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.

20 Responses to “Tightwaddery”

  1. […] Active and "Hyperactive" Tightwaddery I enjoyed this blog post from “Less Is Enough.” It illuminates the main reason I don’t do much couponing–I stay away from […]

  2. Sheila Says:

    Here’s a fairly current article on Amy:


    A few months ago Trent at a Simple Dollar interviewed her and wrote an entry about it on his blog.

    I’m a big Amy fan. :)

  3. Jess Says:

    Have you seen this? http://www.mlive.com/businessreview/annarbor/index.ssf/2009/03/div_classphotoright_smallpaula.html It’s from March. Also, there’s an interview that Trent Hamm at The Simple Dollar did with her last year on his blog.

  4. Wendopolis Says:

    As a mother of five and one of those large families, I don’t use coupons because as you said, they are for processed crap that I buy very little of. Coupons only work if you normally buy that kind of stuff.

  5. I love the Tightwad Gazette… I’ve been into frugal for a long time… I grew up very poor; we never had luxuries… and it has served me well.

    I NEVER use coupons either. I have no use for them. I do not need that processed crap.

  6. Steve Belancik Says:


    Here is a link to an interview with Amy Dacyczyn who is now retired but still being frugal. It’s not very long, but it’s interesting.


    Tightwad Power!


  7. Valerie Says:

    I love Amy Dacyczyn, and I agree–her stuff is definitely worth reading. I read a recent update, website of a newspaper in her area, and she looks great, and sounds like they have stuck to their frugal ways. Here is the link:


    She also shared a couple of update letters in the years after she discontinued the newsletter, and if you would like copies of those, just send me an email and I’ll pop them off to you.

    I COMPLETELY agree with your take on hyperactive frugality. I’ve dabbled with the coupon world in earlier years, and I rarely spent less in the end; at least, not enough to justify the time spent trying to pull all that together. Now I just skim the coupons in the grocery ads to see if there is anything I can truly use–usually two for one items in their loss leaders–flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk. Takes me five minutes, and sometimes I find some good deals. But that is as far as I am willing to take this any more.

    Peace, Valerie

  8. supergrover Says:

    They don’t MAKE coupons for the things that people really should be eating – all the whole foods with no brand names, like “apple,” “broccoli,” and so forth – just as they generally don’t run ads for these foods. (I started to call them “products” because that’s what you run ads for, but then realized that most whole foods aren’t “produced.”) The fact that all coupons are put out by “manufacturers” inherently means that the products have been manufactured, or processed. The coupons for “real” foods like apples consist of the weekly specials stores have. So in effect, by looking around for the best price and buying things that were on special, you did shop with the only coupons your real foods have. Your world view and orientation to food (and mine) are so dramatically different from the coupon cutters’ that it really requires a seismic shift in how they think about food before you can even discuss the economizing piece.

  9. lessisenough Says:

    Wow, it looks like the way to get some comments on your blog is to write about Amy Dacyczyn!

    Thanks for all the comments and the links with FZ updates. I’m glad to hear she’s still doing well. When the media started calling about my project, it actually really helped me to think about her being on the Tonight show and in Parade magazine and all the publicity she had gotten. It made what was happening in my life seem less surreal and more like a cyclical media frenzy that I just happened to end up in the middle of.

  10. anna Says:

    I recently started using coupons by purchasing them from ebay and then buying large lots of items that I use and are on sale. You can get coupons for produce, 10% off at Lowes/home depot and not have to cut them yourself. This has saved me a lot by stockpiling certain things I use. I look at the sales early Wednesday morning, then I go to ebay and put in search, coupon and the name of the item on sale. Shop for the best deal there too. I order coupons and they are here before the sale is over. That is the only way I use coupons and it works very well for me. Recently I had coupons for dole salad mix with $1.75 off on bananas if you bought two salad mixes. I also had coupons for the salad mix, $1.00 off on two. They were on sale for $1.00 ea. I got two salad mixes and $1.75 worth of banana’s for $1.00. I was able to use those two coupons on two different ocasions before they were outdated and gave the extra produce to a family I know who can use fresh produce. I purchased 60 cans each of ravioli and chili beans for .35 cents each with a sale and coupon. These are very good food storage items for a quick meal in an emergency and can be used over a years time. I also get almost free shampoo and toothpaste, just the cost of the coupons. Anna

  11. sam Says:

    I found this to be one of your most thoughtful and interesting postings yet. I want a copy of Amy’s book; and I hope you are busy writing one too!

