When Utah State University student Lori Thompson turned 16, her father, an auto repair mechanic, bought her and her siblings cars.

There was one problem - they were totaled.

If the kids wanted to drive those cars to take themselves to school, sporting events or dates, they would have to get the money to fix the cars themselves, Thompson recalls.

It's the kind of thing that taught the USU student majoring in exercise science - who now owns a Ford Mustang - to be as frugal as possible.

"It was kind of a necessity to budget," Thompson said Wednesday. "When you don't have a lot of money, you want to make it go as far as you can."

Now, Thompson's frugality has earned her $10,000 in cash in an Internet reality series called Cheapster on Facebook. The eight-part series, sponsored by Zions Bank, follows 10 young adults ages 18 to 28 from Utah and Idaho as they compete to scrimp and save their way to big winnings.

Each Cheapster episode features specific budgeting challenges, during which cast members complete thrifty tasks with predetermined funds using a Zions Bank debit card. Judges score contestants on creativity and frugality based on the amount of money remaining at the end of each challenge. After each round, the lowest scoring participant is eliminated but keeps the money they saved while completing each challenge.

The contestants would complete a variety of tasks, such as preparing frugal meals, creating formal wardrobes with clothes they bought at Deseret Industries or creating pleasant interior design.

"I'm very excited that I won; it was kind of a surprising to be crowned the ultimate Cheapster," Thompson said, adding that she will "pinch every penny" out of her $10,000 prize. She also saved a total of $87.23 on the show, which she gets to keep.

There were 10 contestants participating and three of them were from USU. Including Thompson, Eric Richardson and Gina Quigley - a USU graduate - also participated.

Over the course of the contest, Zions logged nearly 14,300 online visits from viewers who watched the contestants.

For Zions Bank, it is the first campaign of its kind designed to educate Millennials through Facebook about financial products, said Zions Bank Vice President and Emerging Market Manager Brad Herbert.

"We came up with the idea because we did a lot of research to learn about ‘Millennials,'" Herbert said. "We wanted to learn more about their banking habits and ... we learned that they're really not putting it as priority in their life right now. We wanted to talk about that and we wanted to create a fun, entertaining way to have a discussion about the importance of saving money. It's kind of our way of saying to students, ‘We understand; we get it.'"

Thompson agreed that most college students don't think of finances as a first priority.

"I think for a typical college student, they're just thinking of getting through school and so they're willing to take student loans," Thompson said. "You're willing to pay a little more to get though and go play with friends."

She added, "I think by and large, people do budget their money - especially with the recession."

Thompson said it takes an education to teach college students her age to understand the importance of saving money - in addition to experiencing life in the "real world."

"People think they need the newest of everything," she said. "But we don't really need them, so we have to separate our needs from our wants. We need to not try to get everything; we can settle with a used TV or used couches."

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Twitter: KevJourno

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