I used to throw money away all the time. It’s not because I didn’t like money or because I had an excess of cash that needed disposing of. On the contrary, I was constantly trying to get more of it into my pockets, but due to my formerly voracious consumerist lifestyle, dollar bills saw me coming and jumped into the nearest cash register for safety.
Submerged in my comfortable, spend-happy lifestyle, I didn’t realize I had a problem with penny pinching until I ran across Amy Dacyczyn and her quartet of books about saving more of what you earn.
Amy Dacyczyn is probably America’s most famous penny pincher. She started her career as a tightwad in the early 80s when she met and married Jim Dacyczyn. “It’s pronounced decision,” says Amy of her name, “as in, I made a decision to marry a guy of Ukrainian descent.” Amy had a career as a graphic designer, and Jim was enlisted in the Navy. Soon after they were wedded, children entered the picture.
Amy and Jim established ideas from the beginning as to what they wanted in their lives. The plans included a large family, Amy staying home as a full-time mom, and a large farmhouse (“with attached barn”) in a rural area. The problem was she had to quit her job to be a full-time mom.
That left the large farmhouse and family to be created on Jim’s military pay of $30,000 a year. In the mid-80s, with the economy in a recession, everyone was saying that a family could not survive on a single income. Determined, Amy set out to prove that a family could not only survive, but could thrive without sacrificing quality.
Conserving cash became her obsession. Amy researched the subject of frugality tirelessly. She learned to calculate her families’ costs down to the tenth of a penny. Amy, who later became known as The Frugal Zealot, transformed herself into an expert shopper that went beyond merely “shopping the sales” to feed her growing family.
She gardened, bartered, shunned pricier convenience foods, and shopped the salvage stores with streamlined efficiency. The result was that the half-dozen or so Dacyczyn family members were a well-fed, healthy bunch for around $200 a month.
The results of Amy’s extreme cash saving practices were extremely rewarding. In seven short years on Jim’s $30,000 income, the Dacyczyns saved a whopping $49,000. During that time, another $38,000 went to major purchases such as cars, furnishings and appliances. Free from debt, they were able to fulfill their dreams, and in 1989, they bought a beautiful pre-1900 New England style farmhouse with attached barn.
Amy then decided to share her expertise with other tightwad hopefuls, and in June of 1990 her newsletter, The Tightwad Gazette, was born. A major success, the newsletter and Amy’s success attracted the attention of Parade magazine. When the first article on the Dacyczyns came out, it prompted a huge amount of fan mail.
“We had, on the peak day, 22 two-foot trays of mail. Can you imagine 44 feet of mail? And we just didn’t have (any) help.” Amy told said via our telephone interview. “We pulled every non-working person from our tiny community (Leeds, Maine) to help us.”
Soon, The Tightwad Gazette newsletter was being featured in the Wall Street Journal, and Amy was making appearances on the Phil Donohue show and speaking on NPR (National Public Radio). Frugal fever hit many a spendthrift, with the result that newsletter subscriptions rose to over 50,000.
After six years, Amy made the decision to cease publication of The Tightwad Gazette, much to the dismay of her fans. She published three compilations of the newsletter material as books, which were compiled as The Complete Tightwad Gazette.
These days, Amy and Jim consider themselves truly retired, with no plans to follow-up on The Tightwad Gazette successes. While the newsletter and books have brought in enough income to send all the Dacyczyn children through college and beyond, Amy still practices tightwaddery for the principle of it.
The day of this interview, she was in the process of canning 80 quart jars of green beans. Amy and Jim’s main priority in life are still their kids, the same priority that put them on their frugal journey to begin with.
This is an updated reprint from an interview I did with Amy Dacyczyn back in 2001. It was first published with militarylife.com, and then later with the Dollar Stretcher. It’s been reprinted in numerous locations around the web afterwards. If you aren’t familiar with Amy Dacyczyn yet, and you are trying to live on less, I highly recommend looking into her books. I only wish they were on Kindle.