Reader Case Study: More Frugal Than The Frugalwoods


Holly, her husband George, and their two young children live a very frugal life on George’s salary as an assistant coach of a college sports team. They dream of reaching financial independence and are wondering whether it’s possible for them and what they’d need to change about their lives in order to achieve it.

Case Studies are financial (and life) dilemmas that a reader of Frugalwoods sends to me requesting that Frugalwoods nation weigh in. Then, Frugalwoods nation (that’s you!), reads through their situation and provides advice, encouragement, insight, and feedback in the comments section. For an example, check out last month’s case study.

Case Studies are updated by participants (at the end of the post) several months after the Case is featured. You all requested an easier way to track Case Study updates and I have heard your pleas :)! I’ve created this page, which lists and links to all of the updated Case Studies.

I probably don’t need to say the following because you all are the kindest, most polite commenters on the internet, but, please note that Frugalwoods is a judgement-free zone where we endeavor to help one another, not to condemn.

And a disclaimer that I am not a trained financial professional and I encourage people not to make serious financial decisions based solely on what one person on the internet advises. I encourage everyone to do their own research to determine the best course of action for their finances.

With that I’ll let Holly, this month’s Case Study subject, take it from here!

Holly’s Story

George and their son

Hi, Frugalwoods nation! I’m Holly, I’m 31 and I live in a small college town in Virginia with my husband George, who is also 31. We’ve been happily married for seven years and have two children, a four-year-old son and a nine-month-old daughter. We are very happily debt-free!

The big question we have is whether or not we can retire in ten years.

George and I are in a good place with our lives, our kids, and our money, but we don’t have a clear roadmap of what to do next. I’m hoping that this Case Study will serve as a helpful therapy session. I want to articulate where we want to go and how we’re going to get there.

I would like for us to reach financial independence in order to spend more time together as a family. I think I’m more motivated about this goal than my husband because he currently loves his job!

However, he travels a lot for work and I envision him becoming more motivated once our children are older and he starts to miss their activities/sporting events/concerts/etc due to his travel schedule.

Hobbies

We enjoy taking walks around our community, going to the library, taking road trips to visit our families, and “trash-picking.” We live in a college town and are constantly finding like-new furniture and other items on the side of the road that we then sell. Our families are always in disbelief about how we make money from selling “trash.”

Our happiest moments are when we’re together either taking walks at a beautiful park nearby or watching movies at home. My husband is out of town so often that it really makes the “normal” things seem extra special just because we’re together.

Jobs

George + baby enjoying the park

George works as the assistant coach for a college sports team at a large private university and he loves his job. I’m currently staying home with our kids and have had so many different entry-level positions over the years: substitute teaching, high school sports coaching, waitressing, retail sales, emergency room transcription, customer service call center representative, and most recently, a student advisor at a university.

I currently have several small side hustles that help bring in some income. I manage our credit cards carefully (always paying them off in full every month) to leverage cash back points and bonuses, which nets us a bit of money every month. I also re-sell furniture we find on the side of the road. And, I rent out a room in our apartment on Airbnb occasionally, which can be pretty lucrative since we live in a college town. I recently rented out our whole apartment for $600 for graduation weekend!

Before our second baby was born, I worked while sending our first child to daycare. However, we realized I wasn’t earning enough to justify the expense of daycare and weekend babysitters (needed due to my husband being out of town a lot on weekends). With my current degree (a BS in Health Promotions), I haven’t been able to secure anything above an entry level position in which I made around $27,000 a year.

I’ve been struggling with purpose lately as I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for almost five years now. I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to be with my kids all the time, but I also feel like I should be contributing to the world in some other way but haven’t a clue where to start. I’m trying to figure out if I should go back to school for a different degree that would bring in a higher income. Looking back, I regret not making my education/career a priority before having multiple kiddos.

Holly’s Master’s Degree

I was pursuing a Master’s degree in Accounting because I can get a degree for nearly free since my husband works at a university. I put this on hold when my daughter was born nine months ago and I’m not sure I want to continue unless it’s necessary for me to get a higher paying job to enable our early retirement goal. It would take me three to four years to complete this master’s degree.

A few years ago, when we lived closer to family, I completed two semesters towards becoming a dental hygienist, but my husband received a job offer out of state and we chose to move.

So, I have these two partially completed degrees and no great desire to work in either of these fields. However, I would like to be able to earn more than I did in my previous entry-level positions.

The Big Downside: George’s Work Travel

Although George enjoys his job, we all really dislike the amount of traveling he has to do for work. I’ve found that I get extremely lonely during those periods and will often take spontaneous 8-hour road trips to see our families just so that I’m not home alone with our two kids. This is going to become a problem once our children are in school full-time. I would love to hear some ideas targeted for an introvert/social phobia person on how to get more connected in my community.

