The Difference Between Being Cheap and Frugal

“Hell yeah I’m cheap and proud of it too.  I want to save every single penny that I can! I don’t mind getting perfectly good stuff for free either.  My wife’s family frequently gets rid of really good stuff, and I willingly take it.”


The following piece was originally published on the Examiner back in December of 2013, and actually turned out to be one of my most popular compositions.  It visited something very emotional; one’s money management and how it is perceived by others – families, friends, significant others, etc.  It discusses how two groups of people are classified in terms of their money management; those who are cheap and those who are frugal.

It was in part inspired by the late Deborah Aguiar-Vélez, founder of Escuchame who came to my job and gave a discussion about wealth building.  Prior to publishing this piece she granted me permission to use a slide from her talk as the accompanying visual for this article.  Lastly it falls under my “Financial Literacy” principle.

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“The difference between envy and jealousy Anwar is that there is no malice attached to envy,” my mentor and friend Mark told me in a recent meeting.  “When someone is jealous of you, you have something that they want which upsets them and they will go to great lengths to make sure you don’t have it anymore or don’t even get it in the first place.  They may even go as far as to cause you harm.  Envy is simply when someone wishes they had what you have with no malice attached.  Envy and jealousy are two different words that most people confuse.”

Mark and I frequently have discussions like this spanning numerous areas/topics.  This one reminded me of another confusion of words; the definitions of cheap and frugal, two very important concepts in the worlds of financial literacy and intelligence, and thus the basis of this article.

“Hell yeah I’m cheap and proud of it too.  I want to save every single penny that I can,” a coworker named Hardy said smiling during a random conversation at work a couple of years ago.  “I don’t mind getting perfectly good stuff for free either.  My wife’s family frequently gets rid of really good stuff, and I willingly take it.”

“You’re proud of being cheap?” was my question to Hardy after hearing him revel in his self-diagnosis.  Cheap was not a flattering word in my vernacular.  The word had recently been pinned on me by a girlfriend leaving me feeling snake bitten and sickened by just hearing someone say it.  This conversation with Hardy gave me a new perspective on the matter and actually made me laugh at the word.

Another word that was assigned to me years ago by another female during graduate school was frugal, which is actually an important attribute to have when you are in school but also later in life.  It wasn’t exactly clear to me at that point what that word meant as my behavior was simply the recapitulation of the spending habits of my mother and father who themselves were frugal.

During Hispanic Heritage Month almost a year after my discussion with Hardy, entrepreneur Deborah Aguiar-Vélez, owner and founder of the company Escuchame visited my job and gave a really good seminar on wealth building.  Much of her talk discussed sound financial decision making, living within one’s means and saving money which sound like common sense ideas but for many people are not.  Interestingly a couple of her slides described the differences between being frugal and being cheap.

Mrs. Vélez eloquently described being frugal as:

  • Living within your means
  • Careful management of anything valuable which expends nothing unnecessarily, and applies what is used to a profitable purpose
  • Finding ways to save money
  • A conscious decision and you are therefore in control of your actions towards a goal

That slide was followed up with a description of what frugal is not:

  • Cheapness
  • Meanness
  • Bizarre behavior
  • Suffering
  • Difficult

Her talk helped me to see that there is in fact nothing wrong with being frugal, and re-enforced why it’s a good idea to be this way versus the alternatives; impulsive, frivolous and wasteful.  My discussions with Hardy described above and Mrs. Velez’s seminar also reminded me that labels and titles that we assign to each other are often subject to one’s point of view.

Though this post was written partially in a humorous way, these are important and serious lessons for everyone, especially in our society which actively promotes consumerism to all economic classes poor and rich, and attaches self-worth to material objects and luxuries of all kinds.

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Author: anwaryusef

Anwar Y. Dunbar is a Regulatory Scientist. Being a naturally curious person, he is also a student of all things. He earned his Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the University of Michigan and his Bachelor’s Degree in General Biology from Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU). Prior to starting the Big Words Blog Site, Anwar published and contributed to numerous research articles in competitive scientific journals reporting on his research from graduate school and postdoctoral years. After falling in love with writing, he contributed to the now defunct, and the Edvocate where he regularly wrote about: Education-related stories/topics, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Financial Literacy; as well as conducted interviews with notable individuals such as actor and author Hill Harper. Having many influences, one of his most notable heroes is author, intellectual and speaker, Malcolm Gladwell, author of books including Outliers and David and Goliath. Anwar has his hands in many, many activities. In addition to writing, Anwar actively mentors youth, works to spread awareness of STEM careers, serves on the Board of Directors of the Friends of the David M. Brown Arlington Planetarium, serves as Treasurer for the JCSU Washington, DC Alumni Chapter, and is active in the Dave Ramsey Financial Peace Ministry at the Alfred Street Baptist Church. He also tutors in the subjects of biology, chemistry and physics. Along with his multi-talented older brother Amahl Dunbar (designer of the Big Words logos, inventor and a plethora of other things), Anwar is a “Fanboy” and really enjoys Science-Fiction and Superhero movies including but not restricted to Captain America Civil War, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Prometheus. He is a proud native of Buffalo, NY.

