May 13, 2020–During my lockdown-compliant travels through my silverfish-invested bookshelves, I came across a timely trilogy from the 1990s–The Tightwad Gazette, Volumes I, II, and III.
These 300-page tomes were compilations of a popular newsletter produced by Amy Dacyczyn (pronounced like “decision”), who gained news notoriety for her dedication to pinching pennies, sometimes to ludicrous extremes.
My family will let anyone know I was a cheapskate. I wore this title proudly in those days when we were a family of six, owned one car, lived in an 840-square foot house, and I was the sole breadwinner.
There were many times when saving a few pennies here and there made the difference between having beans and franks or “beans or franks” for dinner.
So The Tightwad Gazette became my bible. You find whole chapters on dumpster diving, how to buy shoes at yard sales, and how to recycle greeting cards.
Looking back now, some of the tips seem absurd. I mean, baking homemade crackers? Making toy gliders out of Styrofoam meat trays? Patching rubber gloves? Cutting off knee-high socks to make ponytail holders?
Fold index cards in half to make Thank You cards.
Repair a frayed shoestring tip by snipping off the end and wrapping it with cellophane tape.
Dacyczyn actually described how to separate two-ply toilet paper and rewind it onto two empty cardboard tubes.
Come to think, that might be a good one for these times.
On the other hand, she shared practical advice on saving larger amounts on mortgage payments, insurance, and home improvement projects.
Shopping trips were planned out like assaults on Gettysburg. She recommended keeping a three-ring binder with descriptions and prices on all common grocery purchases, by unit cost. Her family would visit all the discount stores comparing prices on everything from soup to nutcrackers.
She also had a binder filled with details of her children’s clothing sizes. She kept measurements of their inseams and waist sizes. At her home, she stacked and labeled bins filled with yard sale clothes each child could wear up to three years ahead.
Many of you are thinking this is nuts. What about the amount of time you would need to devote to this extra work? Well, she figured that in too. The book contains charts comparing the value of time versus value of savings.
I did find tips I still use. For example, there is a simple recipe for a cleaner using ammonia, vinegar, and baking soda. During the recent shortage of posterior polishers, I revived a recipe for making your own baby wipes using a roll of paper towels cut in half, baby lotion, and essential oil (Do not use tea tree oil, according to my wife. I kinda liked it.).
Part of the fascination of reading through these books again was seeing how our society’s obsession with thrift has changed. Cheap goods means we no longer expend effort in repairing common appliances. There were tutorials on repairing a toaster. When you can buy a new one for under $10, it makes no economic sense to spend an hour trying to repair one.
Thankfully our family has reached the point where we don’t have to eat beans three times a week. The kids still mock my creativity in mixing various meats and vegetables with mac and cheese to stretch it around the table. Now we probably eat out more than we eat in, which was Amy Dacyczyn’s biggest DON’T in trying to cut the food bill.
But reading through the book now, I realize it was not just about saving money. She frequently points out the joy and shared learning of having the family sit down together to work on projects–to handcraft greeting cards, or to cut up a whole chicken, or to plant and harvest a garden.
It wasn’t all about pinching pennies. It was about creating value.