Before I announce the winners of the 2005 Penny Pincher of the Year contest, I want to address one disturbing note I received from a reader.

He wrote: "Cheapskate is a 100 percent, no question negative term. I can no longer stand, for example, going out to dinner with certain co-workers who are downright cheap. When the bill comes, they start to add it up: 'I didn't have an appetizer, my entree was only. . . .' It's ugly to be a cheapskate."

I'll concede the word "cheap" is negative, so perhaps I should stop calling myself a cheapskate. However, it's not ugly to be frugal.

What's ugly is declaring "I hate cheap people" or becoming hostile because someone wants to pay only their fair share of a restaurant bill.

Why shouldn't you pay for what you ate? Didn't you come prepared to pay for your meal? Besides, most restaurants can divide the dinner bill with little fuss.

I get into this dispute on occasion with some family and friends, typically those who have ordered an appetizer, high-priced entree or an alcoholic drink. I find it interesting that these folks have no problem in insisting that I split the bill and thus subsidize their tab. Then they snidely call me cheap if I refuse.

To you bill splitters, you may think, What's the big deal, it's just $10 or whatever. But to a penny pincher, that money is better put to use for something they need or want -- not to pay for your liquor or Buffalo wings.

I'm frugal because I have three children I want to send to college. I'm frugal because I know what it's like to be hungry and I never want to feel those pains again. I've seen what a lack of savings in good times can do to a family in harder times.

Having said that, perhaps we penny pinchers do need to be less conspicuous about our cheapness -- oops, I mean frugality. At times we can be irritating.

I was reminded of this during a recent online discussion with Mary Hunt, author of "Everyday Cheapskate's Greatest Tips," this month's Color of Money Book Club selection.

"Always be a fragrance, never become an odor," Hunt said during the online chat. "If the things you do to save money embarrass [people], do them when they're not around. Stay gracious and you'll win them over eventually. Remember, you'll be the one with the money."

That's certainly a tip worth saving.

And now for the winning penny pinchers of the year:

* Honorable mention, Ed LaClare of South Riding, Va. LaClare won for surviving his penny pincher endeavor. He nearly choked trying to suck out the last drop of toothpaste. No amount of water would dislodge the glob of paste. "I went to bed with toothpaste still in the back of my throat," he said. "It was not until midway through the next day that my throat felt free of toothpaste." LaClare wins $25, which I hope he'll use to buy a big supply of toothpaste.

* Third place, Phyllis Robbins of Framingham, Mass. She redefines "wash and wear." "I wash my underwear and jeans by throwing them into the shower. This is a real money-saver and time saver." Robbins wins $50.

* Second place, Gayle Tweeton Parsons of Springfield, Va., who nominated her former manager at the Internal Revenue Service, now retired. "My manager had a reputation for being frugal, which I admired, being frugal myself. But this time, he outdid himself," said Parsons, who is also retired. "His daughter had helped decorate a school homecoming float, inserting thousands of paper towels in the wire to create a beautiful float. After the parade, my manager had the kids park the float in his driveway, where he meticulously removed all the paper towels from the float, folded them neatly and stacked them in his basement to serve as his lifetime supply of paper towels. Clever, cheap, environmentally friendly, all rolled into one." Parsons and her former manager each win $75.

* Finally, first place goes to Dale Stewart of Kihei, Hawaii. Stewart traveled a great distance to save money. During a visit to Washington, D.C., one of her sons had a drink in a container that had "HI 5" printed on it, the five-cent redemption stamp for cans and bottles in Hawaii.

"There we were in D.C. with a bottle worth 5 cents in Hawaii, but zero in Washington," she wrote.

Stewart did what any penny pincher would do. "I washed it out and packed it in our suitcase," she said.

Since January, when the bottle recycling law went into effect in Hawaii, Stewart has redeemed about $70 worth of cans and bottles. And all the money has been donated to charity.

Stewart wins $100 for her frugal efforts to save money and to share her wealth with others.

Thanks to all who entered this year's contest. There were so many stories worth mentioning. So many and so good, in fact, that I'll be occasionally posting penny-pinching entries in my weekly online newsletter, which can be found at www.washingtonpost.com.

* On the air: Michelle Singletary will discuss personal finance at 6:40 p.m. tomorrow on "Insight" with Yakenda McGahee on WHUR, 96.3 FM.

* 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.

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.