Being Frugal vs Being Cheap

Sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference between being frugal and being cheap. Being frugal is viewed by many people as a virtue (yet in a capitalistic society it must not be too prevalent). Yet at times people become cheap in the pursuit of frugality. My nature is to be frugal, yet I take pains to avoid being cheap. Here are short definitions of what I mean by frugal vs cheap:

Being Frugal: Being frugal means you can account for your resources. You look for good deals, avoid excess, and do not make mindless purchases.

Being Cheap: Being cheap means you are reluctant to pay full value for items. If an opportunity exists to reduce your cost you take it without considering the impact of your decision on others.

I’ve seen frugality elevated to the status of moral good. Now I don’t have problems with saving money–I’m all for financial responsibility–yet I think it is important to consider how I am saving it. Here are a few topics related to the issue.

Fair Value

The average American has a very warped sense of how much many products cost thanks to cheap foreign labor and the irresponsible use of natural resources. Competition in retail markets is a wonderful thing. It keeps costs down, stimulates innovation, and gives consumers choices. Unfortunately someone is left absorbing the loss when a product is priced below the actual material and production cost. Sometimes a large company will take the loss, yet more often it is individuals laboring in fields or factories. And sometimes it is the environment.

When I’m thinking about how much to pay for something I like to think about what materials and labor have gone into the product. I ask myself what it is worth. A frugal person (by my definition) considers the fair value of a product.


Instead of always trying to spend a minimal amount of money, I like to consider what my expenditures mean in terms of support. For instance, if I purchase organically produced fruits and vegetables I am spending slightly more money to support responsible farming practices (of course some of the large scale organic production operations are still far from environmentally friendly). Even better, if I buy produce produced locally I am helping to support local agriculture and reducing the amount of fossil fuel used to ship my food.

If I buy a full-priced book at a bookstore I am supporting the author and the bookstore. If I buy the book used on Amazon the author makes nothing. These are things I think about.


Sometimes the price tag has a direct correlation to the quality of an item. Take guitars, for instance. If I was looking for a new guitar I could buy one for less than $100. But it would not sound good, have structural deficiencies, and likely not last long. If I want a good guitar I need to be willing to spend a fair price. I did that when I bought my Martin. I was willing to spend more than $1,000.00 on it because the quality was worth it to me (and it has proved to be a good investment).

Bikes are also like this too. Bikes that cost very little–like the ones you see in big box stores–are made of cheaper parts than the ones you’ll find in a bike shop. If you plan to ride often it is well worth the increased price to have a dependable bike that rides smoothly.

A frugal person (by my definition) considers the quality of an item while making a purchase.

Time and Resources

I do my best to figure time and resources into the cost of a purchase. For instance, if the store I am in right now is selling an item for a slightly higher price than a store across town I’ll buy it now because it is not worth my time and the cost of gas to drive across town to pick it up. Coupons and rebates are also something I view with a critical eye. Sometime they are good, yet other times they consume time and result in purchases that I did not need.


Tips are one place where I see frugal people commit atrocities of cheapness. Left to determine their own bill they seek to pay the smallest amount possible. I’ve been known to leave the table slowly after dinner at a restaurant so I can covertly supplement an insulting tip left by someone in my party. Workers that rely on tips as their main source of income are counting on being treated fairly. And by the way, if your meal is slow or not prepared to your liking don’t penalize the waiter or waitress, they’re not to blame if the kitchen is too busy. Trying to save a few dollars or cents by reducing a tip is a sign of cheapness in my book.

The Result

This is an important category, a convicting category, with an ambiguous title. What do I mean by “the result”? Here it is: What is the result of saving X amount of dollars on X purchase?

If I saved that money by cutting a tip or complaining at a store to induce a lower price without good cause I feel I have stolen it. There is nothing good about that.

If I saved the money by legitimate means that’s great. But what do I do with it then? Throw it in my savings account? Buy something for myself? Give it away? As I see it, getting the good deal was part one when it comes to good stewardship. What I do with that saved money will determine how morally good my frugality is. For if my sole goals in saving money are selfishness and self-sufficiency I’ve got problems.

Things to Think About

Frugality and generosity are not exclusive or even opposed.

The love of money is known to cause cancer in lab rats. And evil. I ask myself, “am I trying to save this money because I love it? Do I love the power, freedom, control, and comfort my excess money brings me? Or do I consider my money a blessing from God, to be used to glorify Him?” Sadly, in application, my love is usually misplaced.


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