Recently, a reader sent me an e-mail in response to my Penny Pincher of the Year Contest. She called me "pathetic."
I was being chastised for recycling a birthday cake for my son after only a quarter of it had been eaten during my husband's birthday party a month earlier. (They both have the same name -- and yes, I kept the cake in the freezer -- so I figured why not.)
Frankly, folks, what's pathetic is how wasteful we Americans are.
I began highlighting penny pinchers several years ago because at least these people are trying to save -- money, energy, paper, food, whatever. There are times when such measures go too far, but if more of us were less wasteful perhaps we wouldn't have landfills near capacity. Perhaps we would have more money for things that carry long-term value.
Here in America we eat out at restaurants that serve portions that are too large and then leave perfectly good food on our plates to be tossed out.
We throw away things that with a little repairing could easily be given away to someone who could use them.
We think nothing of grabbing too much of anything and tossing the unopened or unused items in the trash.
We tease people like Cynthia Hedgepeth of Fort Washington, who wrote that she cuts open bottles and tubes of everything from hair pomade to toothpaste to lotions in an effort to use every last drop of the products. Good for her.
I'm not a perfect penny pincher. I'm more wasteful than I should be. But my mission in life is to champion frugality -- it's good for the environment and your bank account. As a matter of fact, here are some leftover (hee-hee) penny-pinching contest entries that may inspire you to waste less:
* Suzi Lockett of Kansas City, Mo., had a number of money-saving strategies. For example, try her recipe for "Garbage Soup." "I keep a container in the freezer and add to it any juices drained from canned vegetables and leftover vegetables or the roast and gravy from serving dishes," Lockett wrote. "Once this container is full, I merely throw the contents into a soup pot with a bit of water and let it simmer and cook. Sometimes I add extra meat or beans if the pot seems skimpy. This usually yields a whole week's worth of meals."
Here's another of Lockett's ideas that I loved. "I get lots of free address labels and will never use them all in my lifetime," she said. Lockett, a teacher, cuts the name and address part off, then uses the decorated parts of the labels for art projects, or places them on the papers of students who have done a good job.
* Need to grease a pan? Yi-Fun Hsueh of Chevy Chase has an idea. "After I cook bacon in the microwave between two sheets of paper towel, I store these greasy, lard-soaked paper towels in a Ziploc bag in the freezer. Whenever I need to oil a skillet for cooking or for seasoning a cast-iron pan, I remove a sheet from the freezer and wipe the inside of the warmed pan."
* Sandy DeSmedt of Boonton, N.J., found a way to avoid spending money on the fillers for the pinatas she makes for her kids' birthday parties. "Throughout the year, I collect unwanted party favors, plastic animals and other small toys. In this manner, we reuse all these little toys that would otherwise end up in a landfill, and avoid having to spend money on buying new party favors."
* Mike and Karen Cunningham of Kansas City, Mo., save on water and plastic. "My wife and I like to have bottled water -- for example, when we are going in the car. However, we buy one case and refill the bottles from the filtered water dispenser on our refrigerator."
* And here's a recycling champ. "When my 23-year-old refrigerator died I couldn't throw out the vegetable, meat bins and the shelves on the door," Linda Johnson of Overland Park, Kans., wrote. "I used the bins to hold boots, and the other two were used as drawers under the sink in the kitchen. I hung the door shelves in the garage to hold my husband's car-wash supplies and other car things."
Want an outside perspective on American habits? Here's a note I received from an engineer from India, who came to the United States five years ago for postgraduate studies.
"I was amazed and dismayed to see the wastage of perfectly good resources that goes on daily," he wrote. "Mindless printing. Lights left on 24/7 and the food that is wasted. . . . All this cannot be blamed on individuals. This is a systemic failure in educating people in this rich country. Frugal habits are not inculcated in the children; I dare say frowned upon."
Frowned upon? Some people call you names.
Join Michelle Singletary today at 6:40 p.m. on "Insight" with Stephanie Gaines-Bryant on WHUR, 96.3 FM. She will be discussing this penny-pinching column. Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or send e-mail to email@example.com. Comments and questions are welcome, but please note that they may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.