When is it Frugal â“ When is it Cheap?

frugal or cheapMost of us will agree that being frugal is a good thing, but frugality has a rogue cousin named cheap, and while the two are closely related we never want to be known for being the second. It can sometimes be hard to know when we’re crossing the line from frugal to cheap.

Here’s an attempt at identifying the signsâ¦


I’ve written about issues with tithing, but at the opposite end of the spectrum is a person who is in a position to give generously and doesn’t. Such a person might be able to give more than 10% of his income, but doesn’t manage 5%, or even 2%. High income is a blessing that we should share with the Church and with others who are in need; if you have it and don’t share itâ”well, that’s cheap.

And how about giving to people on the street? If a person who looks to be homeless approaches you and asks for money, do you really withhold it because you’re sure he’ll use it to buy drugs or alcohol, or do you just find it difficult to part with five or ten dollars? What the recipient does with the money is between him and God, but everything that happens up to that point can say a lot about how we view money.

Tips are another issue. Wait staff rely on them as their primary source of income; we may disagree with the tipping system, but that’s how the restaurant world works. If you can afford a restaurant meal, you should be able to add a decent tip. By not giving one, or by giving a poor one, you’re not hurting the restaurant, you’re hurting the person who is waiting on your table. Is that frugal, or is it cheap?.

Taking advantage of the generosity of others

If you’re of the frugal mindset, you get the bartering thing: you do something for me, I do something for you. If you’re cheap, I’ll do something for youâ¦and that’s about where it will end. Some examples:

  • A neighbor drives her kids and your kids to the mall two or three times a month, you never or rarely drive them in
  • You have regular lunches with a friend who sometimes picks up the lunch tab for both of you, you never reciprocate
  • Friends or family members have you over for dinner several times a year, but you never invite them to your house, at least not for dinner
  • Rather than buying your own hedge clippers you borrow your neighbors when ever you need it; it’s been this way for years and you rely on the arrangement

These are classic examples of taking advantage of the generosity of others, which is the backdoor version of being cheap. Some people are generous by nature, but that should never mean we take advantage of them.

What causes people to be cheap?

There are different reasons why someone is cheap, and not all of them are bad.

Love of money.

The cheapskate often believes (maybe only subconsciously) that money is the highest virtue, and for that reason it is to be carefully guarded. The frugal person sees money as a tool; he keeps his spending low and his bank account full, but he doesn’t put it on an altar.

Love of self.

There’s no way to escape that being cheap has a selfish quality to it. Cheapskates often want to keep their money for themselves, often justifying it by considering it to be a form of survival. Many people who are cheap are very indulgent when it comes to what they want, but very reluctant that anyone else should benefit from their spending. By contrast, a frugal person will live on the cheap, but be very generous toward others.

A difficult past experience.

Any one who’s ever experienced a bout of poverty knows the feeling of doing without, and might have a reluctance to ever return to that status. An improvement in personal financial status may not be accompanied by a change of heart toward money. Unlike love of money and self, this is motivated by fear. Many people who experienced the Great Depression were frugal, but some were cheap as a result. Cold beds and empty stomachs had something to do that.

Frugality: the constructive use of being cheap

As I said in the beginning, it’s sometimes hard to know the difference between frugal and cheap, but I think it’s really in how we use them. Being cheap is a condition of the heart and mindâ”frugality is using being cheap as a tool. Simply put, a frugal person knows when and how to turn on and turn off cheap. The true cheapskate can’t because it’s part of who he is.

The constructive use of cheap is in keeping everyday living expenses to a minimum. A person making $5,000 a month might choose to live on $3,000, and bank the difference. Cheap is how he’s able to live on the lesser amount, but it affords him a life with plenty of savings and an absence of debt.

He may use the extra money being cheap has provided to be generous, to lower stress in his life, and even to provide himself and his family with some luxuries. But he can always control what he does. Cheap is his tool, his method toward financial independence, but it’s not who he is.

If it’s used right, cheap isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Being cheap, however, is very different.

What do you think is the difference between being frugal and being cheap?

photo by nrmadriversseat