Poverty Tourism – Is Frugality Really Just For the Rich?

There’s been an interesting discussion going on lately in the personal finance community – debating what one poster on the Women in Finance Facebook group called “poverty tourism”. This is a debate that came about after the recent media tour for the Frugalwoods new book, Meet the Frugalwoods. There were a few specific media appearances that led to great debate, both in the comments of the articles and elsewhere in the personal finance world. I’ll give a summary of what’s been going on lately that’s caused this backlash, explore why people have a negative reaction to what seems to be the wealth playing at being frugal, and talk about whether frugality really is for the rich.

The Backstory

I’ve been a fan of the Frugalwoods site for a few years now – following their story from two urban ultra-savers living near Boston, to buying their homestead in the woods of Vermont, having their first baby girl (now their second!), and of course the adventures of their lovely adopted greyhound – RIP Frugal Hound. I even spotted Mrs. Frugalwoods at FinCon back in October, although it was from across the room.

Their media tour started out innocently enough, at least from what I as an outsider can  see. All of a sudden Liz (great name, by the way!!!) was everywhere – on all my favorite podcasts like Choose FI, Stacking Benjamins, So Money, Mad FIentist, FIRE Drill, and Afford Anything – to name a few of many podcast appearances.  I thought that was awesome, because although I’ve read the site for years, I’d never heard her on a podcast before. And, what great publicity! Whoever helped arrange that deserves a bonus.

I heard or read somewhere that Liz was going to be on NPR – awesome! – with a segment on extreme frugality. Now I’m always down for some extreme frugality, so I was excited for the segment. It was on while I was at work, so I asked my husband to listen for me.

He later told me the segment was “strange” – people calling in seemed to be annoyed. I looked it up later and saw 300+ comments, most of which were overwhelmingly negative. The summary of most of the negative comments were that the segment didn’t really come across as someone living frugally – more as an independently wealthy woman playing at frugality.

Now if you read her blog, you’d know that wasn’t really the case, but after listening to the segment I could see why people reacted so strongly.  Liz and Nate have a great frugal story, but people heard “home in Boston that doubled in value”, “66 acre homestead”, “Montessori preschool”, and “burr grinder” and dismissed their story.

Something similar happened after being featured in The Guardian – you can read nearly 300 comments very similar to the ones in the NPR story. Most people talked about how the headlines don’t match the story they’re sharing – The Guardian’s story was called “Extreme frugality allowed me to retire at 32 – and regain control of my life” and the NPR one was titled “Extreme Frugality In The ‘Frugalwoods‘”.

Side note – this, along with other stories in the mainstream financial media, really have shown me how easy it is to get negative press, or negative reactions to your story. There certainly is a double edged sword of mainstream media features.

I’ve seen several other spinoffs from these stories debating their story. A large thread with 10 pages on the Mr. Money Mustache forums. An article in The Outline about how being frugal is for the rich. A large Reddit thread. Another, slightly smaller but still large, Reddit thread.  Then there were articles inspired directly from these debates – Our Next Life’s blogging manifesto, for one, encouraging bloggers to tell the whole truth about their financial circumstances.

Why the backlash? Two reasons that I can see:

  1. Title vs. Story – The biggest backlashes were in mainstream media – targeted at ordinary, everyday people – where the headline of extreme frugality didn’t seem to match the story. Readers walked away thinking “rich couple plays with frugality” rather than “frugality can help me retire”
  2. Income – After all the publicity people started researching their careers, and discovered that Nate makes $225k per year. Combined with Liz’s former salary, income from the blog, rental income from their Cambridge house, people are estimating they made over $300k per year.

Now that you know the backstory, lets look deeper into why people have such a negative reaction to what they perceive as wealthy people “playing at” being frugal.

Poverty Tourism – Being Frugal When You Don’t “Need” To Be

As I mentioned at the start, it was someone in the Women in Finance group who brought up the concept of “poverty tourism”. I thought it was a perfect term to describe how people see wealthy or high income folks who practice frugality.

When you earn the real average American household income – $59k now, according to this Business Insider article – or less, frugal isn’t fun as much as it is a way of life. You don’t pay people to come to your house and mow your lawn for you, so “mow your own grass” is a useless money-saving tip. After paying for basic child care, mortgage, health care, food, gas, and so on – there’s little left for saving. Saving 50%, 70%, or 90% of their income both seems like and is near impossible, especially with kids.

The essence of “poverty tourism” is the sense that you’re just visiting a lower-income land. You’re taking a tour, dabbling in the local culture, sampling the food, but you can go back home to your high income whenever you want -or need-to.

The people who actually live there in lower-income land don’t have that choice. They can’t “go home” to a higher income if they don’t like their life circumstances, or if an emergency happens. They can’t decide they don’t feel like eating at home today, so lets all go to that nice fancy restaurant. They’re stuck there until they can move out permanently, which may not be for many years – if ever.

