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Pique N' Your Interest

Cheapest man alive

When I was 10 and had a paper route, I used to hoard my money in a big cookie tin, periodically arranging the pile of change into stacks that I dutifully transported to the bank. Once I even dumped my money on the floor and rolled around in my treasure like Scrooge McDuck.

Then one day I figured out that I could spend that money on almost anything I wanted – and a 10 year old wants a lot.

Once I made that first withdrawal it was all over for me. I went from a hoarder to the last of the big-time spenders.

I went from delivering papers to a grocery store to a couple of gas stations over the next few years, blowing all of my hard-earned cash on the thing I thought I needed at the time – toys, comic books, junk food, video games, the usual crap.

By the time I was in high school I was eating out a lot, buying tickets to every concert that buzzed through Toronto, picking up tabs, and generally living like a high roller.

It was in university that I took things a little further, taking out a massive student loan, getting my very first credit card, and generally learning to live comfortably in debt.

Since graduating I’ve continued to earn and burn, often spending more than I was taking in.

About a year ago, about the same time I got on the Whistler Housing Authority list with my girlfriend, I realized my debts were nearing the point of no return. I was spending more on repayments and interest every month than I was on myself after necessary expenses like rent and groceries. Somehow I had even maxed out the overdraft limit on my bank account.

Living that close to the brink it became impossible to save any money, even for the things I actually needed. I put off dental visits and filling prescriptions, despite having a health plan, because I didn’t have the money to pay the costs up front. Everything else I couldn’t afford I put on plastic.

Like millions of other Canadians I had officially fallen into the debt trap. And what a trap it is – total consumer debt is about $450 billion in this country, which means the average Canuck adult is in the hole about $2,000.

That figure doesn’t include student loans, mortgages, and various other forms of debt.

If half of all Canadians were on top of their finances, that would leave the other half with an average of $4,000 in personal consumer debt. I fall well within the "other half" category.

I realized that my debt load wasn’t the fault of my earnings or even my debt load – it was the fault of my habits. Trying to live the kind of lifestyle I wanted in the margins between what I earned and what I was spending put me well within the red. The only way out of the hole was to rein in that lifestyle and make my margins a little wider, The only way to accomplish this was to become The Cheapest Man Alive.

At first I hated the thought of cutting back. My bank card burned a hole in my wallet, and I went through spender’s withdrawal – just one more unnecessary impulse purchase, I promised myself, then I’d quit for good.

As consumers, we’ve all been conditioned to spend our money freely. Even if we spend our cash on small things, it’s the little expenses that quickly add up.

A latte here, a muffin there, and a beer after work and you’re already down $20 a day. Do that five days a week and you’re out $100, with nothing to show for it.

Buy lunch every day and you’re probably down another $50. Rent two movies, return them late, and buy a magazine on the way home from the store and you’re out $25. Go out one night on the weekend and you’re down another $50.

Factor in groceries, clothes, and the cost of bike and snowboard gear, and it’s pretty easy to spend over $300 a week – not including rent, bills, or attempts to save up for trips, cars and other big ticket items.

It wasn’t easy. I couldn’t do much about my big expenses so I started at the bottom by cutting out all the little things. I cut back on mid-day snacking, started bringing lunch to work every day, and began staying home more on weekends. I stopped all impulse purchases based on a "needs" test and made sure all of my gear could last a little longer by springing for a bit of maintenance.

When I shop for groceries now, I go bulk. If something is on sale I buy lots of it, sometimes enough to last me for months. Eating lentil soup for two weeks in a row is hard on a digestive system, but that little line at the bottom of the receipt that tells me how much I saved makes it easier to swallow.

In a strange way I’ve even started to enjoy being cheap. It’s become like a game for to me to see how much I can save at the end of the month. If I spend $50 one week on a bar tab, I try to cut $60 out of my spending the next week. Whenever I put something on my credit card, I also pay it off at the end of the month to ensure that my balance keeps going down.

Some of my cheapness may be a little excessive. For example, I recently purchased a slightly used bike helmet. I’ve eaten leftovers that were probably a little past their prime. I bought 12 pints of strawberries and spent three hours washing them and freezing them for later use. I buy things on sale in huge quantities that I don’t enjoy eating, like lentil soup. My feet ache because I’m waiting another few weeks to buy a new pair of shoes. My slightly irregular bargain clothes are slightly irregular.

But things are, slowly, turning around. I’m out of overdraft and have a little money in the bank – enough to cover a vacation this year with something left over for emergencies. I have RRSP’s for the first time in my life and next year should get something back on my tax return. I’ve started to pay down my debt more aggressively, and hope to debt-free for the first time in 12 years by next summer.

And what happens after that? Do I go back to my free-spending ways, enjoying life without looking at the sticker price of every little thing? Maybe treat myself to the odd hot lunch?

If all goes well, I’ll be paying a mortgage by then. So the answer is "no".