Wichita financial counselor has touted thrift for years

Meet the evangelist of frugality.

Jeff Witherspoon preaches thrift at work and lives it at home.

For three years, he drove to work at Wichita's Consumer Credit Counseling Service, where he is executive director, in a car without air conditioning, even though he could have easily afforded to get it fixed.

His only fight with his wife over money in 27 years, he says, was whether to spend an extra $100 for a kitchen range with a bigger window. He won.

And when asked about cell phones, he acknowledges he has one, then proudly whips out his $19 phone and says it costs him just $7 a month (30 prepaid minutes on Virgin Mobile).

It's a seamless matching of the personal and the professional.

Witherspoon, 49, could be a high school math teacher or a middle manager, with his metal-rim glasses and unprepossessing looks.

He's worked for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, the area's largest organization for advising people in serious financial trouble, for 14 years.

His counselors see 65 percent of all people in danger of bankruptcy in Sedgwick County. They talk to thousands of people swamped by debt each year on how to cut expenses, live within their means and repay their bills, if possible.

The nonprofit group is funded by the United Way, federal and state grants, creditors, local businesses and clients. It doesn't operate mainly on behalf of creditors, as many counseling groups do.

Witherspoon's passion for thrift is fueled by anxiety that he won't have enough to retire on. The stories he hears every day fuel his anxiety.

"People ask why it's easy for me to stay motivated. Well it's easy because I see the mistakes people make every day."

Some of that, he concedes, may not be entirely rational. It's not like Witherspoon is in the same shape as his clients.

He's always worked. His wife, Rhonda, is a speech therapist at Heartspring. They both feel secure in their jobs.

They have three kids, with one at Wichita State University, and live in an average home in southwest Wichita that is paid for. They don't owe anything on their cars, either. In fact, they have no debt and pay cash for everything, or use no-interest financing when it's offered.

He sees his goal in life as amassing enough money to retire securely. That, to him, is the finish line.

"It's not hard for me to put off buying things because I want to be sure there's enough money," he said. "When you're living only on Social Security, it's not a pretty picture."

He's also fired by the ego-challenge of not letting anybody take advantage of him.

For instance, he said he appreciates the relationship he's had with a trusted repairman, but he'll still get alternate bids to ensure he gets the best price.

Money a deal-breaker

He and Rhonda were in his office on the ninth floor of the Broadway Plaza building earlier this month talking about the role frugality has played in their marriage.

They met at Kansas State, and she said that early in their relationship he told her that he had to control the checkbook — or it would be a deal-breaker.

"And," she teased, "I didn't get the stove I wanted, and I'm the one who uses it most, but OK."

"Do not make me sound so mean," he said, a little stung. "It's not as bad as it sounds."

She said he did better when she needed a new dishwasher.

"After I researched it in Consumer Reports, found it on sale at Best Buy and got 12-months-same-as-cash, I bought it," he said.

They both laughed. It turns out she's as much a cheapskate as he is. It's one of the secrets of their long marriage, they said.

"Sometimes you can look at it as a game," she said. "What's the best deal I can get."

"I get more warm fuzzies saving money than spending money," he said.

"I do, too," she said.

Everything's different

The recession has created a real dilemma for Witherspoon.

It has elevated thrift to a widespread social necessity, which he sees as good in its own right. The culture has finally reached a teachable moment.

He got tired of not being taken seriously by those his organization counseled — and much of society, for that matter.

And now he feels vindicated.

"I've been preaching this for a long time," he said. "I do not take any solace that so many people are suffering; that is not what I mean. but I feel I've been trying to teach people and they've just ignored me."

On the other hand, the recession has meant a bigger parade of misery through his office. Both the numbers and severity of the cases has grown.

"Back in the old days it was maybe tweak this and tweak this and maybe work a second job and we can solve this," he said. "Now, it's like 'I'm being kicked out of my house and my car is being repossessed.' We counseled a woman last week who was living out of her car — just horrible situations that we never encountered before. I care about these people, I really do, and I can't help them."

His advice to those who aren't yet in need of his services is to be more like Jeff: Be incredibly conservative with spending. Stockpile a reserve in case of a job loss. When buying, research first, and then look for discounts.

He knows people think that he's too gloomy, that the economy will return and people will regain their financial footing, but he said he thinks the economic situation has changed for good. The reality, he said, is that Americans have lived a lie for the past decade, spending more than they had.

Now, he said, we will have to live with slower growth, less credit and diminished expectations for the future. His way is the way of the future.

And who better to deliver the message, he said, than a true believer.

"Sometimes it's advice they don't want to hear," he said, "but it's coming from the heart, from knowing what works and what doesn't work."