Scott: Welcome to the BiggerPockets Money Show, show number 10.
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Liz: It’s important to recognize that the money in itself is not the happiness, the money is just the vehicle that enables you to explore the lifestyle that’s going to make you happy.
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Scott: How’s it going everybody, I’m Scott Trench and I’m here with my co-host, Ms. Mindy Jensen. How are you doing Mindy?
Mindy: Scott I am doing fantastic today, how are you doing?
Scott: I’m doing great. We just interviewed a fantastic guest who has done some remarkable things in her life and it’s not well, everything in a way she describes is luxuriously frugal.
Mindy: I love that term that’s so funny. So I’m actually friends with Liz or you may know her as Mrs., Frugalwoods. I’m actually friends with her in real life and we went and visited her this summer at her Vermont estate, and it is amazing how well they live on how little they live on. And it’s a conscious choice, she has a job, he has a job.
And they choose to make these changes, I don’t even want to call them sacrifices, they choose to make these changes in their life so they can live the life that they want. They live on a-like I said before it’s a beautiful Vermont farm and they have everything they could possibly want.
Scott: Yeah I think it’s fantastic. And by the way in addition to the interview today they also are coming out with a book, I think it’s tomorrow in this [Inaudible] [01:38] right?
Scott: So you want to talk about the book real quick?
Mindy: Well so the book comes out tomorrow, it is called, Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living. And it’s not a preachy book, it’s not a book where they make you feel bad about how you’re currently living. It’s here’s how we did it and these are ways that you can do it too. You can change the way that you live so you can live the life that you truly want, which is kind of what we’re doing on this show.
Scott: Yeah and that’s what it’s all about, it’s not about the money, it’s about the happiness. And she was able to redesign a kind of expensive lifestyle in an expensive city, and realized hey that’s not making me happy. What does make me happy is like being out in nature, doing these things that optimize my lifestyle in such a way that I’m going to enjoy things.
And then drinks her seltzer water. By the way there’s a very cool tip later on in this show about how to get as much bubbly water as you water. So I drink the water from Laqua, I don’t know how to pronounce it, whatever it is which is kind of a waste. So I’m definitely going to be thinking about giving up a Saturday to this project which would be a very fun way to have unlimited seltzer water.
Mindy: This post, I don’t even drink seltzer water but this post really resonated with me because, it’s here I gained the system. Here’s how I saw something that I wanted, I didn’t want to give it up but I figure out a cheaper way to achieve this same thing. And she does this in multiple areas of her life and she tells us all about how she got yoga classes for free.
How she hacked her SodaStream system to make pretty much free seltzer water. And they drink a lot of seltzer water it’s actually funny how frequently they’re running that machine. But it costs them almost nothing and they just, how can I make this cheaper? So their version of frugality isn’t how much can I give up, it’s how cheap can I get everything that I want.
Scott: Yeah, I think it’s fantastic. And should we bring her in and let her tell us all these things? But first let’s hear a word from today’s sponsor
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Mindy: Yeah we should let her tell her story we don’t need to tell her story.
Scott: I just told half her story, no that’s not true. She has a lot of great things that we talk about today and we just barely scratch the surface with this intro.
Mindy: Yeah so let’s bring her in. hi, Liz welcome to the show.
Liz: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Mindy: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to share with us. I know it’s difficult to have a 66 acre beautiful farmstead and then pull yourself back inside. What’s the weather like out there in Vermont today?
Liz: Well it’s not too hard to be inside today. We have freezing rain. So Mindy has been here but when she was here it was beautiful idyllic summer. So sorry [Inaudible] [05:14].
Mindy: It was really nice.
Liz: It was.
Mindy: Freezing rain is yeah that’s a lot easier to stay inside.
Scott: I got up to Vermont every year for Christmas. So we have a house up there and once the family comes together and it’s a beautiful place to be in the winter, but yes you don’t spend much time outside it’s extremely [Inaudible] [05:32] right inside. So let’s go on, well how did you come to be in Vermont? Well how did this situation arise, can you tell our listeners a little bit about your backstory and why you’re living in a farm right now and talking to us about personal finance?
Liz: So my husband and I lived in cities for about a decade. We lived in New York City, Washington DC, Cambridge Massachusetts, actually two different times. And what we came to realize over the course of living in all these cities is that did not enjoy urban life. And finally in March 2014 we asked each other, “When are you happiest?” and we both said when we’re hiking.
So we were leaving the city almost every weekend to go hiking in the woods. And we came to this realization that we had misaligned our lifestyles. Here we were in the middle of the city, working very standard nine to five very good jobs, and we were not feeling fulfilled. We were feeling frustrated by this routine and feeling like we needed to escape the city.
So we started talking about this idea of where we wanted to go when we retired, and that conversation started out with retiring at 65, where do we want to go? We really want to go to the woods and then we started to think maybe we can do it a little bit earlier, maybe we could do it at 50 or 40. And then we said, “Maybe we could do it at 32.”
And we came to that realization by carefully examining our finances, seeing where we were and then projecting out how much we would need in order to reach financial independence and in order to leave the city and move out into the woods. So that happened for us in May 2016, so we’ve lived out here for about a year and a half at this point, and we absolutely love it.
It is truly our dream come true and we love the ability to walk outside our door and hike, and be in nature and raise our children in this way. So it’s been a wonderful move and I think it’s a kind of an unconventional move to make because it’s not actually less expensive to live in the country versus in the middle of the city which is a really common misconception. But it is where we want to be.
Scott: Well so I think this is awesome just like the concept, oh I’m going to start with what makes me happy, where I want to actually spend my day to day. And then I’m going to figure out, okay what do I need to change over some time in order to make that a reality? So could we talk about that? When did you decide I know you moved in May of 2016 when did you kind of begin to come into this realization and what was your position like and then how did you move towards this goal?
Liz: So it was March 29th 2014, I can tell you exactly the day because it was a very pivotal conversation. It was one of those conversation that you remember. And it was the culmination of I think several years of hiking, realizing that we didn’t necessarily want to live in the city, but not really seeing another route for ourselves.
Not really understanding financial independence as a concept, not understanding location independence for work. So this was kind of a culmination of all of these thoughts that we’d been having over the years. And at that point we were 29 and we were very fortunate that we’d had pretty good jobs throughout our 20s. So my first job paid $10,000 for the year and I lived in New York City.
