You Can Call Me Almost Anything … But Please Don’t Call Me Cheap

As the economy continues its struggle to emerge from its seemingly never-ending malaise, many folks are working hard to find additional and more creative ways to save a buck or two.

I recently had lunch with a friend of mine who called me a cheapskate because I dared to bring home a healthy handful of extra napkins that an overzealous fast-food server had placed on the tray with my meal.

“I’m not cheap,” I told him.

“Oh yes, you are!”

“Really?”

“Really.”

I just stared at him for a couple of seconds with that “WTF?” look before I finally broke the silence between us. “I forgive you.”

“You forgive me?” my friend said, “For what?”

“For being a moron who doesn’t know the difference between cheap and frugal.” (And, no, I didn’t use the term moron.)

Of course, my buddy and I were just having a little good-natured fun with each other but, still, that little episode got me to thinking: “What is the difference between cheap and frugal?”

Oh sure, there are the usual examples of a typical cheapskate, like purposely grabbing hundreds of ketchup packets — or, um, napkins — from a restaurant to avoid having to buy them. But there are other, subtler, differences too.

Frugal folk have a long-term, pragmatic, approach to saving money; most wealthy people, including your typical millionaire next door neighbor, are naturally frugal. On the other hand, short-term thinking plagues the cheapskates among us. For example, deciding to save a little money upfront by not buying a business suit to wear for job interviews.

Unlike cheapskates, frugal people not only understand that a penny saved is worth more than a penny earned, but that those saved pennies are meant to be eventually spent in the pursuit of happiness. Cheapskates tend to save money simply for the sake of, well, saving money.

There are other indicators. The frugalistas of the world are concerned about getting value for their money. Cheapskates usually aren’t willing to pay more for quality; for them, the only thing that matters is the number on price tag.

And while frugal people can be generous, cheapskates find it difficult to be so. I’m frugal, but I’m not afraid to occasionally pick up the entire tab for dinner when I’m out with friends. I know many other frugal folks who are the same way too. That would never happen with a cheapskate.

Here’s another “tell.” The next time you’re out dining or shopping, and want to know whether a decision you make is a sign of healthy frugality or distasteful cheapness, ask yourself whether your action is affecting you alone — or those around you too. Frugalistas tend to make decisions that only affect themselves. On the other hand, money decisions made by typical cheapskates usually affect those around them. For example, a frugal person would never shortchange a waiter on a well-deserved tip just to save a couple bucks; the cheapskate, however, wouldn’t think twice.

While being frugal has an almost heroic quality to it nowadays, the term “cheap” has always come with a stigma; nobody likes to be thought of as being a tightwad. After all, striving to spend less than you earn and saving money are noble endeavors, but, like anything else in life, pinching pennies can be taken way too far — which is why many people end up being characterized by others as selfish and stingy.

As for whether disparaging labels like that are really warranted, well, that ultimately depends upon whether you’re cheap or frugal.

Which one are you?

Photo Credit: David Hilowitz

Comments

  1. 1

    Kate says

    I’d like to think I’m frugal… but I also have a long way to go in that endeavor. I’m not ready to re-use my coffee grounds (yuck), but I do wash and re-use plastic zip-top bags, and prefer cloth rags to paper towels. (Get the purple microfiber cloths from flylady.net.) I don’t remember the last time I paid full price for anything. Frankly, I’m having a hard time remembering the last time I shopped just for the hell of it.

  2. 2

    Olivia says

    Very timely article. Our kids think I’m really cheap. Really. We don’t have the latest and greatest. We don’t live like their friend’s families. We save before we spend. My husband thinks I’m frugal. We live within our means, have no debt, and put our resources where we think they are most important.

    Our kids are strongly affected by our choices. So by your definition, I’m really, really cheap. We won’t buy them a car, (like their friend’s parents). We won’t pay for their car insurance, (like their friend’s parents). We didn’t get them cell phones, (….). We don’t do Disney. We figure if these things are important enough for them they’ll use their own earnings for them. We will not go into debt to buy them things we wouldn’t go into debt for ourselves.

