There Is Frugal And Then There Is Being CHEAP

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Disclaimer: everything in the article is aimed at people who have the means. This is not meant to put a negative light on people in poverty or struggling financially. It’s actually a response to some of the most commonly used talking points of frugal commentary. Please keep this in mind as you read on!

As a financial professional, it’s my responsibility to be able to help people come up with ways to save money, whether it be on their taxes or on day-to-day expenses.

As someone who has financial responsibilities of his own, I read a lot on the subject for my own benefit as well.

And even though I don’t view myself as being frugal I do read quite a bit on the subject.

What I have found in my research sometimes shocks me.

The extent that some people go to in order to save money, even in very small increments, just blows my mind.

I have no problem with:

  • Doing comparison shopping
  • Using coupons (to some degree)
  • Shopping through Rakuten or other portals
  • Credit card churning
  • Timing purchases (ie: waiting for a major holiday)
  • And other things in order to reduce costs

But some of the people out there absolutely refuse anything that isn’t free!

This isn’t about choosing water rather than soda or alcohol at a restaurant.

This isn’t about alternative options to a gym membership.

This isn’t about DIY projects.

It’s really not about the benefits or drawbacks (depending on whose view it is) of living a frugal lifestyle.

This is simply an observatory piece about the lengths some people will go to save a buck.

I will say this, however, I don’t believe that building wealth can be achieved just by scrimping alone–you need to earn more while saving those additional earnings.

So where exactly do I see this transition from frugality to cheapness occurring?

Household/Food Storage

Let’s be honest–these types of things aren’t really a tremendous strain on the wallet (and if they are, you may want to think about how you spend your money).

Paper goods, glassware, storage, etc. can be had at relatively low prices particularly if you aren’t interested in high-end products.

But, it is still an expense that some people would rather not have to deal with.

Frugal Food Storage

Many restaurants provide you with a great alternative to purchasing expensive food storage containers, and you won’t even mind if you lose or break them since they were free!

I have accumulated a nice collection of containers in various shapes and sizes that can accommodate a wide array of needs just by doing something I do anyway–eat.

So the next time you decide to order in, be sure to toss the containers in the dishwasher so you can use them for future needs.

Restaurants also can provide great things like coasters and glasses, especially special edition beer steins, tumblers, and such which are sometimes just given away to customers.

Cheap Food Storage

There have been numerous mentions of people reusing plastic zipper bags.

That is just cheap, not to mention unsanitary.

It’s one thing to reuse the bags for storing packaged goods, but something totally different when talking about putting food directly in them, then washing the bags to prepare them for the next use.

For one, it’s a health risk.

There is a reason why food and health experts advise against using plastic cutting boards for raw meats, fish, and poultry–they do not get 100% clean even in a dishwasher.

Is it really worth the health risk to save a few pennies?

Then there are people who stock their cupboards with sugar packets, napkins, toothpicks, etc by stuffing their pockets or pocketbooks with these items off of restaurant tables and bar tops.

But that’s a whole different story…

Caucasian man with buzzed hair siphoning gas from a car into a canister
Being cheap is siphoning gas from one of your cars to use in another.

Car Purchase & Maintenance

There is nothing wrong with not giving a crap about the image others may have of you based on your vehicle.

I can say this because I don’t put high importance on mine.

In fact, I hate the idea of cars as status symbols.

Most items aren’t even all that useful, such as a sunroof, spoiler, chrome rims, or other aesthetic accents.

They are mostly just for show, adding very little (if any) performance value.

Trust me, I know from my own experiences in my 20’s!

Frugal Car Purchase & Maintenance

Buying used is a good way to keep your initial out-of-pocket expenses to a minimum.

So is buying new but without all of the high-end factory-loaded options or at the end of the model year.

Driving your car for as long as you can until the repairs no longer justify the costs is also an option, although to me that borders on being cheap due to the hassles presented by doing so.

Cheap Car Purchase & Maintenance

Now, on the opposite end of the spectrum are the manics who really neglect their cars for the sake of saving money.

Driving around with cracked windshields, doors, and trunks that are held closed by ropes or zip ties, dragging exhaust, roof lining that sags to the driver’s head (or lower), etc goes way beyond frugal.

There is a significant difference between not placing high importance on one’s car and coming off as if you don’t take care of your possessions.

It’s important to understand the distinction between this fact and the use of a car as an image enhancer, though.

Additionally, as cars age, they lose performance which also leads to a loss of fuel economy which is anti-frugal.

Not to mention the fact that not properly caring for a vehicle not only presents a danger to the people inside it, but also to those on the outside.

