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What we can learn from cheapskates

Author Jeff Yeager, dubbed “The Ultimate Cheapskate” by TODAY's Matt Lauer, offers more tips for living frugally and happily ever after in his second book. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Two-time author Jeff Yeager, dubbed “The Ultimate Cheapskate” by TODAY's Matt Lauer, offers more tips for living frugally and happily ever after. Here's an excerpt from “The Cheapskate Next Door”:

Sure, we could afford to spend more, but why would we? It wouldn’t make us any happier.”

That’s it.

That’s the simple statement that I’ve spent the last year and a half traveling the country to hear.

Those words have been my touchstone. That’s what this book is about, and it’s what the cheapskates next door have to share with you. They can show you how to live happily below your means.

“Don’t touch the testicles! Besides, they’re too hot to eat right now anyhow.”

My longtime friend and fellow cheapskate Clive Jenkins is an extreme case, both as a friend, cheapskate, and roast-master of whole lambs, pigs, and various other mammals he occasionally prepares in his backyard on a grilling rig he fashioned out of an old oil drum, cement blocks from a garage he tore down, and spare parts from his kids’ bicycles. Please don’t judge all cheapskates by my friend Clive. He’s a great guy, but most of us cheapskates are probably a whole lot more like you than we are like Clive. At least I hope so.

The idea of spending less than you earn — living below your means — seems like simple common sense. Figure out what your take- home pay is, and then make it a point to spend less than that every month. Take what you don’t spend, and save it for emergencies, big-ticket items you can’t afford to pay for out of your regular paychecks, or long-term goals like retirement or sending a child to college. What could be simpler, right?

Guess again. We live in a country where the norm is to do just the opposite, to spend more than you earn. By the end of 2007, household debt in the United States reached a record 133.7 percent of disposable income. Disposable income is gross income after taxes, so if the average family spent every after-tax penny they earned just on eliminating their personal debt, it would take about one and one- third years for them to be debt-free. (The average U.S. household with at least one credit card has nearly $10,700 in credit card debt.) College students who graduated with student loans in 2007 owed an average of almost $23,000 on those loans, plus they already had credit card debt of their own of more than $2,200. Nothing like starting young, I suppose.

Our addiction to borrowing, the mechanism through which we’re able to spend more than we earn, and our aversion to saving some of what we earn for the proverbial rainy day, are both fairly recent trends in America. Total consumer debt grew nearly eight times in size from 1980 ($355 billion) to 2008 ($2.6 trillion). During that same period, the share of disposable income each household spent servicing its consumer debt and mortgage debt increased by 35 percent.

Once upon a time in America, the way we accumulated savings was by, well, spending less than we made and banking the difference. In 1982, the average household put 11 percent of its disposable income into savings; twenty-five years later that figure had dropped to less than 1 percent. In those years, we came to accept as gospel (at least up until recently) that the way smart people build wealth is through the appreciation of their assets, particularly their homes. Spending less, staying out of debt, and socking away some of your paycheck — those antiquated wealth building techniques fell out of fashion faster than runners-up on American Idol.

Not too long ago, we used to live — and spend money — very differently. For example, in 1981 between two-thirds and three quarters of all housewares we purchased were to replace a worn out item. Now those figures are roughly reversed, with the vast majority of such purchases being “wants” rather than “needs.” The old whatever-it-is we already own still works fine, but we want a new one, maybe the latest style, maybe a different color. I call this fairly recent transformation of our shopping habits “wantonizing our needs.”

Today, spending less than they earn seems to be very difficult for a lot of people. Maybe you think it’s impossible for you, too. But go back and reread the first two sentences of this chapter; living like the cheapskate next door is not only a question of living below your means, of spending less than you earn, and of avoiding debt whenever possible. It’s just as much about being happy — truly happy, joyous really — with a lifestyle of less that feels like more.

It’s the “happy” part of the equation that I hope sets this book apart from so many others that have been written about spending less money. The lessons of this book — the secrets of the cheapskate next door — are as much about happiness as they are about money. For cheapskates like me, you will learn, money really has very little to do with true happiness. By spending and consuming wisely, we make money a relatively minor part of our lives. We worry less about money than most people, and we can afford the luxury of spending fewer of our limited hours here on Earth chasing after ever more of it. We can focus our time and our attention on the truly valuable things in life — those that often come without a price tag — like spending time with the ones we love, helping others, and pursuing our passions. Because we consume things sparingly, thoughtfully, and fully, things do not consume us.

