Amy Dacyczyn is getting a lot of press again recently. There was my mention of her in my question to Mr. Money Mustache, the CNBC article about Women on FIRE, and recently on the BBC thanks to my friend Gwen, the Fiery Millennial. There’s even a Tightwad Gazette Fan Club on Facebook with over 6,000 members.
Given all this recent attention, I’ve realized many of my readers and friends online probably don’t know who Amy was. So today I’ll share her story, how it applies to financial independence, and what she wrote about that still resonates today. I’ll also be sharing interviews with her and her (now adult) daughters I’ve found around the web.
Now, meet Amy Dacyczyn – The Frugal Zealot – and learn more about how her thoughts on frugality and tightwaddery shaped how I think about money.
Note, the links to her book are affiliate links, and I get a small commission at no cost to you if you buy it. But I would strongly recommend you check the library, thrift stores, and yard sales first – in true tightwad fashion.
Amy Dacyczyn (pronounced like Decision) was a woman with what felt like an impossible dream. She was a spendthrift graphic designer, who lived in big cities and spent big money. After she got married to her husband Jim, they started a family. And she had the crazy idea that they could have a large family, own a beautiful home, and do it all on a single income.
Now, Jim wasn’t a computer programmer (this was the 80’s when IT was not really big), corporate executive, or other high income earner. He was in the military – specifically, the Navy. Their average income before realizing their dream was less than $30,000 per year, including the salary, allowances, and a bit of freelance income. They not only saved almost $50k for a home, but also bought $38k of durable goods like new cars, appliances, and furniture.
This represented a savings rate of 43% of their sub-$30k income. They did this while they had four, and later six, children. On a Navy salary. Proving anyone who says you can’t save a lot when you have a modest income and kids quite wrong.
Important note about inflation – remember, these are dollars from the 80’s. They bought their dream home in 1989. Using this inflation calculator, $30k in 1989 is $60k today. A 43% savings rate on a $60k income would be saving $25,800 per year.
One day, Amy decided to write a newsletter (what was the blog of the 90’s) about her experiences, looking to find other interested in thrift and tightwaddery. Eventually, she was picked up by the mainstream media of the day (Parade magazine) and her newsletter took off. Jim retired from the Navy to help run her business, and she hired employees to help her.
Amy’s focus was not really on the income side of the financial equation, but on the spending side. She and her husband worked together to get their expenses as low as possible, while still using creativity to live a fun life, all to achieve their dreams.
Her extreme focus on decreasing expenses led to a lot of mockery. She would wash out and re-use Ziploc bags and aluminum foil, created “leftover stew” in the fridge out of that weeks leftovers, and saved juice box lids/egg cartons/bread tabs to be re-used. Almost everything for her family came from thrift stores and yard sales. They
After seven years of the newsletter with over 200,000 subscribers at some point or another (100,000 at one time at the peak), and three books that together sold at least half a million copies, she decided to retire early. And yes, since the 90’s she’s been retired. Today she still lives a quiet and tightwad life up in rural Maine, where they bought their dream home all those years ago.
Amy was all about living, and spending, in alignment with goals and dreams. She had a very straightforward dream – to have a large family, and a large old house on land, on a single income. All the choices she and her family made were in pursuit of this dream.
Her initial goal was not to retire early. It was to achieve her dream, and to share all the fun and frugal things her family was doing with the country. In fact, she first heard of the concept of FI from Your Money Or Your Life, which she listened to on cassette tape (this was the early 90’s after all). Someone pointed out to her that her ideas were very much in alignment with those of Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, and she listened to their program while scraping paint off her porch.
She wrote an entire article on FI – in the 90’s! – and how it was achievable even to those with a more modest income. For her family, she credited the fluke of the newsletters success. They were able to pay off their mortgage and could live off Jim’s pension, and then saved for large future expenses.
She did concede that “not having children seems to be the one most crucial for achieving FI at a young age”, and featured the story of a 40 year old single woman from Phoenix who retired early. If you had kids and an average income, she recommended you could retire early but likely in your 50’s, not your 30’s or 40’s.
However, she also mentioned that another with-kid option was achieving increased freedom from being a slave to your paycheck. One of her staffers was able to quit a job he disliked, and take on freelance assignments he enjoyed, because of frugality. Without a mortgage and with low expenses, he was able to make choices that he couldn’t otherwise.
The quote from the end of this section stayed with me for the past twenty years, and shaped how I think of FI. I’ll cover it in the next section where I review my favorite articles and quotes from her book.
Favorite Topics and Quotes
For those that have never read The Tightwad Gazette (or might be learning about Amy’s story for the first time here), I’d like to share a selection of the articles and quotes that have stuck with me the past nearly twenty years.
The point of achieving financial independence, or FI, isn’t to sit around and do nothing all day.
“In my view, the point of aiming toward FI isn’t necessarily to never again work for money. Rather, it’s to acquire the freedom to choose when, where, what and how much work you do.” (Page 834, The Complete Tightwad Gazette)
“Certainly the recycling of aluminum foil did not greatly contribute to our dream. Rather it was the attention to all the thousands of ways we spent our money that made a tremendous difference” (Page 6, The Complete Tightwad Gazette)
When you don’t need to be a tightwad any more, spend in ways that reflect your values.
