What some people call being frugal, other people call being cheap. But there is a difference between the two.
The dictionary definition of cheap is: not costing a lot of money; of low quality; not worth a lot of money; not willing to share or spend money.
The definition of frugal is: careful about spending money; using money or supplies in a very careful way.
A cheap person will invest a lot of time and energy in order to save a dollar or two, but the time and effort they expend may not be worth the amount of money they save. A cheap person will spend an afternoon repairing a $2 piece of equipment.
Their whole focus is dollars and cents, without regard to other areas of their life. They’re also willing to take advantage of social situations to avoid spending money. To me, cheap has a negative connotation, as it refers to a person who often doesn’t consider the value of their time, their energy, or the friendship and goodwill of others. They value money above all else, and they may make spending choices that can alienate others socially. A cheap friend will demand to go to the least expensive restaurant, regardless of what anyone else in the group thinks. They are the person who will pay for their part of the meal precisely down to the penny, but not include any money for the tip.
A frugal person wants to spend less money but the money-saving decisions are made with a balanced lifestyle in mind. A frugal person knows enough to balance saving money against other areas of life such as time, energy, friendship, faith, love, and health. The frugal person tends to account for the impact on things such as relationships when deciding if a money-saving tactic is worthwhile.
A frugal person might haggle for a lower insurance bill, but never take advantage of friends in a social situation. A frugal person might reuse a takeout container but won’t invest the time to wash a flimsy sandwich bag. A frugal person will make small sacrifices of their own resources—time and energy—to save money, but they generally won’t impinge on others to do so, nor will they sacrifice large quantities of their own resources to save a few pennies.
Here is an example of the difference between being cheap and frugal. There are two different types of trash bags in the store. The price on the first one is $30.00 for 300 bags or $0.10/bag. The price on the second one is $25.00 for 200 bags or $0.12/bag.
The ten cent bag sounds like a better deal, doesn’t it?
But taking into account the entire picture, the $0.10 bag the cheap person bought is so flimsy, two bags are needed to hold the trash, making the cost per use $0.20. The bag the frugal person bought cost $0.12 cents each, and had the more expensive purchase price, but was $0.08 cheaper per use.
In order to be frugal, not cheap, it is important to compare both the price you pay when you buy something against the cost per use for that same item. A cheap person merely looks at the price but the frugal person views the larger picture and considers the overall cost.
Being frugal means balancing money savings against other factors. You can save money where it makes sense, but you will also pay more for a product where paying more is a better deal for your whole lifestyle.
Here’s another example. A person jogs for exercise. The frugal person will buy the running shoes that best protect their feet and are appropriate for their use. Their decision is made with their overall health in mind, not simply the cost of the shoes. However, they will take advantage sales or coupons to buy that running shoe as inexpensively as possible. The cheap person simply buys the least expensive shoes whether or not the shoes will offer proper support and protection.
Cheap people use price as the bottom line. Frugal people use value as the bottom line.
Cheap people are driven by saving money regardless of the cost. Frugal people are driven by maximizing total value, including the value of their time, effort and the use of the product.
Being cheap is about spending less; being frugal is about prioritizing your spending so that you can have more of the things you really care about.
Cheap people are often afraid to spend money. They are willing to sacrifice quality, value and time in order to cash in on short-term savings.
Frugal people are resourceful with their spending; maximizing their dollars, so that they can fund big-picture wants and dreams.
I consider myself to be frugal. I plan lunch and dinner so we use every bit of leftovers. I use up every bit of the products we buy by standing ketchup and other bottled products on their head to completely empty the bottle. I use a teeny tiny spatula to get all the product out of a make-up tube. I cut off the end of a toothpaste tube to get a few more nurdles of toothpaste out of it.
But I do not see myself as cheap. I do everything possible to maximize the money we do spend. But I also splurge on the areas where I am passionate (and where the money is in the budget!).
While we DO encourage people to be frugal, we do not encourage you to be so cheap that your life is miserable. Being a good steward means a balancing act by spending money on what is important to you and saving money in those areas that are not so important. Being frugal is about balancing income, giving, saving and spending with a stewardship mindset.
Be frugal, not cheap. Proverbs 28:22 tells us “Misers hurry toward wealth, not knowing that want is coming toward them.”
Life is short—enjoy it but be responsible!
Join us on the Compass Catholic podcast for more about why being frugal (not cheap) is important!