Book Review

Extreme Cheap: Charles Long

People have sometimes commented being impressed (or horrified) at how little I live off of. While I’m flattered, I’m often somewhat confused as I know there are people who live on WAY less than I do. One such person is Charles Long, author of “How to Survive Without a Salary: Learning How to Live the Conserver Lifestyle”.

I read a previous version of this book years ago. Its apparently based on a course he taught, and discusses how he lives without a salaried job. He minimizes his (and his family’s) consumer purchases, and does casual work to bring in money.

Minimizing purchases entails things like wearing hand-me-down clothes, not buying his kids the latest toys, driving old beater cars and things along these lines. One part of his book that made me laugh is he finds out what is fashionable when someone will compliment him on some part of his wardrobe (which he’ll have had for years). The next year he’ll be complimented on something else, and people will give him a pitying look for what they complimented him on the previous year.

In his book he complimented readers who HADN’T bought it (e.g. if they got it from the library). You have to respect his commitment to his lifestyle when he’s praising people who are taking money out of his pocket. I’d borrowed it from a friend, so I patted myself on the back.

Casual work that he does includes things like helping people clear out basements (in exchange for them letting him take anything they don’t want – I got idea #5 from his book). He’ll sell the stuff he gets at flea markets, along with vegetables he grows. He finds that you earn less money from doing a variety of small things that bring in money, but he finds it a much more enjoyable life than doing the same thing for 8 hours every day.

Another comment that made me laugh is that his wife and kids would love to send him out to work 8 hours a day (and buy the various consumer goods they’re interested in), but he just refuses. He discusses how his lifestyle has a lower environmental impact, but that isn’t his motivation.

I certainly admire his lifestyle, and without a doubt he out-cheaps me on every front. I’m not sure if I could give up meals out, trips and having to hustle money to pay the rent and/or utilities every month like he does. I do envy him for kicking the 9-5 lifestyle to the curb and taking the actions to allow him to live life on his own terms.

21 replies on “Extreme Cheap: Charles Long”

Sounds like a fun guy!

That’s an interesting choice to place himself before his family although I imagine they have enough to get by. Does his wife work?


It certainly is an intresting story. If I could minimize my expenses lke him and keep my salaried job I can only imagine how much I could save. Also do you think he pays taxes on his various “income generating tasks”. I’d venture the guess that he doesn’t or at least he doesn’t declare everything.

It’s certainly impressive to hear stories like this, and it shows that most people spend way more than they need to.

But really, isn’t there more to life than that? Shouldn’t you have goals and dreams? want to make the best life for your family? Make your country a better and more competitive place (if only for your kids)?
Stories like this make me believe there’s a thin line between trying to be very cheap and being lazy.

Re: Nobleea’s comments

Living simply is a goal and a dream and “the best life” for many families. It is optimal for our natural environment and makes for happy communities. If the guy is fixing and learning and puttering all day it could hard be said that he is lazy. To me lazy is following the herd – working a job you don’t love and overspending for instant gratification.

“To me lazy is following the herd – working a job you don?t love and overspending for instant gratification.”
I agree with the first part. But spending and earning should be mutually exclusive. I would be impressed if he could live this scrounger lifestyle, while pulling in a respectable salary. THAT would take hard work.

I guess some people are content to just ‘exist’. Of course, if too many people do that, then the rest of us end up paying higher taxes.

It’s good that he’s able to live like this. It is better for the environment and instills the non-consumer lifestyle in his kids. But I’m glad that there are a lot more people out there who enjoy their careers and jobs, want to succeed, and pay taxes to give us free health care and one of the highest quality of lives (lifes?) in the world.

Mike & Nobleea: His kids were one of the things that gave me pause with his lifestyle choice. I remember two “poor” girls at my elementary school. Some kids could be pretty mean to them, which would be a huge blow to your ego early in life. Sending his kids off to school in rough clothes might be an unpleasant start to life and later one the kids might resent that they were subjected to his lifestyle choice for 18 years until they were able to live on their own.

On the other hand, he spends far more time with his kids than a wage-slave does (since he’s at home more). They also might grow up to appreciate and choose his lifestyle for themselves, in which case they’d probably be happy that they were exposed to it early in life.

Its hard to know which will be the outcome for his kids.

Drew: I suspect you’re right. If you could live like him with a salaried job, early retirement would be VERY attainable.

