Are You an Extreme Cheapskate?

The other night I caught an episode of the new TLC show, Extreme Cheapskates. I was looking forward to the show because it seemed to tap into my frugal interests, although I knew ahead of time the advice would be most “extreme,” sensational even, in an effort to attract an audience.

I was right. Some of the tactics used to save money were quite extreme (in my opinion), such as a mother of six banning toilet paper from her home and instead using cloth scraps. The used scraps were tossed in a hamper and washed every couple days. Yuck.

Another show participant went around to fellow diners at restaurants with a to-go box in hand asking if they planned to finish the food on their plates. If they said no, he asked if he could take it.

I suppose he should be commended for attempting to reduce food waste, but I’m not sure how sanitary it is to share the meals of 20 strangers. At one point the show mentioned this family rescued dogs and provided them temporary shelter. Perhaps the scraps were for the dogs. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here.

Naturally, the show also featured a dumpster diver who thought it was classy to dig through the trash to look for his wife’s anniversary present. I say you don’t have to spend a lot of money to give or make a thoughtful gift, but digging something out of the garbage to give to someone you love says more about how little you think of this person than your frugal prowess.

The show did have some redeeming moments, such as Jeff Yeager’s feature (he’s a fellow frugal writer, in case you have never had the pleasure of reading his material such as his book, The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches). Jeff has some excellent ideas for saving money such as bicycling to town for short errands to minimize the expense of operating a car (particularly relevant given the recent run up in gas prices).

Jeff also mentioned something I whole-heartedly agree with, and something I have heard him mention in the past: avoid lifestyle creep.

Lifestyle creep is the phenomenon that occurs when people, over time, allow their lifestyle to “creep” higher and higher, costing them more and more money each month to maintain.

This “creep” is often motivated by a “must keep up with the Joneses” mentality. After all, when we see people driving nice cars, we want one. When our friends and family upgrade houses, we want to do it, too.

The problem is that all this “upgrading” causes our monthly expenses to creep ever higher, reducing the amount of free cash flow to divert towards savings (and often leads to the accumulation of debt).

It also means we have to work much longer than those who decide to draw a line in the sand and keep expenses in check as much as possible. Jeff and his wife were able to “retire” early by keeping their expenses flat and avoiding the accumulation of new debt.

So while I won’t be rinsing and reusing any Ziploc bags, or forgoing toilet paper, in the near future, I do plan to continue watching the series and learning small ways to apply new frugal tips.

To me, living frugal is all about avoiding extremes. Frugal people often do spend more money than extreme cheapskates, because we value the quality of items enough to spend a little more up front to get more use and enjoyment of things over the long run.

My fear with this new show is that it will portray “frugal” folks as extreme, in general, when in fact the large majority of truly frugal people I know are quite moderate and simply make small decisions throughout their day towards reducing their bottom line.


  1. Because “Live below your means & invest in low cost index funds” wouldn’t be a ratings grabber. The show is for entertainment value, even reality tv isn’t so “real”.
    Being frugal isn’t being cheap, it’s making the best use of your time, resources & money.

  2. It’s such a shame that we only get extreme examples for our ‘entertainment’. I’ve been frugal and moderate my entire life. The only time anyone ever asks me about it is when they’re about to lose everything they’ve bought on money they haven’t earned. Once they find another escape hatch, they have no regard for the way I chose to live even though it’s rather awesome, if I do say so myself.

    On the topic of rinsing plastic bags. Ahem. For me, there’s a very tight connection between being frugal, taking good care of myself, my home, and respecting the environment. The best thing would be to avoid plastics wherever possible. When not avoidable, it is best to make maximum use of them. Just google ‘the great pacific garbage patch’ and watch a few videos of the footage. Our waterways are choking in discarded plastics, most of which cannot be recycled and fail to make it to landfills. Better still, we need manufacturers to take responsibility for all of the plastics they use for their products from cradle to grave…. Lecture over. I’m sure you get my point. I’ll go rinse those bags now…. Cheers!

  3. My friends already think I’m extreme for keeping my heat at 55 through Maine winters and installing a switch on my water heater, so I have to wait 30 minutes to take a hot shower. Maybe I should show them this to prove that I’m not as crazy as they think.

  4. This Extreme Cheapskate article gives very balanced opinions. I find it interesting that your articles on extreme couponing are so one sided, basically slamming couponers. Why such a difference in opinion?

    • Well, for the most part, the extreme couponing show only showed people spending several hours at a grocery store to hoard mountains and mountains of products that they will likely never use up. To me, that is extreme, and there was little balance on that particular show (at least the couple episodes that I watched).

      • I see what you are saying, but the show highlighted many people donating extra food and clothing to charities, only buying what they needed, etc.

