Fearing Divorce, Mom Finds Inner Frugalista

In this Alpha Consumer book club selection, personal finance drives the plot.

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In Sarah Strohmeyer's The Penny Pinchers Club, mom and interior decorator Kat suddenly finds herself needing to save $15,000 in eight months. Her daughter is about to head off to college, she has $37,000 in debt (partly caused by her Starbucks addiction), and she's worried about the stability of her marriage. That challenge leads her to start saving money in all kinds of creative ways, from dumpster diving to getting rid of her landline and Netflix subscription.

What follows are personal finance tips embedded in surprising plot twists, which is why The Penny Pinchers Club is September's selection for the Alpha Consumer Book Club. Strohmeyer has agreed to answer questions from readers, so please send them to alphaconsumer@usnews.com. Here are excerpts from my conversation with Strohmeyer:

Did the financial crisis inspire the plot of this book?

I started thinking about it in March of 2008, before the official financial crisis. Aside from being a writer, I'm also the typical consumer. I'm 46, I have two teenagers. Because our daughter is going to college, it hit me that we had these hugs bills coming up. One of the things I've learned about writing commercial fiction is that whatever I'm going through, usually other people are going through it as well. If we're cutting back and not going on vacation, and I hate opening my Visa bill, I can't be alone in that.

You include a lot of financial tips—where did those come from?

I did a lot of reading and talked to people I know who are financially savvy. My parents are part of that Depression generation. They saved everything and nothing went to waste. I grew up rebelling against that, and when I went back to research this book, I used a lot of what they told me.

Why did you choose to focus on women, relationships, and money issues?

Clearly, how women handle money is fraught with complications. In my mother's generation, women were put on an allowance, which is ridiculous. But like Lucy Ricardo, it became a source of power. My mom would save so much money that she would slip me $2,000 when I got married -- she did all that through her allowance. For women in my generation, we made money and can earn money. There's a sense of freedom and release to be able to have your own money and spend what we want. But no matter what, you still have to pay groceries and college tuition, and if one person is sucking up money, the other will be resentful.

My 18-year-old daughter has a boyfriend, and she's like, 'This is easy.' I'm like, 'The hard part is when money comes into the picture.'

In the book, money issues are so closely related to marital onesdo you think that's what it's like in real life?

I do. No matter what, financial strife puts a huge burden on a marriage. Domestic abuse has gone up in Vermont [where Strohmeyer lives], partly because people are having a tough time. People lose jobs and get stressed. Men feel a responsibility and at the same time can feel resentment, like, 'Why do I have all this responsibility?' Definitely financial stress equals marital stress, there's no question about that.

My husband says he landed in the best of both worldshe gets a wife who still cooks and cleans, and yet, also contributes sizably to the family income. [He's like,] "good deal."

Do you practice a lot of the frugal habits in the book yourself?

We have no Starbucks around here, but I have a weird addiction to buying movies and anything technical. I have Macs, they're all upgraded. Also knittingI have closets full of yarn that I will never use but that I can't part with. Sometimes I think, 'If I hadn't spent that money, how much more would I have?'

Would you ever dumpster dive, like the main character of the book?

No, but I have stopped by the side of road to pick up reused things, like windows.

Do you have a question for Strohmeyer? E-mail it to me at  alphaconsumer@usnews.com.