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Confessions of a Save-aholic

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From Jane Austen to the present, so-called “chick lit” has offered its readers informal tips on romance and relationships. Can it help them weather a recession?

“Far be it from me to educate anybody,” says Middlesex author Sarah Strohmeyer, whose latest novel The Penny Pinchers Club just landed in stores. “I’m more like sharing the pain.”

Educational or not, The Penny Pinchers Club feels pretty recession relevant. It tells the cautionary tale of a fortyish suburban mom named Kat who’s wedded to the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption. “In New Jersey, we drive, we shop, we charge, we throw away,” the heroine declares. “We do not save.” From a comfortable background, Kat has spent her life letting men look at (and pay) the bills. But when she finds reason to suspect her beloved husband of infidelity, Strohmeyer’s heroine has to take charge of her financial future — and face down a $40K credit-card debt.

Though characters in the novel allude to recent financial disasters, Strohmeyer says in a phone interview that she conceived it “before the official crash,” on the day she realized she’d have to produce $35,000 in cash for one year of her daughter’s college education. “And that was after a scholarship,” she adds. Then, “lo and behold, while I was writing this, suddenly everyone was penny pinching.”

Given Kat’s level of privilege — one of the first frills she cuts is her Lexus — her story may not seem so applicable to average earners around here. But there’s a lot of Vermont in the public-library-based group of frugality fanatics — Penny Pinchers — whose aid she seeks in turning her life around.

Strohmeyer says she was inspired by “the woman down the street from me, who’s an amazing penny pincher; there’s nothing she buys without getting it on sale or at a yard sale.” An “earth mother hippie chick” of her acquaintance also made her way into the pages. A local lawyer friend who dumpster-dove for produce before it was fashionable gave Strohmeyer the idea for the character of Wade the “freegan,” a young man who proudly makes his home in a yurt and “shops” in the dumpster.

While Strohmeyer isn’t of the freegan persuasion herself, she gets passionate recalling a conversation with “the fish guy at Shaw’s,” who told her a load of unsold pollock, some hauled all the way from Brazil, was headed for the bin that night. “Dumpster diving is an honorable thing to do, even if it’s illegal,” she says with a chuckle.

What about the “Top Fifteen Dos and Don’ts From the Penny Pinchers Club” that Strohmeyer handily lists at the end of the book? While some guidelines on the list seem a tiny bit facetious (the novel is, after all, social satire), the author says she follows some of them herself. She instructs her daughter to keep the car’s gas tank at least half full (to prevent evaporation), believes in sharing wireless Internet access, and decries pricey cleaning products.

In her “Dos and Don’ts,” Strohmeyer suggests using bleach instead of brand-name mildew removers. But since then, she’s learned bleach whitens the gook in your shower stall without removing it. The key, says the best-selling author with the intensity of a true penny pincher, is to “spray it with 3 percent hydrogen peroxide.”

Here are a few more of the Dos and Don’ts, some with my annotations:

1. DON’T go grocery shopping with your husband.

4. DON’T buy a durable item when it’s brand new.

5. DO knit quick and easy hats and socks from unraveled sweaters.

6. DON’T buy gas in the afternoon on warm days. Buy it in the early morning, when it’s colder — and thicker ... Also, always keep your tank more than half full.

According to, the tip on morning fill-ups is a myth: “[T]he temperature of the gasoline coming out of the fuel nozzle changes very little, if at all, during any 24-hour stretch. Any extra gas you get will be negligible.” When it comes to keeping your tank full or low, online advice varies wildly.

7. DO place all ‘phantom’ appliances — TVs, DVRs (total energy hogs), stereos, and microwaves — on power strips that are easily turned off at night.

Richard Faesy, a managing consultant with Efficiency Vermont, confirms this is a great idea. But when a character in the novel suggests flipping power switches will save you as much as 60 percent on electricity, call that poetic license. “It might be something in the 5 percent range,” Faesy says.

8. DON’T pay for curbside trash service.

10. DON’T wash dishes by hand.

12. DON’T watch TV. TV creates artificial wants.

14. DO shop the warehouse stores with a frugal girlfriend and split up bulk buys.

15. DON’T get divorced if you can help it. Saving your marriage can save your IRA.

About that divorce thing ... the novel has an ending twist that weakens the motive for Kat’s conversion from spender to saver. But Strohmeyer offers useful insights along the way, as her heroine ponders why so many parents are willing to discuss sex and drugs with their kids, but not the family income.

Over the course of her writing career, Strohmeyer says, she’s learned there are “two things women feel out of control about: their weight and their pocketbook.” Beach read though it may be, Penny Pinchers could inspire some recessionistas to face down the bills. “My hope,” says Strohmeyer, “is to tell people they’re not alone.”