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.


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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  1. Scott Simmons:

    “Chipping in for Thanksgiving? CHEAP! If it’s that much of an issue, than assign dishes to others and make it a potluck. Asking for money is never okay in my book. I do, however, ask my sister for her famous salad, MIL for her excellent artichoke dip, etc.”

    That’s almost exactly what I was going to post! This saves you money, while actually making your guests feel more appreciated rather than less. Win-win!

  2. I would serve fresh food to guests and use the leftovers from that for the next meal. Come on! Would you want to be served leftovers if you’re a guest at someone else’s place?

    • Roy:

      I’m happily single but cooking for one can get expensive. I always make enough usually to feed 4 when I cook. I make a bean soup casserole that all my friends love and when they come over and I ask them if they want anything to eat they ask about my bean soup casserole. They prefer it left over because in a day or two its much better than the first day. That’s true about a lot of other things too.
      I only serve things that are not more than two days old. I will use my vac sealer and freeze left overs if I’m not interested in eating the same things for the next couple of days.
      Some things just aren’t good left over – like fish. I only cook enough for 1 meal when I cook it but pot roast is another story.

      Bottom line is, if it tastes good serve it. If its questionable then don’t. If they complain…then don’t feed them. Of course if you invite someone over next Friday for a chicken dinner and its Monday don’t fix a chicken dinner on Wednesday then feed them the leftovers on Friday…That is tacky. Like one person said, If its a last minute thing then I don’t mind serving leftovers but a planned get together is another story.

  3. Lynnae:

    @m – I agree with you. It’s cheap when you harm yourself.

    @Waitress – Thank you so much for weighing in. And you’re absolutely right. You should always keep in mind how much work you are for the waitress when calculating a tip. Most waitresses I’ve come across, don’t mind serving extra chips and refilling water, but if you’re going to take advantage of the “free” food, please tip generously. Waitresses have families to feed too, and they deserve to be compensated for their work.

  4. Waitress:

    Just an addendum from a waitress’s point of view regarding the tip.

    I work at a Mexican restaurant and we serve unlimited free chips & salsa. Lots of frugal people love to fill up on this as well as order water with their meal. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se….the restaurant provides the chips & salsa and it’s a pretty cheap thing to provide, all considered. However, when someone orders $7 worth of food (our per person minimum), water and keeps asking for refills on the chips, the server ends up doing a lot more work than the $1.40 20% tip really warrants. At that point, you’re not really being generous by tipping 20%, you’re being cheap. If you demand a lot of “free” services, please kick in an extra dollar or so to the waitress, especially if the restaurant is busy. The time it takes to do extra for you takes away from the time she has to help tables who are spending a lot more….

  5. Lisa:

    Great list – just want to emphasize the carseat one! Carseats are very reasonably priced and it’s definitely not worth the risk to your little ones.

  6. m:

    I like your definition but I’d add to it that cheap isn’t just doing harm to others through our efforts to spend less but also when we do harm to ourselves for that same reason.

    If we skimp on important things we can afford like good healthcare, good education for our kids, spending time with loved ones, nutritious food, etc. just to save some money, that’s cheap. (Again this is assuming we can afford to spend on those things and just choose not to, I don’t mean when spending on such things will cause financial problems or harm in other aspects of our lives.)

    At least that is my definition. For me. I think everyone has to decide for themselves where that line is. That is mine. Great post.

  7. Lynnae:

    @paidtwice – I can understand that struggle. I struggle with the same thing. Sometimes I think it’s a blessing that we’ve never been able to afford real expensive top quality stuff. I’ve never had the opportunity to be disappointed in it. :)

    @Pam – I usually ask for people to bring dishes for Thanksgiving. I have a weird family, though, and they’d rather give me money than cook. So I ask for a dish, they offer to give money instead, and I agree and buy and make everything. Yes, we’re dysfunctional. lol

    @Jennifer – I’ve had mixed luck with Walmart brands. You do have to figure that anything Walmart brand will wear out quickly, and then be pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t.

    @Hollie – I applaud you for your lifestyle. I’m going to have to check out your blog. I might learn something. :)

    @Lightning – I agree if the restaurant gives you more ketchup than you can use for your meal, by all means use it up at a later time. It’s better than wasting it. But if you’re in the restaurant and getting your own ketchup, don’t grab 20 packets when you know you’ll only use two.

  8. I agree totally with your definition of cheap. If it is going to hurt or cost someone else, especially in a way that is outside of their control, it’s cheap. It’s not only cheap, it’s wrong in my book.

    Although, if we’re given more sauce sachets than we require for a meal we will take them home with us as I don’t think restaurants can reuse them. I would draw the line at taking a handful from a self serve bar though.

    Great Post!!!

  9. I am the queen of cheap but I have chosen to take the “bad” out of the word, for me it means I am a frugal mom who lives well, and saves for what is important,

    Am adding you to my blog roll

  10. I used sheets and chairs as examples but really I guess I mean it about anything :)

    I’ve been disappointed by so many expensive items in the past that I guess my brain is happier to buy something cheap and wear it out than to buy something indestructible and have it stink for the rest of my life.

    Or something.

    I need to think this out more.

    Thanks Jennifer!

