Editor's note: We were delighted by Lauren Weber's new book In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue, and we weren't just flattered that she mentioned The Daily Green, or Jeff Yeager's own book The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches. Weber writes with style and humor about a topic dear to us: getting more out of life with less impact on the planet. We noticed some similarities in suggestions and outlook between these two thrifty authors, and also noted amusing ways in which they diverge in their habits.
So we put them to a Cheap Off of sorts, volleying the following questions their way. Weber's answers are in regular text and Jeff's are in italics.
Gloria Dawson, The Daily Green: What do you splurge on?
Is health insurance a splurge? Probably not, but it sure feels like it every month when I write that $360 check. Im lucky to be very healthy (knock on wood, throw salt over the shoulder), so in purely monetary terms, I dont get a lot for my money. However, the peace of mind is ultimately worth it.
Aside from that, I buy some insanely expensive skin-care products (see below). And I love to travel, so Ill fork over big dollars to fly to India, Vietnam, Turkey or France. Once Im there, though, I get around on public transportation, eat street food, stay in hostels or inexpensive motels and try to focus on having great experiences rather than buying a lot of souvenirs.
I agree with Lauren -- a true Sister of the Cheaphood -- when it comes to health care. We need to radically reform our system and catch up with the rest of the civilized world. But until then, readers can rest assured that Ill continue the groundbreaking work Ive been doing here in the Ultimate Cheapskate Lab to make do-it-yourself home surgery a practical alternative. Why am I guessing that if I could get a couple of politicians under my homemade scalpel, our health care system would be fixed overnight?
My splurges? Its all relative. A cheapskate neighbor of mine is aghast that I pay a service $85 every couple of years to clean out my septic tank. To him, thats a splurge. He cleans his septic tank out himself, by the bucketful. (And he wonders why we never have him over for dinner).
Lately there has been lots of chatter around eating on $10 a day. Is it really possible? How?
Absolutely! In fact, $10 seems extravagant to me -- that would include at least one meal out for me. On most days, I probably feed myself for around $3 to $5. I eat lots of lentils and beans, two of the healthiest and cheapest foods imaginable. And I hardly ever cook meat at home. Instead, I hold my diet mostly to legumes, vegetables, eggs, tofu and pasta. For a treat, Ill get a $2 taco at the Mexican food stands under the elevated train in my New York City neighborhood.
Thats not to say I dont like a pricey meal now and then. I once took a friend out for a $200 sushi dinner, and it was worth every penny.
Are we talking $10 a person?! If so, thats a further indication of how out of touch many people (including many self-proclaimed personal finance gurus) are with money: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American currently spends only about $4 a day on food. Yet, particularly with the recession, we have people writing articles about the challenge of spending ONLY $10 a day on food? Okay, so maybe its $10 for a household? If so, the average household is about 2.5 people, so thats still not a challenge, just the national average. $10 for a family of four or more, maybe, but its still easily doable.
Be all that as it may, I try to buy mostly foods that cost under $1 a pound, primarily because those are often the healthiest foods (e.g. whole grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables). My under $1 a pound approach channels you toward eating lower on the food chain, which is better for your health, the environment, and your bank account.
If youre a smart shopper and plan your menus around the loss leaders advertised at the grocery store, you can have an extremely healthy, enjoyable diet for (generally) under $1 a pound. Many people dont believe this, but Ive proven it time and again -- all around the country -- on TV challenges and elsewhere. Also, FYI, I live in the Washington, DC metro area, with one of the highest costs of living in the country, and this is how I shop and eat.
Give it a try: Under $1 a pound, year round. (Of course, as my long-suffering wife likes to say, If you are what you eat, my husband should be reduced-for-quick-sale.)
Describe your ultimate cheap vacation (and you can't stay at home!). Where would you go? What hotels do you like? How would you get there?