Jo: I agree. I don’t think rushing around in a suit and throwing cash around in your limited leisure time is how we were meant to live. His lifestyle definitely strikes me as more in harmony with human nature.

Nobleea: The last chapter in his book discusses “what if everyone lived this way?” and he acknowledges exactly what you’re saying, we’d be in real trouble if everyone did it.

He insists that only a small number of people ever will be able to do it (he says our system was wisely built on greed and envy, two very powerful human emotions). He compares people who live the conserve lifestyle to those who choose to be celibate: its never going to be a wildly popular choice.

You’re right that someone who pulled in a regular salary and lived the scrounger lifestyle would be quite admirable (and would be ROLLING in money).

Re: poor kids having a rough time – I saw that too when I was in school, but they were kids that had pretty rough family lives and were as much neglected as they were poor. Of course that does not follow from the lifestyle Long is advocating. In our culture of incredible incredible abundance I’m pretty sure a good scrounger can clothe kids pretty well for next to nothing. My guess is that most kids would take time with their parents over designer clothes. Imagine having lots of time to foster imagination, creativity, curiousity and kindness in children, not to mention instilling critical thinking skills.

Re: just existing – many people ‘just exist’ whether they work during the day or not.. we watch something like 4 hours of tv on average each day.. contributing to GDP is only contributing in one kind of way. I’d guess that many people who adopt a simple lifestyle build a ton of social capital in their communities through volunteer work, that they support local businesses and use fewer healthcare services than on average. we can all work on living a fuller, more engaged life – that doesn’t have to include working in the traditional sense.

Jo: Yes, totally! He mentions that people can’t figure out how he lives without a salary when they see his living space with appliance and whatnot. I accidentally paid someone $20 to cart away a perfectly functioning dryer, so the stuff is out there for the taking. You probably could have very decent clothing scrounging (heck, you could probably even get pretty good toys if you kept your eyes and ears open).

I think the time with parents / less consumer goods balance would be a positive things overall for kids too.

Mr. Cheap – Not sure if you have read “The Complete Tightwad Gazette” but the author (a Maine housewife who ran a frugality newsletter for 6 years) describes amazing and beautifully creative birthday parties she threw for her six kids for extraordinarily little cost, including building a life-size pirate ship replete with hidden treasure. It’s a remarkable book, deserving of its ‘classic’ status in simple living circles.

I was at a birthday party for a 1 yr old a couple of weeks ago – the group of babies played more as much with the wrapping paper and empty boxes as they did with the deluge of cheap plastic toys (imported from China, possibly assembed by other children..).

I don’t mean to be a downer – people should follow their passions and do what makes them feel truly alive, if that attracts a salary, great! – but parts of our culture have gone amok with affluenza.. I for one continue to earn a professional salary, but I’m trying to live as frually as possible (which is not a deprivation, but is joyful) so that in three years or so I can do all sorts of things and not have to worry about whether I get paid to do them.

Jo – I’m with you on the kids bday parties – complete waste of money.

Regarding ‘lazy’ – I think another version of lazy is people who work hard at things they like to do while neglecting other tasks they don’t like. I’m very guilty of this at times. I’m a pretty ‘hard worker’ when it comes to writing posts for this blog because I am very interested in doing that but when it comes to changing the cat litter etc…I’m pretty lazy! To be honest it sounds like this guy is the same way.


I guess that I am similar to him in that I do not go out to work but stay home and look after the children. I have never looked into the cost of childcare – looking after them is my choice. I do run my own business from home but it is a risk as there is no guaranteed income but I really enjoy it.

Certainly different that the “make as much as you can” philosophy that many follow. We are used to hearing about making as much money as you can and then living within your means or below.
Wonderful story!

I just got his book used for $1.75. Only get a partial pat on the back I think. I enjoyed reading the comments above. Only thing I can say today is that given things today it might make even more sense and might not even end up being a choice but a necessity.

I LOVE Charles Long Book, it changed my life! I started the conserver lifestyle over 5 years ago, and have never been happier! I am a single mother with one school aged child and I live on less than $1200.00 per month COMFORTABLY! I have time to spend with my child (most single mothers are working 2 or more jobs), and I have time to spend volunteering (with my child) to balance out my time. I am sooo FREE! I live in the USA, and all I have to say is What bad economy? I don’t even notice!

I have been following Charles Long’s philosophy for more than 20 years, more because I was a single parent frequently unemployed than because I left the workforce. It worked. My kids were lightly different, but are ahead of the game now. The love of books, art, do-it-yourself things, and ideas hs motivated them to strive for high goals in university while the young people they grew up with have often been distracted by consumerism.

