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Jen Pilgreen, Deseret News
Lori Thompson of Duchesne, accepts $10,000 from Zions Bank executive vice president, right, while her husband, Nathan looks on at left, during the "Ultimate Cheapster" contest Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — When you don't have a lot of money, knowing how to stretch the few dollars you have is a skill that can pay big dividends for those willing to learn. Just ask Lori Thompson, the 23-year-old Utah State University senior, who Tuesday pocketed 10 grand for winning the first Cheapster Internet reality series.

Launched in October, the series pitted Thompson and nine other contestants against each other in seven extreme budgeting challenges to win the “Ultimate Cheapster” title. Thompson was one of three contestants in the final Cheapster episode, receiving the winning vote from Cheapster judges and past contestants who were brought back in a surprise twist during the final challenge.

“Being a Cheapster means securing the best deal and also searching for the best value," said Rob Brough, Zions Bank executive vice president. "Lori was the master of both techniques and is a well-deserved recipient of the Cheapster grand prize.” 

Show sponsor Zions Bank presented Lori with $10,000 in one-dollar bills, which was later deposited into her Zions Bank Student Checking account.

“Being frugal is a reality that college students face every day, but the key to being prepared for life's unknown challenges is effectively budgeting your money,” said Thompson, who is originally from the tiny hamlet of Utahn — about 7 miles southeast of Duchesne. “I've always enjoyed finding deals and getting the best bang for my buck, and Cheapster really put my penny-pinching talents to the test."

She said she would save most of the winnings and use some to help in pursuing her future career in physical therapy.

Cheapster cast members were chosen by a panel of judges from regional casting calls, and the final two contestants were chosen by popularity vote on Facebook. Each episode featured specific budgeting challenges in which cast members complete thrifty tasks with predetermined funds.

Judges scored contestants on creativity and frugality based on the amount of money remaining at the end of each challenge. Following each round, the lowest scoring participant was eliminated but was able to keep the money he or she saved in completing each challenge.

Thompson learned about frugality at an early age. When she was a child, her father lost his job, which put the family of eight children in financial difficulty.

"We counted out pennies so that we could go to the grocery store and buy milk," she said. It was then that her parents and older siblings instilled the importance of proper money management.

"Look for coupons before you go to the store, check the ads to see which one has the cheapest gallon of milk," she explained.

"We are all very frugal, and we all help each other out all the time," Thompson said of her family.

Even today, she changes her own oil in her car and looks after the routine maintenance like tire pressure herself. She added that there is a big difference between being a miser and being resourceful with money.

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"A lot of people hear the word cheap and think of a negative connotation — a cheapskate," she explained. "But … a cheapster is someone who is frugal and gives back all the time. They leave tips when they go to places and are always thinking of the people around them."

She said she was proud of the way she has learned to manage her finances. She noted that she was the only one of the three finalists who was totally debt-free, including school loans. Traits she was grateful to have developed through the lessons learned in her close-knit family.

"I've never really thought of myself as a cheap person," Thompson said. "But if you think of the cheapster definition, then that is definitely what I am."

Cheapster episodes can be viewed at Facebook.com/CheapsterTV

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com