Updated on 09.07.08

Review: The Complete Cheapskate

Trent Hamm

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book.

complete cheapskateI picked this one up at the library because of the title – The Complete Cheapskate sounded right up my alley. I flipped through it, quickly found a long list of frugality tips, and took it home, expecting it to be a compendium of money-saving ideas.

Instead, it turned out to be much more of a general personal finance book, albeit with some interesting claims. The book largely centers around Mary Hunt’s five principles – giving, saving, living debt free, preparation, and restraint, giving each a lengthy chapter of focus.

Is the advice inside worthwhile and typical, or does Hunt add enough interesting material to make it worthwhile? Let’s take a peek and find out.

Been There, Done That: My Story
Hunt opens the book with her own story of personal finance recovery that’s not all that much different than mine – a long chain of bad financial choices leading eventually to a near-meltdown and then a learning period tied to the beginning of financial recovery. From my own experience, I can say that this is a very familiar story – I hear echoes of this story in many, many emails from my readers.

Are You a Good Money Makeover Candidate?
Are you in debt? That’s basically what this chapter boils down to. Hunt offers up a lot of different stories and scenarios that revolve around different personal debt scenarios, but her argument is pretty clear: if you have consumer debt, you need to be looking at making some changes. For the most part, I agree with this – if you’re carrying consumer debt and don’t have enough cash to just pay off all of it right now, there’s a problem and you need to take a serious look at your situation.

Developing Healthy Money Attitudes
Honesty. Responsibility. Emotional control. Openness. Rejection of debt and the need for more stuff without the money to pay for it. Those are the healthy attitudes that Hunt refers to here, and they are ones that all of us are well-served to apply in our own lives.

The Debt Mess
This chapter is really about facing your reality and taking the first step towards resolution of it, which is simply record every single transaction you make, then study them carefully when you’re in a comfortable environment for reflection. It’s a lot easier to see the spending mistakes you’re making (and you are making some if you’re racking up debt) in a more neutral environment with all of the data in front of you.

The Principle of Giving
Mary makes a brief case here for giving away at least some of your income up front – the traditional 10% tithe. While the idea is right, the case she makes is brief and simplistic enough to make it easy to skip over and forget. My personal feeling is that you can’t tell someone to give – giving comes from within. No amount of reminding and cajoling will make someone uncomfortable with giving become a giver.

The Principle of Saving
Here, Hunt encourages people to build up an emergency fund before you do anything else. It not only teaches you the psychological basics of saving, but the emergency fund itself protects you from financially dangerous situations. If you have an emergency fund, for example, a car breakdown isn’t a major disaster – it’s something you can easily handle and then move on with life.

The Principle of Living Debt Free
Here, Hunt makes a strong case for setting debt freedom as your major personal finance goal. She goes through the basics of constructing a debt repayment plan and makes a strong case for debt freedom from a psychological perspective – it feels good to be debt free, does it not?

The Principle of Preparation
A freedom account? The central theme of this chapter is that it’s worthwhile to set up a “freedom account,” a second checking account that you use to pay off irregular bills and also store irregular income as well as a regular automatic deposit from your main checking account. You use this account to handle things like tax bills or insurance payments, things that you don’t normally pay every month, and you get money into this account via a very regular automatic transfer from your normal checking account. A very solid idea – a little bit of a twist on an emergency fund that could prove useful for people who have things largely under control but struggle with irregular bills.

The Principle of Restraint
Budgeting 101 is the name of the game here. Hunt spells out in detail how to construct a functional budget for yourself. This kind of thing appears in most general personal finance books because it can be very important early on during a person’s financial turnaround.

Difficult Situations
Here, Hunt focuses a bit on three topics: self-employment, negotiating with creditors, and bankruptcy. For me, the self-employment section was the most interesting, as that basically describes where I’m at with my money. Her suggestion is to collect all self-employment income in one account, then write yourself a very regular paycheck from that account. So, if you get a bunch of randomly-sized checks throughout the year, put them all in a special self-employment bank account, then each month take a smaller set amount from that account and consider that your paycheck. A solid idea, indeed.

