Extreme frugality was the key to financial freedom for this FIRE family
By ALESSANDRA MALITO, REPORTER | MarketWatch
Some may say Jillian Johnsrud has a frugal lifestyle, but, if you ask her, she’d say she’s living the dream.
Johnsrud, who lives in Kalispell, Mont., with her husband and five children, has always been consistent in how she spends money: It only goes toward what she and her family value, and nothing more. The rest is invested.
“When we first got married, we decided to save half of our income no matter the situation. It just really forced us to be really creative and look outside the box,” she said. They never earned six figures together, she added, but they have been able to save $250,000 in the last 10 years.
The couple wanted to buy a home, but they wanted to pay for it in cash, so they bought a small, “disgusting” home for $50,000. The basement had flooded, so the previous owners dropped the price by $20,000, and the Johnsruds spent two days pulling the basement apart to renovate it. But it was worth it: It allowed them to save up and buy a rental property a few months later.
Johnsrud, who also blogs at Montana Money Adventures, is part of the FIRE community — “financial independence, retire early” — where individuals may take extreme measures to save and invest as much money as they can so they can quit their 9-to-5 jobs and travel the world, or do something else they love. Some FIRE members may opt to work on a passion project, blog about their experiences, or work a lower-paying side job. Others may uproot themselves and move across the country. The point is, they can do whatever they want because they’re generating enough income, through ads on their blogs, rental properties and investments.
The couple values traveling and spending time with their five kids, so they bought a camper and travel the country for weeks at a time, visiting museums and hiking. For vacations, they’ll go anywhere around the U.S. and even Europe, but when it comes to lodging they’ll mainly camp.
“We love to travel, but we do it at a fraction of the price,” Johnsrud said. They also rent out their home for weeks or months at a time while they’re away, which will offset, if not pay for, their trip. When the kids ask to do expensive after-school activities, they’ll discuss the pros and cons of each decision, and ask them to weigh which they’d rather have: the activities or a family Disney trip.
The couple has three sources of passive income, Johnsrud said, including her husband’s military pension, their rental property and investment income, totaling $3,550 per month. Their total monthly expenses add up to just about $2,000, including property taxes, a gym membership and Netflix NFLX, -0.73% .
To continue saving aggressively, the Johnsruds follow a few more rules: They don’t buy new cars, and they’re meticulous about their food budget. One strategy Johnsrud picked up in a book is to try to keep the cost of food to $1 per pound. Rice and beans make that easy to accomplish, so every Monday she’d cook a variation of that combo — Mexican style, Greek, Indian curry.
The FIRE lifestyle — especially that of the Johnsruds — may not be for everyone. “The biggest motivation was really focusing on our biggest dreams and our biggest goals, and knowing that these sacrifices were for a bigger purpose,” she said. She and her husband wanted to travel, to pay for a house in cash, to adopt, which made this balancing act worth it.
Still, there were stressful times. People weren’t always kind to her. Some would call their home a “starter home” and scoff when she and her husband said they had no plans to move. An investment adviser once accused her of lying when she told him their net worth.
Their lifestyle is often at odds with the materialism and excess common in America today. Their home is about 1,650 square feet, which would be close to the standard in New York City or Washington, D.C., but in Montana seems too small to some people. The family of seven fits comfortably in their home, especially after they leaned into minimalism and got rid of half of their belongings. “It didn’t have enough space for all of the stuff we weren’t using,” Johnsrud said.
For those who want to attempt living more frugally, she suggests starting with the end result. Think about the goal in mind, like traveling for a few months at a time or having the flexibility to go to all the kids’ school events, she said.
“We always relay that back to the reason we do these things, and can,” she said.
Alessandra Malito is a personal finance reporter based in New York. You can follow her on Twitter @malito_ali.