Learning how to tell a luxury from a necessity.

One of the things we read all the time in the FI/RE space is that one of the most important ways to turbocharge our path to financial independence is to learn how to distinguish a want from a need. I was about 13 when I learned this lesson, in a way that I’ll never forget.

Mum and Dad, my brother, sister and I lived in a comfortable middle-class suburb in Melbourne. We were by no means wealthy, but my parents earned enough that we had all of the necessities of life and quite a few comforts as well.

When I was about 12 or 13 I discovered an English magazine for teens called ‘Pink’. I absolutely loved it. God knows why – I was looking at covers for it while thinking about writing this post and it looks AWFUL. Everything that a feminist would despise. But at the time they were certainly pitching to the right audience. Every week I’d take my money up to the local newsagent and get my ‘fix’, bring it home, read it and add it to the pile of previous issues. It was a staple part of my regular routine and I didn’t ever imagine that routine changing.

Then one day Dad lost his job.

Mum and Dad were a bit upset about it, but in my sublimely selfish teenage way I didn’t let the news cause a blip on my radar, until the day Mum came out into the backyard where I was playing with the dog and said that she wanted to have a talk to me.

She explained that with Dad being the main breadwinner and with them not knowing when he was going to be employed again, they’d decided to make some cutbacks in expenses. So I wouldn’t be going on the year 8 school camp. I was a little upset about that, but I figured that it was only for 3 days and they’d pass quickly. They were pausing my sister’s dance classes and doing a few other things that I don’t remember about now. But then she dropped the bombshell – the one you already guessed was going to be dropped.

Yep. No more ‘Pink’ magazine until Dad found another job.

I was devastated. I cried. Mum said, “This is incredible. I thought you’d be more upset about missing the camp!” On my side, I couldn’t believe that they’d stop paying for something that only cost a couple of dollars a week. How was I going to keep up with the serial stories? There were HEAPS of them. What about the gossip columns and agony aunt pages? How was I going to keep up with the fashions and who and where and what the rock stars were doing? Remember, this was long before the internet. I was truly going to be stranded.

I thought they were so unreasonable. If there was an emoji for a 13-year-old girl having a tantrum I’d put it here. I begged and pleaded. But Mum and Dad wouldn’t be budged. They were tightening the reins on the family finances while we were in this tight spot and that was that.

So my life was ruined.

Six weeks after that, Dad found another, better job. Mum came to me on his first payday with a couple of dollars in her hand.

“Darling, you can go to the newsagent and start the subscription up again.” She was so happy to be able to make me happy.

I remember so clearly looking at the money, then thinking about the magazine. Was it worth getting it again? Yeah sure, at first I’d missed it dreadfully, but as the weeks went on I lost track of the serial stories – I knew that if I bought the latest edition I’d have no idea of what had gone on in the meantime. The pop groups? They were mainly British and most of them weren’t really big out here anyway. The fashion was 6 months ahead of us anyway and I didn’t even wear makeup yet. I couldn’t believe what I knew was going to come out of my mouth.

“Thanks, Mum, but I don’t want it anymore. I’m not missing it so you might as well save the money.”

It was a revelation to me that something that I once prized so highly took only a few short weeks to fade into insignificance. Mum and Dad were right to cut back when times were tough. Very few things are truly necessary, while most other things, though being nice to have, can easily be sacrificed if need be.  I learned a few very important lessons from giving up that silly magazine that stood me in very good stead when I was bringing up my boys on a shoestring budget and I had to cut deep.

They say that the things you learn in childhood stay with you, both good and bad. One of the best things my parents did for us was to demonstrate their absolute determination to not live beyond their means. It would have been so difficult, if not humiliating, to take pleasures away from their children and see their distress. But they kept the bigger picture in view and made their decisions for the overall financial stability of the family.

“Monkey see; monkey do.” It’s true; kids observe everything their parents do. I was lucky that mine showed me a valuable lesson, with the sting from the loss of the magazine probably flagging that memory so I’d never forget it.




