Jeff Yeager's wife, Denise, knows better than anyone how frugal her husband can be. This is a man who soft-boils his eggs in the dishwasher (with the dirty dishes), funnels box wine into premium-label bottles and serves it to dinner guests, and has even attempted to make a sweater out of dryer lint. For most of the couple's 24 years of marriage—or “three-and-a-half good years,” as Denise jokes—her hubby's miserly ways were familiar only to family and friends. Then Today show host Matt Lauer referred to Yeager, 50, as the “ultimate cheapskate,” and he became known to millions as the cheapest man in America.
Now our so-called Commander in Cheap has written a book—“The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches: A Practical (and Fun) Guide to Enjoying Life by Spending Less” (Broadway)—in which he unabashedly reveals many of his quirky, money-saving tips. While the book's tone is lighthearted, Yeager's underlying message—that Americans would enjoy life a lot more if they learned to spend and consume less—is decidedly serious.
Failure spoke to Yeager at his Accokeek, Maryland, home to gain further insight into his less-is-more approach to personal finance. Among other things, we discussed his concept of “fiscal fasting,” why he chose to do his book tour by bicycle, and whether he'll change his lifestyle if he becomes a wealthy, successful author.
At Failure we don't often interview self-described losers. Why do you characterize yourself that way?
[Laughs]. Throughout the book, particularly with the term “cheapskate” and to a lesser extent "loser,” I'm trying to capture people's attention and at the same time redefine those terms. I view “cheapskate” as being the polar opposite of “conspicuous consumer.” Conspicuous consumers are folks who spend and consume trying to impress other people. I want cheapskate to refer to folks who are too self-confident and too smart to buy and consume stuff they don't need.
How did you become recognized as the cheapest man in America?
[In 2005] I entered a contest sponsored by [Washington Post personal finance columnist] Michelle Singletary in which she was looking for “Penny Pincher of the Year.” I didn't win the $50 top prize, but Today heard about my entry from Singletary and invited me on the show. That led to the book.
How is “The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map …” different from most personal finance books?
I spent 25 years working in the non-profit sector and because of my background I don't profess to know a lot about making money. It's fair to say that at least 80 percent of all personal finance books are about how to earn more money so you can buy more stuff. In my opinion, those books are great fictional reads—and that's all they are. Everyone wants to believe they can make more money, and the most fictional part is that that will make you happy.
But my advice can be practiced by almost everybody because everyone can spend and consume wisely and consciously. People think it's about sacrifice, but it's really about choice. Because of the choices I've made I have much more comfort and peace of mind knowing that I'm not in debt. I have much more freedom knowing that I'm not a slave to a high spending lifestyle. Most importantly, I have much more free time because I'm not trading all my time for money. I've used “more” three times now, so how is it about less? I guess I own a bit less crap than other people.
Tell me about your book tour.
This is my first book, so I had no prior experience doing a book tour. The publisher told me it would make sense to fly to cities like Phoenix and Miami and do a traditional tour. But I wanted to do something in keeping with the book. So I decided to do the Tour de Cheapskate—a book tour by bicycle. I am cycling from city to city and wherever possible I am staying in the homes of local folks. Then I am taking what I save off the per diem that the publisher provides and donating it to local libraries. So far I have cycled 1,200 miles and I've raised/saved a little more than two thousand dollars.
Consider the beauty of what I just described: First, we're getting far more publicity than had we done a traditional tour. Second, I'm happy because I'm out there cycling, meeting people, and frankly, getting a lot of fodder for future books. And third, rather than spending money—the $250 a day—on Hilton and Avis, we're giving it to local libraries. Everybody wins.
How do you find the locals that are putting you up on the road?
A few months ago I put out a call via my Web site [ultimatecheapskate.com] looking for fellow cheapskates who might be interested in putting me up and a couple hundred folks contacted me. I also mentioned the Tour de Cheapskate on Today and immediately got another hundred-plus invitations.
I also use the Web site couchsurfing.com. It's a network of about a half-million people around the world who will put you up on their couch—for free. Obviously, no one is under any obligation to put you up, but it's one of those networking things where you get to know people and connect with them. I've stayed with over a dozen couchsurfing folks and every experience has been terrific. Of course, I'm generally staying with people for a night or two, so we've not had a chance to get tired of each other [laughs].
Again, the point I'm trying to make is that being a cheapskate as I define it isn't about sacrifice—it's about a choice for a better quality of life. If I spend $200 a night to stay at a hotel, will I remember that later in life? Every couchsurfing person I've stayed with has become a real friend. So I save $200 a night, but that's not the real value. It comes back to the basic premise of my book: The quality of your life and your happiness will increase if you spend and consume less.
