Some Thoughts on Extreme Cheapskates

Extreme Cheapskates is a “reality” television series that airs on TLC that just entered its third season. Over the last two years, the show has launched a new season in October and, as with the previous two Octobers, I’ve been asked a few questions about my take on the show.

First of all, I’m not a regular viewer of “reality” television shows – or of most television shows, for that matter. While I do watch a few series, most evenings, I’m working on personal projects or reading a book. It’s just a personal preference; many of my family and friends are avid television viewers. I just get more personal enjoyment and fulfillment out of reading a book or playing a game with friends than I get out of watching a television program most of the time.

Still, given the encouragement of a few readers, I watched a number of episodes from the first three seasons of Extreme Cheapskates with a notebook and a pen on my lap. As I watched, a few key thoughts came to me.

The Line That Shouldn’t Be Crossed

All of us have certain lines of personal behavior that we feel it is wrong to cross. Many people consider it distasteful to dive in dumpsters for food. Some consider it completely inappropriate to haggle, while others consider it completely fine. Some consider it inappropriate to wear highly worn undergarments, while others are completely okay with wearing them into rags. I could list hundreds of these kinds of “lines” that some people will cross and some people won’t.

This show, rather than focusing on frugality, focuses instead on these “lines.” It’s pretty clear from watching even one episode that they follow the people around and film them in situations where they cross those social “lines” in order to save a buck. They present the “extreme cheapskates” without comment, then rely on our own reactions to those people crossing social “lines” for the entertainment factor.

I saw many behaviors that I object to. In one episode, a mother served some food to their children that I probably would have tossed out, but that’s because I have some strong views on sanitary food practices. I won’t serve my family food that I’m not strongly convinced about.

At the same time, I saw quite a few behaviors that were presented as though they should be “shocking,” but I basically shrugged my shoulders. In one scene, a person bragged about not having purchased new underwear since the late 1990s. I’m not going to see this person’s underwear. That person may have bought very sturdy underwear that lasts for a long time. If I had underwear from 1998 that held up without holes to today, I’d be very happy with that underwear. They had a long lifetime and I got a lot of value out of them. I toss out clothing based on whether it’s worn out, not based on purchase date.

All of these things – and many others – come down to our own personal views on propriety and personal behavior. Rather than just reveling in the shock value, it’s often useful to think about why we’re shocked. Is there really something wrong going on here? Or are we shocked because this person is just doing things in a different way than we have always done things?

The Social Factor

One big issue I saw over and over again was the social factor. It may have simply been the episodes that I watched – and the editing may have been a factor, too – but I couldn’t help but notice that many of the people presented lived fairly solitary lifestyles. They occasionally see family or have friends over, but most of their time is spent at home by themselves or just with the other residents of the home.

On the occasions when social events occurred, it wasn’t hard to notice that the people around them often reacted in a negative fashion toward their behavior. For example, one person invited two friends over for dinner, served them food that had been retrieved from the Dumpster, and then proceeded to brag about this at the dinner table. One of those friends tried to use the bathroom and, instead of finding toilet paper, found a plastic bottle that the friend was expected to use as some kind of manual bidet.

This was the one aspect of the show that made me seriously uncomfortable.

When a friend comes into my home, I think it’s completely reasonable for them to expect that my restroom will provide them what they need to clean themselves to the standards of what they might find in a public restroom, for the most part. I also think it’s reasonable for them to believe that the food I’m serving them is of at least reasonable enough quality that there isn’t a significant chance that they will get ill from the consumption.

Such steps have nothing to do with my own values and how I treat myself. They have to do with respecting others and treating them well.

Serving partially-rotted dumpster items and leaving out no toilet paper and a water bottle “bidet,” in the social standards of America, does not constitute treating your guests with respect. The vast majority of people in that situation would assume that the host was either attempting to harm them or was insulting them in some fashion and the event would cause harm to the relationship.

I know that if I were a guest at someone’s home and I was treated in that fashion, I would probably make a similar assumption unless I knew that person extremely well and was aware of other reasons for such treatment (such as mental illness). Without a caveat like that, I would likely assume the person did not want me around and would minimize the friendship.

I get an incredible amount of value from my social network. I get companionship and camaraderie. I get help when I need it – emotionally, financially, professionally, spiritually. I get tons of useful advice.

The least I can do in response to this bounty that my friends give to me is to meet basic social norms when they visit my home. That means having a clean bathroom with toilet paper and soap. That means serving food that’s healthy. That means not having any obvious health hazards present.

It becomes prohibitively difficult to maintain a strong social network if you pursue this kind of extreme… cheapness. Because of that, you’re denying yourself the many valuable elements that come from having a healthy social life.

Why Are You Cheap?

In the end, this show left me asking one question about me and my own frugal choices, as well as the spending choices of the people on the show.

Why?

Why be cheap? What is the reason behind being cheap? What is gained by choosing not to spend money?

When I sit down and think about my overarching goal of financial independence, I can pretty easily put that into perspective compared to the value of having a healthy meal on the table for my kids or for my friends, or having a clean and reasonably sanitary bathroom for them to use when they visit. Those things are more important to me than financial independence.

At the same time, there are a lot of things less important to me than financial independence. Name brands, for instance. Unless I know the name brand will function better in a vital way, I just don’t care.

I know why I’m sometimes cheap. It’s because, compared to the other things in my life, those things that I’m cheap about are less important.

When I see people on this show and how they handle different aspects of their life, it becomes clear that their financial goals are far more important to them than virtually any other aspect of their life. They’re quite happy to significantly raise the risk of illness, alienate friends, and many other things in order to push toward their financial goals.

This show is a window into a different set of priorities and how people live with those priorities.

Final Thoughts

TLC’s formula for shows like this is pretty clear: show unusual behavior without comment and let the crossing of social “norms” provide the entertainment factor. Shows like Hoarders follow the same exact style.

While watching Extreme Cheapskates, I could feel that method at work. I saw people crossing lines that would make me uncomfortable, particularly in social situations. At the same time, I saw people who were obviously deeply committed to ideas and ideals that they held dear. It takes a lot of courage to be different and make choices that are outside of social norms.

My feeling on the show overall is a simple one, and it’s pretty simple to one of the core ideas behind The Simple Dollar.

You should always feel completely free to make challenging choices in your own life, provided that the impact of those choices are mostly limited to yourself. Most of the things I saw fell into that category – people choosing things for themselves that didn’t really affect anyone else in any real fashion. To those people who keep their choices in that category, I say more power to you!

Where I start to get uncomfortable is when those choices do start to affect other people, like when you feed your children substandard food or when you invite guests into your home and do the same. At that point, your personal choices are starting to affect others in a negative way… and that’s where I start to have serious misgivings.

Never forget the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated.

In the end, I actually enjoyed Extreme Cheapskates more than I suspected I would, not as a source for frugal tips, but as a window into different value structures and the different priorities people place on things in their lives. It was hard at times to resist the urge to judge, but when I managed to do that, the show was more thoughtful than I expected.

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