Cheapskate – Times Publications, December 2008
Charlie White wears the pair of worn, lime green tennis shoes he bought at a garage sale for a quarter. The living room in his cramped, one-bedroom Mesa apartment is furnished with stuff he dug out of dumpsters, including a dingy old futon that he covers with an afghan. And he proudly brags about a system he developed to stretch his shampoo and other toiletries by mixing them with a quarter bottle of water.
“I don’t just pinch pennies; I squeeze them,” White says with a chuckles. “I hate spending, but if I can get a deal or get something for free – it’s not so bad.”
While White’s brand of extreme frugality may seem common for someone on a welfare budget, he has no money troubles. The 58-year-old folksy carpet cleaner has a good job and “respectable” savings. But he doesn’t base his budget on what he’s able to afford. Instead, being frugal is in his nature.
“My family calls me a ‘tightwad’ and says I’m stingy,” he says. “I prefer to be called thrifty, but I know I am cheap.”
Being a penny pincher has come with its share of snickers, White says, but like any good “Frugal McDoogal,” he is proud of his ability to stretch a buck. And with the downturn in the economy, he says thrifty suddenly doesn’t seem so strange.
“When things were good, everyone was spending while I was saving,” he says. “Now everyone is watching their budgets, like I’ve been doing all my life.”
Experts say the downturn in the economy is making frugality more fashionable and that a growing number of creative consumers are clipping coupons, seeking out bargains and looking for creative ways to save a buck.
More than 10 million Americans are currently jobless, the highest rate in over 25 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. American households have lost $7 trillion of asset wealth, reflecting declining housing values and plummeting stock prices. And retail sales statistics are as bad as they’ve ever been.
Given the circumstances, consumers are seeking out ways to resourcefully tighten their purse strings. At the grocery store, for instance, shoppers are switching to less expensive groceries, buying more store-brand products and making fewer impulse buys at the cash register, according to a recent survey by Booz & Co., a consulting firm that examines how economic pressures affect buyer decisions.
Additionally, more concerned consumers are clipping coupons. “Coupon use is rebounding,” says Matthew Tilley, marketing director for CMS Inc., a promotional logistics company that handles coupon payments to retailers and has tracked coupon trends for more than 20 years. “There’s definitely a renewed interest in coupon use.”
Coupon use peaked in 1992, with nearly 8 billion coupons redeemed for more than $5 billion in savings, according to CMS. And while coupon use has steadily decreased over the past 15 years, experts say that the economic downturn will lead to increased coupon use.
In a survey last month of 1,000 people, the Coupon Council found that 89 percent of respondents had used coupons when shopping for groceries, household or healthcare items. And of the 1,529 U.S. consumers recently surveyed by marketing company ICOM, 67 percent of shoppers said they would be more likely to use coupons during a recession.
Laurie Meyers, founder of the Arizona-based Coupon Sense, which tracks advertised sale items at eight major grocery stores and matches them with manufacturers’ coupons, says more people are looking for ways to save.
“With the economy right now we’re seeing a lot of growth,” says Meyers. “We’re seeing former subscribers come back because they know they can save money.”
Each year shoppers save approximately $2.6 billion using coupons, which are obtained primarily through the Sunday paper. The average value of a coupon is about $1.25, but those savings can add up fast.
“If you plan in advance on all those grocery purchases, you can save a ton of money,” she says. “It’s not uncommon to save 90 percent on your groceries.”
Avid coupon shoppers can spend hours hunting down bargains and seeking out deals. And while clipping coupons typically starts out as a way to make ends meet, many say it eventually becomes a thrill.
“We all spend money, and especially nowadays people get very frustrated when they have to spend money,” says Meyers. “But when you’re out there and you’re getting all these groceries for so little it becomes very addictive. It becomes a fun game.”
Queens of Coupons
On a recent shopping trip, Mesa mom Emily Mendonca, 25, purchased several air fresheners, toiletries and snacks – all for less than a quarter and a fist full of coupons.
“The bill was $30 before they started taking off the coupons, and then I got it down to 18 cents,” she says. “Even I was shocked by that one.”
Through extreme couponing, it’s not uncommon for Mendonca to get a shopping cart full of groceries for practically free. In fact, she feeds her family of three for about $150 a month.
For Mendonca, couponing began as a way to stretch her budget when she got married. Spending about three hours a week, she clips and organizes coupons using a color-coordinated binder and old baseball-card holders.
By matching coupons with store sales, not being picky about brands and purchasing only items she has coupons for, she says she can save between 50 and 90 percent on her groceries.
“It’s almost like an addiction now, to see exactly what I can get,” she says. “It’s a little bit of an adrenaline rush.”
On occasion Glendale mom Nancy Phillips, 26, gets paid to shop.
Each Sunday Phillips gets six copies of the newspaper to pile up the coupons. She says that by using the coupons, especially when stores offer double- and triple-coupon deals, she often ends up getting her take practically for free.
“I’ve actually had stores give me money back,” she says. “I went to Safeway one time and my bill was for about $25 and I got $4 back.”
One trick, coupon users say, is to stockpile coupons on items when they go on sale.
For instance, Phillips purchases six of everything non-perishable to store around the house. By stocking up and being creative with couponing, she says she spends less than $200 a month on groceries for a family of five.
“We probably have 30 or 40 toothbrushes in my closet,” she says.
For deals that are limited to three per transaction, Phillips brings her husband along to double up on deals.
“Last year we went to Albertsons and my husband spent $2 and got $70 worth of food, and I spent $4 and I saved $85,” she says. “It totally is addictive.”
Portrait in Frugality
While frugality was once normal in American society, experts say that for decades thriftiness has been viewed negatively.
“This isn’t a very socially desirable behavior,” says John Lastovicka, an ASU professor of marketing who did a study on frugality published in 1999. “In a materialistic country where we’re very affluent, the imagery of these frugal behaviors is something we don’t like.”
Only about 15 percent of modern Americans could be described as frugal, according to Lastovicka’s study.
Frugal people are less materialistic, tend to be self-disciplined and are more value- and price-conscious.
Contrary to the “scrooge” persona, thrifty consumers aren’t stingy, he says, they are just more selective with their purchasing decisions, typically in order to achieve long-term financial goals.
“These folks are still consumers, but they are discriminate,” he says. “They just don’t necessarily give in to each and every whim that they have.”
“Being frugal not only makes economic sense, but I think it also makes ecological sense,” says Lastovicka. “The motivation behind a lot of frugality is people looking for a bargain, but certainly the bigger benefit is being served.”
One Man’s Trash…
When Donna Hersker needed rugs, lamps and Christmas lights for her Scottsdale home, she didn’t go to a department or furniture store. Instead she got them free from a stranger through the Freecycle Network, an organization that helps people get and give stuff away for free.
“There’s no money involved at all, there’s no conditions, there is no trading, there’s no bartering,” Hersker says. “People can just go in and ask for something.”
The Freecycle Network is like a gigantic online free swap meet for people to give stuff to their neighbors to prevent items from ending up in the landfills. Members sign up for groups in their area and receive emails when someone wants to get or give away something.
“It’s not the free Walmart,” Hersker says. “It’s free recycling, things that you’re going to get rid of.”
Tucson resident Deron Beal founded the Freecycle Network in 2003 as a small grassroots organization that today boasts 6 million members in 85 countries. About 40,000 new members join each week, and Beal says the economic downturn has caused growth to double in the past few months.
On the site, freecycle.org, members give away everything, including electronics, furniture, old mattresses, baby clothes, junked cars, old towels and even broken pieces of concrete.
“I had a woman give away a half a bottle of hair dye when she was done because she didn’t want to throw it away,” says Beal. “It’s whatever the individual can creatively come up with.”
The organization was created to encourage reusing items and keeping them out of the dump; however, many users of the Freecycle Network also come to get a bargain.
“There’s over a thousand items a day in Phoenix alone being given away for free,” says Beal. “It’s an excellent way to save money, conserve resources by reusing items.”
Diving for Deals
While White has never gotten free stuff through the Web, he does encourage dumpster diving, especially at apartment complexes, as a great way to get stuff for free. “You would be so surprised at the perfectly good stuff people throw in the garbage,” he says.
Besides furnishing his living room, White says he’s found stuff that he was able to clean and sell to make extra cash.
Although with the dwindling economy he says he’s a little worried about the additional competition at some of the dumpsters where he gets the best finds.
“It’s funny how the same people who used to call me scrooge are now asking me for financial advice,” he says. “Here’s some advice: don’t spend away all your money.”
To match coupons with sales: www.couponsense.com
For coupon tips: www.hotcouponworld.com
To find Internet coupons: www.mycoupons.com
For coupon information: www.couponmom.com
For free recycling: www.freecycle.org