One Family's 'Extreme Frugality' Experiment W. Hodding Carter knew his wife was right: Their family was living way beyond their means. So in an experiment Carter calls "Extreme Frugality," the family of six is now living — thriving — on what they can afford, about $550 a month. He writes about it for Gourmet.com.
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One Family's 'Extreme Frugality' Experiment

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One Family's 'Extreme Frugality' Experiment

One Family's 'Extreme Frugality' Experiment

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LYNN NEARY, host:

For years, W. Hodding Carter's wife, Lisa, had warned him their family of six was living beyond their means. Late last year, Hodding took a look at his social security statement and realized she was right. They brought in an average of $41,000 a year and spent three times that much, about $120,000 a year. Thanks to that visa card.

In an experiment, Hodding calls extreme frugality. The family is now living, even thriving, on what they can afford, about $550 a month. From tapping maple trees and raising chickens to dabbling in dumpster diving, the Carters have really taken to thrifty living.

W. Hodding Carter, author of the "Extreme Frugality" column for Gourment.com, joins us now from Maine Public Broadcasting Network in Portland.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. W. HODDING CARTER (Author, "Extreme Frugality"): Hi, Lynn. Thanks.

NEARY: So give us a little background on how this all came about that you didn't really - you didn't - you really didn't understand that you weren't living within your means?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARTER: The background would be I was an idiot. My wife was right. And, yeah, that's all there is to it.

NEARY: Okay.

Mr. CARTER: But I - well, the thing was that I'm a writer, for the most part, not a farmer, even though, of course, I play a farmer now. But I always thought I was going to - my next book was going to be a bestseller. I mean, you know, why else was I writing. Even though we were charging $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 that we didn't have, I figured that book about the Everglades, everyone was going to buy that, or the one about plumbing. Well, it didn't happen and, you know, I kept getting the black walnut countertops or renovating the house - which had just been renovated two years before, you know…

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. CARTER: …or going out to eat twice a week, you know? And so it was things like that were - I just did them, and I kept doing them, and my wife kept saying, I don't think we should do this. I don't think we can do this. Look at the credit card bills - and I didn't look at the bills - and just add it up.

But the thing that I was using to fool of myself, I don't want to, you know - well, I am a complete idiot, but I don't want to sound like a complete, complete one - is that I, in 1996, I did make like $100,000, one year. So I just sort of, in my mind, assumed that's what I was making every year after that.

NEARY: See, I'm still 35 years old. So I think that's kind of the same thing, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARTER: Right, exactly. Exactly the same thing. So it's - so I was making that $100,000, $110,000 every year and I really was making more than 10 or 20.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: That is denial, I have to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: So, okay. So you decide, all right, we're going to live within our means.

Mr. CARTER: Right.

NEARY: How do you set about doing that? I mean, what did you have to -how extreme did you have to get to live within your means?

Mr. CARTER: It's funny - like - first, it got put out that I was doing this for a book, which is not true. I mean, we're doing this because we have to do - I mean, you know, I finally did wake up. And I have no, you know, no grandparents dying, no house to sell, nothing like that that I can fall back on.

So anyway, the way we decided to do it was to go extremely, go all the way. Because when you take little steps, I think, with saving money, it just, you feel defeated. But if you take big ones like we did, which was totally cut out everything that we're doing that was wasteful and that was spendthrift-like, which was spending a couple of thousand dollars a month on food, including going out to restaurants or, you know, buying our kids clothes like each change in weather, or going on vacations to Mexico when we had a deficit in our checking account, you know, we cut out those kinds of things, which felt extreme to us. But then we also went further like - and truly, if I see food alongside the road, I stop and grab it, you know, if I see a dead duck, you know, I'll bring it on and we'd try to cook it.

And so, it's a little scary, you know, what I might bring home at times for my kids, but it seems to be working in the sense that, you know, we're now spending like $4,000 to $5,000 a month less in what we used to do. And I'd say, like everyone else in my house is as happy as they were, or happier, six months ago.

