Reusable toilet paper?
The four subjects of the recent TLC special, Extreme Cheapskates, go to great lengths not to spend money—whether it be by using cloth toilet paper, eating unorthodox cuts of meat (i.e. goats’ heads), bartering with salespeople or foraging food from strangers’ plates at restaurants.
The show has garnered a great deal of attention, in part because the methods used by this frugal foursome to save a buck are far from the current American norm. We spoke to two of the show’s stars, Jeff Yeager, a former CEO, and the author of “The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches” and his wife Denise, an adjunct professor at a community college, about how—and why—they do what they do to save money.
At LearnVest, we believe in the importance of earning more in addition to simply scrimping, but our conversation with the Maryland couple makes it clear we could all learn a thing or two from these incredibly disciplined and money-savvy savers.
(And they’re not the only ones we tapped for advice: Angela Coffman, their cohort on Extreme Cheapskates, and a mother of six, explains her money-pinching strategies for helping the whole family save over on LV Moms.)
Meanwhile, these happily married “fiscal fasters” travel the world, get creative with cooking and have saved enough to put a child in the Philippines through college. What can you learn from them?
What prompted you to begin living this frugal lifestyle?
JY: Denise and I have always been frugal and we’ve been happily married for 28 years. While we have some fun with the fact that I’m America’s cheapest man, we do see eye-to-eye on money issues. People are more likely to divorce over money than just about anything else, and we’ve never had those differences.
DY: I’ve just never thought that material things were that important. I was brought up that way.
Was it a conscious choice to make your spending habits different than other people’s?
JY: There was an epiphany early in our marriage. I was working in the nonprofit sector; Denise was teaching, and we began having discussions about what we really wanted out of life. We had bought our first house—the same house we live in today—and we came to the conclusion that we were comfortable at that level, so we established a permanent standard of living.
To this day, when we run into our peers, they’ll announce that they bought a new, bigger, more expensive house and are on the front end of a 30-year mortgage. We were able to pay off our house in 16 years, and by the time we were in our forties, we could afford to become selfishly employed and do whatever the heck we wanted.
What has your lifestyle afforded you?
JY: It’s not about trying to amass a big bank account, it’s trying to spend less ourselves so that we have more to share with others. I’ll use the money we save during our “fiscal fasts” to beef up our charitable giving.
DY: Jeff and I sponsor a child in the Philippines, and two years ago for my birthday, Jeff and I decided to put her through college. So, instead of giving ourselves gifts for Christmas and birthdays, we’ve been putting money away for her education.
Jeff, you coined the term ‘fiscal fast’ in your first book as a week with no spending. Can you tell me how you came up with that idea?
JY: When I was growing up in the rural Midwest, a totally unexpected blizzard struck our house. We didn’t have a chance to stock up on food, and we lost our electricity. It was just my parents, my brother and me and, at first, we were all freaking out. We couldn’t even open the door, and we didn’t have supplies on hand, but then we started to look at what we did have. We started to search the cupboards and since we couldn’t get out to the movies, we started playing Scrabble. Suffice it to say, that siege went on for a week and we never ran out of food. In fact, the longer the week went on, the better the meals seemed to get because we got more creative about the cooking.
That was the origin of the fiscal fast because I thought, this is probably a healthy exercise even if you’re not snowed in. The goals are threefold: 1) By not spending any money during the week, you’ll end up saving money. 2) The exercise of living money-free really reveals how much money you spend—and probably waste—in a typical week. 3) Most importantly, it reminds us that there are so many great things in life that don’t cost a dime.
How long have you been doing the fiscal fasts?
JY: It became an informal part of our lifestyle from early on in our marriage, a sort of battening down the hatches to say, let’s see if we can’t go through this week or even half a week without spending any money. Even though we’re frugal to begin with, it’s amazing how much food you have on hand and how much food goes to waste. And Denise and I love a good movie, but sometimes we’ll say, rather than go to the movie, let’s see what they have at the library. It’s less about saving $200 in a week. The fast gives you a different perspective on money.
What are some of the rules?
It’s fine to fill up your gas tank before the week starts or get a gallon of milk for the kids, but there’s no stocking up. You can’t go out the week ahead of time and buy enough food for the whole week. You have to use what you have on hand, so normally you have to get more creative as the week goes on.
I encourage people to get creative with commuting—maybe that’s the week to try to carpool to work.
What are the most challenging parts of the fiscal fasts for you?
DY: If I had to do the cooking, that would be my challenge. But Jeff is the most incredibly creative chef. I can look in the refrigerator and think, there’s nothing to eat, and he’ll come up with a five-course meal.
JY: But sometimes it’s hard even for me. I think once I made a canned tuna and pickled beet casserole. It tasted better than it looked, but it sure didn’t look very good.
On the show, you bought two goats’ heads for $7.50.
DY: That is the one thing I won’t eat.
JY: Well, it’s not just less expensive, it’s about waste. Where we travel, particularly in the Mediterranean, goats’ head is one of the biggest delicacies, and one of the most expensive things on the menu. Then I get back home, and they’ll almost give them to you at the butcher shop because no American will touch them. You can argue whether the ethical thing is to be a vegetarian or a meat eater, but how can you say that eating every bit of the animal is anything but the moral thing to do?
No Need to Buy Goats’ Heads
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How do you travel on the cheap?
JY: Our theory is to live as much like the locals as we can.
DY: Let’s say we’re going to Greece, which we’ve done six times: We will make a reservation for the first couple of nights and then we just follow our nose. We go for a month or two at a time.
JY: We’re looking for that genuine, local experience. We stay at mom and pop places, not chains or resorts. We do things like credit card reward programs to get free airline tickets, we cook almost all of our meals and when everything has to fit in a backpack, you just don’t buy much.
Can you give us a few more of your savings strategies?
Here are some:
1. Finish in your starter home.
Buy a modest home when you’re first starting out, pay it off as quickly as you can and ignore everyone who says not to prepay your mortgage. Make that house your home and get on with enjoying your life. If you do that, you’re going to save hundreds of thousands of dollars on interest over the course of your lifetime.
2. Re-examine your transportation.
Try not to take your car for any errand within a mile of where you live. Denise and I have one car, a small pickup truck with more than 170,000 miles. Maybe once every month or two, I will rent a car for the day, but even then we’re saving about $8,000 per year by sharing a car.
3. Shop smarter.
I try very hard to pay less than a dollar per pound for the food that I buy. Not only does it save you a lot of money, you eat a lot healthier. I shop the best of the best store specials, and I shop on sale and in season.
Cheapskates are generally very self-reliant, and we save a lot of money by doing things ourselves. But here’s the kicker: We like to have the satisfaction of doing things ourselves and learning a new skill. It’s interesting to know how to do electrical work, gardening, plumbing and roofing.
5. Simple-size your life.
Figure out what’s important in life … and skip the rest.