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Cheap vs Frugal: Which One Are You?

Last updated 10/14/2021 by

Julie Bawden-Davis
A good friend hints she wants a pricey crystal vase you see while shopping together. Her birthday is looming, but there’s no way you’re going to shell out that kind of money. Then you notice the store is having a 30 percent off sale. Do you check to see if you can get an even better deal on the vase elsewhere, or take advantage of the savings and buy it for her? Or do you get a less expensive vase at a discount store that you think looks close enough?
Your answer could indicate whether you’re frugal, or just plain cheap. While these two words often get confused, they actually have very different meanings. Frugal refers to understanding the value of products and services and economizing whenever possible, whereas cheap means that you always opt for the least expensive or free option.
You’re frugal if you get your friend her dream vase at the best price possible, and you’re cheap if you opt for a cut-rate look-alike or nothing at all.

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You might be a cheapskate if you:

  • Seek free first and last. If you can’t get things for free, you tend to not get anything at all.
  • Only focus on the cost of goods and services—value is not a criteria you consider.
  • Take energy efficiency to an absurd level. For instance, you turn the thermostat so low in winter that no one will visit, and your hands are so cold that you require gloves.
  • Avoid spending money, even on necessary items.
  • Never pay full price.
  • Go out to dinner with friends and family and habitually “forget” your wallet.
  • Never splurge, even if you have extra money.
  • Feel that everything is overpriced.
  • Lie about your age or your child’s age to get a free meal.
  • Rarely, if ever, donate to charitable causes.
  • Fail to tip, or give an insulting one.
  • Save just to save and hoard money with no plans to spend a cent.

You’re most likely frugal if you:

  • Clip coupons and use them when it makes economic sense to do so.
  • Look for quality first and then seek out the best value for that quality.
  • Occasionally pay full price for high-quality and exclusivity.
  • Splurge every once in a while on yourself or others when you’ve got the cash to do so.
  • Save for big purchases.
  • Avoid putting things on credit.
  • Pay your share when you go out to eat with friends and family.
  • Tip well, according to services rendered. And if you’ve used a coupon for the meal, you tip according to the actual full price, not the price after savings.
  • Give a modest amount of your discretionary income to worthy causes after ensuring that the chosen organizations are responsible with money.
  • Don’t feel that everything is overpriced.
  • Get a thrill when you save thanks to foresight and planning on your part.
  • Save for a higher purpose, such as to buy an expensive item, for emergencies and retirement.

Opting for Frugality

Ironically, being cheap can actually cost you more money in the long run. Buy the bargain basement toilet paper, for instance, and you’ll need to hop in the car and burn more gas to purchase additional toilet paper a lot sooner than if you’d opted for a moderately priced brand that lasts longer. Forgo toilet paper altogether, as we’ve seen on TLC’s Extreme Cheapskates, and you’ll alienate your friends and family.
Being cheap can also cost you something more precious than money—relationships. Few of us want to hang out with miserly people who reuse paper plates, never pay their share and constantly complain about the price of living.
In many ways, being cheap is a negative mindset, while being frugal is a positive one. When you recognize the value in those products and services you buy, you also realize the priceless nature of relationships with the special people in your life. Living a frugal life, you’re also sure to find your heart warming when you see your friend’s face light up at the fabulous gift for which you paid an equally fabulous price.
An excellent article that goes along with this is The 5 Types Of Debt That Can Actually Help You, which explores the difference between good and bad debt.

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Julie Bawden-Davis

Julie Bawden-Davis is a widely published journalist specializing in personal finance and small business. She has written 10 books and more than 2,500 articles for a wide variety of national and international publications, including, where she has a weekly column. In addition to contributing to SuperMoney, her work has appeared in publications such as American Express OPEN Forum, The Hartford and Forbes.

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