Live Free or (at least) Darn Cheap

By John Walters
Photography by Mark Corliss (

Frugality is central to New Hampshire’s image. Maybe it’s our steadfastly anti-tax politics, or our tendency to rank near the bottom in most measures of philanthropy. Or maybe it’s the stereotype of the flinty Granite Stater who throws nickels around like they were manhole covers. In this age of consumption, we set out in search of frugality in 21st-century New Hampshire. Along the way, we found people who are choosing to be frugal for a variety of reasons — personal choice, financial necessity, environmental concerns or just a desire for a simpler lifestyle.

Jim Merkel: Living Lightly on the Earth

“If a thousand people simplify, they’ll have a thousand different lifestyles — each unique and beautiful.”

It all began in 1989 in a Swedish bar. Jim Merkel was on a business trip for his employer, a California munitions company. At the time, he had begun to ponder the ethical and environmental impact of his business.

“It came to a head when I saw coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on TV,” he recalls. “It really shook me up.” He believed that his energy-intensive lifestyle was as much to blame as the tanker’s captain or the oil industry.

Back home, Merkel spent a weekend calculating what he really needed to live. The answer was $5,000 a year. “I realized I was 30 years old and I’d already earned enough money to live the rest of my life on the interest. So I went in to work on Monday and gave my 30-day notice.”

He had 13 yard sales, getting rid of almost all his possessions — including an antique car, a speedboat and a motorcycle. He rented out part of his house, planted a vegetable garden and used a bicycle instead of a car. “My quality of life went way higher,” he says, “because I had all my time free to do anything I wanted — over 30,000 hours free.”

Merkel became an activist for sustainable living; he is co-founder of the Global Living Project and author of “Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth,” a guide to living a simpler life.

Last summer, the 49-year-old Merkel took his first regular job in 16 years: sustainability coordinator at Dartmouth College. His task: to bring Earth-friendly practices to campus. He says the administration is fully behind him, but “it’s hard to change, even when they want to.”

As an example, he cites a dining hall on campus: “The dining-hall guy says he has to break even or show a profit. He can make lots of money selling packaged foods. He is forced to turn his dining hall into a convenience store.” And that contributes to the waste stream; Merkel says Dartmouth’s output of trash has grown by 7 percent a year since 2001. He says nobody wants that, but “the question is, are we willing to step back and look at our systems?”

He advocates the same approach for individuals and families. “I don’t like to give specific advice on how to cut back. My book offers a process — a way to assess your own values, and make your own decisions.”

And he insists that simplicity is not sacrifice: “Life is richer when it’s sustainable. Eating fresh produce, having clean air and water, connecting with family, friends and nature — those things are priceless.” NH

Marijo Varney: Time for change

“I really wanted to home school my son. The school system wasn’t working for him.”

The Varneys had a hectic lifestyle. Marijo was a full-time teacher in Keene; her husband Jim worked two hours away in Boston. Their schedules were physically and emotionally taxing. Their daughter Kristin was having health problems. Their son Peter had been diagnosed dyslexic; his grades were good, but his teachers had suggested remedial classes.

They decided it was time to get off the treadmill. Marijo read every book on frugality and simple living she could find. She went to part-time status. Jim kept working in Boston for a year, while they paid their debts and built up their savings. Then he took a job closer to home, with a much lower salary.

Several years later, the change has resulted in a better life for the Varneys. Their health improved. Peter thrived in the home-school setting. “I never had to ask him twice about assignments,” says Varney.

She uses many of the same techniques as Rachel Thayer (see page 41), such as sewing, canning and cooking from scratch. She buys in bulk or on sale. She’s also found homespun substitutes for some items. “I make my own dry soup mixes, with dry noodles, bouillon, dried herbs, onion and garlic. I found the recipe in an out-of-print book called ‘Make Your Own Groceries.’”

She makes fruit leather with a dehydrator — which she got for free. “I bought five at a discount,” she says, “sold the other four on eBay and made more than enough money to pay for the one I kept.”

Fundamentally, she says it’s a different way of looking at life and money. “I am always asking, ‘Do we really need this, or do we just want this?’ “

After their children went off to college, life took another turn. “I had gone back to work, because I thought it would be nice to have the extra income,” she says. “Two months later, Jim lost his job when his company downsized. Frugality made it easy.”

These days, Jim is a part-time Web developer, and Marijo teaches special-needs students at Franklin Elementary School in Keene. Their income is much lower than it used to be, but “we save at least 25 percent of every paycheck,” says Varney. “We pay cash for large expenses, and we are building our retirement fund.” All that, while putting two kids through college.

“My daughter is 23 and she’s pretty frugal herself,” says Varney with pride. “Her fiancé used to wonder why she saved so much. Then he got sick and couldn’t work for six weeks. She had a freezer full of food, and they got through it. They’re getting married next year; they have enough savings to make a down payment on a house.” NH

Jack Lecza: Frugal colonist

“You can’t go back to the year 1628 and not be profoundly impacted.”

So says Jack Lecza, a 49-year-old businessman from Bedford. He was a cast member on “Colonial House,” the PBS TV series that put a group of modern Americans in a precise re-creation of an early colony. It was a very different time: “Nothing is wasted, nothing discarded,” he says. “When you return to the 21st century, that stays with you.” After the show’s taping in the fall of 2003, he was determined to simplify his life.

He left his job as an executive consultant. It was lucrative but “an absolutely insane life; there’s so much selling in it.” He is now a vice-president for Liska Biometry, a startup company in Dover. The pay is lower, but the demands are more predictable.

Even before “Colonial House,” Lecza was a pretty frugal guy. He credits the influence of his mother Adelaide, “the wisest, most enlightened person I have ever known.” He calls frugality a “learned competency” that must be gained over time.

