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from Jan. 11, 2002 Toronto Daily Star

Fri Jan 11, 2002 - Updated at 11:30 AM > Business
Jan. 11, 2002. 01:00 AM

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Freedom 36: Not an impossible dream
Ellen Roseman

DIANNE NAHIRNY is 41 years old and retired. She quit working full-time five years ago.

She owns a mortgage-free home in Hamilton, close to McMaster University, and she lives well. I know because I went to visit her myself just before Christmas.

Over a breakfast of home-made cinnamon rolls, fruit salad and tea, Nahirny described her philosophy of life.

Freedom 36 is not an impossible dream. If she can do it, anyone can.

She's not someone who owned a dot-com business or held down a high-paying job. Instead, she earned an average salary of just $15,000 a year over her 15-year working life.

She's a skinflint who's not afraid to splurge on the odd luxury.

Of a total $8,275 in living expenses last year, she spent just $336 eating out in restaurants and going to movies.

She doesn't enjoy vacations and stays close to home. But when she takes a trip, she goes in style.

In 1987, while going to meet a friend in France, she took the Concorde.

"I wouldn't have traded that trip for six trips to Mexico," she says in a book published last fall, Stop Working... Start Living (ECW Press, $18.95).

She spent $792 on clothing last year, but the blue cotton top she wore in the photo was bought second-hand.

Later, she tells me she considers haircuts essential — and hair colouring, too.

In the first half of the book, Nahirny explains how she accumulated enough assets to support herself without working. In the second half, she tells readers how to do the same thing.

She credits her parents for giving her the right attitude toward money. Without an allowance, she had to earn enough for anything she wanted. That taught her about delayed gratification and the difference between wants and needs.

She dropped out of university and worked at a series of clerical jobs, including a stint as a debt collector. That reinforced an already strong aversion to debt.

"My job duties included instigating wage garnishments, seizing assets and bank accounts and registering liens. It was real life and real people. I wanted to make sure I would never be on the receiving end of such actions."

Nevertheless, she believed real estate was worth going into debt for and, at age 22, she was a home owner. She bought a $42,000 condo apartment, made a $10,000 down payment and financed the rest with three mortgages (the third obtained from her parents, interest-free).

The total mortgage debt was 45 per cent of her disposable income. Total housing expenses (with taxes, maintenance and furnishings) added up to 67 per cent of income.

But she stayed afloat by not owning a car — she still doesn't have one — and saving her money for high-pleasure purchases (oak dining table, brass headboard, fur carpet) bought with cash, not credit.

After selling the condo for a profit and upgrading a few more times, she paid off her mortgage and built up her registered and non-registered savings. She retired when she had a net worth of $225,000, enough she figured to finance her $7,000 to $9,000 a year lifestyle.

Property taxes are her biggest expense, $2,640 last year. Food comes next at $1,140, then clothing ($792), oil heating ($675) and hydro ($552).

Nahirny has never married and has no children or other dependents. But she insists those who follow her system can retire young, too, if they have dreams, drive and determination.

She recently started doing a weekly column in the Hamilton Spectator, written in the same style as the book — folksy, anecdotal, unsophisticated. You feel as if she's talking to you across the table or over the telephone.

"Just how frugal am I?" she asks in a column last October, describing how she cuts her water bill to $8 a month.

"I recycle water. And recycle, and recycle. When I'm doing laundry, I save the water in both tubs and use it first for hand washables and then for the furnace air cleaner components.

"Next, I haul it by the bucketful to water the garden, and finally I pour the remaining water into recycled plastic jugs for watering indoor plants."

When her mother and a friend walked by and saw her hauling buckets, she said she was working out with a good weight-bearing exercise.

Here's something else that may embarrass her family. Her entire expenditure for Christmas gifts was $250. Now that's thrifty.

I don't live this way, nor do I want to. Yet I enjoy reading about those who have cast off consumerism and embraced voluntary simplicity.

It took courage for Nahirny to shine a spotlight on her own unusual spending habits. More power to her.

Ellen Roseman's column appears Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You can reach her by writing Business c/o The Toronto Star, 1 Yonge St., Toronto M5E 1E6; by phone at 416-945-8687; by fax at 416-865-3630; or at by e-mail.

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