Cheapskate Jeff Yeager’s advice? Simplify.
By Katie Scarvey
That’s the one word that can help people save money and be happier, says Jeff Yeager, known as The Ultimate Cheapskate,
Simple is usually cheaper, he says, and often, it’s conducive to happiness and health ó not only our own, but the planet’s as well.
Yeager ó who makes frequent media appearances, including “The Today Show” ó is the author of “The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches.”
He’s known for cheapness that some would consider extreme.
“I don’t decant,” Yeager says. “I recant.” That means he funnels box wine into a nice bottle.
“Nobody ever questions it,” he says.
Yeager’s real goal, however, is not to teach us cheapskate parlor tricks but to get us to seriously examine our priorities.
I became acquainted with Yeager when he e-mailed me after I mentioned him in a column. I’d written about his appearance on “Today,” in which he’d innocently suggested that people might consider giving up their cell phones to save money ó prompting Matt Lauer to react as though Yeager had suggested that an accountant could save money by giving up his calculator in favor of an abacus.
He told me a little more about the unexpected fallout from that appearance, and then I suggested a phone interview, since Yeager has some pretty good thoughts to share on how to reduce our cost of living while increasing our enjoyment of living.
It’s a good time to be in the cheapskate business, says Yeager, who used to work for non-profit organizations.
His book came out last year when the economy was well on its way toward tanking, and many people were ready to take a more serious look at thrift, he says.
Yeager is not inclined to tell people how to get more and pay less.
“That’s not what I believe in,” he says. “My whole approach is hopefully to realize that less can be more.”
We should be spending less time asking, “How can we afford this?” and more time asking, “Do we really need this?” Yeager says. “If we don’t buy, what are the impacts?”
Unless people are old enough to have lived through the Depression, it’s hard for them to really consider taking unprecedented action ó like giving up cable or cell phones.
Those of us who didn’t live through the Depression are living in unprecedented financial times, Yeager says, and unprecedented times require unprecedented action. That means an entirely new way of thinking for people who have been conditioned to consume rather than save.
Eating lower on the food chain, Yeager says, is generally cheaper as well as healthier. (Compare the cost of a pound of lentils to the cost of a pound of steak).
We waste too much, Yeager says, with about 25 percent of the food we buy going in the garbage.
We are also wasteful in the way he drive, and we throw our clothing out when there is still plenty of wear left in it, he says.
Simply reducing waste can have a huge impact on your budget, he says.
He encourages people to look at their ongoing expenses. What are necessities? What are simply wants?
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Yeager points out that he certainly doesn’t consider himself deprived because he doesn’t have a cell phone.
“It’s not about sacrifice,” he says.
Yeager’s approach is more inspirational than preachy.
“I’m more concerned about amassing a quality of life than a quantity of stuff,” Yeager says.
“The core of what I write, and what I’ve believed for years, is that most Americans, not all, would be happier, and their quality of life would increase, if they would spend and consume less.
“It’s about recognizing that beyond a certain point, amassing more isn’t making you any happier.”
“Most of us are flipping out because we can’t afford the cable bill. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“I have a hard time appreciating that somebody is on the verge of tears about the notion of giving up cable,” especially when half the world lives on $2 a day, he says.
But many of Americans, he says, “are just not prepared to accept” what they consider to be deprivation.
“I believe that current rate of spending and consumption in America is unsustainable to the planet and frankly, unfair to other people.”Yeager points out that while we are only 5 percent of the world’s population, we consume 30 percent of the world’s resources.
“If everyone consumed at that rate,” he says, we would require three planet Earths.
Yeager also points out that there is no science that shows we are any happier because of all the spending and consuming we do.
Money, he says, only buys happiness when it lifts someone out of poverty.
Yeager points out that during our greatest period of prosperity, we went further into debt than any generation since the Great Depression.
“Wealth didn’t inspire most of us to save anything,” he says.
People tend to be angry these days, at the government and at big corporations, but he believes that maybe we should look at ourselves and our own habits.
“Our proclivity to be living beyond our means is a big part of how this fell apart,” he says of the current financial crisis.
Some people would do well to take out their anger on their credit cards ó and get rid of them, he says, since the average household has about $10,000 in credit card debt.
“It’s crazy. The only things you should borrow money for are a house, and perhaps a car and perhaps a college education.”
Although most college students today don’t even consider living at home, he suggests re-thinking that.
What good is it, he asks, to live away from home for those four years if you’re so broke at graduation that you have to move back in with your parents?
In terms of debt, Yeager says, there has been a huge generational shift, not just in terms of the amount of debt Americans consider acceptable but the age at which they go into debt.
Debt has come to seem like a natural thing to young people, he says. A 20-year-old college student who has $40,000 in student loans might not think much about acquiring another $10,000 in credit card debt.
Very few parents make any formal attempt to teach their children about money, he says.
But, he points out, “100 percent of parents teach about money through the example they set ó and statistically, that ain’t a good example.”
Most people, he says, don’t know the first thing about personal finance.
One area in which people can re-examine their habits is in their food habits.
Yeager’s goal is always to spend less than $1 a pound for food.
He points out that some of the least expensive foods happen to provide excellent nutrition ó and many of the things that are bad for us cost the most.
We may need to ask ourselves not, “What do I want to eat?” but “What can I make with the inexpensive ingredients I have to work with?”And yes, Yeager does eat meat. He’s had a lot of people tell him that you can’t buy meat for $1 a pound where they live, but he often takes the challenge and proves them wrong.
“I can almost always find chicken and turkey for under $1 a pound,” he says. He also buys fresh produce and eats seasonally.
And yes, there will be weeks when he can’t get broccoli for under $1 a pound, but if that’s the case, then he finds something else.”I don’t go in saying, ‘I’ve got to get this item,’ ” he says.
People also need to consider doing more things for themselves, he says.
“We don’t consider that we could raise some of our own food or wash our own car. We assume that we have to work harder at our real jobs” so that we can hire someone to do things for us, he says.
A lot of books about money are telling people how to get more of it, he says.
“There’s probably a place for that, but it’s not the most practical way for people to approach their finances,” he says.
“Being smart about spending is something that everybody can apply. No matter what your economic situation, you can always spend differently.”
It’s not about sacrifice but about choices, he says.
“Ironically, the least expensive choice tends to result in the greatest happiness.”