How frugal is he? “I drive my kids crazy with reusing things,” he muses. “I’ve been known to cut up napkins and make coffee filters out of them.

“I love to paint, and I make my own paper,” he says. “I take old newspaper, soak it, pulp it, press it and let it dry. It turns gray, but it’s fine for everyday uses.”

He buys his clothing at resale shops and reads used books. “I used to live in Merrimack,” he recalls. “People would drop off old books at the dump. I went there first thing every Saturday and went through the book pile.”

It may sound a bit monastic, but he says frugality is not a sacrifice. It’s a matter of setting priorities and discovering where true happiness can be found.

Lecza and his wife Addie have two children, 14-year-old Amy and 11-year-old Cooper. Every Friday night the family gathers for homemade pizza and conversation. On one recent occasion, “Cooper had two friends over,” he says, “and we played 3-on-1 chess. I was struck by how simple and timeless, how little cost and how much enrichment.”

In today’s fast-paced society, he says, “Our cost/enrichment matrix is all screwed up. So often, it’s the simple things that make our lives better.”

Lecza offers some advice for those seeking to dial down: First, consider everyone who would be impacted by a change. Some can’t handle it. Second, take stock of your life and environment. What are you doing that you don’t need to do? What can you do without? And third, don’t give up. It takes time to adjust. There’s a certain discipline to it, and a real self-confidence, a comfort level with oneself. NH

Rachel Thayer: Frugal by nature — and necessity

“I have a hard time paying full price for anything. Looking around the house, I can’t see anything I paid full price for.”

Rachel Thayer calls herself “Miss Frugal New Hampshire.” She hasn’t lived here very long — she moved from North Carolina to Claremont in 2004 — but she’s become a treasure trove of knowledge for would-be savers in the state. At the age of 25, she’s mastered a lot of “old-fashioned” skills that make a dollar stretch farther, like canning, quilting and sewing.

She also founded a Claremont chapter of the Freecycle Network, a Web-based organization ( for people who want to give away unused items. Freecycle has nearly two million members in thousands of local chapters, including 28 in New Hampshire. It’s a valuable part of Thayer’s bargain-hunting strategy: “I just received two woodstoves, we’ve gotten a day bed, a love seat and a lot of kids’ clothing. I got my cat and dog on Freecycle.”

Thayer got an early start on frugality. “I was raised by a single mom living on a tight budget,” she says. Her mother, Anjie Hresan, is now a professional saver — she runs a frugal living Web site,, and has appeared on NBC’s “Today Show” as an expert in frugality.

Her mother’s training has come in handy. Thayer’s husband Richard is a staff sergeant in the Marines and a military salary isn’t much for a family with two young children: 3-year-old Lockley, and 18-month-old Gavin. Even so, they manage to put at least $100 a month in savings. Here are some of her techniques:

On food — “I shop at discount stores, buy dented cans, look for coupons and free offers. I garden and can my own produce. I do a lot of cooking from scratch. We don’t eat out.”

On clothing — “I shop at resale and consignment stores. The outfit I’m wearing today cost about $4.25, and it’s good quality stuff — from the Gap, Levi’s, a pair of Birkenstocks. I look just fine. In fact, I look pretty cute today.”

On washday — “I make my own laundry detergent. A half bar of grated Fels Naptha Soap, a cup of Borax and a cup of washing soda. Shake it up, and use 2 tablespoons per wash load. I estimate I save about $400 a year on detergent.” She makes reusable “dryer sheets” by pouring liquid fabric softener on an old washcloth or mismatched sock.

Thayer is a real bundle of energy — always looking for ways to save a buck and share her ideas with others. One gets the sense that if she ever won the lottery, it wouldn’t change her lifestyle one bit; she’s having way too much fun. NH

Rachel Thayer’s Super Saving Tips

Join the newsletter ( for free and let my mom do all the legwork for you on finding the best deals on the net.

Join ( for free in your local area and find anything and everything you might need for free —nothing sold there, only free things.

Mr. G’s discount store in Windsor Vt. I find all kinds of great deals there on food items.

Changes Thrift Store in Claremont, Hint — always look in the bargain basement.

Angelina’s Closet in Claremont

Second Beginnings Thrift Store in Claremont

Salvation Army in West Lebanon

Listen Thrift Store in White River Junction, free bread for donation.

Listen Thrift Store in Lebanon

Rymes Oil & Propane has the cheapest oil around for people not able to afford to pre-buy.

Go to local schools of massage and cosmetology to get pampered — costs you less and gives the students experience.

If you are looking for a pet, go to or your local shelter to adopt. There are tons of great animals out there needing a great home! And look for pets that are already altered! I found my purebred German Shepherd (free), already fixed on Petfinder and my purebred, with papers, already-fixed flame-point Himalayan cat on (free). They are out there, just go find them.

Rachel Thayer is owner/moderator of the Claremont Freecycle Yahoo group.

Student Discounts

Save a bundle by being a guinea pig for students while they learn fine dining.

2500 N. River Rd., Manchester
(603) 668-2211, www.snhu.ed
The university’s award-winning, student-run Hospitality Center Restaurant offers tastes from around the world — French, Caribbean and Mediterranean — and classic American regional on an alternating schedule.

Lunch is served Thursday-Friday, January 26-April 21, from 11:30 a.m.-noon. It is à la carte, $3 a course. A five-course dinner is served at 6 p.m., $25 prix fixe, from January 25-April 19.

181 Silver Ave., Dover
(877) 628-1222
A part of McIntosh College’s culinary program, the student-run L’esprit restaurant offers eclectic American cuisine. Dinner only during the winter, Wednesday-Friday, prix fixe $26.95. Come spring, lunch is offered on those same days at $6.95-$12.