Cheap Shots
This chapter is simply thirty five pages of non-stop little tips for saving money. Some of the tips seemed to fly right over my lifestyle’s head (“fire the maid”? Yeah. The maid.), but most of them made quite a bit of sense. Many of these tips are pretty commonly known, but they’re spread around so widely because they work. Turning off your lights when you leave will save you money no matter what, but it’s something that many people forget to do, for example.

It’s Never Too Late
The book closes with the astute point that it doesn’t matter what your stage in life is, you can still apply these principles to your own benefit. A retired person can apply frugality just as effectively as a person in their twenties, and both of them will wind up money ahead by cutting corners here and there.

The book includes a lengthy appendix which consists of a bunch of articles from Mary’s Cheapskate Monthly newsletter.

Some Thoughts on The Complete Cheapskate
The “freedom account” idea intrigued me. It makes a lot of sense for people who are trying to stick to a hard and fast budget but have difficulties dealing with irregular bills. In essence, it’s just a clever way to make irregular bills regular, and it’s a great way to use an online checking account like ING.

The next to last chapter, “Cheap Shots,” is largely what I expected the whole book to be. It was a pretty solid little selection of money saving tips, about fifteen to a page. Based on seeing the words The Complete Cheapskate on the cover of the book, I actually expected a 200 page book that was nothing but these little money-saving tips.

Is The Complete Cheapskate Worth Reading?
The cover and title don’t really explain what exactly The Complete Cheapskate is going to be about. I (reasonably) expected to read a book that was advice on how to compress your spending hard, but instead it was more of an all-around personal finance book with a few somewhat unusual ideas (see above).

Thus, from my perspective, I was disappointed. If Hunt had focused on the frugality and ran with some of the more interesting thoughts, this would have been a really compelling book, one that I would have universally recommended.

The Complete Cheapskate comes off like a gem mine. If you dig around in the dust, you’ll find some really interesting pieces that compel you to give your situation some serious thought or look at things from a new angle. If you don’t put in that effort, it’ll just look like an ordinary cave.

This one’s worth reading if you like digging in for little interesting details, or you like the tone of Hunt’s newsletters and other materials.

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  1. emdoozie says:

    There should be a finance book that covers money management for the extreme risk taker. I believe in molding my life into my “ideal” life when it comes to money, living my dreams, and ultimate success. Yet a lot of books I read are more opposed to risk. Sometimes it takes big financial risks (or many small ones) when trying to live your dreams, so a book tailored more to my personality and drive would be great. Know of any? I just hate the save and retire rich mentality, what about all the years before I turn 60, should I not be able to enjoy my life then?

  2. justin says:


    Rich Dad Poor Dad

  3. kathryn says:

    Would this be a good general book for someone just trying to dig out?

    Also, I did start a “freedom” account system a couple of years ago. I have 6 categories: car, house repairs, insurance, taxes, clothing, and Gifts (really Christmas). It took a little while to get it funded and figure out a way to track it (I have it in one savings account and am thinking about splitting it into several ING subaccounts to make life simpler.) I have to say it works great for the taxes and insurance, but the BEST part has been the car.

    Before, car repairs would always knock us for a loop. But now that I have “budgeted” for them by putting money aside each month, I’ve been able to handle everything the machines have thrown at us with just a few winces at the price. I put away a fair amount, and figure if there is any excess, it can always be used toward purchase of the next car when the time comes. Highly recommend it!

  4. Marcy says:

    The freedom account is a terrific idea that has saved us a lot of stress and strain. My husband is a pastor–and we pay self-employment tax with those wonderful quarterly estimateds. Since we have to save that money up, life got really scary–“oh no, Sept 15 is next week”. Once we picked up the idea of the freedom account from one of Hunt’s earlier books, we had a tool that changed that panic to “sigh, there goes that 15% social security tax–oh, well, at least it’s there to send!” (yeah, pastors’ taxes are weird-self-employed for social security purposes, employee for fed income tax purposes)

  5. gwen says:

    I agree with Marcy, the freedom account idea is terrific. It works now that my husband is a professor, but it was an absolute life-saver when we were a one-income (his TA salary) grad student family. I personally think that the book is a great read if only for that idea alone.

