While I clearly don’t have a large family, I grew up in one (I’m the oldest of four children and my grandmother has lived with my parents since I was a baby). While my parents were frugal to a degree, ecofrugality wasn’t a huge focus when I was a kid. We learned about nature and conservation, but the intentionality with sustainability came as I got older (as it’s been with my parents as well).

My experience now with raising an only child is quite different, and I don’t have experience with ecofrugality in a larger family, or at least not one where I make the decisions. So today I have Mr. GovWorker sharing his family’s story about living ecofrugally while raising a larger family. Three children may not have been considered “large” a few generations ago, it feels pretty large now, when many families are choosing to having just one or two children – or none at all.

Ecofrugality is something everyone can strive for, though it will look differently depending on your personal circumstances. To share a different perspective today, I’m handing the rest of this post over to Mr. GovWorker.

Ps – this was written pre-COVID, so some comments about commuting and the like may not be as relevant right now, it’s worth considering for when life goes back to “normal” – we also have time right now to consider how we want that future to look like now that we’ve been forced to take a step back with so many things.

When I first started blogging, I started to learn about all of the “other” FIRE blogs that existed. I remember being so excited the first time I ran across Angela’s blog on Twitter. “Tread lightly, retire early”? That could have been my own motto. Like Angela, my day job involves improving energy efficiency in buildings– and it’s become a major passion of mine. As a parent, I try to be conscious of the fact that every time I waste energy, it’s a little bit less energy that my kids and grand-kids will have.

In short, I was incredibly honored that Angela invited me to write a guest post on her blog. My original plan was to share all of the ways that we’re both eco-friendly and thrifty as a “large” family with 3 kids (i.e. our ecofrugal large family).

Our family

Mrs. GovWorker and I have been married for 15 years, and I got married at the very young age of 22. We have 3 kids, ages 12, 8, and 4. Personally, I don’t feel that a family of five counts as a “large family”. However, when I look around, we’re bigger than most of the families I see so I’m calling ourselves a large family for this post. (I conducted a Twitter poll, and the survey says that we are large).

If you would have told teenage me that I’d be the father of a large family, I would have laughed in your face– I was pretty sure that I *never* wanted to have children. But my love has grown as my family has grown and I couldn’t imagine I’d be as happy with any other family configuration.

Can a large family be ecofrugal?

You would think that being a large family disqualifies us from being ecofrugal. Don’t more people take more resources? Yes and no. There’s a lot of research showing that there is not a strong correlation between the number of people in the household and how many resources they use.

For example, this study of Portland residents showed that water use was more related to income than occupancy (with richer people using more water). I only bring this up to show that having 3 kids doesn’t necessarily make us any more or less ecofrugal than families of 1-5 kids.

This post is about how our family of five lives as thrifty and eco-friendly as we can. And not just that, but to show that our ecofrugal choices bring joy to our family. I want to explicitly state that in absolutely no way am I trying to advocate for big or small families. You do you. This post is about our family. Just like many things in life, part of living an ecogrugal life is cards you’ve been dealt (# of kids) and part of it is how you play them (choices you make).

Frugal family vs. Ecofrugal family

We’ve always been a frugal family. We got married as I was wrapping up my undergraduate degree and starting grad school. Things were very tight until we had our first child. Then we had to pay for daycare. After we finally raised our income again after that we had another kid and more daycare. A lot of FIRE bloggers talk about lifestyle inflation– having a kid is the ultimate form of irreversible lifestyle inflation.

While our early years were marked by living frugally, we weren’t always an ecofrugal family. We lived in an inexpensive house that was far away from our jobs. Because of our location, we drove to work (although we often carpooled).

Mrs. GovWorker was also an excellent couponier. This was before the show about people with extreme coupons. Back in those days, Mrs. GovWorker could get many of our groceries for free by playing the coupon game. However, this required that she bought multiple products that produced an “overage” where they paid you money to take the item out of the store. These items were often highly packaged and highly prepared foods we rarely ate, often donated, and sometimes were thrown out.

Part of me feels a little guilty when I think about some of the wasteful things we did when we were younger. However, it was a great way for us to do well financially during tough times. Only after our financial situation improved we were able to move from being “frugal” to “ecofrugal”.

Transportation

If you’ve ever read one of my “Money Well Spent” monthly spending recaps, you know that I track (or try to track) every mile we drive in our family car. Last year we spent about $1,500 on our Gas & Auto category that includes insurance and car maintenance. The truth is that we drive as little as possible.

Mrs. GovWorker and I both bike to work every day. Even in the grueling Wisconsin winters. We suit up in ski goggles and reflective jackets worn on construction sites and jump on bicycles with studded snow tires for 5 months of the year.

Our bike commuting is a great example of being ecofrugal. Not only are we not burning dinosaurs to get to work, but we’re saving a lot of money. A parking spot at Mrs. GovWorker’s work costs ~$1,200 per year. (For a 8ft by 16ft piece of asphalt).

Biking as a Family

We don’t just bike to work. In fact, biking is our main mode of family transportation most of the year (except in the dead of winter). We own a cargo bike. Buying the electric cargo bike was one of the best investments we’ve ever made. The kids love riding on it. And we love not having to deal with traffic or parking. You can read more about how great your life gets after you buy a cargo bike on my blog.

