It's probably not too often that picketers show up to protest a personal finance book signing, but when Phil Villarreal saw them outside the book store where he was signing copies of Secrets of a Stingy Scoundrel he was elated. The reason people may find this book of personal finance tips offensive is because Phil wrote it that way. The associate editor at Consumerist, Arizona Daily Star reporter, and OK Magazine film critic decided to add author onto his resume after brainstorming bad ideas for saving money when his wife opted to be a stay-at-home-mom. (Some scandalous tips include dress like a homeless guy to score free food at soup kitchens, fix scratches on DVDs by renting movies you own and swapping them out, and when booking a flight, say you’re heading to a funeral and ask for a discount.) He calls it an "evil robot's approach to personal finance." The book pokes fun of those of us that have a tendency to take frugality to extremes, but scattered throughout are some valid tips and suggestions for saving some serious cash.
How Did You Get the Idea for Secrets of a Stingy Scoundrel?
Phil Villarreal: When my wife quit her job to stay home with our first child, I knew it would be tough to survive on a newspaper reporter's salary, so I started brainstorming ways to cut spending as much as possible. Most of the ideas I thought of were inappropriate and borderline illegal, but funny. Although I couldn't actually use most of what I came up with, I decided to form them into a book instead.
Have You Always Been Stingy?
Phil Villarreal: Up until my junior year of college I was terrible with money, spending everything I earned as I received it, and more. Once I started using Microsoft Money to track my purchases and debt a light bulb switched on, and I evolved into an extreme minimalist. Months would pass that I'd spend less than $1,000 on everything, rent included. At a certain point I did become extremely stingy, so much so that I started to disgust myself and loosen the reins a bit. Now I've found more of a balance, but I still have that instinct to slash expenses, and I use that more for entertainment than functionality.
How Seriously Should Readers Take Your Advice?
Phil Villarreal: Not seriously at all. Although I do believe everything I say in the book would work for someone devious enough to attempt it, I think following through with much of it, especially the stuff at the end, isn't worth the moral cost. There is some harmless, mischievous advice in there, and some practical stuff, such as asking hospitals to cut 25 percent off medical bills if you pay upfront. But I see my book as a success if it makes you laugh and a failure if it doesn't.
Do You Think People Can Take Their Finances or Frugality too Seriously?
Phil Villarreal: Yes, and this book is a mockery of that mentality, as well as something of a satire of all those dry, overly serious personal finance books out there. There are more important things than scrimping on every penny you come across, but in writing this book I pretended like there isn't. Secrets of a Stingy Scoundrel is sort of an evil robot's approach to personal finance.
What Kind of Feedback have You Received from Your Book?
Phil Villarreal: The vast majority of it was positive, with most people getting the joke, although plenty of people were offended. When it first came out I had protesters at my first signing, and the sight of people standing outside the bookstore holding picket signs was a dream come true. I was sad to see the protests didn't continue.
What Tips in Your Book Have Personally Saved You the Most Money?
Phil Villarreal: Definitely the medical thing. Our second child cost us $4,000 in medical bills, but by calling each place that billed us and offering to pay the balance in full upfront if they reduced what we owed, we were able to save $1,000. It was so easy and when I first heard you could do that I thought it was an urban legend. To find out it was true was such a rush.
What's Next for You?
Phil Villarreal: I've written several other books that I'm trying to get published. My favorite is So Tell Me, He Man, which is a series of fake interviews with cartoon characters from the 1980s and 90s. I have a hard drive full of crazy manuscripts that no publishers seem to be interested in printing, so I may end up having to self-publish or go the Kindle book route.