NEARY: We are talking with W. Hodding Carter about his experiment in extreme frugality, trying to live within his means.

If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-989-8255. Have you had to go to extremes to live within your means?

So, how did your children react to this?

Mr. CARTER: Well, when we presented it to them, we forgot to wear our parent caps and I was just sort of doing an experiment to see how they might react. And we said, kids, we're going to cut out a lot of the things we've been doing. We're not going to spend the money like we've been spending. We're not going to go out to eat. We're not going to be, you know, getting the kind of presents we used to get. We may not even get presents on certain holidays. Well, one of them - 12-year-old twins, one of them stormed out of the room. Our 10-year-old started crying. And our six-year-old just said, I'm not going to do it.

And so it went from that to now, like, you know, we're going to the grocery store, the twins sort of fan out and try to find anything and everything that's on sale. And one of my daughters, for her birthday was, you know, trying to figure out how much money she had in her piggy bank to see what party favors she could buy for, you know, the kids for coming to the party. And the kids now do these chores every day at home like we got chickens and we've got a garden going, so that they can then use that money to, you know, get things for themselves on the side. So it went from totally rejecting it to embracing it.

NEARY: Wow, that's really interesting. And I wanted to ask you about that, the fact that you have chickens and in this column that you're writing you sort of keep tabs on how many eggs you brought.

Mr. CARTER: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: But things like that and, you know, tapping for a maple syrup and things like, I mean kind of, how have you found the farmer, your inner farmer, it sounds like you found through all this?

Mr. CARTER: Yeah. The farmer. Well, there was no inner farmer before, so it's sort of, I think he's growing inside. We got our hands on October, and I think we got - we ordered 25, they gave us 29 luckily because we've had a few, like, go by the wayside. But they're now laying about 19, 18, 19 eggs a day. And the kids sell those on a weekly basis. And they're making maybe 30, $40 a month after we pay for the feed.

You know, of course, a while back, I wouldn't have counted that paying for the feed part. You know, I would have said, oh, they're making 40, $50, even though I've forgotten to subtract the money for the feed. So I've gotten better, you know, that way already. And I would say that as far as the inner farmer goes, I have maybe slightly more successes than failures. The trees that we tapped, the maple trees, I'd say at least half of them are maples. That's good, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

No, yeah, I think they're, they may have all been maples but they were, some of them weren't really the best maybe, let's put it that way.

NEARY: So you didn't get too much syrup?

Mr. CARTER: No. We didn't get too much of that. Maybe - well, I think we got about a half a gallon, which we were psyched, you know, we didn't have a half a gallon before. So, that was good.

NEARY: Let's talk about your whole approach to grocery shopping because that has changed, hasn't it?

Mr. CARTER: Right.

NEARY: How - go ahead to explain.

Mr. CARTER: Oh, sorry, Lynn. I think that was a big one in which I was able to share something for once with people. Instead of people just reading my column and laughing at us, which was, you know, I used to always go shopping with a shopping list or having based it on looking at cookbooks and seeing a recipe that I wanted and then ingredients that I needed. I'd go get those things.

Well, now, we don't really go with the shopping list except for maybe milk or juice or, you know, maybe vegetables. Beyond those three things, we only buy what's on sale. So, it just depends on what's going on that week. And I also drive about an hour out of my way each week to go to a liquidation grocery store, which, you know, I would never have bothered to before, of course. Before I think would have been too afraid to go into it. But it's, you know, I can buy milk for about half a price I get milk anywhere else. I get eggs - well I don't eggs anymore.

