Author Jeff Yeager Shares Cheapskates' Secrets to Happiness

Cheapskates are happier, according to The Cheapskate Next Door
Cheapskates are happier, according to The Cheapskate Next Door

Jeff Yeager's latest book, The Cheapskate Next Door, landed in bookstores on June 8 and is the perfect personal-finance book for the new economy.

In the past, most personal-finance books have tried to teach readers how to build a seven-figure net worth. Yeager traveled around the country talking to some of the cheapest people in America and learned the secrets to living happier, more fulfilled lives with less stuff.

DailyFinance: What's been the most surprising thing that you learned about cheapskates working on this book?

Jeff Yeager: You know, I surveyed more than 300 self-described cheapskates for this new book -- and interviewed many of them personally -- and while there were many surprising things I learned along the way, overall it was that for the vast majority of them, like 90%+, their decision to live the frugal lifestyle wasn't about money at all. It was almost always grounded in a bigger belief. Sometimes it was a religious belief, sometimes environmentalism, sometimes something else. These aren't greedy, Scrooge-like, pensive penny-pinchers I write about. These are people who recognize that there's a lot more to life than money and stuff, and they've found creative ways to make money a less important part of their lives. They know what they want, and they skip the rest.

In your book, you mention that cheapskates hate debt. But I think there's a popular perception that people who "win" with money rely heavily on what many consider to be "good" forms of debt. In your experience, how do cheapskates feel about things like student loans and mortgages?

Well, I'll bet you that there are a whole lot fewer people who believe that stuff about "good debt" than there were a few years ago, don't you think? For the cheapskates next door, debt still stings. They understand that there's a big difference between "affordability" -- Can I really afford it? -- and what I call "borrowability" -- Can I borrow enough money to buy it now? Ninety-five percent of them live debt free, with the possible exception of owing on a home mortgage, and even then the vast majority of those with a mortgage told me that they plan to pay it off early, or already have. Admittedly we're talking an old-school attitude toward the perils of borrowing money, but I think the wisdom of the cheapskate ways is being proven out these days in a very visible -- and in many cases, painful -- way. As for using debt to create wealth, let me be really clear about this: I don't write books about how to get rich, which is what the vast majority of personal finance books are ultimately about. I write books about how to get happy, perhaps with what you already have. Part of that is showing people how to spend smart, regardless of how much money they have, but the bigger part of what I write about is quality of life, and issues regarding human happiness. As I said in my first book, I'm afraid we live in a culture that's more concerned about amassing a quantity of stuff, rather than amassing a quality of life.

You talk in the book about buying used. What are some advantages to buying used that a lot of people don't necessarily think of?

Obviously there are positive environmental aspects. Mother Nature thanks you for using it up and wearing it out, rather than rushing out to buy a new one. But of the cheapskates I surveyed, the environmental impact of their frugal lifestyles was only important to about half of them, even though their frugal behavior is inherently green -- greener, in fact, than those self-proclaimed environmentalist who rush out to buy the latest expensive, eco-friendly products when they don't even need them. Sorry for the tangent, but I've been an ardent environmentalist my whole life, and some of the current consumer-driven trends in environmentalism bother me. Of course, there's also a tremendous economic advantage to, as one cheapskate told me, "letting the other guy pay for depreciation," which is what you're doing, at least to some degree, when you buy used. Most of the cheapskates I interviewed we're also very tuned into the issue of "appreciation," always looking for items that might actually increase in value over time rather than lose value. That's why the Amish, for example, often buy antique furniture. Cheapskates think about appreciation when buying a wide range of consumer products ... cars, furniture, even clothing. Let's face it, most consumers only stop to think about appreciation when they buy a house, and even then, they're often not very smart about it.

One of the things you talk about is how being a cheapskate will actually make you happier. But a lot of people think buying cool stuff will make you happier. Why isn't that the case?

Of course, pretty much all the social science about human happiness suggests that more money and more stuff really doesn't make us happier, at least once we're above the poverty level. Most "stuff" tends to eventually disappoint us. Americans eventually express at least some regrets about almost 80% of the discretionary items they buy. "Buyer's remorse" is an epidemic in our culture. On the other hand, the cheapskates I surveyed regret only about 10% of their discretionary purchases. So, it's not that they're depriving themselves of things -- or, if they are, they're mostly depriving themselves of the 80% of the crap that most people buy, only to regret later. The fact that that type of smart spending allows the cheapskates next door to live debt free -- and therefore a less stressful, less money-centered lifestyle -- is one of the secrets to happiness that they have to share with the rest of us. More than 9 out of 10 of the cheapskates in my survey said that they think about/stress out about money less than most non-cheapskates they know. They also get divorced at only about half the national rate, in part because they rarely have "money problems." I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that of the cheapskates I polled, they donate nearly twice as much to charity as the average American. Again, that's because for most of them, their decision to live a frugal lifestyle isn't about the money at all.