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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



Sisson and her husband, Bob, both in their early 50s, display the zeal of converts. Bob quit a high-level corporate job a decade ago. Together the couple started a home-inspection business and now typically earn around $80,000 a year. Three years ago they moved from an 8,000-square-foot home to one about a third that size.

"Moving made us realize how much we owned that wasn't being used and wasn't necessary," says Welmoed. "When you look at how much most of us have compared with world standards, it's almost embarrassing."

One of the joys the Sissons discovered as they downsized their lifestyle was each other's company. "We started eating nearly all of our dinners here at home, as a family, and—I'm not exaggerating—sitting around the table for a good hour after the meal was finished, just talking about our days," says Welmoed. "We started sharing so much more as a family."

For many cheapskates the formula is simple: spending less money creates more time. "The relentless pressure to buy more crap makes things like sleep, free time, and relationships the real luxuries these days," says Jacquie Phelan, 55, a professional mountain biker I met in Fairfax, California, outside the rustic home she proudly calls the Taj Mahovel. The only way most people can afford simple pleasures, she adds, is to "spend less, not earn more."

In 1992 Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez published Your Money or Your Life and became champions of the neglected notion that your time is more valuable than money. A bestseller when it first came out, the book was reissued in 2008 and once again climbed the charts.

Robin, who now lives in a sustainability-minded community on Whidbey Island in Washington State, sees the tight economy slowly changing more people's minds about what she calls "the true cost of stuff." The current flood of books about de-cluttering your life is evidence, she says, that Americans are realizing less can be more. "For years we cheapskates picked on gas-guzzling SUVs as symbols of excessive consumption," Robin says. "When GM announced it will shut down Hummer production, some called it the result of  higher fuel prices. I call it a return to common sense." 

In her research for The Overspent American, Schor concluded that many of us could trim spending by 20 percent and not feel it. "Most people are caught up in fantasy desires," she says. "We tell ourselves we want an expensive car because it's safer, or a gourmet kitchen because we want to do more cooking, but that's rarely the truth." To prevent buyer's remorse, Schor suggests putting off until tomorrow what you're tempted to buy today. "Every parent knows that children will probably lose interest in an item if told to wait," she says. "Adults are really no different."

Schor is board cochair of the Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit group that's out to help people "consume responsibly." A survey it sponsored revealed that 86 percent of Americans feel the phrase "more of what matters in life" fits their concept of the American dream better than the term "more is better."

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The Cheap Life

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