In a number of discussions with students after some recent CARE presentations and with friends and family over the holidays, we ended up talking about the difference between being cheap and being frugal.
As you might expect in our “hyper consumer” society where our upbringings, educations and experiences with money and money management can be so different, there were a wide range of opinions. It was also very interesting to see what the first thing was that popped into people's’ minds.
As a result, I had to do some research, and I sent out a survey to a cross section of friends, family, educators and even financial professionals. I received a number of great responses to my inquiries, some of which I will anonymously include in this column.
I also learned some very clever and insightful new terms that I will definitely use in my CARE presentations. For example, I always talk about the need to have a budget and to track your spending so that you can make smart choices and not be on “spending automatic pilot” like too many Americans. As a writer in ToughNickel put it, “I like to think I’m frugal, or better yet, that I’m a conscious spender.”
Another similar term that I heard during my recent discussions was a "resourceful spender." As I always say, being in a position to make those smart choices can save you money in a number of different ways, including getting things that you have already determined to buy or do for cheaper. So be a conscious and resourceful spender.
Another great term that I learned from a U.S. News article was saving strategies. I always talk about building up good “making money matter” habits, which will ensure that you always get good value for your hard-earned money, whether it is for a need or for a want. Building saving strategies is a good way to help describe the need for those important habits.
OK, so what is the difference between cheap and frugal people, understanding that it is not cheap goods or services that we are talking about — those of inferior or lesser quality? Let’s start with some definitions from my 1995 Webster’s II College Dictionary.
Cheap — stingy (giving or spending reluctantly or unwillingly); miserly (tending to hoard money or possessions). For example, too cheap to pay the employees well.
Frugal — avoiding unnecessary monetary expenditures; thrifty (wise economy in the management of resources, especially money).
Here are some of my favorite descriptions of cheap and frugal from U.S. News, ToughNickel and Money Crashers.
Cheap and frugal people both like to save money, but frugal people will not do so at the expense of others. Cheapness uses price as a bottom line; frugality uses value as a bottom line. Being cheap is about spending less; being frugal is about prioritizing your spending so that you can have more of the things that you care about.
There may be some similar characteristics between being cheap and frugal, but the two mindsets are totally different. Cheap people spend more of their time counting their money than spending it, really don’t know how to enjoy life, don’t see anything wrong with never tipping and don’t even allow themselves to have hobbies because they cost money. Also, they often sacrifice quality for cost and end up regretting it.
Frugal people enjoy life; enjoy spending money when they get good value for it; and save money in some areas and then allow themselves the pleasure of seeing their hard-saved money go for something enjoyable, like a nice vacation. Also, frugal people spend money, but they know which corners to cut better than some other people do.
In the next column I will share some of the responses that I received, and I will share with you my personal thoughts on the differences between cheap and frugal people. In the meantime, I will leave you with a few “cheap” jokes about cheap people.
She makes pancakes so thin, they only have one side.
He is so cheap that he takes off his glasses when he’s not looking at anything, married a skinny girl so that he could buy a smaller ring and is still waiting for the Bible to come out in paperback.
John Ninfo is a retired bankruptcy judge and the founder of the National CARE Financial Literacy Program.