Being frugal, when you don’t need to be, can feel a bit like a game. How low can we get that grocery bill? Can the electric bill this month be lower than the last? What fun things can we find at tag sales or the thrift story this month? Side note – did you know there are folks who think the high income shouldn’t be able to shop at thrift stores

But when you don’t feel like being frugal, want to splurge, or run into an emergency, you don’t worry about money the same way folks with no safety net do. You can decide to go on a great vacation – or three, pick up a new “something” when something in the house breaks down, fix your car when it has an issue, or pay for a hospital stay without causing damage to your long term financial situation.

Having started my adult life with a household income well under $50k per year, and having a child a few months after turning 23, I can say there’s a big difference between being frugal because you want to be rather than because you have to be. When it’s not a choice, saving 10% of your income doesn’t even equal $5k, and you need to do everything yourself, it’s stressful.

Feeling that stress can make you resentful of people who live off more than your annual income, and still save more than you make in a year. People who talk about their “frugality” for getting a good deal on paying cash for their new $50k car (yes, I have seen this, it’s a real thing) seem tone-deaf. Articles with tips to save money can also bring up privilege – making lattes at home isn’t a money-saving tip to people who don’t buy lattes in the first place.

This is how people end up feeling that being frugal is for the rich. They see “money saving tips” that wouldn’t actually save them money, because they don’t spend money on those things. They see stories of financial independence and early retirement about people who claim to live frugally. But those people still spend more than you make in a year, and you feel they can never achieve the same thing. Frugal things that take a lot of time – baking, home building, tag sales- can be impossible for a single parent holding down several jobs. There is a point of income, and life circumstance where you need to focus on making more money, rather than cutting down expenses. And making more money can be a long, difficult path for some, depending on where you’re starting.

Going back to school costs money and takes a lot of time – and if you’re a single parent, where are you going to find childcare to take night classes? Changing to a new career sounds good, but with no experience you’re caught in the catch 22 of needing experience to get the job, but needing a job to get that experience. It can be a long and difficult road filled with steps forward and backward.

Do I Think Being Frugal Is For The Rich?

In a word, no.

To expand on that – remember how I mentioned up there that my husband and I spent years making less than $50k combined, with a son, in my early to mid 20’s? It was frugality that enabled me to put money aside even back then. But it was a different kind of frugality. And there was definitely a big focus on growing my income, to enable me to one day be able to save much more.

Back then, frugality was cloth diapering – and not the cute, cozy, expensive kind. The basic cloth diapers from Target with plastic pants kind. It was making almost every meal at home, especially after my son was diagnosed with food allergies. And not because we wanted to – because we had to. Eating out was expensive, difficult to do with food allergies, and buying prepared food that was allergy free was cost prohibitive.

We spent Saturdays at tag sales, and bought kids clothes at the consignment shop. We were excited when we managed to get a good deal – like a “new” light fixture for five bucks! Or a set of nice dishes for a dollar! That wasn’t because it was saving us money, but more because we could get nicer things for the house. There’s no way we could have spent the money on a new fixture or set of dishes instead.

Frugal habits die hard, and many people who have been through a financial crisis as a child or young adult keep their frugality even when times are good. Just think of the impact that the Great Depression and the Great Recession had on spending.  Children of the Great Depression often were extremely frugal even once the economy was in full swing.

Saying that frugality is for the rich dismisses the very valuable role frugality has for those not making a high income. It’s true that living frugally with kids at a $40k per year income looks very different than living frugally without kids at a $300k+ income. It’s an extremely valuable tool, though, and even at lower incomes can free up funds to be used towards your goals and dreams. I always turned to The Tightwad Gazette for tips and tricks on living a creative, frugal life at a low income. Amy Dacyzyn squeezed every penny until it cried, but it enabled her to stay at home with her many kids, buy new cars, and buy a lovely home in Maine – just as she dreamed.

There are plenty of lower income bloggers that have great money saving tips for those who are living at the lower end of the income scale. Not just The Tightwad Gazette, either. I can think of America’s Cheapest Family – they have a great general savings book and an awesome one on cutting your grocery costs in half. Crystal from Money Saving Mom has a great story – I like her book, and there’s some good info on her site. I’m sure there are other resources I’ve missed – let me know in the comments!

In Closing

I firmly believe that feeling resentful and jealous of other people success is not the path to finding success yourself. Instead, we should respect the journey of others, even when it seems like someone else “has it easy” compared to us. We all have unique advantages and disadvantages in our journey through life, and the relative advantages and disadvantages of others shouldn’t keep us from seeking financial success for ourselves.

Living frugally isn’t just for the rich, but reaching financial freedom in your early 30’s is a direct result of a high income. The fact that frugality enables higher-income folks to save more and retire earlier doesn’t make it less valuable for those not making a high income.

What do you think about this debate? Do you think frugality is for the rich, or that it’s valuable for everyone? Let me know in the comments.