  12. celia milton Says:

    I too, love Amy, and I truly think that keeping a smaller footprint is a key factor in living on less. It would only make sense that requiring less makes it easier to live on less, which seems a little more time efficient than trying to find and redeem coupon to reduce the pricing of things we probably don’t need to begin with…

    On the other hand, there is the quality of life issue too and quality of life requirments can be all over the place. Do we really NEED a Lexus? probably not. Would having that ‘more expensive than Dove” soap enhance our existance on a daily basis for very few pennies more a day? Maybe. It all comes down to making intentional choices and spending your money where it will impact you the most joyously.

  13. Amy B Says:

    I remember wondering, at the time Mrs.Dacyczyn was producing her newsletter, how her kids felt about their frugal lifestyle. In more recent interviews she mentions how at least one child was strongly resistant to frugality, which I found somehow reassuring. There is something to be said for the impulse to participate in fads and fashion, especially for young people. One person’s idea of a waste of money is another person’s creative joy. But, that caveat aside, Tightwad Gazette was a welcome antidote for the consumerism of the times. The Dacyczyns certainly showed you can have a richer life, including a nicer house, more security and free time, if first you practice financial discipline.

    I think its interesting, to read, though, in her middle age, the author is getting more tempted to belong to a gym and use Netflix, which just goes to show how people change with age; we seem to end up going full circle.

  14. lessisenough Says:

    Yes, it’s so true that it all comes down to quality-of-life questions. This is why I find many of the books and blogs about saving money frustrating, because they usually give lots of tips and ideas for specific actions when the real solution is to think more about what you need, and to figure out what kinds of changes you can make that will allow you to get what you really want. Most of what’s out there seems to skip that part.

    I feel like coupon-clipping is an activity that encourages people to have the exact same life for a little bit less money. It’s like the magazine Real Simple, which I think encourages people to “simplify” by spending money on things that work around the edges without actually changing anything about your life. I’m sure there a lot of people who want to do that, and that’s fine, but I feel like the only way to really make changes is to spend some time thinking about what your values are and what kind of life you want, and then think about how to make that happen. It’s really an ongoing process.

    I also feel like if you love luxury cars, and you love driving, and you can pay for a Lexus while supporting your values and achieving your other goals in life, then you should go for it. It’s not like I think that no one should ever buy a Lexus. But if you buy a Lexus that you can’t really afford to impress the neighbors, then that’s not such a good strategy and it’s probably not going to make you happy in the end.

    That’s why I feel like the trick is to really think about what you want, what you care about, and how to get it in a way that works in the context of your life — how much money you make, how much time and effort you want to spend working for that money, what your expenses are, and what your values are.

  15. Amy Says:

    I despise the magazine “Real Simple!” It’s just selling a pared down sensibility, not asking anyone to do something hard, like deciding what you can and cannot do without.

    It’s hard to swim upstream, against what the culture is telling you need to live. Now, we are in a recession, and a new herd mentality is forming, but its still a herd thought process, its not people thinking for themselves. It’s really, really hard to make an individual life.

  16. Great article. Loved Amy D. back in the day. I’ll be linking back to this.


  17. Stefanie Says:

    Your observations on “Tightwaddery” are valid. However, I do not want you to be so opposed to couponing. Through couponing I have been able to feed my family on less than $1 day or even for FREE at times. You can get coupons for meats, dairy, produce and even organics. (I received a coupon for one FREE dozen eggs in the mail yesterday.) Approximately 47% of coupons are for non-food items. Through couponing, last month I was able to donate 40 pounds of food and personal care items to local food banks and shelters. I will also be donating unused and expired coupons to overseas military families that can use them on base. So, even if you do not want to use coupons for yourself, consider using them for others.

  18. lessisenough Says:

    As I said, I think coupons can work for people, you just have to have a system for using them effectively, and for making sure you don’t end up with closetsful of extra stuff. If you have friends/family/charitable organizations that you can give stuff to and help them while also saving yourself money, and if you like doing that, then you should definitely do it.

    I generally walk or bike to the store, so I try to get as little as possible at a time, and I don’t really enjoy thinking about the best way to use coupons, so the whole concpet of couponing doesn’t really appeal to me at all. To me it feels like a huge amount of work. However I know that’s not true for everyone.

    Different strategies work for different people. I feel like using coupons and buying large quantities of items is the approach that is most commonly promoted in the media. I hoped, with my project, to highlight a different strategy that can also allow people to spend less money but that maybe people hadn’t thought of or weren’t aware of.

  19. Sheena Says:

    Another perk of stocking up on sale/coupon items is when times unexpectedly get tough. My hubby works construction and work basically cut to half coming out of the winter months when it was basically gone. We had prepared for the winter famine, but not spring. Thankfully our bills are low (except for the house payment), so we could pay our bills, but grocery shopping was a no go. Thanks to frozen and canned food I’d stocked up earlier we are still able to have good and almost as healthy meals…and a treat here and there which the kids appreciate when we can’t go get even $1.00 ice cream. :)

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