My boyfriend and I have been thinking about taking the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing, via Mongolia. Wed hop off at cities along the way and spend our days as tourists, then get back on the trains at night, using them as both transportation and lodging. That would save us the cost of hotels every night. And if the TSR trains are anything like the ones in India, there will probably be food-sellers at every stop, plying inexpensive fruit, snacks and local specialties through the windows to locals and tourists alike. Of course, the expensive part is airfares to and from home. But I dont mind suffering through a couple of layovers if it means saving a few hundred bucks.
I write a lot about how travel is a responsibility, not a luxury -- to get out and meet the people of the world and see where and how they live. The thing is, if you spend a lot on luxury travel or tour groups, you defeat the whole purpose of travel: Youll be staying in American-style hotels, eating American food, and associating only with American tourists, even though youre half way around the world. Why not just stay home? Only by traveling on the cheap can you truly capture a sense of place and the people who live there.
Yes, so for me, its a lot of bicycling, hiking, public transport; youth hostels, CouchSurfing.com, and local/cheap hotels (you know, the kind of places where they ask for a $10 deposit to turn OFF the porno movies in your room); and street food and self-cooked meals along the way.
By stretching our travel dollars in this fashion, my wife and I travel both in the U.S. and abroad for about four months out of every year. Not a bad life, living on the cheap.
What's the oldest piece of clothing you own? Most recent purchase? Most expensive purchase?
A TV newsmagazine recently interviewed me for a segment about living cheaply, and for part of it I wore a vintage shirt that I bought for $4 at a thrift store in 1988. The label is long gone, but it seems to be made out of some kind of indestructible petroleum-based material, like nylon or polyester. Its black, and its decorated with an image of a bird made out of glued-on beads. Somehow, it still looks like new, despite my nervous habit of twisting the beads.
My most recent clothing/accessory purchase was a pair of $50 earrings, bought at a funky clothing store in Portland, OR. Totally unnecessary, but Id been wanting a pair of classic, all-purpose earrings, and these fit the bill.
Most expensive? That would have to be my leather boots. Living in New York, one must have good winter boots. After years of buying crappy, inexpensive ones every October, only to see them fall apart by December, I invested $350 in a pair of gorgeous leather boots. Im now going into my fifth winter with them; if they make it through, theyll have amortized to about $70 per year -- a pretty reasonable price.
Oldest, by a hair, is the Grand Funk Railroad t-shirt I got in 1974 when I saw them in concert at the Toledo Sports Arena. (They rocked, BTW, or at least from what I can remember).
Newest: A $1 sweater from the thrift store last week. (From the smell of it, Im pretty sure the previous owner was also at that same concert.)
Most expensive: I bought a $200 suit once when I had a real job, and soon after realized that Thoreau was right: Beware of all enterprises that require a new set of clothes.
Although you embrace your cheap lifestyle, are there any cheap things you do that embarrass your friends or family? What's the most extreme cheap thing you do?
Having grown up with a dad whose cheap habits were often mortifying to an adolescent girl (i.e., being picked up from field hockey practice in a 15-year-old car covered in caterpillar feces), I try not to embarrass others with my thriftiness. My mother does get annoyed, though, when I price-drop, proudly announcing the price of whatever item of clothing someone just complimented me on.
Some of the habits friends laugh at me about are: washing out and re-using plastic bags, cutting open toothpaste tubes to scrape out every last bit, and walking out of my way to use my own banks ATMs (rather than pay a fee). Are these extreme? I cant tell; to me, they just seem simple and practical.
Cushion Mining -- Stealthily searching for lost change in the cushions of furniture in hotel lobbies and other public places. I started doing it when I was kid on family vacations (Mom thought it was cute), but now at age 51, my wife is not so amused. I admit, Im addicted to Cushion Mining, and I just cant break the habit. Trust me, find the right hotel lobby and those easy chairs are like upholstered ATMs.
It's got to be hard living on the cheap in one of the most expensive cities in the world. What are some of the particular issues you face as a New Yorker who lives cheaply.
