Jeff Yeager, who normally writes in this space about going green by saving money, has a new book out, The Cheapskate Next Door. To find out what he learned while researching the book, including many interviews he did with "cheapskates" around the country, we decided to turn the spotlight back oh him, and ask some questions of our own. Here's the result:
The Daily Green Editors: What is the worst hating anyone has done on you for being cheap?
Jeff Yeager: Well, of course, I don't condone being dishonest or greedy or unkind when I talk about being a "cheapskate." Just the opposite. For me -- and the folks I talk about in my new book -- it's all about being less materialistic, less focused on amassing money and stuff, and more focused on amassing a quality of life that money can't buy. It's truly about enjoying life more, by spending and consuming less. So, no, I generally don't have people hating me because I'm cheap, as I've just defined it.
That said, I do occasionally have people tell me that folks like me caused the current recession, or that we're being unpatriotic because we're not "good consumers." I've ranted on that topic before here on The Daily Green, so I won't repeat myself. I like to conserve when it comes to my blood pressure, too, not just conserve resources and money.
What do you think is your greatest cheap accomplishment?
Well, there is the five-pound can of garbanzo beans I once scored for 69 cents on sale -- slightly dented, of course. That's like a cheapskate trophy for me. But honestly, I think it's that, largely through the use of humor (most of it at my own expense), I've been able to engage people in a discussion about some very serious issues -- the impact of consumption on the planet, solving the world's problems by being more charitable, valuing what's really important in life over simply buying more stuff. I'd like to think that, because I try to add a laugh track to most of what I write, I'm reaching at least some folks who otherwise would never engage in such a discussion.
You mention some pretty extreme examples of cheapskates in your new book -- dumpster divers, a woman who uses her used Q-tips to detail the inside of her car, a number of cheapskates who consider underwear to be an optional luxury. Do you really expect most people to live like that?
No, of course not. And taken in the context of the entire book, as you know, those are truly just a handful of stories, examples of what I call "bizarre cheapskate behavior." But they do show what's possible, how different people live...plus, frankly, they add color and entertainment value to the book. In fact, the thing I'm proudest about when it comes to the new book, is that I think it has something to offer -- some ways to live happier on less -- for everybody, regardless of your family situation or lifestyle. So, don't worry, I'm not asking you to give up your tighty whiteys.
If you could do your life over, what would you be more cheap about? Less cheap?
"Less cheap?" I have a reputation to uphold, you know, so I'll have to take the fifth on that one. "More cheap?" I've been pretty open in both of my books [the previous one is The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches] about a couple of times in my life when I've lost focus on what's really important -- which, by the way, are usually things in life that come without a price tag -- family, friendships, time to think, time to just love life. Inevitably, at least in my own experiences, those were times in my life when I let the pursuit of money and stuff take over too much of my time and energy. Who knows, maybe it was a reaction to those periods in my life that set me on the course I'm on today, a professional cheapskate. But looking back at them, I do regret that I wasted those hours, days, whatever waging my own personal war-for-more.
What are some things you should never buy cheap?
Tools, for one. Like a lot of the frugal folks I interviewed for my book, I'm a big believer in learning to do things myself -- not just to save money, but to be more self-sufficient and expand your life experience by learning new skills. As I like to say, my goal in life is to be Renaissance Miser. With tools, whether they're hand tools or power tools, you generally get what you pay for, which isn't the case with so many other consumer products. If you invest as much as you can afford in quality tools, the projects you undertake will turn out better and the work will be more enjoyable, and so you'll be motivated to do more things for yourself in the future.
Is it ok to be cheap on a date?
I suppose you should really be asking my wife that question. (laugh) In fact the other day she said, "Jeff, can't we just once go out to dinner and a movie without having to stop at the blood bank first?" Sorry, that's one of my favorite poooooor wife jokes. But, seriously, regardless of what your attitude is about money, you'd better openly share your feelings about money with anyone you're in a relationship with, right from the start. Money differences result in more divorces than just about any other factor. That doesn't mean you can't have a successful relationship if one person is a cheapskate and the other is a spendthrift, but the most important thing is to be open about money matters from the very start. In the survey I did for my new book, I found that the "cheapskates" polled divorce at only about half the national average, and time and again they cited "communication about finances" as a key to maintaining happy marriages and other long-term relationships.
How do greens actually bridge the gap with cheapskates who aren't already green?
Huh, that's an interesting question, because I really see it the other way around. As I've said, there are a lot of greenies who talk the talk, but don't walk the walk when it comes to realizing that the greenest thing they can probably do is consume -- and therefore spend -- less. Americans are only 5% of the world's population, but we consume 30% of the world's resources. According to the World Wildlife Fund, if everyone in the world consumed at the same level as Americans, it would take three planet Earths to support that level of consumption.
