basest items to get us by (food, our mortgage, gas for the car, electricity, an internet connection, toilet paper, and the like).

But what I hadnt anticipated was that frugality would become an end in and of itself. After a year of living as modestly as possible, Nate and I began to feel like wed unlocked a map that led us out of our previous maze of mindless consumption.

Nate and I began to uncover far-reaching advantages to frugality that outstripped the mechanics of spending less cash and growing our net worth. Wed started out with an urgency around saving money, but it evolved to be about much more than that. It became a wholesale lifestyle transformation.


The satisfaction we derived from painting our own kitchen cabinets was the first tertiary benefit to frugality we discovered, and the second was close behind: doing this project together brought us closer in our marriage. For the first time since a group paper for our international elections course in college, Nate and I were team-mates on projects with tangible results.

Our modern culture has largely done away with the idea that a marriage or a civil union or a partnership is a working relationship, and instead touts the money-focused solution of Dont fight, hire out! The answer to our hectic, frenzied, compulsive lives isnt to simplify, its to pay other people to do stuff for us so that we can pile ever more on our already gluttonous to-do plates.

Painting their own kitchen cabinets brought the Frugalwoods closer in their marriage. Gratitude and respect began to infuse our interactions. Photograph: Elizabeth Willard Thames

This is exactly the routine Nate and I fell into before, and all it served to do was drive us apart. In fact, it very nearly wrecked the close-knit intimacy wed created during our uncomplicated early days of marriage in a basement apartment.

In addition to the expense of hiring out, doing so pulled us away from sharing a unified goal. When we werent team-mates, Nate and I werent on the same page financially or in terms of what we wanted out of life.

Its very hard to craft a satisfying life with another person when youre not in agreement over how to spend your two most precious resources: your time and your money. In contrast, the communication and problem-solving thats required for frugal insourcing is by far one of the most profound experiences weve had in our marriage.

Collaborating on repainting our kitchen cabinets was the first of many projects that allowed me to see Nates skills shine, and brought a new level of respect to our relationship. Wed compliment each other on a job well done, wed help each other on complex elements of a project, and I noticed that we started saying please and thank you to each other in the course of our daily routine. I began to recognize all the work that Nate put into our household and he did the same for me.

Insourcing within a partnership doesnt mean that one partner now has 9 billion more chores to do. It means that both members of the partnership vote on an equitable division of labor, and execute their respective tasks.

Frugal insourcing led us to a more egalitarian partnership devoid of traditional gender roles and reliant instead upon a system of routines and an agreed-upon divvying up of tasks. We never debate who will cook, because thats exclusively in Nates wheelhouse, and we never argue over who will clean, because thats my job.

When you do something yourself, you also permanently reduce your dependency on outside sources and permanently increase your own aptitudes. As we expanded our repertoire of frugal insourcing, we also learned new skills wed be able to use long into the future. From that one kitchen project, we were empowered to teach ourselves how to do everything from plumbing to haircuts. And we did.

Gratitude and respect began to infuse our interactions. Its easy to discount your partners contributions until youre standing side by side in the kitchen, watching them chop vegetables for forty-five minutes just to cook you up a stir-fry you love for dinner.


Nate and Elizabeth on the homestead. When you do something yourself, you also permanently reduce your dependency on outside sources and permanently increase your own aptitudes. Photograph: Elizabeth Willard Thames

As Nate and I were rescuing a perfectly good lamp and dresser from a roadside pile of trash one Saturday morning, I had an epiphany: frugality is also excellent for the environment.

Under the auspices of frugality, Nate and I were consuming less and re-using more. We drastically reduced the amount of stuff we bought, and when we did buy something, we almost always got it second-hand.

By diverting used items from the waste stream, we were simultaneously decreasing the carbon footprint inherent to producing new materials and preventing usable goods from clogging landfills. Nearly every frugal strategy doubles as a boon for the environment.