Lessons from Literature 2: Sense and Sensibility

Ahhh, Jane Austen. What an amazing writer. One of the best days of my 2015 trip to Europe was when I went to her house in Chawton, which is now the Jane Austen Museum. It’s SO much better than the more famous one in Bath, as this place has so many of Jane’s own things. I blogged about it here.

‘Sense and Sensibility’ is the quintessential “A Man is not a Financial Plan” guidebook. None of the story would have happened if the second Mrs Dashwood had had her wits about her. In her youth, well before the novel begins, she married a widower, Mr Henry Dashwood, who already had a son from his previous marriage. Under the laws of his estate, the vast majority of the land, house and money legally have to go to the first son when Mr Dashwood dies. She will be left with virtually nothing.

Now, the second Mrs Dashwood has no visible means of supporting herself. She has no real education, no career path and no income of her own. But she blithely marries Mr Dashwood anyway because YOLO ain’t love grand,  spawns 3 daughters and then is perturbed to realise once she’s a widow that her husband, although he had years to get his financial affairs in order in order to provide for his daughters, had instead spent his money on a lavish lifestyle, keeping up with the Joneses and keeping a large stable full of expensive, Ferrari-like horses. Serenely expecting her stepson to do the right thing and cough up some of the money he inherited, she’s dismayed to discover that he has no such intention.

Consequently, she can’t financially support her daughters, (all of whom are equally untrained to forge a career path) and it’s only through the generosity of a distant cousin who offers them a cottage in the boondocks to live in that she’s even able to put a roof over her daughters’ heads.

She didn’t even have an emergency fund in place, let alone a share portfolio or a tidy sum tucked away in index funds. Talk about immediate gratification-type thinking coming back to bite you!

Listen to this passage, which describes Mrs Dashwood’s attitude when they move to their new rental:

  • “As to the house itself, to be sure,” said she, “it is too small for our family, but we will make ourselves tolerably comfortable for the present, as it is too late in the year for improvements. Perhaps in the spring, if I have plenty of money, and I daresay I shall, we may think about building. These parlours are both too small for such parties of our friends as I hope to see often collected here; and I have some thoughts of throwing the passage into one of them with perhaps a part of the other, and so leave the remainder of that other for an entrance; this, with a new drawing room which could easily be added, and a bedchamber and garret above, will make it into a very snug cottage. I could wish the stairs were handsome. But one must not expect everything, though I suppose it would be no difficult matter to widen them. “

She has clearly been watching too many home improvement shows. I’m surprised that a granite bench top and ensuites for all the bedchambers weren’t on the list as well. However, Austen is onto it. Look at what she says in the very next paragraph:

  • In the mean time, till all these alterations could be made from the savings of an income of five hundred a year by a woman who never saved in her life, they were wise enough to be contented with the house as it was…

By the end of the novel, Mrs Dashwood resigns herself to staying in the inadequately-sized cottage and her daughters are well-looked after. Phew! It all worked out well in the end but Mrs Dashwood had to go through a steep learning curve to be able to learn how to live within her means. Of course, once Elinor and Marianne were off her hands she only had Margaret to feed and house. I can tell you from experience that feeding one child is FAR cheaper than feeding 3 of them in their 20’s. They eat like horses. Mrs Dashwood’s grocery bills would have been through the roof before the girls moved out.

All of the trauma and heartache the girls go through in this novel could have been avoided if Mr and Mrs Dashwood had followed these few simple rules:

  1. Pay yourself first – take at least 10% of your income and tuck it away into investments.
  2. Don’t go into debt.
  3. Spend less than you earn.
  4. Have some splurge money, but don’t go crazy.
  5. Invest all that’s left.
  6. Don’t believe handsome young men who flirt with your daughters are always eligible husband material.

Austen isn’t usually thought of as a personal finance writer, but I believe she has many observations that still hold true today. Perhaps she should be looked on as the first FI writer?



Frugal Friday: Early Bird train travel.

It seems like travel hacking is splashing itself all over the internet lately – Americans flying first class all over the world for about $11.50, all due to the amazing reward points they can get on their credit cards.

