Being Cheap: Even Wealthy Among Us Can’t Help It
By JENNIFER ENGLISH
Jeff makes no bones about it he’s cheap. Really cheap.
He’ll rifle through a rack of $6.99 jeans at the Goodwill store in Los Feliz, and wouldn’t twice about heading straight to the day-old section at supermarkets or reserve windowless cabins at already discounted cruises.
He once bought a used toilet seat at a garage sale and installed it by himself, of course.
“I think if you asked 100 people, and they were honest, 99 percent of them would say they hate to spend money,” reasons Jeff, a retiree in his 60s (who admits buying a used chandelier for his house). “That’s just the way it is I’d rather hold on to it than spend it.”
The thing is, he doesn’t need to be haggling for other people’s toilet seats. Nor does he need to buy worn Levi’s. The guy lives in wealthy Hancock Park, wears designer sunglasses and drives a new sedan. In other words, Jeff represents that rarefied breed of tightwad the well-off kind. (No wonder he didn’t want his last name used.)
Frugality is just not the purview of the poor. It crops up, again and again, on the doorsteps of folks who can spend their way through Barneys or Fred Segal people who can fly first class (without the upgrade) or drop 500 bucks at L’Orangerie without flinching.
Except they don’t not on their own dimes.
Stinginess is a character trait, so it’s impossible to quantify like trying to figure out how many people wake up grumpy or show up for movies 45 minutes early. But talk to the folks who run thrift stores or restaurants with early-bird specials and they’ll tell you plenty about the cheapskate crowd.
‘My family teases me’
John Nieto, who manages the Out of the Closet thrift chain, says people regularly pull up outside its stores in expensive cars. What they’re looking for, he says, are the best deals new shoes or expensive accessories that other well-off folks may have just donated. “Everyone wants to save, but they’re very selective,” he says.
Will Tucker, a real estate agent and investor in Santa Barbara County, rents out the living room of his one-bedroom apartment to save $300 a month even though he says he could easily afford several times the rent. He avoids going out to eat, or traveling, and prefers jogging to other sports because it doesn’t cost anything. At Christmas, Tucker wraps his family’s presents in newspapers. “My family teases me,” admits Tucker. “I’m always looking for ways to save money.”
Thomas Celdran, a Hollywood resident who also is a Goodwill shopper, doesn’t go quite that far. But he did comparison shop “aggressively” until he could find a no-frills Las Vegas hotel room for $50 a night. A regular thrift store shopper and occasional recycler of plastic bags and jars, he says he spends the money he saves on eating out. “I do it for the challenge,” says Celdran.
Among other things, according to Felicia Friendly Thomas, a psychology professor at Cal Poly Pomona and a licensed therapist, “It’s possible that even if someone could pay quite a bit of money for things, they associate something negative with the spending of money.”
Being cheap and rich is a club with many well-known members: H.L. Hunt, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Clark Gable, Groucho Marks and Ty Cobb, to name just a few. Oil magnate J. Paul Getty had a pay phone in the foyer of his British country estate and, according to Getty biographer Robert Lenzner, would determine how much to pay his gatekeeper by multiplying the number of times the gate was opened and closed by some tiny amount.
William Randolph Hearst would not tolerate guests at his San Simeon estate making long-distance calls without his say so. Nearing death, Cornelius Vanderbilt questioned the advice of his doctors to drink a glass of champagne each day to ease the pain. “I can’t afford it,” Vanderbilt replied, “won’t sodywater do?” Even Franklin Roosevelt had a cheap streak: Porters on the train taking him to Hyde Park preferred to be stationed in the press car because reporters were much better tippers.
Cheapness at all levels
It’s understandable, even laudable, to be frugal when money is tight. Amy Dacyczyn and her husband got by over the years on an average annual income of $30,000 despite raising a large family. “Saving money, rather than earning money, became the means to my goal,” she wrote 12 years ago in the premiere edition of her The Tightwad Gazette. She has become a kind of thrift crusader.