Liz: I saved $2000.
Scott: Where was that?
Mindy: Whoa, whoa stop. You saved $2000 while living in New York City making $10,000 total dollars?
Liz: That is correct.
Mindy: Okay that’s…
Liz: So you could say frugality comes to me pretty naturally. So that was through AmeriCorps which is sort of like the Domestic Peace Corp. so I was working in an underserved community for a nonprofit gaining valuable work experience, being paid very little. I also had access to food stamps and a metro card.
So it’s important to know that food and transportation were covered which were major expenses. So I was paying my rent and any other incidental expenses. And after that year, I was able to get increasingly well-paying jobs which after $10,000 a year just about anything is a better paying job. I always worked for nonprofit organizations and my husband has always worked for mission based organizations.
So we were not making investment banker salaries, we were making very good white collar salaries and we were saving at a pretty high rate. So we didn't have debt, we did not have student loan debt which I think is transformational for the beginning of our journey. And I think is a real element of privilege that we had coming into our 20s.
We went to an inexpensive state school and we had scholarships. We both worked during school and our parents helped us to pay the rest of our tuition. And it just was not that expensive at the time. So coming out of school with no debt we didn’t have any consumer debt and we never took on any consumer debt. We got married very young at 24.
That feels really young now, looking back at the time. We were like, “Yes of course we’re ready to get married.” So fortunately worked out and we lived well below our means. So we rented this basement apartment in Boston, it was just not great, very below ground.
Scott: When did you move from New York to Boston?
Liz: That was 2007 and then we got married in 2008. And we set a goal of buying a home in Cambridge, which as your listeners probably know is one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. We at 24, I think we had about $5000, we were like, “Oh yeah we’re total going to do this.” a studio is half a million dollars so what were we thinking?
But having that really aspirational goal was very important, I would say that was transformational for us because it helped us to focus in on what we could do. So on the salaries that we made we saved about 40 to 50% which eventually led us up to a down payment and we bought a home in Cambridge in 2012. And that was really kind of the culmination of our first financial goal.
That was our first way of proving to ourselves okay we can save a lot of money, we can be focused and concerted with a financial goal and I think it was having that endpoint that got us there. So at this point, fast-forwarding back to 2014 when we were talking about wanting to leave the city, we had been saving at a pretty high rate.
And I think it’s important to acknowledge that and understand that, that we weren’t starting from zero and we didn’t have any debt other than the mortgage on our Cambridge property. So starting from a pretty good place of saving around 40 to 50% we bumped ourselves up to over 70 sometimes over 80%. And we were able to reach this goal in a pretty short timeframe with that really concerted push of saving at a much higher rate.
So I think it's financial independence, so I think this trajectory can be possible for a lot of people but I like to acknowledge kind of the good fortune and the luck that I had going into it. And really the privilege of not having student loan debt, of having a dual income household with at that point no kids and with having really pretty good paying careers.
Scott: Wow, I think some of this it sounds like you’re not giving yourself quite enough credit because you say dual income household yet you started with a $10,000 year salary.
Mindy: Single house income.
Scott: So yeah I guess that could be part of the dual income but no, this is an awesome story here. And it just speaks to consistent application of sound principles over time. And then that turning point, you had a goal to buy this home in 2012 which you did.
And then you have the turning point that I’m assuming that by 2014 you’d had accumulated a few hundred thousand dollars in assets. You’re like, “Okay now what’s the finish line like for us? What’s this happiness piece and how do we kind of bring that home and finish it?
Liz: Absolutely. And I think it’s important to recognize that the money in itself is not the happiness, the money is just the vehicle that enables you to explore the lifestyle that’s going to make you happy. So I don’t think it’s enough to retire from something. Sure you can want to leave your job, you can want to run away, but you have to be going to something.
You’ve got to have that destination of what do I really want to do with my time? And that’s the ultimate question for us, how do we want to use our time. So if time and money are your most precious resources, the way in which you use your money can really enable you to explore that use of time in ways that are fulfilling to you.
And when I talk about happiness, a lot of what I’m talking about is fulfillment, and finding a position in life, a job, a role that’s really personally gratifying for you, whether or not you’re being paid, whether or not you need the money. And that’s very much where I am now I’ve chosen to be a writer.
That is not necessarily a stress free occupation. But I love it. It brings me so much delight and joy to do it, and being able to choose that career is transformational to me in creating days that in enjoy. I just enjoy how I spend my time.
Mindy: Okay you hit on like 100 things that I want to circle back in and talk about. I want to talk about first the high savings rate because you mentioned that. And I really want to focus on that. You’re saving 70 or 80% of your salary, what does that look like? Is that rice and beans for dinner every night, is that peanut butter sandwiches for lunch or is that a more doable thing? All these people that we talk to say, “Oh I had a really high savings rate.” Well are you sacrificing your life because of that or is it just something easy to do?
Liz: I love that question because our approach is all about luxurious frugality. And I know people say, “Luxurious frugality, lady you are crazy.” Well listen I really believe in this because I don’t think that frugality is sustainable or enjoyable or even makes any sense if you just don’t spend any money. Sure you can spend pennies, and you could eat beans out of a can, and you could live in a tent.
These are all things that we could do. We did not do any of these things, we really continued living at what I would consider to be a very high level of luxury, convenience. We stopped spending on all the things that did not bring us deep and lasting fulfillment. And so we cut out a lot of things that were just ultimately unnecessary.
And then the other piece is that we found frugal substitutions for things that we love to do. So a great example Yoga classes. I love going to yoga. In the city I was going to yoga, in the city I was going to yoga three nights a week for like $20 a class. I mean just thousands of dollars every month. And what I realized is that I could volunteer at the front desk of the yoga studio, check people in, mop the studio afterwards, take out the trash and get free classes.
So that was a very small expenditure of time for me, it was about 30 minutes in order to get free classes in order to get free classes. And a tradeoff like that, where you’re then saving many thousands of dollars a year is fantastic. And the other piece of that is that I made a bunch of friends. I was part of the community of the yoga studio.
