THE last thing you will find in Amy Dacyczyn's pantry is a pre-packaged, microwavable, single-size serving of chili.
"I've researched it myself," she says, and it's "17 times more expensive than making it from scratch." The author of "The Tightwad Gazette" (Villard Books, $9.99) has frugality down to a science - from the most efficient method of making hot cocoa to uses for plastic milk-jug rings.
When Amy and Jim Dacyczyn (sounds like "decision") were married 11 years ago, they had $1,500 and an old pickup truck. After a frugal wedding complete with (what else?) a potluck reception, Mrs. Dacyczyn reevaluated her free-spending lifestyle.
She learned to calculate the price of a single egg, cut hair at home, and renovate lunch boxes.
Today, the Dacyczyns have six children, a $125,000 farmhouse in Maine (bought on an average annual income of less than $30,000), and 80,000 subscribers to her newsletter (also called "The Tightwad Gazette").
"The Tightwad Gazette" book is a penny-pincher's encyclopedia, a collection of research and experimentation as well as contributions from readers. And while finding uses for frozen-juice-can lids and trash-picking as a form of recreation may evoke protests, Dacyczyn defends her ideas. "If you're working for a goal," she says, "and you don't have enough resources to get there as quickly as you want, then you really can't be too extreme."
Although it is easy to poke fun at someone who still gets excited about saving $1 more on her admirably low food bill ($40 a week for eight), Dacyczyn explains in an interview here that "this was a way that I could basically live ... the quality of life that I wanted without ... being a two-income family."
Her six children, ranging in age from nine years to 18 months, have not resisted the frugal lifestyle - much. Family entertainment is more likely to be games invented by Mom than a trip to the movies.
While seven-year-old Jamie once sulked about second-hand toys, she now boasts about her enormous "My Little Pony" collection bought at yard sales. Her older brother saved money earned by doing chores to purchase a used compound bow for $20 ($70 new). "[It's] a really important way to empower your children," Dacyczyn says.
She speculates that, for most people, a lot of money and energy are misdirected. "That is the essence of it all - to really be extremely precise about what it is that you need to be happy, and focus your energies.... That's what people are doing wrong. Their effort is going into acquiring things that don't bring a lot of value into their lives."
BUT don't expect suddenly to accumulate extra thousands simply by giving up fast-food burgers and reusing plastic bags. "You have to gain an overall sense of how much is coming in, how much is going out, and it's a very, very mathematical, businesslike process," she says. Dacyczyn tells new tightwads not to be discouraged if they can't conform to all her tips. "Frugality is the efficient management of all your basic resources," which are, according to Dacyczyn, money, time, space, and personal energy.
With the success of "The Tightwad Gazette" newsletter, the Dacyczyns hardly need to live frugally: "We're probably financially independent," she says.
So why do they keep doing it? Dacyczyn jokes that with her now-national reputation, she "can't ever do a TV appearance without wondering if somebody's going to ask me what I'm wearing - where I bought it from!" But she is quick to point out that frugality is also environmentally sound.
Although one might call her quirky (she still stockpiles peanut butter by the case when there's a sale), the extra dollars have not made a miser of this zealot. Dacyczyn refuses to spend money on things that don't provide her with a sense of value. "If I have basically satisfied all my needs with my money ... it's logical that everything else I could be spending my money on must be something I value less." She would rather help out her grandmother, or people in her community, than buy less-than-essential
gadgets and convenience foods.
"We all need to buy less, work less, and enjoy our lives a lot more," she concludes.