Frugal Living Doesn't Mean Doing Without

With an average annual income of $6,500 for a family of six, the Huff family built their own homes, took budget vacations and sent the children to college.
By Darrell Huff
January/February 1970

The Huffs were able to build their own home (complete with a swimming pool), travel internationally and send their children to college on an annual income averaging less than 6,500 dollars.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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A few years ago an old friend from the East Coast came to visit us. He enjoyed his stay in our modern country house, roamed our wooded hills, rode our saddle horses, swam in our pool and sunned himself on the terrace of our guest cottage. One evening after dinner — there was wine from a neighboring vineyard — we projected some color pictures of a recent trip to Mexico. This led to lively talk about the year we were soon to spend traveling in Europe. A refugee from a crowded New York City apartment, our guest was obviously impressed with our way of life. In fact, when he got home, he sent us a letter larded with envy.

"You had led me to believe you were a poor man," he wrote. "Now I know you have been deceiving me. However, I forgive you because I was glad to catch a glimpse of how a millionaire lives."

My wife Fran and our two youngest daughters were sitting before the picture window in our living room as I read this letter to them. When I got to the word "millionaire," my daughters burst into giggles. I looked at my wife. Her face was serious. "Shall I disillusion him?" I asked.

As most women, Fran seldom answers a question directly. "The funny thing is that it's all true," she said. "We do have these things, and we do take those trips. In fact, I'm not sure that we don't come closer to living like the rich than the rich do these days."

Sixteen Years of Frugal Living

She was right. Fran, my four daughters and myself have for the past 16 years lived the life of millionaires — at least in most of the ways that we think count. We've had a handsome home in one of the loveliest parts of California. We've had plenty of space to move around in. We've had animals, we've had a pool, we've had many months of foreign travel. And we've sent two daughters to college.

But the curious thing about all this — and it's hard to make people believe it — is that during this time our total income has averaged less than $6,500 a year. As it happens, that figure is close to the average for American families. What's more, we have not supplemented our income by dipping into capital. We've never had much to dip into.

How have we done it? To answer that question, I must go back to the beginning to New York City in 1946 — just after the Second World War. I suppose the whole thing got started because I developed a habit of grinding my teeth in my sleep. I was an editor at the time. I was also a typical entry in The Rat Race. I had two daughters then (Kay was eight, and Carolyn six), and in an uncomfortable gray-flannel suit I used to commute daily to my desk, where I earned $8,500 a year. Weekends I lugged home a briefcase bulging with manuscripts to be read. My blood pressure has always been low, and so has my physical energy. The Race was taking its toll. One night when the teeth grinding was particularly ominous, my wife woke me. "This has got to stop," she said.

I thought she meant the teeth grinding, and I agreed. But it turned out she had other things in mind. "Let's get away from all this," she said. "You can go back to freelancing."

"You don't mean it," I said.

"Yes, I do."

Freelance writing and photography had supported me through college, but I knew it was a precarious way of earning a living. Besides, I now had a wife and children to support. I could probably earn a bare subsistence for them as a freelance, but little more. My wife said it didn't make any difference. "If there are to be any luxuries in our life, we'll just figure out a way to have them without much money," she said optimistically. I don't think she believed it at the time, but nevertheless that's what happened.

We decided to move to California and build our own house. Stiffening for our backbones was supplied by our neighbor, Paul Corey, novelist and pioneer do-it-yourself advocate, who promised to bring his family to join us the next year. We bought a secondhand trailer for $900 and attached it to the back of our 1941 sedan. We shipped a few personal possessions on ahead and lugged a few with us. Most of our belongings we sold. When we pulled out of New York City, we had about $4,000 in cash.

With our limited funds, we had little time to waste in finding a place to settle. Consequently, when we saw a section north of San Francisco known as the Valley of the Moon, we didn't hesitate. It was only five miles from Sonoma, where there were good schools, good doctors and good shopping, which we considered essential. We found 10 stony acres with a beautiful view of the California foothills, and we quickly bought them for $1,500. We parted with another $1,000 for a well and a pump. Parking our trailer on the grounds, we entered the kids in school and started to clear the property for our house.

I lost no time in unpacking my typewriter. Our cash reserves were down to about $1,000, and I had to put in a fair amount of time each day writing. Whenever I wasn't writing, I worked on the house.

Up to that time, my biggest construction project had been a bookcase and dining-room table. I found a house easier to build. Tolerances on a home can be fairly large — as much as a quarter of an inch; cabinetwork calls for more precision. Of course there is no comparison in the satisfaction one gets from the larger job. With hammer, saw, pipe wrench and sweat, I was able to create a home for my family. It was a heady experience, and it sustained me during the long hours of work, both building and writing.

"Toughest Day in My Life"

I don't mean that I did it entirely alone. My family helped, and we had a small amount of hired assistance. We began by clearing the brush. No experts were necessary for that. Then we laid down a long concrete slab the length of the house. For this we hired three temporarily unemployed carpenters.