NEARY: What is a liquidation grocery store? You have to explain that to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARTER: Right. You don't know? Oh, come one, but those are everywhere. No, they're - it's a, I think it's a store in which groceries that like Krogers couldn't sell because, you know, there was too many, you know, of these type of crackers or the boxes all were misprinted, you know? I think that seems to be a lot of it. Like there's, you know, Odwalla juices, those, you know, fresh mixed juices. They're usually, like, 3.50 for one. Somehow, this place called Caswell's(ph), which is an hour from me, gets them and sells them for 50 cents, 47, 47 cents. So, I - the day that they show up there, you know, I buy like a hundred of them. Even though my kids don't like it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I just make them drink it. No, they love it. They really do. And now, I put it in the freezer or whatever it takes to, you know, to make it keep. And then I figure they have nutrition for, like, three or four days that, you know, would have cost, you know, so much more. And then to equal that at home with going sort of a frugal - making something ourselves would have taken too long. So it's a pretty, pretty neat thing to come up on.

NEARY: We are talking with W. Hodding Carter about "Extreme Frugality." And if you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255. We're going to take a call from Rosemary(ph) who is in, I think it's Osage, Oklahoma, Rosemary?

ROSEMARY (Caller): Yes, that's correct.

NEARY: Okay. Go ahead.

ROSEMARY: I moved from a three-bedroom house to a one-room house in the country. Now, I wash my clothes in buckets in the backyard. I don't use hot water. There are a lot of reasons why I had to do this that I won't go into. I had some situations with stalking and threats, so I didn't exactly just do it out of altruism. But now I say that I don't have a carbon footprint, I have carbon little fingerprint.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: And does it - does it actually save you money to…

ROSEMARY: Oh, yes of course. I mean, you know, my electric bill is about $25 a month as opposed to about 150.

Mr. CARTER: That's the big one, yeah.

ROSEMARY: And my big expense I guess is that I'm still feeding some large dogs because, again, I have this stalking issue. But I'm much happier. I mean, right now the only sound that I can hear, other than my voice talking to you, is the hummingbirds that are fighting with each other at the feeder. And rather than buying hummingbird food, I mix sugar and some vitamins and have talked to naturalists who tell me that what I'm doing is very good for the hummingbirds. And it sure is good for me.

NEARY: Well, great. Thanks for calling in, Rosemary.

ROSEMARY: Thank you.

NEARY: That makes me wonder, Hodding, whether - do you think it's easier to do it in a rural area? Do you think it's easier to do what you're talking about, the extreme frugality?

Mr. CARTER: Well, yeah, of course it is because I can have chickens and I can have, you know, maybe a quarter-acre garden or, you know, also farm plot. And there are things like that that make it easier. Like just hanging out your laundry is easier. But some, like, six months ago, I was reading an article in New York magazine about this guy who's trying to live off his little, you know, backyard in Brooklyn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Right.

Mr. CARTER: You know? And I think he was succeeding, you know, for the most part. So, it's not impossible to do it in an urban setting. And I think it's all, you do what you can. So wash, like Rosemary was saying, washing her clothes in a bucket or at least not using a dryer. I mean, that right there, I figured it, once we turn off our dryer, we were saving like, 35 to $50 a month, at least, in our electric bill just by doing that. So, there are some things that you can do both places.

NEARY: W. Hodding Carter writes the "Extreme Frugality" column for Gourmet.com.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I want to take a call from Curtis(ph). And Curtis is calling from Greenville, Michigan. I think I've got Curtis there. Hold on a second.

Mr. CARTER: I scare them off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: No, I think this is my fault entirely.

CURTIS (Caller): Hello.

NEARY: Hi, Curtis. Go ahead.

CURTIS: Hi. How you doing?

NEARY: I'm good, thanks.

CURTIS: Great. Well, we learned how to freeze milk. Milk goes on sale about once a month and you can usually get it for under $2 a gallon.

Mr. CARTER: That's good.

CURTIS: And what we do is we take out about a cup of the milk out of the gallon and then we put in the deep freezer so we can freeze ten at a time. Then we take them out, we thaw it in the sink with warm water, we just shake it about every couple hours and it tastes fine. You can't tell the difference.