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76 thoughts on “Poverty Tourism – Is Frugality Really Just For the Rich?”

  1. barbara Hughes

    What a lovely,kindly,insightful blog post.You are right because everyone is on their path and being angry,critical or envious simply shuts down people sharing their stories.

  2. Wonderful post! Thanks for opening up a discussion on this. I love love love Liz and Nate, but did feel a little duped when I discovered their high income. They really tried to down play their success, saying “we make non profit incomes.” I get they don’t blog Anon anymore, so sharing numbers can be hairy, but it would’ve been nice if they discussed being in the high earning category from day 1. JP at the moneyhabit made a killing in her career, and she doesn’t share specific salary numbers, but she’s open about being super rich. I respect that!
    We shouldn’t be ashamed to talk salaries, but the backlash on the Frugalwoods post is proving otherwise.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      This is a tricky topic. I know many of us hear “non profit” and think “low paid”, but there are a lot of well paying non profit jobs. It would be nice if salary wasn’t such a taboo topic and we could all be more open with each other on the subject.

    2. I agree, Step. I’ve read their blog for awhile and compared ourselves to them not realizing their income was almost 3 times ours! I knew they made a little more with them being DINKs while we live on one income with the 2 kids, but the non profit comments made me think their income was more modest. I used to look in awe and envy at their savings rate of 70% while we struggled to save/give 25% net in a good month. (And we are not even hear maxing out the 401k)

      I think the advice on their blog is solid and a good mindset to avoid lifestyle inflation no matter what your income, but the advantages of their income seem to me to dwarf the gains that they achieve through frugality. Saving $30 on a yoga class and $200 on groceries can only go so far to allowing you to save 70% of your income.

  3. Wow, incredible post, Liz. I think I even needed to read this today 🙂

    Everyone has a different journey and path… different blessings and hardships, ups and downs, struggles and triumphs. It is one of those “until you walk in their shoes” situations… from the outside, we can conjecture a lot about someone’s life, their reasoning, etc. But we have no idea what is really going on or how easy/hard it may be.

    Like you conclude, we need to “respect the journey of others”. Thank you for that important reminder.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      It’s an important point, and I’m glad you found it helpful! Everyone is fighting battles we know nothing about, and even when things look great from the outside they can be terrible on the inside (and vice versa!)

  4. Thanks for sharing. I refuse to share actual numbers when it comes to overall picture because I don’t think it’s helpful. Everyone’s situation, income and values are different. So comparing overall numbers to mine can either make you feel great (awesome I’m doing good, or I’m doing better than that), or feel not so great in comparison. What I do think that’s important is context. Your article explained why well.

    Disillusionment comes from feeling mislead. If you’re a hardworking single parent and read about someone socking 50% of the ‘average’ income, and find out they weren’t so average, it’s hard not to feel deceived.

    I do love her blog, and what’s come about hasn’t changed that. Frugality is really about spending money where it matters (as most of us are on auto-pilot), really understanding if it’s a need vs a want, understanding opportunity cost and finding creative ways to get it at a better price. That message can apply to anyone and hopefully doesn’t get dismissed for the readers it pushed away.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      I love it too! And I’ve always felt she’s open about the fact that they have a high income, and they’re privileged. I think it’s up to us readers how we interpreted “high income”.

      1. FW was “open” about being lucky enough to have a good education, educated parents, good health, etc. All well and good but she didn’t mention the > 200k income (90+th percentile). Maybe it’s all our fault for assuming “non profit” means low salary?

  5. This is a phenomenal and enlightening post.

    It’s so true. As high income earners, frugality can be a game. How little can I spend this month, on this category, etc.

    I appreciate the insight you’ve brought to the topic.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      I enjoy the game, but recognize it’s very different to “play the frugal game” than it is to live on the financial edge.

  6. You make such a good point Liz. Just because the execution might be different for people in no way shows that the theory itself is flawed.

    Overspending at any income level can be a problem. Similarly, frugality is an asset at any income level even if the form factor might differ. Recognising at what point are you in that journey is critical.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      Yes, comparison is the thief of joy, as they say. I prefer to focus on myself and what I can control

  7. Excellent post!

    I read the Frugalwoods blog for several years, and got a lot out of it. Honestly, I don’t have a tenth of their previous high income! However, I focused on how they lived on a thousand dollars a month after their housing income ( when they lived in Boston) for that was the part I found useful.

    I also loved their choice to live life deliberately. I used to live in a high income area. I knew so many people who were making six figures of income but were always broke after the mortgage and high HOA fees, designer clothing, car loans on luxury imports, etcetera. I know the income part of the equations was very different, but that part of the story reminded me of The Tightwad Gazette since both couples single mindedly went after their goal of a beautiful life in the countryside!

    1. chiefmomofficer

      I live in a high cost state (CT) and I know plenty of people making great incomes who can’t save a dime. I love how they went for their dream-and it did remind me of The Tightwad Gazette!