In your new book, you say that the current popularity of the green movement in America is largely driven by "the very thing that the movement should be seeking to change...rampant consumerism." Please explain.
Yes, I think there's some hypocrisy in the current green movement in America. I think it has become a "cause de stuff." That is, the popularity of the current green movement in America seems to me to be fueled by the fact that now there's cool, expensive, "green" stuff we can buy. I'm not so sure most greenies are as interested in saving the planet as they are in owning the latest, cool, green designer products. I'll say it again, because most people don't want to hear it: If you're a typical American, the greenest thing you can do is consume less!
What do you think is the lamest green activity? Least cheap? Where do greens get it right?
Lamest? Well, so-called "green fashion" comes to mind. Only a fraction of the clothing thrown away in America is "worn-out." The greenest clothes you can wear are the ones that are already in your closet or for sale secondhand at a thrift store, not some new, expensive, "green" clothing made out of hemp or some such thing. In general, any time you get rid of something you already own that's still usable in order to replace it with something else because it's "green," you're likely to be wasting both the Earth's resources and your money. Once something is truly worn out, like an appliance for example, then replacing it with a new green, Energy Star version often makes both environmental and economic sense.
For your book, you surveyed and interviewed hundreds of your fellow "cheapskates" across the country. What did you find out about their views and behavior when it comes to the environment and the environmental movement?
About half of the cheapskates I surveyed expressed strong or fairly strong environmental convictions, but, interestingly, many of the others said they had little or no interest or concern regarding environmental issues. I didn't ask in the survey if, for example, they believe in global warming, but I'd guess that a good many of them don't. I say that's interesting, because, again, their behavior -- wasting less, consuming less, repurposing stuff, wearing things out -- is, in my opinion, the epitome of "living green," even if that's not their motivation or they don't consider themselves environmentalists.
Unlike most other environmentalists, you don't seem very committed to "buying locally." In fact you write a lot about the possible advantages of shopping at places like big-box/membership warehouse stores and dollar stores. Isn't that a bit hypocritical on your part?
Well, call it what you will. As you know, I've been an ardent environmentalist for almost 40 years, but I just see this issue differently than most. I've made my case before here on The Daily Green about how shopping at big-box stores can be a very green choice, and how even at dollar stores you can find affordable items to make your life a bit greener. In my writing and in my own life, I always try to balance idealism with practicality. It'd be great if everything we consumed came from within the same zip code where we live, but I think that's economically impossible. Keep in mind, I'm writing for many people with very limited incomes, and whom you'll probably never recruit as Sierra Club members, but maybe you can make them a little greener in the context of the lives they already lead. That's the practicality I'm talking about.
How do the cheapskates you surveyed feel about buying organic foods and vegetarianism?
They're no more or no less likely to be vegetarians or buy organic foods than the average American, which is only about 5%-10% of the general population. That said, they do tend to eat lower on the food chain, and many said that they have "meatless" days at least one or two days out of every week. A majority grow at least some of their own food. They also spend a lot less on food prepared outside the home, including fast food...in fact, they spend almost 90% less than the typical family spends on food prepared outside the home. Again, their diets -- which from what I've seen are significantly healthier than the typical American diet -- are influenced as much by their desire or need to live frugally as by anything else, and part of that is about trying to stay healthy, rather than face higher medical costs.
Are there ways you wish our government was cheaper? Less cheap?
I'm actually one of those people who believe that government is -- or at least can be -- a good value in terms of the taxes we pay. I've written about this before in my Green Cheapskate blog. As an example, I cringe at what it costs to get my 20-foot driveway repaved every ten years, but in comparison I think the millions of miles of paved roads it connects me to are a terrific value for my tax dollars. That doesn't mean that I support everything government spends money on, or that there isn't wasteful spending on the part of government, or things I wish they would fund, but don't. What's that old saying, "It's the worst possible system, except for every other system"?
Would you shop for groceries at the 33-cent store, saving the "dollar store" for your wedding, a la the Simpsons? Would you eat the discount Mexican plankton? (ha ha)
You mean, "How cheap will I go?" I think I'm still probing those depths, although I refuse to clean out my own septic tank with a bucket, like a cheapskate neighbor of ours does (and he wonders why we never invite him over for dinner.) Seriously, though, almost without exception, whenever I choose to economize further and make money a less important part of my life, I find I'm happier because of it. As Gandhi said, "Live simply, so that others may simply live."
Jeff Yeager is the author of The Cheapskate Next Door and The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches. His website is www.UltimateCheapskate.com. Connect with Jeff Yeager on Twitter and Facebook.
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