Updated on 07.29.13

Judging by the Extremes

Trent Hamm

A couple days ago, I watched a program on TLC called Extreme Cheapskates, which featured people doing things like using reusable toilet paper and cooking goat’s heads in order to save money.

It was pretty obvious after just a few minutes of watching that the point of the show was to make frugality look ridiculous by choosing to profile tactics that violate other social customs and norms. In some cases, the people were aware of it, but in others, they seemed completely oblivious that they were doing things that others would see as … well, “extreme.”

While watching it, I received a couple emails from readers who were also watching it. One in particular stood out at me:

Is this really the kind of thing you do at home? Some of this stuff is just sick. Some things are worth a dollar or two more.

Simply put, the outcome of this show was to paint a socially uncomfortable face on the idea of frugality. By highlighting people who take frugality to an extreme, they manage to cast a negative glow over anyone who proudly practices frugality.

Here’s the thing, though. This type of negative highlighting happens all the time with all kinds of things.

Focusing on the practices of the Hutaree and the Christian patriot movement casts a false negative light onto Christians, most of whom are wonderful people who try to live their day-to-day life in a positive fashion.

Focusing on the practices of a few large banks that received TARP money and also have consumer unfriendly practices casts a false negative light on all banks and credit unions, most of which do really great work for people.

Focusing on groups like al Qaeda casts a false negative light on Muslims, most of whom are wonderful people who also try to live their day-to-day life in a positive fashion.

The list goes on and on. When you define a large group by the actions of a small, extreme element of that group, you’re almost always making a mistake.

This brings us back to frugality and Extreme Cheapskates. Frugality is not the extreme actions represented on this show.

What you’re actually seeing when you watch Extreme Cheapskates are people who have a overall value set that’s significantly different than yours. It’s the same thing you see in the extreme cases mentioned above.

It does not mean that the larger group these people claim to represent shares their values.

I consider myself frugal. I even consider myself a cheapskate in terms of things that just affect me. I make my own laundry detergent. We make a lot of the Christmas gifts we give away. I drive a used car I bought off of Craigslist. We save leftover vegetable scraps to make vegetable stock, then compost the leftover scraps from that.

At the same time, I don’t do things that are rude to others or unhygenic or dangerous to my health.

Frugality isn’t about squeezing every penny out of everything. It’s about maximizing the value of the things you’re doing, and “value” doesn’t always strictly mean money. Money often plays a significant part in it, but so does time and so does health and so does the relationships you have with the people you care about.

Frugality simply means that you take the time to figure out those relative values for yourself. Have you actually thought about the relative value proposition of buying generic laundry detergent versus making your own versus buying Tide? If you have and you’ve come to a conclusion on the issue, you’re probably frugal. You’ve thought about what you value – money, time, hygiene, relationships. You’ve obtained information on the issue. You’ve come up with a conclusion based on the information that balances what you specifically value.

That’s actually what these “extreme cheapskates” are also doing, but their values likely differ significantly from yours. That doesn’t mean that being frugal or being a cheapskate is weird. It just means that the “extreme cheapskate” puts an extremely high value on the “money” part of the value equation (or an uncomfortably low value on the “hygiene” part or some other part of the equation).

It also means that when you see a list of frugal tactics, you’re seeing tips that represent different levels of value on things like hygiene and time and food quality (and so on), and that you need to filter those lists based on how you value things like hygiene and time and food quality.

Be frugal and smart and live by the things that hold value in your life. Do that and you’ll always win.

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  1. Johanna says:

    Not every problem can be dismissed as belonging to a few irrelevant wingnuts on the extreme. There can be problems with the norm too. Since most people tend not to think of themselves as extreme (since it’s always possible to point to someone more extreme than you are), when you say that everything that’s wrong with the world is the fault of the people on the extremes, you’re giving yourself permission not to think about ways in which you, yourself, might not be such a wonderful person.

  2. Adam P says:

    I think I view making your own toothpaste as extreme, yet you have advocated it here on this site Trent. I’m sure all of us do a few things that a survey of 100 people would deem extreme, like going to the gym 6 times a week for me and keeping a spreadsheet with every dollar I spent for the last 5 years. Sometimes you just gotta do whatever you feel is necessary without worrying about what others think.

    Of course, anything in extreme can become more harmful than good in the long run I suppose.