We originally planned to build a frame house but could not, because of the lumber shortage. Instead we threw up concrete blocks, which were cheap, durable, fireproof — and unrationed. We put in huge picture windows that gave breathtaking views of the mountains beyond. And to frame those windows, we bought some cheap but hefty redwood timbers from an old mansion being torn down. The day a trucker and I sorted, loaded, trucked and unloaded that wood was physically the toughest day in my life.

I had drawn a rough plan for the house, but I knew nothing about construction codes. Fortunately we were so far from town that there were none to worry about. In fear of building an unsafe shelter for my family, I went far beyond most codes in providing strength and safety — though I didn't know it until one Sunday morning when my neighbor, a plumber and construction man, came to watch me placing steel reinforcing in the walls. "If we have an earthquake and tidal wave," he remarked consolingly, "you can be sure your home won't break up. It will just float away in one piece."

Roughing it Like Royalty 

Gradually our house began to take shape. I hired $75 in labor to lay down soil lines and a sewage system, an aspect of plumbing I didn't want to try myself. I hired a local handyman to build a massive fireplace that would take four-foot logs. All told, hired labor cost us $500. The kids dug holes, carried blocks and learned to swing a hammer well enough to nail on roof boards. Fran laid blocks, tooled joints and did all the painting. And the more we did, the more we learned.

Five months after we reached California, we had a house of sorts. It lacked partitions, the interior was unfinished overhead and underfoot, but it was fit to live in. And after living for months in the trailer, it was exhilarating to move into a real house — with a huge fireplace, a wall of glass facing those glorious mountains, and bedrooms for all of us. After we'd carried our suitcases across the threshold, we built an enormous fire in the fireplace and settled back to enjoy it. The refinements could come later. We had a home of our own at last, and we felt like royalty.

During all this time, of course, I continued to pound away at my typewriter, keeping our income at a subsistence level or a little better. It wasn't long before our family grew to five, and then six. And as we grew, the house grew. We kept right on building, adding a bedroom, a sitting room, finally a study.

It took us about 11 years to finish the house, and we enjoyed watching it grow slowly but surely. During those 11 years we never had to borrow any money for the house. All told, we put into it about $1,000 a year, roughly what we might have paid in rent. That was a good deal less than we had been paying for a house in the New York area, and the nice thing about our new setup was that all our money (and our labor) was going to build an equity. In the end, that equity consisted of a house of 1,300 square feet, plus two big porches, a carport, a shop, a detached study and darkroom and a guesthouse. If we had bought it, we figured it would have cost at least $22,000, or twice the amount of cash we'd put into it. And we had no mortgage.

There were unexpected dividends along the way. Other people came out and admired what we were doing and wanted some of our land. We decided to part with a few acres, selling them for what our whole tract had originally cost. And so, in the end, our land cost us nothing.

Part of that windfall we put into a swimming pool. Acquiring a pool can be a backbreaking expense, but for us it merely meant flexing a few muscles. By this time we had learned the shortcuts.

The excavation was a pick-and-shovel job shared with the Coreys, now our neighbors again. It occupied all of us for weekends during several months. We had to buy concrete and steel, but we put the materials in place ourselves, plastering the concrete onto the sloping earth sides. We brought the whole thing in, for less than $400, and to us it looked as inviting as Waikiki.

And now — about those saddle horses. Actually we owned only one: a mare that we purchased for $7. But the Coreys bought a horse at the same time, and we decided to share them, so we both felt as though we owned two horses.

Having the mare prompted us to build a stable. When it was finished, our horse scorned it. At first the structure became a playroom; eventually it evolved into a two-room apartment for our older girls. And when they went to college, it entered a new career as a guest cottage.

College, incidentally, turned out to be far less of an obstacle than we'd feared. We knew that a year at a good girls' college could run to almost half what our annual income had been during most years, but Kay won a scholarship that took care of one third of her expenses. Another third was taken care of by a college job, plus summer work. We put up $700 each year she was at Mills College, no more than it takes to keep a youngster at home and send her to high school.

Long before Kay had started college our family had entered upon a new and important phase of millionaire living — foreign travel. It started with a trip to Mexico. In 1955 we had almost a decade of California life behind us, and our house was all but finished. We were tired of being in one place, and the rest of the world beckoned. But how to travel on our budget with four kids?

Taking a Bargain Vacation 

For a while we were stumped. Then it came to us: Why not apply our do-it-yourself principles and camp our way across Mexico! A bargain fell into our laps via the advertising columns of our local newspaper. We acquired a camping trailer, with kitchen facilities and an attachable tent. It cost $175, but we got this sum back when we resold it at the end of the trip.

We slept and cooked in our midget rig and had no need for hotels or restaurants. What had looked like an expensive venture turned out to cost just about what it would have cost us to stay home. Our two months' trip ran to just under $800.

The Mexican journey piqued our appetites for travel abroad. After two years we could stand it no longer; in 1957 we left California for a year's trip to Europe.

After camping across the country and selling our station wagon in New Jersey, we sailed for Rotterdam in July, tourist class, on the handsome new Statendam. The fare was $237.5 each, with half price for our two younger daughters. But with that large expenditure out of the way, we found that travel in Europe need be no more expensive than in Mexico.

