Frugal, cheap, tightwad, miser, tightfisted, penny pincher. . .
We tend to use all of these words interchangeably to refer to people who are tight with their money, but there is a distinct difference.
The Definition of Cheap
Cheap has a negative connotation, as does tightwad, miser, and tightfisted, perhaps with good reason. If you look up the meaning of cheap, you’ll see it says, “giving or sharing as little as possible” (Merriam-Webster).
Scrooge in A Christmas Carol is the perfect example of someone who is cheap.
He does whatever he can to hoard as much money as possible and does not want to share with others. We’ve even coined a term for people who don’t want to share or aren’t charitable–scrooges–after the character in A Christmas Carol.
I had a friend in graduate school who, if he took a girl out to a dance club, would only take her when it was ladies’ night and the woman got in free. Then he expected his date to split his cost to get in! When he took a date out to eat, he only went during happy hour and would only order off the appetizer menu so he could get the food half price.
Now, if he did this because he was a flat broke college student, that would be one thing. However, he still found plenty of money to go to the movies, buy his cigarettes and alcohol, among his other past times. He was cheap, cheap, cheap. And amazingly he still found women to date him.
The Definition of Frugal
Frugal, on the other hand, mostly has a positive connotation and harkens back to our ancestors’ times when conserving what you had was not only a smart financial move but very literally could mean the difference between starving or thriving.
The dictionary defines frugal as, “careful about spending money or using things when you do not need to” (Merriam-Webster).
At its most basic level, being frugal is about being careful with your resources and using them wisely.
Pa and Ma Ingalls, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s parents, were the perfect example of frugality.
They were very careful with what they had, quite frankly, in part, because they didn’t have much. One year, Pa’s crops were failing, so he had to leave town and walk to another town quite a distance away to find work. His shoes were in miserable condition, so he took the last $3 the family had to buy shoes. Instead, on the way, he’s asked to donate $3 for a church bell, and he does so, forgoing his own comfort. Because of his extreme frugality, he’s able to give his money to charity instead of spending it on himself.
A cheap person would never do that.
Cheap people’s behavior is often hurtful or inconvenient to those close to them. Because they rarely want to part with their money, they won’t spend it even when necessary. If their child truly needs something, they may not buy it because they don’t want to spend the money. They deny themselves and those around them many experiences and pleasures in life because they cannot stand to part with their money.
Related: 7 Ways Your Large Family Can Be Frugal
Frugality Vs. Cheap
As you can see, there’s a big difference between being frugal and cheap.
Believe it or not, I read a blog once where the writer argued that buying toilet paper was not truly a necessity. Instead, she had her family use “family cloths”, essentially cloth wipes for the family to use rather than toilet paper. These would be washed every few days much like a family using cloth diapers for their baby may also use cloth wipes. This is a prime example of being cheap.
TLC has an entire show devoted to cheapskates–Extreme Cheapskates.
I watched an episode recently where the mother made all family members use the same bath water rather than refilling the tub for each family member. She also didn’t let family members use electricity. Instead, they had to carry camping lanterns around the house with them for lighting. Cheap, cheap, cheap.
Frugal people have a different take on the above scenarios. They would buy toilet paper, but they would do so as inexpensively as possible, perhaps by using coupons to lower their out of pocket cost.
Likewise, they would use their electricity, but they would do so consciously, making sure to turn off all lights when a room is empty and unplugging power strips at night to save even more electricity.
Often, frugality is about living a comfortable life by being fiscally responsible. Someone who is frugal doesn’t avoid spending money as someone who is cheap does but instead spends money responsibly and with care.
Related: What’s this Extreme Couponing Thing All About?
Why Being Frugal Trumps Being Cheap Financially
Cheap people often make bad financial decisions because they do everything in their power to spend as little as possible.
My friend’s dad, I’ll call him “Ron” was notoriously cheap. He tried to by the cheapest model of everything, whether that be a lawn mower or a car. As a result, he often ended up spending even more money because the items he purchased were often poor quality.
A frugal person, however, will likely research purchases and doesn’t mind paying more for a quality item.
Ten years ago, I wanted to buy winter boots at a discount shoe store (yes, I struggle with being cheap sometimes), but my husband convinced me to buy quality leather boots for $100. I was not happy with the price since it was 4x the price of the cheap boots, but 10 years later, I’m still wearing the quality boots. Had I bought the cheap ones, I would have already replaced them multiple times.
Likewise, a frugal person doesn’t mind buying something used.
The Duggar family from TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, are as frugal as can be (if you consider having 19 kids frugal!). They make their own laundry detergent, shop at Aldi, buy their clothes from second hand stores and proudly say that one of their family mottos is “Buy used and save the difference.” They’ve bought their RVs, cars, and many other items used, sometimes even at auction.