So I hope you’ll approach this book not so much as a survival guide for tough times, but rather as a revival guide — a way of reviving your non-monetary soul and finding happiness by spending and consuming less.

We’ve come a long way, baby
In good economic times, when high-paying jobs are plentiful and our investments are kicking butt, living within your means — let alone below your means — is a pretty unpopular notion for most people. Credit is easy to come by, so we can borrow money to get whatever we want, the minute we want it. And since home values always go up, the stock market is recession proof, and I can always go out and find another job that will pay me even more than the one I have now, what’s the problem?

In 2008, we learned some lessons the hard way. United States households’ net worth nosedived by about 18 percent or $11 trillion, an amount equal to the annual gross national product of Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined. The foreclosure frenzy began as home values declined nearly 30 percent from their peak levels in 2006, resulting in fourteen million homeowners owing more on their mortgages than their homes were worth. More than 1.2 million people filed for bankruptcy in 2008, and in 2009 unemployment rates climbed to a twenty-five-year high.

“Shock and awe” barely describes what’s happened to the economy. Downward trends turned into a downward spiral and then into a literal free fall that would make the oxygen masks drop out of the overhead compartments on a Boeing 747. It’s a whole new economy.

Who would have thought a few years ago that Ken Lay’s Enron would begin to look like a model for good corporate management? That during the Christmas shopping season of 2008, I would swear I saw then–U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in my local dollar store? I was shocked to discover that Cabinet members are apparently allowed to moonlight.

Everything has changed in this new economy, even our language. Marketers invented the term “under-buyers” to refer to those people who are now spending less — either less than they did before or less than they can afford. I guess they thought the word “cheapskate” would hurt people’s feelings.

Yes, when it comes to the economy, we’ve come a long way, baby. And it’s all been downhill. Or has it? It’s a new economy now, and I believe it is inviting us to take a new approach to money, and to life.

Please, just call me cheap ... “Under-buyer” sounds so negative
What do you think of when you think of a “cheapskate”? Probably someone who’s greedy, like Ebenezer Scrooge; someone who’s constantly worrying about saving a penny, and who leads a joyless life because of it. Maybe even someone who’s dishonest, who thrives on gaming the system and taking advantage of others.

In my first book, The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches, I tried to dispel those negative connotations. The basicpremise of that book is my heartfelt belief that most Americanswould be happier, and the quality of their lives would actually increase,if they would only spend and consume less. Road Map isabout the potentially life-changing realization that less can oftenbe more, and that by being a cheapskate you can choose to valueyour time, and the things you can do with it, more than money andthe things you can buy with it.

To me, a cheapskate is the polar opposite of a conspicuous consumer. You remember conspicuous consumers, don’t you? Those are the folks who are finally falling out of fashion these days. The ones who were last seen heading off in their Hummer, hoping to grab their eighty-four-inch plasma screen TV off the living room wall before the bank foreclosed on their seven-thousand-square foot home in Ain’t We Sumpthin’ Hills.

Conspicuous consumers spend and consume stuff at warp speed (primarily to show others that they can do so). Cheapskates, on the other hand, are too self-confident — and frankly too smart — to spend money on things they don’t need and probably don’t even want, simply to impress others or just because they can.

Who is the cheapskate next door?
The day Road Map hit the shelves, the cheapskates started comingout of the back aisles of the dollar store. They put down the how-tobooks they were reading at the public library. They rose up fromthe fifty-cent piles at their favorite local thrift stores.

Cheapskates from across the country began writing, e-mailing, and even phoning me — on their own dime! — to unite under the banner of the Cheap Pride movement I kicked off in the final chapter of Road Map. My wife kidded me that it was like being King of the Gypsies, the leader of a nation of people who are proud and united citizens, but who lack an actual country they can call home.

Jacquie Phelan, who was a Freegan (aka “dumpster diver”) long before there was such a thing as a Freegan, wrote from the San Francisco Bay Area to introduce herself, cleverly using a postcard that was actually two postcards taped back to back. She’d doubled the return on her single twenty-seven-cent stamp investment, and did me the courtesy of providing an easy, inexpensive way to reply. My Inner Miser immediately fell in love with Jacquie, and that was even before I saw the calendar photos of her riding her mountain bike wearing nothing but mud.

Families of every size and background from across the country, like Donna and Tim Rodgers and their five kids, contacted me to say that they enjoyed Road Map very much, and they wanted me to know that it’s indeed possible to raise a large family on a small income, and to be blissfully happy while doing it. They invited me to visit them in Texas so that they could show me how it’s done. They were hoping that my next book would put the lie to the notion that raising a large family requires spending on a level rivaling the national debt.

