Pinching pennies adds up to big bucks

July 09, 1993|By Christine Dugas | Christine Dugas,Newsday

Tom and Lorrie Lemke, a young San Diego couple, recently appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to discuss their thrifty lifestyle. As Mr. Lemke enthusiastically described clipping coupons, making pasta at home, and hunting for early bird restaurant specials, the audience snickered.

But the group wasn't laughing when the Lemkes, parents of two small children, said they have managed to save $50,000 in the past four years.

"Some people think we're nickel-and-diming it, but those nickels and dimes are going to add up and going to help put our kids through college," Mr. Lemke said.

The Lemkes, who work in grocery stores and together earn about $40,000 a year, plan to save enough in the next 10 years to retire early.

Some people just enjoy being frugal, no matter how much money they have. Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart and one of the richest men in the country, was known for his frugal tastes. For many years before he died, Mr. Walton drove a beat-up pickup truck.

Jack Stephens, a Little Rock, Ark., millionaire, once said, "My shoes cost more than everything Sam Walton is wearing today."

But most people learn to economize out of necessity. And it doesn't always come easily.

Mary Hunt became a self-described cheapskate only after she ran up $100,000 in credit card bills over a 12-year period. She estimates that she had 36 cards during that time and she felt "entitled" to charge them up to their limit.

When the resulting financial crisis nearly ruined her life, Ms. Hunt began to change her ways. Today she has no credit cards. Her mantra is "debt free in '93."

Ms. Hunt, who lives in Orange County, Calif., decided to use heexperience to help others learn to live within their means. In January 1992, she began publishing a newsletter, Cheapskate Monthly.

At the same time, across the country in Smithtown, N.Y., Jackie Iglehart had a similar idea. Only she called her newsletter the Penny Pincher. The two newsletters joined a growing field of about 20 other publications that are dedicated to frugal living.

Some people are disdainful of such unabashed thriftiness. They assume economizing means recycling scraps of aluminum foil and finding new ways to use leftovers. Others believe that most money-saving tips are too time-consuming. After all, how many two-income couples have time to make their own clothes, raise their own vegetables and bake their own bread?

But as the various newsletters show, there are plenty of inventive ways to save money to suit everyone. Ms. Hunt is not a big fan of coupons, calling them "gimmicks" to get people to buy things they wouldn't ordinarily purchase. She prefers to shop at warehouses, which don't accept coupons, but sell food in bulk. Ms. Hunt says she shops less often and saves about 25 percent to 40 percent on her food bill by buying in bulk.

Ms. Iglehart, who has four children, stresses that even busy people can economize. People may not have time to make their own bread, she says, but they can put ingredients into an automatic bread maker. She tried it and discovered that the machine paid for itself in six months. Now she estimates she saves $500 a year by using the bread maker.

Even simpler than that, Ms. Iglehart replaced half of her incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent bulbs. She spent three hours researching the bulbs and shopping for them. She estimates that her utility bill has gone down $480 a year.

Amy Dacyczyn admits that she is a compulsive tightwad. She also is publisher of the Tightwad Gazette, one of the first newsletters of its kind. In her newsletter she dispenses advice on everything from how to reuse old blue jeans to how to save on funerals.

People are more receptive than ever to money-saving tips because they realize they must be self-reliant, Ms. Iglehart says. "They don't feel they have job security any more. They feel they can't depend on Social Security. And some people who have gotten to retirement age have seen their interest income drop dramatically as bank rates have plummeted."

The key to becoming more frugal, the experts say, is to find ways to economize that fit your personality and lifestyle. For example, Ms. Hunt says she personally can't bear the thought of buying clothes in thrift stores, so she finds other ways to cut costs.

Some people may be put off by Ms. Iglehart's idea of calling funeral homes to get free flowers before they are discarded. But others may be intrigued by her tip about receiving discounts on shoes by becoming a footwear tester.

After you figure out what works for you, experts say, don't go overboard. It's important to splurge now and then, Ms. Iglehart says. She and her husband make a point to "go out on a date" once a week.

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