Its also true that the less we consume, the more we respect and care for the things we already own. Instead of viewing our material possessions as disposable items marching along the chain of consumption, Nate and I started to see our stuff as long-term residents of our home. Before bringing anything into our house, I questioned if I wanted to assume the responsibility of storing it, cleaning it, and eventually, finding a new home for it.

It was a comprehensive revolution of how I interact with resources, and it imbued me with a mindset of giving. Instead of tossing out old stuff, I gave it away to friends, to thrift stores, and to my Buy Nothing group. Nate patched holes in his pants, I refinished old furniture, and we didnt throw out anything except for the precious few things that were actually trash.

Nate and I were now outsiders in the arms race of possessions. We didnt care if people judged our car as junky (which, at 19 years old and with over 200,000 miles, it was), or our clothes as dated, because we knew that once you enroll in the buying-leads-to-fulfillment mentality, theres no end to how much youll have to purchase.

The concept that we had enough also began to influence the way we ate. I abolished food waste from our kitchen. Nate made conscious decisions in the grocery store to buy only precisely what he planned to cook that week, and then we committed ourselves to eating that food in its entirety and not giving in to the temptation of Thai takeout.

We spent a lot less on food and ate more healthily, but perhaps more crucially, it benefited the environment by producing less landfill-bound garbage. Discarded food is one of the most significant components of landfills and is a major producer of the greenhouse gas methane.

The more we frugalized, the more we understood the far-reaching, positive repercussions of this lifestyle.

Nate rode his bike to work every single day, even through Boston winters, which was a triple boon: it saved money, it was good for the environment, and it provided him with daily exercise.

In addition to no longer caring what others thought about us, we let go of the need to prove ourselves through external objects because we thought that wasnt the way to achieve deep, lasting contentment. We werent at that level of contentment yet, as we were still experiencing the slog of working toward our goal. But since rampant consumerism had failed to make us happy, I was really hoping that avoiding it would do the trick.


Another thing I had to learn on my journey to consume less is that material possessions should not be forced or expected to serve as stand-ins for human emotions.

Sure, things may be nice to have, but we shouldnt expect everything we own to bring us some deep, Kondo-esque sense of joy.

Through frugality, I came to understand that its entirely reasonable, and much cheaper, to own things that simply serve their intended function.

The homestead in spring. Perhaps most significant during this year of revelations was our recognition that frugality gave us options. Photograph: Elizabeth Willard Thames

These revelations also led me to realize that paying money is the laziest, least creative way to solve a problem or reach a desired end. Theres no innovation in slapping down a credit card.

At first, this was challenging for me. For example: how do I find someone to watch our dog for free instead of paying to board her at a kennel? Then it dawned on me that this was an opportunity to build community.

I reached out to fellow dog-owning friends. We worked out an informal dog-sitting swap that didnt entail money changing hands. We were happier, the dogs were happier, and we reaped the tertiary benefit of creating a community, another artifact we were resurrecting from our ancestors thatd been all but stamped out by commercialism.

But perhaps most significant during this year of revelations was our recognition that frugality gave us options.

Too often, the arc of our lives and the very substance of what we do day after day is dictated to us by our jobs, our debt, and our stuff. Frugality enabled Nate and me to wrest back control.

When youre not reliant on the salary from a job, and youre not embattled by debt, and youre not controlled by your things, your options for how to use your time and how to impact your world are suddenly quite open.

Frugality frees you from the day-to-day anguish of managing a rigid budget. When you operate with the worldview that theres very little you need to buy, you no longer need to count pennies or worry if theres enough money in your account. Youre set.

A frugal life is a creative life and one thats devoid of clutter, both physical and mental, and absent any boredom. In my quest to save money, I always had a project to work on, a solution to innovate, or a hack to uncover.

Strip away all of the spending that doesnt strike at the heart of your long-term goals, and youll have the life you actually want to live. Dont allow your spending to prevent you from doing what you want; instead, allow frugality to sculpt the life you crave.

Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living by Elizabeth Willard Thames is out now. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2018/mar/08/how-to-retire-early-frugal-spending