Friday, December 30, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment 12/30/11

Remember the nineties?  That glorious time of a shit economy and nothing to do but hang out with your friends and bitterly criticize the baby boomers who were hogging all the jobs and why couldn't they just die already?  The nineties live on in today's assignment, The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn.  I chose it because it's the time of year when people contemplate making a fresh start, and the Christmas credit card bills are arriving and we are just becoming dimly aware that soon we will have to pay taxes again.

The general vibe in the early nineties was one of tightening belts, of making do, of going without.  People were concerned about the environment, but the emphasis then was on using less, not on consuming more as it is now.   (If your cruelty-free sunscreen comes in a plastic bottle, it's not exactly eco-friendly. Sorry.)

One cold winter day in 1993 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Jon was in grad school for comparative religion(!) I was watching Phil Donohue.  The guest was Amy Dacyczyn, sharing her tips for frugal living.  Phil's mouth-breathing audience was giving her a hard time.  They could scarcely believe the deprived environment she had created for her children in which they were never taken to McDonald's and wore clothes she bought at yard sales.  When she described how she used a cheese grater to scrape the burned layer off of cookies the audience all but stoned her.  I admired how Amy handled their horror with aplomb.  A cookie is a cookie, motherfuckers.  This was a woman I could learn from and I immediately bought her book which is really a compliation of issues of the frugal newsletter she published from her house in Maine.

My pressing concern at that time was how on earth we would afford two babies in diapers.  I had a diaper service for Ian, but diaper service for two was beyond our budget.  Amy Dacyczyn has six children, so there is a LOT of information about diapers in The Tightwad Gazette.  When I read that the Tightwad solution to diapers was to wash them yourself, I realized my diaper problem was solved. It had never occurred to me that I could wash diapers myself.  We didn't own a washing machine, but if Amy could take her kids' diapers to the laundromat, (which she did) then so could I.   (This was, by the way, long before the advent of trendy super-expensive cloth diapers.)

Diapers aside, the driving force behind The Tightwad Gazette was Dacyczyn's refusal to conform to the notion that it is impossible to raise a family on one income.  Not only did the Dacyczyn family want to raise their family on one income, they wanted a large family and they wanted to buy a farmhouse with attached barn in Maine.  They were successful because they made such a stellar effort to spend less and save more. Furthermore, their lifestyle seemed fun, not deprived.

I'm no stranger to thrift--my parents were thrifty and drilled their habits into my head, but there's always more to learn. From The Tightwad Gazette I  picked up a  mindset that allows me to creatively come up with my own money-saving ideas.  For example, I wondered if I could set my dishwasher to do a "top rack" wash with dishes in the bottom rack.  I discovered that dishes on the bottom rack WILL get clean during a top-rack only wash, as long as you load it lightly.  The top rack wash cycle runs for 38 minutes and uses less water than the regular cycle, which runs for over 70 minutes.

But you're saying, "Patience, I have money to BURN.  I don't need to read about washing and reusing zip lock bags."  That's fine, but what sets The Tightwad Gazette apart from other frugal lifestyle books is that it's so entertaining, particularly the letters from readers.  Nothing beats  a New England yankee for parsimony and most of the letters come from New Englanders.  There's also the environmental factor, since a frugal lifestyle is kind to the environment and here you will find a wealth of information on reducing your footprint and none of it involves buying expensive organic products.

When our economy turned sour in 2008, I hoped that there'd be a silver lining:  that people would return to thrift and decreased consumption, but that doesn't seem to be the case.  Or maybe I've become so affluent I've lost touch. I no longer need to make homemade baby wipes out of paper towels and baby shampoo, but I reread The Tightwad Gazette every so often to give myself a reality check. I think it's time.


  1. When I was editing and writing stories for lifestyles pages, we sometimes wrote features on frugal people/frugal habits, and I grew skeptical of some claims of local extreme savers. For example we did one story on a local military family that had a huge family -- something like 10 kids in the days when everyone seemed to be having 2. How do you feed so many when only one parent works? Coupons, I was told. Well, I was later informed that there was a place where only some could shop that would give you credit for coupons whether you bought the items or not -- as long as they carried the items.
    Following another story about a self-touting saving family, we were told that on twice a year curbside pick-ups of old items, the family came from 30 miles away with trucks to scarf up items that they then sold in yard sales all year.
    Quite the family business and a good way to recycle but did they report their yard sale profits to the IRS?
    Frugality and cutting corners at all costs -- including ethics.
    While I think I like the direction/inspiration of frugal living, I think some of it is as gimmicky as anything else.

  2. I agree that some frugal practices are inethical or gimmicky, but The Tightwad Gazette does discuss ethics and it seems that this family did keep it honest.

  3. I do reuse ziploc bags, but only if they've had dry stuff in them. Usually. But I live in a very eco-friendly "no-waste" kind of community, so there's a lot of guilt around using paper towels at home or paper supplies at school or birthday parties. I often end up eating with my hands at the school potlucks because I forgot to bring plates, cups, utensils for our family. Aargh. Would it kill us (the earth) to use a goddamn Dixie plate every once in a while?! Haha.

  4. I had a whole "poor, frugal, and bitter" type comment typed and deleted it. Because who doesn't want to sound bitter and cheap?

    I read and loved all the Tightwad Gazette (I think I even borrowed it from you!) and continue to read a lot of frugality-themed blogs.

    Barbara, I often have a sneaking suspicion that things I give away on Freecycle end up getting sold on Ebay.

  5. Some good points in your post Patience_Crabstick.
    I've never heard of the Tightwad Gazette, but I'll look out for it. I think Scots could give a Yankee a run for their money when it comes to parsimony.
    We always used cloth diapers, and washed them (shared job between my Beloved and me)

    We survived on one income for about 3 years, but it wasn't that pleasant, always havng to put savings first before comfort.

    A balanced lifestyle seems more appropriate to me, not to be wasteful or extravagant, but still enjoy the little comforts made possible by modern technology.

    Gave a Good New Year.

  6. We became fans of Amy about the same time - she was really helpful during those early years of childrearing! And I agree, her writing style was delightful. Remember "Chalk is Cheap"?

    I also liked her emphasis on saving your money so that you can spend it on what is important to you, instead of frittering it away.

  7. I can't wait to check this book out!

  8. I read this book back in the nineties when I was starting my family. It was very entertaining, though I am nowhere near as frugal as she was. My husband and I did manage to raise four kids on one salary, so I must have learned something.

  9. We've read all of Amy's books and have The Complete Tightwad Gazette on our personal library shelf (I say library because that is what we call it). And yes, we washed diapers.
    Four kids, one salary, and my husband retired at 48 years of age. Clearly, we read the book!