        Like you said, there are things to be learned from watching Extreme Cheapskate and there are most definitely things to learn from watching Extreme Couponing. I think if you have an open mind about one show, you should have an open mind about the other. The two shows and the exact same thing. Just my opinion though.

  5. “My fear with this new show is that it will portray “frugal” folks as extreme, in general…”

    It isn’t merely a fear, it’s a certainty. That’s the way with all reality programming. I am a homeschooler and I am also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon). Now tell me you don’t already have strong ideas about me, based on what you’ve seen on TV. You’re combining the worst of both and painting a picture of me in your head.

    These shows never showcase the normal people. I guess that’s what makes them “good” viewing; or, at least, it makes each of us feel superior by comparison. I may be a packrat, but I’m no hoarder! I might need to lose a few pounds, but not Biggest Loser level! We showcase the nutjobs and watch in horror and fascination as their sad lives spin out in front of the camera, congratulating ourselves that at least we’re not like that ourselves.

    • Very well put, Alyson. And by the way, I personally don’t have strong ideas about you for being a member of LDS or a homeschoolers because I have researched both and find much to agree with. Unfortunately, few people take time to investigate anything and rely on media soundbites to form their opinions.

    • I agree with Jason – any preconceived notion of MINE of homeschooling and LDS is a good one, in my opinion, based only on the folks I personally know who follow these lines. I don’t have TV cable – so am free to make my own opinions 🙂

      And Jason? I am hoping this show is on so I can get a glimpse of one of them…. I rarely resort to unless something has been mentioned or recommended.

  6. “Anyone who comes to my table at a restaurant and asks for my leftovers isn’t cheap, they are sick and need help.”

    People are mentally ill because they don’t conform to social standards of politeness? That seems like a bit of a stretch. We bash lifestyle creep by saying that you shouldn’t care what others think of you, but then judge people as ill who don’t conform to our own standard of living? Hmm. I don’t think we’re using our critical thinking skills here.

    Personally, I think the real sickness is the sheer volume of waste we generate in the US. It is mind-blowing. If someone wants my leftovers, more power to them. I think the worst you could say of these folks is that they are odd, maybe rude, and potentially risking their health by eating strangers’ food. But mentally ill? That is just hyperbole.

  7. While I *do* use toilet paper, I have to question the level of disgust many people have for the people who choose to use cloth. I cloth diaper my children, and use cloth wipes on them… what’s the difference?

    • Could be because the woman Jason mentioned washed them every TWO DAYS, which means they’re sitting in the house gaining stink. Also, there was no mention of how this frugal mother washed them. In cold water, to save on water heating expenses? You have to wonder about that: if someone is that determined to save money on TP using cloth, they’ll probably short change the cleaning process, too.

      And another question: with 6 kids, how often does she let them shower, and use hot water to get themselves truly clean?

      • My Mom used cloth diapers on us and the dirty ones went into the diaper pail with soapy water to soak until there were enough for her to do a small load in the washer. This was/is normal (if we can use that un-PC word) in the cloth diaper world. Not much diffrent from the fabric TP the woman on the show used. Not that everyone should switch to reusable TP but we shouldn’t be dancing around going, “yuck” when many of our mothers had a diaper pail lurking in the bathroom.

  8. I’m so upset I missed this show, I hope I catch the reruns.

    I enjoy shows like this (Extreme Couponing, Hoarders, etc) because it makes me examine my own life. Maybe it forces others to do the same, and it makes them uncomfortable.

    But I’ll tell you, after the end of every Hoarders ep my apartment is SPARKLING CLEAN.

    • lol- I can never make it to the end of an episode of Hoarders without already having started cleaning. It makes me crazy about any kind of clutter around me!!

  9. Thanks for commenting, Jeff. I knew of you before the “goat head” episode, but I’m glad others have now been introduced to you as well! Funny, when I heard about the show’s casting I immediately had you in mind. Then I forgot about the show for a while, but tuned in the other night and who did I see, The Ultimate Cheapskate!

  10. Jeff, I particularly enjoyed your segment. It sure has changed the way I look at pay phones – now I’m always looking for something shiny. 🙂

  11. I like to think of myself as a cheapskate… but we’re nowhere near the folks profiled on that show!

    I saw the guy who cut his toothpaste tubes open to squeeze out every last drop. Seriously, if you add up the amount of time wasted by doing that. He probably puts in a good couple of hours of work before he saves enough toothpaste to make one full tube…. and save himself what? a buck?

  12. I’m sure the scraps were for the dogs.. YET how rude to disturb people when they are dining out.

    I save money in one area to spend in other areas. I like to buy mostly organic and natural food products.. so I’ll cut back in other areas; .. like spending a half hour taking lint off a garment and making it look brand new; instead of replacing it.

