Wednesday, April 29, 2009

In the early 1990s, a woman named Amy Dacyczyn started producing a newsletter called The Tightwad Gazette. I never saw the actual newsletter, but the content was published in a series of books, including one that collects all of the newsletter and book content together in a single volume called The Complete Tightwad Gazette, which is what I have.

There are a million and a half books on saving money and living on less, and twice that number of blogs, and most of them are not worth reading. The Tightwad Gazette is the rare exception, and you’ll see references to it sprinkled throughout my posts.

Amy Dacyczyn was (and I hope still is, I’ve looked a little to see if I could find anything current about her but didn’t come up with anything [ED NOTE: it was probably a year or more ago that I looked for info on her, and there have been some nice updates recently, see the comments section for links to some good articles] a great, smart, funny person, as well as a very good writer and a talented graphic artist. She was doing something she cared about, and you could tell—she made her newsletter fun, interesting, and funny. She also knew when to pull the plug; when she started to feel like she was saying the same thing over and over, she stopped production and went back to her kids and her house. (And the gazillion dollars she made telling people how to be frugal, no small irony there.)

Amy Dacyczyn is definitely a Less Is Enough hero.

The Complete Tightwad Gazette includes an essay about “Active and Passive Tightwaddery” that I like and that I’d like to discuss briefly.

Dacyczyn characterizes “active tightwaddery” as doing things like “patching pants, baking bread, hanging laundry, and rebuilding car engines.” As she says, “It all sounds like so much hard work.”

She goes on to explain

But most of frugality is about the passive stuff — it’s not what we do, it’s what we don’t do.

This idea is surprisingly difficult to get across. When photographers from the media come here, they want to take pictures of active frugality. After the first couple of shoots, we ran out of new examples of active frugality with sufficient ‘visual interest’ to show them. As a result, I’ve hung laundry on my attic clothesline for a dozen photographers.

But it always bothered me to do this, because I was afraid I was actually scaring people away from frugality—making it seem like it took tons of time and effort.

Instead we suggested they shoot what we don’t do. We told them they could set up the video camera across the street from McDonald’s, and we’d pile the kids into our Chevy Suburban and zzzooommm by. Or we could go to the supermarket, and they could position their cameras looking down the potato-chip aisle and capture that split second as we bypassed it.

The photographers looked at us like we’d been eating too many bread-crumb cookies and sent us back to the attic to hang our laundry.


I’m fully on board with Passive Tightwaddery, and I think Active Tightwaddery has its place. There’s also a form of tightwaddery that I’ve come to think of as Hyperactive Tightwaddery that is not talked about in the arcticle but that I’d like to mention.

Passive Tightwaddery is my first choice of money-saving strategy because it works by not doing things—not eating out, not constantly upgrading gadgets, not taking exotic vacations. This generally has the added bonus of making your life easier on a day-to-day basis. Less is enough.

Active Tightwaddery is great if there are things that you enjoy doing that allow you to spend less or save more. Gardening, refinishing furniture, and doing home repair and home improvement projects are great examples of activities that many people like to do that can save substantial sums of money. Activities like these also have an added bonus, which is that if you’re spending a lot of time and energy painting your house or canning vegetables, you probably don’t have time for other things that cost money—things like recreational shopping, expensive hobbies, or elaborate vacations. It’s a double-whammy win.

That being said, if you take on activities that you don’t really enjoy in an effort to save money, you’ll end up cranky and frustrated and you’ll feel like the time you spent wasn’t worth the money you saved (it won’t be). You’ll quickly return to a more convenient, more expensive lifestyle. So I see active tightwaddery as something that needs to be employed judiciously.

Hyperactive Tightwaddery is the contemporary American spin on the whole thing, focusing on activities like using coupons and other discount offers from stores to “save” hundreds of dollars on every shopping trip by combining manufacturer’s coupons with store discounts and other buying incentives. (There are also things like “credit card arbitrage” that I’m not even going to talk about because I think they’re insane.)

I’m sure this is a great strategy if you go through large volumes of consumer products on a regular basis (for instance if you have a large family … or a small but high-volume one) and/or if you’re happy to spend your life surrounded by large volumes of consumer products.

Otherwise, I think it’s not a great approach, because it keeps you firmly wedded to the consumer treadmill.

