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I remember overhearing a conversation at a restaurant recently that went a little something like this:
“Why do you never want to spend money on me?”
“Because we’re broke.”
“No we’re not. You’re just being cheap.” (Actual quote may have been harsher)
“No, I’m not. I’m being frugal.”
To me, it was highly interesting hearing these two terms being tossed out. I asked myself, “What is the difference between frugal and cheap?” At first glance, it seems like there’s a lot of overlap between the two terms. They both seem to indicate an unwillingness to spend money. However, frugal tends to take on a more positive connotation, while being called cheap can come across as an insult. It’s like being straightforward vs. being rude. Or being chill vs being lazy. Or being a realist vs being a pessimist. You get the idea. But what really is the difference between being frugal and cheap?
A Cheap Shot
I knew a person who would get upset at me for using a paper towel once and throwing it away. They insisted that paper towels are able to be reused multiple times. To them, each sheet of a paper towel was the equivalent of a sponge. Now, is this being cheap? I would say so. I think a key differentiation here is that being cheap focuses entirely on cost. Even at someone else’s expense.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a cheap person tries to do another person harm, but it can take away from someone else’s well-being. In my example above, reusing a paper towel does in fact save them some money. Maybe instead of buying 30 rolls a year, they would only need to buy 10, since they re-use each paper towel. At ~$1 a roll, you save around $20/year with the above estimates on paper towels. But at what cost?
This is where opinions may differ. Some may call this a “life hack”. I think that this crosses the line from frugal to cheap. Paper towels aren’t meant to be used in this manner. Some of the used paper towels were for wiping stains. Rinsing them doesn’t necessarily take away the bacteria. Doing something like this saves them a small amount of money, but negatively impacts others.
Being cheap tends to be short-sighted. You focus on the immediate savings, how it benefits you, and not much else.
Cheaper by the Dozen
To be quite honest, the example I was describing earlier isn’t all too bad. Some of the worst cases of “cheap” that I’ve seen can really take a toll on others. For example, I know some people who refuse to ever give a ride to others. They try not to drive whenever possible, but try and make others drive whenever they need it. Yes, they’re saving money. But at the cost of others. If that’s what it means to be frugal, no frugal person would ever own a car. That’s a big difference between frugal and cheap.
The same can be said about people who try and “crash” at people’s homes for extended periods because they don’t want to pay rent for as long as they can. Or people who go to restaurants and order only a small appetizer and then mooch on other people’s meals. It’s definitely cost effective to do all of these things. Heck, rent and food are some of the highest expenses in anyone’s budget. If you can save on those, you’re golden! But once again, this is not the definition of being frugal. People like this aren’t gaining off of free resources. They’re gaining off of other’s resources. And that’s where it becomes cheap.
Now, I do want to do an aside here and note that people are all in different situations. There are people I know who need to live this way in order to survive. They really are in a situation that puts them in a place where they don’t want to be. But, a lot of the examples you’ll find are from people that are doing just fine. In fact, it’s not uncommon for some of the stingiest people to be far wealthier than you are. Being cheap is a choice.
That’s a lot of talk about being cheap. So what does it mean to be frugal? I think to better understand this, we have to revisit what a cheap person focuses on. Everything about being cheap boils down to cost savings. Buy the cheapest car. Get the cheapest gas. Only buy the cheapest <insert any item>. And sometimes this may cross into frugal territory, where a frugal person may get the same item that the cheap person would. But the separating factor here is that frugal people focus on value, not cost. That’s another key difference between frugal and cheap.
Let’s get back to my first example with the paper towel lady (man, I really hope she doesn’t discover this post). I don’t think a frugal person would reuse paper towels for value. Instead, I think that a frugal person would research and know what paper towels they like, find out when they’re on sale, and purchase in bulk for the future. Frugality in finances requires planning and budgeting. It requires you to really understand money and appreciate what you’re purchasing.
A person living a cheap lifestyle doesn’t need to know too much about money. They just need to do whatever keeps more money in their pocket. It’s easy to identify the cheapest item, but not necessarily easy to identify the best value item. Being frugal also aims to save you money, but uses a much different method.
A Frugal Life
There’s a quote that says “frugality contains all other virtues.” Why is that? Because being frugal is more than being cheap.
- Frugality demonstrates patience. A lot of planning and waiting is involved when understanding what you need to buy. For instance, buying the cheapest car is not necessarily the best car. As a frugal person, you might have researched the upkeep and maintenance costs, the type of gas it uses, and the lifespan of the car. It might be the cheapest car sometimes, but other times you’ll pay more for the car upfront to get more value down the road.
- Being frugal demonstrates self-control. Let’s look at clothes for example. Maybe you like a name brand because it’s comfortable and lasts a while. You know when it’s on sale and you buy it then – not every time you enter the store. You don’t always head to the bargain bin. It’s fine to buy things that you like, but you know the right time to buy it.
- Frugality requires discipline. Part of being frugal is sticking with it. You can’t be frugal for a day. It takes effort. You have to know your budget, analyze your expenses, and identify smart money choices. I wrote an article about how packing my lunch saves me money. Is it easy? Not at all. I want the convenience of eating out everyday too. But with a little effort, I’m able to save a lot.
Don’t Just Take My Word!
I’ve said a lot in this article, but they’re still my thoughts and opinions. I wanted to hear other people’s thoughts on the difference between frugal and cheap. So I reached out to some personal finance bloggers and basically asked them what they thought was the difference between the two terms. It’s incredible how unified the responses were:
Frugal Asian Finance responded:
“Being frugal is trying to maximize the utility of every cent that you have. Being cheap is taking advantage of other people to maximize your own interests.”
“Being cheap means you don’t like to spend money. Being frugal means you like to spend your money wisely.”
“When I hear the word cheap, it has a very negative connotation. A person that’s cheap may not pay their fair share of an expense. A cheap person tends to make less than ideal decisions by buying the less expensive option over a more expensive product that’s a better overall value. Frugal has a positive connotation. A frugal person buys based on value not just cost. Frugal people also tend to pass on luxury items and live a simpler life.”
Mr. Jamie Griffin answered:
“To me, frugal is a strategy to spend money in an intentional way to meet financial goals. Its meant to enhance your life and point you toward your goals. Being cheap has more potential to be offensive or rude to people. For example, not tipping well is being cheap, not frugal.”
You can see the pattern here. Frugality implies that you are wise with your money. It means that you are focused on value and utility. Being cheap takes advantage or “cheats” the system for a person’s individual gain or interest.
I’d like to personally thank each of these personal finance bloggers who took the time to formulate a response. Be sure to check out each of their blogs – I can attest that it’s worth your while. There’s a wealth of financial wisdom out there to soak in!
An understanding of frugality is only half the battle. The next step is to actually live it out. I won’t lie – it can be difficult sometimes, but I rarely ever regret making a frugal decision. On the other hand, there are definitely times where I will make an impulse purchase and regret it. After making frugal choices, it becomes habit, and then eventually a lifestyle. That’s when it becomes almost second nature for you to make the smartest money choices and reap the benefits of living frugally. I hope I’ve convinced you to join me and many others!
What are your thoughts? Do you agree with the difference between being frugal and being cheap? Do you feel like you lean more towards one or the other? Maybe you have a different definition of what it means to be frugal. Feel free to comment below – I’d love to hear what you have to say!