  3. Kathryn says:

    I haven’t seen the program, but i did see a couple of episodes of “Extreme Couponing.” In at least a couple of those cases, what i saw was veering into definite mental disorder, particularly with the hoarding behavior.

    I read a couple of reviews of the program mentioned. One simply derided the idea behind it, but what they were mentioning – making your own laundry detergent and using vinegar for fabric softening and cleaning – does not seem abnormal to me.

    Many of the things people do to “save money” i do simply because i consider them healthier alternatives. I make my own deodorant and mix my own tooth paste and make my own moisturizer. We don’t use industrial chemicals in our home, but the natural equivalent instead. I may save a few pennies doing this, but in each case, i’m doing it because i believe it to be healthier for us. That, to me, is worth the lack of convenience.

  4. Kate says:

    #3: Kathryn–I make my own deodorant, too: a mixture of cornstarch, baking soda, almond oil or coconut oil and a couple drips of lavender. How do you make yours?
    I do not make my own moisturizer but have considered doing it. How do you make yours?

  5. jackie says:

    I agree with Trent on this one. I haven’t seen the show, but so much of TV is making a spectacle out of some sub-set of a larger culture and encouraging the rest of us to gawk at them. Ratings and drama thrive on “us vs them” mentality.

    And lets all not forget that TLC is in the business of selling commercial time, nothing else.

  6. Michael says:

    al’Qaeda, Christian survivalists and frugalists(?) have all made a decision to give up some things to have other things that are more important to them, but because you only like the way frugal people figure out their ‘relative values’ you put frugality in the good group and the other minorities in the bad group.

  7. Maureen says:

    I did see part of this show and what I saw were definately the extremists. The woman who took her kids to the park to get clippings of greens to eat for dinner was extreme, but then her son stepped in dog poo in the area they were getting their greens. Sick! And the man that asked people that he didn’t even know if they were going to take the leftovers home and if not could he have them. Even his wife walked out on him!

    So yes, this show was about the people who are very extreme!

  8. elyn says:

    Trent says:

    “It does not mean that the larger group these people claim to represent shares their values.”

    I am pretty sure there is no larger group that these people are claiming to represent, nor do I think this show is an attack on frugality. The title of the show is pretty clear: “Extreme Cheapskates,” not “Frugal People.” If someone else decides to lump frugal people in with extreme cheapskates, that is not the intent of the show. The intent of the show is to take a group of freaky people and use them for entertainment. These freaky people happen to camp out in frugal town. Nothing more, really.

    I think that any life choice you make will be judged by people, and then you get lumped in with crazies. I’m a therapist- I can’t tell you how many people say, “Oh, therapists are people who are messed up and trying to work out their issues on their clients.” Sure, yep, some really bad therapists don’t do their own emotional work first, and then mess their clients up. It’s not me, but if someone lumps me in there, that means more about them than me. You say you are into frugality, and you have a blog about it. Anyone with a bad association with frugality has probably met a crazy cheapskate, and will lump you in there with them. All you can really do is not let those opinions get to you.

  9. kc says:

    @elyn: absolutely. The point of the show is to entertain (by showing extreme yet harmless people) and generate revenue for TLC. The people I saw on the show made no claim to represent any larger group.

    This post is carelessly thought out and poorly written.

  10. Trent,

    I was filmed for Extreme Cheapskates, although my segment was cut and not shown. The producers were not interested in useful frugal activities that a viewer could actually learn a thing or two from. They only wanted “ick factor” stuff. I refused a umber of their suggestions, which is probably why they didn’t air the footage from my two 14-hour days of filming.

    They spent a fortune producing my segment, so it will probably air if TLC picks the show up as a series. (Five people flown in from NYC for 3 days, plus local sound tech, assistant camera man, plus two production assistants, all of whom got big time overtime dollars when our days ran long.)

    My goal in doing the show was to illustrate that frugal living can be elegant, generous and enjoyable.

    And for the record, I buy my family’s toilet paper from Trader Joe’s, where a 12-pack of 100% recycled content rolls cost $3.99.

    Katy Wolk-Stanley
    “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

  11. jim says:

    Elyn is right. Frugal and cheapskate are NOT the same thing. Frugal people shouldn’t feel a need to get upset if someone criticizes cheapskates. There is a line which frugality crosses into cheapskate. I’m sure Trent thinks that line is much much further out than most people.
    Trent says: “I even consider myself a cheapskate” Well cheapskate is NOT a positive word. If you want to camp out in cheapskate town than thats on you.