The game you’re playing has been set up by the manufacturers of the products you’re buying and the stores you’re shopping at. They’re in charge of making the the rules, so the game is obviously going to be tilted in their favor—if they didn’t come out ahead in one way or another, they wouldn’t be doing it. This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever come out ahead, it just means that the odds are against you, and you need to be organized and strategic in how you go about it.

There are so many things I’d rather spend my time doing than figuring out how to save money using coupons that I can’t even begin to count them. So I have not participated at all in this type of activity in the past, and have no plans to do so in the future.

I had an interview with a consumer reporter from ABC-11 yesterday and she asked if I used coupons on my project, which is a question I get often. I said I hadn’t, because I don’t use coupons normally so I don’t know what the best way to use them is. Also I tend to buy very basic foods—small quantities of meat from the butcher counter, fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, pasta and grains. That’s what I bought on the project, and my impression is that most coupons are not for things like that, but for processed foods, and also my impression is that often the discount comes when you buy multiple items or spend more than a certain amount of money. This definitely wouldn’t have worked with only a dollar to spend, and also getting a large volume of a single item wouldn’t have worked all that well for me since I was trying to use up everything I bought by the end.

I asked the reporter if she had talked much with coupon people and she said yes, her station does stories all the time. I asked if she thought they really saved money, and while she was thinking, the cameraman said, “No. They don’t.”

She was somewhat more positive and said she thinks people can figure out how to make it work—for instance people with large families, or those involved with their church who are able to donate items to shelters and others in need. But she said when you see things like eight bottles of Tabasco sauce in someone’s cupboard, you have to wonder how they’re ever going to get through all of that.

Icing on the Cake

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I’m not doing a particularly good job of keeping track of which things I’ve written about in response to a comment and which were a post, so at the risk of repeating myself, I’m going to mention the More-With-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre.

The book was originally commissioned by the Mennonite Central Committee in the early 1970s as a response to global food shortages and related geopolitical issues. According to the book’s preface,

…MCC has asked each constituent household to look at its lifestyle, particularly food habits. Noting the relationship between North American overconsumption and world need, a goal has ben set to eat and spend 10 percent less.

In Mennonite communities across North America, people are responding with a kind of holy frustration. “We want to use less,” they say. “How do we begin? How do we maintain motivation in our affluent society? How do we help each other?” From questions like these the idea of compiling a cookbook was born.

The book was re-issued in 2000 as a 25th Anniversary Edition, which is the version I have.

If you’re opposed to overtly Christian messages, you’ll probably want to skip the intro sections, and you might want to skip the book altogether.

As I mentioned, I’ve been doing some research in preparation for my next project, and as part of that, I decided to take another look at the introductory sections of More-with-Less, which I had glanced at when I first got the book but hadn’t spent much time with. Some of it is a bit dated, but still has some useful stuff. And I also ran across the following, which I thought was interesting:

Here is an example of how rising affluence over the years changes our kitchen habits. My grandmother iced cakes only for birthdays. My mother iced most of her cakes, but thinly and only between the layers and on top — not on the sides. Until recently, I stirred up an ample bowlful of frosting that covered everything and left plenty of finger-lickin’s.

The Mennonites have a big missionary program, so many of the recipes are based on food from other cultures, where meat is a much smaller part of the diet. Also most of the recipes are quite flexible, almost suggestions more than recipes, with a variety of options depending on what’s in season or what’s cheap.

I frequently use the book for ideas, but I don’t necessarily follow the recipes exactly. And it seems like that’s actually how it was designed to be used. I don’t know how someone without much experience would do with it, if it would be overwhelming or if it would still be useful. But for experienced cooks, it’s a good resource.

I started thinking of it as the Something-from-Nothing Cookbook after finding a few things when cleaning out the freezer and debating whether to keep them or toss them and I decided to look in More-with-Less to see if there were any ideas. I found a recipe for chicken-cheese casserole that looked pretty good, and ended up getting 3 or 4 really good meals out of this tiny amount of food that hardly seemed worth saving. It was like the loaves and fishes, I swear.

So if any of you run across any leftover turkey or mushrooms in your freezer that hardly seem worth saving, here’s the recipe for Chicken Cheese Casserole. Give it a shot. (And feel free to adjust proportions based on what you have available and how much you need.)

