Amy Suardi recently started growing some of her family’s food. On many days, she can be found with her children in the front yard of her home in Tenleytown, tending their edible garden. Later, the family might make pizzas (using herbs they’ve grown), tidy up the house (with cleaning supplies they’ve made), watch a DVD (TV programs are not permitted) or play games the children invented.
While Suardi, 42, has fashioned a lifestyle for her family that is reminiscent of a slower, less stressful era, she is also decidedly 21st century: She blogs about her life, and gets paid for it.
“I don’t make a lot of money, but the trade-off is that I can be home with the kids,” she says. “I can also make dinner every night and take care of the house.”
For Suardi, thrifty living is at the heart of the life she craves. On her blog, Frugal Mama, she shares her experiences, offering insight on creating a high-quality life on a small budget.
Her expertise, she says, is based on learning to live on a shoestring since college, first as a single young woman in New York, then as the wife of a doctor in training.
“My philosophy,” she says, “is about finding the fun in saving and keeping life simple so we have time for what’s important.”
With her husband, Enrico, now working full time after recently completing his medical training, and with Suardi earning money by writing, the couple has more income than ever before. However, they are also both in their mid-40s, have four children (ages 10, 8, 4 and 1), almost no money in retirement and a 100-year-old house that needs work.
For Suardi to remain an “at-home working mother” while they bulk up their retirement savings, the family cuts corners wherever possible: The children attend public schools and co-ops and wear secondhand clothing. The adults drive used cars and use pay-as-you-go cellphones. They clean their own home, shop at thrift stores, don’t have cable, walk instead of drive when they can and eat most of their meals at home.
“We live frugally out of necessity, but I would continue to do so even if I had a lot of money,” says Suardi. “Being frugal has led me on interesting paths and made us a better, closer family.”
It all started out of conflict.
In 2001, the Suardis had recently married and were living in Italy. Enrico worked and attended medical school; Suardi taught English part time. After a disagreement over finances, Suardi drew up a spreadsheet.
“I wanted to prove that I wasn’t needlessly spending, and it ended up showing us what we made, what things cost and how it all adds up,” she says. “It made us accountable.”
They discussed their needs (food, rent, household items), their goals (a home, a family, satisfying careers) and the big changes that were looming: children, a move back to the States and additional training for Enrico. Then, they started putting systems into place that would allow them the lifestyle they imagined.
First, they cut back on eating out and weekend travel. Then they decided that whenever Suardi made money, it would immediately go into savings. They established this practice, she says, to avoid a lifestyle that would need two incomes to maintain.
One of the cost-saving systems Suardi swears by today is online grocery shopping. Not only does it save time and make it easier to resist temptation, she says, but you can track your spending while you shop and remove items if you go over budget. And because she isn’t stressed by toting her two younger kids in a store, she has time to make good decisions. All of that, she says, makes it more than worth the delivery fee.
“Setting up systems takes time and effort, but they make life easier,” she says. “Everyone wants instant gratification, but there’s something gratifying and satisfying about being in control, too.”
But even Suardi admits that maintaining control and meeting the standards she has worked hard to put in place is a “constant battle.” Whether she’s resisting requests from her older children for fewer chores or an iPod Touch, or talking herself out of spending more on home renovations (a personal weakness, she says), staying the course requires dedication.
And, yes, sometimes she splurges.
The 14-foot-long sliding board they are having built onto the new balcony on the back of the house and the $1,000 farmhouse-style dining table Suardi fell in love with weren’t exactly cost-saving decisions.
“That’s why we’re frugal,” she says. “When something comes up that we really want to spend on, we have the money for it. . . . I think people should feel okay about spending on things that are deeply satisfying to them.”
Since moving into their two-bedroom home last summer, the Suardis have made a few changes to accommodate their large family. They hired people to tear down bookshelves in the entry and build two closets. The attic was converted into an extra bedroom and office space. And they had a rotted deck removed for more play space in the back yard.
The remodeling is about providing a haven for her family, says Suardi, so spending the extra money is worth it.
“Being frugal isn’t about depriving yourself,” she says. “It’s about spending where your heart is.”