Friday, February 23, 2024

Ask a Cheap Bastard

Dear Cheap Bastard,

I’m kind of fascinated by cheap bastards like you, and I have often wondered: do you guys feel a kinship with one another, or do you clash?

Justin C, Austin, TX

Dear Justin,

Who are you calling a bastard?! Haha, just kidding. I know Cheap Bastard is my name, and my game, etc. Anyhow, I’ll grant you there’s a mutual respect when I encounter another cheapskate, and we’ve been known to trade money-saving tips. That being said, I absolutely cannot stand it when a manufacturer of something (i.e., some executive making cost-cutting decisions) skimps on the cost of materials just to save a few cents per unit. This is particularly common with anything related to the home. As detailed here, I had a plumbing emergency once because the valve (or more precisely the “angle supply stop”) of my bathroom sink was made of plastic and spontaneously failed. This could have cost me many thousands of dollars had I not been home to deal with the crisis, but that doesn’t matter a whit to the cheap bastard who chose to make this important object out of plastic. Parsimonious though I am, I will always gladly pay more for durable stuff. How many more time bombs may be lurking in my house due to the ubiquity of cheap bastards in the manufacturing business?

Dear Cheap Bastard,

My husband is a cheap bastard and often cites your column as validation of the way he lives his life. As a result, he’s refusing to help with our son’s college costs. I guess this isn’t really question, but more of a statement: damn you. Damn you to hell.

Monica J, Phoenix, AZ

Dear Monica,

Not all cheap bastards are created equal. Your husband is of the sort that should be described more precisely … the better term would be “dick.” Let me make something clear: for me, being a cheap bastard is a deeply personal matter and doesn’t affect my family. The very reason that I strive to always get the best deal, and to do without overpriced crap, is so that I’ll have enough money to apply it where it matters, such as my children’s education. Having sired these kids intentionally, I consider it my duty to provide well for them and not let my miserly ways extend to them. Thus, they kind of get the best of both worlds: they get to party like rock stars and make fun of their tightfisted father.

Dear Cheap Bastard,

I’ve been a lifelong cheap bastard myself and proud of it—but I feel like I’m losing steam lately. Any words of encouragement?

Duane S, Chicago, IL

Dear Duane,

There are various ways to define what a cheap bastard even is. One type is a person who refuses to part with money for just about anything; another is happy to buy stuff but only if he or she gets a great deal; another refuses to pay for labor, preferring to do everything on his or her own even if it means taking a lot of time to learn how. A cheap bastard may fall into one, two, or all three categories. With the third in particular, one’s approach may naturally change over time and/or based on circumstance. In some cases I think it’s perfectly reasonable to lighten up a bit.

Here’s an example. When I’d just bought my home, I was basically broke (as one tends to be) so my wife and I repainted all the rooms ourselves. Since then, as our burden of debt has lightened, we’ve tended to hire a crew. I don’t fault myself for that because as I’ve aged, my net worth has increased while my remaining time on this planet has declined. In other words, time is starting to be worth more than money. So when my laziness and thriftiness fight, the lazy side wins more often and I don’t beat myself up about it. (Sure, my cheap bastard cred may be thus questioned, but being a guy who’ll willingly drink sour milk and often sifts through the family compost bin for perfectly edible food, I think I’ve got some wiggle room.)

Dear Cheap Bastard,

My proudest feat as a cheap bastard is making a pair of underwear last more than a decade by fixing tears, holes, etc. with my sewing machine. What’s your favorite cheap bastard trophy?

Geoff A, Amersfoort, The Netherlands

Dear Geoff,

I guess I’d have to say it’s the beat-to-hell brake/shift levers on my flagship road bike. Although they’re top-of-the-line Dura-Ace, they’re 25 years old and I bought them used (at least 15 years ago) for like $100. They still work reasonably well, and that’s good enough for me.

I guess this isn’t really like a trophy, since I doubt many people notice my levers and wouldn’t have much of a reaction to them one way or the other. Real cyclists, in my experience, judge me by how well I ride, not what equipment I’m using. I suspect it’s the same with your underwear.

Dear Cheap Bastard,

There are so many ways to be frugal beyond just price shopping. For example, cooking dried beans instead of buying canned, or making your own laundry detergent. What cost-cutting opportunities do you think most cheap bastards miss? In other words, what makes the difference between a good cheap bastard and a great one?

Alex R, New York, NY

Dear Alex,

From what I’ve observed, the greatest blind spot for cheap bastards is simply not understanding the concept of opportunity cost, and specifically the cost, in terms of gains not realized, not investing your money. My father, for example, was a notorious cheap bastard, but he also never saved for retirement. In his old age he ended up pinching pennies out of necessity rather than preference, which really takes the fun out of it.

How one manages debt is another example: it’s somewhat useful to buy in bulk at Costco but far more useful to pay down your mortgage early. Coupons are chump change; paying interest ought to be the bane of our existence.

I know this is all pretty boring compared to eating compost, etc., so I’ll talk a bit more about spoiled milk. My mom, a microbiologist, assures me that sour milk can’t hurt you; it’s just unpleasant. In fact, a family legend maintains that when my brothers and I were young, and our (powdered!) milk went bad, my mom would say, perfectly seriously, “Just plug your nose and drink it!” Which we did. Allegedly.

Dear Cheap Bastard,

I really don’t understand people like you. Isn’t there a social cost of being a cheap bastard? Like, not looking your best, coming off as low-class, etc.? Which could adversely affect your social and professional opportunities?

Becky G, Miami, FL

Dear Becky,

Being a cheap bastard is more than a mentality; it’s an art. Ideally, the cheap bastard doesn’t appear cheap to the casual observer. If I were just a cheap dumbass, I’d wear Toughskins jeans and dumpy Kirkland shirts, or buy defective clothing at Ross Dress for Less. Instead, I buy most of my clothes at thrift or consignment stores, which means getting really good stuff that a filthy rich person changed his mind about. I also closely watch the online sales at J Crew (e.g., I’ll get 60% off on already discounted price, so I can pick up a nice t-shirt or pair of boxers for $3 or $4). I also only buy used cars, so I can afford to pay cash for a pretty nice one, because who cares if someone else drove it for the first couple of years? A final point: anybody who judges me for not having the latest styles, or luxury brands, is probably a jerk whom I wouldn’t want to befriend or work for. (Are you thinking this may just be sour grapes? Perhaps, but hey, sour grapes are cheaper than wine.)

Dear Cheap Bastard,

I will never be a cheap bastard, but times are a bit tight and I’d like to save where I can without going overboard. What’s my best bang for the buck in terms of non-annoying thrift?

Ron T, Council Bluffs, IA

Dear Ron,

My most basic advice is twofold: 1) avoid buying on credit whenever possible (i.e., no credit card balance, no car payment) and 2) avoid subscriptions. Interest is just money down the drain if it’s for consumer items that aren’t advancing you. Subscriptions (other than for magazines or newspapers) are all about getting you to buy more of something than you need. Why do I constantly get stuff in the mail about subscribing to prescription medications, as if planning for ongoing poor health? And why would I pay for satellite radio in my car when my phone can stream the Spotify I already have? And why does exist, when you can check out audiobooks from the library (not just on CD, but via instant download to your phone)? Perhaps the most egregious example is Harry’s, a subscription razor blade replacement service. As detailed here, I switched to old-school double-edged razor blades over eight years ago and am still working through the 100-pack of Feather blades I bought back then for $23. Do the math: there’s no way a razor blade subscription could be cheaper.

Dear Cheap Bastard,

Any advice for a fellow cheap bastard married to a big spender? How can me and her meet halfway?

Ted H, Denver, CO

Dear Ted,

Naturally, a couple needs to be in lockstep on fundamental financial decisions such as renting vs. buying, having kids or not, and where to live. But for the day-to-day cheap bastard stuff, it’s best to just let it go … you’ll never turn a spendthrift into a skinflint. I myself take a day-trader approach to grocery shopping, honing my discount-finding skills to the point that I have a Spidey-sense about when Peet’s coffee will go on sale. My wife, on the other hand, literally doesn’t even look at price tags at the grocery store. The way to reconcile yourself to this is to look at the tremendous cost of failing to maintain marital harmony. Consider that her manicure, or your family’s expensive weekend getaway, are way cheaper than marriage counseling, which in turn is cheaper than divorce. And how you make the big financial decisions (e.g., how much to contribute to your 401(k), whether or not to refinance your home loan) will make a much bigger difference in your overall situation than all that penny pinching.

Dear Cheap Bastard,

I’m not a cheap bastard, but I bristle at the “tip inflation” we’re seeing lately, with the tab listing “suggested” tips of 18, 20, and 25%. If I ever say anything, people accuse me of being cheap. How do you get away with sticking to your guns here?

Mark K, Seattle, WA

Dear Mark,

First off, being a cheap bastard should never extend to tipping. Having your wife cut your hair to save money is your business (well, and hers too since she has to look at you), but stiffing a waiter is just poor form. That said, I agree that tips above 20% are uncalled for, since the rising cost of restaurant food automatically increases the dollar amount of waiters’ tips. In fact, as described in a recent New Yorker article, attempts by restaurants to improve employee wages by increasing prices have mainly benefitted waiters, not so much the cooks and managers. One restaurateur contends that “since he got into the business, front-of-house pay has climbed two hundred per cent, compared with twenty-five per cent for the back of house.”

Another area where tipping has gotten a bit whacked is with the digital replacement for a tip jar when you get counter service. I have always put a buck or two in the jar, but the modern POS terminals they flip over to you now suggest the same tip as you’d leave for table service—typically you’re choosing between at least 15%, 18%, or 20%. I always take the “custom tip” option (which they might as well call the “cheap bastard” option), and key in a more reasonable amount, because I refuse to be bullied by a POS terminal. Recently this bit me in the ass at one of my go-to local taquerias, Gordo’s. I’d bought two burritos and tried to tip $2, but I guess I hit the zero an extra time. It wasn’t until I saw the total—a little over $40—that I realized my mistake. “Oh, shit!” I blurted out. The cashier looked shocked and concerned and said, “Oh no, is everything okay?” I just had to laugh. “I accidently tipped you $20,” I said. I wasn’t about to make him do any work to correct it, so I added, “No worries—enjoy.” I guess you could call this a cheap bastard tax.

A Cheap Bastard is a syndicated journalist whose advice column, “Ask a Cheap Bastard,” appears in over 0 blogs worldwide.

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