How to be a happy cheapskate: Q&A with Jeff Yeager, author of The Cheapskate Next Door

Author Jeff YeagerIn his latest book, The Cheapskate Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of Americans Living Happily Below Their Means (Broadway, 2010), the "Ultimate Cheapskate" Jeff Yeager (right) shares insights he gleaned from hundreds of self-described cheapskates. We sat down recently with Jeff and asked him to share some of what he learned with WalletPop readers.

Q: Many people cringe when they hear the term cheapskate, because they imagine that cheapskates are penny-pinching, gnarled up misers with 50 loaves of bread in the freezer who can't enjoy life because they spend so much of their time clipping coupons and arguing for discounts on the dented cans of food. (Or actually denting the cans so they can argue for a discount.)

But the picture you paint of the cheapskates you talked to is very different than that. You go so far as to say they are happier and think about money less than non-cheapskates! How is that possible, and who are these "Cheapskates" you interviewed for the book?

A: Sure, there are lots of people out there like those you describe – miserable, greedy, even dishonest in their desire to save a buck. But those aren't the kind of happy "cheapskates" I write about in my book. The people I write about are the polar opposites of "conspicuous consumers" – those, of course, are people who spend at warp speed in order to show off. The cheapskates in my book are folks who are too self confident – and too smart – to spend money on things they don't need and don't want, simply to impress others. These are folks who know what's truly important in life, and they skip the rest.

For my new book, more than 300 self described "cheapskates" completed a 10-page survey, and I also interviewed many of them personally. They have a wide range of lifestyles and backgrounds – young/old, single/married, big family/small, urban/rural – yet they all manage to do something most uncommon in America today: They live below their means, and they're happier because of it. And their incomes varied as much as their lifestyles. Some of the cheapskates in my book had high, six-figure incomes and were multimillionaires, while others had such small incomes that they could qualify for public assistance, but chose not to, because they felt they had more than enough to live the lives they wanted to live.

This is not a book about how to get rich; it's a book about how to get happy, perhaps with what you already have.

Q: Since the recession hit, there really has been an explosion of articles, websites and books offering money-saving tips and tricks and coupon codes, oh my! But you say that being a cheapskate is actually more about how you think about money than any given set of rules. What is the money mindset of a cheapskate like? What are the core beliefs they hold in common?

: Of the cheapskates I surveyed, more than 90% say they think about/worry about/stress out about money less – not more – than other "non-cheapskates" they know. They have a sixth-sense about smart spending; they've made it a matter of habit, so it's not something they spend a lot of time thinking about. They're what I call "premeditated shoppers" – they know exactly what they want and what's a fair price for it – and they don't shop for recreation or therapy. Most of all they don't like to shop. They're into delayed gratification, so they have far less "buyer's remorse" than most shoppers. In fact the only things my cheapskates are depriving themselves of are all the things most people buy and later regret, which is why cheapskates are happier and more content in life.

I found that they have a strong sense of "self." They're very self confident, so they don't succumb to peer pressure, designer brands or pressure to keep up with the Joneses. "The Joneses can kiss our assets," as one man told me.

But despite this strong sense of self, they're not "selfish" --- just the opposite. Of the cheapskates I surveyed, on average they donate twice as much to charity as the typical American. And they also tip at the top end of the 15-20% range when they go out to eat ... although they only dine out about 25% as often as the average American family.

Q: It sounds like there were some things you found about the Cheapskates that were surprising -- or at least flew in the face of the conventional wisdom about "how-to-be-smart-about-money." What were some of those findings?

Well, first, some of what I found probably won't surprise you, but it's important to note: Cheapskates despise debt and have found creative ways to eliminate it from their lives (less than 5% had any consumer debt, other than a home mortgage); they differentiate between "needs" and "wants," and between "affordability" and "borrow-ability;" and, yes, most of them own and still wear at least one article of clothing dating back to the Carter administration (or earlier).

But other findings from my survey surprised even me, a life-long cheapskate. For example, only about 10% have a written household budget ("we live our budget – it's second nature - we don't waste time writing about it," one cheapskate said). And while they have savings in the bank, less than 15% have a formal "emergency fund" ("an emergency fund is for people who don't have their financial house in order otherwise; for them, every *bleeping* thing is an emergency," another cheapskate said). Probably the most surprising thing I found was that for the vast majority of the people in my book, their decision to live a more frugal lifestyle isn't about money at all; more than 90% said their thrifty lifestyle choice is grounded in some great belief, for instance religious convictions or environmentalist or social justice.

In case you're curious, they're also 100+ times more likely to have a dog or cat adopted from a shelter than one purchased from a pet store; far more likely to own a crock-pot (or several) than an iPod or flat-screen TV; and they divorce at less than half the national average. Go figure.

Q: How do cheapskates have fun?

I asked the question in my survey, "Do you ever splurge?", and every single cheapskate said of course they do. But like with their spending habits in general, they make sure it's something they really, truly want, and they usually save up enough in advance to pay for it, so it's a guiltless pleasure. They're also much more likely to splurge on an experience or activity rather than a material possession, which makes sense, since there's a lot of social science that proves that possessions tend to disappoint us over time, but experiences – even those that don't cost a lot of money – often increase in value over time. You know, the so-called "cherished memory."

So cheapskates spend a lot of their free time "doing" and making their own fun, rather than paying others to entertain them. They also have more free time, since they're not always working to buy stuff. They like inexpensive outdoor activities, spending time with family and friends, and they get the most out of public institutions like libraries, public parks, local universities, high school sporting events, etc. By the way, cheapskates aren't necessarily homebodies either: of those I surveyed, they were twice as likely as the average American to have a passport and travel abroad, albeit cheapskate-style, something I discuss in detail in the book.

Q: Now, one of the biggest areas where people hemorrhage money is in the housing category, and there's obviously some serious turmoil people are currently dealing with around their homes and their finances. Did your study of the cheapskates reveal any real estate savings strategies, or new ways to think about housing and money?

The cheapskates definitely have an old-school approach to housing and home mortgages, and it's proven to serve them well. Since long before the housing bubble burst (in fact since long before there even was a housing bubble), they were buying homes that cost only about 75% of what they could afford ... or at least what mortgage lenders were anxious to lend them during that period. So their homes tend to be somewhat smaller and more modest in design; more along the lines of American homes in the late 1970's or early '80's. The cheapskates stay in their homes longer than most Americans, too, and – most importantly – they've always believed in paying off their mortgages as quickly and aggressively as possible. Of those cheapskates I surveyed, almost 85% had paid off their mortgages early or were planning to do so. That's one of the big reasons that the cheapskates next door are sleeping well at night, even during these difficult times.

Click here for another 20 rules to live by for cheapskates.
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