I loved working at the front desk, it was a lot of fun for me in addition to being this financially fantastic idea. So I really encourage people to isolate the variables of what makes them the happiest. And if it’s yoga class or it’s cross fit whatever it is, there is a frugal analogue for that. There is something that you can do in order to reduce the cost of that. We also love to drink seltzer, which is sparkling water. This is the most ridiculous example because people-
Mindy: No, this is my favorite example. I will-
Liz: So Mindy has had it.
Mindy: I will say that Liz’s husband is exceptionally handy.
Liz: As is yours.
Mindy: Yeah but this isn’t about me, he’s- okay tell the story I’m sorry I interrupted you. But I love the story like this is such a great idea I would never have thought of this. But you’re saving a lot of money I mean when she says that they drink a lot of seltzer, I don’t think that you really understand. I think that’s all she drinks, is seltzer. She keeps herself very hydrated with her seltzer.
Liz: It’s just sparkling water I don’t put any sugar in it I swear.
Mindy: No but you can’t just like go and blow bubbles in there, you have to do it with a machine.
Liz: You do, you need the intervention of a machine. So this is an example where someone who is going to extreme frugality would say, “Oh obviously you’re going to give up the seltzer and just drink tap water because that’s free.” No, we did not give up the seltzer. My husband who is very handy, and we detail this process on our blog.
So if anybody wants to do this, you really can follow the steps, it’s actually quite straightforward. We hacked our SodaStream machine to hook up to a 20 pound canister of CO2, so this now costs us pennies. And I do the cost breakdown on Frugalwoods and you can read through that. But the key with the SodaStream machine, where you’re spending the money is on the inserts.
The CO2 inserts that you have to swap out, and we were spending I think it was maybe $40 a month on those. We now spend I think it’s $60 per year on this CO2 tank. And I have to tell you the evolution of the seltzer because originally, let me tell you, we were buying two-liter bottles at the grocery store right. So that’s the most expensive way to get bubbly water to your home.
It’s also very heavy when you don’t have a car and you’re walking back from the grocery store. So my devotion to this stuff is very profound. So then from there we bought a SodaStream that is less expensive. And then from there we hacked it to use the CO2 tank, but it gets better. We originally bought the CO2 tank from a beer home brew shop because it’s the same CO2.
I looked at the CO2 tank and it had a sticker of a welding supply company on the side and I was like, “This home brew shop is getting it from the welding supply and then marking it way up at the hipster home brew shop. So I called the welding supply and sure enough it’s half off at the welding supply. So we now- it’s the same thing they were just like hipsterizing it like putting a bow on it, it’s a home brew shop so there’s always a cheaper option.
And what kind of underlies the story, is how much fun it is to make these discoveries. This was truly enjoyable for my husband and I. I mean I cannot tell you how excited we were and then excited to share with other people. So I think it’s when you see it as an enjoyable aspect of life and you see it as a competition.
And you see it as really a way that you can innovate and be creative, it becomes a lot of fun. Because we live in the society of just use an app for anything that you need. And what I’m advocating is use your brain, be creative, be innovative, find ways to get what you want without spending money.
Mindy: Okay, see now we do that at our house too, you make it into a game. And now I’m I this like de-cluttering my kitchen mode because I can be kind of a hoarder when it comes to my food, that’s my last Bastian of hoarderism. So I’m trying to get rid of things so now it’s like a game, what can I do with this random assortment of stuff in my refrigerator and my cabinet so I don’t have to go out and buy something and there’s websites you can use to do this.
And it’s a lot of fun when you gamify it, it’s not such a like daunting task, it’s not like, “Argh I can’t spend any money.” No, how little can you spend? Like what can I get my monthly spend down to? And this article is fabulous, the detail and the, oh I can cut money there, I can cut expenses here. I love this article I’ll link to it in the show notes so everybody else can read it and love it too.
Scott: Awesome. I think it’s great. I think the mentality you speak to is how do I and you said it yourself; how do I do the things I love as cheaply as possible and find ways to make that economical? And it’s applying that mentality to all of your favorite things I think is absolutely key to not only just saving money but loving your life while you’re doing it; luxurious frugality. Right you’re so luxurious you probably don’t even drink tap water anymore. It’s seltzer water right. So it’s to me.
Liz: And it’s also a question too of once you eliminate or reduce these expenses, it’s not for one month, it’s not for one year it is for the rest of your life. And then if you invest which is something that I was doing, you are then ripping the benefits of compounding interest on all of those dollar amounts. So people might say, “Oh you’re saving $60 month, a thousand, what does that even mean?”
Well put it into a compounding interest calculator and you will see what that means over time. So my husband and I cut each other’s hair at home. That thousands of dollars saved over the course of our entire lives. It’s not like I’m going to suddenly start getting my hair cut in a salon for $120 again which is what I was doing before.
It’s a lifelong question of eliminating that expense and it’s also a question of skill building. So I now know how to give pretty good haircuts, as does my husband. I’ve even had friends say, “Could he cut my hair too?” I’m like, “Well he could, I mean if you want him to.” So you’re building out this set of skills that really is fun.
It’s an enjoyable thing to do and it saves time. That’s another misconception about frugality. It takes so much less time to cut your hair at home, it’s like 15 minutes and you’re done versus commuting to the salon, sitting there waiting, doing it, commuting back home. Never again.
Mindy: Yeah it’s like a three hour process for me and my hairdresser actually lives literally across the street from me. But she doesn’t cut hair in her house so I go to her salon and that’s my one splurge. But I cut Karl’s hair.
Liz: I know that because we cut Karl’s hair at our house, I mean I didn’t Mindy did.
Scott: I got a question, going back to- I mean this is prior to the transition where you moved to the city, what were you doing for your big three expenses which for most people are going to be housing, transportation and food? So how were you managing I mean in order to have an 80% savings rate I’m assuming you apply this mentality to your favorite things yes. But you also have to have strategy for the big ones right.
Liz: Absolutely. And I am a fan of thinking about the big three but I also encourage people not to be myopic and only think about those three. You have to think about every single line item. You can’t get to a high savings rate by just looking at those three, it’s not possible guaranteed it. So for those three, so we own this home in Cambridge which is now a rental property.
And that was another aspect of our plan all along, was to turn that into a rental. So that can be a really good option for financial independence. It’s a great source of passive income for us. Of course this goes without saying that Cambridge is a good rental market. And that’s not guaranteed to be the case everywhere at all.