So, I am a fan. However, I am older now, an unemployed again. I would like an update on what Long would suggest for someone in my circumstances. I would also like to know if, through experience, he has fine-tuned, or modified any of his observations. I would love to have an email address for him, or find where he is. Any suggestions?

Julie: He used to live outside of Ottawa (in Rideau Ferry according to this article). I have no idea if he’s still alive let alone if he’s available by e-mail.

If you ever get in touch with him, encourage him to swing by and comment on this post!

Charles Long is definitely one of my heros! I haven’t had a regular salary or paycheck in about 7 years now.

My takeaway is more like this – you have to work harder when you are independent, not less hard. If you are lazy, you won’t make it. You have to work to make money and you will see the direct impact of your own effort on your income. You cannot hide behind your salary, flake out and still get paid too. There is no holiday pay and no sick leave (I work frequently on holidays and I still work when I am sick as there is no co-worker to cover for me) – and you have to foot the medical bills yourself – not through government handouts – not sure where that line of thinking stems from here. We are in a ‘pay for it or don’t get it’ situation here in the U.S. I pay for my own insurance – high prices, high deductibles, higher premiums each year.

There are really no excuses for working for unethical parties and making them richer – or buying from those businesses – even if it seems ‘normal.’ If you don’t want a world of Walmarts ( and prey-tell why would you?) – don’t shop and there and – guess what – don’t work there either – get creative – it is not ever your ‘only’ option. I’d much rather deal with an ethical person, friend, or colleague than with a corporate sell out.

The point is to slow down and think about what we are doing and the ramifications (economically, environmentally), not whether we are a lazy bum for not ‘having a job’ or whether we seem ‘cheap.’

This article caught my eye and saw the comments in regards to children of conservers, so I thought I would weigh in…

I grew up in Toronto, Canada with both parents and a Sister. My Dad had a job as a Truck Driver and was the only income for the entire time I was at home (I’m 28 now). So the average salary was about $30,000 per year. but taxes knocked us to below poverty level.

I grew up in pretty shoddy apartments (severe Roach and Mice infestations) and track pants with holes in them, etc. We mostly ate pasta, beans and wieners and rice. We never had a vacation, I never learned anything about nature or food or money. Our financial life was basically not choice but necessity. Also, I never really saw much of my Dad growing up since he had to work overtime to try to make more money. As a result, we don’t really have much of a relationship. I mostly grew up with my Grandparents and my Mother.

In school I was made fun of, but for many reasons besides being poor. It was everything from being overweight, being into Sci-Fi, Computers, basically everything that made me different.

About 4 years ago I picked up Charles Long’s book and followed as many of the principles that I could and I am still working towards implementing others, but this has been difficult since:

1. Money has a deep-rooted emotional response in me because it was the source of so many problems growing up. So learning to budget and not freak out with money has been a very difficult task that I have made progress with.

2. Being raised in a major city, I had no idea about growing your own food, being self-sufficient, etc. So everything in that regards has been completely self-taught and built from the ground up. I currently live in a town that’s a fair bit more rural than Toronto and currently grow certain foods of my own and do a lot of my own repair work.

So why did I just braindump all of that?

Because I don’t think that he is wrong for making the choice of being a Conserver while having kids. I have seen what poverty looks like (Social Assistance, living in the “Projects”) and I can contrast that with the “Conserver Lifestyle”. I don’t feel poor or deprived. I have worked both with a salary and with a casual income and I certainly valued having more time that I could call my own than sitting in an office doing busywork.

I have learned so much that I wish I could have learned as a kid growing up in the city. My health improved (I was seriously overweight previously) and I would definitely trade having useless crap for both parents living at home with me and being able to see me grow up. Ditto for the kids making fun of me at school.

It boils down to the fact that you don’t really know what is going to make life hard on your children. A good example is Religion. A friend of mine growing up was Muslim. He was picked on horrifically. This was a choice that his parents made because they felt that was best for him and it aligned with their ideals and beliefs. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Now, I’m not comparing Religion to Frugality in terms of importance. I’m just illustrating that we make value judgements and choices for our children all of the time that they don’t have a choice in. But we have no idea what will build character or cause trauma in our children. In essence we do our best to pass on ideals that we think are right and that we follow and hope for the best.

Apologies for the brain vomit and I love the blog! Great work, I value your contributions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *