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When frugal goes waaay too far: TLC’s ‘Extreme Cheapskates’

I hope you’re lucky enough to have never had to endure an episode of the TLC show “Extreme Cheapskates,” but if you have, you’ll know it’s chockfull of sad people doing disgusting and/or risky things that very often save them little money, but do make for great shock value.

From serving cat food [3] to unsuspecting guests disguised as tuna salad, to sharing each piece of dental floss with their partner, these people have found some truly repugnant ways to save $5 a month. Others pride themselves in being “human lab rats” who participate in any clinical trial they can find, up to and including invasive surgery, without appearing to consider the health risks and potentially expensive long-term health problems they could cause.

You could dismiss the show’s stars [4] as attention-grubbing lunatics and change the channel, but I think they’re doing harm that extends beyond the humiliation they heap on their friends and loved ones. Here are three reasons I don’t like the show and sincerely hope it bombs.

1. It makes noncrazy frugal people look bad. In a society as materialistic as ours, being frugal already carries with it a certain social stigma at it is. Taking a pass on a lunch out with work friends, biking to work instead of driving and clipping lots of coupons are all likely to get you strange looks. Having a show that portrays frugal people as insane shut-ins who eat food out of Dumpsters to save a few pennies and use an old water bottle instead of toilet paper isn’t going to help things.

2. Mooching off others does not equal frugality. Real frugality isn’t about shifting your costs to others. It’s not OK to wear clothes several times and then take them back to the store afteward. It’s not OK to grab as much bottled water as you can whenever you’re a guest in people’s homes so you can use it to wash your car and cut your water bill. It’s not OK to go to a buffet restaurant with five people and only pay for three plates. Real frugality is about living a simpler life and developing good habits that save you money over time, not taking advantage of others to put more money in your pocket. You are the reason they put the ketchup behind the counter at McDonald’s. Just stop.

3. A lot of their methods for saving money are really dumb. Unless your time is virtually worthless, it makes no sense to spend it doing things like hitting a ceiling fan with a stick to get it going instead of turning on a switch, or digging through Dumpsters to find a bag full of old rice, or trying to wash all your clothes in the shower. Even at minimum wage, your time is worth $7.25 an hour, so spending hours each month to save $6 on your water bill isn’t giving you good value [5].

Look, if you’re living in real poverty and are barely getting by, I can understand resorting to some of these methods, and we here at Bargaineering are not above trying some unconventional methods to save money. But if you have other options, I can’t imagine spending your life living the way many of these people do.

Fun fact: TLC was founded by NASA and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and I bet they’re very, very proud of what they created (to be fair, it didn’t get Honey-Boo-Boo-ized until long after it was privatized in 1980).

What do you think? Would you watch the show? Are there any methods to save money you think go too far?