Family takes frugality to the extreme

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    W. Hodding Carter looking out.

    - W. Hodding Carter

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    Growing plants as part of being more frugal.

    - W. Hodding Carter

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    The Carter family hard at work.

    - W. Hodding Carter

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    The Carter family's beloved hens and their main man, snowflake

    - W. Hodding Carter

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    Angus Carter making maple syrup on our wood stove.

    - W. Hodding Carter

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    The Carter family kids, from left, Eliza, Anabel and Helen. Angus is foreground.

    - W. Hodding Carter

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    Anabel tapping her first maple tree.

    - W. Hodding Carter


TESS VIGELAND: Frugal chic appears to have taken hold of this nation. Don't get caught exiting the mall with a new pair of pants. Make your own lunch or prepare to be mocked. But some are taking their new found love of financial independence to the extreme. Including commentator W. Hodding Carter, who's chronicling his family's year-long experiment in rural Maine at Gourmet.com.

W. Hodding Carter: For years, my wife Lisa told me we were overspending. Even kicked me out of the house once for six months to wake me up. She said we didn't need to eat out, all six of us, twice a week, every week. That it wasn't smart to borrow against our house to mae a $200,000 renovation since we only had a few thousands in savings. That I really didn't need those hand carved, walnut countertops our contractor had suggested I might like. That since we made a conscious decision to spend more time with our kids and less on our careers, we also had to consume less.

Did I listen? No, because I knew that my next book was going to be a best-seller. If it happened to my fellow Mainer Stephen King, of course it would happen to me. Well, it hasn't. And last fall, one of those discussions devolved into tears. The next day, my annual Social Security statement arrived.

To calmly sit down and prove her wrong, I actually looked at it for the first time in years. Panicking, I then looked at hers. Turns out, we only average a combined income of $41,000 a year for the last 10 years. That's about 150% of the federal poverty level of a family of six.

The killer though, is we've been living for the most part, as if we've been making $100,000 a year. We pulled this off by repeatedly refinancing and shuffling between low-interest home equity loans and zero-interest credit card transfers. An inheritance, a fortuitous house sale, some lump sum book advances kept us going. But by last fall, it was all gone, except for the debt.

We had to get frugal. Big time. So we "decided" to live on what's left, every month, after paying our mortgage, taxes and various insurances. That's $550 a month. Since January, we've been trying to buy groceries, drive out two cars, pay for utilities and keep our four kids happy, with the amount that we usually blow on a single trip to the supermarket.

How's it going? We're getting there. Thanks to tapping maple trees, shopping at liquidation grocery stores, never eating out and giving up paper towels. And no cost-cutting measure's off-limits. I came across a young mallard a few weeks ago, obvious road kill, and brought it home for dinner. No one flinched, except maybe just a bit, when I hung it in the basement for a few days to tenderize and improve the flavor.

We began living this way, because we had to. But now we're living the frugal life, because it's what we believe in. We work together on our three new vegetable plots and have more fun than we ever did spending money. We're no longer afraid of the other shoe falling, because we're finally putting one foot in front of the other.

We're the Carters: broke, happy and for once, living within our means.

Vigeland: W. Hodding Carter is writing about his family's experience going extreme frugal on the website of Gourmet magazine.

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Mr. Carter, I think what you're doing is wonderful; thank you for sharing it with the world.

As you've discovered, frugality is not about deprivation, but appreciation: focusing on what's truly meaningful in life, rather than on material goods. When you cherish those things that money can't buy, you gain wealth beyond measure--and realize the true joy of being a "frugillionaire."

Francine Jay
Author, "Frugillionaire: 500 Fabulous Ways to Live Richly and Save a Fortune"

Of course, the other side of that picture I just painted below is a 1930s style American economy.

Having gone through about 8 iterations of a family budget now, we have ours pretty well down, and so I have a lot of thoughts on the idea of living after mortgage, taxes, insurance on $550/month.

We could not do this.

We spend about $600/month minimum on grocery food. I understand having a garden can help, and a family could give up most meats, for instance. I could imagine $300/month there.

Presuming the cars are paid for and in good enough condition, we are putting about $70/month for auto tags and maintenance and $90/month for gas. I could imagine biking if you are lucky enough to do it, and going to 1 car registered/maintained. I could imagine pushing a car down to maybe $80/month (you still have to buy auto maintenance items for do-it-yourself, and pay registration, and a little gas!).

Our utilities, including internet, phone, cell phones, trash, and A/C (we live in central texas and use some air conditioning) run about $350 absolute minimum (we are actually near $420-$450 after careful plan choices, etc.). But without A/C and take the trash yourself to a dump, drop a cell phone, perhaps it could be as low as $200, or even $170 if you drop the land line and cut internet to the lowest, and no A/C.

So those cut to bone numbers are grocery $300, utilities/phones/internet $170, Auto $80.

That's $550, but...what about any other kind of purchase or expense? What if you need two $25 co-pays for a kid going to the doctor per year, and a $10 prescription (these are very optimistic outcomes)? Sure, maybe you could scrape up another $50 month somehow.

But I'm feeling you'll need to scrape together more like $500/month more, somehow...

Or truly use a different kind of lifestyle.

Here are a couple of ideas: Your grocery becomes bulk-only stuff, like a 25lb bag of rice or flour or oatmeal, etc. You need to run chickens on the land for some protein (eggs). You might think of biking to the library for internet, perhaps, if that makes any sense at all (not all families could even consider this kind of option). Auto maintenance could start to look a lot more like it did when I was a young kid -- we pulled spark plugs out and cleaned them up, sanded the edges sharp, adjusted them...extend sparkplug useability about 3x longer.

But bigger choices have to do with building your own toys (boxcars, swings, projects).

And you'll be living in nice, nice digs. That's American enough!

An impressive contribution to living mindfully, Mr. Carter. I look forward to hearing more about your adventures.

The mallard duck story took me aback, but 100 years ago most of us would have applauded, not flinched, at the dinner table. Glad to know your family did the former!

~Christine Louise Hohlbaum
author of "The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World"

I leave above our means for 30 years! I know I should sell this boat, cut the Cable TV, cut the lawn myself and stop trying to tackle big projects myself without hiring a Pro ( see next story ). Bis spender and I still have a porcupine in my pocket - as my sisters say.
I tell you, we try not to keep up with the Jones but when we live close to Megalopolis, this crazy life is insidious. I guess it is a little easier when living in the country.
I tried to plant my lettuces... it is (maybe ) more tasty and healthier, but they look ugly. We lost a lot by getting more technologically educated.
Maybe global warming, the scarcity of resources - Fuels first and water after - will force us to go back to basics.
From industrial revolution to natural resolution. It will take 3 generations to get comfortable with a new rhythm of life - if we don't blow our earth ( see Planet of Apes... )

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