So we have a pretty high mortgage on that home, and there is not really a whole lot we could do about that. We actually did consider renting it out and living in a smaller place because we were underutilizing the asset by living in it, totally underutilizing it. It’s a single family home that was much too large for us but we wanted a single family so that we didn’t have any HOA restrictions when we turned it into a rental.
And it also has a lot of bedrooms which is ideal for the grad students who rent it because we live walking distance to Harvard and MIT. So that was kind of a long term vision of that house, not ideal to be living there. So we talked about renting it out and moving, we didn’t end up doing that because ultimately it would be so much disruption and we were having a baby as well and it’s like I’m not moving like twice with an infant.
So we stayed in the house until we moved and started renting. In terms of transportation, the city is the best place for cheap transportation. So my husband biked to work every single day, all winter long yes, in Boston winters. So that’s a very cheap way of commuting. We used public transit, we walked most places.
I actually drove to work in a 20 year old minivan with over 200,000 miles so that was a luxury to have a car but it was also a super cheap car to insure and maintain. And we had all of those backup transit options so we didn’t need a super reliable car and we didn’t need a second car because that car would just not start some days.
But I could just like take a bus. So it’s nice when you’re in the city because when you have those backup transit options you can really get by either with no car, which we did for many years, or with a really old crummy car that like if it doesn’t start you can still get to work. So it’s not a huge deal. And then in terms of food, the city was a great place for frugal grocery shopping because you have so many options.
So we checked out every single grocery store in the area and we just found the cheapest. It’s Market Basket so if you’re in New England you must shop at Market Basket it is the best. But we really questioned do we need to shop at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods? We do not. So we went from like I don’t know $1000 a month on groceries to $300.
And we did not sacrifice the quality of our food. We eat mostly organic high quality foods, we do cook everything from scratch at home. And from scratch I mean like we make our own bread we make our own hummus, we make pretty much everything from scratch. And by ‘we’ I 100% mean my husband. I do not cook so I have to clarify.
But when you cook with the base raw ingredients, you can buy really high quality great meat, great produce and really nice whole wheat flour and you just make it yourself. So we transitioned away from packaged food, prepared foods, that whole food salad bar that we were doing like three times a week, yeah no.
So we stopped-this is after yoga. This is great so we’d go to yoga and then walk to the whole food salad bar. So that’s 20, 40, 60, like $80. So finding an inexpensive grocery store is very important. And then looking at buying in bulk, cooking from scratch and cooking at home. So stopping eating out, people will not be surprised is transformational for your budget especially in the city where there are so many good restaurants.
So we ate breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, coffees everything was at home. We totally stopped going out during that timeframe. And what I would say now we actually go out to dinner once a month, that’s our date night and that’s kind of our one chosen time to eat out. But it’s a very conscious choice and it’s a very special celebration.
It’s not like, “Oh oops it’s Tuesday and we forgot to make dinner so I guess we have to go to McDonald’s,” it’s not that at all. It’s something that we planned for and I think just making that decision okay am I going to have restaurant meals? If I do how do I make them special and not just an accidental, “Oh I forgot to cook,” type of situation.
Mindy: And that’s really important because when you don’t make it special, when you go out every single night, all of a sudden you have an $85 meal, $112 meal, $200 meal and you’re like, “Oh whatever.” We were just at Camp FI a couple of weeks ago, Scott and I and there was a guy there. FI180, 180FI?
Scott: Joe from FI180.
Mindy: FI180, yeah he was telling about he and his wife would go out to dinner every single night and they’d go to these like $600 a night restaurants.
Liz: Oh my gosh.
Mindy: And it was like no big deal. And they didn’t like totally appreciate it. And that’s really important to make it special so it is special. And also I would like to say that your husband is a phenomenal cook.
Liz: Oh thank you.
Mindy: Holy cow! I think I’m a good cook and I make garbage compared to him.
Liz: Oh stop.
Mindy: So that’s also very helpful.
Liz: That’s not true. Well and what I will say too is his cooking has gotten better because he does it all the time. So he just last night made this like Korean Kimchi beef recipe that he’s never made before. It is unbelievable, it’s like better than a restaurant and it’s just because he cooks all the time. So he has gotten better, he watches cooking shows, he reads books.
So when you start to do this stuff constantly you will get better at it and it will start to become a hobby. And for him it’s really a joyful hobby because he gets to create these amazing meals for this totally appreciative audience that’s me. I eat everything he makes. That’s the other thing, if you’re the one that doesn’t cook, you just eat everything they cook and never complain.
And I think to what Mindy is saying when you make luxuries like eating out rare, your happiness that you derive from it will absolutely increase. And it’s a question of hedonic adaptation and it’s a question of if you repeatedly exposed yourself to anything that’s enjoyable; food, alcohol, whatever it is you’re going to deaden the response that you have to it.
And you’re going to require higher and higher levels of that, and we see that with our spending too. If we spend more and more and more in pursuit of this elusive happiness, there is no end to that versus when you do what we do which is you just completely step off of the consumer carousel. You completely stop spending money.
You will then find that the times that you do spend money, it’s very meaningful. The one or two lattes in a very fancy coffee shop that I have every year, they’re like the best lattes I’ve ever had versus when I was having a latte every afternoon. And it just didn’t even matter to me.
Scott: So I got two quick questions here. The first is you’ve made this transition to working at the yoga shop, cutting back on certain things, learning how to cook, changing up where you shop, all this good stuff. What was your timeline like for reducing your expenses? Did it happen overnight or did it take you a year or two to get from point A to point B in terms of spending? How did that look like?
Liz: So when we made the decision to retire early and reach financial independence, we made the decision in a really big way. And you don’t have to be this sudden about it, though for us I mean it was absolutely an overnight decision. We had planned to go out to dinner that night and we did not go out to dinner that night because we thought, “There’s no point in waiting.”
“We’re not going to change our minds. This is what we want to do, we’re going to start now and we’re not going to look back. So it was a very strategic and decisive thing. And we truly started the next day. And what we did in the first month of what I call extreme frugality is we cut out everything that was not necessary.
