Tightwad Ways Gain Acceptance As Americans Adjust to Frugal '90s

ON Mondays, Shelley Hussey walks her usual three-mile route through an affluent neighborhood just outside Atlanta. Monday is garbage day, and Mrs. Hussey is checking out the trash. She's taken home curtains, new wastebaskets, plants, and planters from her neighbor's throwaways.

Despite their upper-middle-class address, the Husseys rarely buy new clothes or eat out. They buy secondhand furniture, which they refinish themselves. They paint their own house and hang their own wallpaper.

Hussey is just one of millions of Americans taking frugality to heart. Choosing to be frugal is one of the top 10 trends of 1994, according to the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and is driven by discontented baby boomers. This market, which currently represents 3 percent to 5 percent of the 77 million boomers, will spread to more than 15 percent by decade's end, the institute predicts.

For the Husseys, a devotion to thrift has left them debt-free, despite purchasing a 3,400-square-foot home and redecorating it. The Husseys are now saving to put their two children through college.

``You have to have priorities and goals to live this type of lifestyle,'' says Hussey, who calls herself ``Fru-Gal'' when she goes on talk shows. ``It is part of me now. Even if we were millionaires, I don't know that I would change my lifestyle.''

Miser mentor

Hussey's mentor is Amy Dacyczyn, who has already profited from the rising interest in skinflint habits. Mrs. Dacyczyn's newsletter, the Tightwad Gazette, has just under 50,000 subscribers. A book compilation of her newsletters has sold about 275,000 copies, she says.

Dacyczyn (pronounced ``decision'') based the newsletter on her own experiences of reusing orange juice can lids, vacuum bags, and other household detritus. Over seven years, on an average annual income of $30,000, Dacyczyn and her husband saved $49,000, $38,000 of which went into a down payment on their $125,000 Leeds, Maine, farmhouse. They also bought two new cars and had four children.

``Frugality is fun. It is a great, great sport, a game,'' Dacyczyn says. ``It is one thing if I can sew a quilt for $5; it is another if I can sew a quilt for $1. I enjoy the thrill.''

Marc Eisenson is another frugal convert. Once an electrical contractor who wired houses and shopping centers, he considers himself fortunate to have had a midlife crisis in his twenties.

``At that point, I found [my work] unsatisfying. Not that I wasn't doing well [financially], ... but it was clear that the world didn't need another shopping center..... The only thing left for me was to make more and more money,'' Mr. Eisenson says.

He and his partner, Nancy, now live on $20,000 a year in Elizaville, N.Y. He says they could live on substantially less. They grow most of their own food, vacation when they want, and work at their own pace. From their home, they produce the Banker's Secret Bulletin, a newsletter that details debt-management techniques and frugal tips.

Stagnant wages, layoffs, and the recent recession have inspired much of the recent interest in frugality. The number of newsletters on frugality has grown from five in 1990 to just over 30 today, according to an estimate by the Tightwad Gazette.

This burst of penny-pinching may not fade with the economic recovery, either. Environmental concerns, renewed interest in religion and spirituality, the stresses of two-career families, and continued fears about the economy have driven more Americans into so-called ``voluntary simplicity.''

Easing the burden

In the national bestseller, ``Your Money or Your Life,'' authors Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, a former Wall Street financial analyst, preach that if people decrease their consumption, they will become happier and ease the planet's environmental and social burdens. They argue that consumerism has made Americans dependent on parents, jobs, unemployment insurance, credit cards, and pensions.

``We are the world's largest debtor nation,'' says Ms. Robin, who lives off the $7,000 annual interest from her long-term US Treasury bonds. ``These debts have destabilized us economically. We don't have the [financial] means as consumers for what we are consuming, and we don't have the means as a planet.''

According to Robin and Mr. Dominguez, people who follow their nine-step plan to financial freedom spend 20 percent less and report greater happiness. The plan includes determining life earnings, current net worth, net hourly wage, and tracking all expenses.

Seattle may be the mecca of the voluntary simplicity crowd. According to Janet Luhrs, editor of the Seattle-based Simple Living Journal, the city has study groups, forums, and classes at community colleges on voluntary simplicity. ``The kind of person attracted to living in Seattle didn't move here to get ahead in their careers,'' Ms. Luhrs says. ``They moved to Seattle to get away from the fast-paced life.''

Dacyczyn says finding the right mate can be the single greatest money-saving act. In a column on finding a cut-rate spouse, Dacyczyn, who met her husband through the personals, advises readers not to hesitate to declare their tightwad ways. She suggests: ``SWF seeks frugal soulmate who likes yard sales, free movies at the library, and knows 1,001 uses for duct tape.''

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