  8. Great post Liz! I love reading the Frugalwoods, and their blog helped give me permission to spend so much less money. I think recognizing the perks of high income frugality is important, but people shouldn’t feel guilty about their frugal living. Our frugality had helped us deal with chronic illness, consider career changes, and pay of debt. We have been fortunate to choose frugality and recognize that many of our friends and family don’t have that choice.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      Your income should never dictate your spending! Some people find it odd when folks who make high incomes live well below their means, because they equate wealth with showing off financially.

  9. Incredibly written, Liz. So many good points here. Another point on frugality when you don’t have to is the environmental aspect; buying used, making do, cooking at home, etc all have huge implications in how we take care of the earth long term.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      The environmental aspect has always been important to me, and is a good reason to continue being frugal even if you don’t “have to be”.

  10. I never disguised the fact I was a high earner or that my slightly early retirement lifestyle costs me twice the median household income in my rural state. Or that my two days a week consulting pays the bills in full leaving me at a zero withdrawal rate on my investments and savings.

    I could easily spend twice or realistically three times what I choose to spend so that counts to me as a form of frugality. I put frugality as a measure of how far within your means you live, not an absolute scale. By my measure most billionaires are extremely frugal because they live on a tiny fraction of their income.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      True remark about the billionaires! They may spend millions each year but still live well below their means

  11. “Making lattes at home isn’t a money-saving tip to people who don’t buy lattes in the first place.”

    That’s the general consensus from my old school friends who are looking to save money. These are not helpful to them, they came from the “police tape” side of town. There’s no coffee stand for miles in the east bay back then!

    Reaching FI at 30 definitely comes with high salary or accidental luck. I actually never thought of that. Anyone 30 and near FI = not gonna be your frugal role model, find another. Easy!

    I find frugality in abundance fascinating though. I like high income blogs who are frugal because it makes me feel less odd.

    Great name Liz!!!! 😂😂

    1. chiefmomofficer

      Money saving tips really are income dependent, aren’t they? For example, tips on saving money on buying private jets by renting instead, only apply to the ultra wealthy. While it’s true it will save you money, it won’t save 99%+ of people anything, because they’re not buying private jets anyway 😃

  12. When I saw the title of this post, I really thought it was gonna be about traveling to third world countries.

    Great post, I agree with a lot of your points about how people who are forced to “be frugal” because of their poverty don’t have the ability to make as many changes as those who are “dipping their toes in the water of frugality”

    I think what happens when the MSM picks up on a FI story is that they try to make the headline as sensational as they possibly can… because that’s their job by and large. To sell ads and rope people in, not to deliver quality content that is true to people being featured.

    And yes being envious of someone else’s lot in life is never good for anyone’s growth – financially or personally

    1. chiefmomofficer

      Yes the media with their headlines that are designed to get clicks, while only being half truths, don’t help things.

  13. Beautifully written Liz, I love how you break down the true reasons behind so much of this backlash in a non-judgmental, just factual, way. And it is true, we need to ‘respect others journeys’, someone may have had it easier or better than you, but you have it easier and better than someone else. Just because their journey isn’t the same as yours doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from it.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      It’s all about perspective, isn’t it? No matter how bad things are for you (the general You) likely someone else had it worse. And spending time and energy getting angry at people who have it easier than you do, takes energy away from working to achieve your own success

  14. Mr. Financial Freedom Project

    A well-written and thoughtful article on a very interesting topic. While the Frugalwoods had never explicitly listed their income, the fact that they were able to achieve their dreams so quickly after the FIRE candle was lit and the fact they held down dual incomes during their wealth accumulation years never led me to believe that their income was representative of the typical household.

    “The essence of “poverty tourism” is the sense that you’re just visiting a lower-income land. You’re taking a tour, dabbling in the local culture, sampling the food, but you can go back home to your high income whenever you want -or need-to.”

    This is a very interesting take. I like your use of and definition for “poverty tourism”. Many (if not most) well-known FIRE bloggers (see: Mr. Money Mustache, Frugalwoods, RootofGood) possessed household incomes well into the six figures during their wealth accumulation years. While they live frugally in retirement, there’s perhaps still an element of poverty tourism at play regarding the fact that they were able to achieve FIRE with a much-higher-than-typical income.

    Your article and several of the comments reference the fact that it’s impossible to achieve FI by say age 30 without possessing either extreme luck or high income. I think the personal finance community needs to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water on this point. The Early Retirement Extreme methodology is a good example of why someone wouldn’t need to accumulate a large nest egg prior to retirement, making it a potentially attainable goal for the middle or even lower class.

    My wife and I were able to achieve FI by 30 with an average household income ourselves, despite starting from humble beginnings. Doing so took a lot of diligence and optimizing every single area of our finances, including the tax code. Putting the amount of effort that we did into planning our finances isn’t for everyone. This is the proverbial path less traveled, but it’s worth it for those who, like myself, were not in a position to easily increase household income.