And I actually run a challenge a free month-long challenge on Frugalwoods called the Uber Frugal Month Challenge and that tracks the steps that we took. So if you want to truly save as much as you possibly save, take that challenge, do what we did and then end of that challenge, what my husband and I did at the end of that month is we said, “Okay how did this feel? What do we want to add back in?”
And that was where the questions of things like seltzer and yoga came to life, where you know what, I’m not happy not going to yoga like I need to figure this out. I’m not happy not drinking seltzer, we need to figure that out. Versus it wasn’t that bad not to eat out, we had some great meals at home, we really had nice date nights with our boxed wine and our candles. And that’s fine, and we can keep doing that.
So I think it’s a question of bring yourself down to truly the lowest that you can spend and identify how that feels. Keep very close track of how much you save, calculate that out over the course of the year, over the course of a few years. And we were so overwhelmed and impressed by how much we could save that that really prompted us to realize okay we can do this. We can do this in a short period of time and we’re motivated to save that much.
Mindy: Okay so you said you cut out everything, you obviously can’t cut out like food and water and your mortgage payment and all of that. What exactly did you cut out?
Liz: So restaurants is huge I got to tell you. Restaurants, lunches out at work, coffees, haircuts, dry-cleaning, really anything that was not mandatory. So clothing, I have actually not bought any clothing in four years now and I have been pregnant twice during that time. I am pregnant right now wearing my hand-me-down maternity clothes.
So I used to shop at thrift store, I just constantly bought things at thrift stores all the time. I thought oh that’s frugal I’m at a thrift store, no it’s not if you do not need it. So really coming to terms with clothing is usually not a need and recognizing that across all of our spending. Household wares, throw pillows, décor, candles, those are not needs.
And that is how you go to Target and come out with a$300 bill is by not just buying toilet paper. So truly isolating the variables of what we needed for survival. And being very careful in price comparisons, comparing costs of toilet paper per square foot or inch or how they do it. You really can save a lot when you do that and focus on buying the least expensive option that you have. So it’s a really holistic view of what you actually need.
And I have to say for us we were never huge spenders but we were certainly spending a lot more than we needed to. And I think for a lot of people when you do this practice there’s a lot of low hanging fruit that first month. There are subscriptions that you’ve forgotten about, there is someone to clean your house, someone to walk your dog. There are so many endless numbers of services that if we start insourcing it we can save usually really large amounts of money.
Mindy: So how long did it take to get used to this and what did you add back in besides the seltzer and the yoga?
Liz: So I think it takes at least a year to really get used to this because I think we were very focused on the dollar amounts at the beginning. It’s very much like, “Okay we’re not buying this, we’re not buying this, we’re not- okay we’re very clearly honing in on saving money. And it’s fun because it’s a game and it’s a competition.
But I have to say over time it becomes so easy it becomes so easy because it’s just second nature now. I mean we really don’t think about it, we don’t budget and we don’t project out much we’re going to spend in a month. It just shakes out to be really frugal because that’s the philosophy that we’ve engrained in our lives.
So you do it the first month, it’s hard. Anything that you try new a diet, an exercise program is very hard the first months. And then if you just keep doing it, it just becomes what you do. So the things that we added back in are things that we felt that we needed in order to sort of increase our happiness. So things like the yoga, the seltzer, which actually the yoga though we didn’t spend money on that.
So that was finding a substitution. And then now eating out once a month at a restaurant is a great example of an expense that we’ve added back. And we could certainly stop doing that if we needed to save more. But it’s something we choose to do and I think we also added back in more high quality groceries. So at the very beginning we sort of didn’t eat any meat.
And we still don’t eat a lot of meat but we eat more meat now just kind of cycles through our diet a little bit more regularly. And it’s also you have to also question when it makes sense to spend money because finding things used or secondhand is primarily what we do. But it’s not actually always the cheapest route to go.
So being strategic about what you do spend money on, I think a good example is our chest freezer. Living in the country you’ve got to have a chest freezer to store your food in. and we looked at getting a used chest freezer on Craigslist because we get everything used. But then we realized that the chest freezers on craigslist would use so much more electricity and energy than the brand new energy star certified appliances which were only $80 more new.
So we bought new. So doing that analysis and kind of bringing that presence of mind to the decisions that you make, we also have a Toyota Prius which is a hybrid vehicle. We bought it used in 2016, it’s a 2010. But that was another conscious choice to buy a car that will save us money over time because we’ve spent so little on gas over time.
So bringing that kind of wholesale understanding into how you live, it is not always about just finding the dirt cheapest option, but what’s going to enable frugality over the long term.
Scott: I think it’s a fantastic approach and this is the baseline for achieving financial freedom. I mean it’s really hard I think to make the progress that you’d made of it and that almost everyone that we’ve talked to has made without having this frugality in place first. That said, there are two other areas of personal finance we haven’t really covered in depth yet. What were you doing if anything on the income and the investment fronts while you were moving toward this goal?
Liz: And I am really glad you brought this up because I write a lot about frugality and simple living just because it’s fun, but it’s really important for people to understand that you a) need to have an income that’s high enough to enable you to save. And then you’ve got to invest because that’s the only way to build and grow your wealth.
You cannot just stuff it in your mattress or put it in a savings rechecking account. You can’t do that if you want to see it grow over time. So we invest in low fee index funds. We use Fidelity, we have FSTVX which is very similar to Vanguard’s option. The fees are actually slightly lower on Fidelity. And we ended up with Fidelity because our 401Ks still work.
With Fidelity we’ve just concentrated all of our accounts there. But either VTSAX through Vanguard or FSTVX through Fidelity are what you want to have low fee index funds. So we invested there, we then have this rental property that I mentioned in Cambridge which is a great revenue generating asset for us.
We did a serious analysis when we moved sell versus rent, so that’s important to understand what your rental market is, what your sales market is, what your tenant population is and then of course taking into account things like vacancies, maintenance funds. We have a property manager which is I think the best decision we made.
Being moderately long distance landlords to – I don’t know –a 160 year-old house, we are very happy with our property managers. I know they’ve really done a great job for us. So identifying whether or not you’re going to pay a property manager, lots to think about with whether or not you want to serve as a landlord.