Chicken Cheese Casserole

Cook and drain according to package directions
3/4 lb noodles

Saute in a skillet
5 T margarine (or butter)
1 small onion, chopped
3 T. chopped green pepper
1/ 2 cup sliced mushrooms (optional)

5 T flour

Cook and stir until bubbly.

1-1/2 cup chicken broth
1-1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp dry mustard
salt and pepper to taste

Cook, stirring until thickened.

white sauce
cooked noodles
3 c. cooked chicken or turkey

Put in greased casserole dish and top with
2/3 cup shredded cheese
buttered bread crumbs

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Mona Sauder, Wauseion, Ohio
Marjorie Geissinger, Zionsville, Pa

Lonely, Miserable People

Sunday, April 12, 2009

I’m still working my way through the backlog that built up during my ridiculous project, but I feel like I’m making progress — one work project is mostly done, one set of tax forms is done, and the other is more or less put together. (And I’m sure that the four or five people who are still reading this site are really happy to hear that.)

I’m actively researching my next project, Fabulous Nutrition Week.

In thinking about the project, I decided that in order to have Fabulous Nutrition Week, I needed to figure out what Fabulous Nutrition is, so I came up with a list of books to work through, and started with What To Eat by Marion Nestle, which is very good and makes me want to read her other book, Food Politics, since so many of the U.S.D.A. recommendations that people like to point to when discussing the inadequacies of various diets are so heavily influenced by industry group politics.

I’ve also been thinking about writing, and was reminded of a book I re-read in 2007 called How to Do Things Right: The Revelations of a Fussy Man, by L. Rust Hills. It was written in the 1970s and reissued with some new material in 1993, which is when I bought it and read it the first time. (I bought it after reading an excerpt from the essay “How to Cut Down on Smoking and Drinking Quite So Much,” which I liked mostly for the title, but also because the excerpt was very  funny.)

One of the sections in How to Do Things Right is called “How to Retire at Forty-One” and it includes a chapter called, “Life Among the Pursuits,” wherein the author talks about how one of the key things you have to do when you retire is to figure out what you’re going to do with yourself all day. Hills writes:

Retired people almost always seem to get hung up on the idea of writing. This is perhaps inevitable, and for a number of reasons. There is superficially a good deal of resemblance between the life of the free-lance writer and the man who has retired at forty-one. They are virtually the only two kinds of men who are ever at home during the day during their middle years (except invalids), and as a consequence they share many of the same embarrassments and discomforts: worrying, for instance, what the postman thinks about them.

But a good deal of the writer’s miseries stem from frustrations about his work. Being at home all the time is to him just a sideline disadvantage, an occupational hazard. The man who retires early, on the other hand, chooses this uncomfortable way of life (being at home all the time) deliberately: it is not part of his profession, but part of his avoidance of a profession — and not really just “part” of it, but actually the whole point, purpose, and result of his quitting work in the first place. A man retiring early who adds to thse already difficult circumstances the miseries and frustrations of being a writer, or trying to be one, may seem to be straight out of his mind. But the temptations are many and great and very silky — and many poor retired souls succumb.

The sinister thing about writing is that it starts off seeming so easy and ends up being so hard.

He goes on to talk about how miserable it is being a writer, how it so much more often goes badly than goes well, and how writing not only causes misery, but is in fact born of misery.

Just who is it anyway who wants to write? Lonely, miserable people, that’s who.

Becoming a writer begins when you’re a child and aren’t chosen for games until the very end. That’s why stories about kids who aren’t chosen until the end are such cliches: it’s part of every writer’s experience. Also, lonely miserable adolescents want to write; they’re the ones, not the happy ones who are having fun from age fourteen on. It’s the ‘sensitive’ ones who want to write — and no one would ever begin to think of himself as sensitive unless he was left out and lonely. That’s what sensitive really means: unhappy. Happy people aren’t sensitive, usually; that’s what makes them such bores. And happy people don’t feel the need to write — to “express themselves” or to “communicate with others” or whatever. And especially and certainly they don’t feel the need to write in middle age all of a sudden, when they’re busy working, or should be.

He ends by describing it thus:

Writing is a lot like heroin: it may start as a pleasure, shortly becomes an addiction, ends up one hell of a big self-imposed monkey on your back. The retired man should avoid it as the plague. He has troubles enough of his own.