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Extreme Cheapskates: Shocking, but Hardly More So Than the American Norm

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I'd be fascinated to see a word cloud for TLC's new reality show Extreme Cheapskates. As a recurring cast member on Extreme Cheapskate, I can tell you that the words I've heard associated with the show are as wide ranging and colorful as the lifestyles and practices of those of us who appear on it.

"Fugal," "skinflint," "thrifty," "cheap," "penny pincher," "Scrooge, "miser," "quirky," "weird," "wise, "scumbags," "mental," "deranged," "smart," "stupid," "gross, "clever," "vomit," "disgusting," "genius," "sickos." And those are just some of the words fit to print here.

Having lived a frugal, simpler lifestyle most of my life and written a number of popular books on the subject, I don't for a minute claim that everyone should adopt all of the often shocking, even revolting, money-saving practices depicted in the show. Remember, it's television. But I can also tell you that while most viewers seem to be content dissing on the show and laughing at the lifestyles of the people who appear in it, the typical clueless American consumer-droid who is probably watching and ridiculing might want to take a closer look at his own life and compare it in the context of the broader lifestyle implications of at least some of us "extreme cheapskates."

For instance, I know that many of us featured on Extreme Cheapskates -- and certainly the vast majority of the proud "cheapskates" I've written about over the years -- live entirely debt free. What about you? By living consistently within, or more commonly below, our means, we've managed to keep debt largely out of our lives. And when we do incur debt (e.g., a home mortgage), we make paying it off as quickly as possible our top financial priority. We live by the very simple, very old-school principle: If you can't afford to pay for it now, you simply can't afford it.

People often ask me what's the biggest thing my wife and I have sacrificed because of our decision to lead what I call "the cheapskate lifestyle"; what's the biggest thing we don't spend money on compared to most people? The answer is easy: Debt service -- in other words, interest payments. Yep, compared to the average American -- who, shockingly, is now estimated to pay more than $600,000 in interest during the course of their life time -- cheapskates like us never have the pure, unmitigated joy of knowing what it's like to spend all of that money on interest. Poor us.

But that's not the only sacrifice most cheapskates make. Did you know that Americans say that they have regrets about 80 percent of the discretionary items they buy within a year of having purchased them? Buyer's remorse is now an epidemic in our culture. I like to think that cheapskates are simply smart enough to figure out what that 80 percent is going to be before they rush out and buy it like most people do. That's another result of the cheapskate's "save before you buy" philosophy: Rarely do we experience the ecstasy of buyer's remorse like most Americans.

Another sacrifice that cheapskates make -- and this comes across loud and clear in every episode of Extreme Cheapskates -- is that we don't revel in the pleasure of wasting a lot of stuff, like typical Americans apparently enjoy doing. Like previous generations of Americans, for whom thrift and frugality were considered virtues and not laughingstock, we believe in using things up, wearing things out, and making things last. For example, according to the USDA, Americans now throw away almost 25 percent of the food they buy. I'm not suggesting that everyone should dumpster dive for table scraps as some of the folks in Extreme Cheapskates do, or that you should force yourself to eat things like goat's heads and fish carcasses as I do in the show (although unless you've actually tried them, how do you know you won't like them?), but how is throwing away 25 percent of the food you buy making you any happier, let alone a moral thing to do given the reality of world food shortages?

For my book The Cheapskate Next Door (by the way, all of my books are available at public libraries -- no need to spend a dime), I surveyed more than 300 proud, self-proclaimed "cheapskates" about their lifestyles and attitudes about money and happiness. Among other things, I found that for most of them their decision to live a frugal lifestyle ultimately had nothing to do with amassing a bunch of money -- in fact, just the opposite. For some of them, there were religious or environmental reasons behind their thriftiness, and nearly all of them contended that spending and consuming less made them happier than most non-cheapskates they knew.

The cheapskates in my survey, and clearly many who have appeared on the show, have a strong sense of "self." They tend to be very self-reliant, preferring to do things for themselves rather than depending on (and paying!) others to do things for them. They have a high degree of self-awareness, knowing exactly what's most important to them in life and being perfectly willing to skip the rest. They're extremely self-confident, which is reflected in the fact that they don't waste money on designer labels or brand names or keeping up with the Joneses. In fact one of them told me, "The Joneses can kiss our assets."

But despite their heightened sense of "self," at least the cheapskates in my survey were anything but "selfish" or "self-centered." In case you're wondering, 95 percent reported tipping at or above industry standards, although they dine out only about 20 percent as frequently as most Americans. And, on average, they donate twice as much to charity as the typical American. Go figure. When I asked those I surveyed for their favorite quote, the most frequent answer was this one from Gandhi: "Live simply so others may simple live."

So next time you tune in to a new episode of Extreme Cheapskates, have some laughs, poke some fun, and diss if you must. But after the show is over, ask yourself how you own life is going when it comes to that whole spending = happiness thing.

The finale of TLC's Extreme Cheapskates airs Tuesday at 10/9c.