  6. Char says:

    Mary Hunt is the author that got me on the path to financial freedom over 10 years ago. In reference to her chapter on giving, in the book that I read she had a phrase that stated “to tithe is to trust it is to acknowledge that God will provide and God will protect.” That quote single handedly turned my life around, I began tithing and the act of knowing that I was giving to people less fortunate, turned my crazy spending around, I paid off my debt that was in the 10s of thousands in under 2 years and began a path of saving for our future. I have grown tired of her blog and web site but I will forever be grateful for the advice this author gave to me.

  7. steve says:

    @ emdoozie,who wrote: “I believe in molding my life into my “ideal” life when it comes to money, living my dreams, and ultimate success. Yet a lot of books I read are more opposed to risk. Sometimes it takes big financial risks (or many small ones) when trying to live your dreams, so a book tailored more to my personality and drive would be great.”

    I am wondering exactly what you mean by “taking big financial risks”. If what you mean is working for yourself and creating your own business, I would agree that most PF writers do not address your needs, desires, and do not address the mentality of people who for whatever reason are not “wage earners.”

    “Frugality” type programs give advice in baseline aspects of balancing income and expenses, often with a heavy focus on the expense side. While this is an essential part of financial and personal success, it leaves out a whole bunch of behaviors and thought patterns and goals that I think you are referring to–those behind entrepreneurship, active investing (investing in businesses you have partial or complete control of, not stocks or consumer investing products)–and generally speaking, business creation as opposed to working for salary or wages.

    Budgeting and income-balancing programs/websites/books in general do not emphasize putting big wads of cash down and making something new with it. They almost ignore that, instead focusing on limiting or redistributing consumption expenses.

    It’s probably a good thing for them, because the numbers of people who are going to own their own businesses are much smaller than those who will work as employees, and the employees represent a larger market available to personal finance authors.

    Also, the “ownership” mentality is something most people don’t have a lot exposure to–most people (statistically) are employees, not business owners, and business owners just have a different perspective. It’s a perspective that is very very far from anyone who is just trying to keep their budget in line, because psychologically most people won’t let themselves go “out on a limb” unless they’ve got a fair amount of cash behind them. And they may not have an example in their own life of someone who is following that kind of path. And they don’t think about topics like new business ideas, how to get financing, getting other investors involved in a proposition, etc, because the fact is that most is not all of the people around them don’t think about these things. I think better than books or websites is just talking to people–getting to know some people who are in business and have taken risks and succeeded and seeing if you can learn from them. I mean just having conversations about business, not necessarily looking “for advice”. And just in general keeping your eyes open for opportunities if that’s what you are geared to.

  8. steve says:

    Back on the topic of Trent’s article, I have to say that I love The Complete Cheapskate and for me it was the book that really got the idea across and normalized spending less than I earn and saving small amounts throughout the year for intermittent budget items–what she calls a “Freedom Account”.

    It’s a great book for someone who’s just putting the nuts and bolts together of sound personal budget management and living within their means/towards their dreams, it’s a fun read, and on that level I think it’s terrific.

  9. steve says:

    PS, emdoozie,

    I don’t know if you read it, but Trent’s article from a few days ago, “Opportunity”, is a great example of how having nuts and bolts stuff down in your financial life (the basics–what a large portion of PF writers spend most of their time focusing on– )can open up doors of possibility that are closed to you if you don’t have your stuff together.

    Basically, he was writing about a couple of times earlier in his life when not having significant cash on hand/saved up prevented him from capitalizing on a couple really sweet business opportunities. The article pointed out how much it can benefit you to get to the place where you have more financial flexibility and some savings built up–not just to take care of emergencies, but to make certain kinds of opportunities come within your reach.

