Sage: Wife wants to know if spending habits are normal

Dear Sage:


My husband sometimes is the epitome of CHEAP! We are very blessed and have quite a bit of money saved, but he often tears off only half of a small paper towel to wipe the counter, re-uses coffee K-Cups, and orders the cheapest dish at restaurants, even if it’s deep fried yak meat in a hot dog bun; he orders from the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s.


He jokes about this behavior, calling himself Mr. Cheapo. If I pass from this planet first, he will probably bury me in the tarp that’s over our wood pile in the back yard – and right next to the wood pile, so that he doesn’t have to get a cemetery plot. He’s very successful and otherwise has always seemed well-adjusted. He doesn’t skimp on cars, trips to see the kids, or house repairs, though. I don’t get it. Help!!!


                                                                                                  • Wife of the Idaho Cheapo

Dear Mrs. Cheapo:


   When it comes to cheapskates – known in some circles as ‘underspenders’ – there is a huge difference between joking, frugality and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. While The Sage is not a psychiatrist – consult one if you think you need one – you have to ask how detrimental or destructive the behavior is, if at all. The American Psychiatric Association, in its manual of mental disorders, mentions OCPD in terms of “(adopting) a miserly spending style toward both self and others; money is viewed as something to be hoarded for future catastrophes.” But the disorder also mentions preoccupation with minutiae, perfectionism that interferes with daily life, inflexibility, stubbornness and rigidity – among other debilitating character traits.

   Frugal people, on the other hand – and the vast majority of retirees count themselves among them – are able to enjoy life. They don’t take their trash bags to the local landfill, empty them into the dumpster, and bring them home to use again! They don’t go shopping for clothing, pick out a second-hand pair of sneakers at a thrift shop, and try to negotiate 50 cents off the $1.95 price because they have their own shoelaces! They are likely to shop for bargains when they can … they refuse to waste money … are willing to spend on necessary items so long as they are quality purchases … save money for, say, travel to visit grandchildren, patiently waiting until they find the air fare a great value … avoid impulse spending … and do their research before making a major buy.

   There are many funny stories about cheap. Could you imagine your husband – this is a true story – getting you a blank 99-cent Valentine’s Day card and hand-writing you a love note with wording copied from a romantic Hallmark card that would have cost $7.59? Yes, a man took photos with his cell phone of the inside pages of the more expensive card! How about going into Costco with an extra pair of glasses, a baseball cap and a sweater – and changing your appearance as you go multiple times to the food-sample stations around the store and eat enough for dinner (every week!!!)? Could you imagine Dear Hubby going to a fast-food restaurant, pouring a free cup of water with ice, squeezing a few pieces of lemon into it, adding sugar, making his own lemonade – and then taking a refill to go?

   How about this one: going out to dinner with another couple, and after the check arrives, your better quarter hauls out a small calculator, subtracts the tax, figures out the 15 percent on the food and beverage charges alone, and asks the server for change, including a dollar’s worth of coins, so that he does not waste a cent! Now think if both couples split the bill. Guess who’s going to get stuck with the extra penny if the amount isn’t an even number?

   Taking this to the extremes, people avoid visits to their doctors for years because they don’t want to shell out a co-pay. Instead of purchasing durable, state-of-the-art items like TV sets or mattresses, they buy the cheapest ones, which may last mere months. They may live in an area of the country where it’s hot and humid in the summer but will refuse to invest in an air-conditioner, endangering their own physical (and mental) health. They may deny themselves things that would enable them to say, engage in a hobby or travel to a place that they might love. They may take 30-second showers every other day to keep the water bill down (the Sage can imagine other hygiene shortcuts but will not go there!).

   In other words, logic and rationality play no role in their financial behavior. The other issue, of course, is that the behavior may severely hurt loved ones as well.

   So, getting back to Dear Hubby. Does he insist on serving party guests those yak sandwiches? Would he re-use a K-Cup for them? Or is this really just joking around and, like children of the Depression, wasting not and wanting not?

   If his behavior, on the other hand, is embarrassing, and if annoys the heck out of you, then tell him how it’s affecting you and firmly ask him to stop it. You might refuse to go out to restaurants or cancel social engagements. If you do go out, and he orders the yak, tell the server and your hubby to hold on a minute while he’s ordering, reach into your purse and announce, ‘Hey, I just remembered – I have an extra $10 bill. You can order the chicken or the salmon!” Watch him turn red and slink down into his seat. He’ll never do that again!

   You can also threaten expensive shopping sprees, and then sympathetically tell him that off-the-wall spending is quite a far cry from using a whole paper towel, ordering a mid-priced meal, or trying a real Quarter Pounder.

   The Sage hopes that this will take care of the problem and that you won’t have to consult a financial psychologist. But if you do, it will surely help out. Best of luck, and now go out and buy a really nice steak and bottle of wine for dinner!


Humbly Yours,

The Sage