Interview with Jeff Yeager (The Ultimate Cheapskate)

Published September 15, 2010

Jeff Yeager is the author of two books: The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches and The Cheapskate Next Door.

In addition to writing books, Jeff also spends time updating his own site UltimateCheapskate.com and can be found contributing frequently to TheDailyGreen.com as the Green Cheapskate.

Before embarking on his quest to help people live better by buying and spending less, Jeff spent 25 years working in the non-profit sector. In 2004 he launched his career as an author, public speaker, and media personality. Jeff currently lives outside of Washington D.C. with his wife of 27 years.

Interview Transcript

BeFrugal: When did you start UltimateCheapskate.com? Did your site come before your first book, The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches or is the site the result of your book?

Jeff Yeager: You know, I quit my last regular job about six years ago; I had been in the nonprofit sector for about twenty-five years. And as I recall, I started the website about a year after I dropped out. The site goes back about five years, which does predate my first book The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches, but I was kind of working on the book at that same time.

I should add too, that my website has not been a priority for me. I am primarily a writer for print material and a broadcast journalist. I do, however, maintain a more active blog on the website TheDailyGreen.com. I blog there about once a week under the title of the Green Cheapskate. So, if folks are interested in keeping up with me, that’s the more timely place to look.

BeFrugal: You are known as The Ultimate Cheapskate. Is this a self-proclaimed title or did someone affectionately call you that?

Yeager: Actually it’s a funny story because I ended up getting the title from none other than Matt Lauer, host of the NBC Today Show.  It was through a series of happenstance, no initiative of my own. He sort of discovered me about five years ago.

Of course, Matt Lauer was only confirming what my poor wife of twenty-seven years has known all along, which is that I am The Ultimate Cheapskate.

BeFrugal: You have been married for twenty-seven years, so I assume that you’ve been living frugally your entire life. Is this self-taught or did you learn from parents and grandparents?

Yeager: I am fifty-two years old and I grew up in the rural Midwest, kind of a lower middle income family. And you know, back then in the time and in that place, spending money was really a last resort. You tended to make do with what you had and make it last, wear it up, use it out, sometimes just do without.

So after twenty-five years in the nonprofit sector, I started to do a lot of thinking about money, and life, and happiness. What I started thinking about was gosh, you know when I was a kid growing up, seeing the way my parents and my grandparents lived, they had a lot less money, they had a lot less stuff, but in some ways they had a better quality of life and they seemed to me to be happier.

So, maybe it sort of a midlife crisis that I went through. But again, what I preach if you will, is just every bit as radical as saying gosh I think my grandparents got a lot of things right.

BeFrugal: What motivated you to start writing about frugality?

Yeager: In my twenty-five years managing national nonprofit organizations, what occurred to me was that it’s an economic environment that’s a lot like people’s personal finances.

In the nonprofit sector, you rarely have money to throw at your problems, and you don’t always measure your success just by profitability and the balance in your bank account. So during that twenty-five-year career, I began to literally keep a file of post-it note ideas in my desk drawer, ideas for managing money. And I thought gosh, maybe I will have a chance someday to write something that applies to people’s personal finances.

Although, I have to admit that keeping that file for twenty-five years, I guess I never seriously thought I would find myself in the position where I am today, which is writing full time.

BeFrugal: You have a new book out, but could you tell us a little about your first book, The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches?

Yeager: Yeah, and in fact the full title is, well the subtitle is A Practical (and Fun) Guide to Enjoying Life More by Spending Less. And I make a point only because I am very proud of those words, because for me spending less isn’t about sacrifice. It’s really in a lot of cases the only way that you can enjoy a life more. And so, it’s sort of counterintuitive. I am not talking about sacrifice at all.

So, the first book is largely a book about me and the odd little life that I lead, and how I came to be at this point in my life. It has tips in it and practical advice. I always wanted to write books that were practical but yet humorous and entertaining.

There are a lot of terrific personal finance books out there. Most of them deal with the issue of how to make money; I deal only with the issue of how to spend money.

But let’s face it, I mean most of the personal finance books are very dry. You have to have a real passion in the subject matter to sort of wade through them. So, I wanted to write books and other stuff that would attempt to engage people with a sense of humor, kind of laugh track to what is ultimately a very serious conversation.

As I like to say, I don’t write books about how to get rich; I write books about how to get happy. Perhaps how to get happy with what you already have. And there are a lot of social issues and messages woven into what I write: everything from the need to save the planet, to how to solve world poverty and everything else.

There is enough serious stuff that again, I think by delivering a little sense of humor, hopefully I engage people who otherwise might not read a book like this.

So the thing about my first book is that it’s largely about my life-experience, lessons I learned in the nonprofit sector, how I lead my life, and so on. The new book is quite different.

BeFrugal: Your latest book was just released this summer: The Cheapskate Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of Americans Living Happily Below Their Means. We would love to hear a little more about what the book is about.

Yeager: Well, so the first book was one that I always wanted to write and kind of had planned to write, even though I never thought I would have a chance. And ironically, that book came out at the very front edge of the recession, and that’s pure coincidence. I finished writing that book over four years ago when the economy was going gangbusters, but it only came out as the recession started.