7 thoughts on “The Difference Between Being Cheap and Frugal”

  1. Cheap and Frugal – promote the concept of saving money but there are major differences: Frugal people have goals, an end game, and a clear vision for their financial future. Cheap people are not concerned about the welfare of others, their motto by any means necessary, which leads to negative experiences.

    In my opinion socio-economics are a driving factor between being cheap or frugal. If you grew up in poverty, I am quite sure you have heard the phrase “cheap ass” countless times from friends and family members. How can you afford to be frugal when your number one priority is maintaining, in other words living day to day, the thought of saving money for a rainy day was a fantasy. So you develop survival skills that include being cheap, cutting corners, brow beating sales clerks and waiters for additional discounts or free food. Cheapness uses price as a bottom line; frugality uses value as a bottom line. Big difference, but if you were not given the skills to differentiate how will you know that value last longer than the 15% discount at Target.

    I want to make sure I am not conveying only “the well-off” are frugal. Honestly it’s a fine line between being cheap and frugal, similar to love and hate. Families who are blessed to have resources invest in financial education to further their skills, develop a basic understanding of how to capitalize on their investments, and how to wisely invest for retirement (remember we can’t work forever)

    Bottom line – frugality is about looking at the bigger picture and visualizing yourself in a better financial environment. Cheapness does not involve looking at bigger picture – only the next discount or free item to add to one’s stash of material possessions that hold no value.

    How to overcome cheapness regardless of your situation:

    Spend less than you earn.
    Plan for YOUR FUTURE – rainy days are REAL
    Create a budget and practice discipline
    Don’t be afraid to say no to “frequent borrowers” and we all have borrowers in our lives.

    Say a prayer and get busy!

    1. Well Sexybaker first off thank you for your comments. You said a lot and I appreciate your insight. I agree that our views on something like this are definitely shaped by the family and circumstances that we come from. Likewise it isn’t until we become educated on how money really works that we can better disconnect from other peoples expectations and demands and on our resources from family and from corporate America as we’re being marketed to all of the time. In my experience all of this is relative to one’s point of view. There are some instances where a person feels as though they are being frugal but those around them feel like they’re being cheap. There are also instances in dating for example when frugal just doesn’t cut it and is frowned upon. As a man, sometimes women have very specific standards for example where they should be taken and what they won’t accept. What’s interesting is that in the Millionaire Next Door and Stop Acting Rich, Dr. Thomas Stanley points out that self-made millionaires are usually frugal and low maintenance people. They are masters at accumulating wealth and not overconsumption of their valuable resources. Ultimately though I think its about finding peace with where you are and contentment – helping out others when possible but making smart choices so that you’re not dependent on anyone else.

  2. @Anwaryusef Interesting post. Money management and feelings around it are often not discussed until we have already developed bad habits. Education on basic money management can lead to better choices and wealth building as one matures in this arena.

    Dating is no different… cheapness and frugality are different and many people can feel the difference. Frugal people use their money as a tool for investment purposes to a greater goal. One picks and chooses where to spend their money. What option is best to maximize investment? Cheap people just seem to want the budget price for every thing, no matter the value. That attitude usually carries over to other areas. Minimal effort, emotionally stingy,… Who wants to be treated or thought of as a dollar menu item? There isn’t necessarily a correlation about HOW MUCH money is spent on date as to how someone feels about the possibility of relationship, but HOW that person spends (& views) money can be very telling.

    1. Thank you again for your comment here Susan. Yes this aspect of money is very, very complex. My mother and siblings refer to my youngest aunt as cheap. She budgets everything and is frequently accused of not doing enough to help out the family. From her vantage point, she’s just protecting her own position and interests which is smart, but it can get complicated when considering the needs and wants of others. That’s why understanding money and setting yourself up to protect yourself and help others is very important. As you know this what Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University ultimately teaches. It’s very important stuff. On the dating side in can be even more complex. In the story I told in the blog post about the girlfriend who called me, “Cheap”, those words stung because most men associate their manhood with their spending power and ability to provide and be financial. I was trying a bunch of different things on the investing side at that time and overall didn’t understand this money game we’re playing; saving enough money for emergency, contributing to retirement, having little or no debt. That experience taught that as an adult when dating……….as a man, it’s important to honestly say who you are up front and what your values are, try to find out the same about her, and determine if its a good situation for you. Try to find out if you can afford her, or she expects you afford her. It may not be the most romantic thing, but it could save a lot of drama later on:-)

  3. I always associated “cheap” with a level of contempt, either for the beneficiary or the establishment that one is conducting business with. Frugal is simply maximizing your resources.

    Example, taking your family on a vacation at a time of year when the prices are lower is frugal. Proudly making them stock up at an all-you-can-eat buffet is cheap. Frugal people spend money with a purpose, cheap people simply want to send the message that they can beat the system.

    1. Hello Moise. First off thank you for your comment. Yes the two words have completely different contexts. It seems though that the user dictates the meaning. A lot of women like my ex mentioned in the piece for example seem to merge the two, so if you’re trying to be frugal, it can be taken as being cheap. It’s very fascinating. Ultimately it goes back to what’s important to you. It was and is important for me to not run out of resources, ruin my credit and have to ask my family for money. Damn what anyone else thinks.

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