Save $1,000 in four weeks: Can you do it? Ramit Sethi thinks so.

The Stanford graduate is on a personal finance mission. He's got a popular blog, write-ups in the Wall Street Journal and other high-profile business pubs, as well as a New York Times best-seller: "I Will Teach You to be Rich."

And he's only 26.

Sethi tailors much of his advice based on real-life encounters with friends and peers. Convinced that frugality is frumpy, he launched a hipper how-to savings challenge on his blog (iwillteachyoutoberich.com) last year: "Save $1,000 in 30 Days."

Earlier this week, we talked with Sethi by phone:

Question: Most personal finance experts are maybe twice your age and have spent years gathering their financial wisdom. You're only 26. How is that possible?

Answer: Expertise is about results. And with a blog, you're accountable every day. Some of my blog readers are saving tens of thousands a year. I know it's working because they tell me it is. It doesn't matter how many (academic) degrees you have, if you're not engaging your audience, they're not participating.

Q: You've stated that "Americans suck at frugality." Why?

A: Because we live in a consumer culture that urges us to consume more and spend more. We're not frugal. We overspend. We overeat. I've been in the car with friends and we're two minutes from home and they'll say 'We're starving. We gotta stop and get food.' Dude, you have food in your house. It's gonna cost you $8 to stop at Jack in the Box.

... The point of this (30-day) challenge is that frugality doesn't mean scraping and pinching on everything you love. It should be about making a few targeted changes ... to save you a lot of money so you can get on with your life.

Q: After your first "Save $1,000 in 30 Days" challenge last year, you said an estimated 25,000 people saved well over $1 million. How'd you come up with those numbers?

A: It's a loose estimate but the numbers are staggering. There were more than 500,000 page views. The results are based on Web traffic, reader surveys and more than 1,000 online comments. Some saved as low as $10 - or as high as $16,000, carried over a year.

Q:
What's the biggest financial mistake your generation makes?

A: Apathy. It's not about making technical (financial) mistakes or having the wrong asset allocation. It's that we're not engaging with our own money on a regular basis. Most don't engage at all.

Our No. 1 worry throughout life will be money. But how much time do we spend getting control? It's not overwhelming. It's all about being proactive: Set up a high-interest savings account. Negotiate ... The cable company or credit card company needs you as much as you need them. Call and use key phrases: 'Look Mr. Comcast, times are tough. What can you do to help me?' If they'll drop $30 a month off your bill ... that's almost $400 a year.

Step up, call these companies. In one Saturday morning, a lot of people could save probably $1,000.

Q: You majored in technology and social psychology at Stanford. How do those two fields fuse together in your blog/book?

A: I specialized in social influence and persuasion, which let me understand how to persuade people to do pro-social things, like monitoring their health care. There's a psychology in personal finance: we know we should be doing something but we don't. It's understanding the cognitive barriers that prevent us from saving more and earning more.

That's what I mean by getting rich: it's defining what a rich life is for you, then using money to get there.

Q: Back in 2004 when you started your blog, you recommended reading Suze Orman, The Motley Fool and Warren Buffett for investing advice. Are those still your favorites?

A: I would still highly recommend Suze Orman; she's a little kooky but she's great. Buffett's got an amazing ability to break down highly technical business and investing ideas into digestible concepts that individuals can understand. He's warned us all about trying to be too fancy with finances.

Motley Fool I wouldn't recommend anymore. ... People should never, never be picking individual stocks as the basis for your personal finance.

(Claudia Buck is the assistant business editor of The Sacramento Bee. Personal Finance Notebook answers questions about money matters, tapping a roster of experts for advice on navigating the often-confusing world of personal finance. Submit questions to cbuck@sacbee.com or P.O. Box 15779 Sacramento, Calif. 95852.)

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