It’s often said that there’s a fine line between being frugal and being a cheapskate. But that can be misleading. After checking out a reality TV show on The Learning Channel called Extreme Cheapskates, I see that there can be a very thick line between the thrifty and the stingy. Just look at the show’s participants. Though they are gainfully employed with roofs over their heads, their behaviour resembles that of crazed and desperate vagabonds. They pinch nickels in ways that range from the ridiculous, to the unsettling, to the downright creepy. It’s personal and household debt management that’s gone off the rails.
Consider some of the debt management practices. For instance, in place of toilet paper, the extreme cheapies use pieces of scrap cloth, then rinse them in preparation for re-use. They just throw them into a nearby bucket for transfer to the laundry room. Alternatively, they buy discounted, two-ply bathroom tissue and peel it to make one-ply rolls. That’s just a start. To cut back on utility bills, they re-use bathwater. Handy – from their point of view I guess – for doing the dishes, washing the kitchen counter, maybe even nourishing the houseplants if the water isn’t too soapy. Further savings come from cutting back shower time to once a month, or flushing the toilet once or twice a week. Appalling, you say? Well, there’s more.
They go garbage digging for dinner items in the bins behind eateries, bakeries, and food stores. I suppose that when planning dinner parties, they check the dumpsters behind the high-end restaurants, too. For one-on-one dinner dates, skinflint Romeos pluck withering bouquets from discarded bags out back of flower shops. Meanwhile, the extreme cheapies search out events where free food is being served, then stuff their pockets with napkin-wrapped morsels to take back home. Packets of condiments available at fast-food joints and coffee shops get lifted as well. It’s a spend-free way to keep old bottles of ketchup and honey full back at the house, and to top up those salt, pepper, and sugar shakers. I imagine other practices include watering down any wine or liquor that’s in the house, and making sure thermostats are turned way down or off during the winter months. Doubtless the thinking is that it won’t kill anyone in the family to wear a parka, a toque, and mittens while eating supper or watching TV.
Clearly, there’s no fine line between frugality and cheapness in these matters. What we see here is a miserly approach to life that would be comical if it weren’t so embarrassing. I have to wonder about the psychological state of these people. Have they no self-respect? Have they no social manners? Have they no desire to live decent, reasonably comfortable lives? I suppose there’s a bit of an upside to all the grubbiness. It stands as a shining example to well-mannered, frugal souls of how not to live life economically no matter how high the priority for savings. As the saying goes, wise souls do not live to save, they save to live.
Cheapskates come by degree, of course. Beyond the extreme examples, there are what I would call the run-of-the-mill cheapskates. We’re all familiar with these types, resembling the character of George Costanza from the old TV sitcom Seinfeld. Their sins are more forgivable than those of their extreme brethren, but there remains an annoying air of seediness about them. When they go out to share food and good times with others, they invariably forget to bring along their wallets. When they do step up to shell out in a group, they haggle over small change or simply fail to pay their fair share. They don’t tip. They sneak bottles of their own booze into bars. They buy cheap crap and then wonder in anger why it doesn’t last. They thoughtlessly re-gift stuff to the very people they received the gifts from in the first place. They need lessons in manners.
As for the rest of us with self-respect, we ought to know that there is nothing grubby about frugality, strictly defined. It is the simple practice of careful spending based on putting mostly modest wants before all-important needs and obligations. It’s about managing your debt in a responsible way, and finding savings wherever possible without being reduced to a rude life of misery or even, as The Learning Channel teaches, degradation.