Writing about leaving city for simpler life? Join the club

VERSHIRE, Vt. (AP) — There’s yet another account of city dwellers fleeing urban life and materialism for a simpler existence in — where else? Vermont.

This time it’s by Elizabeth Willard Thames, who made her name as Mrs. Frugalwoods in her blog about embracing frugality. She is the author of “Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living,” released this month by HarperCollins.

In an accounting some readers have noted strains credulity, Thames writes about her and her husband’s decision to adopt “extreme frugality,” with a goal of leaving their 9-to-5 jobs in Boston in their early 30s to be financially independent and live simply on a homestead in the woods.

She writes about eschewing new clothes, expensive haircuts and her daily $2.50 luxury of an iced tea from Dunkin’ Donuts. She and her husband, Nate, had been saving 70 percent of their incomes, but she doesn’t disclose their salaries.

“We had just turned 30 and thought if we don’t do something, if we don’t radically change how we live, how we use our time and how we use our money, we’re going to be 40, 50, 60 and never really have done what we want to do with our lives and never have had the opportunity to explore these other parts of ourselves that we so wanted to explore,” Thames, a mother of a newborn and a 2-year-old, said in an interview.

They started their married life with zero debt after getting scholarships to a state university where they met, working jobs in college and having some help from parents, they say. In the city, they gave up dinners out, artisanal cheese and other pricey food, and bought used furniture.

Their story of moving in 2016 from fancy Cambridge, Massachusetts, to a farmhouse on 60 acres outside tiny Vershire, Vermont, has been told in various forms by the likes of The Guardian, Forbes and PBS. Many accounts zeroed in on their self-proclaimed decision to “retire” in their 30s.

Except income from the book and blogging and giving interviews doesn’t really count as “retired.” The Thameses also have investments and get rental income from the home they still own in Cambridge; he now works online from home with the same software job he had in Massachusetts.

It’s work they do because they love it, the Thameses say, and they could walk away from it any time. And now, Elizabeth says, they have more control of their time. But they have backed off on the R-word and now call themselves “financially independent.”

A book reviewer in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis was skeptical, noting the book is short on numbers, questioning how the couple was able to buy a four-bedroom house with granite countertops in expensive Cambridge, and snarking that they probably didn’t get there by skipping a few haircuts and cutting out artisanal cheese.

Thames acknowledges that her frugality is a choice, not a necessity, and that she and her husband are privileged, being white and heterosexual, and having been raised by college-educated middle-class parents.

They also aren’t reinventing the wheel by making a high priority of where they want to live and by creatively budgeting.

Whether or not your dream is to live in rural Vermont, Thames said, she wants to inspire others to realize their dreams, whatever they may be, by crafting a financial plan to get there.

Stories about frugal, resourceful living are nothing new in Vermont, home to many back-to-the-landers and aging hippies, as well as in other rural areas where jobs are scarce, money is tight or people choose to work from home.

There’s a steady stream of escape-from-the-city-to-rural-Vermont books going back to the early 1900s, including Samuel Ogden’s “This Country Life”; Helen and Scott Nearing’s “Living the Good Life”; Edmund Fuller’s “Successful Calamity: A Writer’s Follies on a Vermont Farm”; and Noel Perrin’s “First Person Rural.”

“The topic seems to have a perennial appeal,” said Dona Brown, a history professor at the University of Vermont.

“People must certainly know what to expect when they pick up these books,” Brown said, “but I guess that would be true about all kinds of formulaic writing.”

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