NEARY: Okay. I'm trying to understand, how does that save money?

CURTIS: Well, usually, the gallon of milk costs $3.89 a gallon. And if we can get it for $2 a gallon, we save a $1.89 per gallon.

NEARY: Oh, I see, you buy the cheaper milk and then freeze it. And it doesn't taste strange after you…

CURTIS: No. As long as you take that one cup out, so - when it expands when it freezes, you know, you don't bust the gallon in the freezer. And then you put it in warm water in the sink and let it, you know, thaw throughout the day and you shake it every so often. And as you shake it vigorously, it breaks up the ice crystals and remixes the milk.

NEARY: Oh, okay.

Mr. CARTER: Thank God, Curtis called and said that, because I was going to talk about doing that. I was going to leave out the part about taking out the cup first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Okay.

Mr. CARTER: It would've exploded in everyone's - because I had that happen at home once when I hit upon that idea with something like that. And we froze probably about 50 gallons worth. And about a couple of days later, it was all over the freezer. So…

NEARY: Oh, gosh, I can see…

CURTIS: Well, I tell everybody when I see people buying milk on sale, I tell everybody that.

NEARY: Well, thanks for that advice, Curtis. We appreciate it. Good talking to you.

CURTIS: You're welcome. Have a good day.

NEARY: As long as we're on the subject of liquids, let's talk about alcohol because you actually made mead, is that right?

Mr. CARTER: Yes, yeah, I'm really excited about it. It's still on my -well, it's in our living room right now, which my wife keeps moving it out of there. But I have this, I just want to see it near me, so I keep moving it back. She hides it in the basement and I bring it back up. But it's about five gallons. And I tasted some on, what's today, Thursday. I tasted some on Sunday and I think it was already up to about 12 percent alcohol. So, I've got about another month. I'm waiting for it to be 20 before I break it out.

NEARY: So a still in the backyard next?

Mr. CARTER: And celebrate. Oh, yeah. When I was in the Peace Corps, this friend of mine came over to visit, and I mean, thank God he did because he showed me how to actually make a still. So, I think I remember how to do it still.

NEARY: Do you think that this kind of experiment, you sort of, I think, as you started out on this, said you're going to do this for a year, I think, is that right? Or is it, or does it lead to permanent change? I guess that's really what I'm wondering.

Mr. CARTER: Well, I'm really glad you asked that because, you know, I sort of joke around a lot about it. But I'm also obviously really serious about it or else we wouldn't be doing it and we needed to do it. And I think at first, I said, yeah, we're going to do this for a year. But now, I've realized though this is a permanent change. And there are some things that we might slip on as time goes on, of course, or we might add back in because, you know, it's nice, like maybe once every few months to go out and treat yourself to a meal or something.

But I know we won't go back to the way we were. I don't think it's even possible because I just sort of - there are days and days and days where I just think back to the way we used to spend and live and go, what were we thinking? What were we doing? And I know it was a thing that was - happening across America, you know, we culturally sort of made ourselves. But I found like a much better place for this.

NEARY: Yeah. And I have to note that your sister came to visit once and you let her sort of buy things for you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARTER: That was smart, wasn't it?

NEARY: Yeah. That's a good way around frugality. Have people give you things.

Mr. CARTER: I wish (unintelligible) that long.

NEARY: Yeah. And so have you managed to get your credit card debt down?

Mr. CARTER: We were actually now. I think now, we're paying off a couple of thousand dollars a month, you know, we're not adding to it. So that's a drastic change. And I don't think we're going to be done, you know, paying it off by the end of the summer or anything. But, you know, another year or so like this we'll be there.

NEARY: Well, good luck to you.

Mr. CARTER: Thanks a lot. This was great.

NEARY: And thanks so much for joining us today. W. Hodding Carter writes the "Extreme Frugality" column for Gourmet.com. We have a link to it at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from MPBN in Portland, Maine.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

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