Cheap Chic

ELLEN GOODMAN

March 12, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- No one recorded the exact moment when the motto of the 1980s -- You Can Never Be Too Rich or Too Thin -- was thrown into the trash bin of history. But we do know that too rich has now been dubbed greedy and too thin has become ] anorexic.

Living well is no longer the best revenge, but a sign of profligacy and proof of shortsightedness. It may even be a warning sign that sends you to a 12-step program.

Spending is out and sacrifice is in. What was once morning in America has become a good time to start saving for the rainy day. The same people who were trying to raise their credit-card ceiling in the '80s are struggling to pay it off in the '90s. The same people who were parlaying one house into the next are trying to keep a roof over their heads.

We have a public that is -- courtesy of Ross Perot and his pie charts -- learning the difference between deficit and debt. We have a president who has asked Americans to tighten the national financial belt and has won their approval.

We even have a Congress that is trying to one-up the White House by cutting-down further. Just this week, the budget writers are offering to trim $63 billion more in spending than the White House planned. Can you bottom that?

The era of cheap chic has even hit the best-seller list. During the 1980s, this list was inhabited by big-time entrepreneurs strutting their stuff, telling us how they rolled a shoestring into a billion. The latest entry is a book about how to live on a shoestring while making puppets from old socks.

If the government is out to cut billions, Amy Dacyczyn -- pronounced ''decision'' -- is pinching pennies. But she may be a moral guru for the economic '90s.

In ''The Tightwad Gazette,'' the self-described Frugal Zealot and mother of six will tell you how to recycle pickle juice, how to compost dryer lint, rescue the environment and save a buck. How tight is the woman who saved her newsletters to make a book? When she listened to an Oprah Winfrey show trashing cheapskates, she took copious notes on their savings.

The paperback itself is an amusing mix of the sound and the absurd, the sensible and the obsessed, the '30s Depression and the '90s recession. She chronicles the money to be saved on homemade school lunches, on reusing half the coffee grounds for the next pot, and on ironing crayon shavings into gift-wrapping paper.

on reusing half the coffee grounds for the next pot, and on ironing crayon shavings into gift-wrapping paper.

In short, she makes my grandmother -- who died in possession of 1,649 rubber bands -- look like a spendthrift.

If the Frugal Zealot worked for the Department of Energy she would direct long debates on whether it's cheaper to turn the lights off when you leave the room or leave them on. If she worked for health-care reform, her plan could be summed up in a phrase, ''As a general rule the best approach to a cold is patience.''

No, ''The Tightwad Gazette'' isn't an economic recovery program. This is still a country that measures ''consumer confidence'' by how much we are buying, not how well we are making do. The budget makers on Capitol Hill won't find $63 billion in savings on these pages. But they may find an everyday, down-home sign of the changing ethic.

After all, it's not tightwads that are buying this $9.95 book. A true tightwad would borrow it or wait to get it in a yard sale. It's not people who are saving egg cartons as a way of life. It's people who are reading all about it as a ''lifestyle.''

Up and down the economic spectrum, Americans who recently doted on the lifestyles of the rich and famous are now focused on living within their means. People who were driven to earn more are now, exhaustedly, trying to figure out if they can spend less.

We're not just making virtue out of necessity -- although the author can barely hold her tongue at the sight of pricey Froot Loops. We're making a positive trend out of a need. This signal could mean that the passion to pare down debt and control the deficit will be more than a frugal flash in the political pan. The willingness to save for the future may last more than a fleeting moment.

Or maybe Amy Dacyczyn is part of that economic stimulus program the president is also offering. Her best-seller could just be a delicious entry into the American annals of entrepreneurs: How to make a mint writing about saving a buck.

What's an author as cheap as the Frugal Zealot going to do with her royalties? Maybe she'll build an addition for all those leftover frozen juice lids.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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