That has worked out well for us, so we’re very happy with that. And then we also have 401Ks that we had from our traditional W2 jobs when we had those. So those are also invested. And we have a donor advised fund which is a way of giving to charity in a way that’s tax advantaged. So you’re able to take the full deduction of your contribution in the year that you put into your donor advised fund.
And then you’re able to mete money out to nonprofits over the course of your lifetime essentially. So a donor advised fund is a great idea if you’re experiencing a high tax year, and then you anticipate having a lot of low tax years. So for example if you’re retiring early and you can kind of see, “Okay this is going to be my really high tax year, probably followed by lower tax years and you know that you want to give philanthropically, it’s a great idea to consider putting money into a donor advised fund.
And then we also own our property in Vermont which is 66-acre homestead with a house and a barn. But I will tell you that we actually consider it zero dollars in our loan that was because raw property is not guaranteed to appreciate or even remain static. It's a tough sales market, if we were able to recoup what we put in it, that'd be great.
But honestly we just consider it zero which I think it’s really important to know where your real estate shakes out, and whether or not it’s actually an asset or just a great place to live. And we just think it’s a great place to live. And then of course we have some cash which rude to consider so an emergency fund. We have five 529s for our daughters which is college savings accounts.
And I think that might be about the full portfolio of our assets. But again the key is being invested whether you choose real estate or you choose low fee index funds or how you choose to do that is very important to be growing your wealth. It’s not enough to sustain and you better then turn it over into making more money.
Mindy: Okay so because this is BiggerPockets I want to ask about you property manager. You said that you have a property manager that you love, which is ideal but not easy to find. How did you find your property manager because real estate isn’t your thing like you’re not-?
Liz: It’s not my thing no.
Liz: And Mindy knows because I emailed her when were like, “Mindy do you own a star shovel? Yeah real estate is not our thing and I think it’s telling that we only own one rental property even though we could choose to diversify and own more. We don’t feel that we know enough about enough other markets. I think we would buy again in Cambridge because were so comfortable with that market.
But we’ve just have not expanded beyond that. We know the Cambridge market so well because we house hunted there for New Year’s and we looked at absolutely everything that came on the market. And we made the decision to buy our house in like 20 minutes. I mean we looked at everything, absolutely new price per square foot. It was the lowest per square foot.
And it was a single family home, great area anyway. So choosing the property manager I think I just got lucky. I called around and researched online and asked friends for recommendations. And I spoke to every property manager that I could get on the phone with and just to get a sense for what pieces of the rental they managed.
I wanted somebody who did everything from finding the tenants to preparing a lease to handling the leaky toilet. We wanted to be essentially as hands off as possible. And that was when they offered and they also offered it at a fixed rate every month which was not the case. A lot of other managers I talked to were going to take a percentage of the rent.
And that percentage was going to end up being a lot more than this other company that offered a fixed rate. And I think the reason that they do the fixed rate is that they are the ones who rented out initially. So they’re being paid by the tenants. So in the Cambridge area, and this is not true everywhere but you essentially have to have a broker in order to find a rental property.
And you have to pay a fee to the person who’s renting it out to the sum of first month’s rent. So that went to the property manager. So that’s kind of how they took their cut on the frontend which was fine with us because they rented it out for higher than we would have priced it at. And they found us fantastic tenants.
They did the photographs, they listed it online. So a lot of that burden was taken off of us. They did all of the vetting of the tenants, they prepared the leases. And were very happy to outsource that because Massachusetts law is very much in favor of the tenants.
Mindy: Yes it is.
Liz: And not for the landlords, very much. And so we did not want to be self-generating a lease and like hoping we were getting it right. We did not want to be near running afoul as how you select tenants or how you vet them. So having a professional do that was really worth also the peace of mind. So I think knowing what your state and how that law shakes down is important. So for us it’s a lot of peace of mind and it’s a pretty insignificant portion overall of what we’re bringing in from it each month.
Mindy: Okay, great.
Scott: Awesome. So now we’ve talked about you’re investing here you have the whole frugality. Can we talk about the transition itself, when did you know you were ready? How much had you saved up? And then what happened before, during and after that? Like what was your mind like were you still working? All that good stuff.
Liz: I don’t know if you’re ever really ready in an emotional sense because it was such a big move for us and we also had a tiny baby at the time which just kind of added to sort of the is this the right decision, because we moved to a place that extremely rural. We have about 400 people in our town, turns out they’re fabulous.
It’s a wonderful community we love it but we didn’t really know this coming here. So we’re moving from this extremely urban area where you’ve got arts and culture and thousands of people to like this tiny hamlet. So it’s nerve wrecking. So we wanted a house that was built relatively recently and this one was built in the 1990s not the 1790s which most of Vermont is very old housing stock. Which comes with all of its wonderful charms and unique challenges.
So finding a house that had new plumbing and new electricity and floors that were level, my poor husband re-plumbed our Cambridge house and said, “I don’t want to do that again.” So this was the place for us. So it was a little bit accelerated on our timelines because we’d just had a baby. We closed on it in January 2016 and we moved up here fulltime in May 2016.
And then rented out the Cambridge house, I think it was a June 1st lease. So it was a little bit faster than we’d anticipated but financially it was a very comfortable spot for us. And we did consider ourselves financially independent at that point and still do. And one of the things that made the move very easy is that we have high speed fiber internet here.
So we have the ability and the option to connect with the gutter world, to work if we so choose and to really have access that is not very common in a lot of rural areas. So I think accelerating our timeline did make sense for us at that point. It was the right place to buy and I think this is where frugality can really help push you over the edge.
Because when you’re able to save truly a lot and you know that you can get by on a very small amount, I think that you have more flexibility than if you have much higher spending and you sort of need to be earning at a certain rate. So for us our assets and our passive income outstrips our spending.
And I don’t want to share the exact numbers but we are financially independent, which is a very privileged and gratifying thing to be to not have to worry about where your income is going to come from.
Mindy: and that is so important and you can now choose to be a writer. You say you really enjoy it, you get to do what you love. I know that Frugalwoods is a very successful website but even if it wasn’t you could still devote all this time to it because you want to. Not because you have to or I can’t do it because I’ve got other restrictions on my time or other requirements for my time because I have this need for all this money.
