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The Leap to Cheap

Spending is out, simplicity's in. Why the nation's thriftiest people are also the happiest.

Leap to Cheap

— Teru Onishi



"Sure, we could afford to spend more," Bruce Ostyn  told me as he rinsed the plates from dinner in a shallow plastic dishpan. "But why would we? It wouldn't make us any happier." 

Ostyn then headed to the patio to carefully redistribute the wash water to some thirsty potted plants. When I tried earlier in the evening to be a helpful houseguest and put the dinner dishes in the dishwasher, I was promptly reprimanded. The appliance wasted too much water and electricity. "Besides, it's full," Ostyn noted. "We use it to store ramen noodles and other bulk foods for our camping trips." You never know what you'll find in a casa de cheapskate.

Frugality, formerly an everyday virtue, hasn't gotten much respect in recent decades. Yet when the stock-market crash of 2008 pushed a stalled economy into the Great Recession, bam!—suddenly thrift was in vogue again. A recent Gallup Poll found that 62 percent of us would rather save money than spend it, up from 48 percent in 2001.

Being a cheapskate is my chosen profession, come by honestly from a boyhood in the farmlands of Ohio—where you learn to use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without—and 24 years running nonprofit groups. In the spring of 2008, as the Dow seesawed, I crisscrossed the country on a 30-year-old bicycle to research my second book, The Cheapskate Next Door. I had surveyed more than 300 of my "Miser Advisers"—a network of super thrifty folks I've developed—about their financial habits, and I wanted to take a closer look at them. I met near-millionaires and people who earned so little they could qualify for public assistance but chose not to—they had more than enough to live as they wished. What they all had in common: they've found ways to be wealthy that don't depend on earning more cash or buying more things.

That's right—the reality of the frugal life upends stereotypes. These aren't latter-day Scrooges, though I've yet to meet one who doesn't sport apparel dating to the Carter administration, or earlier. For its adherents, thrift is more about knowing what you cherish, then skipping the rest.

Ostyn, 59, and his longtime partner, Daniel Newman, 45, are prime examples of people who enjoy the good life while spending far less than their neighbors. The couple live in southern Arizona, in an average-size but Architectural Digest—gorgeous ranch-style house (which they paid for in cash). They travel throughout North America for at least two months every year, following the migratory birds they love to watch and sleeping in the comfortable camper kit they installed on their pickup. The pair run their own interior-design service, a venture that typically nets them a modest $20,000 to $40,000 a year, but they still put "at least 25 percent into savings," says Ostyn.

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