The Frugal Divorcée

How to survive—and even thrive—in the new age of austerity

It’s the Revenge of the Nerds, if there’s any one underlying theme. Consider Steve and Annette Economides (real name!), heads of “America’s Cheapest Family.” They are devout, homeschooling (of five kids!) Christians, and helping others get out of debt is part of their ministry (although they don’t bring religion into their book). Their uniform of choice consists of Dockers (it seemed to me that Dockers are mentioned on practically every other page). To keep their outlet and thrift-store wardrobes stylish, they unironically practice—and advocate—the seasonal “color draping” mocked by Michael Moore (as you may remember) in Roger & Me: Steve and Annette dutifully organize their closet according to palettes that the color wheel has determined are flattering on them, which include such startling-sounding hues as Christmas red, emerald green, and royal purple. Grocery shopping is done by team—Dad takes the outer aisles, Mom takes the inner; comparison of sale prices and coupon doubles is done in real time (“Shazam!”) via walkie-talkie. Meanwhile, humming at the nuclear core of their home is that must-have for all frugaholics—the giant 27-cubic-foot freezer. Grocery shopping for a family of seven just once a month (to avoid unplanned impulse purchases), they ladder their produce in ascending order of the length of shelf life (meaning in the first week you consume grapes and bananas; in the second, pears, lettuce, and cucumbers; third and fourth, apples, celery, and oranges); they buy 15 loaves of bread at once from the bakery outlet; instead of deli lunch meat, they select only “chubs.”

Certainly there are plenty of images one cannot shake, once one has Dumpster-dived one’s way through the new, beet-green-splattered (beet greens were free, found near a crashed delivery truck on the side of the road!) frugillionaire lit. I mean, who but a crazy (or is it crazy-as-a-fox?) person like Wanda Adams of Trotwood, Ohio, would invite friends to a whimsical boiled-omelet brunch?

Give everyone their own quart-size ziplock bag with their name written on it in permanent marker. Guests crack a couple of eggs into their bags, add a dash of milk, and choose their own omelet ingredients from a large selection … of leftovers from the fridge … the more bizarre the better … Drop all [the bags] in a large pot of boiling water for fourteen minutes …

Et voilà! And yet nothing is as memorable as the Economides family on vacation. Wearing seven matching outfits (so no one gets lost), eagerly anticipating staying not in a hotel but in student dorms abandoned over the summer (unbelievable cut rates), they realized the only must-have travel item that wouldn’t fit into their airplane luggage was … drumroll … the family Crock-Pot. And so their 18-day trip to Washington, D.C., began with a sweep of pre-Googled thrift stores to purchase a used Crock-Pot ($5! Shazam!), which they immediately filled with cans of SpaghettiOs for a festive ending to their day. (As to their tips on Paris? One can only imagine: “C’est la cheapskate!”)

America’s Cheapest Family: they are the very opposite of hip, and I wish I were one of them!

Why? Because I am the sort of failed cheapskate who pores over this amazing treasure bin of ideas with what Ultimate Cheapskate Yeager calls “TE”—“Tightwad Envy.” (Why oh why don’t I have the sort of open-minded friends who would thrill to the wacky fun of a boiled-omelet brunch? Why, instead of skillfully laddering my produce, do I sometimes just leave it out on the counter and forget about it completely? Dill, dill … Why oh why did I buy that now-rubbery and useless $1.50 sprig of dill last week? Do I have so much money that I can simply throw it away?) Like America’s more successful cheapskates, I too suffer from what Yeager calls “SAD”—“Spending Anxiety Disorder.”

[SAD] was a favorite topic of conversation with the cheapskates I interviewed: how they feel when they spend money and, specifically, when they pay full price for something. They often described physical symptoms, like “dizziness,” “light-headedness,” and even “nausea,” when talking about spending large sums of money or spending money unnecessarily.

They even talk of “early-onset SAD,” sharing memories of being a pint-size cheapskate—so poignant!

Struggling with my finances, nudging toward 50, I sometimes daydream about being happily married to a matching frugaholic husband in a matching Christmas-red tracksuit with matching walkie-talkies as we troll Ralphs, excitedly comparing triple coupons. (Did I mention that Steve gave Annette her very own custom-made coupon box? You see, her coupon wallet had become too small—coupons were falling out. She was thrilled!) How satisfying it would be to have a von Trapp family–like army of homeschooled children whistling as they spin their chore wheels—doing the dishes, folding the laundry, mowing the lawn—while I meticulously reward them in 25-cent increments, according to a complex yet motivating point system, dropped in three glass jars (spending, saving, tithing). Oh, what I could do with a 27-cubic-foot freezer!

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is the author, most recently, of Mother on Fire.

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