Extreme Savers: College Students Embrace Cheapskate Mentality

Good Morning America

Will Thomasen is like a lot of college guys with a big appetite, constantly eating pizza, coffee, bananas, hush puppies, sandwiches, mac 'n cheese, you name it. The difference is that Thomasen doesn't pay for any of it. The ultimate college cheapskate, Thomasen is on a mission to eat free for an entire year.

"It is a little bit of, you know, seeing if I can live off the land, in the jungle of Chapel Hill," the 21-year-old business major said.

At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., where an unlimited meal plan runs $1,700 per semester, Thomasen says scavenging for food isn't a gimmick, it just makes sense.

Every day he checks a Facebook page that lists all of the events on campus offering free food. On the day ABC News visited in January, freshmen doled out doughnuts and coffee. A gesture of good will from the class of 2015 means a free breakfast for Thomasen.

From lectures to study breaks, the campus is overflowing with events that have free grub, he explains. His system seems to be working. The last time Thomasen spent money on food was in August.

"My roommates call me the human garbage disposal," he said.

They may be right. One of Thomasen's staples for free food is the fridge at the campus YMCA, where students leave food they don't want. Some of the items are inarguably iffy.

"The expiration dates help, and I usually do the smell test. I think that's another thing we don't realize. A lot of these are 'sell by' as opposed to 'eat by,' so they're still good for a couple days afterward," he said. "If there's no moldy smell, or moldy look, you think, it's OK, then it probably is OK. I haven't gotten sick all semester."

"It's not for everyone," he added. "It's not for the weak of stomach or heart."

Thomasen says being on this diet has made him realize just how much food is wasted. He goes to receptions, pizza parties and tailgates just before they end, taking home food that would other be thrown out. He says he himself leaves food in the campus fridge, because he more often than not he has more than he can eat. But while he never goes hungry, Thomasen admits the diet does have its drawbacks. Not paying for meals makes dating hard.

"That has been the big thing. When I get asked on dates I definitely ask, so who's buying here? What are we doing? Am I paying for you? Because I don't know if that's going to work out there," he said with a laugh.

Unlike the stereotype that college is one big party with the occasional time for studying, Thomasen is part of a new crop of students from "generation cheap" -- millennials who've grown up with a recession, debt and unemployment who aren't ashamed to pinch pennies.

"I think we've learned from the mistakes of people in the past," he said. "We're just surrounded by this story of more and more economic crisis, more and more need for saving and savvy spending."

Eric Richardson is another 21-year-old who shares Thomasen's survivalist mentality. The junior at Utah State University keeps most of his food in a locker on campus because he ditched his apartment for a tent about eight months ago.

Bunking outdoors has been a huge savings for Richardson and his tent mate Tyson Lloyd.

"We've saved a lot of money already, thousands of dollars," Richardson said. "And several hundred more by eating tinfoil dinners and avoiding cafeterias and restaurants."

Richardson, a poster child for the cheap mentality, was featured in "Cheapster," an online reality contest where Zions Bank crowned the most frugal student. Richardson dived through Dumpsters and modeled thrift store fashions to win a $10,000 prize. Through the contest, the bank saw a 20 percent increase in new accounts, according to Zions Bank executive vice president Rob Brough.

"I think this will become a real defining moment for this generation and will impact how they manage their finances in the future," Brough said.

That's something another "Cheapster" contestant, Jessica Dansie, already does. The junior at the University of Utah has two jobs to pay for all of her college expenses and has made day-to-day frugality a way of life. She eats out of her parents' kitchen at no cost, buys all of her clothes at consignment shops, rides her bike around instead of driving a car, and takes the bus to class.

"It kind of makes it like a game, like, see how little money I can spend," she said. "I think I've just realized what makes me happy…more than spending money, more than spending all of that time that it takes to earn that money."

Back at UNC, it's time for dinner and Thomasen wraps up a campus tour and grabs some free food from the reception. Though graduation is fast approaching, that's not the end date Thomasen has in mind for this exercise in frugality, he says, hoping to continue it in the "real world." Thomasen, like so many other 20-somethings, is living with less and liking it.

"I have switched my priorities from being able to drive a nice car and have a nice TV and all of those types of things," he said, "to be able to live appreciating the types of things that a lot of times come for free."

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