Friday, December 6, 2013

Why I Cannot Watch Extreme Cheapskates

Why I Cannot Watch Extreme Cheapskates
I am late to the game, but I recently saw my first episode of 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.

49 comments:

  1. This show has been making the rounds in the PF blogosphere, and honestly... I still don't understand why this is on. Okay, I know there is a lot of crap tv, and I probably watch half of it - but this is a whole new level!

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    1. Hi Alicia. Yeah, I am treading over well-worn ground with this post, and I agree that it's kind of mind-blowing that this show (and so many others) actually exist. Makes you wonder...

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    2. Oh gosh, I didn't mean "not this topic again!" I hope you didn't take it like that :)

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    3. Not at all, Alicia! We're good. :)

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  2. That show is pretty gross - if only they would highlight the financial independence of Jeff Yeager, as well as other "early retirees," though not sure what the ratings would be like. I would tune in, though!

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    1. I would, too, Anna. Agreed on the gross factor, too. I saw a bit of another episode where a woman was pee-ing into a glass jar to save on water, despite being a millionaire. That's when the show got deleted from the Tivo forever. Never again.

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    2. We have a programme over here in the UK called "super scrimpers" which actually focuses on some good money saving tips (as well as a few extreme ones). As far as I can tell the intentions of the producers are on the whole decent. It's actually pretty good!

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    3. That's good to hear, Firestarter. It's nice to know that a more balanced approach can still make for good tv.

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    4. What he doesn't talk about is, is how he made a career out of running a telemarketing scam and how greedy he is! Trust me, this guy is a money grubbing scumbag if you really know him. How much money is he really saving you with his stupid suggestions anyway?

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  3. Ha! I just recently discovered this show as well when It appeared in Netflix. I am totally with you - the program really pissed me off. It's like they chose the most eccentric people they could find and then highlighted their most obnoxious traits. To me it isn't a program about how to live frugally, it's just another freak show designed to give people the message that living frugally is weird, and if you do it you'll become a weirdo like the people they profiled - so you'd better just hunker down and get used to the chains of your miserable 9-5 existence because there is no reasonable alternative.

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    1. EcoCatLady, you're saying what I'm thinking. I think that's TLC's standard operating procedure: accentuate how different people are in some subculture, so the audience feels justified that they are well adjusted and normal.

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  4. I don't think you're too late to the game, as I've never seen a single episode! It doesn't seem like the purpose of the show is educational - it's for entertainment. I agree that I would much rather watch a show based on the bigger tactics he used to reach early retirement, than see someone go through a dumpster. I know I am considered cheap by some people (those that order food on a daily basis at work), but I wouldn't consider myself "extreme" at all, so I don't really identify with the show. I'm sure people wouldn't be laughing at you!

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    1. Aw, thanks, EM! I don't think most of us PF bloggers would qualify for the show, as most of us probably aren't 'extreme' enough. It's all relative though. I wonder if some rich millionaire would turn up is nose at me once he knew I, gasp, make my own coffee and cook my own dinner!

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  5. Unfortunate side effect of reality TV is they need to amplify drama to make it worthwhile. Watching a person save money might be watchable but an extreme save who is ripping on wasteful guests will stir more emotions. It's kind of sad because I'm sure the show can have some valuable tips that people could use but instead they aim to get a rise out of people

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    1. That's a good point, Micro. My reaction might be exactly what they were aiming for...but I probably took it a step further than they wanted when I stopped watching entirely.

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  6. While I've heard of the show, I've yet to see it - and sounds like all the better for that. "Reality" television is about creating a storyline that keeps viewers coming back and whether we like it or not, drama and discomfort keep people coming back. If all we saw was Yeager riding a bike around, reading a book, or hanging out with his family and friends would most of America tune in?

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    1. Ha! Yes, Mrs. Pop, that would make for a terrible show. Today, we get to see Jeff Yeager read a book he borrowed from his local library...

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  7. So called "reality" shows, like any other, are after viewer ratings. They always show the extreme to try to pull in viewers. As you point out, it's unfortunate that they are showing something that could benefit most people in such an extreme light.

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    1. That's true, Bryce. I'm probably being a bit naive though, but a part of me thinks that Jeff's actual story is so alluring (retiring in his forties, a full 20 years ahead of schedule) would be alluring enough to gain ratings.

      Maybe I'm fooling myself though...

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  8. I haven't got to watch it yet!! My mom had told me stories about what some of the participants on the show do and I was amazed. However, I did read a blog of one of the shows participants and she said they played up everything. So, in reality the show isn't portraying how those people really act. (or at least some of them)

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    1. That makes sense, Alexa. I suppose when you compress someone's day to day life into 22 minutes, you get some creative license in the story it tells. If you remember the blog and have a link, I'd love to check it out!

