Are you cheap or frugal?

‘I love your shoes!’ How should you respond to such a compliment? With gracious acceptance? With modesty?

It’s probably the influence of my time spent in Japan, but my usual tendency is to downplay any compliment.

‘Oh, these? They’re only cheap! They were reduced to $20’

For me, responding to compliments with a simple ‘Thank you’, as is common in many European cultures (including Hungary, where I am now located) goes against the grain.

Complimenting ‘is a complex sociolingustic skill’, says Holmes (cited by Grossi), and in Japanese society, a desire for modesty generally outweighs a desire for agreement (Leech, cited by Pohl). Using Japanese norms in Australian society has sometimes surprised – or even annoyed – those I’m speaking to. ‘Don’t say that!’ they respond with utter horror, ‘I don’t need to know how much they cost!’ highlighting the taboo of talking about money.

There’s a stigma attached to the word ‘cheap‘, especially when applied to a person. Something that is cheap is meaningless, to feel cheap is to be embarrassed. No one wants to be a cheapskate – someone who is labelled as ‘stingy’ and ‘miserly’. But just like the word ‘budget’, should ‘cheap’ be viewed so negatively? Surely saving money – or at least, not wasting it – is a good thing?

Mr. Money Mustache calls labels like ‘Frugal, Cheap, Tightwad and various other concepts’ something we must overcome, but also points out that ‘frugality’ may well be the new ‘fancy’. Where the easy way is to spend, spend, spend, it is the savers who are the more badass, more skilled, and more worthy of social status, he says.

In a nutshell, Mr. Money Mustache draws the following distinctions between being ‘frugal’ and being ‘cheap’:

  • A cheap person will live for ages with the cheapest fridge they can buy or get for free on Gumtree, refusing to spend any money to upgrade even if it would save them money over the long run. A frugal person will buy the fridge that costs them (and the environment) the least to run.
  • Being cheap means fighting over every last cent on the table when you split the bill. Being frugal might mean living a spartan life when you’re by yourself, so that you have the money to be generous when creating memories with friends and family.
  • A cheap person might show up to an important event in their painting clothes, embarrassing the whole family. A frugal person will be happy to drive a less expensive car or wear older clothes generally, but respects others by demonstrating the esteem in which they hold events like weddings and funerals by dressing appropriately.
  • Being cheap means dumping your car in the forest regardless of the societal and environmental impact, simply to avoid tip fees. Being frugal means cutting down on luxuries that only affect you, like pay TV, instead.

Of course, opinions on what constitutes ‘cheap’ aren’t unanimous. One person who has reclaimed the word ‘cheapskate’ is Jeff Yeager, the self-described ‘Ultimate Cheapskate’, and author of How to Retire the Cheapskate’s Way: The Ultimate Cheapskate’s guide to a better, earlier, happy retirement. (He loves the word ‘cheapskate’ so much, he’s used it twice in the title!)

I first came across Jeff Yeager on the PBS program Living Smart. (Somewhat shamefully, it was a suggested video after I’d been viewing clips of Extreme Cheapskates and Extreme Couponing on YouTube. And there’s another label: ‘extreme’. What is ‘extreme’ to me might be normal to you, or even mega-ultra-extreme (if such a thing exists)!)

Yeager is the author of many books, including The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches, which Early Retirement Extreme (another ‘extreme’!) summed up as ‘along the lines of resetting your priorities completely so you don’t have to worry about easy little tips and tricks to make your consumerist lifestyle a tiny bit more financially bearable’. I think it is in his book of the same name that Jacob Lund Fisker explains why he doesn’t go in for couponing, given the lack of nutritional quality most products that have coupons provide.

If we’re going to make a distinction between ‘frugal’ and ‘cheap’ in the way that Mr. Money Moustache does, I think there are more ‘frugal’ and more ‘cheap’ ways of using discounts like coupons, vouchers, codes and specials:

A frugal person figures out what they need to buy, then looks for discounts.

A cheap person looks at coupons and catalogues and websites in order to figure out what to buy. This often results in them buying things they don’t need. Sure, in some cases, extreme couponing can result in you not having to pay anything for the products you are acquiring – at least at the checkout. But what about the costs to put up shelves for the 100 boxes of cat food you bought (when you don’t have a cat)? The expense to dispose of the items that go out of date before you can use them? The extra room needed to store all of your acquisitions? What you’re paying in rent or on your mortgage for space for things you don’t need can make even extreme couponing an expensive hobby. Then there’s the opportunity cost too. If you’re spending hours upon hours a week clipping coupons or trawling through online auction sites, is there a more profitable way you could be spending your time? You could work a part-time job, or volunteer, perhaps.

I’m not saying that all couponing or discount hunting is bad, and some particularly admirable individuals use their skills in this area to stock up on items they can donate to charity, but the smart shopper in my books is one who uses discounts to enhance and enrich their life rather than to dictate it.

FrugalCheapCheck out the Ultimate Cheapskate’s YouTube channel

Do you consider yourself frugal? Cheap? A spending addict?
What are your definitions of these terms? And how do you feel about being seen as ‘cheap’?

Today’s featured image is of some of the coupons I’ve clipped here in Budapest. But my adventures will revolve around the TripAdvisor saves list I’ve been cultivating!
If you enjoy #enrichmentality please share it!





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8 thoughts on “Are you cheap or frugal?

  1. I am definitely a frugal person. I don’t need much in life to be happy. I like to buy things that will last for awhile. Why buy a cheap shirt that will be ruined after one wash when I can buy a quality shirt that lasts 10 years. Thanks for sharing the differences as there is definitely a HUGE difference between the two.

    1. Thanks for your comment Mustard Seed Money! As with many words, I think the subtle distinctions between ‘frugal’ and ‘cheap’ aren’t quite clear in many people’s minds (including my own – I tend to use them interchangably when talking about things, but only use frugal when talking about people because of the negative connotations of cheap). As Jeff Yeager shows though, it doesn’t really matter what you label it, it’s the behaviours that matter – like your buying quality shirts – great example!??

  2. I love this! This is a lesson I hope we are passing on to our children – being frugal vs. cheap. And, being frugal vs. irresponsible! Enjoyed this article and your website.

    1. Thank you Becki! I think this is a very important lesson to teach children.
      I always remember my mother and grandmother explaining the importance of buying ‘classics’ when it came to clothes (like a coat) or household items (like the design of kitchen cupboards), which is something I view as ‘frugal’ rather than ‘cheap’. ?? Thanks for your comment.

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