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.