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Extreme Frugality: 9 Unbelievable Frugal Stories from the Recession

Want some entertainment + inspiration? I’ve curated some crazy, inspiring, and unbelievable stories and examples of extreme frugality.

Extreme frugality stories can be fun, inspirational, and…a bit strange.

woman in yellow shirt counting pennies from red piggy bank, text overlay "unbelievable extreme frugal stories - be inspired and entertained"

What I love about reading frugal stories – besides the entertainment – is that they stretch your imagination for how you can save money in your own life.

Most people are uncomfortable living within limits, whether self-imposed or those imposed upon us.

If we know that there is a maximum then we want to surpass it, not necessarily because more of something is better, but because the limit itself leaves us feeling edgy.

Yet I’ve discussed before a certain freedom that comes with limits.

When you set a budget for your household, you are free to spend as you please within that budget knowing full well that your other savings goals are being met. Isn’t that a freeing feeling?

Not only have the people below embraced somewhat harsh monetary limits, but by doing so they have found freedoms beyond spending from a bottomless wallet.

While all of these examples were partially brought on by the Recession over the last four years, they were truly self-imposed. Let me share with you some examples of others who have embraced extreme frugality.

Note: I am not suggesting that we should all live the way that these people have chosen to live. Rather, I am fascinated by their choices and hope that it provides both entertainment and ideas for the rest of us. For more unusual but doable frugal tips, check out these 67 frugal living tips with a big impact, and The Frugal Year Challenge.

Extreme Frugal Living Success Stories – Examples of People Living in Extreme Frugality

The following is a collection of extreme frugality stories from people just like you and me, making the impossible an actual reality, and saving a bundle in the meantime.

Even if you've never dreamed of recycling enough cans to pay for your wedding (could you imagine how many you would have to recycle to pay for the royal wedding?), or using a paperclip to barter your way up to a home, it’s worth reading these articles in order to stretch your own frugal limits and comfort levels (you might want to check out why being frugal is good to get to the bottom of your own frugal motivations), and to know that there are simpler ways to live life than to hand over a credit card.

This is why I’d like to list out the extreme frugality experiments + frugal people stories that have fascinated me over the last several years:

Extreme Frugality Story #1: Man and Family Go on a Money Strike

Raphael Fellmer decided to embark on a two+ year money strike to show the world how bad our excessive consumption has gotten.

It should be noted that his wife used the equivalent of $280 per month for child care, healthcare, and transportation (they live in Berlin, Germany) during their experiment.

So, how did they survive? The couple relied heavily on bartering, such as living in a non-profit house in exchange for fix-it jobs.

Guess they wouldn't need to make one of these DIY diversion safes

Extreme Frugality Story #2: This Man Lives on $7,000 a Year

Here's some extreme thrifty living: Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme has lived on just $7,000 for the last decade.

And he doesn’t live in a cheap area; he and his wife (who spend just $14,000/year combined, though they keep their finances separate) live in the “cheaper side” of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Hint: these Dollar Tree Lunch Ideas and Dollar Tree Meal Plan would help this guy out.

Extreme Frugality Story #3: Family creates only 1 quart of trash per year

While Bea Johnson and her family do this strictly for environmental reasons, the monetary savings are tremendous.

For example, her children only have four bottoms and eight tops per season.

They bring their own jars to the grocery store to fill with meat, cheeses, and dairy products.

They refill wine bottles, and the wife even makes her own eyeliner out of burned and powdered almonds.

Extreme Frugality Story #4: Writer’s Family Embraces Extreme Frugality

W. Hodding Carter, a successful writer, looked over his and his wife’s social security statements from the last ten years and saw that while he had been living as if he was going to have a new bestseller, in reality, his family of six had averaged a $41,000 annual income.

When he realized that after paying all of their bills their family had just $550 leftover to spend each month (on things like food, entertainment, clothes, etc.), he immediately started down the extreme frugality path.

His family grows a lot of their food now and has even eaten road kill (maybe they should try these extreme couponing tips, instead? Just sayin'…).

You can catch up on his frugal living stories by perusing his archived articles.

Extreme Frugality Story #5: Man Lives on Groupon Coupons Alone

There is one man who was slated to live one year of his life on coupons alone while living away from his family, job, and worldly possessions. And if he could do it, he would win a prize of $100,000.

Update: This must have been too difficult, as the article no longer exists on MSN and no updates have been provided. You'll also want to check out my articles on coupon fine print, extreme couponing tips, and coupon fraud to avoid.

Extreme Frugality Story #6: Couple Recycles 400,000 to Pay for Wedding

If only my husband and I had thought to recycle 400,000 cans in order to pay for our wedding like this couple did (ha!).

And what exactly will 400,000 cans get you? Approximately $3,800 (depending on market fluctuations).

Extreme Frugality Story #7: Woman Wears Only Six Items of Clothing for One Month

You've likely heard of capsule wardrobes. The basic idea is to pare down your clothing to a few dozen pieces of clothing and create an entire wardrobe out of it.

This woman took this concept to the extreme (though only for a month) by choosing to wear just six items of clothing for one month.

Her husband didn't even notice until the experiment was almost over!

One of the best lessons she took away from this? She really lost her desire to spend.

Maybe we should all try it out…I think I could at least give it one week.

Psst: instead of going this extreme, learn how to change your style on a budget.

Extreme Frugality Story #8: Man lives in a cave and has not spent a dime in 9 years


Talk about extreme frugal living.

I mean, can you imagine living in a cave (let alone not spending one single piece of money in over 9 years)?

I originally found this man and his story about a decade ago. Naturally, I wanted to get an update.

According to Suelo's blog, he had to give up his cave and money-less existence in order to take care of his aging parents as of 2015.