    I started my blog to help chart this path to financial freedom and independence for those who feel the FIRE lifestyle is only attainable by either having a six-figure household income or living like a hermit while scrimping and saving. There IS a middle ground, but it requires optimizing every single area of personal finance in the name of pulling out all the stops, as there is no margin for inefficiency or error.

  15. I wholeheartedly agree, we need to respect everyone’s circumstances and choices. I think as a society as a whole, we are getting more angry and resentful as a whole, and certain politicians are encouraging this anger rather than redirecting it into making life changes and overcoming barriers.

    And frugality is for everyone, and can be interpreted many ways, such as the words rich or poor.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      The internet doesn’t help with the lack of respect, I think. The anonymous nature of commenting leads people to say things online they would never think of saying in person

  16. I have no objections to anyone practicing frugality (hello! It’s kind of my thing). Where I do take is issue is when people act like frugality is a panacea. It is mostly certainly NOT. Especially when income has as much (or maybe more) to do with financial success than pinching pennies. Glad you weighed in!

    1. chiefmomofficer

      Yes there’s only so low you can get your expenses-at certain points growing your income is a better focus of your time and attention. I’ve always loved me some money saving tips thought!

    2. Per usual, I’m with Penny.

      And I appreciate that headlines are not the story, but folks who say frugal when they mean GIRL, We ARE SO RICH can definitely leave a sour note.

      1. chiefmomofficer

        That’s true, I think some of it depends on how the story is told too. Like the Frugalwoods are frugal-they spent under $1k per month on all non mortgage expenses in Boston. That’s pretty good for anyone! But at least in one interview that didn’t come across at all.

  17. My mom sent me the negative Guardian article today and it really ticked me off. Like some other commentors, what I’ve gained from the Frugalwoods is that they spend less than $1000/month after mortgage costs at times. Being frugal is beneficial, regardless of income. Yes, you can save more income the more income you’ve got, but that doesn’t make what they’re doing any less beneficial. Obviously, tons of people have gotten so much out of Liz’s blog, since she gets loads of traffic. The message of frugality stands, even for those with high incomes. Earn as much as you can, spend as little as you can, and invest the difference. The bigger the distance, the faster you reach FI.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      Yes! “Mind the gap”, as they say in London. The more you can grow your income, and the lower you can get your expenses, the faster you’ll reach financial freedom.

  18. I’ve been want to call frugality as stated by most of these blogs as more mindful spending. I d never thought how someone poor might call the use of the word frugal as slightly degrading since that’s their normal spending. But.. I don’t like it because it implies deprivation. There is no deprivation there just smart spending.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      Agree-people often equate “frugal” with “cheap”, or with deprivation. Smart, intentional spending can be frugal, but doesn’t necessarily need to be. And it’s not really deprivation to not spend on things that don’t matter to you-even if it might be deprivation to someone else.

  19. Great post Liz. I wasn’t sure what was going on but heard the buzz around this topic. I know the Frugalwoods a bit and Liz is a good person hoping to help others. I don’t think frugality is for the rich either. Frugality is mindful spending. I say it’s not about being cheap it’s about getting what you want for the least amount possible. Sure having more money or making more money makes it easier to pay off debt or invest to reach early retirement, but I’ve found many people who make more than the Frugalwoods struggling to make ends meet.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      I actually feel sorry for them-I’m sure it’s not easy to be ripped apart in mainstream media like that. I think things like the “Uber frugal month” she does really can help people at all points on the income scale.

  20. What a great and insightful post! I really like how you manage to put such an insightful and emphatic spin on the topics you write about.

    I haven’t been following this debate closely, but I have seen it crop up in various places. There is definitely an inherent privilege in being able to get another job or start a sidehustle. Many people would not have the time or mental energy left over to even contemplate it!

    1. chiefmomofficer

      Yes, being able to do that usually means you’re in good health, for starters. And getting a well paid side hustle usually means you have education, or skills someone else would not. Those things have a big impact on your hustling

  21. I believe everyone has their own trial to success and we should respect other people’s journey to success,
    Mrs. Frugalwoods is one of the first PF bloggers I read and really loved her posts from a couple living outside to Boston to now a homestead with now 2 kids. She and her husband reach FI their way through frugality and it worked for them. It doesn’t mean another person with have the same journey because we are made to be unique in our own way. We should all be aware of that and appreciate others while creating our own trail.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      That’s one of the things I personally love about blogs, versus generic financial advice. You can see financial advice playing out in a real life, rather than for a “generic person” who resembles no one. At the same time, because of that, their life will not be your life.