Couples in their thirties and forties, like Gerald and Julia Thomson of Phoenix, Arizona, wrote to me about their imminent plans to retire early, not because they’d earned so much money during their careers, but because they knew how to live happily below their means.

Young newlyweds contacted me to share their techniques for living the good life on less, like Becka and Justin Miller, who manage to live comfortably in their dream home on a very modest income. That home, by the way, is a forty-eight-foot steel-hulled sailing ship anchored in beautiful Baltimore Harbor that they’re buying for a mere $18,000. Talk about knowing a secret or two.

College students called me (sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, reeking of beer ... yes, even over the phone) to say they’d just finished reading my book and that it was the first personal finance book they’d ever read. “I think it’s gonna change my life, man. And, oh yeah, is that Coach Sacstretcher dude a real guy?” (Coach Sacstretcher was a prominent figure in my first book and makes a cameo appearance or two in this one.)

Bruce Ostyn and his partner, Daniel Newman, e-mailed me to say that I’d ruined their evening of reading aloud to each other. The longtime couple makes a sport of picking apart personal finance books (particularly those in the make-some-more-money-so-you-can-buy-some-more-stuff genre), but they’d found little to criticize in Road Map. The self-employed interior designers invited me to visit them at their home in Arizona to show me how “cheap” and “style” are anything but mutually exclusive. They could tell from the photo on the book jacket that I needed some serious fashion help.

And Pastor Mike Overpeck at the Waterford Community Church in Goshen, Indiana, delivered a sermon on my book. At first that news concerned me, given my occasional use of rough language and off-color humor in Road Map. I assumed the sermon was to encourage the burning of my book. (On second thought, if they wanted to buy up the entire first edition at $12.95 a copy and light a match to it, who am I to complain?) It turned out that Overpeck had challenged his entire congregation to go on one of my “fiscal fasts” — going for a week without spending any money — and he wanted to share with me the positive, community-building impact that the exercise had had on his congregation.

Who are the cheapskates next door? They are single, and they’re married. They’re young, middle-aged, and they’re old. They have small families, and they have huge families. They live in the sticks, suburbs, and cities. They’re black, white, yellow, and brown. They run the range from devoted Christians to avowed atheists, from Reagan Republicans to Obama Democrats, and every stripe in between.

Some have six-figure incomes and a seven-figure net worth. Others earn so little that they could qualify for public assistance, but they choose not to since they feel they have more than enough on which to live a good life.

They’re a cross-section of America, but what they have in common is that they all live happily below their means. They are the cheapskates next door, and the greatest reward I received as a result of writing Road Map — and truly one of the greatest experiences of my life — has been getting the chance to meet and know them.

But like any book, Road Map also has its critics. Some readers complained, for instance, that the fact that my wife and I don’t have children makes some of the advice in Road Map less valuable, or even impractical, for families with kids. And some critics, including one with the New York Times, seemed to feel that my occasional idiosyncrasies — like my fondness for dining on meats of the offal variety — classify me as more of a nut job than a personal finance writer. Fair enough, everyone’s entitled to their opinions, but I still like liver.

So, in sitting down to write this book, I was determined to show the breadth of lifestyle choices and family situations that are possible if you know the secrets for happily living below your means. It’s not about adopting the Yeagers’ lifestyle, or choosing not to have children, or forcing yourself to eat tripe (although it is delicious, by the way. Just ask Clive).

This book is about realizing that there’s a person or a family out there — just like you — who is spending a lot less money and consuming a lot less stuff than you probably do in your own life. And here’s the real kicker: They’re probably happier (maybe even much, much happier) than you are because of it. That’s because they know some secrets that you don’t.

Looking for a few good cheapskates
In order to collect all the stories and ideas that my cheapskate brothers and sisters were so anxious to share, I decided to develop a simple questionnaire for willing cheapskates to complete. Given my background in nonprofit management — where no task is so simple that, with sufficient effort, it can’t be made complicated — this document quickly morphed into a ten-page, four-thousand word behemoth, the Moby-Dick of questionnaires. If you’re up for a cheap challenge, I’ve posted an annotated version of the official Cheapskate Next Door Questionnaire on my website,, so you can see how you stack up against the cheapskate next door.