My first book went from being a corky little book with a sense of humor to being taken fairly seriously by people who were feeling the pain of the recession and said: hey, you know everything I have learned about money seems wrong. Maybe this frugality and this simple lifestyle approach has something to offer.

I released the first book and began traveling the country, a lot of it on bicycle, to promote the book and to meet with my follow cheapskates. And, it was a fascinating time to start, to see that book, the reaction of that book to the pubic.

I started feeling like there was a need for a second book, a book not about my personal life experience but about a wide range of people who either have lived frugally most or all of their lives, or who discovered frugality as a result of the recession.

And so, the second book is not really about my experiences as much as it is about dozens of so called cheapskates who I interviewed, and I ended up surveying about three hundred and twenty cheapskates across the country. And they are a very diverse crowd; they lead all different kinds of lifestyles.

Some are single, some are married, some have big families, some have no families, some are old, some are young, some live in the city, some live in the country. But what they had in common was something that is very rare, unfortunately, in America: they were living well below their means, and they proclaimed that they were happier because of it.

For them, frugality was a choice. It was not a sacrifice and it was not about depravation. And let me say again, most personal finance books, the premise is how to get rich. Neither of my books say anything about that. Some of the people in my second book Cheapskates were clearly rich by any standards.

There were some multimillionaires among the lot who in part attributed their financial success to frugality. There were also people who were living on such a limited income that they could have qualified for public assistance, but chose not to because they said hey, we have enough to live the lifestyle that we want to live. So again, the commonality is not bank account balance; the commonality is happiness.

BeFrugal: Tell us about how  you went on a cross-country cheapskate quest? Is that what you mentioned before?

Yeager: Yeah, I am a lifelong bicyclist. I started seriously bicycling in the 1970s, long-distance bicycling, and by last count I have bicycled more than 90,000 miles during my life.  So, when it came time to do my book tours for our first book, I said to the publisher hey, let me do them by bicycle. One, I loved it, I love the bicycle; two, we will probably get more press if I show up on my bicycle; and three, it will give me a chance to really meet people and economize.

So I do my book tours by bicycle. I stay not so much in hotels, but I stay with local cheapskates who agree to put me up for the night. I take what I save from my expense account and I donate it to public libraries along my route. So, everybody wins.

BeFrugal: How long was your Cheapskate Quest?

Yeager: Well, I did a series of bicycle tours around the country. I think I was on the road probably two months to three months altogether. I have been on the road two months for the current book as well, again pedaling around the country. The writing of the second book took about a year including doing what turned out to be a massive survey of my fellow cheapskates.

BeFrugal: Being frugal is becoming more popular with more and more people. Do you think this new mindset is here to stay?

Yeager: Well, that is a good question. One, it is clear that even in the relatively short period of time that I have been writing about this stuff, and I should say I have been writing on and off about it for closer to ten years, I have been writing fulltime for five. But, it is clear that since the recession, frugality has become much more popular. All kinds of people are writing about it now and practicing it and so on.

And I think it’s great. I think it’s also sort of a long overdue reversal or redirection in our course. I would like to say one thing which is, we read so much about frugality and economizing these days, but it seems to me that about 98% of what we read is ultimately about how to use a coupon, or get a discount on this or that, save 20% on this. It is all about how to get what we have always had but simply pay less for it. And I am not saying there is anything wrong with that, and I write some of that kind of stuff myself.

I fear that as a nation, we are going to miss what could be the golden message to take away from this recession, which is not how to get more for less, but to appreciate that perhaps often less can be more. We shouldn’t be asking how can we afford it necessarily, we should be asking do we even need it. And if we don’t buy it, how will that affect our lives. It will make our lives different, but will it make it better or worse.

I know I didn’t answer your question, but I think that we are sort of missing what could be a really important message from this time. My own feeling is that if you look historically at when thrift and frugality has been in vogue and out of vogue, it does tend to, when the economy improves, people tend to go back to the way they were before, even though I have seen gallop polls and so on that suggest that a lot of people say regardless of what the economy is doing I am going to be more of a saver and less of a spender. I have got to put a priority on spending less.

I think the proof will be in the pudding, whether or not they really do it. And of course, there is tremendous pressure put on us, not just by advertisements but even by government to say, gosh this whole thing, our economic system depends on consumers buying a bunch of stuff. And with all due respect, I disagree with that. I don’t disagree with that on an economic level, but I question whether it is possible for us to always spend and consume our way to continued prosperity, let alone happiness.

I think there is a carrying capacity of the earth. I have seen the statistic that if everyone consumed at the level that Americans do, it would take three planet Earths to support that. So, it is simply unsustainable. But here is the good news, here is what I write about: I think spending all that and consuming all that doesn’t make us any happier, in fact in many instances it makes us less happy.

****End of Interview****

For more advice about how to live more on less, check out Jeff’s two books, The Cheapskate Next Door and The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches. Also be sure to visit his site UltimateChapskate.com.

One Comment on “Interview with Jeff Yeager (The Ultimate Cheapskate)”

  1. D.Ray Says:

    I loved reading this article interview with Jeff Yeager. Good Stuff!

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