    I’ll ignore a few stain that will not come off a slip cover … no matter how many times I wash it; …because it is more important I spend on healthier foods for (yet again).

    And my hair. I’ll spend 60.00 every 8 weeks… instead of dying it myself since it comes so much more natural. (Yet I’ll wait until the Gap sweaters go on sale from 80.00 to 12.00 and buy 3).

    I will not buy new garments until on sale………….but I have a downstairs apartment I can rent for 1000 to 1200 a month; yet I use the whole house for serenity.. ..less people .. more calm.

    I did furnish my back yard and tiny tiny porch with things others threw out in perfect condition. A wicker chair; real terra cotta pots..a lounge chair that still had the price tag on… (a shame things people throw out in my area).

    Frugality in one helps in other area.. !!

    Oh and free cookies. The bakery sections often have free cookies on trays; .. my ex used to say do not touch them since others might have bumped one taking another free one. I think that is silly;..and they replenished them constantly. So I’ll take a free yummy cookie or muffin to bring home to my son or eat myself.

    I also buy reduced food in the back. Yesterday got organic breadcrumbs or 2.25 instead of 3.99. (got two of them)

  13. It’s extreme, just like the shows about spendthrifts. There’s not much of a market for “Frugal Living Average Folks”. If you don’t like it, please don’t tune in. I have watched some of these clips on YouTube. The people on that show exemplify a degrading, dehumanizing, brutish existence. I won’t call it a lifestyle. Putting your kids at risk of contracting serious diseases because you can’t handle flushing paper down the drain is just unforgiveable.

    • Using toilet paper is not the norm in every culture. We are just used to it. Some cultures rinse instead. I discovered this when I traveled internationally. I learned to carry a small pack of tissues to the restroom with me, to support my American habit!

  14. There’s nothing wrong with being frugal or even cheap, especially when it is a lifestyle choice. I know many frugal people and by in large their lifestyle is much better for the environment and more conducive to maintaining the limited resources we have on this planet. The shame is that by focusing on shock value, shows like this give anyone who practices even a moderate amount of frugality a bad name. Because the show is really meant to make fun of frugal living it is in fact a testimonial to the consumerist lifestyle that has put most people into the debt they have today. Shame on you TLC.

  15. The washable toilet paper also known as “Family Cloth”, is a frugal and environmentally friendly way to cut disposable paper costs.
    Some families use it just for number 1 and toilet paper for number 2. Some use it for everything. Most people store the used toilet cloth in a sealed bucket with detergent or vinegar water and it does not smell! I have traveled to foreign countries where you can’t flush any paper products at all, they go in a trash can by the toilet. You would have a realy problem with that wouldn’t you?
    It is amazing how doing something different labels you a freak in some people’s mind, I told a fellow exerciser at the gym, that I was not going to the grocery store for two weeks.. as a challenge.. to use up the food I have at home and you would have thought I told her I was going to run naked through the building! Her shocked face cracked me up.
    Everyone has their level of frugalness they are willing to go to.
    Now I am off to hang the laundry on the line, that will really freak someone out I am sure!!

    • Yeah, by chance were ALL of the countries you cite third world countries? There’s a reason we’ve eradicated a lot of terrible diseases in developed countries. The kind of people featured in that clip are doing their damndest to bring these horrible afflictions back.

      • In upscale areas of Hong Kong, and France, toilet paper is not the norm. Hardly third world countries.

  16. My main comment is “Do Americans have nothing better to do than watch these ridiculous ‘reality shows’ like Extreme Cheapskates, Hoarders, Storage Wars and so on and so on.”
    Do you ever ask yourself why the average American knows so very little
    about the rest of the world or even their own country.
    Even the news channels in the US are dumbed-down for general purpose.
    Too bad people didn’t spend more time watching Public Television or even the BBC News (thats British news in case you didn’t know).

    There is some real information…..

  17. Readers, things become cheap if it doesn’t fit with others in the society. Go to a poorer nation, you will find people not having even a cloth for toilet, forget toilet paper.

    If you can’t get your meals, why should you care about toilet papers.

  18. It’s the pareto principle in real life. Pinching those extra pennnies takes a lot of work. At some point you have to wonder if they’d be better off working a few hours in a part time job. I like being frugal, but I try and avoid extremes.

  19. About toilet cloths: yuck! Toilet paper goes on sale regularly, and there are coupons, so the key here is to purchase it on sale, in bulk, and don’t use 50 squares at a time! Plus, you do have to wash these, preferably in hot water with soap and bleach. This increases hot water costs, plus you have to buy additional bleach and detergent. And I would hope they would be washed by themselves, and not with other items.