Why Being Frugal Trumps Being Cheap Emotionally
Being cheap may be an excellent way to amass money, but let’s be honest, what’s the point of amassing money if you do everything in your power not to spend it?
You know the saying, “You can’t take it with you.”
Often, when a person is frugal, he amasses money as does someone who is cheap, but the frugal person is not afraid to spend it on something worthwhile.
If you are frugal and financially secure, you can help out those in need and donate to charities. Warren Buffett, for example, is notoriously frugal. Even though he is a billionaire, he still lives in the same house in Omaha, Nebraska that he bought several decades ago.
Because he’s frugal, not cheap, he can willingly part with his money, as he’s currently doing. Just this year he gave away “2.6 billion of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. stock” to five charities (Huffington Post). He plans to slowly give away half of his fortune to charity. (You can read more about Buffett’s pledge, and others, at givingpledge.org)
In addition, people who are frugal have more money for the things in life that they enjoy.
My husband’s parents are very frugal. They cook every meal at home and go out to eat less than a handful of times a year. They drive the same cars for years (until they finally die). However, because they’re so conservative with their money, when they do go out to eat for their anniversary, they can afford a very nice meal at an upscale restaurant. They also were able to pay for my husband’s full college education as well as trips he took abroad. They value education, so they were frugal to make higher education possible for their children.
Final Words on Frugal Versus Cheap
The next time you use a term like penny pincher, tightwad, cheap or frugal interchangeably, remember that there is a difference.
We would all benefit from being more frugal, including both the spendthrifts and scrooges among us.
Being frugal simply means you are responsible with your money and, because of your money management skills, you ultimately have more money to give to others or to splurge on other areas of your life or to pay for items (like a house paid in full), that would not be possible without careful use of your money.
That’s a skill we can all strive to have.
Awesome post, Melissa! My husband is very frugal but most certainly not cheap. He doesn’t spend mindlessly and always does research on big purchases. He has a knack for picking out the most expensive item in the store, but he knows how to save up and hold off for the best price. He’s helped me become more frugal and I’m thankful for it.
Mary Lacerte says
Wow now I know the difference! Well, I see myself in the middle of “Frugal and Cheap” I’m enjoying both advantages and disadvantages. Being neutral with it comes to financial control give me the chance to live and experience things. I love being fool and wise with it comes to expenses.
Yikes, now that I’ve read your post I think I may be borderline cheap! I’m trying to get out of debt so I try to avoid spending money. If I have to spend then I try to spend very little on things.
That’s not being cheap – it is being sensible. Now, after you get out of debt, if you still can’t bring yourself to relax a bit, THEN we may start calling you cheap! 🙂
Shane @ Financial Debauchery says
So glad I fit under frugal based on this article. As much as I’d like to say “it’s their money, they can do whatever they want with it”, I can’t help but think it really ridiculous to work so hard for cash that will end up stacked in a pile anyway. I say enjoy your money. But of course make sure to keep in mind “responsible spending”.
Glen Craig says
For sure you need to make sure you have money saved for the future but you do hear stories where people lived cheaply and yet they end up dead in wealth.
Marie Lacerte says
Yes! that is also a good point to consider, but I hate the fact when people are so afraid about the future that they tend not to live their present to its maximum. (just my personal point of view). 🙂
I coined a new term called value conscious! If I cannot get a good enough (30-50% off) discount, I probably won’t buy it. I am probably more frugal than cheap.
Glen Craig says
To me it’s all about the value it brings. I’ll spend money for value. An economist would call it utility.
It boils down to values. A cheap person values nothing but himself. A frugal person puts their money where it does the most good. I would never marry a man who was cheap because he would not be generous with his emotions or time either. A frugal person values others and considers their feelings. Being frugal means you get the most value for your money and build toward your goals in a positive way. Yay, frugal!
Just a difference of attitude we all get between frugal and cheap about money utility. Cheap and frugal looks alike suddenly but when both come to the end point of their consumption and with result you get the real difference. Frugal people are little bit alert regarding money but give same priority to quality with money. But cheap people do the simple mistake and loose all chances and at last they only try to make up their mind that they save money. 🙂
I suppose cheap people don’t see the difference. I was always brought up to share and that’s how it should be. As for re-using cloths as toilet paper, now that’s just sick.
Honestly even after reading the “difference” I prefer the term cheap over “frugal”. Frugal just comes off to me as a term for pretentious jerks who have money but pretend their poor because it’s some edgy hipster thing to do (we all know that type of person, don’t lie.)
I literally hate those types of people with a fervent passion and I find them rather insulting to those who really are impoverished.