This reader story comes to us from Bill Fay, who is a writer for Debt.org, where he is known as The Most Frugal Man in America. He spent 21 years in the newspaper business and eight more in television and radio, dealing with college and professional sports, then seven forgettable years writing speeches and marketing materials for a government agency.
Some reader stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income.
I took my wife to a local diner the other night, and things got a little cranky on the ride home. She had a Cobb salad and a Diet Coke. I had the Classic Chicken Sandwich and water. We split a dessert. The bill came to $11.51.
“I think they overcharged us,” I said as we got back in the car.
We don't go out much, and complaints about how much it costs are the primary reason. I don't like restaurant prices, and she doesn't like hearing about it. As we pulled in the driveway, she glared at the recycle bins and garbage can she asked me to take in before we left, and decided she had heard enough.
“Who cares about the bill?” she asked, slamming the car door. “Just get that stuff in off the driveway.”
Translation: “You got off cheap. Again! Give it a rest.”
Frugality comes naturally
I do get off cheap and always have. It comes naturally. I've never taken a finance class. I don't clip coupons. I have never — EVER! — made out a budget, but I am frugal. I get more with less than anybody I know.
I do it primarily with the barter system. I was a sportswriter in a previous life, which gave me access to tickets to a lot of events people were dying to see. When word spread that I could get someone in to see games all over the country, a bartering business was born.
I sat in the lower bowl at Super Bowls, Final Fours, national championship bowl games and NBA Finals — all without ever paying for a ticket.
I skied for a week in Colorado — airfare, boots, clothing, room, food and lift tickets included — for under $750. Three times!
When I would come home from a week-long fishing vacation at a beach-side condo in Florida that cost me under $300 — gas, food and bait included — my neighbors would scream: “YOU ARE SO CHEAP!”
My response? “Thank you!”
I provided a service that didn't cost me anything and got rewards that would have cost me plenty. Calling me cheap was a compliment for what I was doing.
Unfortunately, most people don't see it that way. They hate being called cheap. It is an insult to their financial standing, not to mention a stain on their social reputation. They like being in the race to keep up with the Joneses. They like bragging about it even more.
I have a neighbor who boasted about the five grand he spent on his last vacation and the $500 anniversary dinner he and the Mrs. had and the 800-square-foot addition he put on his house a year ago — and then a “For Sale” sign went up in his yard. He lost his job and the next thing you know, the bank was foreclosing.
Scrimping is my specialty
He was not alone. Keeping up with the Joneses can be costly. RealtyTrac, a company that tracks foreclosures and defaults, says there have been 14.4 million foreclosure filings since 2007 because people at all ends of the economic spectrum couldn't make their mortgage payments. Since 2011, RealtyTrac says there have been 231,000 foreclosure filings for homes valued at more than $500,000.
Missing a few mortgage payments isn't the only place in the economy where we're still courting financial trouble. A survey by the American Payroll Association said that, in 2010, 72 percent of Americans report living paycheck to paycheck. Back then, the recession was the biggest factor. But now it seems that credit card debt and student loans are the primary reasons. We get by, until something unexpected comes along.
What happens then? You scrimp … or they take your home.
Scrimping is my specialty. I was so good at it in college, they nicknamed me “No-Pay Fay.” I'm a little older and more refined now, so I prefer being addressed as “Frugal Man.” In fact, my friends at dictionary.com identified me perfectly when they defined frugal as: “… prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful.”
I definitely am sparing and seldom waste anything. It's how I can live in a neighborhood full of Joneses and smile when they make fun of my “sparing, not wasteful” ways. It's also how I can take Mrs. Fay out to dinner for $11.51 and think I overpaid, which I did.
Food was half off at the neighborhood diner that night, but when I checked the receipt, they had charged me for a Coke. I never order anything but water when I eat out. That was $1.50 that shouldn't have been there.
Normally, I get mad and go back to raise hell, but it was cold that night. And I still had to get those recycle bins and garbage can in, so I did as asked and gave it a rest. Sometimes it's more prudent to make Mrs. Fay happy than try to win a frugal fight.