Xtreme Saver: Clare Cheesman
This mother of three uses aggressive strategies to advance her career and provide for three kids.
By Katie Benner, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Clare Cheesman says that extreme saving has helped her to reinvent herself -- from housewife to career professional -- and provide for three kids along the way.

To come out on top, she knew it would take more than tried and true savings strategies, though she employs those too -- including never paying full price, taking advantage of buy-one-get-one-free offers and minimizing shopping trips to save on gas.

Clare Cheesman with two of her three kids, Kelly, 9 and Brian, 11.
Clare Cheesman with two of her three kids, Kelly, 9 and Brian, 11.

To step things up, she took advantage of free training classes at work, barter arrangements and is now an avid "secret shopper," buying products and then telling companies whether their service employees are doing their jobs well. She is reimbursed for the money spent and gets to keep the goods.

Being careful with cash has given the Rochester Hills, Michigan mom a sense of financial peace that eludes the many Americans who spend what they don't have, and then struggle with the debt.

"It's part of who I am. If I won the lottery today, I'd live like this tomorrow," said Cheesman, adding that growing up middle class and her ex-husband's great salary never deterred her from clipping coupons.

"There is a peace of mind just knowing that I can survive extreme economic conditions. And the recent economic [uncertainty] is not impacting me psychologically like it has some people I know."

A fresh start at 43

After being a stay-at-home mom for 11 years, Cheesman's world was irrevocably changed in the span of one year when she got a divorce, bought a house and re-entered the workforce.

Now 45, Cheesman went back to work two years ago at the public works division for her county government. "When I entered the workforce, there were people half my age competing for the same jobs. I also felt like I needed to play catch up in terms of retirement savings."

Taking classes at a local college was out of the question since she was already stretching money to take care of three kids and make mortgage payments on her new home. Instead, she sought out "any and all" free training programs offered through her job.

"When I quit work to have kids, PCs were just coming on to the market. So... I took all the IT classes offered."

Her initiative didn't go unnoticed and she has won three job promotions in two years.

Part of Cheesman's job was to send inspectors out to drains and project sites. Then she became a certified Storm Water Operator and a Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control Inspector. It was new territory for a woman with a BA in psychology and Master's degree in administration.

"My salary jumped from $24,000 a year to $45,000, and I'm pretty sure the training is why. It demonstrated that I can learn new things and improved my job performance."

Bartering and secret shopping

While Cheesman was looking for a house, she was a substitute teacher living on $8 an hour and sewing clothing for extra cash. Clearly she couldn't afford a $500 home inspection.

But a Cub Scout leader she was making uniforms for was a builder, and she bartered her sewing skills for an inspection.

"I think bartering is a win-win. Both people come away with respect for themselves and their skill and products," she said. "It's a sense of worth that you don't have when you just pay someone to do something for you, and we all could use that."

Secret shopping has also netted Cheesman free oil changes, weekly meals out with the kids, movies, clothing, haircuts, eye exams and a weekend resort getaway for her family.

She is hired by companies including restaurants, drug stores, clothing stores and resort hotels to shop and vacation essentially for free, and then tell them about the experience.

Cheesman is registered with about 30 different companies and is given assignments according to parameters that she sets, including when she will work and what locations she's willing to go.

"You have to be detail oriented because you can't write notes while you do it," she said, adding that she also has to fulfill certain requirements, like ordering a certain number of appetizers at a meal or asking waiters specific questions.

In 2004, she did over 200 mystery shops and it has allowed Cheesman to treat her children and save big on household items.

You can't deprive yourself, said Cheesman, adding that she does buy an expensive perfume for herself and works hard to give her family a life they can enjoy.

"I'm smart about what I spend and how I spend it," she said. "I just like getting value for my time and my money."


Interested in being a secret shopper? Click here for more.

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