The farther I delve into the realm of frugality, the more I think of being frugal and being cheap as complete opposites. By definition, both words emphasize a focus on low costs. In practice, I’ve found that being cheap is actually more expensive over time.
Story 1: Teenaged me with no income – what is “frugal”?
When I was in middle/high school, I had no concept of money. To me, $20 meant two tank tops and three tee shirts, or some earrings and Chipotle. I’ve written previously about how my parents taught me how to be responsible with money – believe me, they were extremely frustrated with me in my teens. My mom refuses to toss out a giant trash bag full of shoes that I hardly wore, claiming I need to wear them out before I need buy new shoes. She has a good point. As much as I try to ignore my careless spending in my teens, it’s a good reminder of just how bad I used to be.
I was constantly searching for the best sales. 75% off, 80% off, 90% off; those were siren calls I couldn’t resist. I rarely spent more than $10 on any single thing, which justified my purchases to me. The problem is, I had so much stuff. I had so much stuff that I hardly ever wore. When I think back on it now, I spent hundreds of dollars buying junk. The clothes were poor quality and the jewelry discolored immediately. I’m ashamed to admit that this behavior lasted through college for me. My father never wanted his children to feel like they didn’t have enough money, so I didn’t fully understand the value of a dollar until I started working. I felt like such a frugal person back then but in reality, I was just cheap, and that ended up being more costly.
Story 2: As told from a friend – money has too much meaning to just be money
Recently, when visiting a close friend for her birthday, she told me of the frustrations she was dealing with about being in another friend’s wedding.
“She’s asking us to go abroad for her Bachelorette party and wants her bridesmaids to buy two dresses for the wedding. It’s going to be so expensive! It’s so weird because she’s actually normally quite frugal, like you.”
I had to pry more. How was this friend normally frugal, and what made this behavior outside of the norm? My friend quickly admitted that this girl’s behavior was actually cheap, not frugal. An example? Going to a restaurant with a group of people, asking in advance to split the bill evenly, and then proceeding to order the most expensive entree on the menu, just to maximize her dollar. Terrible. I distinguish the difference between cheap and frugal based on the attitude that goes into a decision, and saving money at the cost of others is a huge red flag.
It was a sentence spoken by this friend that especially outraged me: “Why X, you shouldn’t worry about the bridesmaid costs – you make more than any of us, I know you can afford it.” This statement assumes so much about someone else’s financial situation and is completely careless.
I acknowledge that “cheap” doesn’t fully describe this person’s behavior, but it’s an example I use nonetheless. In my experience, “cheap” is often accompanied by a lack of awareness. Like in story 1 and also in 3, the realization often comes after extended, ongoing behavior.
Story 3: You can’t just eat ramen in college
Freshman year of college is an exciting time. No parents looking over your shoulder; eating whatever you want, whenever you want. This isn’t as specific of an example because I know a few individuals that went through this.
A number of my friends were given their first credit/debit card their freshman year, with a maximum monthly spending limit. In order to save as much as possible on food (to better reallocate funds to booze or Amazon or both), I saw diets that consistent of ramen, white bread, or frozen meals (different people, not all the same person).
There’s nothing wrong trying to cut costs, but these people weren’t doing it right. Cooking your own meals is not only healthier, but it’s cheaper as well. A perfect example is Epic Quiver, who aims to make home-cooked gourmet meals at under $3 a serving. Now that’s frugal.
What’s the point?
Just because I’m frugal doesn’t mean I’m cheap. Conversely, just because someone’s cheap doesn’t mean they’re frugal. My point is, I’m not afraid to spend money. Being frugal isn’t avoiding all spending, it’s spending your money where there’s value, and looking beyond a price tag. It’s still really hard for me to say no to a great sale; I just look now at brands that have more durable products or follow business practices I support. Only a few months ago I bought $300 leather boots. These boots (provided I take good care of them) are going last me a very long time. It’s all about balance. Overall, I think it’s better for us to shift towards a more minimalistic mindset. Minimalism is good for our wallets, and our well-being. Regardless, it’s important to be aware of the distinction between the two behaviors.