America’s ‘cheapest family’: ‘We are hope and change’

As the American economy sputters and families continue to struggle mightily just to keep their heads above water, the Economides family of Arizona believe they provide a model for how to not just survive, but thrive on a tight budget.

Eschewing credit cards, car loans and home equity borrowing, the clan of seven stay solvent and then some on just $44,000 a year — and that includes owning a home in the pricey Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale.

Mind you, they eat nutritious meals and their children are decked out in stylish, brand-name clothes. The key to living well for less, they say, is to search for bargains, avoid impulse buying and plan, plan, plan.

The Economides, who have been living up to their billing as “America’s Cheapest Family” since 1982, recently published the latest in their series of fun-while-frugal household tips, this time focusing on what is often a budget-buster for families: the grocery store. Their book, “Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half — With America’s Cheapest Family,” is on bookstore shelves now.

Hope and spare change
“We are the hope and change of America,” family matriarch Annette Economides told Matt Lauer Wednesday, as her husband, Steve, and daughters Abbey, 16, and Becky, 26, looked on. “With the unemployment rate where it is today, I believe that our books can allow families to not have to live on two incomes.”

NBC cameras followed the Economides through a typical grocery shopping expedition. Before entering the store, Steve and Annette sat down at the dining room table and pored over food coupons, eyeing their cost-cutting prey like hungry lions. Annette used sales as a guide to planning 30 days of family meals before the family headed out the door.

The Economides feed their brood on an average of $350 a month, even though Annette says she knows similarly sized families that put out $2,000 a month. Steve marches down the aisles with calculator in hand, comparing unit prices. His eyes light up when he peruses the meat section and finds several cuts nearing their expiration dates, which he scoops up.

“I’m sure that people probably get squeamish over that,” Lauer commented on that part of the prerecorded segment. But Steve Economides wasn’t having it. “We’re talking about being smart,” he told Lauer. “If you look at the meat and the color is right, there’s no juice around it, it looks fine; it’s probably safe to buy.”

He also noted restaurants charge premium prices for aged beef. Lauer grinned and said, “Aged beef is different than old beef, isn’t it?”

Time is moneyThe taped segment showed the Economides taking their purchases home, grinding and slicing food for themselves (because it’s cheaper than letting the grocery store do it for you), and stowing it in the freezer. Lauer commented that all the coupon clipping, meal planning, price comparisons and food preparation seemed exhausting. But Annette said that time is money: “I tell people that if they are not taking any time to plan to feed their family, I guarantee you that they are spending more time than I am.”

Even when they go out to eat, the Economides take great pains to get the most for their money. As cameras followed the family through a Chinese all-you-can eat buffet, Annette crammed a takeout Styrofoam container to just short of the breaking point. “We stuff a container full of food, we bring it home and it will feed us for several meals,” she explained.

The family are old hands at stretching a dollar. When Steve and Annette married in 1982 — also a time of a major U.S. recession — they made a pact to maintain a debt-free home and not indulge in extravagance.

The proof is in the pudding: They paid cash for their late-model cars, paid their first home off in just nine years and, most importantly, raised five healthy, happy kids while never going into debt.

Their 26-year-old daughter, Becky, told Lauer that her family name has become synonymous with frugality. “I’ve got a lot of people that I work with, they’re like, ‘Are you related?’ ‘Yes, that would be me,’ ” she said with a laugh.

“It’s not odd to us,” she added. “What’s odd is seeing my friends go to the mall and purchase jeans for … I don’t even know what designer jeans retail for.”

“Two hundred bucks!" put in her teen sister Abbey.

“I can get them for less than 10 dollars at a thrift store,” Becky said.

TODAY will host the Economides family throughout this week. On Thursday, they will teach another family their money-saving tricks, and on Friday, they will answer viewer questions about how to economize.