Frugal vs Cheap: Are You Being Thrifty, Stingy, or Miserly?
There are a lot of ways to describe someone trying to be disciplined with money. When talking about similar fiscal traits using multiple adjectives like “thrifty”, “frugal”, “cheap”, and “stingy”, the main differences these terms are driven by connotation. While, on the surface, these words all seem to focus on and denote one major characteristic in a person — a propensity to spend as little money as possible — they are not synonyms.
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Frugal Vs. Cheap
If someone were to call you “frugal”, you would probably take it as a compliment. Meanwhile, someone calling you “cheap” is likely to sour your mood. What’s the difference between these two seemingly similar terms?
Both frugal and cheap people like to save money and spend with restraint. However, that’s where the technical similarities end and social connotations begin. Generally, being “frugal” means you make wise decisions when buying things. You might wait for the big sale, or simply buy last year’s model at a reduced price, instead of this year’s. Being frugal means you place value of the item first — but not that you’ll sacrifice your friends just to save a buck.
Frugal people may spend a large amount of time comparing products, researching options to find the exact model or brand they want before purchasing. This maximizes the value of the item vs. what they want/will get out of it, and helps keep them to a well-calculated personal budget. For example, if you’re frugal, it may take you two months to decide exactly which make and model of SUV you want, but you will get the lowest price for the perfect upgrades, tailored for you and your needs.
In short, while those considered “frugal” are willing to spend money, they simply look for ways to cut down on cost first, perhaps by collecting coupons or waiting for a sale, for example. Buying shoes that will last 10 years but cost $65, instead of $25 shoes that will last a year or two, is being frugal; while it’s a larger up-front cost, you will save money in the long run. Frugal people still know how to treat themselves to something good — unlike a cheap person.
Being cheap means price is the first thing that comes to mind when spending — not value. Someone who is cheap will not go to the doctor because it is “too expensive,” while someone who is frugal sees the long-term value in seeing a doctor, as serious medical problems develop from symptoms left untreated, and often cost much more than a check-in. Someone who is cheap will likely complain that everything is too expensive, constantly whining about bills and wondering where all their money goes. Being cheap can also come at the expense of having friends.
Cheap people don’t want to spend money. They may resort to unethical methods of saving money as well, perhaps by using a neighbor’s WiFi without permission, or splitting into their cable box in order to circumvent a subscription. A date with them might be fast food, ordering component parts of a meal and putting it together manually to save a few cents, before sneaking into a movie.
Splitting a Check: Frugal Solution or Cheapskate Red Flag?
Here’s a real-world example. You go out to eat with friends, and when it comes time to split the check, there’s murmurs on how to do it. John got steak, while Sarah only got a salad. John wants to split the check evenly, while Sarah argues that each person should pay for their own meal.
John is being cheap (and also stingy, but we’ll get to that later); he wants to maximize the price paid, but at the expense of his friends.
Sarah, on the other hand, had a salad instead of an expensive steak in the first place, saving money without asking for others to pay for her. And even though Sarah is frugal, she’ll still leave a tip based on the cost of her meal, while John might not even leave a tip at all. In his mind, if the others are leaving tips, that’s good enough.
Thrifty vs. Stingy
While similar to frugal and cheap, respectively, there are slightly different connotations to thrifty and stingy.
Being thrifty means you are frugal, but willing to go an extra mile and get hands-on. You might mend your own clothes, change your own oil in your car, or take a date out to a park for a picnic you prepared in lieu of a lunch at the new avant garde sandwich shop. If you are thrifty, you are more likely to build your own kitchen table or sew a Halloween costume, rather than purchase them from others. Outings might be on the cheaper side,but the experience itself will be important.
A key difference between being thrifty and being frugal is often time and effort. A thrifty person may be willing to spend more time to fix or make an item than a frugal person, or, they may simply enjoy the process more. They are more likely to find joy in making a personalized gift for someone than they would simply buying a stocking stuffer from Amazon. In turn, these gifts are often treasured for their thoughtfulness.
Stingy people value hoarding their money. They will leave a small tip, if they deign to leave any tip at all. They can be miserly, hardly ever generous, and are usually extremely reluctant to spend any money at all unless it’s absolutely necessary..
Those considered stingy will always ask to split a bill, and never offer to generously pay for the entire meal during a date. A stingy person is also unlikely to donate to charity, instead keeping the money for themselves. An unexpected windfall will be hoarded instead of used to help those less fortunate, or give friends and loved ones gifts.
The Social Differences
Why do we applaud smart saving and condemn miserly cheapskates? It has to do with how they treat others. Frugal and thrifty people are willing to spend money on other people. They might even be saving, in part, so that they can spend more money on others at later date.
The other side of the coin is cheap and stingy people, who are only thinking of themselves or their immediate family. They are not generous, and thus society assigns a negative value to the terms describing them.
Another factor to consider is wealth. Someone might flaunt their wealth, buying expensive things, but only for themselves. They are not generous. They are, in fact, being stingy, in a different sense of the world. They don’t mind spending money, but they don’t buy other people gifts, they don’t split bills, and they only look out for Number One. They are more likely to make a vacation of “slumming it” than to actually help out in impoverished countries.
Someone with little money but who is generous with what they have is likely frugal or thrifty. They may sew their own clothes, but research charities and give money to organizations that resonate with them. It’s a tricky balance, staying on budget but being generous, but being thrifty or frugal can help. The difference between flaunting wealth and actually being generous is not dissimilar from the difference between being rich or wealthy. It’s all in the mindset.
It can be hard to understand and influence the perceptions of others through your own saving and spending, but knowing the differences between being cheap, frugal, stingy, and thrifty is a good starting point. Being generous to others with your money will go a long way towards fostering a positive perception in others, but it has to be because you want to — not because you are flaunting wealth. Next time you go out, treat your friends to a meal with the money you saved from living thrifty or frugally. You might just find out that making other people happy is more than worth the couple bucks you spend.
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A former newspaper journalist, Cole spends his free time reading, writing, playing video games, watching movies, and learning about every subject under the sun. He lives with his wife and daughter in Idaho. Follow Cole on Twitter: @ColeMayer42
This post was updated March 18, 2019. It was originally published February 19, 2019.