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Extreme frugality: Can you outcheap 'em all?

When Rafael La Rosa was a poor, unemployed university student, he took desperate measures to conserve cash.

His diet consisted almost exclusively of ramen noodles. He saved his used cigarette butts, reserving the leftover bits of tobacco to be rolled up and smoked later. Instead of shelling out for public transit, the Montreal resident walked everywhere, shedding nearly 60 pounds in the process. And when he made the trip home to Vancouver, he chose the cheapest route, which usually meant tacking eight extra hours of bus travel on to a six-hour flight.

"That was a very low point in my life," he says.

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And it's why now that Mr. La Rosa has a decent-paying office job, he considers it ludicrous to see his peers unnecessarily live like paupers, trying to one-up each other by buying the cheapest, nastiest brands of beer and wearing threadbare clothes. One acquaintance, for example, is "a trust-fund kid but he dresses like a hobo."

But because of the lean economy and concerns about the environment, frugality has become fashionable as people seek ways to reduce waste and consumption to save the planet and their pocketbooks. And, as they regard thriftiness as a challenge or test, some are taking it to the extreme - cutting back in ways that are sometimes even unsanitary.

In an interview published by Britain's The Observer last week, Hollywood actor Vincent Kartheiser, from the hit television show Mad Men, revealed he has given up all material possessions, including temporarily a toilet.

"My house is just a wooden box," he said, adding he uses his neighbour's facilities and relishes his austere lifestyle.

Others, such as Annie Korzen, author of the recent book Bargain Junkie, admit to saving water and money by skipping showers and occasionally rewearing underwear turned inside out.

Meanwhile, money-saving online forums and blogs are rife with tactics such as separating two-ply toilet paper into two rolls, hoarding ketchup packets from fast-food restaurants and even asking funeral homes for flowers after the service is through.

"I think for some people, it sort of takes over," says Megan DePutter of Guelph, Ont., who works in the non-profit sector, acknowledging that her own penny-pinching became something of an obsession. "It may have started trying to save a little money, but that becomes a game in itself."

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Ms. DePutter says at the height of her thriftiness, she spent much of her weekends collecting coupons and chasing sales. Stores occasionally advertise bargains on a "loss leader," a product intended to lure customers through the door, she explains. With the right coupon, it's possible to pick up those items free - or even get money back.

She also used to stockpile items she found on sale, such as razors and shaving gels. But she never took it as far as some bloggers, who convert their garages into makeshift warehouses. That, she says, is "frugality gone wrong."

Ms. DePutter eventually gave up on her own compulsive bargain chasing after realizing the time she spent wasn't worth the effort. She says she has now found a balance that allows her to live both frugally and simply.

Cheryl DeWolfe of Victoria, who posts money-saving tips on her blog, says she draws the line when cheapness poses health risks. For instance, when a reader suggested reusing dental floss as a way of reducing waste, Ms. DeWolfe refused to post the tip, questioning its hygiene.

"If it can endanger myself, I'm not even going to go there," she says, adding she is likewise opposed to "freeganism," which involves salvaging food from supermarket and restaurant dumpsters.

Still, Ms. DeWolfe knows that some of her own waste-saving measures can be construed as drastic by others. For instance, she had no qualms about "saving" a scarf she found in a mud puddle, which she simply washed. And she's built up her garden with used sod from someone else's yard that a landscaping company would have otherwise dumped. She has also stopped paying for haircuts and buying new clothes.

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"It all depends who you're talking to, what the level of extreme is …," she says. "A lot of the frugal movement is just redirecting resources, making the best use of what's out there."

Amused by the trend, Ray Advani of Chicago recently wrote on his budgeting blog about the drastic money-saving measures his college friends employed years ago, including filling up the car gas tank to a single penny over the dollar amount to take advantage of the penny jar at the counter and eating nothing all day until happy hour, when they would go to a bar, order a single drink and load up on the "complementary" buffet.

While those were "juvenile" tactics, Mr. Advani says, he has witnessed more recent examples of extreme thrift in his adult acquaintances, including one woman who complains to companies and restaurants about even the slightest offences.

"She would rationalize it that there are things wrong with the product … but my observation is it's just an excuse to get something for free," Mr. Advani says. For her, like others, "it's a point of pride in terms of how you can spend as little as possible and get as much as you can."

While Mr. Advani says he is conscious of being practical about his own finances, he considers measures like these over the top.

"Being frugal to me is trying to live comfortably within your means. It means making substitutions where they make sense, but don't cause extreme discomfort in your life," he says. "I think crossing the line is when you're doing things that are … really causing some serious disruption in your own life just to save a few pennies, or you're trying to do things that would be either taking advantage of other people - or causing you to lose your self-respect."

Toronto psychologist Jeremy Frank says sometimes such tendencies may arise in people with obsessive personalities.

Extreme frugality can also be seen in individuals "who have really gone through a very trying time, where they really thought that they have to fend for themselves and if they don't save now, then they might not be able to save in the future," Dr. Frank says.

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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