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Cheap vs frugal

I’m going to be busy the next couple of days and might not have much for you. So I thought I’d throw out a question — or rather, repeat a question thrown out some time ago at the Balancing Beauty and Bedlam blog (love that name): Cheap vs frugal? Which is which?

It’s an old question, but ever-relevant — and not just because so many freedomistas are also frugalistas, bent on getting value for their FRNs and avoiding messy money entanglements.

It’s relevant to me in part because I grew up around somebody who believed himself to be frugal but who was in fact not just cheap but the classic “penny wise and pound foolish” — a person obsessed with price who never developed the slightest concept of value. The financial and emotional repercussions of that mindset can still make my head spin.

I would almost make a general rule: Being frugal helps you be free; being cheap makes you a slave to your own small mind.

Anyhow, Beauty and Bedlam takes a look at some actions: frugal or cheap — and how do you tell the difference?


  1. DrillSgtK
    DrillSgtK March 31, 2011 4:03 am

    Cheep to me means going for the lowest price all the time. Frugal means you spend your money with care to get full value for it.

    example: You need a garden hose. Cheep goes and buys the $8.99 hose at the big box. It lasts just one year before leaking. Frugal goes and buys the $29.99 hose with 10 year warranty that ends up lasting 13 years.

    Cheep has to buy a hose every year, Frugal spends less in those 13 years.

    (why dose this sound like a Highlight comic?)

  2. Pat
    Pat March 31, 2011 6:04 am

    Cheap is buying an item for the price alone, or for an implied value that doesn’t exist. Frugal is looking at the quality of the item, how long it may last, how often it will be used — compared to the price of it.

    I’ve seen both Ms. Cheap and Ms. Frugal often at yard sales and discount stores.

    A woman I know will absolutely NOT buy anything she wants or needs the first time she enters the local DAV; instead she waits for the price to go down. Too frequently she loses that item because someone else has snapped it up first — yet the price she saw was a bargain to begin with. “It’s all about the money.”

    People who save and use coupons for items they wouldn’t buy (or don’t need) fool themselves into buying a value that doesn’t exist. Many items with coupons cost more than a house (or other) brand that’s just as good or better. Where’s the savings in the coupon? Yet the coupon itself represents a bargain to the buyer. This is “cheap” thinking.

    Discount cards at grocery stores serve the same purpose. Many times I’ve seen prices raised on items a couple of days before they’re put on the discount card. But the “cheap” buyer thinks she’s getting a good deal. She should be paying more attention.

    The cost of an item, in the end, is not what makes a product valuable, or turns an exchange into a bargain. Frugality is learning the value of things — both products and services — and applying that knowledge to your lifestyle.

  3. It's Me
    It's Me March 31, 2011 7:05 am

    We’re all screwed. According to an 18 year LEO, “Based on the training I have attended, here are characteristics that qualify:

    Expressions of libertarian philosophies (statements, bumper stickers)
    Second Amendment-oriented views (NRA or gun club membership, holding a CCW permit)
    Survivalist literature (fictional books such as “Patriots” and “One Second After” are mentioned by name)
    Self-sufficiency (stockpiling food, ammo, hand tools, medical supplies)
    Fear of economic collapse (buying gold and barter items)
    Religious views concerning the book of Revelation (apocalypse, anti-Christ)
    Expressed fears of Big Brother or big government
    Declarations of Constitutional rights and civil liberties
    Belief in a New World Order conspiracy


  4. Matt
    Matt March 31, 2011 7:30 am

    When I was younger, I was cheap. It cost a lot of money and pain in the long run. As I matured and learned the difference I became frugal (with occaisional lapses into cheapness). Part of my preparations for the future included learning what I items I could substitute or make on my own and what I just needed to spend the money for a quality piece. Water purification, first aid, parachutes, I’ll pay for and even buy new, going cheap on those could hurt you in the long run.

    I have also learned which brands are worth their cost and which brands are selling the label or reputation based on past quality. I have also learned not to gripe when something wears out just past it’s warranty date. If I want something to last longer, I will spend more initially. I don’t like hearing somebody complain about paying for a $5.00 item and only getting $5 worth of service from it.

    Sometimes the ultimate cheapness is trying to do everything yourself. I have learned, finally, that I just don’t have the time, talent, or tools to do all of my own home or vehicle repairs myself and sometimes just have to hire somebody to do it for me. I will take the time to do the research and find quality craftsman that charge a fair price.

  5. SwamiRabbitima
    SwamiRabbitima March 31, 2011 8:52 am

    Sometimes it’s hard to know when I’m being “cheep” or “frugal” if I’m buying something I’ve had no experience with. For instance: the other day I bought an LED emergency lamp at Harbor Freight that has a crank dynamo on the side but looks like a camping lamp that would normally use a mantle. Did I know these things existed before I saw it? Nope. When I get it home, the build quality seems good and the crank seems sturdy, and I got it for 20% off their cheap price with a coupon. I need an emergency lamp, and don’t expect to use this particular one unless I’m in an emergency, and I admit I’m not up on emergency lamp tech and innovations. Was I being cheap or frugal that day?