At first I fretted that no one would take the three to five hours typically needed to complete the questionnaire, but I was convinced that I needed more than just a peek inside the lives of the cheapskates next door. If I was going to distill the essential secrets for living happily below one’s means, I needed to see and understand the whole enchilada when it came to their finances, lifestyles, beliefs, and practices.

The first lesson I learned was to never underestimate the determination and resolve of the cheapskate next door when it comes to wanting to tell you about how they do things. In fact, early on in the process I was able to clinically diagnose the psychological condition now known as Tightwad Envy, or Skinflintus Invidia in Latin. TE is a psychological condition whereby a cheapskate’s natural sense of pride regarding their own thriftiness and frugal practices manifests itself in an unhealthy level of competitiveness toward the thrift- craft of others.

And so I was inundated, like a grocery store flooded with cheapskates on triple-coupon day, by hundreds of fully completed questionnaires and hundreds of other comments and messages from cheapskates, all chomping at the bit to share their secrets and the details of their lives. Dozens upon dozens also invited me to visit them in their homes, and, as I’ve said previously, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life to take many of them up on that generous offer.

Who the cheapskate next door isn’tFrom those thousands of pages of questionnaires, interview notes, and other correspondence from cheapskates around the country, their secrets for happily living below one’s means began to emerge. I discovered many new ideas, and found out things about their lives and families that surprised me time and again.

But what I didn’t find was the kind of miserable, greedy, unscrupulous, Grinch-like cheapskate you might imagine. That’s not to say that such individuals don’t exist, but they’re not the type of proud, generous, self-actualized individuals I found to be the norm, and on whom this book is based.

In all of my research and travels, I came across only a handful of people who clearly led an unhappy, wretched life because of their zeal to save money. For the vast majority, the decision to live below their means was, perhaps surprisingly, really not about money at all. Their attitudes and approaches to money were most often grounded in something bigger, such as spiritual, religious, or ethical beliefs. They weren’t hoarders or people intent on amassing a large bank account for the sake of having a large bank account. Rather, they were people who were content, by and large, with what they already had.

Thankfully, I encountered even fewer people who were dishonest in their attempts to save money, because that type of behavior has no place in this book. Those are the kind of people who give cheapskates a bad name.

For example, one fellow who travels a lot on business proudly told me that he always brings with him his burned-out lightbulbs from home so that he can swap them out for working lightbulbs in the hotel rooms where he stays. He also bragged about stealing pool towels (which usually aren’t inventoried) and entire rolls of toilet paper from hotels.

Even when he’s at home, he routinely makes the rounds of local hotels that offer a “free continental breakfast,” generously helping himself under the premise that the sign out front doesn’t specify “for hotel guests only.” By the end of our conversation, I wasn’t sure he was a cheapskate so much as a kleptomaniac with a hotel fetish. Regardless, things like that are just wrong, and he’ll probably spend eternity at the Bates Motel because of it.

Still, I can’t deny that some of the cheapskates I’ve met have been plenty colorful, though in a friendly and good-spirited sort of way. I’ll also admit that some of the tips they’ve shared with me come with a pretty high yuck factor, even for an offal fan like me.

Like the older woman I spoke to who saves her used Q-tips and uses them to detail her car — inside and out (“They have just the right amount of [ear] wax on them”). Or a cheapskate neighbor of mine who cleans out his own septic tank (“All 520 bucketsful!” he boasts proudly, as if it’s a Guinness world record for poop-scooping). And, even without being asked, more than one of my cheapskate brothers and sisters indicated that wearing underwear was an optional extravagance, “at least between May and September,” as one woman told me (I interviewed her in July).

Okay, so maybe some of the cheapskates next door are a bit uber-frugal, but that’s part of their charm.

Different paths to the same destination
If you want to see cheapskates argue, put a bunch of us in a room together and ask us about shopping at dollar stores or membership warehouse clubs. You’ll probably get as many different opinions as there are tightwads in the room.

And don’t even get us started about coupons. As many cheapskates seem to swear by coupons as swear about them. For some, coupon clipping is almost a holy ritual, a sort of budgetary bris, and they proudly produce their sacred scrolls of cash-register receipts to document their savings. Other cheapskates are convinced that most coupons only encourage you to buy unnecessary items, take too much time to clip and redeem, and most often are a false value.

But such difference in the tactics of thrift have convinced me that there is no one right way to shop for bargains, manage your paycheck, or ultimately achieve happiness while living below your means. There are many tactics and approaches that are valuable, and thus are included in this book. Because of that variety, you’ll likely find a method that will work for you, in your own particular situation and lifestyle.

