Embracing Your Inner Cheapskate

Lauren Weber Eats Discarded Food, Reuses Plastic Bags and Makes Own DetergentABC News
At her local Salvation Army in Astoria, Queens, self-declared cheapskate Lauren Weber found a huge selection of designer clothes and shoes -- almost as good as new -- for less than $10. She spotted a pair of gray shoes with a Barneys label, priced at $6.99. "Probably new these would have been $150, maybe $200, and they're in good shape," she said.

For Lauren Weber, saving money is an obsession. A self-declared "cheapskate," Weber says she eats old food discarded by restaurants, washes out and reuses plastic bags -- even digs through the trash to save money.

She just might be one of the cheapest people in America, but if you follow her advice, you might just save yourself rich.

"I can save about 30 percent of my income," said Weber, 38. "I think more people should embrace their inner cheapskate. We lost that sense that thrift is a virtue, and it started to become a punch line, something we make fun of people for. And I'd like to make it so that nobody has to feel ashamed that their intention is to live as cheaply as possible."

On the CheapPlay

Following in the footsteps of her frugal father, who Weber says would set the thermostat at 50 degrees in the dead of winter in their Connecticut home and rationed toilet paper, Weber learned early in life how small everyday decisions can add up to big bucks.

"I put a clip on the end of the toothpaste to get every last squeeze," she said as an example.

Weber, who now lives in the Queens section of New York City, wrote a book about frugality in America called "In Cheap We Trust."

To learn some of her savings secrets, ABC News spent a day in the life of a "cheapskate," following her and tallying the annual savings along the way.

cars and garagePlay

Weber got rid of her car, relying on biking, walking and public transit to get around, which saves about $3,000 a year.

"I was probably spending about $300 to $400 a month total on transportation," Weber said. "Now, I basically just pay for a subway metro card, which is $90."

Weber also walks out of protest when it comes to those pesky ATM fees that can be as high as $3 per transaction.

"I have been to known to walk about 45 minutes out of my way just to go to my own bank so I don't have to pay the ATM fees," Weber said. "It's those extra little fees and charges that add up. I will do everything I can to avoid them."

"If I have the extra time I don't mind. The way I see it it's also exercise," she said.

This saves another $100 a year, she says.

One place you won't catch Weber walking toward is the mall. She avoids temptation by instead opting for local thrift stores.

Bathing Suits at Thrift Stores

"I try to spend less than $5 on my jeans," Weber said.

At her local Salvation Army in Astoria, Queens, Weber found a huge selection of designer clothes and shoes -- almost as good as new -- for less than $10.

She spotted a pair of gray shoes with a Barneys label, priced at $6.99. "Probably new these would have been $150, maybe $200, and they're in good shape," she said.

Savings from buying used clothes: $800 a year.

But just how far is she willing to go? A used pink bra for $1.50?

"I probably would. I have bought bathing suits at thrift stores," Weber said. "I'm not a squeamish person to begin with. What could possibly be wrong with it? I wash everything in hot water."

When she washes her finds from the thrift store, Weber uses her homemade laundry detergent.

"This is all stuff you can get at any grocery store. Basically the ingredients are one cup of Borax and one cup of this super washing soda," she said. Adding in one bar of grated Ivory soap, she says her homemade supplies will last her years.

Laundry savings: $15 a year, but Weber said her homemade supplies will last her years.

"The more things you can make yourself, the more money you can save," she said, whether it's anything from bread to clothes to birthday cards."

She's also mastered the art of making something out of nothing. Her apartment is furnished with other people's trash -- discarded furniture she's found on the street.

"This is one of my favorite pieces in the apartment," Weber said, pointing to a '70s-style case. "I don't know what its original use was, but I found it in the trash outside my building. It's actually the perfect size for all my records and magazines."

"We're just very prone to toss things out without thinking too much about the long term consequences," Weber said. "I think the figure is something like 500 billion pounds of trash gets thrown out by Americans every year."

Frugal No Matter Your Income

Weber says cheap is chic again, at least for now.

"People are rediscovering some frugal skills," she said. "And asking whether or not it's good to be living in debt. Whether this lasts, I think, is another question. History is full of periods when we've triumphed or championed frugality as a virtue. And then as soon as soon as the crisis passes -- their appetites go up a notch or two higher than before."

But billionaires like investor Warren Buffet have remained frugal through cycle after cycle. Buffet has lived in the same Nebraska home he bought in 1958 for $31,000. IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad drives a 15-year-old Volvo and flies coach. And according to Forbes, David Cheriton of Google reuses tea bags and cuts his own hair.

Amenities that many consider "standard" don't even cross Weber's mind, like cable TV -- something she says she's never had and never will. As for luxury beauty treatments like Botox, Weber says others should "embrace aging gracefully, it's a lot cheaper."

So opposed to waste, she's adopted some elements of the "Freegan" lifestyle -- those who Dumpster dive for food. Our mission was to find end-of-day bagels just put out with the trash.

"There's actually a technique to this. You don't want to just stick your hands into any bag. You kind of feel around ... for the feel of a bagel," Weber said.

Weber's bagel habit amounts to a breakfast savings of $360 a year. But she admits she has gone too far in her search for savings, at one point eating the contents of a 7-year-old can of baby clams.

"I thought to myself, well, now or never," she said. "I opened the clams and they looked sort of greenish blue and they smelled sort of coppery. While I'm eating it, I've got my laptop open and I'm looking up the symptoms of botulism."

Weber lived to tell the tale and write her book, claiming that her yearly savings amount to $24,000.

"I have a lot of fun. I don't feel deprived at all," Weber said. "Even I have my kryptonite -- it's shoes, in fact it's often shoes -- saving money to me is not an end in itself. The purpose of it is to do things I care about. I've been all over the world ... To me, being frugal is about buying my freedom."

As for the "cheapskate" label?

"I embrace that term," she said, "I think more people should embrace their inner cheapskate."