  12. lurker carl says:

    In my book, there is a huge difference between a frugal individual and a cheapskate. One is fiscally and materially conservative; the other depends upon deception, dishonesty and thievery to keep from paying what is owed in full.

    FRUGAL (ˈfrü-gəl)
    characterized by or reflecting economy in the use of resources.

    CHEAPSKATE (ˈchēp-ˌskāt)
    a miserly or stingy person; especially one who tries to avoid paying a fair share of costs or expenses.

  13. jim says:

    Lurker, I don’t think that cheapskate implies dishonesty or theft in any way. Being miserly or stingy means you hoard wealth or are not generous. It doesn’t mean people get their wealth dishonestly.

  14. deRuiter says:

    You’re forgetting the wonderful cheapskate three volume series, “The Cheapskate Gazette” by Amy (rhymes with decision!) The Cheapskate Gazette makes you laugh, keeps your interest, gives you ways to think about frugality, and allows you to decide which ideas you wish to use. Amy’s remarkably non judgmental as she was writing solely about her own journey down the lane of frugality, and when she finished, she stopped, published the three volume collection of newsletters adn moved on with her life, “Mission Accomplished.” I don’t think of her as dispensing life advice, but as a scentist and researcher in the field of frugality.

  15. Kate says:

    I remember the uproar that Amy Dacyczyn created when she said that she took muffins from a continental breakfast at her hotel to eat later in the day. People were appalled and outraged.

  16. lurker carl says:

    Cheapskates at lunch tries to get you to pay the bill, stingy eats the cheapest meal possible so their share is the least. Cheapskates in the gift exchange get something for nothing, stingy brings the gift that cost them the least. There is a distinct line between looking for the cheapest versus looking for freebies.

  17. Michael says:

    Kate #15, Amy apologized for that in the next letter and write an insightful essay in response about how true frugality reduces money spent globally, not just hers at the expense of others’ budgets.

  18. Kate says:

    #17 Michael: I know that she did but I remember the uproar more than I do the apology letter because so many people took what she did as the face of being a tightwad/frugal and decided that was not a lifestyle that they wanted to follow. I was familiar with her through her newsletter and knew that she was way more extremely frugal than I would want to be (or had the energy to be, yet reading the Tightwad Gazette made me recognize that frugality was a good thing and I picked up so many good tips.

  19. Kathryn says:

    Kate – i’ve tried to answer with a link to my blog, but i’ve been caught in the moderation for hours now. My blog is kateekat dot blogspot dot com. If you go to March 2010, my post “Sundry post for Sunday,” i tell all about making both the deodorant and the moisturizer.

  20. I wish TLC would understand that while the people on these shows don’t claim to represent the larger audience, but in the minds of many they do. Couponers have run into all kinds of judgement because of the Extreme Couponing show and most are not like that. I am sure the same will be true of frugalists in response to the latest show. I have never understood reality tv. Seems to me it is just for people to pat themselves on the back and say, I am not as messed up as they are. Same with many talk shows too.

  21. Mary says:

    I hadn’t heard of this show but I’ve seeen several Extreme Couponing episodes. That show is way over the top, deceit and not the norm for us common folk that coupon…but I think in all these shows, couponing, cheapskating, whatever-the people have to be over the top and shocking in some way or they won’t get the viewers. And they do get the viewers, especially if there are (fake) fights thrown in. Dance Moms is a HUGE hit now entering its second season. Not much there about dancing, more about the Mom brawls. It’s sad but that’s what is selling now & if they put you on the cheapskate program people would yawn. If they put regular couponers on Extreme Couponing no one would watch. It’s sad.

  22. BD says:

    I saw the Extreme Cheapskates show! You can tell it’s totally contrived for TV. The guy who cooked the goat heads? He had SEVEN DOLLARS with which to buy meat with. $7! That can get you a whole lot of good chicken legs and thighs, or a couple pounds of ground beef. But of course, since this was made for TV and it has to be sensational, he chose to spend $7 whole dollars on 2 goat heads. That makes no real sense, other than to gross people out for entertainment value. My mom can feed an entire family of 4 for one dinner on $7 and never touch anything gross like a goat head.

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