Extreme Cheapskates. The show broadcasts on TLC and documents the day to day lives of extremely frugal people. Like all TLC shows, the allure is that by showing people who are very different, viewers get to feel very normal.
I try to be a positive person when I get an insight into other people's lives. I want to be sensitive -- I'll do me, and you do you. But there is something about this show that makes me cringe. Watching the extent to which the show's subjects go to save a few pennies is, somehow, almost impossible for me to sit through. Which makes no sense because, even if these people go farther than I do, shouldn't it be refreshing to see one program out there that showcases the merits of frugality rather than the typical life of excess? But when I watched my first episode, which followed around Jeff Yeager for a couple days, I could barely make it to the end.
Jeff Yeager is kind of a founding father of frugality, and his books are pretty good reads. He seems like a genuinely nice guy, too. But the show seems to focus only on a series of Jeff's small wins. The director shows Jeff haggling over a single dollar for coconut oil in a grocery store (while taking free expired produce and a handful of free samples on his way out the door). Jeff then makes home-made deodorant out of that coconut oil, using the cardboard from an old toilet paper roll as the dispenser. Then Jeff makes a series of hastily hand-made gifts from old milk jugs, paperclips, and used bicycle tubes to give to the children of the hosts he will stay with over a weekend visit. When visiting the family, he repays the people who let him sleep on their couch by making them a dinner from salmon heads and carcasses which, of course, he negotiated the price down on. (And particularly well, too.) The coup de gras is Jeff's decision to perform a trash can autopsy: picking through the remnants of the family's kitchen trash on public television, and chastising them for throwing fairly worthless things away. The segment ends with him noticing un-popped corn kernels in the trash, and suggesting that they pop their corn a bit longer to avoid such waste.
Thing that bothers me is the practice of frugality being portrayed as a quirky caricature. Jeff's approaches are sound and obviously do save some money. But, frankly, the show focuses on tactics with comically minimal impacts. And if the show only focuses on these tactics (picking through trash, negotiating to save one single dollar on groceries, making homemade cleaning and personal products) then they are not being shown the larger picture. The show's producers gloss over the fact that Jeff and his wife retired in their forties. Rather than focusing on the rather remarkable freedom he has, they highlight Jeff's quirky frugal tactics. The show is a laundry list of tips that teach readers how to save ten dollars a week. Ought that be the focus?
Like with most of the things we publicly dislike, I think I am uncomfortable with the show because I see my own negative traits exaggerated in someone or something else. Having a bad temper of my own, I am quick to point out that personality defect in parents who yell at their kids in stores. I am happy to dole out great advice on overcoming procrastination, because I procrastinate myself and I don't like that I do. And that's probably where my dislike of Extreme Cheapskates comes from. I worry that my friends and family privately think my frugality is laughable or extreme. I have anxiety of the possibility that I, too, might be a caricature of cheapness: a man with a flawed view of money who can save a small fortune but never learns how to enjoy it, and embarrasses himself in the process. When the show's producers play clown music and sound effects in the background, signaling to the audience that it's time to laugh at the cute and lovable cheapskate, I wonder...would they be laughing at me, too?
*Photo is from aldenjewell at Flickr Creative Commons.