“I became a reuser first of aluminum foil, then of ziplock bags, and now, I publicly confess, I have become a reuser of vacuum cleaner bags. I made it my personal mission to create ways to reuse plastic milk jugs, bread tabs, brown paper bags, egg cartons and those frozen juice lids,” Dacyczyn proclaimed.
But J. Paul Getty didn’t have to reuse egg cartons to make ends meet. Nor do the 20,000 Angelenos who have a net worth of more than $5 million.
So why are they such tightwads? There are several theories.
Old-timers who lived through the Great Depression and saw their parents wait on bread lines have been forever branded with the importance of holding onto a well-cushioned nest egg no matter how much money they happen to have.
Sometimes, those attitudes can be transferred to younger generations. Thomas says that if Dad never tipped more than 5 percent, his kids might have a hard time breaking that habit. In other cases, thriftiness is a powerful response to growing up knowing someone an uncle, perhaps, or a family friend who frittered away their chance at financial security by overspending.
Then there’s the gamesmanship angle treating thriftiness as a kind of sport. Online, www.tightwad.com shows visitors various creative ways to meet the penny-pinching challenge: from how to make an oil lamp out of a cola can and an old sock a trick that the site raves is “perfect for camping” to ordering free samples of Pringles.
Jonathan Kreuyer, retail operations manager for Out of the Closet, says that for some customers, saving is a compulsive thrill. Frequently, these people will haggle over a pair of $6 pants in an attempt to save $1.
“They need to, or they don’t feel like they’re getting a deal,” Kreuyer says.
Some experts cite plain old genetics or more specifically, a kind of internal valuation meter that’s inside each one of us. Writing in Forbes FYI several years ago, Adam Platt discovered that cheapskates and splurgers actually had a lot in common. “Both groups are responding to a perception of a disordered world,” Platt concluded, noting they “tend to convince themselves that, when all is said and done, they are doing the morally correct thing.”
Mitchell Kauffman, a Pasadena financial planner, estimates 20 percent of his clients are very frugal, even if not all can be found cruising discount shops for bargains. He uses as an example one family who could afford jet-set vacations, but instead chooses to go camping in the desert.
Some clients, Kauffman says, are thrifty because they’re protective of their money. Others believe there are things more important than spending, even as their neighbors plunk down big bucks on Hawaiian getaways or Viking ranges.
“Some may be saving for their grandchildren’s college funds. Others have their money tied up in real estate, so they don’t have a lot of cash,” Kauffman says.
Ways People Are Cheap
– Always work the sale racks. This almost goes without saying, but true skinflints offer some additional tips: Don’t forget that with a charge card shoppers will be notified of pre-sale sales. Arrive early to get the best bargains, and don’t rule out stopping in the night before: in some cases, clerks put sale signs up early, and will honor the posted prices.
– Scan supermarket ads for coupons and other discounts. In many cases, it’s possible to get items practically for free, although volume limits may apply. Frugal folks also know which stores nearby will honor sale prices and coupons from their competitors (which saves on gas).
– Play off those competitors. Some retailers will accept coupons from another merchant leading to big savings when the coupon is for any item in the store.
– At industry conferences, think freebies: mugs, pens, notepads and other finds. These finds sometimes end up in the office supply cabinet.
– Whenever traveling, stock up on free hotel soaps and shampoos.
– Consider volunteering to be an usher at a concert or play. That way, you can see the show for free (if there’s room in the back).
– Set thermostats to suit a budget, not a comfort level.
– Buy frozen vegetables instead of fresh ones, at least in the winter. They’re usually cheaper.
– Always take home a doggie bag from restaurant meals. Even if you won’t eat it, someone else in your family might.
– Use the library to rent videos. Selection varies, but hey it’s free.
– Share membership at Costco or other warehouse stores with a friend. By going together, you can split the cost of the membership, and divide bulk packages in half. This can keep you buying too much of the perishable items.
– Try offering less than the sticker price (especially at hotels looking to fill rooms). They can only say no.
– Check eBay and Half.com. If you know how much something is worth and bid less, you can get deals.