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  9. I'm working on a blog post about Ultimate Cheapskates too. I plan on focusing on Victoria Hunt from Columbus (Season 1, episode 3). Some stuff was pretty clever (foraging for wild greens) but perhaps not particularly time effective (2-3 minutes of time when I was working could buy a $1-2 bag of 9 oz baby spinach leaves or even more salad mix).

    I agree with your synopsis - they focus so much on the tiny details and not on the big picture - you're looking at a millionaire that retired in her 40's through some level of frugality. I'm sure she's hamming it up for the cameras.

    I'll probably watch another few episodes. It's entertainment and not something I expect to actually learn frugal tips from. I'm down with free food, maybe (big maybe) even from a dumpster if it could be 100% sanitized. But any risk of food poisoning = $100's or more in medical bills (or thousands in the event of hospitalization). Penny wise, pound foolish.

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    1. I'm glad you're writing about this as well, Justin. It'll be good to hear more perspectives on this, as maybe I'm being a bit too harsh. After all, it's just tv...maybe it's better just to see it as entertainment.

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  10. I just started watching this show this week! I also just stopped watching this show this week. They actually contacted me asking me to promote a casting call they had to my readers. Was. Not. Interested. For all the reasons you outline above. Dumpster divers and foragers who only sometimes tell their dinner guests where the food came from? It seems like the richest people on the show are the ones who do that, and while I understand that that's probably why they're so rich, it bothers me to no end. First of all, it's dangerous. Secondly, you're really not going to tell people? Or feed random food from the forest to your grandchildren? Jeff was the only one I saw that seemed sane.

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    1. That's great that they reached out to you to promote the show, and that you turned it down! I'm so impressed. I'd probably have sold out and pretended I really liked the show. ;)

      I'm blown away that they showcase someone who's serving dumpster food without actually telling their guests. I mean, go eat whatever you want but I think that crosses a line to let your guests unknowingly consume it.

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  11. Interesting post DB40, I have never seen the Ultimate Cheapskates show, but if Hollywood is involved, they are going to look for interesting folks who will deliver the most shock and awe with regard to their craft. Its kinda sad, that they present the show in a way to make these people appear to be "out there", rather than someone who is setting a great example for society. Guess it goes back to the fact that negativity sells advertising?

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    1. Great point, Jim. A fair and balanced portrayal might be what I want but it doesn't make for good copy. And TLC is probably playing with fire with the show anyway. Their revenue comes from advertising...a show that honestly portrayed the benefits of frugality and anti-consumerism runs counter to their revenue stream.

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  12. I've watched a few episodes of the show and Jeff was the one character I didn't think was super outrageous but actually was pretty cool. All of the things he did made sense and the fact that he and his wife retired by forty is super admirable. But since it's on a TLC show of course they are going to make him out to be ridiculous. At least he didn't come off as bad as some of the other people portrayed on the show.

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    1. Yeah, it does seem from watching clips of other episodes that I got lucky in watching Jeff's. He is not nearly as odd as some of those other ones.

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  13. I'm totally with you and could not sit through full episodes either. There people are just downright intolerable and some of them actually have disgusting and rude behavior and habits...although truthfully some seem to be played up to make good TV. Even still it wasn't enough to keep me watching. Watching people behaving badly on TV is not something I'm attracted to at all.

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    1. That's a good perspective Tonya, and one you probably have a better insight into it with your career. I should remember that the objective really is to make good tv, not to create a documentary.

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  14. Yeah I must say I do understand where you're coming from.

    Some stuff that feels normal to me (buying only to-expire grocieries, walking or bicycling anywhere I go dispite the weather, not bying new clothes all the time, wanting to retire early...) really seems to other people strange, bizarre and wierd. Even though in a cosmical relation these are things you should do :)

    But maybe it's not a bad thing they cast such an wierd stigma on frugal people, the less people in the room, the more room to move right?

    (Haven't seen the show, will not probably watch it either.)

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    1. Hmmm, I hadn't thought of it like that. I suppose there's something nice about frugality being a little rarer. But I wonder if it might be similarly cool if it really did catch on. I'd love to see what it'd be like if buying used, DIY repairs, and investing 50% of your take home became the norm.

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  15. I haven't watched the show, but have read about it before. My sense was that they will of course be poking fun at these people and trying to portray them as odd, at best, because frugality is clearly not valued in our society. It's a shame.

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    1. Yeah, I think they're playing to the crowd a bit since being a 'cheapskate' has a clearly negative connotation, anyway.

