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Sarah Hampson's Currency

Would you skip a shower to save a buck? Add to ...

I feel bad about the questions I asked Annie Korzen. But I had to. You would have done the same thing.

The Los Angeles-based writer and actress has written a book, Bargain Junkie, in which she describes her frugal ways.

But I was stopped a few times.

Case in point: She admits to not showering every day (she washes "the essentials" in a sink with a facecloth), not flushing the toilet every time and - prepare yourself - sometimes turning her underwear inside out so she doesn't have to wash it.

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Yeah, that's what I thought too.

We're living in the flip side of the greed-is-good eighties, a time when frugality is held up as virtuous, environmentally responsible - a long overdue correction of values and morals. The social imperative is no longer to keep up with the Joneses, but rather, to snicker at them as they (poor suckers) buy (on credit) all the things they've been led to believe they need.

But where is the line when "frugalista" crosses over to a negative personality trait we might call "cheapaholic?" (It should be noted that the social censure inherent in the word "cheap" causes anyone who proudly claims a "frugal" life to quickly distinguish between the two.) "I have no problem with putting myself out there," Ms. Korzen says. "I'm offering something the world needs. I passed a mall the night before the first iPhone became available. I saw hundreds of teenagers in sleeping bags. And I thought, 'No. 1: Where do they get the money? And No. 2: That iPhone that costs $400 [U.S.]will be released later in the year, smaller and for half the price. What made kids think that being first with that gizmo would make them happy? …

"I also think I'm a very generous friend and a generous person," she adds, a tad hotly. "It hasn't been an issue," she responds, when I ask if she ever worries that her frugal ways may cause her friends to whisper behind her back.

"Well, my house doesn't smell! And I'm not dirty! I keep myself clean," she says, laughing. "I don't do anything that I can't defend. We live in California. Water is precious." As a writer and actor (she played the recurring Doris Klompus character on Seinfeld), she is never sure when the next paycheque will come. Being economical is the only way she and her husband, a film producer, can follow their passion.

"I'm a frugalista," she says with flourish. "And that just means I think before I spend. I'm shocked at the prices of things. I don't know how people live paying full price."

That sentiment is shared by Marjorie Harris, Canadian author of the new book Thrifty: Living the Frugal Life with Style. "It's about balance," she says to explain her lifestyle. She and her husband, Jack Batten, are both freelance journalists. They, too, live with uncertain income. Their goal in saving money is to be able to afford the things they love - like travel. (She was talking to me from a condo they had rented for a month on the California coast.) That said, she recognizes when her frugal zealotry goes too far. "I have a tendency to have a 'good outfit,' so I'm always wearing the same thing when I go out to a party. But one time I was stopped by a friend who said, 'Oh, I love coming to this party so I can see that scarf of yours.' " Ms. Harris laughs good-naturedly. "And so now I'm trying to have two good outfits."

She also sees that her tendency not to entertain her friends at her house is a problem. "It really bothers me. It actually embarrasses me. I would like to correct it, frankly," she confesses. "There's always a really good excuse - time and money - but, of course, there's no excuse for not entertaining your friends … I hate to think that people might think I'm not doing something because I'm a bit cheap."

Cheapness points to a lack of emotional generosity. "Cheap is nasty. Cheap is mean," Ms. Korzen says, which is why she makes a point of treating her friends to dinner at her house. "But I make lasagna rather than buy filet mignon." And if her friends take her out to a restaurant, she reciprocates by treating them to dinner at a less expensive, ethnic spot they may not have had the time or inclination to find, let alone try. (This is the reverse of noblesse oblige, of course. The less-moneyed sometimes "treat" the rich to an experience they feel their wealth deprives them of.)

Still, Ms. Korzen has also found there's a potential downside to her frugality. She and her husband once decided to not spend the extra money on GPS for their Italian rental car. They were lost for three hours. And then there was the time she was invited to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show as an expert on the ugly stereotypes some Jewish men create about their wives and mothers. She couldn't resist all the free food and ate so much she was sick for days. She actually thought she might vomit on the show in front of 22 million people. "I have a compulsion about not wasting things," she tells me. "I guess that's a negative part of being frugal. Sometimes you have to say no to a bargain."

Frugality rehab may be in order. Ms. Korzen often jokingly refers to her obsession as "frugaholism."

The best argument for the frugal lifestyle goes to Ms. Harris. "I find money fascinating," she says from her perch over the Pacific Ocean. "I don't want it to control me. I want to control it. I don't want to be dominated by it. I would rather be dominated by my garden."

And with that, she lets out a little squeal of delight. She has just seen a dolphin.

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