    We don’t encourage them to take out massive loans for college, (like all their friends are doing), but encourage them to work a few years, live at home, save up, then go. Our first born used his earnings and what we could give him to graduate debt free. Our younger one is still struggling with the idea. He’ll graduate HS in 2014.

    • 3

      Rick Kacel says

      Your not cheap – you are just very, very smart. The world is filled with people that constantly spend and indulge their children. If (or should I say when) the economic disaster hits, you and your children will have the ability to survive it. I can’t say that for the majority of people today. Just to encourage you, we raised our family similarly to you, and they are in their late 20′s and 30′s now. Each won has thanked us in their own way for raising them to be smart about money. They didn’t when they were teenagers! Stick with it and you will be rewarded.

    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      “Our kids are strongly affected by our choices. So by your definition, I’m really, really cheap.”

      In hindsight, Olivia, I probably should have qualified my statement to say “adversely affected.” :-)

  3. 5

    Rick Kacel says

    Len, my 32 year-old daughter gave me the best compliment ever when her husband jokingly called me cheap. She said “My Dad is not cheap. He buys quality stuff at the best price he can find and doesn’t waste his money on junk. He is generous to people in need and spends his money wisely” Wow! I love that girl! On another note, I would encourage people to go into the local thrift stores. You would be amazed at what you can find at bargain prices. I donate all of our unwanted stuff to a local St Vincent de Paul and I shop there as well. For example, I always buy inexpensive wine glasses since we run them thru the dishwasher and they eventually break. I usually pay $2 each. I found wine glasses at St. Vinnies for $0.25 each. I also looked for matches to our Phaltzgraff plates that keeping chipping (they want $12 for replacement pieces). I found a set of very nice ,no-brand 8 dinner and 8 salad plates for $0.25 each. We have been using them for 2 months – not one chip! At the same time I spotted a nearly new Dockers leather belt my size for $0.50. So that haul cost me $5.50!. I have money to buy new. But this way I can save money, help a local charity, and reuse items that may have filled the local dump. It’s not being cheap, it’s being smart!

  4. 7

    BS says

    Wow…how poignant. This posting reminds me almost exactly of my brother and me. I have always accused him of being cheap and I was correct. The part about generosity really struck a nerve with me. His household makes noticeably more money than I do (his wife has a job whereas my wife is a stay-at-home mom). They have a new $35,000 minivan and all the latest electronic gadgets, yet at Christmas, they couldn’t even be bothered to buy a single gift for a needy kid off of the Salvation Army tree.

    Our family had put money aside to buy some gifts for needy kids (3 of them: 1 child of the same age as each of my kids) and our kids picked out the gifts for them. And my brother was surprised that we didn’t spend that money on our kids instead.

    Yet, when we were all camping at a State Park, he didn’t want to spend the $30 to rent a canoe to spend the day paddling down the river with the kids because it was too much money.

    I realize that these 2 little anecdotes don’t paint the entire picture, but these things that I have seen that are indicative of the difference between “Frugal” and “Cheap”.

    • 8

      Len Penzo says

      My Dad has a saying he has always brought out whenever he encounters someone like your brother who won’t shell out $30 to rent a canoe.

      “I’ve never seen a Brinks truck follow a hearse!” He’s right.

      We don’t get bonus points for money in the bank after we kick the bucket. Passing up life experiences to save money is a senseless practice, IMO.

  5. 9

    says

    We live in what is quite possibly the most consumeristic neighborhood on earth. The people here apparently think it a sport to buy things that cost a ton of money, but only if the neighbors can see it.

    A family up the street has 16-year-old twins. Of course, for their birthdays, they were given brand new cars. One of the twins has already gone through 2 different cars and is now on his third. Since he didn’t pay for it, what does he care if it gets wrecked? His parents will just buy him a new one, and he knows this! I feel bad for him when he goes and gets his first job…

    Our house is on the market, we cannot live in this neighborhood, nor bring up our girls in this environment. When we sell the house, we will lose money, as we just bought it last year. But since we are frugal, we have the money to lose. It still hurts, but it is an investment in our kids. The children here have EVERYTHING, and my girls are already asking why the other kids have all these toys and we don’t? Well, because I love you and spend time with you. You never see the other parents outside, ever. So sad.