Extreme Frugality Story #9: Man Barters Paper Clip for House

I was so inspired when I first found this guy's crazy frugal experiment (that actually worked). In fact, I read his book many years ago about it!

He literally took one red paper clip and kept bartering and trading for something that was better each time. All the way to owning his first house.

With no money exchanging hands.

What an amazing feat and one of the coolest (plus most accessible for the rest of us) extreme frugality ideas.

Personal Stories of Extreme Frugal Living – My Grandfather

Now, I get to turn to a personal story of living frugal (extreme thrift, I would say), straight from my childhood with my grandfather.

My grandfather was a simple man – simple, not unintelligent. He grew up on the same farm I did in Pennsylvania.

Even though he was just a toddler during the Great Depression (and he had some Great Depression survival stories), those years had a huge impact on his life.

He often warned me – while watching me wash his dishes with dish soap (he deemed this wasteful), or throwing away cheese because it was moldy (that can be scraped off, he'd huff at me) – that the next Great Depression was coming.

If only he had lived to see a few more years to realize his vision with the Great Recession! (Nothing compared with the Great Depression, but still. I'll give him that one).

Pop-pop was a miser.

For most of my childhood at the farm, my family lived in the downstairs portion of the farmhouse, and Pop-pop lived in the apartment upstairs, which was cut off from our home. He got his own trash can outside for the trash man, and we got our own, both of which we managed to fill each week.

One day we got a letter from the township saying that we would have to pay for the second trashcan. Somehow, Pop-pop managed to produce just one bloated grocery store bag full of trash each week thereafter (was he storing the rest? We never did figure this out).

Each week he would do his one load of laundry using a washing machine that you had to pry open with a screwdriver, and a dryer that only slicked the wetness off of his clothes. But there would be no second-drying for him; he would take the clothes, wet and all, back up to his apartment to wear for the next week.

Each week he would give us his list to take to the local Mennonite-run grocery store, as well as $16. His weekly groceries consisted of:

  • canned peaches
  • ½ loose pork sausage
  • “sweet dough” only from the discount rack the store was about to throw away
  • apple butter
  • occasional pork chops (when on sale)
  • two bananas
  • plums
  • a pint of beet salad
  • cottage cheese

Despite his meager groceries each week, he still managed to be overweight most of his adult life. But in his latter years, he would only use a feebly, splintered cane left over from his own father.

Pop-pop would never buy new.

You can imagine, after reading about the way he chose to live his own life, how critical he was of ours.

Even though both sets of my parents declared bankruptcy during my childhood and we lived the stereotypical penny-less farmer’s life, Pop-pop was mainly appalled by our extravagances. Anything that he deemed wasteful – and that included most things –he shouted at us to “throw over the fence” (specifically the fence that separated our yard from the barnyard and meadow).

This included our Nintendo system, bicycles, horse saddle, grill, and ponytail holders.

So what can we learn from a man like this? Here’s what I took away:

  • A lifetime of being a miser does end in a heap of money. Pop-pop left his sons and daughter with an inheritance. However…
  • Being crazy miserly can turn your children away from you, and you may age lonely.
  • A kitchen full of hidden bacteria, and cutting your heart medication into thirds because you don’t want to pay such a high co-pay each month ($25) may not kill you…but then again you may only live until 76.
  • You can, in fact, use the same stove pan for 30+ years, even if it is stained, even if it is burnt, even if it is warped.
  • Life ends, and it is sad to see people go when they hardly seem to have enjoyed themselves at all.
  • We could all use some more miserliness and saving up for rainy days (because they do happen).
  • Even if you make stupid purchases, it would be even more stupid to throw them over your fence…as then you would have completely wasted your money.

Every so often a person’s crazy frugal experiment makes it to the spotlight and the world gets to read their life experience on one of the larger media outlets before returning to articles on the latest crisis. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve collected over the years! You can also check out my guide on frugal living tips, based on my personal stories of living frugal.

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Amanda L Grossman

Personal Finance Writer and CEO at Frugal Confessions, LLC
Amanda L. Grossman is a writer and Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 13 years, her money work has helped people with how to save money and how to manage money. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Real Simple Magazine, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here or on LinkedIn.


Saturday 2nd of May 2015

hi my grandfather is 73 and is a complete miser and you must have heard people uselessly spending money but he uselessly saves money he sacrifices on his needs his family's needs and does not leave any chance to grasp something free i am 14 and this is driving me nuts i can't really understand what to do about it as my parents cant speak out of respect but i want to its not only drifting him away from us it is also making him i guess (psychologically ) ill please help me thanks


Wednesday 3rd of July 2013

Thanks Amanda for pointing out these stories. It's always helpful to expand our own minds by seeing things from the perspective of others. Now I'm not sure my mind could be expanded to the point of eating road kill, but there are some great ideas in those stories.

Crystal @ Prairie Ecothrifter

Thursday 13th of June 2013

I actually don't mind being sort of spend-thrifty compared to those families. More power to them, but I wouldn't have the drive to continue all of those living scenarios for more than a few months.


Friday 14th of June 2013

It would be difficult for many of us! I think they are inspiration for outside-of-the-box ideas on how we can save in our lives.


Wednesday 12th of June 2013

Interesting method to go back to a bartering system. I can't help but wonder what the time commitment for this is, and if this is indeed more productive.

Amanda L Grossman

Thursday 13th of June 2013

Good question! Then again, if you are bartering for most of your needs, you might not need to work as much. That will open up some time.


Thursday 7th of February 2013

There is also a great book called Ten Lost Years, which give personal accounts of how people managed during this time.


Sunday 10th of February 2013

Neat! I love to read about the Great Depression, so thanks for the suggestion.


Friday 8th of February 2013

Thank you for the recommendation Kathryn! I love to read books about the Great Depression.