Housing Conundrum

Holly + kiddo on the playground

In order to save money, we’ve had a roommate for the past several years, which has greatly reduced our living expenses. However, our roommate decided to move out after our second child was born nine months ago. George and I have agreed that having a roommate isn’t feasible any longer, given our two young children.

Unfortunately, losing our roommate means we’re going to have to move.

Our rent is increasing to $915 and, without a roommate, this is too expensive. This is tough for us because we really love the community in our apartment complex and have lots of friends here. It’s actually the first time I’ve made friends with other parents of small children and I hate to move.

In order to try and stay in this apartment complex, we considered moving into a one-bedroom. Unfortunately, the management company said they wouldn’t allow four people to live in a one-bedroom, which is too bad because we’ve become “accidental minimalists” in our pursuit of financial freedom.

We’ve found a two-bedroom townhouse in another part of town that we could move into on June 1st. The pros are that the rent is $755 per month and it’s walking distance to both my husband’s job and my son’s school. This might allow us to get rid of one of our cars. George currently has a 20-minute driving commute, so this would be a welcome change.

The downside is that the previous tenants had cats who did a number on the carpeting, and it’s currently quite smelly. We haven’t been able to get a clear answer from the landlord about whether or not they’ll be cleaning or replacing the carpeting prior to us moving in. Worst case scenario is that they don’t clean the carpets and we lose our deposit ($755) and move elsewhere. Our back up plan is to rent an apartment that’s farther away for $760, but in this scenario we wouldn’t be able to get rid of a car as it’s not within walking distance of work and school.

Where Holly and George Want To Be in Ten Years:

  • Finances: We’d like to have the option to “retire” early.
    • Even though we might both choose to work, we’d like to have the financial freedom not to work. My husband’s job requires him to travel multiple days at a time during the school year and, as our children get older and have more activities going on, we foresee this travel schedule becoming a huge issue.
  • Career: Ideally, George would like to become a head coach so that he has more flexibility with his schedule.
    • This would require our family to move at least once but possibly several times as he works his way up.
  • Lifestyle: We have a dream of someday retiring to a warm beach town where our children would want to vacation and bring our grandkids to visit (theoretical at this point as we have a 4-year-old and 9-month-old 🙂 ).
    • We have grown accustomed to our “simple” lifestyle and are fairly content. The only area we may want to spend more in the future is traveling for at least a brief period, but we are homebodies at heart.

Holly and George’s Financials

Income

Item Amount Notes
George’s net income $3,493 George’s net salary, minus $150 for taxes, $190.16 for health and dental, and 403b contributions.
Tax refund $333 We receive an approximately $4,000 tax refund every year.
George’s work bonus $291 George receives a bonus equal to one month’s salary almost every year.
Birthday and Christmas cash gifts from family $100 We have generous parents who give us cash for our birthdays and Christmas each year.
George’s cell phone reimbursement $83 George’s work cell phone stipend is paid quarterly and my cell phone is covered under my parents’ plan.
Holly’s net income $50 These are rewards/cash back from managing our credit card strategy carefully.
Sales via consignment, LetGo, Craigslist, and eBay $50 We sell/consign our children’s clothing, toys, and our own clothing that no longer fit or that we don’t wear anymore. We also sell furniture we find for free on the side of the road.
Monthly subtotal: $4,400
Annual total: $52,800

Monthly Expenses

Item Amount Notes
Rent $685 This amount was low because we’ve had a roommate for the past two years. We’re moving to a two-bedroom townhouse in June because the rent on our current apartment is increasing to $915 and we no longer think it’s feasible to have a roommate now that we have two kids :).

Our new rent will be $755/month.

Groceries and household supplies $360 We shop almost exclusively at Aldi’s. For us, it’s much cheaper than going to multiple stores (Costco, Walmart, Kroger). Plus, Aldi’s has almost all of the household items we need (including laundry detergent, baby food, diapers, paper goods, etc).
Car Maintenance $250 This was a hard category to pinpoint. We bought a new transmission ($2,300) and spent $500 on new tires last year but typically it’s only about $40 on oil changes every three months for both cars as well as state-required property tax on vehicles. But it’s always something… either the brakes, windshield wipers, a TRANSMISSION!
Utilities: Electricity $115
Fuel for cars $100 This fluctuates greatly because I tend to take a lot of road trips to visit family when George is traveling for work.
Restaurants $75
Car Insurance $36 Insurance for both cars through Geico. We carry the minimum state required insurance.
Internet $30 Our apartment has the option of using their cable internet, but I think this price is reasonable compared to other service providers I’ve researched.
George’s Life Insurance $30 30-year policy through AGI $400,000
Holly’s Life Insurance $30 30-year policy through AGI $400,000
Clothes $25
Birthday Gifts $20
Christmas Gifts $20
Car Property Tax $19
Turbo Tax $7 I do our taxes every year with Turbotax or H&R Block
Monthly Subtotal: $1,802
Annual Total: $21,624

