TEXT OF COMMENTARY
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. And yes, I'm prepared for your mail. But really, tending chickens in a coop outside your Manhattan co-op? Well at least if you're going to go all extreme frugal, be funny about it.
Be 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.
The most recent teachable moment, by the way, involves a bathtub, a flashlight-lit sprint to the henhouse, and a beloved but constipated chicken named Stella. All in the name of free breakfast.