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Cheap vs. Frugal: Is It Bad to Be Thrifty?

Maybe you’ve always been tight with your money – avoiding spending like the plague and really thinking before trading your hard-earned dollars for things. Or, maybe you’re like me, an ex-shop-a-holic who had to work hard to break the habit of overspending and now has swung to the opposite side of the pendulum. *Yikes* 

After college, I had racked up a substantial amount of consumer credit card debt that took me years to work through. Since then, I’ve had trouble drawing the very fine line between being intentionally frugal and just plain cheap. I’ve learned a few lessons along the way about the difference between the two that I’d love to share with you!

Whatever it is that motivates you to stack your cash, we need to talk. What does it mean to be cheap? Is it different from being frugal? Are either of those bad? Which one will lead you to “Love the Life You Live”? Let’s dig in.  

Being CHEAP

I’ll cut to the chase – being a cheapskate is NOT the way to financial stability or independence. This is a version of ourselves that we need learn to FIRE” … immediately! 

Let’s go ahead and set a definition of what it means to be cheap: 

Making (or not making) purchases solely based on cost, without considering factors like quality, longevity, and practicality. 

Now that we’ve got a working definition, let me give you an example of a cheap choice I used to make all the time. One day, I was packing for an upcoming trip, and I realized I really needed a new black t-shirt. I had about a week until I’d leave for the trip, but I was frantic! Before I knew it, my tires were screeching into the parking lot of a big-box, fast-fashion store. 

I walked in, headed straight to the clearance section, and set my brain to scan-for-the-cheapest-price mode. My eyes landed on a 3-pack of V-neck t-shirts – one black, one white, and one gray – that was priced at just $3.99!!! Holy moly, what a steal! I quickly checked out and headed back home, feeling proud of the deal I’d found. 

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I realized the issue with my cheap choice. Let me dissect it for you a bit. When I was packing for the trip and decided I needed a new black t-shirt, I really only needed that. I already had a perfect white tee, and I don’t ever wear gray. The other two shirts in my $4 bundle were essentially useless in my wardrobe – pretty wasteful, huh? 

More importantly, the cheap shirts were made of cheap materials (surprise, surprise) They were mostly acrylic, and when I washed and dried them for the first time, they came out a whole size smaller. Talk about a disappointment. Still, I wore them, however begrudgingly. 

EVEN FURTHER, the black tee lasted me through my travels, but not even 3 months down the line, there were holes in the armpit seams and the color was so faded that the shirt almost looked blue. Now, I needed another new black t-shirt. *sigh* The cycle of needing a new black t-shirt starts alllllllll over again. I’m sure you can already see where this is going. Let’s continue. 

Being FRUGAL

So, what did that heartbreaking t-shirt saga teach me? It taught me that being cheap is a lot different and a lot more frustrating than being frugal. Let me define frugal for you: 

Making (or not making) purchases based primarily on an item’s quality, longevity, and practicality while also considering the cost. 

Let’s revisit my t-shirt scenario and discuss how it would have gone differently if I would have a made a frugal purchase instead of a cheap one. So, as I’m packing, I realize I need a new black t-shirt. Instead of panicking, I reason with myself – I have seven days until I leave for my trip, that gives me a decent amount of time to do a little searching before making an impulsive decision! 

Then, I get on my phone or computer and start looking into what kinds of t-shirt materials last the longest and hold up best in the wash. Once I choose a material that would work for me (cotton, hemp, and linen are great fabrics), I would begin my search for the best black tee to meet my needs. 

I’d start with the second-hand stores in my area. When I go in, I head straight to the t-shirts and only look in the section of the color I’m wanting. If I find a shirt my size and style made from one of the fabrics I’d read about in my research, I’ll buy it! 

See how I didn’t mention price? That’s because I know any cotton t-shirt, in the color black, in a size and style that would fit my wardrobe’s needs is going to be a staple piece that lasts a long time and would be worth investing in – within what I can personally afford.

Small tangent here. What I’m definitely NOT advocating for is going out and buying outrageously expensive items for quality’s sake. Like I said in the intro, there’s a very fine line between frugal and cheap, not a deep valley. If you spend some time looking around when you find yourself needing to make a purchase, you should be able to find an option that is good quality, that will last a while, AND that will fit in your budget – no need to run straight to Saks Fifth Avenue. 

Being frugal is all about being smart and resourceful. It’s about tapping into your MAKE-IT-HAPPEN mindset! You can ask your neighbors, your friends, and visit secondhand stores. You’re more likely to find higher-quality items for a lower price this way. 

How to “FIRE” the CHEAPSKATE and Become the “NEW YOU”

Look, I get it. Teaching your brain to reach for the $25 single black tee that initially looks just like the black one in the $4 three-pack can be tough. How can spending 6x the amount of money for 1/3 of the goods be financially smart? I’ll break it down for you.

When I bought the 3-pack of t-shirts for $4, but only wore the black one for an average of 2 times per week for 3 months (how long it lasted before being so ragged I had to toss it), the cost per wear was about $0.16*. 