Assets

Item Amount Notes
George’s 403b $39,003 His employer matches at 5%
George’s Roth IRA $34,272
Holly’s Brokerage Account $29,579 All of our investments excluding the 403b are through Vanguard
Holly’s Roth IRA $24,313
George’s Brokerage $17,220
Holly’s IRA $14,694
Holly’s Checking $6,985 I use this account to deposit cash/checks
George’s IRA $6,246
George’s Savings $5,528 We pay our monthly bills from this account and it doubles as our emergency fund
George’s Checking $3,957 We also pay our monthly bills from this account and it also doubles as our emergency fund
HSA $2,440 We use this to pay our annual $3,000 deductible if needed
529 college savings accounts for our kids $2,282
Total: $186,519

Cars

Vehicle make, model, year Valued at Notes
2015 Nissan Versa Hatchback with 78,000 miles $5,000 Purchased used with cash from a HERTZ used car dealership
2004 Ford Explorer with 150,000 miles $1,500 Purchased used with cash for $5,000 in 2015
Total: $6,500

Debts: $0

Holly’s Questions For You:

  1. Is it possible for us to reach financial freedom in 10 years if we continue as we have been? Should we focus on increasing our income or is our current savings rate enough for now? I can return to work once our youngest is in school (in four years) and so we’ll be able to increase our savings rate at that point.
  2. Should I go back to school for a different degree that would bring in a higher income?
    • An extreme plan we’ve considered is for George to quit his job and for us to move closer to family and live off of our savings for two years while I go back to school full-time and George works part time. This would be tough on George, however, as he really enjoys his current job and it would be hard for him to get hired again in his field as it’s very competitive.
  3. Should we get rid of our second car or would that not make much of a difference without us increasing our income?
  4. Does anyone have advice on staying sane and frugal with a traveling spouse (and two young children)? My spending always increases when George is out of town and I’d love to find better ways to cope with his frequent absences.

Mrs. Frugalwoods’ Recommendations

Alright people, I was NOT kidding with the title today. Holly and George are epic frugal mavens. They are more frugal than I have ever been and I am in awe. The fact that they had a roommate for so many years–as a married couple and then with their kids–is commendable. Amazing, Unheard of. That’s a whole new level of frugal and, in looking at their assets, it has clearly paid off. Big congrats to Holly and George! They are living proof of just how much you can save if you are super serious about it. Super duper serious.

They’re In Fantastic Shape!

In reading through Holly’s write-up, and in our correspondence over email, I got the sense that Holly feels like she and George should be doing more, saving more, and be in a better financial position. And I have to say, they are in fabulous shape from a financial perspective! I’d be hard pressed to find other folks with a similar income level who have the assets that Holly and George do. That being said, I think I do understand where Holly is coming from and I want to dig deeply today to try and root out the root of her concerns. I’ll address each of Holly’s questions in turn. Let’s begin at the very beginning:

Question #1: Is it possible for us to reach financial freedom in 10 years if we continue as we have been?

George + kiddo

So it kinda depends on what Holly means by “financial freedom.” There are different ways to articulate this and, as I’ve learned over the years, it means something different to everyone. If Holly is interested in true financial independence, which means neither she nor George would ever have to work for money again, we can do the math on that.

However, Holly might be more interested in the ability for her and/or George to work part-time, flexible, or otherwise reduced schedules (similar to what Mr. FW and I do). It sounds like the major issue right now is the amount of travel George has to do for work. If he were able to find a more flexible job that doesn’t involve travel–let’s say coaching part-time at a high school–that might be a solution they can reach much sooner than full-on financial independence.

But let’s stick with the full-on financial independence scenario for a beat here. Holly and George already have the first element of this equation on lock: low spending. The lower your spending, the less money you need in order to declare yourself financially independent. After all, your financial independence is calibrated on how much money you spend every year.

“Financial independence” is widely interpreted as meaning that a person has enough in assets to cover their expenses for the rest of their life, such that they don’t need to work for compensation. People who are financially independent may choose to continue working because they find their work fulfilling (this is the category that Mr. Frugalwoods and I fall into). “Early retired” is a subset of financial independence that refers to folks who are financially independent (see preceding definition) and who have quit their jobs and no longer earn money, but instead live off of a safe withdrawal rate from their assets/investments (this is not what Mr. FW and I do at present). There are a million different ways to construct a financially independent/early retired (abbreviated as FIRE) lifestyle and there’s no one right way to do it.