    • 10

      says

      My next door neighbor just bought his teenage daughter a brand new SUV because she “did well” in school. Ridiculous!

    • 11

      Len Penzo says

      “I feel bad for him when he goes and gets his first job…”

      I’m laying odds that Junior’s first job will be given to him too.

  6. 13

    Hollis says

    Then I must be a cheap ‘moron’ because I take home the extra napkins too! Rather I stick them in the car door pocket to use when I need to use the water from the water bottle (that I refill from my faucet) to rinse my hands and dry them with from the overflowing Heathbar Blizzard that I indulge in ONLY on road trips to see my mother.

  7. 15

    says

    This is something I have to fight off constantly. I just don’t care to spend money on things that aren’t important to me. I don’t want an iPhone, iPad, premium cable channels, or a massive car payment. For that some folks think I’m cheap. But on the other hand, I sent my daughter to Italy on a school trip for 10 days, we go to Cape Cod every year (where I always upgrade the room), and I buy only San Marzano tomatoes (at $3+ a can) to make my sauce as I refuse to skimp here. I prefer to spend money on the important rather than the trivial.

    • 16

      Len Penzo says

      Hey, Joe … yesterday was Sunday, so I made a big pot of sauce; this time with Contadina tomatoes. If I can’t get the Contadina, then I use the San Marzano tomatoes because they are, without a doubt, top-quality.

      Have you tried the Contadina? They’re less expensive and, I’ll be honest, I have trouble telling the difference between the two.

      • 17

        says

        I haven’t tried that brand, but I will. Thanks for the suggestion. In a pinch (or if I’m feeling “extra frugal’), I will use crushed tomatoes by Hunts and/or Cento. Those brands are excellent as well. I use the Cento brand San Marzano tomatoes. We try to buy them on sale, but they are not available at sale price as much as regular tomatoes.

  8. 18

    Jen says

    Cheap= you are not having any fun, you are embarrassing or hurting yourself or others
    Frugal= you are satisfied with your life, and your actions do not affect others in a bad way.
    The napkin taking I would consider frugal because once a customer is given paper napkins, I feel squeamish if they are reused at restaurant. If I do not use my paper napkin I put it in my pocket to wipe up spills or clean something later. One thing I cannot stomach is when I eat out with people who haggle over tips or try to stiff waitstaff.

    • 19

      Len Penzo says

      “The napkin taking I would consider frugal because once a customer is given paper napkins, I feel squeamish if they are reused at restaurant.”

      That was my thought, Jen. I never even considered giving back the napkins as I figured they would never take them back once they gave them to me because of sanitary reasons. At least I hope they wouldn’t take them back!

  9. 20

    says

    A cheap person and a frugal person will both clip a coupon for a buy1-get1 lunch at a local eatery and each will invite a companion to lunch. The frugal person will tell her companion that she has a coupon and ask her if she wants to split lunch. They agree and they both select eligible lunch entrees. When the bill comes, they deduct the amount of the coupon from the bill and then split the rest; the end result being that they each pay for half a lunch. The cheap person doesn’t tell her companion that she has a coupon and then talks her companion into getting an eligible lunch entree. When the bill comes, they split it and then the cheap person whips out her coupon; the end result, the cheap person gets a free lunch and her companion pays full price for a lunch she wouldn’t have gotten had her ‘friend’ not talked her into it.
    I am a frugal person. (Yes, I have had lunch with the cheap person….but only once.)

  10. 23

    says

    When we married, I had to show my husband the difference between frugal and cheap–he came from a FOB Chinese family who was used to very poor quality and nothing lasting, so I had to show him that if you spent just a LITTLE more, as long as you did it wisely, you could get WAY more quality and spend less in the long run.

    He’s been converted to my way of thinking. :)

  11. 24

    says

    I am frugal and I refer to it as value conscious. If an overzealous clerk put too many napkins on your tray, just leave them on the table. You do not need to take them home.

