WHILE politicians in Washington cast about for ways to corral the federal budget, Amy Dacyczyn and the 43,000 readers of her ``Tightwad Gazette'' newsletter are perfecting the art of taming their family budgets.
It has been almost five years since Mrs. Dacyczyn (pronounced ``decision'') tagged herself ``the frugal zealot'' and began sharing her knack for pinching pennies. ``The Tightwad Gazette II,'' her second book-length compilation of tips for keeping the ``micro'' end of the economy in balance, was just published by Villard.
A promotional tour brought her to Boston from rural Leeds, Maine, where she lives with husband Jim and their six children. As she seeks new ways to save money and ponders readers' questions, it becomes more difficult to fill her pages with short, straightforward hints about domestic life, Dacyczyn says.
For example, ``Tightwad II'' has a chapter on how to economize on funerals - an area she says she never would have ventured into had she not been urged to do so by her readers. Another chapter examines negotiating as a useful skill for deal-seeking tightwads.
Other equally complicated topics lie ahead. One that Dacyczyn views with some trepidation is financing a college education. But her predominantly middle-income readers - most of whom have families - have the subject much on their minds.
Still, tip lists for cheaper living always have plenty of room for the refreshingly mundane. Dacyczyn's book also has such reader-contributed gems as lemonade from lemon-juice concentrate and quick tomato soup from a can of tomato paste. Or how about making a new jar of pickles by slicing cucumbers into the juice remaining when an old jar is used up?
Food, in fact, will always be a preoccupation for the ``frugal zealot'' because it's one of three or four discretionary areas where families can make big reductions in spending. Other areas, in Dacyczyn's view, include clothing (her family is outfitted in almost 100 percent used clothing), entertainment (``entirely a matter of choice''), and gift-giving (often people are just guessing at what a friend or relative would like).
``Most families spend many times what they need to on food,'' she says, warming to the subject. Her own family has a well-worked-out strategy that includes a big garden, shopping at a variety of stores to take advantage of bargains, bulk buying of things like potatoes and grains, and the near-total avoidance of ``convenience foods.'' The latter category, for Dacyczyn, extends even to boxed cold cereals.
Her children eat low-cost breakfasts of bulk-bought oatmeal, home-baked muffins, even rice. The nutrition is just as good, according to Dacyczyn, and the meals average something like 4 cents a serving versus 40 cents for many expensive cold cereals.
The key to good food budgeting, she says, is the size of the average food bill, not the savings on any given item. That's why she's skeptical about the extensive use of coupons. Could the item being bought with a coupon - canned beans, say, - be made at home at lower cost? she asks. She's not opposed to coupons, mind you. ``They're a useful tool, but only one of about 20 things you can do,'' she says.
``Eat seasonally,'' she asserts. When things are in season, or at a good price, buy them. She believes in the ``pantry principle'': Shop to replenish the pantry, not to buy the food you're going to eat that week. The goal is ``always to be eating from foods bought at the lowest possible prices.''
The Dacyczyns don't eat a lot of meat, since their rule of thumb for buying it is not to spend more than $1.20 a pound for boneless or more than 69 cents a pound for bone-in cuts. And they're likely to stretch a single pound of ground beef into a meal for all eight of them through casseroles or other creative cooking.
The kinds of frugality measures Dacyczyn recommends require a level of planning that may be foreign to harried families, she admits. ``A lot of what I tell people to do is really for people who are willing to get up and do things,'' she says.
Letters from appreciative readers persuade her that big changes in spending habits are possible. It's all a matter of making tough decisions and acting on them - whether at home or in Congress.