The Cheapest People in America

Crisp rice. Those were the words my 13-year-old scrawled on our shopping list, and how they warmed the cockles of my cents-off soul. My son had not scrawled Rice Krispies. No, he was perfectly content to indulge Mom’s penchant for off-brand, faded-label, sometimes slightly out-of-date cereal, as he was either resigned to his fate or (could I be this lucky?) actually unaware that other people breakfast on a national brand that does not include the occasional unpuffed, tooth-cracking rice pellet.

That’s my boy!

Plus: The Beginner’s Guide to Being Cheap

Whether he realizes it or not, that kind of hard-nosed, chip-toothed frugality is exactly what is called for in these economically tossed times. Debt is everywhere; jobs aren’t. And didn’t we all just overdose on Godiva and iPods anyway? And SUVs? It was getting a little gross. Time to spend less and enjoy more! Or at least spend less. Which I enjoy!

Being cheap comes naturally to me, by way of a mom whose morning pot of coffee was reheated and savored throughout the day(s), between her trips from this outlet to that one to buy discount clothing with the labels snipped out, Quasimodo-shaped candy from the seconds shop, or cookies that looked like Oreos but weren’t. In fact, they seemed to be stamped with something in Turkish.

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

Cheapest people in AmericaPhotographed by Nicholas EveleighThink you know how to stretch a dollar?

There are those who like to distinguish between “the frugal,” who get a kick out of saving money, and “tightwads,” who die a thousand full-price deaths with each dollar spent. But the distinction is lost on me. I’m thrifty because I’m a tightwad and vice versa. Like many frugal folks, I also harbor a sneaking suspicion that paying retail is for suckers, as are any napkins not sold in single-ply stacks of 250 (or taken in giant wads from fast-food dispensers, but we’ll get to that).

In other words, I’m as cheap as they come, or so I thought, until I started to hunt for the Cheapest People in America. Turns out I am a mere 25-cents-off coupon when it comes to scrimping and saving.

Plus: 13 Secrets to Saving Money Using Online Coupons

For instance, before interviewing several dozen cheapskates, I had no idea that there are legions of people who keep an empty McDonald’s coffee cup in the car. That way, they can run in and get a “refill” anytime they spy a golden arch.

Janet Hinz has a dad who’s one of them. An ethics professor in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, Hinz uses him as an example with her students: Yes, she posits, McDonald’s does offer free refills, but for life? And how about people who go to the pizza parlor and empty the red pepper flakes into a napkin to take home (another trait of Papa Hinz), along with most of the rest of the napkins? Is that ethical? Do you ever take an extra napkin, or two, or 20? she asks her students. Where do you draw the line?

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Plus: 13 Secrets to Stop Wasting Cash Now

For penny-pinchers, the line between thrift and thievery turns out to be as tangled as a yard-sale yo-yo. For instance, I heard about one guy who gets into the movies this way: He strides in, holds his glasses aloft, and announces, “I found them in the car!” Then he keeps on walking.

Clever-yet criminal.

Merely classless was the boyfriend of a gal I’ll call Chloe: He had her drive 40 miles to his house, then took her “out” to KFC. He paid with a two-for-one coupon and made Chloe pay her half. And speaking of half, another woman was having a hard time with her less than generous beau, so they decided to try some therapy and split the cost. After a few sessions that she paid for up front, she asked him to pay his share. He refused: “We talked about you most of the time.”

This is the same guy she’d been dating on her 40th birthday, a day on which she suggested they pack a picnic and bring along a bottle of champagne.

“No,” said Prince Charming. “Let’s wait for a special occasion.”

She is happy to report that whatever that is, he’ll be celebrating alone.

But then there are the people utterly simpatico in their skinflintedness. One couple I know spend their anniversary at the Hallmark store reading cards aloud to each other. Then they stroll back out, hearts touched, wallets not.

Plus: Is reusing garbage bags being a tightwad or being frugal? You Decide.

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