  6. Scott
    Scott March 31, 2011 9:12 am

    Frugal means getting the most for your buck-not just going for the lowest price. To me, describing someone as cheap also implies an unwillingness to help others,or maybe someone willing to con someone else out of something,if it saves them a buck or two. Frugal people usually help someone else in need-if I find a good deal on an item I know a friend might need, I get two. That’s my opinion,which, with 75 cents,gets you a Coke out of the machine in front of WalMart.

  7. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty March 31, 2011 9:20 am

    I was raised by a mother who lived through the great depression. She was a rather astonishing combination of “cheap” and frugal, but mostly the latter. I’m very much her daughter, though I like to think I’ve improved much on the frugal side. I live a simple life, with (perhaps aside from guns) simple needs. And I always have. 🙂

  8. Jolly
    Jolly March 31, 2011 9:49 am

    Some people are frugal about things they know about, and cheap about things they don’t.

    One of my clients is literally a billionaire. He lives on a 3 acre Victorian estate in the middle of a small city, that is a bedroom community of a huge city. His three acres are surrounded on all four sides by houses, parks, shopping center, etc..

    Yet, his wife puts the laundry on a clothes line because it’s less expensive. When a tenant moves out of one of their ( 15 ) apartment buildings, they go to the recycle place, take a bunch of cans of paint, mix them together, and use that. All their apartments have the same dull-gray look. I don’t know about you, but dull gray would yield less rental $$ from me.

    In the contract with me, I recommended something pretty expensive at the time to do a certain task. Cost was about $20,000. He said that was too expensive.

    I’ve now had to recreate what he didn’t want to spend, and have about doubled the cost so far.

    He knows nothing about my profession, and he was penny-wise, pound foolish.

  9. EN
    EN March 31, 2011 10:06 am

    To me frugality happens when there’s no money, like now, but if there’s money it gets spent. I like a good time and no one who knows me would ever say I’m cheap. Life is just too short. Cheap is when you deny yourself and those around you a life well lived.

  10. Lisa
    Lisa March 31, 2011 10:28 am

    The Balancing Beauty and Bedlam post is terrific.

    I hope I’m more frugal than cheap. When I use coupons to enjoy a meal out, I tip according to the whole cost of the meal before applying the coupon. If my service is poor, I still use the whole cost of the meal before coupon, and deduct accordingly.

    With cloths, I can be cheap I guess— like purchasing those Target t-shirts you know you will replace in a year. My thought is that tshirts get worn so much, no matter where you purchase them they will need to be replaced quicker than other things. So why not buy the ones I like at Target, when they are on sale for $6.99, unless they are in colors I don’t care for.

    I remember reading an autobiography of a German immigrant who moved to the US after WW2. She lived with a sponsor for a while, and her sponsor took her shopping at a grocery store. The German lady wanted to purchase some bananas, but her sponsor told her the price was too expensive. However, the sponsor recommended she buy a package of chocolate cookies which were “on sale” but the same price as the bananas. To me, that has always been the epitome of cheap -vs- frugal. The bananas, of course, were the better nutrition deal!

  11. naturegirl
    naturegirl March 31, 2011 2:35 pm

    LOL @ the Highlights mention….haven’t thought about that magazine in decades…..

    I never gave frugal or cheap much thought, mostly because I never have any spare money to spend & I hate shopping LOL…..but I have a “rule” that if I do buy something I will use often I will go for quality rather than cost…..if it doesn’t get used or only gets used once, then I’ll go for the cheaper one available….I also have my favorite manufacturers or brands that I just can’t give up for price, it’s a bad habit I’ve had forever…..

    I learned long ago that many generic brands of food or home supplies are made by the big name brand manufacturers, so it makes sense to get the best price for those items…..Some of that is just yuck, and for those I will try it once and then go back to the better version…..

    As was mentioned, if cheap means stealing or taking away from someone else then I don’t ever agree with that kind of cheap…..

  12. cctyker
    cctyker March 31, 2011 5:47 pm

    “Cheap” refers to monetary value. “Frugal” refers to allocation or use of resources.

  13. winston
    winston March 31, 2011 6:48 pm

    Frugality is in my blood as well. To me “cheap” means someone who is so obsessed with money matters that they absolutely refuse any kind of pleasure or luxury. Tons of people like this…they’re like extreme economic puritans. But no, I really like nice things. Life is short, gotta enjoy it.

    I think everybody has some weird quirk about something in that area though…one of mine is Barnes & Noble. I’m a used bookstore person, and I’m superstitious that if I ever buy anything from BN I’ll see it going for nothing at a used place…probably because it has happened literally almost every single time I buy a full price item from there…the exact same thing is on the bargain shelf next time I’m at my prefered bookseller. Every. Time. So I really just go there to read magazines and talk to girls.

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