Our kids are also very into bicycling. All three started riding balance bikes at the age of two and were riding pedal bikes by the time they were four.

Our favorite way to get around

Our ecofrugal large family car

Yes, it’s possible to have three kids and not drive an SUV or a minivan. For several years our only car was a Toyota Corolla with three car seats in back. (Yes, it’s possible). However, our kids hate riding in the car (possibly because it’s a rare occurrence).

3 kids in the back of the Corolla was no fun for anyone

Because they hate riding in cars, each car trip eventually turned into a hostage situation where one of the three kids would threaten to punch their sister unless we changed the radio, rolled down the window, or basically any whim they had. It was torture.

Eventually, we upgraded to a Mazda5. This is the perfect car for our family. There are three rows of seats, but it’s still a car. And it’s not super big. The three rows of seats insures that none of the girls can touch any of her sisters. This has resulted in much less fighting and fewer gray hairs for Mrs. GovWorker and I.

The Mazda5 allows people not to touch each other in the car

In the house

The best way we’re living as an ecofrugal family is by living in a “small” house by American standards. The average new home in the US is 2,600 square feet and the average US family has 1.9 kids- so roughly 670 square feet per person. Our family lives in a 1,500 square foot house for only 300 square feet per person— about 55% less space per person than average.

That’s 55% less space to heat in the winter and cool in the summer. And it has much less embodied energy than a McMansion. I’m not going to say it’s easy living in a small space. Sometimes I wish I could isolate each kid in their own wing of the house. But overall we make it work.

And while we live in a small house by American standards, we lived as a family in Zürich and Copenhagen and know that a 1,500 square foot living space would be incredibly large in those metropolises.

Water & electricity

I’ve been psuedo-obsessed about minimizing our water and energy expenses. I managed to hack our electric hot water heater so it only heats water during off-peak time* and I built a cool circuit to measure our own hot water use.

We save a lot electricity by only using cold water to wash our clothes and never using our clothes dryer. By examining our monthly electric bills, I concluded that our clothes dryer was responsible for 25% of our electricity use. Giving up the clothes dryer saves us both money and saves the planet. (Clothes dryers are weird- aren’t they? We put all of this effort into getting our clothes completely wet only to put them in another machine to make them dry again?)

*Sidenote- we are one of the only residential customers at our utility to use Time of Use (TOU) metering. Our electric company doesn’t advertise it, but they do offer residents the opportunity to “opt-in” to TOU metering. We pay a lot for electricity during the day when businesses and factories need electricity. In return, we have extremely cheap electricity on nights and weekends (when we’re home and using it!)! Our TOU metering saves us about 25% on our total electric bill. (Which is frugal, but not as ecofrugal as not using electricity ever).

Other ways we save

As someone that lives energy efficiency every day, there are a lot of things we do that I just assume everyone is doing. I felt silly writing them out but then realized that maybe someone reading this might learn something new. So here’s a few bullet points about how we minimize water and electricity by:

  • Installing an ultra-low flow shower head. Not only does the shower head save us money every time we use it but I got it free from our utility company.
  • Replacing light fixtures with ones that had built-in LED bulbs and/or replaced our CFL lightbulbs with LEDs. (Don’t talk to me if you’re still using incandescent lights).
  • Only turning on our air conditioner right before bed at night and try to not run it on “on-peak” time if at all possible.
  • We use cloth napkins and we never buy paper towels.

In the kitchen

If you’ve read my blog, you know that I write a lot about our grocery budget. We feed our family of 5 on a gluten free, mostly vegetarian diet for less than $1.25 per person per meal. (And some months we do it for less than $1.00). According to the USDA, a family of my size should spend at least $882 per month on groceries for the “thriftiest” of shoppers and a median family of our size would spend $1,225 per month. The reality is that we only spent $430 in February, 2020– about a third of what the average family spends.

Everybody keeps asking us how we do it. And we do it by being an ecofrugal family.

  • We avoid pre-packaged food as if it were filled with plutonium.
  • we buy bulk gluten free flour and gluten free oats in 25-50 pound packages and store them in the basement in 5 gallon pails until we need them.
  • Mrs. GovWorker cooks all of our food from scratch without recipes. (She is truly amazing). By not using the recipe, she’s able to just combine what we have on hand in the kitchen into dinner. (I equate Mrs. GovWorker’s ability to turn random items in our pantry in the dinner to Jesus’s ability to turn water into wine or feeding thousands of people with 5 loaves and 2 fishes. It is that miraculous folks. Did I mention I won the spousal lottery???)
  • We also only plan 3-4 dinners per week. The remainder of the schedule is filled with leftovers, re-purposed leftovers, or “picnic” where we put random food items on the table and the kids fight over what’s best.

The result of all of these kitchen miracles is that we’re able to eat very frugally and with minimal impact on the planet. However, it’s not as if these things aren’t without cost. Mrs. GovWorker is constantly mentally cycling through the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer to come up with our next meal. And she spends eons of geological time cooking. As they say, there’s no free lunch– you can either eat healthily, cheaply, or easily but not all three.

