The Cheapest People in America

Think you know how to stretch a dollar? Meet the experts.

By Lenore Skenazy from Reader's Digest | May 2010

Doug and Denise Winston of Bakersfield, California, have also come to a dollar-saving détente. He no longer laughs when she maps out her Saturday errands so she can do them all without making any left turns. “It saves me wear and tear and time and fuel,” explains Denise, a former banker, noting that UPS follows the same strategy.

Of course, UPS probably doesn’t try her other trick: buying a gift card on her way into a restaurant. Often the restaurant will sell a $25 card for $20, says Denise. Then she and her husband waltz in, buy some happy hour beer with the card, and eat the bar snacks for dinner. Meantime, she’s getting 5 percent back from her credit card (so the card really costs her only $19), and her money is still in the bank, earning interest!

Denise knows she might sound almost pathologically stingy, but the Winstons have saved enough money to buy a plane. Yep, a private plane.

Other frugal folks divulged tips that might not quite cover the cost of a jet, even a toy one, but made some sense. For instance, if you’ve got a piece of meat with freezer burn, don’t throw it out. Cut out the offensive portions, toss it in the slow cooker, and make stew-for your dog.

Speaking of food, when Ray Lesser was growing up in Cleveland, his mother and aunt, who lived down the street, struck a deal. “Every Tuesday,” he says, “they would trade each other’s surplus leftovers and palm them off on us kids as a whole new meal.”

Throughout most of American history, it was considered admirable to waste not, want not, says Lauren Weber, author of In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue. Ben Franklin got rich recommending it. Housewives embroidered pillows espousing it. But even back then, Weber says, people generally preferred praising thrift to actually practicing it. In fact, once people actually had extra money, they generally got around to spending it. Think of the Gilded Age and gold pocket watches. Think of the stock market, circa September 1929. We were never a nation entirely devoted to saving. But massive, mutant overspending seemed to come to a head just in the past generation, says Weber, when investment banking became the career of choice for college grads and McMansions sprang up like dandelions-giant, hard-to-heat, overmortgaged dandelions, which finally brought us to our knees.

Franklin-like thrift was certainly a virtue in Weber’s own home: Her dad rationed toilet paper and kept the thermostat set to a frosty 50 degrees in the New England winter. But the money he saved allowed his three kids to go to college-the private college of their choice.

And that’s the secret about cheap people: They aren’t necessarily cheap on all fronts. Some spring for education or vacations, or they’re generous with others if not with themselves.

“Everybody has his or her own drug” is how Buffalo, New York’s Ken Michnik puts it. Michnik’s “drug” is bargain hunting. To save money on car air fresheners-not a huge expense in the first place, one would think-he rips the perfume strips out of magazines and puts them in his vents. He buys damaged food at the grocery and 50-cent bags of other people’s toiletries at garage sales, and he uses spent spark plugs as fishing sinkers. But over the years, even as he drove his wife nuts with his parsimony, he harbored a deep secret.

“When we first got married, I’d put money away every month
for our 25th anniversary,” says Michnik. As the big year approached, he got on the Internet and started searching for a sweet little sports car.

For her.

Naturally, he bargained long and hard and finally found the best deal four hours away, outside Cleveland. So one day he told his wife a tall tale about their daughter’s car breaking down out there and how they needed to meet her at the car dealer. “My wife was livid. ‘Why isn’t she in school?’ She was swearing for four hours,” Michnik says. Still, he managed to steer her into the dealership where there was a Mazda Miata tied with a big red bow. “She said, ‘Jeez, I wish I had a car like this.’ And I said, ‘This is your car.’”

Adds Michnik, “She doesn’t remember the rest of the day.”

Michnik wins the Reader’s Digest Cheapest Person in America award for saving relentlessly, obsessively, creatively. And if we had one, he just might win our Best Husband award too.

Alas, Mr. Michnik: There is no cash prize.

The Psychology of the Cheapskate

What makes a person tighter than a bathing cap? Psychologists say that most cheap people are convinced that spending money is actually, literally, and morally wrong and that spendthrifts are evil (a spendthrift being anyone who buys undies that aren’t labeled “slightly irregular”).

Couples often drive each other crazy when they’re Jack Sprattish in terms of spending, says Pittsburgh psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. That’s because cheap people can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t see things the way they do: fiendishly overpriced. They may have come by this outlook via a deprived childhood (think Depression babies), or it may be partly genetic (Dad showers in his clothes to save on the cost of doing laundry), or it could come from seeing money squandered. In any case, stinginess is often tied to a warped sense of self-worth: “I don’t deserve to spend any money.”

On the other hand, Lombardo adds, a bargain can be a cheap thrill, literally, and when it
makes you feel smart, that’s a positive thing. “There’s nothing wrong with being cheap,” she says, “unless it’s a complete preoccupation.”

Are you or is someone you know cheap? We want to hear examples. Join our discussion.

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