The Frugal Road to Family Values

By Jura Koncius
The Washington Post
Thursday, September 24, 1992

LEEDS, MAINE -- The letter arrived in a grubby, previously used envelope addressed to "Mrs. Cheapskate, Somewhere in Maine, 04263."

Without a second thought, postmaster Glenice Pulsifer placed it in the pile of mail for Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad Gazette. By the time the late summer sun had set on this bucolic town in southern Maine, the letter, in its worn and recycled envelope, would be joined by several hundred more. It's been that way each day for much of the year.

The tiny Leeds post office, located in back of the Texaco station at the epicenter of this rural hamlet of 1,669 people, is the link between Dacyczyn, her home-grown creed of household thrift and her increasingly enriched followers of the new austerity. Two years after its debut, 80,000 devotees subscribe to her monthly newsletter, whose very personal holistic philosophy extols the virtue of care in spending. The Tightwad Gazette has touched a parsimonious nerve in recession-beaten, consumption-bloated Americans. Dacyczyn, a k a Mrs. Cheapskate, is a woman whose time has come.

Dacyczyn (pronounced Decision) is a savvy wife and mother of six young children, who is busy giving real-life meaning to the concept of family values. Her message: If you can't earn more, squeeze more out of what you have -- and take pleasure in doing it. Thrift, she believes, is a viable alternative lifestyle. She's not the only one. Closet cheapskates are coming out in droves not seen since the Great Depression, when balling string and saving foil were considered patriotic.

"Most people cannot have what they really want and what society says they should have at the same time," says Dacyczyn, whose Yankee upbringing taught her to be both tight and tough. "They have to make choices. And they don't need to conform to someone else's values on how to spend money."

Dacyczyn has a vision for America's conspicuous consumers: Stop substance abuse. Buy it cheaper; make it last longer; use it less. Do you really need to use a whole inch of toothpaste? Do the diapers have to be bleached? Must you put in two squirts of dishwashing liquid? The point is to "shift dollars from one area of your life to another." The point is, think about it. Are you moonlighting so that you can afford to buy TV dinners?

Dacyczyn believes there is something morally wrong with spending for personal gratification. "Americans are most wasteful on food, entertainment and clothing," says the woman who doesn't buy any meat that costs more than $1.50 a pound. Without clipping coupons -- she believes they are provided to lure consumers into buying lavish brand-name items -- she spends only $42 a week to feed a family of eight. Ironically, it is being so cheap that has made her rich and famous.

In the beginning, all Dacyczyn and her easygoing husband, Jim, wanted was a big New England farmhouse, a pile of kids and the time to spend with them. She's got all that now, plus an annual six-figure income and eight employees -- although she now works a 40-hour week in her newly remodeled home office. Don't think, however, that even though she has less time and more money that she doesn't continue to repair her laundry baskets with paper clips. She recently signed a book contract for a compendium of her chatty tightwad tips and garnered an advance in excess of $100,000.

So what if her kids get underwear as one of their birthday presents. So what if they never get to eat Jell-O Pudding Snacks. So what if she reuses disposable vacuum cleaner bags and gives potholders made from worn-out jeans as gifts.

Says postmaster Pulsifer, as she tosses another recycled envelope onto the pile, "A lot of local people are amazed. They think maybe it's much to do about nothing."

A couple of miles down the road from the post office, past several satellite dishes and a dozen trailers, is the wellspring of the Tightwad lifestyle. It's a stunning sunny afternoon on the edge of the Androscoggin River, an hour northwest of Portland. Her Frugalness, a tall, slim 37-year-old with one twin slung on a jean-clad hip, slams the screen door of their roomy 100-year-old farmhouse. Jim, who retired as a chief petty officer from the Navy a year ago at age 41 and now happily lists "homemaker" as his occupation, is mowing the lawn with a borrowed tractor while holding the other year-old twin on his lap. The rest of the six children, all under age 10 and dressed head to toe in previously owned clothing, are shooting arrows at a target made of recycled paper or painting rocks. All's well in the kitchen, where the zipper-close plastic bags have been rinsed out and left to dry on the dish rack. The scouring pad is safely put away in the freezer (to keep it from rusting). It's a typical morning at Sunny Shore Farm, where rarely a brand-name -- or brand new -- product crosses the threshold.

Dacyczyn, who refers to herself as FZ for the Frugal Zealot, has just gotten off the cordless phone with the office of TV talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael. And one of Ralph Nader's people has called to ask her to appear at a Washington press conference with Nader, who is promoting his own penny-pinching guidebook. (She declined.) Sunny Shore Farm may be off the beaten path -- take I-95 past the "Caution: Watch for Moose in Roadway" signs, then Route 4 and turn right at Twitchell's Hardware to Leeds -- but Dacyczyn is in the media loop. The one thing everybody wants to know these days is how to get by on less.

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© 1992 The Washington Post Company