Judging by the Extremes

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.