    It’s just my opinion, of course, but this is something I wouldn’t do unless there was some sort of global apocalypse, that I somehow survived, and I completely exhausted the toilet paper supply in my area. I think the costs associated with washing these things, and the chance for bladder or other infections are too great.

  20. I do not use tp, paper towels, paper napkins because it helps to save trees and helps to save money. I make napkins, use dish towels and dish cloths. For paper towels and nasty jobs, I save clothing scraps and toss the scrap when finished, as opposed to washing it.

    When I go to a dinner where people know me, I ask lots of people for their scraps for my hens. When I am in a restaurant, I will ask people nearby for scraps for my hens if the people look friendly. I tell them upfront, the food is for my four hens.

    I am well-educated, living in genteel poverty, at one with the earth.

  21. Frugality is good but it also has limits like anything else in life. Extreme frugality is bad for one reason — it shifts all your energy on saving only. Instead, a balance life allows you to be frugal on major expenses but use the energy otherwise on enjoying life instead of living under the stress of extreme frugality.

  22. I agree when you say frugal people often spend more than the rest of us. When I was a kid, my dad would buy my clothes from the clearance rack, which I never wore, because I didn’t like them or they didn’t fit well. That was proof to me that buying things just because they were cheap was not a good idea. We would have saved money by not buying things that I wasn’t going to wear but instead, chose carefully those that I did like and would wear. Great post. I’d love to see that show sometime, but it’s a little hard when I’m too frugal to pay for cable TV!

  23. Jeff: Your segment of the show was the most informative from the standpoint of how it influenced our family to change the way we think about frugality. Your biggest impact on us was with the fiscal fasting, which we are incorporating in all of 2012. In addition, we have really put more thought into methods to save money that suit our family’s needs. Thanks for educating the masses even though some consider it extreme.

    • Jeff, LOVED LOVED your idea of a week free of spending money. I thought that was a wonderful idea. It gives us real insight to just how much we depend on money even when we think we are not spending it. I loved the show, the whole show, as with any reality type show it will be exaggerated. so what, makes it more interesting. However, I will pass on the goats head. 🙂

  24. I think Extreme Frugality is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. I always wash out my Ziplocs, as much because of the environmental impact as the cost savings, but I am willing to suck up the environmental impact of toilet paper vs. washing reusable clothes. (Agree – ewww.) For me, washing Ziplocs isn’t extreme; I’ve never *not* washed Ziplocs. Other things many of your readers probably routinely do (buying used clothing, gardening, keeping older cars) would be considered extreme by many. My husband was able to resign from his job to be home with our three-year-old and manage the house, and the only way we were able to go down to one income was by following Jeff’s advice and not letting our lifestyle and obligations balloon. When we had our third, surprise, child, many people asked if we would be moving from the house we’d bought back when we were planning on one, maybe two kids. But staying in our home has made us much more nimble as a family, which gives us greater freedom in the areas that really count to us.

  25. I agree with you Jason. I like to save money and I like to think of myself as a frugal person but there are some things that are not worth saving money on. I would rather spend money on tp any day than have to wash dirty cloth scraps. Some comforts are just not worth giving up in order to save a couple bucks.

  26. I think that there needs to be a distinction between frugality and being cheap. I think people who describe themselves as frugal highly value the value of a product, how much you pay vs. the quality. Cheap people tend to only look at price and that is not the only factor when trying to save money. If you only buy the cheapest products you may end up spending more replacing or not getting all the worth out of the product that they could have by spending slightly more.

  27. Really interesting points here – I totally agree that there is a danger of frugal people being labelled ‘extreme’ because of shows like this. The media should be doing more to encourage a more money smart mentality, especially in this economic climate. Much of being frugal comes down to common sense and not taking more than you need.
    Nice post!

  28. Hubs and I are bargain hunters like crazy – but we draw the line at gross or unsanitary. One way we save is we don’t mind using things with seasonal logos or colors if we get a good price on the item. Like buying Valentine sox and underwear when it’s 75% off. We’ll wear them whenever – and sometimes the item might be in seasonal colors but not designs -like getting red or white or blue picnic cups for a quarter for 4. And I always spend money after Christmas to buy wrapping paper and bags for the next year at half or 75% off. We aren’t so cheap we use newspaper for wrapping paper. (We use newspaper to stuff boxes we mail :-). When we’re given a gift in a box, we always reuse the boxes till they fall apart (we wrap them tho) and we reuse gift bags that are given to us. I’ll find clothes at the thrift store that I almost like and re-fashion them so I really like them. Sometimes I find a dress for a dollar but I don’t like the top, just the print, so I cut the top off and make a skirt from it. Sometimes I don’t like the collar on something so I’ll take it off or do something different with it. I change slacks into shorts or capris, even sweaters into hats, gloves and leg warmers. Being frugal isn’t a bad hobby!