We picked up a used Volkswagen Microbus, and spent the whole summer camping — in Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal, plus a side trip to North Africa. We bought our food in grocery stores (equivalent to U.S. prices in France and Italy, but less elsewhere), and, instead of rent, paid camping fees. Charges ranged from $0.25 a night in a few places to $1.50 in Paris, Rome and the Riviera.

When the weather got chilly, we gave up camping for a series of rented houses, all of them near the sea. We had houses that winter in Majorca, Torremolinos and Naples. Rents averaged $60 to $80 a month, and food $40 to $45 a week, about one dollar a day per person.

Studying the Easy Way 

Our youngsters missed a year in school — no great loss, really. We brought along school books for Laurie and Kristy, who were in the third and fifth grades. It was a bit alarming to discover that by studying only an hour or two a day they were easily able to keep up with the work of a better-than-average American public school.

Our eldest daughter delayed her college work by a year, but picked up a bonus — studying French in Europe. What she'd learned in France met two years of her language requirement.

As for Carolyn, our second daughter, the year turned out to be a decisive one for her education. She fell in love with Spain. She kept a sketchbook and polished her Spanish and, when she later entered the University of California, she majored in Spanish and minored in art.

Our stay abroad ended in September, 1958, when we returned home just in time for school. Looking back on it, Fran and I were convinced it was one of the most valuable educational experiences we could have given our children.

That trip, however, didn't satisfy our wanderlust; we soon began planning another itinerary. This week Kristy, Laurie, Fran and I will return to Paris. We'll pick up a car there and head for Greece and some of the Iron Curtain countries. Expenses shouldn't exceed $15 per day although we may run into some occasional discomforts.

As a matter of fact, our whole do-it-yourself way of living has frequent drawbacks. For one thing, there aren't many steaks in our diet. We seldom can afford the luxury of dining out. We also lack the money to buy even one tenth of the books we'd like; we have to wait until we can borrow them at the library.

Freelancing -— whether it's as a writer, plumber, electrician or carpenter — also has its drawbacks. We never knew exactly what our income was going to be. Some years it fell as low as $4,000, some years it soared above $8,000. It averaged under $6,500 and, when I subtracted business expenses the net came to a good deal less.

With that kind of money, we had to be canny shoppers. We read the grocery ads for weekend specials, and we began our Christmas shopping with the January sales. We did a bit of installment buying, but mostly we stuck to cash.

Our income limitations made us more closefisted in our charity contributions than we liked, but here again we decided to make up for it with a do-it-yourself approach. Since we couldn't give money, we gave ourselves. I have worked hard on school-building committees. Last year Fran devoted an afternoon a week to supervising the school library, and this year she has worked as an unpaid grader of high-school English papers.

In general, most of the drawbacks have been slight in our eyes, and we have done all the major things we really wanted to do. We have always wanted, for example, to live by the sea. Consequently we reached a big decision: to sell our house. In view of all the muscle strain, sweat and bashed fingers we had put into it, parting with the house was wrenching. But the pull of the sea was strong, and so was the itch to get building again.

We sold our Sonoma Valley place, along with several acres, for $19,000. Then we put $5,000 into two exciting acres of land — a blend of pinewoods and sand dunes overlooking a magnificent stretch of seacoast on the Monterey Peninsula. The rest of the money was just about what we needed for the concrete and lumber and glass and all the other things you need to build a house.

Our second house is now virtually complete. And although our brood of children has become smaller — the two older girls have already married — our new home has become larger. With its double garage, it comes to some 3,000 square feet. It has four bedrooms, a study, three baths and a hexagonal living room that looks directly over the Pacific.

Assessing the past few years, we feel our children have certainly thrived on our way of living. Last June our second daughter, Carolyn, finished college free of debt. Kay is now taking part-time graduate work along with her husband, who plans to be a college teacher. Kristy and Laurie show promise as students, and their aptitude, combined with the self-reliance they have learned from building and travel, makes us feel that college will not be a problem for them.

Our Surprising Assets 

Of course, we never seem to have any money. However, when we examine our balance sheet, it's apparent that we have achieved a position no worse than most. In fact, when I filed a financial statement at our bank recently, I was surprised to find how much our assets amounted to:

  • Value of house (compared with building costs in neighborhood): $35,000
  • Value of land: $10,000
  • Adjoining acre (two lots): $8,000
  • Five acres left in Sonoma Valley: $5,000
  • Investment (7 percent first deed of trust): $2,000
  • Auto: $2,000
  • Tools, photography equipment, furnishings, personal property: $2,600

That all sums to up to $64,600. The interesting thing about our balance sheet is that it shows roughly 10 times the net worth I could have claimed when we left New York City 16 years ago.

But if the balance sheet is gratifying, it's only fair to admit that we didn't really plan it that way. All we planned was to live the way we really wanted. Seldom — when we were building, or traveling, or studying, or riding horseback, or swimming, or just loafing — did we think much about money. In fact, if we thought about it at all, we felt we had discovered something far better.


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