  22. Wow, what a well-written and thoughtful post. Kudos Liz!

    “We all have unique advantages and disadvantages in our journey through life”

    Very very true. And also true that some folks have more advantages than disadvantages, while for others it’s the other way around. The problem comes when as a society we seem to be trying to keep score, as if trying to quantify ones disadvantages as compared to another is possible, or even remotely a good idea. It’s not.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      Yes, it’s not a scoreboard. Everyone has unique advantages and disadvantages, sometimes more in one column than they other. And sometimes certain advances or disadvantages weigh more heavily than others. But life is not a math equation where we add all these things up and decide who is worthy.

  23. I have followed this story on several blogs and find the topic fascinating, given my own background. I grew up below poverty-level poor in rural Maine; my parents never made much money, but they were also not very frugal, as I define the term. Even though they did a lot of frugal things because they had to, like grow a garden, hunt and never take vacations, they also wasted what little money my dad did get on booze, cigarettes and dime store trinkets. I was able to go to college with a lot of scholarships and working 2-3 jobs at the same time.I got married during my sophomore year (26 years ago) and proceeded to have 4 kids in the next 6 years. My husband and I never made more than 35K between us for the first 12 years, and never more than double that for the next 8 or so, and this was by choice. I am a nurse, he is a teacher–but I only worked a few days a month, homeschooled, grew a garden, yardsaled for clothes, shopped thrift stores. He choose to work in Christian Schools where the pay was far less than public, and we were still able to pay off our modest house, buy used cars with cash and we have never had consumer debt. People came to me for advice frequently and generally loved our story. Fast forward to 6 years ago. We moved to Hong Kong and started working in an International School (he teaches–I’m the school nurse) We still barely crack 6 figures together, and still live very frugally, and yet my attempts at having a voice in the fray are largely met with eye rolls. Why? I think because we now have extra money and and have chosen to travel quite a bit and the general perception is that we don’t “have” to be frugal, so it doesn’t count anymore. Yet, the very reason we can do what we do now and still have a home and vehicles that are paid for back the US is because of years of frugal choices. I am frugal by nature. I enjoy the hunt for a deal. It’s who I am, and if I inherited a million bucks, nothing in my life would change. I guess it’s human nature to enjoy listening to those with whom we can relate. but I think both Amy Dacyzyn and Mrs. Frugalwoods have valid stories.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      I agree with you Tricia. Even the Dacyczyns eventually made a lot of money after years of living frugally with 4 (then 6) kids, but they didn’t change the way they lived. Sounds like you’ve lead a frugal life which has led to financial success. Plus the frugal skills you developed over the years are still handy when you’re making more. I’ve found that true of myself too-after years of living at a lower income, saving more at a higher income is easier.

  24. My parents are / were frugal when I was growing up. It allowed them to both save and invest and were able to handle a forced out the door early retirement, and stepping away from a job that became bureactatic. Near the end of her teaching career my mom mentioned I was making more money than she was! So, do I need to be as frugal as I am, maybe not? But in some ways I don’t know how to be a ‘spendy pants’. I’m also targeting to be in a place like my parents built for themselves that let them handle changing job situations, without money worries.

    Thank you for a thoughtful and well written post with lots to think about .

    1. chiefmomofficer

      Handling changing job situations more easily is a great reason to live frugally. You just never know what might happen, right?

  25. Well put. I definitely reside along the median income line, and while it’s easy to scoff at all of the software engineers making six figures that heavily populate the FI community, there is much to be learned from anyone who has or is achieving success in a common goal.
    I’m glad you addressed the recent controversy in such an insightful and inclusive manner!

  26. An interesting, thought-provoking article, thank you.
    I have followed the Frugalwoods for several years now and do really like them and enjoyed the book. I felt similar to Steph though, when I discovered just how high Nate’s income was (no idea what Liz’s was)- I can’t deny that I felt a bit misled to say the least, as they have definitely always chosen wording that downplayed their incomes, making the point that they weren’t making megabucks at large corporations but working at non profits. Suddenly their 70% savings rate didn’t seem nearly as impressive as it had in the past!

    As a Brit who always reads the Guardian (the paper that featured their story when the book was released and attracted so many negative comments from readers), I did of course read the article in it. I think that it didn’t help that there had recently been a regular series of articles on people who claim to be good at managing their money, but readers nearly always spotted something rather obvious as to why (eg a teacher who paid her mortgage off aged 39 and said it was pretty easy to achieve but gave the briefest of mentions towards the end of the article that she had been gifted a £30k deposit by her parents at a time when houses were cheap anyway, or a widowed woman in her seventies claiming she finds it easy to live well in expensive London as a pensioner who later reveals that she received £18k a year from her late husband’s final salary pension scheme and owns a huge, valuable house in the capital). The Frugalwoods article kind of seemed like the latest in that series of features for readers to eye-roll at, particularly when the home they were standing outside in the photo would cost way more in any part of the UK than it would have cost the FW due to property being priced at a premium here on our small, densely populated island- probably millions with all the acres of land.
    I just thought it might put the response to the Guardian article into perspective a little.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      Thanks so much for letting me know that-the reaction makes a lot more sense in that context. I could see how that would induce eye rolling at “yet another” article about someone who’s achieved a great financial goal, but really also had great advantages not obvious in the title