    • 25

      Len Penzo says

      I’ll be honest, Larry: I would have been much happier if the overzealous clerk had put too many French fries on my tray instead.

    • 26

      Lola says

      I worked my teenage years at a fast food joint. Anything that a customer leaves on a table – extra ketchup packets, napkins, etc. – is thrown away when the employee wipes down the table. This is for sanitary reasons. Nobody knows if you did something icky to those napkins, so they will go in the trash if you don’t take them home. Just fyi.

  12. 27

    says

    People have been calling me cheap since I was really young, yet I give more than my closest friends. It really doesn’t bother me if people call me cheap. What’s important is what I think of myself.

    I have done things where people would say I am cheap and I have done things where people would say I am frugal. Not tipping a waiter to save a few dollars is just mean. I wouldn’t even think of doing that. I also wouldn’t think of taking extra napkins, or ketchup home because I don’t want to buy them.

  13. 29

    says

    I’m frugal all the way. I enjoy saving money but I know when to spend it and I’m not afraid to spend it. I also know that spending money on quality items may mean they last a bit longer than buying cheap stuff that you have to buy over and over. It’s all a matter of perception and belief.

  14. 31

    bbinmiss says

    I constantly teter between the two but will only be cheap with myself. I’ll go to another Walmart to buy an instant soup I like but only if I’m already in the area. I’ll grab a few extra napkins at the fast food place to put in the vehicle just in case (I end up eating on the road a couple times a month). I have an aquaintance who is the cheapest of the cheap but will spend her guys money like no tomorrow. If I meet them at the golden arches I spend about $4.00 for lunch paid for by me. She will get the $5.00 burger meal and upsize it, he orders off the dollar menu. She then grabs a handful of napkins which gets stuffed in her purse, then another handful on top of that, then some more to use. After getting their food she goes back to the counter and askes for 4 packs of sauce that she pockets to take home. I’m embarrassed to meet them at the fast food place I go to alot since a lot of the workers know me. I feel bad for him for not standing up and telling her to quit taking so much stuff she doesn’t need.

  15. 32

    says

    I like to think I am frugal and savvy – seeking out the best ways to save money to put towards something I want to achieve, not being cheap for the sake of being cheap. Frugal people always have a goal in mind.

  16. 34

    says

    I think I’m straddling the line between cheap and frugal. Most of the time, I’m frugal, but I have been known to venture into the cheapskate category occasionally.
    I do pick up the tab for friends once in a while, but not very often. :)

  17. 35

    says

    I’m frugal but I’m sure non-frugal people think that I cross the line into being cheap. Whatever, it doesn’t bother me. With your example on things like the napkins, I will take those if I know that the napkins would just be thrown out if I didn’t take them. Why let something get thrown out if you can take it home and use it?

  18. 36

    Grandma B. says

    Great post and comments. Frugal is what you do to yourself; cheap is what you do to others. By the way, Call Me Anything But Late For Dinner.

  19. 39

    says

    I like to think that I am frugal and go for value instead of skimping on a few cents. re napkins or ketchup, I used to bring them home but rarely used them so there was ketchup getting old in the fridge and I don’t like waste either, so unless I have a rather immediate use for the napkins I would leave them.

  20. 40

    Tanya says

    I would say I’m frugal-I use coupons, take the extra napkins given me to use in the car, and always look for clearance/sale items (unless a little more can be spent for better quality like Jenny said). BUT I am spending a chunk of money/some financial aid/work tuition reimbursement to get my master’s degree-which I see as an investment for me and my children. I would definitely make the investment (go into some debt)so my kids can go to college when they are old enough also-it will benefit them forever.

  21. 41

    debbie z says

    To me a frugal person thinks long term and takes the time to think. May even write down pros and cons to make a reasoned decision. What matters is not just how much you spend right now but how it will work out for you long term.

    It makes sense to spend more for higher or highest quality when and where it affects ease and reliability of use for what you use over and over. Coffee drinkers might spend for coffee maker while the smoothie drinker would save more long term getting better quality blender. And never forget that 90 percent of your long term cost is in the keeping and storage not the purchase.

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