The Difference Between Frugal and Cheap

Yesterday I was reading a post at Gather Little by Little about frugality. I scrolled down to read the comments, and Paidtwice commented, “…I aspire to be frugal and sometimes I think I hit cheap instead ;).

I think a lot of people struggle with the difference between frugal and cheap. I know I do sometimes. How far is too far in your attempt to be frugal? Let’s play a game: Frugal or Cheap? How would you rate each of the following situations?

  • Re-using plastic margarine tubs to store leftover food.
  • Taking extra ketchup packets from a restaurant, so you don’t have to buy ketchup for home.
  • Taking an old rocking chair out of a dumpster to re-finish for use in your home.
  • Re-gifting a wedding present.
  • Leaving no tip for a waitress, because you can’t afford to tip.
  • Serving leftovers when you have people over for dinner.
  • Shopping at Goodwill for your children’s clothes, when you can afford to buy brand new.
  • Asking family members to chip in for Thanksgiving Dinner.
  • Buying a second-hand carseat.
  • Buying only loss leaders when you go shopping.
  • Picking tomatoes from your neighbor’s garden when it’s apparent they have far more than one family could use.

I’ve heard some real life variations of all of these situations. I’ll let you know what I think, and then you can tell me what you think.

Re-using plastic margarine tubs to store leftover food. I think this is frugal. It’s making good use of what resources you have. I probably wouldn’t re-use these containers for long term storage in the freezer, because that’s not what they were designed to do, and my food might taste funny. But I think for basic storage in the refrigerator, re-using plastic margarine tubs is a frugal move.

Taking extra ketchup packets from a restaurant, so you don’t have to buy ketchup for home. Cheap. Restaurants provide ketchup packets for meals bought at the restaurant. So use as many as you need for the meal you bought, but don’t take extra packets just for home use.

Taking an old rocking chair out of a dumpster to re-finish for use in your home. Frugal, as long as your city doesn’t have laws against dumpster diving. If you can make the discarded rocking chair usable again, taking it keeps it out of the landfill. Definitely a frugal use of resources and the environment.

Re-gifting a wedding present. It depends. If it’s a present you think the couple will like, it can be frugal. It becomes cheap, however, when you give it to a couple that is friends with the person who gave the gift to you. That even goes beyond cheap and turns into tacky.

Leaving no tip for a waitress, because you can’t afford to tip. Cheap. If you can’t afford to leave a tip, you can’t afford to eat at that restaurant.

Serving leftovers when you have people over for dinner. Frugal, as long as the leftovers are good. Please don’t serve moldy macaroni and cheese. I might have called this cheap a few months ago, but a friend of mine told me a story that changed my mind. My friend said that when she was new in town, this couple had invited her over for dinner. She didn’t know it at the time, but the couple was really struggling financially. They served leftovers. Everyone had a great time, and my friend felt welcome in the new community. Having people over for dinner is about relationships, not about showing off your fancy dishes. If you can only afford leftovers, serve them. You’re not cheap. You’re frugal.

Shopping at Goodwill for your children’s clothes, when you can afford to buy brand new. Frugal. I’ve heard the argument that this is cheap, but I don’t think so. If you choose to buy secondhand clothes, so you can afford to take your family to the beach, that’s a frugal use of your money. It’s all about your priorities and where you choose to spend your money. If new clothes aren’t a priority, feel free to buy secondhand.

Asking family members to chip in for Thanksgiving Dinner. It depends. If your family is collectively deciding who is hosting Thanksgiving, and your house would be perfect, but you can’t afford to buy everything, I think it’s fine to ask for financial help at that point. It becomes cheap when you hit your family members up for donations as they leave your house on Thanksgiving Day.

Buying a second-hand carseat. Cheap, unless you know the person selling the carseat VERY WELL, and you know without a doubt that the carseat has been well taken care of and has never been in an accident. Don’t risk your children’s lives just to save a few bucks. That’s cheap and dangerous.