  27. This is such a great article, very well-said! I commend you Liz for expressing what so many of us who practice frugality as a way of life, at one point as a necessity and carried on as times got better. I completely agree that frugal habits seldom change when you go from lower income to higher income if the person found peace of mind by practicing to live a more frugal lifestyle. They should not be scoffed at because they happen to make more income than the average. In fact, as you make more money, staying frugal and being true to those frugal habits can be quite a challenge, since you now have the option to spend more if you wanted. And still many who make higher incomes choose to be good stewards of their money and practice living well below their means. I do understand how some jay misunderstand this as someone of privilege being frugal by choice and not by necessity, but it still doesn’t chance the fact that every one of us has a choice.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      I love how you talk about being a good steward. It’s something I think about a lot-I have some big goals and dreams for ways I’d love to help people who are currently in a similar spot to where I used to be. To me, being frugal, earning and saving a lot is not just for me and my family.

  28. I just ran over the Guardian to see that the commenters basically ‘ripped her a new one’…ugh.

    I have a financial background so I ran some numbers and figured they earned about $200k a year. Most tech jobs earn at least $120-140k/year. So I knew that is where most of their high savings was coming from.

    One thing I adore about them, is learning how to DIY stuff. I think is great for your brain to solve different kind of challenges for yourself. I work a desk job, but I LOVE to cook and do stuff around the house. Those save money and are fun.

    I love that she calls ‘Frugality her habit’. I have adopted this. The more frugality you practice, it just happens. For instance, we always went out to eat when my kids at tournament basketball games away. We are a family of 6 so this would be at least $50-$70 each time. We now pack a lunch $5. Over the course of a year, adds up. Same with coffees, teas, muffins.

    The other hand is, you just need to knuckle down and earn more money. Lots of bloggers don’t want to talk about that part. If it means sacrificing and going back to school, or learning new jobs skills, so be it.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      Making more money is often a hard topic to discuss. I bet that’s why folks avoid it. Mostly because they know what has and hasn’t worked for them, in their field, but that experience isn’t easily transferable to other fields and situations. Also really earning a lot more money is hard, takes a long time, and involves a lot of sacrifice. People mostly want to hear-and talk about-“get rich quick” style schemes. And I’m with you, I have a desk job and love doing art, baking, and DIYing things on the weekend. Today we’ve rented a power washer and we’re going to wash the house!

  29. Liz, nice piece. Frugality is not just for the rich but the rich definitely get more benefit when they are frugal. Growing income is huge if you can swing it….then if you stay frugal the possibilities are endless.

  30. Fascinating stuff! I never heard of the term “Poverty Tourism,” but the way you describe it makes a lot of sense. I guess one can visit poverty for a while and then leave, but what if one permanently stays at a level of poverty? How long can one live the super frugality lifestyle to finally be recognized as living that lifestyle? Hmmm.

    Liz at The Frugal Woods has always come across as genuine and kind to me. I do understand the backlash, especially if they really do make $300,000 a year due to her husband working, her site, etc. The easiest thing to do is to just say they work from home. As a full-time father and blogger, I’m working 70-75 hours a week now on average because taking care of a baby is so much work as you know! One look away could spell disaster!Oh my goodness! But it’s so rewarding as well.

    Oops, it’s 6:52am and I hear my boy is up. Gotta go 🙂


    1. chiefmomofficer

      Good question Sam. If you never leave, are you still just touring? Just because you could go back to a wealthier life, but choose not to, does that invalidate your experience? Or what if you used to be poor, but later became high income-can you automatically no longer relate? I personally don’t think so, but I can understand why others might.

      And yes kids are plenty of work! I work a demanding full time job, blog and have three boys, so I hear you. Luckily my husband is a stay at home dad, which is a huge part of what enables me to do this

  31. Reminds me a lot of the comments that “minimalism” is for rich people. Or complaining about people sleeping outside to raise money for the homeless. I see the issue as making a hard choice, vs an easy choice, but giving it the same name. Frugalwoods can choose where she is frugal, a mother of three on public assistance is forced to be frugal. “Frugal” really means two different things for those two people.