FIRE is calculated based upon two primary factors: your spending and your assets. The basic question is: Do you have enough in assets that a safe withdrawal rate will cover your expenses in perpetuity? There are different schools of thought on what constitutes a safe withdrawal rate and it boils down to your personal financial philosophy and your tolerance for risk

Holly and George’s FIRE number:

  • Current annual spending: $21,624

Let’s assume a 3.8% safe withdrawal rate, which is a bit more conservative than the 4% put forth in the academic Trinity Study, but I like to use this rate for people looking at retiring before age 50. With a 3.8% safe withdrawal rate, the math is: $21,624/.038 = $569,052.63.

According to this calculation, Holly and George would need $569,052.63 in assets in order to become financially independent. With that amount, they’d be able to spin 3.8% off their assets every year equal to their current annual spending of $21,624.

  • Goal assets: $569,052
  • Current assets: $186,519
  • Difference: $382,533
  • Amount needed to save every year for the next ten years: $38,253.30
  • Current annual savings (net income of $52,800 – spending of $21,624) = $31,176
  • Amount by which to increase annual savings in order to achieve goal in ten years: $7,077.30

What is not accounted for here is inflation, fluctuations in the stock market, increases in their investment portfolio, and changes in their annual spending. All of these things are likely to happen, which is one of the many reasons why I’m an advocate for overshooting your FIRE number and saving more than you think you’ll need. I cannot advise Holly and George specifically on what their FIRE number is because it’s dependent upon a slew of factors–such as their personal risk tolerance–which I cannot account for. However, this math provides the broadest of strokes for Holly and George to work from.

Disclaimer: before making such a consequential decision as retiring early, anyone–including Holly and George–should research from multiple sources, run their own numbers, and determine a rate of withdrawal that’s tenable for them. For more on the theories behind withdrawal rates, I recommend the following series from Early Retirement Now: The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates.

Expenses

Holly + baby

Holly and George are ROCKING the savings side of things, so I don’t have much advice to offer in this arena. But, for the sake of the Case Study, we’ll review their spending. In every single Case Study, I like to point out that what you choose to save or not save is a very personal decision.

Cutting every last expense is NOT the right answer for everyone and I am NOT an advocate for making yourself miserable in the process of achieving financial stability. I AM an advocate for values-based, goal-oriented spending. I think it’s important to assess whether all of your expenses bring you fulfillment and a good return on your investment.

I think it’s also important to question if your savings rate will allow you to achieve your long-term goals. But what you spend on? That’s a very personal choice and one you have to make for yourself. My job is to point out areas where you might be able to save, but only you can decide if that savings is right for you. If you’re struggling with where to save more and how to map out a longterm financial plan, I encourage you to take my free 31-day Uber Frugal Month Challenge.

Ok, with that said, let’s take a look at potential savings for Holly and George:

  • Uh, nothing?
  • Ok I’m grasping at straws here because their spending is already so low, BUT, if I take a really cut-throat approach to their spending, here are the discretionary categories that could be cut (although, full disclosure, I spend more in ALL of these categories–except for clothing–and likely wouldn’t cut them myself). BUT if Holly and George are gunning to get to FI faster, here ya go:
    • Fuel: $100/month on gas is kinda high. If George and their son can both walk to work/school from their new town house, then I’d expect to see a pretty substantial drop-off in this category. Let’s cut this in half for the purposes of this exercise and say $50.
    • Restaurants: $75/month. This is discretionary and could be eliminated.
    • Clothes: $25/month. This is discretionary and could be eliminated by sourcing all hand-me-downs for their kids and going on a clothes-buying-ban for the adults.
    • Birthday gifts: $20/month. This is discretionary and could be eliminated by going the route of handmade gifts.
    • Christmas gifts: $20/month. Ditto the above.

Total potential savings: $190 per month ($2,280 per year).

That amount is not going to make or break Holly and George, but, it’s the simple math they can employ if they desire to reduce their spending further. But again, these people are already MORE frugal than me, so I’m giving advice that I myself don’t follow! So take that with a few grains of the expensive sea salt I buy.

As noted above in their FIRE calculation, they need to increase their annual savings by $7,077.30 in order to reach FI in ten years. Saving this additional $2,280 per year would mean they’d need to make up the difference by earning an extra $4,797.30 per year, which brings us to…

Question #2: Should I go back to school for a different degree that would bring in a higher income?

I reviewed their expenses before tackling this question because I wanted to highlight that Holly and George will indeed need to increase their income in order to reach financial independence in ten years. At a certain point, you cannot frugalize any further–you have to focus on the other end of the equation and increase your income.

However, while I calculated a per-year savings rate, they could also maintain their current savings rate for several years and then have a greater increase in later years, such as after their youngest child goes to kindergarten.

I rarely give absolute advice, but I do have a concrete response to this part of Holly’s question:

An extreme plan we’ve considered is for George to quit his job and for us to move closer to family and live off of our savings for two years while I go back to school full-time and George works part time. This would be tough on George, however, as he really enjoys his current job and it would be hard for him to get hired again in his field as it’s very competitive.

My advice here is: no. Nope, nope, nope. And furthermore, nope.