  10. I am still continually surprised with the amount of books your review. Thanks for this review.
    I think I will pass on this book. I am more after entrepreneurial books more than this book

  11. Trent, she has a book called Tiptionary, which is a book full of nothing but little tips(with most of them being frugal tips). It’s pretty good, but a book full of nothing but tips is a little bit overwhelming! It’s hard to remember any of them because there are so many.

  12. almost there says:

    Instead of a freedom account(another cumbersome account to manage, IMO)why not manage all of your funds via quicken or msn money? I set up my quicken register with all the anticipated bills for the year and just run the account 2-3 months into the future. That way, I know what bills are coming due and how much to leave in checking and put the rest in savings. Then, if anything unexpected comes up I just transfer the cash I need into checking to pay the bills. A no-brainer. I think some folks make managing money much too hard. Forget all these sub savings and checking accounts, just have a debt account and a savings account as primary and if you want to chase higher interest savings put the bulk of the savings there.

  13. Chris says:

    I guess I have a freedom account already! It’s a second checking account that I automatically funnel $300/paycheck to. The primary purpose of this is a debt snowball: there’s a credit card attached to this bank account that I pay off by reducing the balance by $200/month ($100/paycheck).

    So if I haven’t used the card, I can put $200 in the “freedom fund” every other week, and if I’ve made a card purchase, slightly less goes into the fund that pay period. The credit card balance goes down by $200/month no matter what, even if the freedom fund suffers.

    It’s separate from my emergency fund, though I’ve definitely used it instead of dipping into the emergency fund for exactly things like a higher-than-normal cell phone bill, vacation money, i.e non-emergency, non-predictable expenses.

  14. Linda says:

    I think Mary Hunt is one of the best out there.
    Her website, http://www.debtproofliving.com is a great resource. The tiptionary stuff is worth looking into. Her advice comes from years of experience, and lessons learned from being greatly in debt.

    Trent, I believe Mary has referenced your blog before, in regard to the home made laundry detergent recipes.

  15. Linda says:

    A post script….

    I failed to mention, I have to give Mary Hunt extra props, as she has come a long way with her advice. Her children I believe are now grown, and she’s made a living with her books, advice, and speaking engagements. Lots of experience on her side. She survived to tell the tale.

  16. We refinanced our mortgage some years back. Our original mortgage included an escrow payment for insurance and property taxes. Our new mortgage didn’t, so we figured we’d do our own escrow via automatic deduction at the same time as the mortgage payment, with the money going into our own “escrow” savings account.

    It didn’t take us long to figure out that we could use the same account for other annual or periodic expenses. We now also use it for auto insurance, tuitions, certain annual charity contributions, and other purposes. Basically, we ended up with a “freedom account” without really thinking of it that way.

    It does make a lot of sense, and is easy to maintain: just figure out how much you’re likely to need to spend on these periodic expenses in a year, divide by 12, round up a bit for safety, and then get that automatically skimmed off every time you get paid. (If you get paid biweekly, divide by 26 instead of 12.) We don’t have to worry when the big insurance payment comes due: we’ve already got it socked away (plus a little extra).

  17. threadbndr says:

    @almost there – While I agree that a whole other checking account is cumbersome, the problem arises with newbies to managing their money, who might ‘forget’ that those amounts are escrowed for another purpose. By isolating those funds in another account, there’s no chance that they can be spent by mistake. I use a middle ground – a savings account that’s dedicated to the ‘escrows’ and linked to my checking.

  18. Danielle Marsh says:

    I have been utilizing a Freedom Account since 2003 after reading about it in another finance book… It allows me to put aside money for things like my auto insurance, homeowner’s insurance, and real estate taxes from each paycheck. I never miss the money since I pay to this account like a bill, and I even manager to earn a little interest on it while it’s sitting around. I even use this for pet expenses and personal expenses such as haircuts and ‘shopping sprees’.

    I recommend this idea highly, and after a while you really do get used to paying into it and dividing it up….

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