    I do wish we had more low income, lower middle income folks that “break out” in the FI world. All the big names I can think of had well paying jobs (many in technology). As we know, the rules work the same; FI is based on your expenses to income ratio. However, it can be hard for people with lower paying jobs to see themselves in those situations. The math works, but will definitely take longer with a low income.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      It would be great if more lower income folks talked about their financial journeys. I’ve seen lots of those folks talking about debt reduction but not really financial freedom. I think it would be valuable to others to have a great role model in that space

  32. Interesting and well-written post, Liz. What is fascinating is that Frugal Woods Liz talks more about privilege than almost anyone else in the PF community I have come across. I can understand some of negative response. I am almost finished paying off a huge amount of debt in a short period of time which I have been able to do because I make a good salary (I cut back on spending but that wouldn’t have gotten me nearly as far as fast). If an emergency had come up during that period of time, I would have had the luxury of ceasing to overpay to take care of the emergency and then started back up again. I didn’t feel like a poverty tourist as I was genuinely tired of being in debt and I did cut back on my spending but I was also never filled with fear that my car would be repossessed or I would be evicted for non-payment. I shopped at Aldi but was able to drive there in a late-model reliable car without worrying about how I would transport everything home on the city bus. No good answers but thanks for making me think.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      It’s definitely different to live at a lower level by choice rather than necessity. It’s much less stressful, for one. That doesn’t make it wrong or bad of course-living below your means is key to financial security at all income levels. But it is different. Glad to hear it made you think!

  33. modernpersonalfinance

    This is a great, thought-provoking post. I think the answer is more transparency if your situation permits it. I started my blog right when all this Frugalwoods controversy was brewing, so it seemed like a no brainer to start sharing every aspect of my family’s finances: Previous privileges that got us to this point, current income, expenses, where we invest, etc.

    The other aspect of this that I think gets lost in the debate is that REGARDLESS OF INCOME, the average American is not a great saver. I know comparing yourself to your peers is USUALLY a bad idea, and a path to misery, but I think it is worthwhile for this conversation.

    Take the Frugalwoods: At their peak of earning 250-300k they were in the top 10% of earners in the US. If you look at the savings rate for people making the top 10% of income in the US, it averages 12%. The Frugalwoods were saving 600% more than their peers. Again, it is fair to criticize them for downplaying their income, but they should be lauded for showing how to live a simple, affordable life regardless of income level.

    I also worry that this idea that “Frugality is for the rich” is going to dissuade people with more average incomes from actively reading about and pursuing frugality.

    Using myself as an example, for most of my twenties I was a graduate student making 25,000 a year. I was able to save as much as, or more than, my friends in the same city making 45-55K a year. It turns out advice like: Don’t buy new cars, look for deals on furniture, cook your food at home, and don’t go into credit card debt for consumer goods is really helpful at all income levels.

    Anyways, thanks for the post. I have a lot of feelings on this topic, and I’m probably going to be ruminating on it for the rest of my week!

  34. I believe the obsession with frugality is the wrong way of thinking about things. Being resourceful and living below your means is a must to develop wealth. However it is the wrong side of the equation that everyone gets stuck on. So many people are quick to accept the market rate for a job rather then to go out and create a business with unlimited upside.

    I watched my mom work 3 jobs and struggle to take care of the bills growing up. It was a huge lesson that she was working ALL THE TIME yet couldn’t keep up. The focus should be to increase your income if you are not happy with your savings each year. It is very difficult otherwise everyone would be rich! I still work a W-2 and must accept what the market will pay but that doesn’t mean I am not thinking every day about what else I can do to bump my income from starting a business. Positioning oneself is tough when starting in the negative net worth.

    I drive an old ass car and save wherever I can but I realized that those who really get ahead have an amazing income. I think dwelling on the fact that someone is making more and being upset that they are saying it’s frugal is a waste of energy.

    Great post!

    1. chiefmomofficer

      Totally with your last point-wasting energy being annoyed that people who make a lot, and are frugal, can save a lot, does not help you move forward in life

  35. Totally agree – I love this post. I particularly liked this “I firmly believe that feeling resentful and jealous of other people success is not the path to finding success yourself. ”

    Wish everyone thought that way. The world would be a happier, more productive place. 🙂

    1. chiefmomofficer

      I wish so too-if people put the time and energy into focusing on improving their own lives, rather that tearing someone else down, they would likely find more success.

  36. Gee, you come back from a few weeks in North Korea (= no internet), to find all of this has broken out! Plus Syria being bombed. It’s all been happening!
    I really enjoyed this article. Like a previous commenter, I also thought this was going to be about travelling in SE Asia, and after just having been ib Beijing and Pyongyang I jumped over with interest. But this concept of Poverty Tourism is equally interesting.

  37. His salary is closer to $250,000/year according to a recent thread over on bogleheads.

    Looks like it’s time to shop my resume around to a few local non-profits.

  38. I have been a regular reader of frugalwoods for 3 years. While I did get value out of the content I always assumed they were more like my own household income as I worked majority of career with not for profit income just slightly above median income. It was disappointing to realize I was way off on my perception; no wonder it felt so hard to imagine saving 70% of income.
    This has made me reassess the blogs I follow and why I read them. I am focusing more on blogs that focus on value aligned spending. I am letting go of comparison and guilt for value decisions we make that aren’t the frugal normal (new car, rec center membership).

    1. chiefmomofficer

      I’m a big believer in supporting others decisions. Not everyone needs to have the same priorities, and we really shouldn’t be critical of others for their decisions. As long as they’re well thought out and aligned with your own dreams, that’s what matters.

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