Benefits of living as an ecofrugal family

So hopefully by now you can tell we’re an ecofrugal large family. However, I haven’t shown you any benefits of living as an ecofrugal family. Maybe you think that Mrs. GovWorker and I are stingy misers who eschew all spending and want our kids to suffer. That’s not the case!

If I had to describe our family in one word it would be “joyful”. Don’t get me wrong, as with any real family, we have our share of arguments. Our kids punch each other and call each other silly names and Mrs. GovWorker and I are often exhausted keeping up with everything. But our family has a positive vibe and other people can see it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten parenting compliments from strangers at church or the grocery store about what a lovely family we have.

We are a joyful, ecofrugal family

So what does being a large ecofrugal family have to do with being a joyful family that others want to emulate? I don’t have any peer reviewed, scientific research to show you, but here are some of my thoughts:

A short list of why I love being an ecofrugal family

  • Living ecofrugally means we are living well below what we can afford. Mrs. GovWorker and I don’t fight about money and the kids never have to worry about money and/or parental stability. (Yes, we are extremely privileged to be able to live ecofrugally. On the other hand, we have peers that make so much more than us yet are living paycheck to paycheck).
  • Living ecofrugally means that we take time to enjoy family experiences. We never “shop” as an activity and the kids are hardly ever in stores. Instead, we spend a lot of time as a family riding bikes or hanging out at the playground. Our lives are much more about doing rather than having.
  • We make a conscious effort to minimize toys. Our kids would much rather put on a play or perform a dance or comedy routine for each other or us than interact with an object. I’m not sure if that’s because our kids are genetically inclined to hate Legos. Or, if the fact we never made a big deal about toys made the kids decide to create their own games. (For the record, I loved Legos as a kid and am a little sad nobody wants to play Legos with me). No matter the reason, we’re a boisterous family that loves interacting with each other in dramatic fashion. (Except for poor Mrs. GovWorker who is an introvert who hates loud noises- I’m sure the kids and I have taken years off of her life with our antics).

I’m convinced everyone wants what’s best for their children. We all just have different ideas about how to best achieve that. Mrs. GovWorker and I feel strongly that our ecofrugal lifestyle is best for our family. And while it’s certainly brought our family a lot of joy, it’s not the only way to raise a family. If you saw one or two ideas you liked, hopefully you can try them out and they’ll bring some joy to your family as they have ours.

Mr. GovWorker

15 thoughts on “How to be Ecofrugal with a Large Family

  1. Great guest post! It’s funny how you were less able to be ecofrugal when your income was lower because I see so much waste with wealthier families – your statistic on water usage correlating to wealth corresponds to my anecdotal perception on overall waste, but I have no idea if it’s true.

    I had to laugh at your 3 girls in the backseat of the car because that was me with my two brothers growing up, only my parents never upgraded to a minivan or anything.

    It’s so true about how people in other countries live comfortably in smaller spaces and it’s normal for them, whereas we struggle. How is that?!

    Thanks for featuring GovWorker, Angela!

    1. Hi Katie! Thanks for leaving a comment. I agree that I’ve observed that I’ve seen wealthier families waste more. But I think for our family, when we were scraping by early in our marriage, it was all about the cash money and if we could get free cereal by buying a bunch of cough syrup that was negative $5 after coupons, then we “bought” a crapload of cough syrup to get free groceries. Life’s better now. And we’re trying to be more generous to the planet and other people now that we have some wiggle room in our lives. 🙂

  2. There’s a lot to learn here. I think a great place for people to start is the size of their house. I watched a documentary about minimalism that said most people use only 40% of the space in their homes. That’s a lot of wasted space to heat, pay taxes and mortgage payments on, etc. Our family of 4 lives comfortably in 1,500 square feet and I can honestly say we use 100% of our space. We resisted the urge to buy a bigger house when our kids were small and it was one of the smartest decisions we ever made.

    1. 1350 sq ft for us had been plenty, and then covid happened. Ha. Sure could use a separate office.

      1. Yeah- I wrote this pre-COVID. There have been rough days where I cursed our moderately sized house and wished I lived in a McMansion where I could have some space to myself. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. And there are no McMansions in my awesome neighborhood. All-in-all it’s great.

  3. I just did some research from my utility. It appears that I may also be able to do off peak metering. Thank you for encouraging me to look into this!

  4. I love this, thanks for sharing! My partner and I are starting to look into more ways we can be sustainable with our choices. We cut out most meat at home, which also helped with our grocery bill (although we still need to come down in that area). But there are some great tips on this post. Will keep in mind as we start to become more conscious of this! 🙂

    1. It’s a process for sure. Don’t beat yourself up about making changes slowly – they’re more likely to stick that way.

      1. For sure. Celebrate your wins and don’t worry about where you could do better. It’s a process– I wrote that we used to be frugal but not ecofrugal. I’d worry more about moving in the right direction than where you’re at today.

  5. I always felt kind of guilty with having two kids. We used disposable diapers and somehow accumulated more plastic toys than I care to admit. However we rarely go out and have only done 2 international trips since kids were born.

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