I was speaking at a university recently, and as I always do, I called myself cheap.
"I'm so cheap that I still wear my maternity underwear, and my youngest child is almost 4," I told the group.
I had expected and got many gasps and giggles. Some people just shook their heads, which prompted me to explain further.
"Maternity underwear is expensive, and I wasn't going to just throw it out because I wasn't pregnant anymore," I said. "Besides, at my age you need extra coverage."
After my speech, a woman approached me with a concerned look on her face.
"Don't call yourself cheap," she said. "It's better if you say you're frugal."
Frugal does sound nicer. Penny pincher is even better.
Contest makes comeback
In fact, after a two-year lull, I'm resuming my Penny Pincher of the Year Contest.
The contest, which I began in 1997, is simple. All you have to do is nominate yourself, a friend or a relative with an original penny pincher strategy. Winners will be featured in a future column. And, of course, there will be gifts for folks with the winning entries.
I've always liked profiling the practical and sometimes just plain crazy penny-pinching ideas people have.
Solar cooking wins award
The first winner of my Penny Pincher of the Year contest was Louise Meyer, of Washington, who saved money by solar cooking her food on her rooftop. Meyer said she saved about $40 a month on her electric bill during the winter and $140 in the summer months. According to Meyer, solar cooking is easy and saves a lot of time. No need to stir a pot or watch your food -- which, of course, never burns. All it takes is a sunny day, water-resistant, aluminum-laminated cardboard, a clear plastic oven roasting bag to create a mini-greenhouse effect, and a dark pot with a tight-fitting lid for maximum heat absorption.
Meyer recently wrote to me to say she's still solar cooking and teaching the technique in developing countries. She's a partner in the nonprofit Solar Household Energy Inc., which recently won funding through the World Bank's Development Marketplace competition last December.
I'll also never forget the letter from one woman who told me about her grandmother's determination to save by refusing to buy potholders. This grandmother was so outraged to find that stores charge up to $4 per pair that she decided to make them herself -- from shoulder pads she had salvaged from clothing. She would take two shoulder pads and sew them together, creating potholders that she then declared were just as functional and far more attractive than any store-bought item.
Unfortunately, the practice was short-lived. The homemade holders were prone to catching fire.
Food dilution among past winners
Here are some other samples of past entries:
- One woman admitted that her husband had a habit of picking up half-smoked cigars. "He cuts the end that was lit off and re-lights and smokes the cigars," she said.
- One past winner took a cut-off plastic one-gallon milk jug into the shower. According to this frugal fellow, it takes approximately two minutes for the hot water to reach the shower. So, he captured the potentially wasted cold water in the jug and filled the tank of his toilet. By performing this task, he was able to save on his water bill.
- One reader sent in an entry about a relative who was obsessed with diluting every possible food product. "You never had to worry about people getting tipsy at her home because she would dilute the wine for dinner," the woman wrote. "The (catsup) looked more like runny tomato soup. The children still remember spreading peanut butter on their saltines and watching it run through the little holes. When she would get home from the grocery store, she would look like an alchemist at work with all of her bottles and bowls, wire whisks and measuring cups. Needless to say, her house was not the children's favorite place for dinner, but it sure has left everyone with some good memories."
I'm so glad to know I'm not the only cheap -- I mean frugal -- person out there. So if you are a penny pincher or know someone who is, enter the contest.
Just so you know edited versions of entries may be published. Entries should be postmarked by May 17. Send them to Penny Pincher of the Year Contest, c/o Michelle Singletary, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. You must include your address and daytime and evening phone numbers. You also may enter by sending e-mail to email@example.com.