In the season of New Year’s resolutions and the country’s economic crunch, people may wish to start fresh — one calorie or dollar at a time.
Sam MacDonald ’95 took the initiative to do just that five years after he graduated from Yale. At the time, he weighed 340 pounds and found himself $15,000 in debt, paying to fix a broken-down Ford Taurus, and, of course, settling student loans. Somewhere between the Jonathan Edwards College Sextet and his six-days-a-week bar trips as a bouncer, MacDonald said his life was “completely unsustainable.”
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“I was enormously fat and poor,” MacDonald said.
When he hit rock bottom in April 2000, MacDonald decided to take desperate measures to turn his life around. It was a yearlong experiment — one that MacDonald documented in his memoir, “The Urban Hermit,” which was released in November. Pledging to remove any superfluous expenses from his life, MacDonald said he lived on 800 calories a day and $8 a week, using his savings to gradually chop away at his debt, losing 160 pounds along the way.
A blue-collar boy from western Pennsylvania, MacDonald arrived on Old Campus in 1991 as a 215-pound former football player and, according to two former suitemates, immediately became the life of the party. He joined the Yale skeet and trap team, started studying economics (what he considered a “pragmatic” choice for a major), and became a fixture at campus parties.
“He was a very big guy, physically intimidating,” freshman roommate Jason Finestone ’95 said of MacDonald. “But he’s the most charismatic person I’ve ever met. People loved being around him.”
Known for the bottles of Southern Comfort lining his window, MacDonald and his friends alike admitted that he was not the “typical Yale overachiever.”
“I wasn’t all that of an academic person,” MacDonald conceded. “I drank my way through college and had a lot of fun.”
In the first chapter of his book, MacDonald quotes Dr. Bernard Lytton, JE’s master at the time of his graduation, saying, “MacDonald, perhaps you could trade this in for a six-pack,” as he handed MacDonald his diploma.
Money always played a dual role in MacDonald’s life, Finestone said. While MacDonald obviously needed cash to get by, obtaining material things was of little importance to him.
Finestone recalled that MacDonald even gave away his winter coat to a homeless man one cold New Haven night.
When it came to earning some extra money on the side, MacDonald’s willingness to sacrifice his own health was apparent even in college.
MacDonald’s four-year roommate, Colin Devonshire, recalled a time when MacDonald signed up to take experimental medication that would make him stop smoking. Devonshire recalled that the experiment was ineffective in helping MacDonald kick the habit. Instead, he chain-smoked in the testing room to spite the medical advice. He wanted to do things his own way, Devonshire said.
After graduating with a double major in history and economics, MacDonald went from bouncing to investment banking and back to bouncing, worked as a financial editor, wrote for a Maryland newspaper and eventually became the Washington editor of Reason magazine. In the midst of his career changes, MacDonald consistently added to the weight he gained at Yale and the reality of debt settled around him.
Then he conceived the “Urban Hermit Plan.”
“The original impetus for the plan was that I needed to save money,” MacDonald said. “I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out what I was doing was wrong.”
MacDonald never intended the plan to last more than a month, he said, but it worked, so he continued it for a year. Consuming what he claimed was the bare minimum to survive, MacDonald said he ate the cheapest food he could find — canned tuna, lentils and eggs.
He would not even accept free cake at work, he said, for fear that it would lessen his self-control.
“I’m not a disciplined person,” he said. “If you give me an inch, I’ll take a mile.”
In addition to the dietary restrictions, MacDonald said he cut out all entertainment and outside activities. No more bar trips, movie tickets, magazine subscriptions.
“Giving up that stuff was harder than the hunger part,” MacDonald said. “You eventually get used to being hungry.”
MacDonald said he filled the void in his life by concentrating on his work. With the extra time on his hands, he pitched ideas to magazines and received many freelance writing jobs — a trip to Bosnia, an assignment to write about hippies in Montana.
His love life even blossomed as MacDonald regained control of his life; he said he met his future wife during that year in 2000.
MacDonald said he kept his personal experiment a secret from many of his friends until he sent an e-mail with a picture of him and General Lee from “The Dukes of Hazzard,” 160 pounds lighter.
“He kind of dropped off the face of the planet,” Finestone recalled. “He didn’t tell us because he didn’t want us to talk him out of it.”
While Finestone said that MacDonald’s personality did not change from the experiment, he added that MacDonald is more responsible and driven today because of it.
MacDonald currently resides in Pittsburgh with his wife Michele and three children, teaching journalism and writing courses at the University of Pittsburgh.
MacDonald’s advice to current Yalies?
“Understand that things have consequences,” he said. “Pick your course, enjoy what’s good about it and pay the consequences.”