Have your hosts taught you any compelling methods for saving money?
It's funny but when you say you're a cheapskate everybody sort of bristles initially. Then they want to challenge you for the title. A lot of people say, “You've got to come and stay with us. We're the cheapest people around.”
There was a guy out in the desert west of Phoenix who invited me in part because he had built his house out of straw bales and it had a dirt floor. Doesn't that sound awful? But I got there and it was a beautiful house. The straw bales were in fact the insulation for an adobe style plaster house and the dirt floor was the desert floor polished with linseed oil.
Speaking of being cheap, some of your money-saving techniques seem pretty extreme.
I'm the country's cheapest man. I have a reputation to uphold.
Is it really possible to soft-boil eggs in the dishwasher?
Yes, I did a bunch of work on this. You can also soft-boil an egg in the basket with your coffee grounds.
And did you really try to make a sweater out of dryer lint?
[Laughs]. I've done a lot of work with dryer lint. A while back I was on Wisconsin Public Radio and almost as a joke I said, “If anybody else is working on this problem about what to do with dryer lint please contact me.” Immediately I had a dozen emails from people in Wisconsin saying, “This is what I do with it.” One person said they mixed it with petroleum jelly to make fire starters.
Are there any big picture money-saving tactics you'd like to talk about?
One of the more practical parts of my book goes to this issue of discretionary spending. I once heard a home organization expert say that 80 percent of the discretionary stuff we buy goes unused or underutilized. His point was that if we are more organized we can make better use of what we have. My contention is: Let's figure out what that 80 percent is and then don't buy it.
The other day I heard a similar statistic—that 80 percent of what we buy, within a year we regret that we bought it. If we buy it and don't use it or we buy it and regret it, how is it increasing our happiness?
That's why I encourage people to wait at least a week—my mandatory waiting period—before making a purchase. At least 50 percent of the time you never go back. And a lot of times when you do go back you say, “What? I was going to buy this?” This is one of the few things we can do as consumers to battle back against the 3,000 commercial messages we hear every day.
Well, the American economy is built on consumer spending.
I'm starting to get this backlash with people insisting, “If we don't buy stuff then everything collapses.” I have a hard time believing that the Ultimate Cheapskate, working out of his garage, is capable of bringing the U.S. economy to its knees.
That said, I believe that current rates of spending and consumption in the U.S. are unsustainable. But nobody wants to hear that, which is why I deliver the message with a laugh track. But if you believe that we're spending and consuming too much, then wouldn't a gradual ratcheting back of that behavior be better than a cataclysmic collapse sometime in the future?
I'm not saying the current economic slowdown is a good thing, but during the leadup to this slowdown what happened? Americans went further into debt than any generation since the Great Depression and by most standards we became less happy than previous generations. So perhaps a scaling back wouldn't be so bad.
Tell me about fiscal fasting.
Fiscal fasting involves going for a week or more without spending any money. A fiscal fast will do three things: First, you'll save some money. Second, it will show you how you spend—and probably waste—money during a normal week. Third, it will remind you that there are many things in life that don't cost a nickel.
Since the book came out a lot of readers have emailed me and said they have actually done this. Most often they say, “I didn't think it could be done,” but then by day three or four they realize it isn't that difficult, and by the end of the week they start feeling guilty about how much they spend and consume every week.
I think it goes to this issue of abundance and how much we have. In our society you don't have to stop and think about it, but if you do, you're shocked.
How do you feel about the spending habits of the Bush administration?
I try to not get involved with political discussions because, for one, I can't take it anymore. I have very strong political views, but that's not what I write about. However, I once worked for a non-profit—the Partnership for Public Service—that was trying to get good people to go into public service, including government service. Even though I'm the cheapest man in America I think by and large the money we spend on government is a good investment. When I pay a plumber, which I rarely do, it strikes me that it costs way too much. But when I drive on roads paid for by tax dollars it seems like that is a good thing.
Does your wife often complain about your frugal ways?
I'm in the doghouse with her right now because we're having this cold snap and I have this apparatus on the thermostat so you can't turn it up too high. This morning she said, “For goodness sake, Jeff, I can see my breath in the kitchen.” I said, “Oh, great, I can unplug the refrigerator because it's cold enough now.”
All kidding aside, it's a great relationship. We share many of the same views on money.
What happens if you become a big-time author and begin earning a lot of money from your writing?
I don't know how to respond to that. It's not that I don't like money it's just that I'm ambivalent about it. I wasn't motivated to write the book by money, nor have I made a lot of money off of it. All I can say is that if someone drops a bunch of money on me, I really believe that my life would not change at all.