Mr. Cheap Goes to City Hall - Features - Atlanta Magazine
 
 
 

Mr. Cheap Goes to City Hall

Clark Howard built a fortune preaching frugality. Would Atlanta buy him as mayor?

This article originally appeared in our November 2007 issue.

The cars keep coming—sedan, coupe, SUV, SUV, hybrid, van, SUV, truck, station wagon, sedan, truck. It's midmorning and technically well after the end of rush hour, on a leafy, tree-lined residential street. But this is the ATL, the automotive industry's bitch, whose car-clogged freeways and surface-street arteries are choking on a diet of pure vehicular cholesterol, and traffic just keeps on coming.

Clark Howard stands by his mailbox. An archetypal nerd, with humidity-curled hair and generic metal glasses, he is instantly recognizable in his wrinkled khaki cargo shorts and clearance rack sneakers. His boyish dimples and unlined face pass for a decade younger than his fifty-two years, though his untucked thrift store golf shirt barely disguises a modest middle-aged paunch. His wife, who calls this outfit the "Clark-iform" says, "If you see him in a suit, someone probably died."

Atlanta's most notoriously frugal resident is in TV reporter mode, trying to demonstrate his locking mailbox (no drive-by postal identity theft for him!). His pared-down crew, a producer and videographer, find a line of sight unobstructed by the stream of fenders, but as the drivers relentlessly whiz along, the whoosh of tires, throb of acceleration, and growl of downshifting trucks keeps drowning out the audio. Finally a sanitation truck stops, blocking traffic long enough for Howard to get his twenty seconds of promo in the can.

A black woman in a white coupe rolls down her passenger window to ask what's going on. Howard steps forward, smiling "Hi, I'm Clark Howard," and gets no further because the woman starts screaming, "I love you Clark! I love you Clark!" and bouncing in her seat, turning the whole car into a bobbing and swaying thrill-o-meter.

Howard smiles and waves, his golly gosh gee willickers persona radiating cheerfulness, a trait that drives cynics crazy. There's nothing thin-lipped and sour about him. How can he be so cheap and so happy? Sure, Howard earned his parsimonious image with tales of prying quarters out of the asphalt in front of oncoming traffic, buying seven-dollar secondhand shirts, naming his slightly irregular pugs QuikTrip and Costco, and planning to leave his body to science to eliminate the expense of a funeral ("they pay for everything!").

But stingy isn't the whole story.

Howard has not one but five cars in the drive, he's recently forked out major ducats for an extensive renovation to his (mortgage-free!) two-and-a-half-acre north Atlanta estate, and he coughs up Westminster School tuition for his daughter. So let's define our terms. Skinflint? No, that suggests a hoarder who's found dead of starvation on a mattress stuffed with cash—or Howard Hughes and those soup cans.

Tightfisted? Closer, but still reeking of deprivation.

There's no argument that Howard is thrifty. But he's not about doing without—he's about the deal, whatever the price range. It's all about copping a bargain buzz, the atavistic thrill of the hunt. If it's a deal, he's on it. This guy can get a kick out of finding change in the seat cushions and an adrenalin rush from scoring a sweet deal on a used Jaguar. He's a thrill seeker, not a miser. Yes, he believes in living within his means, but the means he has to live within have expanded exponentially. This self-professed penny-pincher brings home major gelt extolling the virtues of thrift. And he owes nothing. "We have no debt. There's no house debt, no car debt, no debt debt. None," Howard points out happily. With an income "solidly in the seven figures," he saves 80 percent of his income (15 percent pretax and 65 percent after tax) and has enough left over to maintain a six-bedroom estate here and an oceanfront condo in Florida.

As generous as he is cheap, Howard's personally bankrolled twenty-three Habitat for Humanity houses, at up to $175,000 a pop, with four more scheduled to start construction next February. At a recent working breakfast at the Comer Cafe in Buckhead, he tipped $9 on a $12 tab. He'll go to Value City or the Dollar Store to find a deal on umbrellas and buy twenty. "As he's driving and sees people caught in the rain, he'll roll down the window and give them an umbrella," says his wife, Lane Carlock. "It's like that bumper sticker, 'Commit Random Acts Of Kindness.'"

"I just hate to see people get soaked," says Howard.

Another factor that shatters the stereotypical shorthand—Howard's a risk taker. This is a man who boasts of driving a scooter on the mean streets of Midtown. Who married without a prenup, proof of brass cojones in the divorce-littered landscape of high-stakes millionaire marriages. And he's a political novice who is seriously considering running for mayor of a city with an overwhelmingly black majority population that hasn't elected a white candidate since 1969.

Howard’s staff—researchers, producers, an engineer, and interns—convenes in a fittingly no-frills conference room in WSB's Midtown studios a couple of hours before air time. A water cooler gurgles in the corner between the fridge and sink, and there's a faint odor of burnt microwave popcorn. The spartan decor consists of some rakishly tilted plaques, a framed Habitat for Humanity T-shirt, and a piggybank.

The staff throws out ideas culled from newspapers, magazines, and the Internet: the resurgence of travel agencies, equity stripping, McDonald's biofuel trucks, parent coaches. Parent coaches? "It's $300 for a visit and two phone calls. I think it's fueled by the 'nanny' shows," explains executive producer Christa DiBiase. "Bah humbug," Howard scoffs.

A prophet crying in a wilderness of conspicuous consumption, Howard preaches the gospel of fiscal responsibility. Some see him as a garrulous, well-meaning snore who lectures on the value of thrift, brags on his scratch-and-dent appliances, drones on about Roth IRAs, blah blah blah. He's the last guy you want to get trapped next to at the buffet line. Unless you are caught in the wringer of identity theft, trapped in bad customer service hell, struggling to pay off overwhelming credit card debt, or desperately seeking a flight you can afford. Then you hang on Howard's every word, even if your mind slams shut at the very mention of percentages and ratios, because Howard knows the way out, and he wants to empower you.

On the way to the WSB News-Talk 750 broadcast booth you pass darkened soundproof rooms freckled with glowing console lights: Kiss 104.4 FM, 95.5 The Beat, 97.1 The River, B98.5. Howard shares studio space with other WSB radio personalities, from rabble-rouser Neal Boortz to crowd-pleasing garden guru Walter Reeves and weatherman Kirk Mellish.

Inside the dimly lit studio, Howard stands in front of his console with one eye on the computer screen that feeds him data on the upcoming calls and access to the Internet, the other eye on the clock that's ticking down the seconds to air time. The room is crisply air conditioned, really nippy. "Boortz is going through menopause," someone cracks. Across from Howard a producer, two interns, and a visitor take their seats and tether themselves umbilically to the console with the spiral cords of headphones. Two TV sets are mounted on the studio walls—one tuned to CNBC, the other to CNN—with the audio off and subtitles scrawling across the bottom of the screen.

Producer Kimberly Drobes, checking audio levels on her laptop, slips a scribbled question to the intern, like passing notes in the back of the class. ON AIR lights up, and Howard leans into the intro of his three-hour talkathon. "Welcome to The Clark Howard Show, where I want you to save more, spend less, and not get ripped off."

Howard opens with an alert on mobile phone "moisture strips" that are supposed to determine whether a phone has been dunked, voiding the warranty. He warns listeners that the strips are inaccurate and tells them how to prove it ("don't be rrrripped off by your phone company!"). Howard is minimally scripted, just a few bullet points from the staff meeting and a little research support while he's on air. As he finishes each segment, he floats a paper with the topic's talking points over the side of a low divider that looks like a sneeze guard. The intern, pen in mouth, types a summary of the show as it happens.

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