Consumer advocate Clark Howard is still brimming with advice 24 years into his empire of frugality. This week bookstores saw the arrival of his ninth book, “Clark Howard’s Living Large in Lean Times: 250-plus Ways to Buy Smarter, Spend Smarter, and Save Money.”
The longtime radio show host, 56, says it comes naturally to him –- what he calls his “character flaw” — a desire to intervene when someone’s about to waste money. The savings guru talked with AJC Atlanta Bargain Hunter Lauren Davidson about a host of topics, including his new book, occasions when he’s interrupted other shoppers and how his frugality is rubbing off on his children.
Q: What’s in your new book?
A: It’s really different than anything I’ve done before, because in the past I always felt like I was having to explain the underlying philosophy of why [people] should do something. I didn’t have to do that at all this time. The tone and the atmosphere has changed. I started with a bunch of tips on things that somebody can do right away. … The idea is, that section is about things they can do in one week that will change their lives. It’s really about trying to give people a sense of momentum.
Q: Is there anything you do pay full price for? Maybe happily?
A: Anything my wife wants. Women readers always love it when I say that. I used to say I would pay anything for a high-quality ice cream, but ice cream prices have gone up so much that even I’m getting price-resistant, ’cause that’s my greatest weakness.
Q: Have you ever seen someone buying something and felt the urge to intervene?
A: I’ll watch somebody, and I’ll be at Costco and I’ll see what’s in their cart. And if they don’t speak to me, I’m not going to say anything. But if they say hi or whatever I’ll say, “Hi, I just gotta tell ya’, I’m just really nervous about that in your cart.” And they just start laughing. Let’s say they have brand-name paper towels or brand-name bottled water in their shopping cart –- I just can’t let that go. If they start a conversation with me, I gotta do it, because I hate to see money thrown in the toilet.
Q: I’m sure people are thankful for the advice.
A: Not always. The funniest was the other night at Costco. They were running a cereal special: buy one, get one. The guy in front of me didn’t know he had to get two boxes to get the deal. He just thought there was a discount. So I said, “Sir, I’m happy to go back and get you another box of cereal.” And he didn’t know who I was. He looked at me like I was a space alien. But it was killing me because he was going to save, like, $6.
Q: Does your household coupon?
A: I do it, but my wife doesn’t. We have this thing where Sunday night I go and do the grocery shopping, and I do the couponing. And if something we normally buy, nonperishable, is on the coupon, I buy everything I’m allowed to buy on the coupon, and we end up with an 8-year supply or whatever.
Q: Do you stockpile?
A: New Year’s Eve 2000, there was such a huge deal about Y2K. So Sam’s Club had printed up or purchased this massive supply of “Happy New Year 2000″ plates, cups and napkins. They didn’t sell them all. So they were all on clearance – 10 cents a pack. I bought the entire pallet. And we just now, 11 years later, have just about used them all up. Every party – kids’ birthday party, whatever – we’ve got festive looking napkins and plates. And they’re such a great conversation piece if someone actually looks at them and says, ‘Happy new year 2000?’
Q: What do you think about TLC’s ‘Extreme Couponing?’
A: I think it’s been great and then not great. If you look at what’s happened, which happens with any popular culture kind of show, so many people now are doing extreme couponing that the manufacturers and the supermarkets are cordoning off more and more rules. What I expect is that the people who really got into it as a fad are going to fade away. And the people who really stick to it are going to do great. As long as you don’t buy things you don’t need and aren’t going to use.
Q: What’s something you should never pay full price for?
A: Clothing. You go into a store right now, they’re selling fall fashions. My rule is, wait until the first day that actually fits the season that the clothes were being sold for, and then you buy it. So Sept. 21 is when you buy fall wardrobe because then it’s on clearance because they’re putting all the winter stuff in. You wear the clothes once the season’s upon you. Not when the retailers tell you.
Q: What’s a cheap way to entertain kids who are home during the day?
A: What we do is, we have these books we bought that are guides to art projects. It exercises the kid’s creativity, they’re really inexpensive to do, and it brings some serenity during the day that wouldn’t be there otherwise. It’s so important in our household that we’ve devoted what would have been a storage room in our house, we’ve turned it into an art room.
Q: Have your financial sensibilities rubbed off on your kids?
A: I have three kids [22, 11 and 5], and it’s hard to believe they didn’t all come from different planets in how they handle money. I’ve learned that even growing up in a culture where they’re pretty aware of what I’m about with saving money, kids are wired their own way. It’s funny how I’ve got a daughter who is not the best with handling money. But she already gets the idea of saving money from your paycheck. My middle child always very quietly saves money. She said to me the other day, “You have no idea how much money I’ve saved!” My 5-year-old: Money is only valuable so he can … go to Dollar Tree. And I have him completely brainwashed that if he goes to Dollar Tree and he has $2 or $3 (I pay the tax), he knows that every dollar he has is another toy. But if he goes to another place, he might not even be able to buy a single toy with the money he’s got. The other day my wife said, “You have completely warped him now because he said, ‘Mom, if I’m good today can we go to Dollar Tree?’ ” And she just was like, “Oh, I cannot believe your father.”
Q: How do so many smart people get scammed?
A: I had a lady call in just today who had received an urgent phone call that she had won a federal sweepstakes. And it didn’t seem to matter what I said to her, she was still convinced she had won this sweepstakes. She was right on the edge, when she called me, of wiring these clowns $4,150. And this was not somebody who was uneducated. I said, “You just want to believe this is true.” And she didn’t respond to that. When I was done with that call, I turned to one of my producers and I said, “She’s going to send them the money.” Some of it is out of desperation.
Q: Ever thought about retiring?
A: I’ll imagine I’ll do this as long as I take that call from a caller and I completely wrap myself in their situation and what they’re trying to accomplish. And when I don’t feel that excitement, when I don’t feel that energy — time for me to bag it.
In addition to his long-running show weekdays on AM 750 and 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB, Clark Howard hosts a weekend program on cable news channel HLN and writes a column every Thursday in the AJC’s Deal Spotter section.
“Clark Howard’s Living Large in Lean Times: 250-plus Ways to Buy Smarter, Spend Smarter, and Save Money”
By Clark Howard, with Mark Meltzer and Theo Thimou
Avery Trade; 272 pages; $18
Book signings this Saturday
“Know what’s a deal and what’s not at the dollar store and warehouse clubs”
During the Great Recession, dollar stores and other discounters were king. Everyone was looking for ways to cut their budget, and, hey, who could pass up the chance to pick up toiletries and household goods for a buck?
Well, Consumer Reports took a close look at dollar stores in their Money Adviser publication and revealed what’s a deal and what’s not.
Cotton rounds, gift wrap, birthday candles, paper bags, composition notebooks, plastic cups, security envelopes, napkins, foam plates, and tissue paper are all named as being among the best deals.
However, Money Adviser warns against buying jewelry (too much lead content); electrical products (possibly fake UL labels); medication (expired products); and vitamins (not from reputable sellers) at the dollar stores.
One word about how to spot discounts at the major warehouse club chains. At Sam’s Club, look for anything that ends in a penny—such as $24.41—or anything marked with a “C” for clearance. At Costco, look for anything that ends in 97 cents. BJ’s Wholesale, meanwhile, will clearly tell you on the label when they mark down.
– By Lauren Davidson, Atlanta Bargain Hunter