  11. Pam:

    I agree on most points. Taking ketchup packets and tomatoes are STEALING.

    Leftovers for dinner guests? Invited guests – cheap, cheap, cheap! Drop-ins – leftovers are okay.

    Chipping in for Thanksgiving? CHEAP! If it’s that much of an issue, than assign dishes to others and make it a potluck. Asking for money is never okay in my book. I do, however, ask my sister for her famous salad, MIL for her excellent artichoke dip, etc.

    People love to cook a dish if you compliment it when you ask them to bring it!

    I also save plastic containers, to send leftovers home with guests. (I know which guests like to take some home and which ones don’t.)

  12. Lynnae:

    @mumple – you are absolutely right. Unfortunately that example is based in reality. I couldn’t believe it either, when I heard about it.

    And I like your differentiation between being frugal, being cheap, and stealing!

  13. I read Jennifer’s, then read yours, and decided to rant a bit myself. I did the whole list (mostly agreeing) just to be able to yell that helping yourself without permission to someone else’s garden is STEALING.

    And frugal makes me want to be like you; cheap makes me what to roll my eyes at you; stealing makes me want to hit you with a stick.

  14. Lynnae:

    @paidtwice – Hmmm. I’m going to have to think about that one. I can definitely tell you that office chairs at Walmart are cheap. The one I’m sitting on is falling apart as I type. LOL

    I feel a new post coming on from your comment. :)

    @Carrie – thanks for the information. I had no idea that you could use a #5 container in the microwave!

    @Pinyo – I didn’t figure you were cheap. Glad I could confirm that for you. And I agree. Not tipping is horrid.

  15. bring on the sticks! i love it!


  16. Paidtwice-here’s my $.02 about Walmart. In general I have found that anything at Walmart that is *manufactured* by Walmart (Home Trends, Basic Editions, etc) is usually not worth it in the long run. If you are going to ever have to replace an office chair, you bought the wrong one, and I can guarantee a Walmart one is one you will have to replace. Sheets–to me, Walmart ones are scratchy. You can’t get a 600 thread count at Walmart. For things Walmart carries that aren’t manufactured by them, it varies by the brand.

  17. Lynnae:

    @Kandy – you are absolutely right about reheating in re-used plastic containers. Don’t do it!

    @Elizabeth – I can see your point about leftovers, and could almost agree with it. I guess I would want to discourage people from not having dinner guests because they can’t afford to make an elaborate meal. Or to discourage people to have an impromptu guest over, because leftovers are on the menu, as in Kandy’s case.

    I think that most people would prefer not to serve leftovers to guests, and I think that’s good. But I think opening one’s home to others is more important than what’s on the menu. I guess serving leftovers could go either way, depending on the situation. It could be frugal…or cheap.

  18. I agree with everything you said. I’ve had to serve leftovers to guests before, but it was because they were unexpected guests, and well, leftovers were the planned meal for the night lol.

    About the margarine tubs though…a word of caution. Do NOT use them to reheat food in the microwave. When heated, that cheaper plastic can release carcinogens into your food. I kid you not. Always transfer the food to another container for reheating.


  19. Ah, when my comments spark a whole post it is always a good day. :)

    I did fine on your quiz. yay me! But here’s my dilemma (feel free to write more posts about me lol):

    Does shopping at Walmart make me frugal or cheap?

    And I am not talking about any ethical considerations. I am talking about buying an office chair at Walmart vs a furniture store, buying my sheets at Walmart vs Linens n Things…. what items are worth spending twice as much for (or more?). I don’t know. I don’t know how long different stuff is going to last and what items are worth it.


  20. Not tipping is HORRID. Don’t even get me started…waitress’ only make 2.50 an hour MAYBE 3 bucks…because they are tipped employees. If you can’t afford a tip then take your cheap self to TACO BELL!!! *off soapbox*

    You did a great job showing the difference Lynnae! About the reusing containers…look at the bottom of them, if it has a #5 in the little recycle triangle you can actually use them in the micro, fridge and freezer. However, pay close attention to them and if they start to look worn toss them. If they are less than a 5 then you can use them in the fridge and that’s about it ;)

  21. Elizabeth:

    Great points and examples! I agree with you on every issue but the serving of leftovers to dinner guests. Your example is a good one and demonstrates that there is nearly always an exception to every rule but I would say that except for extreme circumstances, serving leftovers to guests is cheap.

    Excellent point about the carseat and one that warms my heart every time I see it raised. This goes for every single piece of child safety equipment. Carseats and helmets are the two biggies that come to mind. Is a child’s future really worth the money saved by buying second-hand or sub-par quality? Expensive isn’t always better; Consumer research is a must. Remember, if you’re in an accident, ALWAYS replace the carseat. Here’s something not everyone knows — many manufacturers have accident replacement policies as do insurance companies.

  22. dawn:

    Good description of frugality vs. cheapness. Thanks!

  23. I agree with you on all of them!

  24. I had so much to say on this I made my own post, citing yours of course.

  25. Great quiz. I love it. Looks like I am frugal, not cheap. Some of the items are distasteful actually – e.g., “Leaving no tip for a waitress, because you can’t afford to tip.”

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