Book Review: “Meet the Frugalwoods”

The perfect first book review for this site: “Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living” by Elizabeth Willard Thames. Why? First of all, it’s a well-written, easy-to-read book about family finances. More to the point, it is a story about a woman who worked in the non-profit world before retiring very early based on her and her family’s financial acumen and sound decision-making over a number of years. Thames also writes a popular blog of the same name.

The book takes you on the Thames family–or, as they call themselves, the Frugalwoods family– financial journey from city living in Cambridge, MA to their life in early retirement in rural Vermont. If you’ve ever been to Cambridge, you will know that it is a vibrant, beautiful small city, with a highly diverse population, great cafes and restaurants and world-class universities … and it is NOT inexpensive to live there. From real estate prices to the cost of a cup of coffee, Cambridge is a costly place to go about one’s daily life. In the jargon of personal finance, it is a “high cost of living” or “HCOL” area to be sure.

Some things I really loved about the book:

  • the Frugalwoods found a way to make it work in expensive Cambridge on a non-profit salary (as well as income from Thames’ husband, to be clear; also, she worked in fundraising for a well-known organization, so she probably occupied a better-paid corner of the non-profit world, an important theme to recognize in this blog);
  • I really liked that Mrs. Frugalwoods acknowledges the many ways in which she was and is privileged in early 21st century USA (comes from a loving, intact family who gave her lots of support; her family has the financial advantage of being White, cisgender, etc.; she says she is not discriminated against in any material way; while she didn’t get any big inheritance or anything, she didn’t come out of school with tons of debt; etc.).
  • they managed to save a huge amount of their income despite the high cost of living–and she details how they did it and then continued to do it in Vermont, post-retirement;
  • they didn’t seem to deprive themselves of anything that really mattered to them;
  • they did make hard choices and specify those choices in the text–but then the choices didn’t seem to be so hard once they were made. I don’t want to spoil the book in this review, so suffice to say that some of the changes related to looking and acting like rich “hipsters” and in terms of the big-ticket cost items like the home and transportation;
  • the Frugalwoods story is really a story–it takes you from one place to another, with challenges along the way, and has a very happy ending. Or so it seems to this reader.

In sum, definitely worth a read if you are working in a non-profit career and want to take control of your financial life. To be clear, I don’t favor “early retirement” for myself; more on that elsewhere. This book can be a useful read whether or not you seek the “RE” part of the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) aspiration. It’s also a great read if you are considering your career, or a career change, and you wonder if you can make ends meet.

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