They Call Me The Frugal Zealot

The editor of "The Tightwad Gazette"
tells how she cured her love for spending

One of the articles in What Is Enough? (IC#26)
Originally published in Summer 1990 on page 58
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

We recently received our "Free Premiere Issue" of one of the most refreshing newsletters we’ve seen in years – "The Tightwad Gazette, Promoting Thrift as a Viable Alternative Lifestyle." For only $12 a year – "that’s $1 each if you split it with 11 tightwad friends" – you get 12 issues of info on creative ways to save money. For instance, the first issue had a sidebar called "10 Painless Ways to Save $100 This Year,"as well as "A Really Dull Article About Health Insurance" (that was actually very enlightening).

Amy Dacyczyn, editor and "crack staff investigative reporter," wrote about the genesis of her newsletter in the premiere cover story, which we reprint here. She reminds us (by not saying a word about it) that environmental or humanitarian concern is not the only motivator for a less consumptive lifestyle. Frugality may be prompted by other priorities, but the end result is the same: a healthier planet, and a healthier bank account.

I am a compulsive tightwad. People who know me believe that I worry too much about money, that I don’t spend enough on myself, and that I don’t know how to have any fun. Even Depression-era relatives think that I am too thrifty. One Christmas an aunt gave me two boxes of aluminum foil after learning that I reused the stuff. (I made one box last for two years.) And when I was first labeled "The Frugal Zealot" even I had to smile.

But it was not always this way. Before the saving fever gripped me, I had a very normal and healthy love for spending.

The change occurred seven years ago. I got married and began to pursue my dream. I had always wanted a large family and a rural pre-1900 New England farmhouse (with attached barn). I had a crazy notion that I could have both without the two income/daycare frenzy that has become the norm for the modern American family.

Our first child was born nine months (and fifteen minutes) after the ceremony. I set aside my career in graphic design to be a Mom. It was during this time that I discovered daytime talk shows and first heard commonly held myths expounded by intelligent audience members.

"Nowadays, a family has to have two incomes to make ends meet."

"Nowadays, it is impossible for a young couple to get into the housing market."

"Nowadays, families cannot afford to raise more than two children."

As if the message could magically be shot back through the television tube, I raised my fist and shouted, "It is not true, it can be done!" And so began my quest to prove that it could be done – that it was still possible to raise a large family and buy a house without two full-time incomes.

Saving money, rather than earning money, became the means to my goal. I became a reuser first of aluminum foil, then of ziplock bags, and now, I publicly confess, I have become a reuser of vacuum cleaner bags. (No Christmas presents please.)

My challenge in life became how low I could get our food budget and still have a varied, healthful diet, or how wonderful I could make a child’s birthday with a $25 budget, or how many years I could go without buying wrapping paper.

I made it my personal mission to create ways to reuse plastic milk jugs, bread tabs, brown paper bags, egg cartons and those frozen juice lids.

To fine tune our spending, I became a student of thrift. I routinely calculated such things as the cost of drying a load of laundry, or the cost savings in cloth diapers, or the cost difference of making food from scratch versus buying convenience foods.

When Oprah had a show featuring cheapskates, I didn’t laugh. I took notes.

Although I was the chief architect of our family economic plan, my husband became a willing convert. In addition he taught me the ways of scrounging and organized packratting. (A level beyond cheap is to get things for free.)

It worked.

This year we realized our dream. Our family (with four children) moved into our rural pre-1900 New England farmhouse (with attached barn).

Were we too thrifty?

When we got married our joint financial assets barely paid for the budget wedding. We owned almost nothing. In other words, we started from ZERO.

Over the years our average income has been less than $30,000 (including my husband’s Navy salary and all allowances, plus my spotty freelance income). In less than seven years we saved $49,000, made significant investment purchases (vehicles, appliances, furniture) of $38,000, and were completely debt free! That is an annual savings/investment rate of over $12,500 per year, or 43% of our gross income.

(It is difficult to compare the finances of different families except in the military, where all things are roughly equal. Of the scores of military families we have known most lived paycheck to paycheck, moonlighted, or relied on a second income. I know of only one other family who were accomplished savers. Their annual savings/investment rate was about half ours.)

Without a down payment we would have been able to buy only a small starter home. Instead we purchased a wonderful house that exceeded our expectations, a house vastly superior to the 176 other houses we saw during a 15-month period. If we had saved a few thousand less we would not own it today.

No, we weren’t too thrifty.

Certainly the reusing of aluminum foil did not greatly contribute to our dream. Rather, it was the attention to all the thousands of ways we spent our money that made a tremendous difference.

Our success was very much a gradual learning process. We made many very big mistakes. Had we known in the beginning what we know now I am certain we could have saved several thousand more.

Thus, having proven that it could be done – that financial goals could be achieved through saving more rather than earning more – I have become a crusader for the causes of thrift and frugality. I have been guilty of preaching its virtues beyond the point when eyes glazed over. My ideas seemed to fall on the deaf ears of the financially strapped.

For years now my husband and I felt that we were loners, mavericks in the realm of personal economics. But then one day it hit me. Maybe we aren’t alone. Maybe there are others – pennypinchers horrified at the holes in the pockets of those they know and love.

Maybe they feel alone too. We need a forum for mutual support and the exchange of frugal ideas. Tightwads need to join forces! Hence the birth of my newsletter: "The Tightwad Gazette."

You can subscribe to "The Tightwad Gazette" ($12 for 12 issues) by writing directly to Amy at RR1, Box 3570, Leeds, ME 04263. Her last name is pronounced "almost like the word ‘decision.’"