Champ of cheap squeezes his wonInviting Lee Dae-pyo out to lunch is not so easy. Neither a movie star nor a future president of Korea, this 27-year-old is the reigning authority on how to be a cheapskate. Asked for an interview, Mr. Lee, whose middle name must be Scrooge, parries, “Any freebies in return for taking away my precious time, like a free gift certificate?” Obviously disappointed to learn that there’s nothing in it for him but a free lunch, Mr. Lee reluctantly says yes. He is well aware that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
It is Tuesday in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul. The restaurant is suitably modest. Mr. Lee brushes off a suggestion of pasta carbonara. At less than 20,000 won ($17), he decrees it ridiculously expensive. Why, that’s more than four months’ cell-phone charges for Mr. Lee. He knows a little secret about phone charges.
Clearly pained at the extravagance, though he’s not the one picking up the tab, Mr. Lee finally settles on a soup for 9,000 won. His stomach rebels at the profligacy; he says he’s not sure he can eat the soup. “This food is too expensive to be easily digested,” he sighs, excusing himself to the men’s room. But not to eat it would be extravagant, too, so Mr. Lee polishes off the bowl so cleanly that he can see his face reflected in the bottom.
Mr. Lee can live an entire month on 100,000 won ― and this in the city that was recently ranked the eighth most expensive in the world, according to a March survey of 144 cities by Mercer Human Resources Consulting of Geneva.
Mr. Lee is second to none in his philosophy of frugality, but he is not stingy about sharing his secrets. He runs an online club (http://cafe.daum.net/mmnix) called “Mr. Salty,” Korean slang for a cheapskate, where he shares tips with more than 47,000 members. This month he will publish a book based on his how-to strategies and stories of the club members.
Attired in a yellow shirt that cost less than 10,000 won at a neighborhood market, Mr. Lee says he was not always parsimonious. After graduating from high school, he took a job in the business department of an Internet communication company. He proved to be a better spender than saver. He was a young man with a hole in his wallet, barely making ends meet every month.
“It was an easy-come, easy-go cycle,” Mr. Lee says. “Even my generous monthly wage of 1.8 million won was not enough. I was always in debt, splurging on clothes, asking girls out, drinking.”
The turning point for Mr. Lee came a year later, when he decided to do his mandatory military service. “Before I went to the army, my mom, who had been silent before, told me that I should have 10 million won as seed money as soon as possible. Then I thought I should prepare to be rich. After all, being rich wouldn’t hurt, I thought.”
After 26 months on kitchen police, with neither time nor place to spend money, Mr. Lee got a job in a business office and set a goal ― to spend less than 300,000 won a month. He failed. “The first month was hard,” Mr. Lee says, “because I had get-togethers with friends. I ended up spending 800,000 won. I needed to take more radical measures.”
The second month, he kept his salary intact and gave it to his mother, who put it in the bank, except for a 100,000-won monthly allowance.
Step two was being a workaholic. Mr. Lee spent most of his time at work ― no dinner appointments, no get-togethers. He volunteered for night work to get free dinner coupons as well as an overtime allowance. He willingly took up co-workers’ duties, which made him popular in the office. Within months, he had earned a reputation as a hard-working, reliable employee in the eyes of both his bosses and his fellow workers. By the time his contract was up for renewal, he did not have to worry about getting a raise. “When others wondered whether they would get a raise or not, my concern was only for the amount of the raise.” His salary was raised 30 percent, with higher bonuses. “To be a needed employee brought me many advantages,” he says.
One advantage included a radical drop in his cell-phone charges. He made every single phone from his office. Then he started to wonder how to avoid the 15,000-won basic monthly charge for his phone. After thorough research, he found out that the companies waive the basic fee if your cell phone is missing. “I make no calls from my phone, which I use for getting calls only,” Mr. Lee says. Through such austerity, he has cut his bill to 3,640 won a month. “I have no complaints,” Mr. Lee says.
One inconvenience is that Mr. Lee must report to the company once a month that he has found the phone, so that the account won’t be dropped. Then the next day he must not forget to report again that the phone is missing.
He got his cell phone, by the way, from an unlike-minded friend, who traded up to a new model.
By the spring of 2001, four years of fanatic scrimping had netted him a bank account of 64 million won. He used the money to rebuild his old home in Bucheon, outside Seoul.
Naturally, this tightwad has no girlfriend ― but, incredibly, he has a wife! She is Han Hye-jin, with whom Mr. Lee fell in love at first sight. Mr. Lee had his way with the courtship ― no candlelight dinners, no roses, no romantic getaways. He called his sweetheart only once a week ― from the office ― for not longer than 30 seconds to set up time and place. They would go to a snack bar to have tteokbokgi, cooked, spiced rice cake. A generous, filling portion cost 3,000 won. On special days, Mr. Lee took his honey to a movie ― a free screening at a district office.
Mr. Lee does not sound like an ideal swain, and after a year Ms. Han called it quits. “She refused to see me,” Mr. Lee admits. “I did not want to lose her and decided to take a decisive action.”
What he did went against Mr. Lee’s entire ethos, but it worked. He paid an unexpected visit to her house, with a extravagant gift set for her family of dried yellow corvinas, a popular holiday fish delicacy. Ms. Han fell for Mr. Lee all over again.
But the happy ending does not mean that Mr. Lee has reformed. He still admonishes his wife that they should save money instead of spending it on ephemeral things like flowers. They have thus saved more than 1.2 million won. They will blow it ― or as much of it as Mr. Lee can bear to part with ― on a romantic getaway to Jeju Island to celebrate their first wedding anniversary.
“There was a time,” Ms. Han says, “that I grew tired of his obsession with economizing on everything, but after all, I learned from him a lot.”
Mr. Lee quit working last year and is studying at Incheon Polytechnic College to be an engineer. With his wife bringing home the bacon by working at a private piano school, Mr. Lee says everything is going well, and the monthly budget is still 100,000 won. “My next goal,” he says, “is to amass 20 million won in one year.”
He never uses credit cards ― hates the thought of being in debt. He shuns the stock market, tucking his savings in a bank. He does not need to keep daily expense records, for there is rarely anything to record.
“A self-made man, that’s what I want to be,” Mr. Lee says. “I’m going to show people that they can really make it starting from scratch, even without a good background.” Mr. Lee’s life’s ambition, however, is not to be a billionaire.
“My dream is to be a father,” he says, “loved and respected in my home, sweet home.” So he is engrossed in reading “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert T. Kiyosaki and Sharon L. Lechter. “To be a perfect father and husband,” Mr. Lee says, “money is crucial, though you should be careful not to let money enslave you. I’ve learned that to be happy, money is what it takes.”
Rules for how to be a ‘rich dad’
1. Get a reliable person, like your mother, to take care of your salary. Spend like you don’t earn a penny.
2. Figure out how to stop money leaks. Earlier this year when I was trying to change the filter in my water purifier, I was told it would cost 35,000 won. That was simply too much. I found out the name of the factory that makes the filter and called them. They offered the same product for 10,000 won.
3. Be smart and fight for your rights. For one thing, when you get an Internet connection service, take advantage of the competition among companies. I alternate two companies monthly and get the special low price offered for the first month.
4. When you get a used car, visit as many agencies as possible. If there is a model that you like, take it to another dealer and pretend you’re going to sell it to him. Then he will find every possible fault with the car and let you know the lowest price. That’s how I got my car.
by Chun Su-jin
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