This isn’t going to be a post about that.

This is about how I’ve tweaked my morning routine to take advantage of the scheme called Early Bird train travel that operates here in Melbourne. 

Two years ago I was living a kilometre away from work in the house I’d owned for 20 years. Classes start at 8:50am, so I’d leave home at 8:36, drive through the back streets, park in Hall street, walk briskly to my desk, scoop up the books I’d left in a pile the day before for my first two classes, grab my keys and I’d be walking in the classroom door at 8:50 every day without fail. I did this for 12 years and I had it down to a fine art. People in my staffroom knew it was time to grab their books and go to class when they heard me say, “Good morning!” as I came through the door.

Then I moved 21kms away from work. I experimented with driving into work and taking the train. The train is a 5-minute walk from my house, with a 10-minute walk at the other end to school. Both modes of transport took just under an hour each way, so the only real benefit was the comfort of the car vs the extra steps on my fitbit with the train. So I started driving in. Call me lazy – I don’t care.

Then late last year, this happened.

ARGH!!! Why?!? Of course, there was no note on the windscreen. It cost me just over $300 to get fixed.

Suddenly train travel was looking far more affordable.

So in the September school holidays, I got the car fixed, charged up my Myki for the train and discovered an interesting titbit of information about something called the Early Bird. If you begin and end your train journey before 7:15am on a weekday, you don’t get charged for the trip. They’ve obviously brought it in to try and reduce congestion on the morning peak travel times. Hmmmm……….. Maybe I could be a civic-minded citizen AND slash my transport bill in half at the same time?

This meant that I had to do some Maths. I steeled myself to the task. If I got up an hour earlier each morning I could travel to and from work for only $2.80/day, instead of $5.60. On the face of it, it wasn’t much of a saving. But if you multiply that over a week… $14 instead of $28… or over a 10-week term… $140 instead of $280…. the numbers become more interesting.

I decided to give it a go. I also decided to track it on a chart, so that I wouldn’t lose sight of the money I was saving. I knew that if I was staying late for some reason, or I needed to go somewhere after school, I could always drive in. But why not take advantage of an offer for free transport?

So on day 1, term 4 I got up very early and made my way to the station.

Here are the downsides to doing this:

  1. In order to catch the train that guarantees me to get to my destination a full 10 minutes before the 7:15 deadline, (because of possible train delays) I have to leave the house by 6:20am to walk to the station. This means getting up at 5:30am. OMG.
  2. It tends to be a little nippy first thing in the morning.
  3. I have to be organised with my lunches and breakfasts. It defeats the purpose if I score a free train trip but have to buy my lunch from the canteen because I was too sleepy to get my act together in time to make lunch.
  4. If I’m running late, I have to run for the train. I’m not a fan of rapid movement.
  5. It was a massive adjustment for the people in Staffroom 2. For a couple of weeks, people were getting to their classes late because I was no longer saying, “Good morning!” at 8.45. The habits of 12 years or so are pretty hard to break.
  6. They raised the price of the trip by a massive 14c on Jan 1. This makes the Maths more difficult. Thank goodness there’s a calculator on my laptop.

Here are the pros:

  1. It’s really nice to start each day with a few wins. Getting up as soon as the alarm goes off in what seems like the dead of night? Win. (I cheat a bit here… the dogs sleep in my room so as soon as the alarm goes off Poppy jumps onto my bed with joy, giving massive head butts and cuddles, so it’s impossible to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep.) Leaving the house at 6:20am so I don’t have to run? Win. Touching off with my Myki and seeing ‘Fare deducted: $0.00? Win. Walking to school and seeing nearly 4,000 steps already on my fitbit? Win.
  2. Usually, I’m the only one in the staffroom when I get there, so it’s nice and quiet. I put the kettle on for a cup of coffee, I go to the ladies to put my makeup on, I come back, fire up the laptop and eat breakfast at my desk, browsing on blogs or Facebook. As people drift into work, the place slowly gets louder and livelier. I’ve had my quiet start to the day and I’m now ready for the rest of it.
  3. If I need any photocopying done, there’s no queue. Correction? It’s nice and quiet.
  4. I have to be organised with my lunches and breakfasts. (Yes, I know this was in the cons list, but it’s also a pro.) I’m not hungry at 5 in the morning, so I tend to take a couple of hard-boiled eggs for breakfast and I eat them at breaky time… about 7:30. It’s awful when I don’t have an easy breakfast to grab – the default position is a ‘fast’ morning or day, which is good when I’m slightly pudgy but not so good if I’m starving. My lunches tend to be leftovers from the night before or a Mystery Meal from the freezer.
  5. My car will hold its value for far longer. In a normal week, I’ll only take it out once or twice, as I can pick things up from the Aldi around the corner on the way home; if I need to go to a shopping centre I can get off the train at Southland and then hop back on the train to come home; and I hate wasting time on the weekends so I group shopping visits together… all leading up to low kilometres on the clock and no wear and tear on tyres etc.
  6. My overall transportation costs have plummeted. I was buying a tank of petrol every 2 weeks at $50-$60 a tank. Now, it’s around 6 weeks between refills. (It’d possibly be more, but I’m teaching Evan21 to drive so we’re using fuel on that.) 
  7. The table of running savings. Admittedly, I don’t much like doing the Maths for it, but it’s getting to the stage when it’s really starting to add up. Sometimes a friend from work will offer to drive me home, especially if we’re here working late, so I get double dipping on that day. It’s lovely when they offer, but I certainly don’t go chasing it… that’d be rude.

I know that if I saw $183.26 on the footpath I’d bend down to pick it up! It’s nice to know that it’s still in my bank account, but also kind of creepy when you think that it’s a sizeable chunk of money that I would have had to have spent if this offer from Metro trains wasn’t in place.

This is such a little thing, but I like the idea of seeing little opportunities and taking advantage of those that are do-able in your life. Transportation is a big expense for many families, so being able to get to and from work for under $15 a week is insanely cheap. After all, I geoarbitraged to save money and to get ahead, not to spend it all on train rides and petrol!

Of course, I’ve been doing this as the mornings are light and the weather is fine. Spring and summer are ideal for early morning starts. It’ll be interesting to see if my resolve crumbles as the winter kicks in. I don’t run the heating overnight and my beautiful hardwood floors are chilly the first thing in the morning…

I’ll keep you posted.



If there’s one thing I absolutely adore about living life in the modern age, it’s getting my commute entertainment and education for free. I have around 10 hours of what could be ‘dead’ time every working week, where I’m either sitting on the train or walking to the station/school/home. Now, if I was a deep, spiritual person who’s sprinting down the Dharmic Path to enlightenment, perhaps I’d be happy to spend those hours with my thoughts squirrelling around inside my head.

Sadly, I need more stimulation. Knitting on the train worked pretty well for a while, but it was when Ryan23 gave me his old headphones that my love for podcasts really took off. I have an old iPad that, up until a few of years ago, was only used as my eBook reader. Tom26, my oldest son, installed the free kindle app on it and away I went.  Then I discovered podcasts through listening to ‘Serial’, like so many others. After that, I circled podcasts cautiously, poking them with a stick, but it wasn’t until I geoarbitraged and moved an hour away from work that podcasts became important.

Again… how lucky are we? All you have to spend money on is your device, whether it be a phone, iPad or computer. Once you’ve set that up, you log onto iTunes, create an account and the world opens up. I don’t know if it’s just me, but it seems as if the number of podcasts has exploded in the last year or so. It seems like every man and his dog is making one. And the crazy thing is that they’re all FREE.

My podcast list changes as I find new things to listen to, but here are some of my tried-and-tested ones that I’ve been listening to for ages. I’d love it if anyone could recommend some that I haven’t come across yet. My FIRE date isn’t for another few years so I have lots of commuting hours in front of me. Here goes:

Finance podcasts:

The Dave Ramsey Show – the quintessential ‘Get out of Debt’ show. I found it really motivating while I was paying off my house, but now I cherry-pick my episodes, all the while hoping for a ‘Millionaire Theme Hour’ to be played.