Liz: Exactly. And it’s the ultimate liberation to suddenly not need to make money. And what I find is that when you’re in that position you can do the work that matters the most to you. And for me educating people about frugality and about financial independence and financial literacy is my greatest passion. I love like I cannot stop talking about it obviously I’m here talk to you all.
So being able to do that on a daily basis is the most wonderful fulfilling thing for me. I absolutely love doing it, being able to choose to do that. And I think importantly Mindy what you touched on is I can do this even if I don’t get paid it which is really important because it means I don’t have to sacrifice the quality of my content. I don’t have to take on sponsorships from products that I don’t believe in.
I get to do what I think is right at all times, and that is I think the greatest way to run a business or a website as it has sort of grown into a business. But being able to stay true to what you really believe in and finding that opportunity to kind of meet the world’s greatest need with where you are most passionate and successful, I think is going to be the most fulfilling aspect of this whole adventure for me and for my husband.
Mindy: Yeah and I think-
Scott: I think it’s awesome.
Mindy: And if you’re not having fun then why do it?
Liz: Yeah I mean it’s kind of like what is the point? If you’re not enjoying your life why are you doing it? What are you doing this for?
Mindy: Exactly absolutely. Okay Scott, shall we segue to our new famous four questions?
Scott: Yeah let’s do it.
Scott: These are the same four questions that we ask every guest. And one of them is actually a really tough one. It’s going to tax your mental faculties to the limits I think. So we’ll look to that one later on. The first one is what is your favorite finance book?
Liz: So my favorite is Your Money or Your Life which I think a lot of people probably say. But the reason for that is that it combines a mathematical approach with a philosophical approach, because I think in order to really be successful with your money you’ve got to do both. It’s so easy to say, “Oh finances are just math put them on a spreadsheet.”
But if that were the case we would not stand emotionally, we would not find ourselves in debt over emotional purchases that we don’t need. So I think it’s really important to marry the two and understand it’s a question transforming our mindset in addition to understanding the math. So I think that book which was originally written in –I don’t know-70s or the 80s is a great example of how you need to have that dual approach.
Mindy: I think it was actually written in 60s.
Liz: Oh was it really?
Mindy: Yeah I was listening to her- it was written by Vicki Robin I was listening to her interview with the Mad Fientist and it’s a great interview. She’s got so many good points.
Liz: Yes. So that’s kind of the original financial independence writing I think. It’s how I think of it.
Mindy: Yeah it’s a great book. We will link to that in she show notes as well. What was your biggest money mistake? We didn’t really talk about money mistakes that you made.
Liz: Well really the biggest money mistake was not having a goal after we bought our first home. So we bought the house and then we just ramped our spending up because we didn’t have anything we were saving for. We’d achieved this huge financial goal of buying this house and we didn’t have any real plans. So we just started spending more money or like craft beer and leather boots and manicures.
And just things that are just not- okay we do still buy a lot of craft beer. Mindy is laughing because we have to [Inaudible] [052:06].
Mindy: No, I’m laughing at the manicure because I met you post FI life and you’re not a manicure kind of girl, not in my head.
Liz: So that was the biggest mistake we made, we really lost out on a lot of savings in those years because we just were spending mindlessly and without a goal. So I think when you want to change how you spend your money, you need to first have a goal and you need to first know where you want to be in the long term before you ever get to spreadsheet or a dollar sign or a dollar amount.
Scott: I love it. None of the rest of this matters. No one is going to try to become frugal, no one’s going to learn about investing, no one’s going to want to do what [Inaudible] [52:52] tenants are buying lots of properties if they don’t have a goal, in this case of financial freedom and what that’s going to bring into your life besides your money, the happiness component.
Scott: That’s the key to all of this. I love it.
Mindy: Liz, what is your best piece of advice for people who’re just starting out on this journey?
Liz: Oh oops we kind of just gave it. So alright so it’s a two part piece of advice. So identify where you want to be in 10 years and 20 years in 40 years what do you want to do with your life? Your money will follow that okay. So think about that first now you’re looking at your money, track your expenses. You have to know how much you’re spending every month.
Also figure out your income, I cannot tell you how many people come to me and they’re not sure of their net versus their gross. Know what you’re actually bringing home every month, be really clear on that. And understand then what the gap is between your spending and your income because it’s three tenets really to financial independence.
It’s income, expenses and time. So once you know those variables you can make really conscious decisions. Don’t try to guess your spending, that’s like your weight on your driver’s license. It’s a lot lower than reality. Actually track how much you’re spending.
Scott: I love that, that’s a great way of steadying the equation that I have drawn up.
Liz: Yeah in a lot of ways I think it’s no more complicated than that. There’s a lot of nuance in there but really just thinking about those three pillars gets you off on the right foot I think.
Scott: Awesome. Not this is the most mentally taxing question of the lot here. What is your favorite joke to tell at parties?
Liz: You assume I go to parties and not just toddler parties. I will not tell you the toddler jokes. So people ask us we moved to the woods, “Why didn’t you move to a yacht in the woods?” and we say, “Well that’s because we think camping is pretty intense.
Scott: I love it.
Mindy: Oh my goodness that’s Scott’s favorite.
Liz: Mindy won’t even laugh.
Mindy: Scott tells these jokes-
Scott: Not it’s a good one.
Mindy: Like that all day every day.
Liz: I didn’t know I’m intense. My husband and I like do a version of that joke pretty much every day.
Scott: That’s going to be the title of this podcast Intense Frugality.
Liz: And we laugh every time. I know you think I’m kidding. No the number of times we’d done on the intense because well always say to him because he’s a man who would live in a tent like by himself. And I always tell him, “I’m not going to live in a tent with you like in the middle of the field I’m not doing that.” So I thought well that’s funny because he totally worth it.
Mindy: I could see that.
Scott: Let’s hear about the last question here is, where can people find out more about you? But can you also tell us a little bit your most recent project you’ve been working on? I figure it’s pretty cool.
Liz: I would be delighted to. So you can find me online my blog is Frugalwoods.com, you can find me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @Frugalwoods. I’m very consistent online so anywhere you see Frugalwoods that’s probably me. And I recently wrote a book Meet The Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through simple Living.
It is published by HarperCollins and it comes out on March 6th. You can preorder the book and if you order the book by March 13th, I will send you a free signed bookplate from me, from the homestead. And I have the details on my blog on how to do that.
