Extreme Frugality: Doing the Unthinkable

In this day and age of specialization, W. Hodding Carter is an unashamed generalist. The man is curious about everything, and his books have taken him around the world. He’s followed in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, retraced Leif Ericsson’s journey to the New World in an authentic replica of a Viking merchant ship, and has written about the ecology of the Everglades, the history of plumbing, his quest for Olympic gold, and even how to build your own mackerel smoker with the same single-minded determination. These days, he’s finding adventure of a different kind—living within his means.
W Hodding Carter

A few months back, just before Iceland alerted the world to our global economic woes, I took a hard look at my Social Security Statement—that unflinching “newsletter” stating not only your expected Social Security pay-out but also your yearly income since that very first tax return. In the past, I’d always loved S.S.S.D. (Social Security Statement Day) because I would immediately glance back to 1996, my earning heyday where I raked in a massive $76,000, and let myself believe I was making that much every year. Well, for some uncontrollable reason, this time I happened to look at my income for the ten or so years since then, and I immediately spit out my $3.75 Odwalla Mango Mama. And not because it had suddenly turned sour. I ran to the study, knocking one of my four kids out of the way en route, and ripped open my wife Lisa’s statement. “Oh, my God!” I screamed. “She’s right!”

For years, Lisa had been telling me we were living beyond our means. “Please, please, Hodding, don’t buy that hand-carved black walnut countertop!” she’d implore. In fact, once she even kicked me out of the house for nine months in hopes that I’d wake up. But like that alcoholic who downs yet another Two-Buck-Chuck, I wasn’t ready. I knew that my next book was going to be an international bestseller and I felt entitled to live as did my father (although he was 25 years older than I) and all those successful, happy people in ads and on TV. Here I was, though, finally seeing the raw truth. Our average combined income—drum roll, please—for the past decade had been … $41,000. Thanks to those heady days of refinancing, deft shuffling of credit-card debt, deceased grandparents, and a lucrative house sale, however, we had lived, year after year, as if we were making $120,000. Like 70 percent of our fellow Americans, we were living off our VISA cards with no means of paying them off any time soon. As a result, we had $75,000 in credit-card debt and owed $245,000 on a $289,000 house. What had I been thinking?

Never mind. I’ll sort out the “why” on my therapist’s couch. Right now, it’s time to do the unthinkable. It’s time for us to be more like our grandparents and less like our neighbors. (Ninety percent of us buy something we don’t need every month, and Americans in all walks of life—except the very rich—carry $961 billion of credit-card debt at any given moment, paying $1.22 for every $1 they spend.) For the first time ever, my family is going to do the unthinkable. We’re going to live within our means. No matter what we actually make, we’re only going to spend $41,000 for the entire year. In other words, after paying our mortgage, taxes, insurance, and the $500 to service our credit-card debt, our family of six is going to live on $550 a month.

How hard can that be? It’s 150 percent above the federal poverty level for a six-person family. Yet, for the last few months we’ve been getting ourselves prepared. Although we live in coastal Maine, we turned off our oil furnace and installed an unused wood stove of my dad’s. Lisa, an attorney, bartered legal work for firewood. We bought 25-day-old chicks so we can have free eggs and our four children can sell the eggs for spending money—after paying us back for the chickens’ food. We’ve stopped eating out—period. And we’ve started shopping at a liquidation grocery store and making many items we used to buy. This is not going to be a quiet ride made up of baby steps toward a more thrifty life, but instead a take-no-prisoners battle loaded with measures of extreme frugality that will change our lives forever.

So, follow along and see how we do it. Take part in our ups and downs and maybe learn a thing or two along the way—like never, ever turn off the upstairs heat off before checking to see if you might have an uninsulated six-foot section of copper pipe exposed to below-freezing conditions.

Luckily, I have a great manual on how to sweat a pipe.

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