Friday, January 17, 2014

Thrift Week 2014: Print Edition

Last weekend, the scenario I'd been worrying about ever since Superstorm Sandy actually came to pass: we had a prolonged power outage (about 21 hours) in the middle of winter. Fortunately, the weather was unseasonably warm for January, so we never actually needed to deploy our chemical heat packs; the temperature in the house was about 70 when the power went out on Saturday, and it had only dropped to 62 when it came back on Sunday morning. So we still don't know how effective the heat packs will be for keeping us warm in a true winter emergency, but the rest of our emergency plan worked pretty well. Our new battery-powered lantern performed admirably, especially once we got the idea to suspend it from the kitchen ceiling fan by a rope, and the little dual-powered radio did a fine job recharging both itself and our cell phone by means of the hand crank.

The one thing we found it hardest to manage without, to be honest, was our cable connection. Nowadays, that one line serves as our TV, phone, and Internet all rolled up into one, so without it we were largely cut off from the outside world. We could still go out into town, but all the stores there were closed; we could make calls on our cell phone, but we couldn't respond to the calls or e-mails coming in from outside; and without the Internet, we'd lost our main source of both information and entertainment—so we couldn't get any useful information on what was actually going on with the power outage, and there were limits on what we could do to distract ourselves.

One thing this whole experience really reinforced for me was the value of a well-stocked bookshelf. Sure, the Internet is a huge font of useful (as well as useless) information, but it's also one you could lose access to without warning at any time. Our trusty books, by contrast, will always be accessible to us, just as long as we have sufficient light to read them by. So I decided to celebrate the print medium in this year's series of Thrift Week posts. Last year's Thrift Week was the Online Edition, in which I presented seven websites that I considered essential for everyone looking to live the ecofrugal life; this year will be a complementary Print Edition, in which I'll introduce seven books that I've found indispensable to my own ecofrugal life. These are the most battered, dog-eared, bookmarked books on my shelves, the ones I turn to again and again for reference or, sometimes, just for amusement. Taken as a set, they cover nearly every aspect of the ecofrugal life, from house and garden to money management.

Regular readers of this blog will find it no surprise that I'm starting off with the mother of all books on frugality, The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn. This is a collection of articles from The Tightwad Gazette newsletter, which Ms. Dacyczyn (otherwise known as the Frugal Zealot) published from 1990 to 1996. It's actually a compendium of three earlier books (The Tightwad Gazette Volumes I, II, and III), together with some additional material from the newsletter's final months. I was never a reader of the newsletter, but I discovered her work when I ran across the first Tightwad Gazette book in the bargain bin at Barnes and Noble around ten years ago. The whimsical cover art caught my eye, and I thought, "Well, this looks interesting, and if it has a few tips in it that are actually useful, it could probably save me enough to pay back the five bucks they're asking for it." Well, not only did I read that book from cover to cover, dog-earing multiple pages as I went, but as soon as I finished it I went back to the bookstore and bought up every copy they had left in the bin to give away as (frugal!) gifts to friends and relatives. I had always considered myself a fairly frugal person, but reading the Frugal Zealot's book opened my eyes to a whole world of possibilities I had never even considered. Shopping at multiple stores to get the best prices? Making pancake syrup from scratch? Building a pirate ship for your kid's birthday party? You can do that?

Once I discovered there were actually two more Tightwad Gazette volumes out there, I just had to have the whole set. I bought my Complete Tightwad Gazette secondhand on (and gave away my slightly battered copy of the original book to yet another friend), and over the years, I have reread it, referred to it, bookmarked pages, and scrawled in the margins more times than I can possibly count. Eventually, I started marking the pages I referred to most often with sticky tags so that I could find them more easily. At the moment, my copy has more than 25 of these tags, including:
  • page 27, a recipe for homemade granola that we used to make on a regular basis before we discovered that the raisin bran from Aldi actually costs less per serving.
  • page 199, an article on budget weddings with advice on how to save on everything from rings to clothes to cake. I didn't use all of her ideas when planning our own budget wedding in 2004, but being aware of them was a great help with the planning.
  • page 314, a chart that lists the weight per cup of common baking ingredients. Having this information ready to hand makes it much easier to work out the cost of the ingredients used in a given recipe. (This is how I was able to figure out that the raisin bran from Aldi is cheaper than the homemade granola.)
  • page 327, a similar chart listing the estimated cost per serving of various breakfasts, with my own annotations in the margins showing the corresponding figures for our family. 
  • page 443, guidelines for saving vegetable seeds from year to year. The article provides information about how long various types of seeds are likely to remain viable, how to store them, and how to test them before planting.
  • page 468, the universal muffin recipe. The Frugal Zealot explains how she invents new muffin recipes and provides a basic recipe in which you can swap ingredients in and out to your liking. For instance, it calls for 2 to 2 1/2 cups of "grain," which can include any combination of white flour, whole-wheat flour, rye flour, corn meal, cereal flakes, or even leftover oatmeal and rice (with suitable decreases in the amount of liquid). She also provides similar recipes for a universal casserole (p. 625) and a universal pilaf (p. 824).
  • page 575, an article outlining Dacyczyn's views about wealth (what you have) as opposed to affluence (what you spend) and why frugality should be associated with wealth rather than poverty.
  • page 622, a simple technique for reattaching the detached cover to an old hardcover book.
  • page 641, a description of a tightwad Christmas celebration shared by the staff at The Tightwad Gazette, complete with lots of homemade, secondhand, and highly personal gifts.
  • page 670, a lengthy and detailed article about the best strategies for gardening on a budget. This is the source that first directed me to Fedco Seeds, which has now become my go-to source for all our veggie seeds.
  • page 806, "The City Tightwad and the Country Tightwad," an article on the best strategies for saving money no matter where you live. I referenced this article last May in my post on the advantages of small-town living for the ecofrugal.
This, mind you, is just a small selection of my personal favorite articles and tips. It doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of all the useful information in the book. It also doesn't really convey the main thing that sends me back to this book over and over again, even after all the surprises are gone: Amy Dacyczyn's whimsical writing style. For example, her article comparing the cost of various foods made from potatoes is called "'Spudgate' or the Great Potato Conspiracy" and is illustrated with a drawing of a potato clad in trench coat, fedora, and sunglasses. Her article on deceptive advertising claims about "saving" money is entitled, "Read This Article and Save $150,000"; in the closing sentence, she explains that you can easily do this by not buying a Rolls-Royce.

So basically, I think this is a book that no one who's serious about living a frugal life can afford to be without. Secondhand copies are going for as little as $12 on, and I guarantee, no matter who you are or what your lifestyle, you will find at least one tip in the book that will be worth the purchase price. If you're still not sold, at least check your local library for a copy and see for yourself what the book has to offer. The Frugal Zealot won't mind that you borrowed the book instead of (or before) buying it; she says herself in the introduction that one of her reasons for agreeing to a book deal was to get the information out to people who needed it, even if they couldn't afford to buy back issues of the newsletter. "I always felt the most honored," she says, "by those who bought the books after they read their library's copies." Once you get your hands on a copy, I'm sure you'll become one of them.
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