Friday, January 8, 2010

Book Review: Secrets of a Stingy Scoundrel -- 100 Dirty Little Money-Grubbing Secrets by Phil Villarreal

Laugh and Learn

In PBS terms, the publication and success of journalist Phil Villarreal's humorous Money-Grubbing how-to guide was made possible by the recession along with the generous comedic support from banking industry bail-outs, corporate greed and mistreated consumers like us.

Back in the '80s, Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gecko proclaimed that “greed is good." But then again, Gecko was addressing Wall Street as opposed to Main Street USA wherein values like The Golden Rule were deemed the road-map to the type of American Dream sung about by the working class hero we proudly (but ironically) called “The Boss.”

As evidenced in his witty Secrets of a Stingy Scoundrel, it appears that Villarreal came of age refusing to drink either brand of Kool-Aid. Instead, he did the unthinkable of applying Gecko’s mantra to life as a working class, college educated, underpaid reporter, husband, and father of two both unafraid and damn proud “to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.”

But what about individuals, like yours truly who are so polite (and in my case, Midwestern) that we trip and apologize to the sidewalk even without worrying about what profiting from fifteen cents says about us?

Luckily we discover in Villarreal’s “Threeword (Because I’m Too Stingy for a Foreword)” that there is a solution! If we can’t ditch the attributes of “honor, integrity, honesty, and dignity” that Villarreal informs “don’t give you a decent return on your investment,” then role-playing can work wonders in the pursuit to not only save but actually make a few bucks.

The University of Arizona business management major turned film critic advises overly ethical readers to take a cue from the celebrities who star in the movies he critiques. So whether you’re “imagining yourself as someone to whom society’s rules don’t apply,” or just reading Scoundrel for an escapist kick in a time when laughs are scarce, you may be surprised by some of the sound advice packed within this 244 paged paperback ("Threeword" and table of contents not included).

Throughout, he puts his own uniquely witty spin on practical advice including: using one credit card with a solid rewards program that you pay off, always being willing to walk away from a car dealer even if you’ve spent a day in their office playing the waiting game, along with canceling your obsolete land line in favor of your cell phone (which he reminds should never include text messaging).

Likewise, he discusses everything from walking right past ATM machines over the insanity of paying bogus charges to retrieve your own hard-earned money to phoning banks and threatening to close your account unless they remove fees. And in one inspiring account that showcases Villarreal’s perseverance as a man on a mission, he describes the way that he successfully bargained with medical offices to knock 25% off bills paid-in-full.

However, Villarreal’s creativity shines through even more when he takes the practical fiscal advice we hear all the time all the way around the board, past go in order to collect $200 more dollars. Memorably, he asks why watches are necessary when a cell phone can do just fine and encourages would-be parents to time a pregnancy so that they can reap the rewards of hand-me-downs.

Additionally, he tackles imaginary problems you could encounter by cutting down on some of your staples in advocating the free Wi-Fi to be enjoyed all for the price of the cheapest beverages possible in coffee shops. Repeatedly answering questions you may have-- in one ingenious chapter, Villarreal deduces the most inexpensive VOIP solution possible by buying a cheap game and a Nintendo DS System to chat with friends internationally under the guise that you’re playing Pokemon together (provided of course, that they’ve made the same purchase).

Throughout, he breaks up the nitty-gritty advice with earnest and witty wishes that it would finally be acceptable for men to clip coupons or wear the free fanny packs you can get from credit card company stands set up on college campuses to lure freshman into monstrous debt. Yet you’re always keenly aware of just how much work, research, careful planning and knowledge of escape routes was and still is required to be a “Stingy Scoundrel” let alone write about it.

For the escape routes and potential for danger is the reason Villarreal's humorous tome was mistaken for gospel when a group of waitresses ignored his "Threeword" admission that he’d included “a few splashes of innovation… often stretched beyond reason to the deranged extreme,” for actual truth.

Staging a small protest at a Scottsdale Barnes and Noble reading last Fall, the waitresses gave Villarreal their two cents plus office supplies regarding the book’s Reservoir Dogs-like section wherein the creative nonfiction work’s semi-autobiographical first person character recommends tipping based on how badly one wanted to sleep with their server.

Let’s just say, it’s a good thing the women-- who obviously were just not into Villarreal’s humor-- didn’t get to his extremely witty but dicey chapters on dating. Clearly establishing that the happily married author isn’t talking about his wife Jessica except in certain occasions and always flatteringly, he walks you through courtship on a budget.

Dating advice, Scoundrel-style includes behaving like a jerk at a country music concert so you never have to go back to taking advantage of the win-win situation of purchasing WNBA tickets since-- not only do they cost less than NBA seats but a man’s scoring potential may increase right along with the team because of his willingness to attend a women's sporting event.

Similar to the way he weaves in true disclaimers when discussing issues that one could mistake for anecdotes about his wife, friends and children, you’re able to clearly establish Villarreal the reporter and the character throughout. And this is especially apparent during the book’s most notorious chapter as he advises the more daring to speak foreign-language sounding gibberish at the hospital in order to get your life saved before immigration arrives and you end up deported to wherever it is they think you’re from. (Side Note: Why Villarreal doesn't use this chapter as a screenplay jumping-off point is beyond me!)

Refreshingly upbeat and lighthearted, Villarreal may pretend he’s Scrooge McDuck or Mr. Grinch, but there’s no fooling astute readers who can see through exaggeration and appreciate the value of the Stingy Scoundrel whose true currency is laughter.

Needless to say, I’ll take creative jokes about sticking it to the corporations over the reality of corporations doing the opposite to us or financial experts asking us to sign up for their outrageously expensive seminars any day of the week. Moreover, Villarreal’s book, which was turned down dozens of times before our economic downturn made it timelier than ever, made me extremely aware of yet another Dirty Little Secret in particular.

Honestly in the end, Scoundrel marked one of the few instances in recent memory wherein I actually looked forward to dwelling on money and consumer issues. Always on our side, even when he's doing a sideways wink in the text, again and again Villarreal reminds us that it's acceptable to consider our national financial situation with an escapist smile rather than the flood of tears on display during the evening news.

Profile on Phil Villarreal from LaFusionOnline

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard critical practice and per Phil Villarreal's Stingy Scoundrel practice, you bet I received a free copy of this book for review. Receipt of such swag has zero impact on whether or not the book received a positive or negative write-up but I can admit that it did make my mailbox happy.
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