Mad Fientist – not a huge amount of new material but a wealth of interviews from the past. It’s good to have a FIRE podcast from someone who’s already achieved it.

Choose FI – I was lucky enough to get onto this one pretty soon after it started. The hosts are based in the US, but the vast majority of the material is applicable to Australia as well. This podcast has gone viral in its first year and is a good place to start with FIRE ideas.

The Dough Roller Money podcast – This one’s been going for years. The host gently chats away – sometimes I feel like yelling at him to stop rambling and get a move on! – but it’s a good place to come to if you feel you need information on the basics. He certainly gives you the details you need to know. Just do what I did and scan the episode titles to download the ones that are applicable to you. There’s a LOT to choose from!

So Money with Farnoosh Torabi – I’ve just started listening to this one. She posts a few times a week so I’ve been only downloading those topics and guests that sound interesting to me.

Aussie Firebug – It’s good to see an Australian throwing his hat in the ring. It’s a little bit ‘blokey’ and not entirely relevant to me, but his enthusiasm for the subject of FI is infectious.

The FIRE Drill – I’ve only been listening to this over the last couple of weeks. Initially I had to get used to the banter between the two hosts, but now that I’m familiar with them I’ve warmed up to this podcast. They have some interesting guests.

The Fairer Cents – 2 female US bloggers host this show. I heard Tonya from the blog ‘Our Next Life’ being interviewed on a podcast somewhere and I really liked the way she expressed her philosophy of life. I started reading her blog and now I’ve listened to most episodes of this podcast. It doesn’t get to the point as quickly as most other blogs… lots of chat and catch-ups… but I guess that would make some people feel like they were part of a catch-up session with friends. They talk about some interesting topics and it’s good to have a female perspective.

Humorous podcasts:

Cumberbin’s Treasure- easily the funniest podcast I’ve ever heard. It’s a British BBC production, originally called ‘Cabin Pressure’, about a struggling charter airline company. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Martin. It’s a 3 season show that is SO worth downloading. I’ve laughed out loud on the train.

My Dad Wrote a Porno – Another British podcast that comes a very close second to the one above. Definitely NSFW, this one is roll-in-the-aisles funny. Definitely start from the beginning, back in season 1 episode 1, as you have to follow the adventures of Belinda Blumenthal, an ambitious woman making her way in the fiercely competitive pots and pans industry.


Welcome to Nightvale – How I love Nightvale! Spo, a reader of my personal blog, put me onto Nightvale last year. I binge-listened 3 year’s worth of podcasts, which immersed me into the world of Cecil Baldwin, the man behind the microphone of the Nightvale Community Radio Station. Nightvale is a town that is just a little bit different to the places you and I inhabit…

Alice Isn’t Dead – also made by the people who put ‘Welcome to Nightvale’ together.  So it’s set in a world almost but not quite like our own.

Homecoming – David Schwimmer is on this one. There have been 2 seasons so far and I’m hoping a 3rd comes out. Apparently, there’s going to be a TV series based on this.


Serial – I keep hoping a season 3 will come out so I’ve left it on my iPad. This was the first podcast I listened to. Investigative journalism at its best.

This American Life – Serial comes from the same people. I resisted listening to this one for ages, because of the title. ‘What does being American have to do with me?’ I thought. Once I caved and started listening, I realised I was an idiot. This is a top-quality podcast. Every week they bring out a show on an entirely stand-alone topic, so you never know what’s going to be looked at. It’s hands-down one of my favourite podcasts.

The Infinite Monkey Cage – Science with a huge dollop of comedy. Prof Brian Cox is a regular on the panel, with a mix of scientists, comedians and academics who discuss the topic of the week. Very funny and gets you thinking. Another BBC production.

Trace – this is an Australian podcast, where a journalist looks at an unsolved murder from 1970’s Melbourne and goes back through the evidence. Every now and then there’s an update if anything new comes up. Really intriguing and sometimes horrific stuff.

