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Penny Pinching Your Way to Prosperity

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, May 14, 2006

There is a Chinese proverb that says: "Diligence is the basis of wealth, and thrift the source of riches."

I was born to be thrifty. It's in my genetic code. I can't pass a penny without picking it up. I find it amusing that some people are so superstitious that they think it's bad luck to pick up a penny if it's showing tails.

Me, I pick it up if it's heads, tails or spinning into traffic (well, if the light is red). I rather like this little ditty: "Find a penny, pick it up; all day long you'll have good luck." It doesn't say anything about heads or tails.

I'm an ambassador for the penny pinchers of this world because I know that watching every penny is the surest path to prosperity.

That's why I started the Penny Pincher of the Year contest. To enter, all you have to do is nominate someone with an original penny-pinching strategy -- a friend, a relative, co-worker, even yourself.

I also hold this contest in honor of my grandmother, Big Mama. She was my role model for frugality.

I watched Big Mama pinch pennies all the time she was raising me. She once had to count out pennies to pay her telephone bill. She had to that month because my grandfather, who was a sweet and quiet man, had a problem with alcohol. That meant he sometimes didn't bring his entire paycheck home.

Big Mama paid that telephone bill in full and on time with the pennies she had been saving.

The rules of this contest are simple. Don't make anything up. (I can usually tell.) Don't be gross. (I don't want to hear that you bathe in someone else's bath water. That's just nasty.)

I'm looking for cheapskates, not cheats. For example, taking enough packets of condiments from a restaurant or a fast-food establishment to fill a jar isn't penny pinching, it is stealing.

I'm interested in creative entries. I've heard before about mashing soap together to save the last tiny sliver or turning two-ply toilet paper into one-ply.

I want to profile penny pinchers, not misers. There is a difference between being miserly and being frugal. A miser is stingy.

A miser is someone who wouldn't spare a dime for his brother or anybody else in need. I know plenty of penny pinchers who are extremely generous. They just hate wasting money on stuff that doesn't matter.

I hate spending on things that don't last long, such as children's clothes. I dress my children nicely, but occasionally they wear high-water pants.

In fact, a good friend of mine can't stop laughing at the time I sent a pair of pants to school for my son as a back-up in case he had an accident. The pants were a little short.

"That's just wrong," said Carleta, who also happened to be my son's preschool teacher.

I logically pointed out: "Why should I send a good pair of pants to school that will sit in a cardboard box for weeks until he needs it?"

I mean, the boy didn't have that many pairs of good pants. Then one day, he had to wear the high-water pants because he had an accident during nap time. Okay, he did look a bit like Li'l Abner.

But my son, who was about 4 at the time, was too young to care, and neither did his playmates. He happily played in those clothes until I picked him up from school. My son is 8 now and doesn't remember a thing about the incident.

Here's a note I got from a reader recently about penny pinchers: "My boyfriend definitely fits this category. When we eat out for dinner (a rare treat), we will order a single meal and ask for two plates so we can split the meal. This works especially well if you're traveling and don't have access to a fridge, as there are no leftovers (and no over-eating)."

I love it. They save money and calories.

So what's your penny-pinching story? Humor will score big. Or enter and let others share in your frustration with a frugal friend. There will be cash prizes for winners.

Edited versions of entries may be published whether you win or not. Send your entries by June 16 to colorofmoney@washpost.com . Please put "2006 Penny Pincher of the Year Contest" in the subject line. Please include your address and daytime and evening phone numbers. You can also mail entries to Michelle Singletary, Color of Money, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please put on the front of the envelope "Penny Pincher of the Year Contest."

Since I began with a Chinese proverb, I thought I might end with one: "The spendthrift rich never have enough, but the thrifty poor always have a little put by."

· On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online athttp://www.npr.org.

· By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

· By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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