I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but Ive always thought of NYC as a great city for tightwads. You dont need a car, so there are no insurance payments and gasoline fill-ups. And theres an unlimited amount of free entertainment, ranging from noir movie festivals to tango lessons at Lincoln Center to people-watching on the Highline, an elevated railroad-turned-city park.
And the food! The kaleidoscope of delicious, cheap ethnic restaurants is one of the reasons why NYC is a cheapskate mecca. My favorite treats include those $2 tacos under the #7 train in Jackson Heights, $3 lunch plates in Chinatown, falafel sandwiches for $2.50 in Greenwich Village, and a huge, steaming $8 bowl of homemade ramen at my favorite midtown Japanese spot.
The catch to living in New York is the cost of housing. If you can figure out that part (my solution: I live in the Queens apartment where my mother grew up), Id wager that you can live as cheaply here as you can in any Idaho small town.
I feel for Lauren living in high-priced NYC. Although, Lauren, see my tip above re: Cushion Mining. I can tell you from firsthand experience that the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Avenue is hard to beat.
It sounds like your dad is an inspiration for your lifestyle. Got any other cheap heroes?
I love Lydia Maria Child, the nineteenth-century author of The American Frugal Housewife. At a time when many writers moralized to Americans about being thrifty, Childs advice was practical, no-nonsense and devoid of finger wagging. She offered women advice on everything from exterminating bedbugs to finding a cheap substitute for green tea.
And then of course theres Ben Franklin, our national poster boy of thrift. He was much more interesting than the myths weve spun around him, thanks to his many contradictions. We know him as the popularizer of the phrase a penny saved is a penny earned, but he also, less famously, shipped crates of expensive linens and dishes home to Philadelphia from his diplomatic posts in Paris and London. These inconsistencies make him human, and a fun character to write about. I also adored him for his belief that thrift was a means to freedom and self-determination (to him, debt was a form of enslavement), not a means for getting rich.
I learned a lot about frugality by seeing the way my grandparents lived a simpler but happier life. Through my writing, Ive also spent quite a bit of time with Amish folks, who definitely have some lessons to teach the rest of us when it comes to change not necessarily being progress. (Plus, Ive always idolized guys with robust facial hair.)
What's your favorite green cheap tip?
This is getting personal, but here goes . A few years ago, I gave up tampons in favor of a silicone menstrual cup. It cost about $30 but has saved me far more over the long run, and it reduces the amount of feminine hygiene waste that goes to landfills every year.
Aside from that, my favorite green cheap tip is a simple one: stop shopping. Just buy less. This is always the greenest choice.
Living greener and more frugally is not about a list of tips, its about adopting a different lifestyle. Simplify your life whenever possible: Itll cost you less, let you live lighter on the planet, and -- best of all -- make you happier.
You recommend reading The American Frugal Housewife, which proposes earwax as a substitute for lip balm. What are some of your own personal care cheap tricks? Are there any products you can't live without?
I recently started making my own laundry detergent, at a cost of pennies per wash. The Internet is loaded with simple recipes -- just search for homemade detergent.
I spent a lot of time with freegans while reporting my book, and we went to several college dormitories at the end of the school year. The dumpsters in front of the dorms were loaded with half-full bottles of shampoo, conditioner and other toiletries that students didnt feel like hauling home with them. Im still using the Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Oil Shampoo I found in a New York University dumpster in May.
In the splurge department, I buy a $60-per-jar French face cream. A jar lasts me almost six months, though, and $10 a month doesnt seem so bad.
I dont want to say I cant live without it, but I do like my beer. Fortunately, Ive discovered Steel Reserve (no, this is not a commercial endorsement, just the opinion of one beer drinker with a lot of experience). Its about half the price of other premium brands -- AND twice the alcohol content, so you can drink half as much. So, BPC (Buzz Per Can), youre at only 25% of what premium brands cost. Dont knock it until youve tried it -- the flavor is real-beer terrific, too.
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