In 2014, Liz Thames and her husband, Nate, were a conventional young couple working nine-to-five jobs in the city. But they dreamed of another life, setting up home in the woods of rural Vermont while no longer having to rely on a monthly paycheque.
Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living is the story of this transition.
Thames describes how she and her husband embrace simplicity and turn their backs on keeping up with the Joneses.
She sets out a familiar world of office job monotony, with weekends constituting “a race to prepare for the next week”, before sketching out a route towards a different way of living.
Thames’ lament, as she finds herself bogged down by the daily grind, will strike a chord with many: “When was I supposed to figure out what I was passionate about? When would I do something that mattered? Where was the space in my life to uncover deeper meaning?”
The answer the couple fix upon is to use extreme frugality to enable them to become financially independent and begin a new life in the woods.
I wouldn’t say this is a perfect book.
A thoughtful disclaimer in the introduction, in which Thames acknowledges the privileges she and her husband have enjoyed which made their financial journey easier, can sometimes jar with passages in the book striking a different tone.
“I couldn’t understand why we weren’t getting pregnant. Had the fertility gods not read the statistics? That children do better with two parents? That children do better in a home that’s financially secure? That children do better when mothers have advanced degrees?”
(I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt with this particular passage and attribute this to an attempt at a joke, rather than a genuine view that some people are more deserving of fertility than others.)
Other attempts at humour can also be a little hit-and-miss on occasion.
At one point early in the book, Thames describes at great length how she has been wanting then-boyfriend Nate to propose, to the extent that she makes a list of baby names that sound good with his last name.
He then takes her for a walk while acting strangely and carrying a mystery bag.
“Was this a sign that he was on drugs? Sweating, fast walking, a quick pulse, nervous eyes, and an unexplained backpack? I made a mental note to google it later. […] Nate said he wanted to go inside to use the restroom. To do drugs? I wondered.”
It would at least make a more interesting plot twist than what we know is inevitably coming.
But many passages are hugely evocative and skilfully woven.
“Consumerism made me into an insatiable, grabbing taker, whereas frugality transformed me into a mindful, grateful giver.
“Once I turned on this mind-set of spending less, and as a consequence using fewer natural resources, I was amazed at all the areas where I could simultaneously conserve money and fossil fuels. […]
“My frugality became about something broader and more momentous than simply the money I could save in my bank account. It was about my impact on our earth. It was about what I could do with my time and how I could interact with the world.”
Meet the Frugalwoods has come in for criticism from some in the financial blogging community. In her book, Thames does not reveal what the couple earns. Some argue that without spelling out the importance of a high wage, the reader is left in the dark about a major aspect of becoming financially independent.
Others question whether this is a true FIRE (financial independence, retire early) story when, even after the couple’s transition to a life ‘independent’ of jobs, both appear to continue working in some capacity.
I’d question both of these criticisms.
Firstly, this book’s strength lies not in its usefulness as a how-to guide but as an inspirational story. It is a memoir, not an instruction manual. What financial details Thames wants to keep to herself is her business.
Secondly, financial independence doesn’t have to mean giving up work forever. It’s about giving up the need to work.
This is at its heart a story not about the numbers but about a couple’s experience in stepping away from consumerism and finding freedom, rather than deprivation, as a result.
While in my view it has its flaws, it still has a great deal of inspiration to offer anyone who seeks a different type of life.
I was sent a complimentary review copy of this book.