Buying only loss leaders when you go shopping. Frugal. The stores make the rules, and if you’re abiding by the rules, buy loss leaders and use coupons to the extent that’s allowed. It’s definitely good stewardship to save as much as you can when grocery shopping. You might even find you can buy enough to give to someone who needs a little extra help.

Picking tomatoes from your neighbor’s garden when it’s apparent they have far more than one family could use. Hopefully you already know the answer to this one. It is never OK to pick your neighbor’s tomatoes without their permission. I don’t care how many they have. It’s cheap. And wrong.

The bottom line is, when your “frugality” begins to impact other people in a negative way, it becomes cheap. Not leaving a tip impacts the waitress in a negative way, when she’s given you exceptional service. Re-gifting a wedding present when you know there’s a good chance that the original giver will find out about it might cause hurt feelings. Don’t do it.

It’s fine to try to save as much money as you can. I know a lot of people make a game of it, and it can get rather addicting. Just keep in mind that people are more important than a few bucks saved. If you keep your relationships in mind above all else, you won’t have to worry about crossing the line from frugal to cheap.



Author

By , on Oct 25, 2007
Lynnae McCoy I'm Lynnae, wife of one and stay-at-home mom of two. I'm committed to getting out of debt by being frugal with my choices in life.

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{36 Comments}

  1. Yeah, you’re right on target on this one. There’s nothing wrong in being frugal as long you do it right.

  2. Kyle Griffin:

    i always stay updated about current events, specially disasters that happens around the world~*;

  3. Emiko Guthorn:

    Great blog, I just came across it and I am already a fan. I just got rid of 30 pounds in thirty days, and I want to share my weight loss success with as many people as possible. If I can lose weight then any one can. Whatever you do, never give up and you WILL achieve all your weight loss objectives!

  4. J.:

    I agree about serving leftovers. When my husband makes German coleslaw, to avoid waste he’ll use a whole head of cabbage at a time, which is a lot more than the two of us can eat in one sitting. One time we had a large amount left over that was only a few days old and still very good. So when we had my sister- and brother-in-law over for dinner, we included it on the menu. It went perfectly with the fried catfish sandwiches and corn that we served and made for a delicious meal. I don’t consider that cheap at all.

  5. Sandra:

    I guess you’d probably say I’m cheap.

    I hate dead beats, though. If you can’t afford to tip the waitress, don’t go out and eat. They don’t make that much money very often.

    Another thing I can’t stand is a person who is too cheap to take their kids to the doctor. I’ve known a few.

  6. Mela:

    This is where I disaggree:

    We have several “next day” dishes in our family, where last night’s dinner gets reused as part of the next day’s meal, such as manicotti omelettes, turkey sandwitches, “turkey helper,” and the like. Some of these are more popular than the first dish! I think any decent meal I make is perfectly fine to serve fresh or as leftovers. I do, however, think it’s polite for me tell people if I’m using food aquired from a dumpster, Some people are squicky about that.

    In some areas, your neighbors may go out of their way to distribute their fruit in the summer, as this falls and rots on the ground. So maybe asking your neighbor if he wants to share would get a positive reaction.

  7. Great job on the post. It can be difficult on how determine being frugal and cheap, but your benchmark of affecting other negatively is a good guideline.

  8. Rose:

    Someone in our neighbourhood picked all the cherries off of our cherry tree (in a single night). And a few months later, they picked all our tomatoes and hot peppers too. I wish I knew who they were!

  9. d.a. - All In Good Health:

    “It’s a discussion that never tires on the financial security and frugality blog pages. Personally, I agree with the blogger below: [...]”

  10. Lynnae:

    @rstlne – I think it depends on how you use the leftovers. If you just throw a bunch of plastic containers on the table, yeah that’s pretty cheap. But if you use the leftovers to create an appetizing dish, I think it’s perfectly acceptable.

    @Scott – I do agree that it’s best to ask for guests to bring dishes. My family usually declines and forks over money instead though. I live in a family of non-cooks. :/

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