Do you know the difference between frugal and cheap?
I know a lot of people who use frugal and cheap interchangeably, as if they’re two different words for the same thing.
Newsflash: They’re not.
The main difference between frugal and cheap is the focus and intention behind the desire to save money. Frugal people focus on getting the best value for their money, while cheap people focus mainly on the bottom line without taking quality or other factors into account.
Now that I’ve quickly answered your question about the main difference between frugal vs cheap, let’s go deeper into the subtle (and obvious) differences.
I also sometimes hear people using “thrifty” to indicate a quirky frugal person, or “stingy” as an insult.
How similar or different are the terms frugal, cheap, thrifty and stingy?
Fellow frugalites, I’m going to set them straight once and for all!
First, lets get into some quick definitions of each of the words so we’re on the same page.
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What Does Frugal Mean?
By the dictionary definition, being frugal means:
“A person who lives simply and economically”
Being frugal means trying to get the best value for the price. Frugal focuses on value. It’s generally used to describe someone who doesn’t spend a lot of money.
Generally frugal people aim to save money, but they don’t save money at the expense of getting something that doesn’t meet their needs or of spending a lot of extra time.
The opposite of frugal would be an impulsive spender, extravagant, or lavish.
Being frugal is a positive way to save money and focus on value-based spending.
What Does Cheap Mean?
The dictionary definition of cheap means:
“concerned with saving money”dictionary.com
Being cheap generally means trying to save money at all costs.
The focus of a cheap person is the amount of money spent. Cheap people don’t value time or quality as much as they value the $.
If someone calls you cheap they might be insulting you or joking around. It is generally considered a negative quality to be cheap.
A lot of extreme couponers fall into the cheap category. They’ll spend hours clipping coupons and shopping around so they can stock up on items.
While it can be great to get stuff for next to nothing, a lot of what I’ve seen is people filling their homes with multiples of things they’ll never be able to use before they go bad. Do you really need 25 deodorants?? Is couponing worth it?
A saying that describes being cheap is
“Penny wise, pound foolish”
What Does Thrifty Mean?
Being thrifty means trying to save money by making do with what you have or buying secondhand.
A good saying to describe thrifty people would be:
“use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without”
Thrifty people reuse, repair, refurbish, repurpose, etc. in order to get the most use out of what they already have.
Thrifty is generally perceived as a neutral or positive attribute.
What Does Stingy Mean?
Being stingy is very similar to being cheap in my opinion. A stingy person may just be even more extreme than a cheap person. If you’re called stingy, it’s a definite insult. Generally someone would be called stingy if their tight money practices negatively affected other people.
The Similarities and differences Between Frugal, Cheap, Stingy, & Thrifty
Frugal vs Cheap
This is a big one. So many people confuse cheap vs frugal and use them as synonyms when in fact they aren’t really interchangeable. Sure, both cheap and frugal people want to save money, but that’s where their similarities end.
The difference between frugal and cheap is the reason behind saving money.
A cheap person aims to save the most amount of money at all costs. A frugal person aims to save money while still getting good value for their money.
They feel they haven’t saved any money if they spent it on something they didn’t really want or need, vs a cheap person would be excited to get a whole case of body wash for free because of coupons.
For the most part, when people use the terms interchangeably they don’t really understand the difference.
- Frugality is actually a positive trait that implies being good with money and spending on what matters.
- Being cheap is a negative trait that means not spending money when you should, or buying the cheapest option available even when it doesn’t even meet your needs.
Perhaps people wouldn’t confuse them so often if they knew the reason why a frugal person was deciding not to spend money on something. For example, would they call someone cheap for not buying a fast food meal knowing they are putting that money towards a goal, like saving for a new winter jacket, instead?
- frugal people are willing to spend more for quality. They think long term when making purchases and don’t prioritize money over relationships.
- A frugal person thinks ahead; they make a plan and budget their money towards a goal that is meaningful to them.
- Being frugal, you prioritize your spending so that you can have more of the things you truly care about while saying no to things you don’t care about. It sounds a lot like minimalism! Are you a frugal minimalist?
- Being cheap is about spending less even if it sacrifices quality, value and time in order to have short-term savings. A cheap person may even spend money on things they don’t need or really want, just because it was a good deal!
Thrifty vs Frugal
Frugal and thrifty are quite similar in a lot of ways. I would say thrifty people are a type of frugal people, although not all frugal people are thrifty.
I think both thrifty and frugal are generally positive traits, synonymous with saving money and being good with money.