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  16. I think they choose cheapskates who most people can't relate to. I saw one guy who got the worst cut of meat on a cow, something that they typically throw out (I can't remember what it is now, but it was pretty gross). Most people can't relate to that. If they highlighted something that most people could relate to, such as saving some money by clipping coupons or carpooling, no one would watch the show.

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    1. Good point, David. It's a bit of a Catch 22 in that regard. If the show were designed to teach basic frugality, the target audience might not tune in.

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  17. Interesting. We don't have cable, so I've never seen the show, but we were asked by TLC if they could feature us, and for the exact reasons mentioned above (along with concern for the privacy of our children) we said "No, thank you.". I think shows like this really do cause harm to the finances of the American public as they give that message of "Oh, you don't want to be like those freaks, so you'd better go out and spend some money."

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    1. I didn't know that you guys were asked to be on the show, Laurie! I love that you turned them down. I like to think we'd have done the same.

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  18. Yeah, I thought that show was pretty weird too. I'm not extreme in that way at all, and I prefer the kind of frugality that allows me to live a normal life.

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    1. Agreed, Holly. I think that after a certain point, cost savings get so extreme that they start to incur social costs, as well.

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  19. Yeah. I have watched two episodes now. I agree with earlier comments that at least Yeager appeared sane. The other episodes put the cheapskates in a repulsive light. No one watching this show is going, "Wow! I would LOVE to do those things to save $X.XX a month". No, they say, "Those people are depraved. Who does that?" I also agree though that a show that puts Mr. Money Mustache, Mr. Done By Forty, etc., in the spotlight don't sell because they're reasonable people doing reasonable things. Who cares if they're saving thousands and thousands of dollars each year. They aren't doing that through extreme means, so no one cares. I think it's interesting that you said you don't like the show because you see some of yourself in the participants. I think many people really enjoy the show for the opposite reason. It justifies their excess. They can say, "Man, if that's how you're supposed to be saving money, no way am I going to do that." Whereas a show with Mr. Done By Forty, which showcases saving through common sense spending and simple negotiation, and a pared-down lifestyle would never make it. It's too close to home. In my mind people would feel guilty watching that show because they know deep down that those are things they should already be doing. But they're not, because they don't want to change. They don't want to know how easy it is, because then they have to feel guilty for not changing. Sorry for the rant. Just a reminder of why so many people will continue to be content paying full price, spending every penny they earn, and never questioning their monthly bills. More for the rest of us, I guess...

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    1. That's a great insight, friend: guilt is likely the emotion a lot of people feel when they see someone else doing common sense things to get ahead financially. It's one thing to see someone dumpster diving to save $10 on groceries. It's quite another to see someone cooking dinner every night to save $400 on eating out every month. The first example justifies whatever you're doing...the second casts a harsh light on one of your costly habits.

      As for me ever being on a show, momma always told me I had a face made for radio...

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  20. I need to check it out...but I don't have cable...I'll have to check Netflix! I agree with you that the media likes to show extreme examples of things, in this case, frugality to show how ridiculous it is. But as you mentioned, Yeager retired in his 40s so I'm sure many of the things he has done deserves some merit. Of course there has to be a balance of frugality and being plain old cheap. People watching just want to be entertained...if only there was a show teaching people to be frugal yet living a normal life, thereby saving lots of money. Not many would tune in though.

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    1. I hear you, Andrew. Though there's a naive side of me that thinks people could tune in if it were presented in the right way.

      What if Tonya at Budget & the Beach made an internet show that presented a guaranteed way to get rich...just over a 20 year period of frugality.

      Yeah, maybe that isn't a really compelling show. :(

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  21. I've never watched the show, but yeah, I think frugality has a time in place, but don't overdo it. As someone who's trying to get to financial freedom, I'm finding it more useful to spend precious time/energy in trying to find better investment vehicles (returns) so that you can create more passive income each month, as opposed to going out of your way to save a few dollars (or a few pennies). If you can find a way to add an additional $100/month in passive income... do you seriously need to be digging through trash?

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    1. That's a good question, FI Fighter. I suppose income and frugality don't necessarily have to correlate but, personally, I'd much rather find a balance between the two.

      As for me, I'd rather work on the frugality side rather than income...but that's probably a shortcoming of mine. :)

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  22. I never heard of this show and it's something I'll surely do my best to watch, despite all the negatives you pointed out in your article. I am trying to become more frugal and probably anything that's a bit extreme will help me get there easier. We'll see :)

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    1. I'd love the perspective of someone who lives outside America, C. Let me know what you think!

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