On becoming a frugal fanatic

First Posted: 5/23/2009

Ive often heard stories of financial hardship from my parents, relating difficult times from their childhoods. Both were Depression-era babies, and their families struggled mightily to keep everyone fed.
I have read other accounts from people of that same period, tales of subsisting on little more than pinto beans and cornbread, maybe some chicken if one of the egg layers could be spared. Even then, oftentimes, no more than two meals were in the offering each day.
Of late Ive been thinking about those old stories in light of the harsh economic plight of many face today. I think of those old stories, how people made do with whatever they could, and then I question how many of us struggle today even though simple ways to save a little are staring us straight in the face? Cable television, credit card interest payments, multiple cell phones how many of these do we keep in our lives simply because we havent considered doing any different?
I spend most of my drive time listening to public radio, most notably talk radio. On a recent Talk of the Nation, a man named W. Hodding Carter shared what he and his family are doing he calls it Extreme Frugality.
He instantly struck a chord with me in that he and his wife have four children, nearly as many as the five my wife and I have. With a family as large as mine, we have long been interested in ways to live better on less, so I paid close attention to Carter.
His tale is a bit different than mine in that he and his wife have been living high on the hog for a decade, living as if they were making $120,000 in annual salary. Only problem was, their average annual income over that same period was just $41,000.
A couple of inheritances as well as a profitable house sale, and credit cards, made their extravagant lifestyle possible. Now, with the inheritance and house profit gone, he said a year ago he woke up to what his wife has been saying for years they have to figure out a way to live on less. He claims their mortgage debt is nearly equal to their house value, and they have $75,000 in credit card debt.
Carter, though, has taken it to extremes. He decided after his awakening they would incur no more debt. After paying their monthly mortgage, insurance, and tax bills along with a $500 credit card payment, they would live on whats left $550.
Carter, a writer by trade, does a monthly column for Gourmet magazine, and in that column he chronicles some of his familys exploits in this little journey. He tells of stopping by the side of the road and unsuccessfully chasing a grouse with hopes of fresh game for dinner. He relates how they purchased two dozen chickens a year or so ago and how they now get more than a dozen eggs a day.
They procured a second-hand woodstove and turned off the oil furnace. The family has stopped using the clothes dryer and they live in Maine, which means they have drip-drying clothes inside their house for half of the year, and he even relates one tale about bringing home fresh road kill.
Anyway, the guy, as far as Im concerned, is a genius. I told my wife about it and she gave me that on no, please no look she often casts my way when another one of my sometimes hair-brained schemes comes to mind.
Too late. The scheme was already hatching.
Theres so much we can do to stop spending, I told her Saturday.
We could make our own bread, do you know how much we spend in bread?
Continued silence.
We could shop more efficiently.
Raised eyebrows.
And you know we could save on the electric bill.
Ah! Shes finally embracing the idea. At least I think so, because she turned off the light and left the room with this last sentence.
Anyway, so heres the deal. Weve decided to see if we can live on $900 a month. Yes, thats a fair bit higher that Carter, but I have one more child than he does, and two of my kids are older than his (17 and 15), which means theyre more set in their teen-age ways. He also lives relatively close to this liquidation grocery story warehouse where he buys milk for $1 a gallon (and other groceries just as ridiculously low).
A couple of caveats to my little game. First, Im not including rent or the price of gasoline to and from work. Thats not really cheating when compared to Carter. He doesnt include his mortgage payment in his $550 a month living expenses (and I suspect his mortgage is quite a bit higher than my rent), and hes a stay-at-home writer, which means no commuting expense.
Still, $900 a month is a challenge for seven people, especially since only their mother knows about it thus far. Well, until they read this.
Heres the best part. Ill keep you all updated on our progress, sharing how it goes and any tips we discover.
Heres the even better part if you all will share your frugal tips with me, Ill include a few of them here, in my weekly column for all to see!
And now, without further ado, we begin the frugal fanatic challenge with this little tip: Do away with cable and/or satellite television. Extreme? Maybe, but I can tell you from the experience of our family we dont miss it much at all. My sons and I miss watching sports especially NASCAR races and Virginia Tech football but overall not having television has been good for us.
We do have a membership to Netflix, which means we get a few movies or episodes from old television shows every week. But, 18 bucks a month is a fair bit better than $45 or $55 or $95 or whatever it is cable or satellite would cost. Just think, if you cut $45 from your monthly spending and tuck that money in a simple savings account, at the end of one year youll have $540!
Anyway, think about it, and for those of you already living frugally, send me your ideas. Ill share as many as I can with the rest of our readers.
John Peters is editor of The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at [email protected]

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