10 Questions with Adam Zwar – He interviews various celebrities from all different areas and – you guessed it – asks them all the same 10 questions. It’s sometimes fascinating what you find out about how these people value things and how they see the world.

On my list right now that I haven’t yet heard:

The Financial Mentor podcast – I heard this guy being interviewed on ‘Choose FI’ ( I think) and he sounded knowledgeable. Thought I might give this one a go…

Millionaires Unveiled – interviews with millionaires. Could be interesting…?







Frugal Friday: Beans! Past Frogdancer looks after us.

You know how you have a brilliant idea to get healthy and save money by buying heaps of dried beans, lentils and chickpeas and then they sit in your pantry for a decade or so because you’re never organised enough to soak them overnight before cooking them? After all, that’s why God invented canned beans, right?

Here at the Frogdancer house, I’m on a mission to try and get our grocery bill down. I did my figures on our yearly expenditure last year and we spent an average of $230 a week on food for 4 people and 3 small dogs. That’s just under 12K a YEAR if my computer’s calculator is correct.

One of my sons, Evan21, is vegetarian. Before he leaves to go and live in Ballarat to do his uni course, I figure that I should try to use up these beans and lentils I have kicking around. But I can’t see myself being any more “think ahead-y” with the whole soaking of them the night before, so I had to come up with a more user-friendly way to utilise them.

Enter my brilliant Use The Freezer method. Wait until I tell you how it works and you’ll agree. The woman’s a genius…

First off, the last time I used a tin of beans, I weighed how much the beans actually weighed after the brine was drained from the tin. Although the tin says 400g, you really get around 250g of beans.

Then, I grabbed a pack of cannellini beans and threw a saucepan with water on the stove. I let them soak in it for a while, adding water as the beans swelled. Then, after a couple of hours, I cooked them for another couple of hours. Obviously, this is a job well suited for holidays or weekends.

Once cooked, I simply used the scales on my thermomix, grabbed some freezer bags and weighed the beans out into roughly 250g lots. I got 8 ‘tins’ worth of cooked beans out of one 500g pack of dried beans. I’d tell you how much each bag cost me, but it’s been so long since I bought the beans that I seriously have no idea. (Besides… Maths. Ugh.)

Now here’s the brilliant part. Those bags are now sitting in my freezer, ready to be used whenever the fancy takes me. I tested out whether it’d work by making Butter Chicken but with beans instead of chicken. I used 3 bags of beans and followed the directions for the vegetarian option she has in her book.

It was delicious. The beans were the same consistency as if I’d used tinned and we all wolfed it down. I fed my family for far less money than if I’d used chicken and we were all satisfied.

The beauty of using the beans this way is that I only need to be organised ONCE. Once  I’ve set aside the time to get the beans soaked and cooked and they’re bagged and in the freezer, I can be as footloose and fancy-free as I like about menu planning.

Plus the best thing? On our way to FI and FIRE, we can get so focused on the future. It tickles me that I’m not ignoring Past Frogdancer’s efforts and I’m utilising the materials she put in place, even if it’s just a pack of beans. It makes me think that Future Frogdancer, (that wrinkled old crone), will one day look back and thank me for what I’m putting into place now.

It’s all connected.

We have a couple of winners!!

A month ago, just after this blog started, I had a giveaway organised. JL Collins, author of The Simple Path to Wealth, had very kindly given me a couple of copies of his book in Audio form to give away on the blog. All people had to do was comment on the post to be in the running.

Jaybeenz and Barb were the lucky pull-out-of-the-hat winners!

I’d like to thank Jim for his generous gift, as the knowledge that he imparts can change people’s lives. For anyone who’s feeling a bit intimidated by the jargon of investing and who feels a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach when they think about all the stuff you think you should know but don’t – reading The Stock series on his blog is probably the best place to start. I remember finding it a couple of years ago and being so thankful he wrote it. It explains the jargon in layman’s terms and it seems to add about 27 IQ points to your brain after each article.

Then go and buy the book, so you have the information at your fingertips. Some things are US-based, but the vast majority of the information is common to both our countries. In the book, he even gives international readers a ‘head’s up’ when a chapter is just for the US, which is an uncommon gesture and is much appreciated by the rest of us in the world.

Thanks to all those who commented on the post. Back to regular programming tomorrow for Frugal Friday. Cheers!



Lessons from Literature #1 – Laura Ingalls Wilder biography.

I grew up reading the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I have a clear memory of sitting on the front porch when I was in grade 2, reading ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ and being enthralled. I worked my way through the list but got bored when she reached teenage years and I stopped reading them. Fortunately, I picked them up again once I reached high school and devoured the whole series all over again.

I have no idea how often I’ve read these books, but it would be a very large number. Last year my sister Kate scored me in the family Kris Kringle and she went with a friend to a bookshop to get something. Her friend is a reader and was suggesting this novel and that novel while Kate dithered, not knowing what  I’d like. Then she saw this biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and said, “THIS is one Frogdancer will like!”

She was correct. I polished it off in two days. But something struck me as I was reading it. The lessons of personal finance hold true no matter which era you’re living in.

Debt was the scourge of Laura’s married life. It wasn’t until very late in her life that she and her husband, Almanzo, were financially secure. See these quotes from the book about their first farm, which they moved into at the end of ‘These Happy Golden Years’:

  • Before [Almanzo] owned a mowing machine, he had to pay threshers and hire workers to cut his hay and wheat. After selling 95 bushels of wheat and setting another 80 aside for seed, he had ” a little over $40 to live on for another year.” At a time when an unskilled labourer could expect to make over $400 a year, this was unsustainable.
  • Expecting their first child in December, the Wilders now found themselves in financial straits. Notes on the farm machinery were due, and they needed to buy coal for winter and seed for next year’s crop. It was at this moment that Almanzo revealed to his wife the debt on their new house: an additional five hundred dollars that she had not known about. That was a small fortune to them, worth over thirteen thousand dollars today. Laura was crushed by the news.

The danger of counting one’s chickens before they’re hatched is just as dangerous today as it was back then. Carrying too much debt puts people in an incredible risky place. The quote goes on to say:

  • The fact that her husband had kept this debt from her – he hadn’t wanted to bother her with it, he said – comes up again and again in Wilder’s drafts and letters. It affected her deeply, and for many years. It still rankled when she was writing her memoir, Pioneer Girl, in 1930: “I was to learn that we owed $500 on the house, which we were never able to pay until we sold the farm.” In her manuscript from several years later she was even more pointed, squarely placing the blame on her husband and saying that she had started to wonder” how much could she depend on Manly’s judgement.”

Money fights and money issues are supposed to be the biggest reasons people split up. Even though the Wilders stayed together, it’s obvious that this all put an enormous strain on their relationship.

Laura was 19 when all of this was going on. A few years later, her parents Charles and Caroline Ingalls had to make a decision.

  • …Charles Ingalls’ struggles with farming were over. In February 1892, he had sold the De Smet homestead for $1,200 and moved his family to town. The sale, however, dd not represent much of a gain; after the mortgage was subtracted from the total, he was left with $400. Like so many thousands of others, he had succeeded on paper, proving up and claiming the land. But he could not make a living as a farmer. For a man who preferred open, unpopulated spaces, it must have felt like defeat.

Decades later, their granddaughter wrote about them at this stage of their lives:

  • It may have seemed, Rose wrote later, that calamities had befallen the Ingalls at every turn, but she recalled them as sublimely content with their lot. “The truth is that they didn’t expect much in this world”, she wrote, “and they just shed thankfulness around them for what they had.”

Being content and thankful for what you have, instead of fruitlessly wishing for things that can never be, is key to living a happy life. By all means, strive for things that you want, but also notice and focus on the people and things around you. It makes you far happier, and also probably far nicer to be around!

When recessions/depressions hit, people go bananas:

  • “Ruin seems to be impending over all,” Henry Adams wrote at the beginning of the Panic of 1893…”If you owe money, pay it; if you are owed money, get it; if you can economise, do it; and if anyone can be induced to buy anything, sell it. Everyone is in a blue fit of terror and each individual thinks himself more ruined than his neighbour.”
  • He was thinking of his own social class, but no person in America would instinctively heed that counsel more closely than Laura Wilder. Over the coming years, struggling with the constraints of poverty, she would step by cautious step seize control of their circumstances. She would prove adept not merely at penny-pinching, but at finding ingenious ways to generate income, husband their minuscule resources, and protect their assets. As in the schoolyard, she would assume the role of leader, guiding the family on the long and taxing climb to security.

I love this quote. Anyone who’s been in the position of having to scrape together every penny and slowly haul the family out of the pit of poverty will find that this resonates. I’ve had my experience with it and I tip my hat to Laura and her grit and determination.

Forty years later, Laura had a similar economic situation to live through. The economy moves in cycles. This time, she showed that she had learned from her previous experiences.

  • “… the economic apocalypse was upon them. In the first week of 1933, [Laura] scraped together all the money she could find and paid off the outstanding balance on the federal farm loan on Rocky Ridge: $811.65c. This time, no matter what happened, she would not lose the farm. She was left with around $50 in cash.

I had a similar experience when I paid off our first house. I logged on one morning and realised I had $10 more in savings than I had owing on the mortgage. I knew we’d have a lean few months until I built my emergency fund back up again, but I couldn’t resist the siren call of being debt-free. Both Laura and I were looking for security for our families.

However, by 1939 the Wilders’ financial affairs had stabilised, thanks in no small part to Laura’s side hustle of writing the ‘Little House’ books.

  • While continuing to economise by writing on the backs of old letters and burning wood rather than running the furnace, [Laura] was finally achieving a sense of security. She told her daughter that she had escaped from the nightmare that once troubled her: “I haven’t gone alone down that long, dark road I used to dream of, for a long time,” she wrote. “The last time I saw it stretching ahead of me, I said in my dream,’ But I don’t have to go through those dark woods, I don’t have to go that way. ‘ And I turned away from it. We are living inside our income and I don’t have to worry about the bills.”

However, it wasn’t all fun and games. The Wilders had only one child, their daughter Rose. Over time, they fell into a bewildering financial spider’s web with loans and payments and counter-loans gradually sinking into a chaotic mess:

  • Earning a salary from the Red Cross and income as a freelancer, [Rose] made a commitment to her parents to furnish them with a payment of $500 a year, so they could retire from farm work… How badly they needed it is difficult to judge, in the absence of almost any records dealing with the Wilders’ finances. [Laura] was fifty-three, working at two paying jobs. Almanzo, with his disability, doubtless finding it increasingly arduous to plough, care for livestock and do the hundred other tasks involved in maintaining farm equipment, fields and fruit trees. Certainly they needed money, but they may not have required that much. Indeed, they pointed out to [Rose] that they had a comfortable home and plenty to eat.

I suppose it’s nice that her heart was in the right place. However, Rose’s money management skills were appallingly bad. She ranged from what seems like insane levels of expenditure when times were good to living like a pauper when the funds ran out. She’d send money to her parents, (often moaning bitterly about it in letters to friends, even though it was all her idea to do so), and then she’d borrow back money from her parents. By 1924:

  • By this point, the question of who was supporting whom was hopelessly entangled. It was becoming impossible for the Wilders or their daughter to extricate themselves, even if they wanted to.

I guess the lesson here is to not lend money to family, or go guarantor on loans. It can get very messy and can ruin what should be close family relationships. Don’t over-commit yourself financially to anything, no matter how generous you want to be. Unlike Rose, make sure your own financial house is in order before you try and help anyone else.

Thankfully, after a lifetime of struggle, both the Ingalls family and the Wilder family ended their lives in peace and security. ‘Prairie Fires’ by Caroline Fraser not only looks at Laura’s life, but Fraser broadens the focus by looking at the economic, social and political events that were happening at the time, and how all of this impacted Laura’s life. It’s a very interesting read, but it certainly makes me glad I was born here and now, and not back then. Life was a lot tougher!