Ideas Amy suggested include – spending in ways that are environmentally sound; buying locally to support local businesses; consider charitable giving; think about the legacy you’re passing to your children before wasting money; and consider retiring early. (Pages 295-297, The Complete Tightwad Gazette)
Having kids, and achieving your dreams, is possible.
“…I’ve hugely enjoyed shredding cultural mythologies, such as ‘Raising children is so expensive’ and ‘Americans are worse off than ever before’.” (Page 908, The Complete Tightwad Gazette)
Be proud of what you’re doing, especially in the face of skeptics or those that mock you.
“To be successful and happy in the frugal lifestyle, we have to be proud and confident in our choices. We must have a clear view of our goals, and we must understand the tradeoffs we’re making. If we do this, we’ll feel no shame about being frugal. Instead, we’ll understand that we have a wealthy attitude.” (Page 576, The Complete Tightwad Gazette)
Mindset is key – frugality doesn’t need to mean deprivation.
“The feeling of deprivation will undermine any effort to pursue long-term disciplines.” Amy gave three tips to avoid feeling deprived: recognize this is a choice and embrace it; start by giving up expenses that are less valuable to you (the “to you” part is the key here-your values won’t be someone elses); and don’t compare yourself to others. It may feel “unfair” that you have to give up more than someone else to achieve the same goals, but focusing on that won’t help you achieve your own dreams.
I also enjoyed her perspective on selective squeamishness (a la the brown bananas), the gift fulfillment curve, stocking a pantry, and how to shop for the least expensive food options by focusing on the all-in cost per meal. Although the dollar figures in pretty much all of her examples were out of date by the time I read the book, and are even more out of date now, most of the concepts and ideas still hold true today.
Why Her Story Means So Much To Me
When I was in my early 20’s in the early 2000’s, I found myself in need of tips on how to raise a baby when you don’t have a lot of money. At the time I got pregnant with my oldest son, I was 22 years old, in my last semester of college, working full time and going to school full time, and earning $35k per year. My husband earned less than that, and we knew we weren’t going to be able to afford full time daycare on those salaries. So I went looking for tips on how to save money when you had a baby, and found this book series.
I first found Amy’s books at the library, and later bought The Complete Tightwad Gazette, which is all three of her books plus some bonus content all together in one. The image in the header of this post is my personal copy of the book – you can see it’s well worn. The books were slightly outdated even then, although not as badly as they would be now. By the time the early 2000’s rolled around Amy was retired. I don’t remember ever encountering her in her mainstream media heyday, and in my “real life” I don’t know anyone who talked about her or her books.
After my oldest son was born, my husband and I worked opposing shifts for a while, and then he quit his full time job to take on part time work. Honestly watching a baby all day after working third shift is painful. Our combined income for many years was under $50k. But we never felt deprived, and much of that was due to the tips in Amy’s books.
We used cloth diapers. We bought a deep freezer and bought groceries on sale and in bult, freezing things for later. Eating out was very rare, and we both learned how to cool. We shopped tag sales on the weekends, and all our sons furniture, equipment (except the car seat), clothes, and toys were second hand.
Thanks to the specific tips, and the general concepts, in Amy’s books we were able to not only survive on a lower income, but thrive. We set aside money for retirement, our sons college, and a dream “someday” fund with a baby while earning about $40k a year combined.
Every once in a while, when I feel lifestyle inflation starting to try and sneak in, I go back to her book. I still use many of the same concepts today, even though I don’t “have to.” I don’t equate happiness with spending money, and in fact I find the idea of spending money when you don’t have to as wasteful. Not only do I have personal financial goals that are more important to me than something like eating out, but I have long-term charitable dreams as well.
Today I earn more than that girl in her early 20’s would have imagined. My husband is a stay at home dad, and we have three boys, We save a substantial portion of my income for our goals and dreams
My goals and dreams are more important to me than a new car, fancy birthday party for the boys, more “stuff”, new clothes, fancy makeup, new furniture, or whatever else people usually buy to treat themselves. Living out my dreams is my treat.
Articles Inspired By Her Writing
I’ve written several articles over the past few years where I credit Amy for the original idea. If you’d like to check some of them out, here they are:
Active vs. Passive Frugality
The Savings Snowball
Deliberate Deprivation, Increased Appreciation
Detailed Breakdown of Costs
Over the years I’ve found Amy and her family featured in various places around the web.
I of course would like to direct you to her amazing book, The Complete Tightwad Gazette. You can also likely find her book at the library, at thrift stores, and garage sales. But I would bet even if you buy it new, you’ll find something inside it that will save you more than the cost of the book. Just know that some of the articles, and all the costs, are outdated. You need to be willing to take what you can and leave what you can’t.
Interviews with her daughters from The Frugal Shrink- an interesting window into how extreme frugality impacts adult children.
She was even on YouTube.
I love how in this video she talks about using frugality in the good times to be better prepared for the bad times.
Stay In Touch!
Share in the comments what you found the most interesting about her story – or if you were already a fan of hers, what of her writing resonated the most with you.
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