Articles Written by Jeff Yeager
Articles About Jeff Yeager
Getting a Big Thrill Out of Being So Cheap (Washington Post)
Quietly Tucked In Near the Potomac (Washington Post)
The Story of My Cheap Shot
by Jeff Yeager
[The following story was awarded first place in the Freelance Writer's Success Story competition sponsored by Writer's Market and appears in the 2008 edition of that book.]
2005 was my year, despite the fact that it was the year I officially dropped out.
That was the year I went from being a newbie freelance writer with fewer than ten published clips in my file to being "one hot commodity," as my newly recruited literary agent put it, landing a healthy publishing contract with Random House's Broadway Books for the publication of my first book. It was the year Matt Lauer said on the NBC TODAY Show that I've "turned pinching pennies into an art form" and branded me the "Ultimate Cheapskate."
I have never felt so proud - and my wife has never felt so vindicated - as when the TODAY Show host spoke those words of praise. Hey, break out the box wine and let me tell you the story.
The local NBC producer from Columbus nonchalantly turned his back on me. But I could still hear most of the muffled cell phone call he'd just placed to the TODAY Show producer back in New York. The live broadcast from Bucyrus, Ohio's Bratwurst Festival - the culminating spot for the Show's inaugural weeklong "Cheapskate Way" series - was scheduled to air in less than ten minutes, and the local producer was visibly nervous.
"Well, yes, err, I guess we're ready. Ah, your, ah, on-air guy...I, I guess that's what he is ... just arrived. Says his name is Jeff. Does that sound right?" Now I knew why he'd made the call.
"Yes, Jeff Yeager, that's right! Just checking. You know he arrived on a bicycle and all. Not what I'm normally used to with you folks, so I just wanted to make sure."
Apparently I'm the only TODAY Show correspondent to ever report for duty via bicycle, but then again I am the Ultimate Cheapskate.
I couldn't fault the producer for questioning my credentials, because no one was more surprised than me to be standing there that sweaty August morning, ready to make my live television debut before six million viewers of America's most popular morning show.
Then I asked if I could speak to the folks in New York, and the local producer gladly passed me his cell phone, since, of course, I don't own one.
"Good morning," I said tentatively. "You know, I've never done this before. What exactly do you want me to say?" Pause.
"I don't really care," came the disembodied response from the Big Apple, "just so long as you're funny as hell."
Gosh, no pressure there.
If only I could take some credit for landing up on the TODAY Show that morning. But the truth is, truly, funny as hell.
After 25 years of working in the nonprofit sector and living comfortably but frugally, I realized that I could afford to quit my job to pursue whatever interests caught my fancy. I joined the ranks of what I call the "selfishly employed," those who have the financial freedom to pursue their passions as a livelihood, without inordinate worry over collecting a regular paycheck.
I began to remember a time in life, in high school and college, when I expected that my future would be as a writer. Not the kind of business writing I'd been doing since I graduated from college and my nose met the grindstone, but the kind of story telling that was once my passion.
My rekindled interest in writing (along with other pastimes, like having an occasional beer with breakfast and sneaking into two matinees at the multiplex when I'd only paid for one) was pleasurable if not profitable. I only sold a few pieces of my writing, primarily financial tips and humorous stories about living the good life on less money.
One Sunday when Michelle Singletary, a nationally syndicated finance columnist with the Washington Post, announced her annual contest looking for the "Penny Pincher of the Year," I excerpted a few money saving suggestions from my writings and emailed them off. My wife Denise was certain that I'd win the $50 top prize, confident, based on our 21 years of marriage, that I am indeed America's Cheapest Man.
I'd at least had enough freelance writing experience to be a veteran of rejection, so I didn't get my hopes up, even though I'd submitted some of my best work to Singletary's contest. Later that summer, when the winners and dozens of "honorable mentions" were announced in the Post, I was not among them.
"See," I said to Denise with feigned good humor, "I don't even rank when it comes to being cheap."
But, you know, deep in my throat I was saying to myself, "See, I don't even rank when it comes to being a good enough writer to win a lousy $50 prize."
It's often occurred to me that most good things in my life have happened when I'm only wearing underwear.
Two weeks after learning of my defeat in the Post's contest, I sat in my underwear one Wednesday morning opening a spam-ish sounding email from NBCTODAYSHOW.com.
"You don't know me," the message began, "but first let me say that I think you should have won the 50 bucks." That message immediately had my undivided attention.
The TODAY Show producer went on to explain that they were starting a new weeklong "Cheapskate Way" series. Michelle Singletary was going to be a guest on the Show, and they'd asked Singletary if she knew of anyone who had a lighthearted take on the subject matter. Singletary passed along my (losing) contest entry to the TODAY Show folks.
What started out as a request to film me for a 10 second clip evolved into a segment just about me and my cheapskate ways, and then an offer to also do the live broadcast from Ohio. Apparently I was funny as hell, because I now appear fairly often on the Show as a guest correspondent reporting on, well, all things cheap.
Although I never aspired to be - and still don't - a television reporter, I thought that my inadvertent TV exposure might kindle some interest in my writing. I contacted a few literary agents in New York (using my trusty Writer's Market, of course) and was excited to receive positive reactions from a number of them. I was most impressed with Stacey Glick, a charming, down-to-earth yet highly professional and accomplished agent with the firm Dystel & Goderich.
After signing on with D&G, Stacey painstakingly coached me through the six month process of developing a proposal for my book, a book of financial wisdom and witticisms I'd been keeping a file of Post-It Note ideas on for most of my adult life. Now, though, it was time to make good on my mantra over all those years; I'd always said, "I could write a book." Now it was time to prove it to a publisher.
I finished the proposal just in time for a much anticipated overseas vacation my wife and I had been planning. Given my amateur standing as a writer, it seemed a safe bet to send out the proposal with the hope that in the months following our vacation I might find an interested publisher. As we took off on our flight to Athens, Greece, I felt a weight of mythical proportions lifted from my shoulders; my proposal was done and being circulated to fifteen potential publishers by the omni-capable Stacey Glick.
"It's finally off my desk," I told Denise, "and the good news is it's way too early to start worrying about whether anyone will ever want to buy it. This is gonna' be the vacation of a lifetime."
The next day we landed in Athens, where we strolled hand-in-hand through the city's ancient marketplace. The sign for an internet cafe stood out among the centuries old shops of carpet merchants and spice vendors, and, with public internet access still fairly uncommon in Greece, we decided to take the opportunity to check our email.
Logging on, I emitted that same unenlightened "Huh?" I'd uttered that Wednesday morning when NBC first contacted me, but this time I was wearing more than just underwear. The email from Stacey was titled "URGENT INTEREST!" and explained that, much to everyone's surprise, I'd gone from an "unheard of" to "one hot commodity" literally overnight, as we'd flown across the Atlantic. Of the fifteen publishers who were sent my proposal, five eventually bid on the rights, with Random House prevailing in a final "bidding war."
Fittingly, the Ultimate Cheapskate agreed to sell the rights to his first book via telephone conference call from a tourist class hotel in Sparta, Greece, home of the legendary Spartans, the measure of all cheapskates down through the ages.
You know, if you'd asked me that Sunday morning when I entered the contest in the Washington Post, "What's the best thing that can happen, Jeff?" I would have responded - with genuine enthusiasm - "I could win 50 bucks!"
Well, I didn't, which goes to show you why life is so great sometimes. Sometimes things just work out and you get a shot, even if it is a cheap shot.