George + son

Why? At present, George is earning a great income and is on an upward career trajectory. It does not make sense to halt his career, potentially thwarting his earning power forever, in order to spend money on school. I intuit that Holly would like to go back to work, and I think that is 100% possible and 100% a great idea.

I do not, however, think that having George quit makes any sense. At this point, if they want to reach financial independence, they need to manage George’s career carefully. He needs to be on the lookout for more lucrative coaching positions and head coach positions at other universities. They need to be willing to relocate their family in pursuit of these jobs. The most lucrative option–and fastest route to FI–might be for George to pursue a head coaching opportunity.

This goes back to the question: what is their ultimate goal?

If their ultimate goal is to achieve a state of financial independence that enables them NOT to work, then they need to adhere to the above math and continue increasing George’s salary. Conversely, if their ultimate goal is to achieve better work/life balance and eliminate George’s work travel, then George needs to look for a different job, likely in a slightly different field (such as high school coaching or similar) and likely with lower pay. These are essentially two completely different goals and Holly and George need to sit down and discern which is more important to them.

There is no “right” answer here, just a question of which is more important to them: absolute financial independence in ten years OR a more balanced work/life balance in the short term.

Obviously, even with a decrease in working hours and salaries, Holly and George could still achieve financial independence, it’ll just push their time horizon out longer than ten years, which might be totally fine for them. I also encourage Holly and George to outline a plan for what they want to do once they reach financial independence. I personally reached financial independence, quit my full-time job, and decided that what I love to do is write and so I wrote a book! What I’ve learned through many, many, many late night conversations with fellow FIRE friends is that we all think it’s crucial to retire to something, not just from something.

Then there’s the question at hand, which is Holly’s career.

Should Holly Finish her MA in Accounting or her Dental Hygienist Certification?

Holly has two partially completed degree programs: a master’s in accounting and a dental hygienist certification. It doesn’t sound like she has a particular affinity or great passion for either of these career paths, which is 100% fine. There are many different reasons to work: one reason is for deep fulfillment and another is, quite frankly, to earn money. There’s nothing wrong with either approach. Since I think Holly’s goal is the latter–to earn money–my advice is geared toward that end goal. If Holly actually has a deep-seated desire to be an accountant, regardless of the pay or career possibilities, then this becomes a very different conversation.

If Holly’s end goal is to earn more in order to reach financial independence faster, then I vote dental hygienist for the following reasons:

  • The program is only two years long, versus the three or four years Holly noted for the MA in accounting
  • There’s a very clear career path versus a much more nebulous path with an MA in accounting
  • Dental hygienists are in demand and can work just about anywhere versus much less certainty with an MA in accounting
  • Work hours are often flexible and the pay is good versus, again, much less certainty with an MA in accounting
  • Dental hygiene is a very portable career and I imagine Holly could find work wherever George’s career takes the family. This is not to say she couldn’t accomplish that with an MA in accounting, but it seems a lot less straightforward.

But what about the free MA?

Christmas at Holly and George’s house!

Holly mentioned that since George works at the university, she’s eligible for free tuition on her MA in accounting. The hitch, however, if that she would still owe taxes on this degree. An undergraduate degree would, in fact, be totally free, but a graduate degree is counted as taxable income.

And since George works for a private university, I imagine the tuition is not cheap. How do I know this? Because I worked full-time at a private university (American University in DC) in order to earn my Master’s degree for free–well, almost for free because I paid approximately $13,500 in taxes over the two years it took me to earn my degree. Still a deal and still much, much, much cheaper than paying tuition (which for my MA would’ve been around $64,000), but still not 100% free.

I do not know how much dental hygienist school costs, but since it’s a shorter time frame, it very well might be a wash as compared with the taxes on an MA. Worth doing the math. However, even if the MA is cheaper, I still prefer dental hygiene for the job security, earning power, and portability.

How Much Could Holly Earn?

I did a quick google search on dental hygienists and found this helpful information on what the position entails per the American Dental Association. According to US News & World Report, dental hygienists “made a median salary of $74,070 in 2017. The best-paid 25 percent made $88,820 that year, while the lowest-paid 25 percent made $61,230.” Not too shabby! In fact, quite great! I also found this salary chart, which reports that dental hygienists in Virginia made, on average, around $72,425 in 2019.

I am, obviously, not a dental hygienist, but I’m willing to bet there are some Frugalwoods readers out there who are and so… please chime in and help Holly out!!!!!!

Question #3: Should we get rid of our second car or would that not make much of a difference without us increasing our income?

Without crunching a single number, I’m pretty sure this would be negligible. Holly and George did the right thing with both of their cars:

That’s pretty much the alpha and the omega of how not to screw up car buying. Holly and George nailed it. This means they don’t have monthly car payments, they’re not suffering the steep depreciation of new cars, and they avoided the opportunity cost of overpaying on a new car. Since both of their cars are older, not worth all that much money, and not very expensive to insure, I don’t think selling a car would make all that much of a difference to their bottom line.

However, if they move to the townhouse that’s walking distance to George’s work, then when one of their cars bites the dust, they might choose to not fix it or replace it. That could be the juncture at which they really save a bundle. Even a used car costs money and so if they don’t replace the car that bites it first, that could be the easiest way to accrue savings.

Read more on why buying used cars is genius here.

Question #4: Does anyone have advice on staying sane and frugal with a traveling spouse (and two young children)?

Kiddo on a mission

Oh this is a good one. I hope we get some excellent advice in the comments section because I too struggle with this. My husband doesn’t travel anywhere near the amount that George does, but I have a hard time every time he does! And he feels the same when I travel (most recently I was in NYC for four days and he held down the home front with both kids with aplomb).

It’s not easy to shift from having two parents at home to one parent and it puts a major burden on the parent at home. That being said, it sounds like travel is the reality for Holly and George right now given his career path. Again, as I mentioned above, it’s certainly worth it for Holly and George to discuss whether the ultimate goal is financial independence or the elimination of work-related travel.

In the meantime, here are the things I do when Mr. FW is out of town that help ease the pain:

  • Make plans with friends! Lots of plans! I make playdate plans with friends during the day, which helps alleviate some of the pressure of parenting alone and also ensures I see another adult. I then make phone date plans with my friends for the evenings after the kids are in bed. It’s a chance for me to catch up with old friends and gives me something to look forward to at the end of a difficult day. Mr. FW is less likely to make plans when I’m away, but I certainly prefer to, so to each their own
  • Plan special food! Mr. FW and I both like to do this when the other parent is absent. Since our kids are super young, “special food” is not really all that special, it’s just simple, yummy stuff that we don’t normally eat for dinner, such as:
    • Boxed mac-n-cheese
    • Peanut butter sandwiches
    • Whole wheat pasta with store-bought tomato sauce
    • Like I said, not really all that exciting, unless you are a three-year-old and a one-year old, in which case this is very jazzy food.
    • Bonus is that this is all cheap and can be made at home, but doesn’t need to be made from scratch (most of the time we cook everything from scratch, but not when we’re solo parenting)
  • Stick to the routine! We like to stick to our daily routine as much as possible even though having one parent absent throws things off quite a bit. Maintaining consistency keeps the kids in line and helps the day flow more smoothly.
  • Let things slide! I do not get as much done when Mr. FW is out of town and he does not get as much done when I am out of town. Things are not always cleaned up and things are not always done. That is ok. We are, for the record, still recovering from my trip to NYC last week…

Visiting Family: Airbnb Opportunity?

Holly noted that she often travels to visit family when George is out of town and that she’s worried these trips are costing a lot of money. Here’s an idea: could she Airbnb their apartment while she’s gone? This could be a phenomenal way to leverage George’s absences and negate the cost of gas for the drive. I know Holly has rented out their apartment on Airbnb before, so I’m wondering if she has considered this. I’m guessing that they know George’s travel dates ahead of time (since I assume they operate on game/tournament schedules) and so, I wonder if it would be feasible for her to open up the apartment on Airbnb for his specific travel dates.

Alternately, I wonder if Holly could invite family to come stay with her for some of the dates that George is gone? Again, especially if she has his schedule for the school year ahead of time, maybe she could brainstorm with family on when they could come to her and when she could go to them.

Making Friends

Holly also noted that she would like some advice on making friends and I think that could be a wonderful way for her to feel less alone when George is out of town. I am heavily reliant on my local network of friends and neighbors and wouldn’t be able to survive without them–whether Mr. FW is traveling or not!

Since I’ve moved a lot (but am NEVER moving again… hah!), here are the ways that I’ve made friends in new places:

  • Find the free baby playgroups. There are tons of free baby groups happening in just about every town in America. Check out your local libraries, museums, hospitals, parks, playgrounds, and churches to see where the groups are in your area. There are likely sing-a-longs, story hours, parent support groups, and more–all free! Start attending and introduce yourself to other parents. Thankfully, kids make this easy because they have no problem crawling up to other kids and licking them. So, ya know, that tends to break the ice.
  • Find your local online parents’ groups. Most of my online parent groups are run through Facebook and they’re an excellent resource for hand-me-downs, local events, local playgroups, and friendships.
  • Volunteer. I do all of my volunteer work from home right now (because kids), but it still plugs me into my community and introduces me to lots of people.
  • Join a religious institution or community group. If religion is your thing, consider joining a religious institution that has an active congregation. I’ve made lots of friends through my church and it gives me both spiritual nurture and community engagement. Plus, we’re up early with our kids on Sundays anyway, so we might as well take them to church ;).
  • Randomly introduce yourself to other parents with kids. This is my go-to move and I’ve met some of my closest friends this way. I’ve also gotten a few strange looks. But for the most part, if you are out and about with your kids and you see me out and about with my kids, I am going to be very happy to chat with you. And my baby is probably going to try and lick your baby. Just sayin.

Renting: The Right Move

George selling off some of their great trash finds

Holly didn’t ask about this, but I have to highlight the fact that she and George made an EXCELLENT choice to rent as opposed to buy a home. Since it seems likely they’ll move frequently in pursuit of a head coaching position for George, it could be financially catastrophic for them to own a home.

The fact that they’ve been paying super low rent all these years means they’ve been able to save a downright impressive amount of money. If they’d sunk a ton into buying a home, their financial independence horizon would be much further out, if not impossible.

If Holly and George want to buy a home once they’re no longer moving for jobs, I’ll offer the advice that it’s tough to qualify for a mortgage without a W2 job. It would most likely behoove Holly and George to get a mortgage before they both quit their jobs, if–and only if–they want to buy a home. There’s no need to own a home in order to be financially independent and plenty of FIRE folks choose to be lifelong renters.

Should They Move?

Holly noted that their rent is increasing to $915 and, as a result, they plan to move to a townhouse where the rent is $755. This is a slam dunk financially, but I get the sense that it might not be a good decision for Holly’s well being, which is of great importance. Holly noted that they hate to leave their current apartment complex because she has lots of friends with young children there.

On one hand, the townhouse is cheaper and is walking distance to George’s job and their son’s school, which could reduce their commuting time and costs. On the other hand, Holly mentioned that the townhouse’s carpets are disgusting and that they’re not sure if the landlord will clean them.

Holly and George are not in a dire financial position. In fact, they’ve put themselves in an excellent financial position thanks to their years of committed frugality. In light of this, they can make a decision that’s not entirely based on what’s cheapest. Yes, $915 is more expensive than what they’ve been paying, but it’s not untenable for them. They’re currently paying $685 in rent, so this would be a $230 increase in their monthly spending, which as we noted above, is quite low.

Current spending of $1,802 + rent increase of $230 = new monthly spending of $2,032 ($24,384 per year)

Current monthly income of $4,400 – $2,032 (projected new monthly spending with rent increase) = $2,368 in monthly savings

$2,368 monthly savings / $4,400 monthly income = a whopping  53.8% % savings rate, which is PHENOMENAL

They can swing this financially. Yes, it’s going to require adjustments to the financial independence math I outlined above, but it is tenable for them and won’t put them in any sort of financial danger.

At the end of the day, the reason for frugality is to allow us to make choices that aren’t based solely on money. Financial freedom is the ability to do things we want to do, not things we must do. If it were me, I probably wouldn’t move because I can’t put a price on living near friends in a home that I enjoy.

Asset Allocation and Money Management 101

In addition to the expense review, I’ve started doing an overall asset allocation review in every Reader Case Study. Below are the basic money management steps I advise just about everyone to follow. I’ve made notes of where Holly and George are on each step and, spoiler alert, they’re crushing it.

  1. Track your expenses religiously. Know exactly what you’re spending every month. If you’re not tracking your spending, you can sign-up for the free service Personal Capital, which is what I use and recommend for expense tracking (affiliate link).
    • Holly and George are already doing this. Hooray!
  2. Pay off high interest debt. List all of your debts in a spreadsheet and sort by interest rate. Prioritize paying them off in order of highest interest rate first.
    • Holly and George don’t have any debt. Hooray!
  3. Build an emergency fund. An emergency fund should be kept in an easily-accessible bank account, such as a checking or savings account, NOT in investments, retirement funds, or cars/houses/expensive china. An emergency fund is money you can access immediately in an emergency. I recommend saving three to six months’ worth of expenses (meaning three to six months worth of what you spend every month, which is why it’s important to do #1: track your expenses).
    • Holly and George have a combined $16,470 in cash savings (meaning in a savings or checking account). At their current rate of spending, $1,802 per month, this would cover them for nine months, which is a tad overboard. They might consider funneling more of this cash into their brokerage accounts.
  4. Contribute to retirement accounts. Especially if your employer matches your contributions, putting money into a 401k or 403b is a no-brainer. Here’s more on why: 401ks Are Your Friend: Demystifying Personal Finance Part 3.
    • Holly and George are rocking this out! George contributes to his employer-sponsored 403b and they both have IRAs and Roth IRAs. Way to go!!!!
  5. Start investing! Investing in the stock market is how you grow your wealth. Without this crucial step, you won’t reap the advantages of compounding interest and you’re unlikely to build your net worth in a meaningful way. I personally invest in low-fee total market index funds through the brokerage of Fidelity. Vanguard offers a similar product. You can do this yourself (it’s just like any other form of online banking) and there are more details here: For the Love of Frugal Hound, Manage Your Money Yourself! (by following The Simple Path to Wealth).
    • Holly and George are spot on with this! Since Holly didn’t note exactly which securities they hold through Vanguard, she should double check to make sure they are invested in low-fee total market index funds.
  6. Explore other options for investing in order to achieve diversification. After completing steps 1-5, you should continue investing in your low-fee index funds (and rebalancing them) on a regular basis (I recommend automating this process) and you can also start to look around for diversification options. This might include, for example, real estate. Mr. FW and I rent out our home in Cambridge, MA for a profit. Renting a property can be a fabulous financial decision and it can also be an absolutely abysmal one. It depends on many factors, including the rate of return you’d receive. For more on renting out properties, I recommend the site BiggerPockets, which discusses real estate investing.
    • Holly and George aren’t quite here yet, and so they might consider more diversification in the future. That decision will really depend on what they decide to do regarding financial independence.
  7. Analyze your income. Concurrent with all of this should be an analysis of your net income (that means the dollar amount you bring home every month, minus taxes and any other withholdings). In some cases, the best route to financial stability will be to increase your income while also lowering your expenses. Income is the crucial second piece to this equation and, the more you make, the more you can save. That’s a solid math fact.
    • Holly and George are well aware of this piece of the puzzle.

Separate Accounts

I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite as many separate accounts as Holly and George have. This is not a criticism, but an observation. I’m wondering why they have so many duplicate accounts (two brokerage accounts, several checking accounts, several savings accounts). They may very well wish to keep their finances separate, which is totally fine, but if they’re not consciously choosing to have separate finances, I suggest they combine all of their duplicate accounts for the sake of simplicity. In order to see how much they hold in each category, I made a few spreadsheets for clarity:

Rundown of Assets Sorted By Type Of Account:

Account Amount Type Of Account
529 college savings accounts for our kids $2,282 529
Holly’s Checking $6,985 Cash
George’s Savings $5,528 Cash
George’s Checking $3,957 Cash
HAS (health savings account) $2,440 HSA
George’s 403b $39,003 Retirement
George’s Roth IRA $34,272 Retirement
Holly’s Roth IRA $24,313 Retirement
Holly’s IRA $14,694 Retirement
George’s IRA $6,246 Retirement
Holly’s Brokerage Account $29,579 Taxable Investments
George’s Brokerage Account $17,220 Taxable Investments
Total: $186,519

Rundown Of Total Asset Amounts by Account Type:

Account Amount Type Of Account
George’s Retirement $79,521 Total sum of George’s 403b, Roth IRA, and IRA
Taxable Investments $46,799 Combination of Holly’s and George’s Brokerage Accounts
Holly’s Retirement $39,007 Total sum of Holly’s Roth IRA and IRA
Total Cash $16,470 Combination of all savings and checking accounts
HSA (health savings account) $2,440 HSA
529 college savings accounts for our kids $2,282 529
Total: $186,519

Credit Card Strategy

Holly is doing a fantastic job managing their credit card strategy. She is paying off their credit card bills in full every single month (which is a must do) and, she is earning cash back rewards on her cards. This is the way to roll! I too manage my credit cards in order to take advantage of cash back strategies and you can read more about my approach here.

Summary Advice:

Holly and George are in an extraordinarily superb position. I am deeply impressed with their frugality and their commitment to building a stable financial future for their family. I hope they are proud of the work they’ve done and take comfort in the wise decisions they’ve made. Here’s my summary advice for their next steps:

  1. Decide whether or not you want to move.
    • Run the numbers and contemplate.
    • Remember that the reason you’ve been saving money all this time is to allow yourself to make some choices that are NOT based on money.
    • Your happiness is important and, in fact, it’s priceless (How’s that for cheesy? But I am being serious here, Holly!).
  2. Determine your longterm goal.
    • Is it to achieve financial independence in 10 years? If so, what do you want to do after achieving FI?
    • Or is the goal to find a career for George that doesn’t involve travel?
  3. Based on the results of your goal-setting session:
    • Determine where George could go to advance his career and increase his salary in order to reach FI faster
    • Or, determine what career George could transition to that wouldn’t involve as much travel
  4. Figure out where and when Holly can complete her dental hygiene certification, assuming that’s what she wants to pursue.
  5. Decide if you’d like to further frugalize and save on the expenses I outlined above.
  6. Combine your identical bank accounts unless you’re consciously keeping your money separate.
  7. Consider funneling more of your cash into your brokerage accounts since your emergency fund is quite large.
  8. Brainstorm ideas to improve Holly’s time home alone with the kids while George is traveling.

Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice would you give to Holly? She and I will both reply to comments, so please feel free to ask any clarifying questions!

Would you like your own case study to appear here on Frugalwoods? Email me (mrs@frugalwoods.com) your brief story and we’ll talk.

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