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For the winner of “Cheapster,” a penny saved is $10K earned

Winner of Zions Bank’s Web reality show, “Cheapster,” competed in front of big audience.

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Maybe Lori Thompson was fated to be the ultimate cheapster and win a $10,000 prize from Zions Bank.

Thompson, 23, has been a penny-pincher since age 2, when her mother opened a checking account so she could bank her earnings from selling lollipops to her neighbors in Duchesne.

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Growing up, Thompson liked to explore the Duchesne dump, especially on days when no fees were charged for dumping. One day, she and her siblings found a puppy that somehow had gotten into a trash receptacle. They brought the dog home and named it Dumpster.

Thompson also had saved up $5,000 to get married. She ended up spending $1,000 and kept the balance to pay for living and education expenses while she pursues a physical-therapy degree at Utah State University. The $10K in winnings, she said Tuesday, will go into a bank account that pays the highest interest rate she can find.

"I was actually really surprised," Thompson said after hearing she had prevailed over two other finalists in the bank’s first Cheapster reality Web TV show. The seven-part series, which followed 10 contestants as they wrestled with numerous challenges to be cheap, was broadcast at www.cheapster.tv.

"I am a very ‘cheapster’ person, but I was in competition with other great, creative people who know how to get really good deals. This is their livelihood, getting good deals," she said.

Thompson was one of more than 200 college-age Utahns who submitted video and written entries to Zions’ contest earlier this fall, spokesman Rob Brough said. Bank representatives, hoping to make clients of students enrolled at Utah and Idaho colleges and universities, had visited campuses in both states with packages of cheap ramen noodles and other material to publicize the contest and entice self-nominations.

Eight contestants were chosen by casting call judges. Two more were selected by viewers who logged into the Cheapster site to vote, either directly or by going to facebook.com/cheapsterTV. The six men and four women were attending or recent graduates of Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, Idaho State University and Utah State.

"The idea was to demonstrate that they could not only be frugal in their spending but also create value with their dollars," Brough said.

The message apparently got through to a big audience. During the course of the contest, Zions logged close to 14,300 online visits from viewers who watched the contestants take on challenges that called on them to spend as little as possible while creating something of value.

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The 10 who started the contest were winnowed down to three finalists: Thompson; Jessica Dansie, 23, a Spanish major at the U.; and Scott Chapman, 25, who also studies at the U. Using preloaded debit cards provided by Zions, they tackled tasks such as preparing frugal meals, creating formal wardrobes with clothes they bought at Deseret Industries and creating pleasant interior designs. Amounts depended on the task but generally were around $30 each time.

What they didn’t spend, they got to keep. And when the contest was over, Thompson had saved $87.23. Dansie kept $70.93. Chapman held on to $68.27.

The final hurdle was to win the most votes from the seven contestants who hadn’t made it to the finals.

"I was a little disappointed to have gotten so far, to have missed out," a disheartened Dansie said. "But, overall, it was a great experience."

Still, she walked away with $1,000 from Zions, as did Chapman.

"I’m going to pay off some student loans. It might sound boring, but that’s what helps me relax at night," Chapman said.

Zions has not decided whether to stage another Cheapster contest.

pbeebe@sltrib.comTwitter: @sltribpaul

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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