While their tactics vary more than the fans in line at a Santana concert, what struck me most about the cheapskates I surveyed were the commonalities among them. Some of these things will probably come as no surprise: They despise debt and they’ve found ways to either pay it off or keep it out of their lives in the first place. They often buy used, and rarely pay full retail price. They tend to stay around home more, at least when it comes to avoiding expensive outings like dining out or going to professional sporting events.

Others will likely catch you off guard. For example, most cheapskates claim that they think, argue, and stress out less about money than most other people they know, contradicting the popular image of pensive penny-pinchers who lead a life focused on money. And believe it or not, price is usually not the most important consideration when they shop, refuting the old definition of a cheapskate as “someone who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.”

On most of the major financial issues in life, such as buying a home, financing big- ticket items like cars and a college education, and raising children, I found a high degree of consensus among cheapskates. However, the cheapskate approach to these Big Kahuna issues is usually dramatically different from the course taken by most Americans, and often contrary to the advice given by many personal financial pundits. For example:

Roughly 85 percent of cheapskates polled said they plan to pay off their home mortgages early or already have.More than five out of every six cheapskates buy their automobiles used instead of new, often paying cash instead of taking out a loan.They teach their children about money and frugality from a young age, and if you’re a cheapskate’s kid you’re going to earn your weekly allowance (assuming you get one at all).They believe strongly in the value of a college education for their children, but feel equally strong about how to pay for that education: The kids need to shoulder much of the burden, and don’t even think about taking out a student loan.They spend considerably less than the typical American family on food, clothing, and recreation, and way, way, way less on dining out.They equate “debt” with “cancer,” “imprisonment,” and “death.”

Sounds like a miserable life, doesn’t it? But oddly enough, the divorce rate among married cheapskates is about half the national average. Go figure.

What’s more, whether for economic, environmental and/or other reasons, cheapskates waste far fewer resources by wearing things out, using things up, and sometimes simply doing without. For example:

They report throwing away only about 10 percent of the amount of food most Americans toss out.They rarely replace an item unless it’s worn out and can’t be repaired, which is why most of them still proudly wear a couple of pieces of clothing that they bought during the Carter administration.They side with the underdog — literally — being nearly one hundred times more likely to own a pet they found as a stray, or adopted from an animal shelter, than they are to buy one at a pet store or from a breeder. They’re far more likely to own a Crock-Pot than a plasma screen television, to have a clothesline than an iPod, and a good many of them join hands with me in being among the few non-cave-dwelling holdouts yet to own a cell phone.

And, as my publisher knows all too well from the mysteriously flaccid sales of my first book, lots of cheapskates are avid readers ... but they usually borrow their books from the public library rather than buy a copy of their own. Oh well, c’est la cheapskate.

Let’s go talk to the cheapskate next door, shall we?
I read a lot of books. Or, rather, like many people, I start to read a lot of books.

I sometimes think that my attention span was permanently shortened by the self-inflicted trauma I suffered as a child, unable to ever fully fall asleep at night for fear that my brother would abscond with my Michigan bankroll, which was tucked away in my George Jetson lunchbox under the bed. (Oh, if only I had that lunchbox today, I’d be getting rich on eBay.)

So when I sit down to write a book, I’m rarely able to write an entire chapter at a time. I find myself writing a little bit here, then a few paragraphs in another chapter, and so on. Someone asked me in an interview the other day, “What’s the hardest thing about writing a book?” For once, I didn’t have to think very long. “It’s the words,” I said. “Coming up with all those words, and then having to put them in the right order.” Oddly enough, page numbers always come quite easily to me. But I digress.

The result of my writing style is a book that is rather like a Chinese menu. Unlike many personal finance books that painstakingly take you through each of the 447 official, sequential steps to financial salvation, mine can be read in bits and pieces, a little at a time. By all means, adopt those suggestions you like, and ignore those you don’t; you’ll still come out ahead. Dollar-stretching tips and advice from the cheapskates next door are laced throughout the pages ahead, with some special money-saving strategies highlighted as “Cheap Shots” in each chapter. If you’re already a member of the Cheaphood, I’m sure you’ve heard some of these tightwad tidbits before. But heck, even if only a single idea is new to you, it’ll more than pay for this book.

So hang on to your wallet and put away your purse. You won’t need them during our visit with The Cheapskate Next Door.

Excerpted from "The Cheapskate Next Door," by Jeff Yeager, with permission from Broadway Books. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.