Thrifty people would patch a hole in their jeans, or repurpose the material into something else. Non-thrifty frugal people would ask themselves if they really need a new pair of jeans. If so, they would find a bargain on another pair of jeans and would consider investing in a high quality pair knowing they will last longer than fast fashion jeans.
Thrifty and economical would be considered synonyms for frugal.
Cheap vs Stingy
Cheap and stingy are basically the same in my eyes. You could say stingy is a synonym for cheap. They both hyper focus on the bottom line without accounting for overall value. The main difference would be the degree of disdain used to describe someone as cheap vs stingy, with stingy being more disdainful.
Similarly, people wonder what is the difference between frugal vs stingy? As with the difference between frugal vs cheap, frugal vs stingy is differentiated on the reason behind saving money. A frugal person wants to save money while getting good value. A stingy person wants to save money at all costs (even more so than a cheap person).
Some real life examples:
Frugal person: Makes a list of items they want and need. Shops around to find the best price. Might wait a long time to find the perfect ones. Won’t buy something that isn’t right. Would consider spending money on shoes that meet all criteria of quality, comfort and looks. They would shop around to get it for less, but may consider investing in high quality even if the price is higher. Most likely to have a minimalist wardrobe with just the right amount of items that all work.
Thrifty person: makes due with what they have, even if they are getting a bit old, out of style, or getting worn out. Will try to fix and repair their clothes at least once before buying. Will try to find something secondhand if possible. Will try to upcycle the worn out items.
Cheap person: always hunting for a deal. Sees clearance sale and buys something at 50% off or more, even if it’s not quite right. Might also choose not to buy something even when they need it so as to avoid spending money. Likely has a lot of clothes but few that they love.
Other people: sees shoes, tries them on, buys them, wears them a few times, forgets about them. Has tons of shoes.
Frugal person: eats out less frequently and tries to go on discounted days. Sees the value in occasionally spending on a nice meal out and will avoid low value takeout and impulse meals out so that they can spend on a nice meal out that they actually enjoy. Gives a normal tip to service staff.
Cheap person: Goes to cheapest restaurants possible, uses coupons and other discounts, leaves small tip or doesn’t tip at all (stingy). Will order the least expensive thing on the menu regardless of whether that’s what they want to eat or not. Alternately, cheap people may never eat out at all as it’s too expensive.
Other people: eats out regularly without regard to how much it costs or whether they even want to eat out or not. Think it’s normal to buy coffee in the morning and lunch at work every day (and more). Wonder why budget is always tight.
Frugal person: chooses their food based on the VALUE it provides them. They will consider buying healthy food if that is important to them. They will even spend more on healthier option if there is no equally priced healthy option. They will avoid impulse purchases and sale items that they wouldn’t normally buy in order to use that money towards foods that they truly enjoy or add value to their life.
Cheap person: gets the cheapest groceries possible, without regard to taste, satisfaction, or health. Think: Ramen noodles. They’re cheap, but they don’t really add much value to a person’s life besides maybe if you like the flavor. In the long term, a diet based on cheap, highly processed foods could actually end up costing you MORE in terms of health problems and missed work time. There is little value in being cheap with your food.
NOTE: this doesn’t apply to people who simply can’t afford healthier options. Cheap people have money but CHOOSE not to spend it based on their values. If someone literally doesn’t have the money, they don’t have much choice in what they can buy. That being said, often healthier options aren’t more expensive.
Read more about that in my article: How to Eat Healthier on a Budget (11 completely free ways!)
Other people: buy whatever they want without much regard for the price or value. They may buy impulsively or they may have a strict meal plan that they stick to no matter if the food is on sale or not.
How can I be frugal without being cheap?
The key to being frugal without being cheap is to focus on values based spending. First determine what is important to you in your life (your values). Then, before spending money, ask yourself if spending that money aligns with your values or not.
For example, spending money on travel.
A truly cheap person might not spend on travel at all, even if they would like travelling. They’re more focused on the cost of the trip than the experience they would gain.
A frugal person would certainly think twice before simply booking a trip impulsively, but they would be willing to spend their money to go on the trip of a lifetime because they see the value in it.
Alternately, a frugal person who hates travelling would choose to not travel because they don’t like it (not valuable to them). Compared to the cheap person who likes travelling but chooses not to because of the price.
If you’re not sure whether you’re more frugal or cheap, I found this fun cheap vs frugal test. Take it now. Then come back and let me know your results! I got 34 which means I’m frugal!
How did you score on the frugal vs cheap test? Let me know in the comments!
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