But if I would have done some research and bought a shirt made from high-quality materials, it would have gone more like this: I would have paid $25 for a shirt that would work great with my wardrobe and would last me 24 months. I would still wear it on average 2 times per week. The cost per wear of this “expensive shirt” is only $0.12*! Not to mention I won’t have to replace it every 2-3 months, wastefully collect other colors of shirts that I don’t need, or deal with fading/shrinking due to poor quality. 

Can you see it now? How buying items that are higher quality and more practical for your needs can save you money even if they’re more expensive up front? In the two years that one high-quality black tee would last me, I would have to buy eight packs of the cheap shirts… that’s $32 (and 16 wasted white and gray t-shirts). Any way you slice it, being frugal pays off when compared to just being cheap.

Questions to Ask Yourself to Determine if You’re Being Frugal vs. Cheap

I’ve got some news for you. Learning the difference between frugal and cheap can take a while. Changing your mindset around anything takes time and practice! I mean, Tiger Woods didn’t just wake up one day being the best golfer ever (not up for debate). 

Any time you’re working on FIRING THE OLD YOU and creating the NEW YOU, YOU HAVE TO BE PATIENT AND CONSISTENT. It can help to have some tangible tasks to help encourage the mindset you’re cultivating! I’ve put together this helpful list of questions to ask yourself when making a purchase to determine whether you’re being frugal or just plain ole’ cheap. 

  1. Do I need this item to last? If yes, will it? 

This question is helpful for me, because sometimes the answer is no! For Halloween, I needed a red bandana for my costume. I found one for .99 cents at Walmart and bought it! Sure, there are higher-quality bandanas made from longer-lasting materials out there. And if I were looking to add red bandana to my wardrobe as a new staple, it would have been smarter to spend a little more for a higher-quality piece! If you’re looking to purchase and answer yes to this question, do some research on different materials the product could be made from and if it’s worth to spend a little more to get more longevity out of your buy (think of my black t-shirt story). You can even use my cost-per-wear formula at the end of this post!

  1. Are you being selfish or responsible? 

I find this question to be a tried-and-true way to delineate between a cheap decision and a frugal decision. A cheap choice is to short your waiter of a tip because you don’t want to shell out the cash. A frugal choice is to order a cheaper meal from the menu to still be able to fit an appropriate tip into your budget. A cheap choice is to drive your tires bald and never pay to have them rotated because it’s “too expensive”. A frugal choice is to save for regular tire rotations so your tires last much longer, then replace either the front or the back ones until you can save the money to change the other two. See how this question can be helpful? 

  1. Are you settling for an unsatisfactory item or service just to save money? 

This question really helps me out when I’m stuck between options – one being more expensive than the other. Here’s an example of when this option helps me make a frugal choice: I have a cold and head to the pharmacy! There are two versions of cold medicine – name brand ($20) and store brand ($9). I carefully look at the ingredients and conclude that there isn’t a difference between the two brands! Both have the same capability to relieve my symptoms, so I make a frugal choice and buy the store brand. 

On the other side of the coin, here’s how this question can keep me from making a cheap purchase. I need someone to fix the air conditioning in my car. I’ve found a great local shop online that has hundreds of positive reviews from happy customers. I’ve also found a shop that has way cheaper prices, but the reviews are all complaints of how poorly their car troubles were handled. This question would steer me toward the more reliable shop, and my car would be fixed, headache free! Imagine if I would have chosen the cheaper service and wound up with a car that still had a broken AC and even more issues after leaving the shop? That’s a pretty typical fallout of making a cheap choice where you should have made a frugal one. 

I truly hope that this article has helped you understand that being frugal doesn’t always mean spending the least amount of money possible. As well as how spending the least amount of money possible can put you in some pretty cringy situations… Now get out there and be frugal

What are you waiting for?! FIREthe cheapskate and start working on the “NEW (FRUGAL) YOU! I can say from experience, it will lead to lots of saved money, and ultimately a life that you truly LOVE

*Cost Per Wear Calculation: 

Total Price of Item ÷ (Amt. of Time in Weeks a Product Will Last x Avg. Wears Per Week)

There is an average of 4.3 weeks per month, so you can multiply the number of months an item will last by 4.3 to figure out how many weeks that would be.

Madelyn

Madelyn is a freelance writer living in Central Arkansas. She graduated with honors with a Bachelor’s degree in Professional Writing. With six years of writing content for digital platforms under her belt, she looks forward to growing her freelancing career! Madelyn loves personal finance, minimalism, her dog, her cat, and health and fitness! She spends her free time lifting weights, going for long walks, binging docuseries, and reading all the books. Madelyn is thrilled to be a Fire Yourself contributor, as she already thinks about financial independence, retiring early, and shifting her mindset pretty much 24/7. She has been writing for us since October of 2021.
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3 Comments

  • Awesome article! Very well written, explained, and so true. Wow! Really makes you think before you buy.

    Reply
  • Having read this I thought it was rather enlightening. I appreciate you spending some time and energy to put this informative article together. I once again find myself personally spending a lot of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!

    Reply
    • Thank you very much for reading and responding…please keep reading and make sure you sign up for our newsletter…more exciting things are coming!!

      Reply

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