Mindy: Okay I will put the link in the show notes for the book and how to get the signed bookplate.
Scott: And I’m going to order my copy as soon as this is out.
Liz: Then yeah.
Scott: I’m looking forward to it.
Mindy: Awesome. I am so excited I can’t wait till that book comes out. I saw that so I went and visited Liz up in Vermont was that August? In August last year.
Liz: I think it was by August yeah.
Mindy: And yeah it was a great trip and I saw her book there like, “Oh I didn’t know the book is out already.” She’s like, “Oh no that’s just the cover like markup.” It was a plain empty book with just the cover on the outside. I’m like, “Oh I could even read that, because I thought I was going to get some like sneak peek but I did not. So I’m very much looking forward to getting this in real life my bookplate too.
Liz: Yes you can get your bookplate as well.
Mindy: Liz thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. I really enjoyed this, I love your story, I love your just everything about your story and how you started off not frugal. And then you had a period of let’s call it forced frugality making $10,000 a year and saving $2,000 in New York City. You said you were responsible for rent but isn’t rent like $10,000 a month? Like how did you?
Liz: Yeah my aunty lived in the neighborhood that I lived in which actually I have a whole chapter on this in the book, because that was a time of what I would say extreme personal growth and of real understanding of my privilege. And I have never understood privilege or just how fortunate I am after living in the neighborhood that I did live in. My rent I think was $555 a month which you can imagine what kind of apartment it was.
Mindy: Yeah that’s-
Liz: Not good.
Mindy: That’s not a common rent amount in New York.
Liz: It’s not.
Mindy: So were you in Manhattan, Central Park West?
Liz; Yes exactly no, we were in Crown Heights Brooklyn and I had two wonderful roommates. And I think it was technically a one bedroom and we kind of made it work as a three bedroom sort of. So that was how I lived.
Scott: I imagine some curtains to separate that.
Liz: Yeah well my poor roommate Joseph sort of slept in a closet. He was very kind to allow us to take the larger rooms and he was like, “I’m a man who always [Inaudible] [058:54] and he totally made it work. But ultimately it was not a safe neighborhood at that time which I talk about a lot kind of the experience of living there in the book. Because it was very transformational for me and understanding the importance of money in somebody’s life.
Scott: Well I just have a ton of respect for the foresight and planning you put into this discipline you had and the courage you had to make the change and get through all those obstacles in the way including living with this type of [Inaudible] [59:26] the apartment in Brooklyn.
It’s just fantastic, I look at that I think that so many people should think about, “Hey is this something that’s repeatable through me and something that I can do for myself and go and achieve the happiness that I’m looking for?” so thank you.
Liz: Well thank you so much for having me.
Scott: All right well thank you so much for coming on today Liz good luck with the book and wish you the very best and look forward to watching your journey in your community because you need to grow.
Liz: Thank you so much.
Scott: All right that was Liz Mrs. Frugalwoods thanks so much to having her on the show. That was great podcast, what do you think Mindy?
Mindy: I love talking to Liz, I get to talk to her every day all day long all week long. I really like how she shares her story and how easy it is to do what she did. It’s like I said before, she’s not looking for ways to give up everything and live this totally hard life. She’s looking for ways to make it cheaper to do exactly what she wants. And she is. I have not met anybody who’s a happier person than she is.
Scott: Yeah I mean she embodies this whole thing. I mentioned it in the show but it’s planning, the discipline, the courage to take action. And then the reward is lifestyle is exactly what she wants. It is meticulously chosen bit by bit to be exactly the way that she wants to spend her day. And that’s a privilege that she has earned through all the cool things that she’s done which just kudos to her.
Mindy: Yeah. I think that’s a really important distinction, she’s earned this. This wasn’t just handed to her, she didn’t just decide, “Oh I’m going to be frugal and everything I want has come true.” You have to make some changes in your life and earn this life. But look at the life she has, that’s a life worth making changes for.
Scott: Absolutely. And by the way she’s also very articulate and able to communicate these things in really kind of unique a creative ways that are really kind of easy to digest. So if you haven’t got a chance got out the Frugalwoods blog, that’s frugalwoods.com.
Scott: And you can also check out her new book again which is Meet The Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living on sale tomorrow. So yeah big thanks to her and I wish you the best of luck with that book and spreading that message to everyone.
Mindy: Yes I know she’s going to sell a batrillion copies of this book. She’s a great writer. I’m a big fan of her blog, I mean she’s a woman so she writes from a female’s perspective and a lot of these personal finance blogs that I come across are either written by men which isn’t bad I’m just not a man.
They’re either written by men or people without kids. And her ideas and the things that she shares, I really relate to. And I have a love of the English language and so does she.
Scott: Yeah I think it’s great, I think we need many more female voices in the personal finance community because it does tend to be a little but make dominated sometimes and the why, the reason behind achieving financial independence should be just as strong for everyone.
Scott: So we need to get as folks on this out there it’s possible doing this and kind of understanding the why behind why females might want financial independence might be slightly different from the why of men.
Mindy: Exactly. She is able to create and generate an income while still pretty much staying home with her kids.
Mindy: So she’s one up on me. I was able to stay home with my kids but I generated zero dollars when I did it.
Scott: And my future unborn unconceived Trenchlings we’ll see what happens.
Mindy: How many do you want Scott?
Mindy: Seven yeah.
Scott: Seven Trenchlings.
Mindy: Good luck Mrs. Scott.
Scott: With a lot of sporting events.
Mindy: Oh my goodness can you imagine taking seven kids to seven different sports? Wow okay well I –
Scott: None of them are going to play-
Mindy: None of them are going to play what?
Scott: Mindy by the way does not allow her children to practice the recorder in the house which I find very funny.
Mindy: Oh my goodness, that’s the worst thing ever. That’s the most obnoxious sound and every note sounds the same. You’ll see when you have seven little Trenchlings going through Third Grade blowing on this damn recorder you’ll be like, “Oh I get it now.” Okay.
Scott: Should we get out of here and let everybody go home?
Mindy: We should get out of here.
Scott: Or they’ll see you after listening to this podcast?
Mindy: Listen to the next one.
Mindy: So from Episode 10 of the BiggerPockets Money Show, this is Mindy Jensen, over and out.
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