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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

 

 

What matters most to many folks I met, like Bruce Jackson of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, is sharing their wealth with others. A 64-year-old retiree, he relies on Social Security to cover most of his needs (apart from medical expenses). A key to his financial independence was his decision to buy a duplex and rent out half: the income stream helped him pay off  his mortgage in eight years. Living in Lewisburg also helps minimize expenses. Bucknell University, a rich source of free or inexpensive entertainment, is close by, and Jackson's "two-mile rule" means he walks or bicycles to any destination within that radius whenever possible.

The satisfaction of giving drives his choices. He estimates he donates 15 percent of his income to assorted charities and the church he attends (the average of those I surveyed was nearly 5 percent; the national average, less than 3 percent). "Most of my estate is slated to go to charities," he says. "The more careful I am with my money, the more I can pass on to someone else who really needs it."

Have we reached the tipping point—or perhaps the "no-tipping" point—where thrift is here to stay? Schor thinks the stigma of "cheap" may be fading. "With friends it's easier to raise whether you can afford to go out," she says. "Frugality is hipper now." There's even a movement afoot to resurrect National Thrift Week. Maybe we'll celebrate Keep a Budget Day once again. But Lauren Weber has her doubts. Weber, a historian of thrift, is the author of In Cheap We Trust. "History shows that in hard times, we hunker down and make do with less," she says. "It also shows that as soon as the danger passes, we cheerfully reset our appetites a notch or two higher." 

Maybe so, but when the economy roars again, I'm certain my fellow cheapskates will persist. We have it too good. My questionnaire ends with a hypothetical: Someone drops a million dollars on you—how would it change your life? More than 9 out of 10 replies said, in so many words, that money cannot alter their lives. They already have what they want. 

Bruce Ostyn and Daniel Newman put it this way: "Honestly, it would change our lives very little. It would just serve to reinforce what we have already learned—that we have enough right where we are, and we realize that is a gift most people don't ever choose to receive."

Jeff Yeager is the author of The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches and The Cheapskate Next Door. Read his tips on living below your means at aarp.org/savingschallenge.

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