Home Energy Reduction

The cost of heating and cooling your home is one of the biggest living expenses a household has to worry about.

It doesn’t matter if it’s gas or electric, energy consumption is a big deal.

Depending on the location, energy costs can take huge swings as the seasons change, and keeping things manageable takes a little bit of effort and dedication.

Frugal Home Energy Reduction

These days many electronic items are EnergyStar compliant, so choosing such items helps a little bit.

Using power strips to centralize power control and turning off unnecessary devices at night or when leaving the house makes a lot of sense, and can save additional money.

So can using digital thermostats to automatically regulate the interior temperature so as to not waste energy when no one is home saves quite a bit more than the other ideas.

Even signing up for your local power company’s power-saving program is a normal way to save some money.

Cheap Home Energy Reduction

Having a “home” is supposed to be about having a space to live within which you are comfortable and which reflects you as a person.

The comfort factor is where the cheapness comes into this equation.

I cannot believe that some people actually do this, but I have heard of people who go quite far in an effort to keep energy costs down.

Rather than running the heat in the winter months, there are some people who absolutely refuse to do so, instead choosing to layer their clothing.

I’ve even heard of people wearing jackets and heavy sweaters indoors in order to not use any additional energy.

To be clear, these people are making the conscious decision not because they are cold, but because they don’t view the energy cost as being “worthwhile”.

How can that possibly be comfortable, and how can someone possibly be so cheap as to choose to wear multiple layers indoors overrunning the heat, and walking around comfortably inside of their own home?

Social Activities/Entertainment

Possibly one of the most budget-unfriendly expenses for sure, but something that is necessary (at least according to normal, socially-adjusted people).

This is perhaps one of the easiest areas to save a buck or two without going cheap and isolating yourself from friends, family, and coworkers.

Frugal Social Activities/Entertainment

There are tons of ways to save money while still being able to experience social and cultural activities.

One of the best ways is to set aside a little bit of money in predetermined intervals like a slush fund in order to pay for such things.

Coupon magazines like The Clipper and Sharp Saver, websites such as, and LivingSocial, and signing up for email promotions like free birthday meals all offer ways of saving money without hiding out in your home like a hermit all of the time.

Even though you “shouldn’t use them” (according to some people) in the beginning, coupons can save money on dates!

Cheap Social Activities/Entertainment

Saying no time and time again when people want you to go out with them gets old, and after a while, they will simply stop asking.

There have even been suggestions out there that people should cut out those who have different spending habits from your life.

That is the ultimate in cheapness–judging people based on spending habits regardless of the quality of their company and your history together.

There are only so many places and events that be attended and taken in without spending a single penny, and doing the same thing over and over without experiencing anything new is not living life, it’s more like surviving until you die.

Of course, there are a number of areas that people can blow completely by frugality and venture deep into cheap territory, but these are some of the most obvious and ridiculous things I have seen and heard about.

Everyone has to figure out what works best for them, and not let others dictate how they should live their lives–not parents or neighbors or coworkers, or especially a stranger online like me!?

Your Turn

What are your thoughts on the frugal/cheap debate? Do you believe there’s a distinction? Do you even care lol?

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  1. Plastic cutting boards are hard to clean because the tiny notches that knives make are nice homes for bacteria. As far as I know, that doesn’t apply for bags.

    1. If you place raw meats into a bag, and don’t properly sanitize them afterward, they bacteria will linger.  Also, you can have tiny nicks and scratches in the interiors if anything like bones are inside.  It may not be as obvious to the naked eye, but they do occur.

    2. I always heard that wood cutting boards can collect more bacteria than plastic because the wood itself is a porous material which leaves places for bacteria to live. It is true that plastic cutting boards do collect bacteria in the cuts and notches from the knives used on them. Plastic cutting boards can be refreshed by sandpaper and a sanding block. I used 80 grit first then 120 grit on mine and it is as good as new now.  Don’t forget to wash it well to get the plastic dust particles off of it before using it again.

  2. Have to disagree with you on energy and social activities. In my grandfather’s days it was considered normal to layer clothing and save energy and today’s energy waste can only be upheld for so long until humans have to revert to a more frugal energy use.

    For social events one has to spend some money, that’s true, but that you have to cut out some people because of their spending habits is just true. Some high school friends of mine started earning 100k+ a year while I’m still a student. While I do go out frequently I just can’t spend lavishly on 1 meal, it’s just not in my budget. Of course they could “come down to my level”, but they earn a lot of money and want to spend it. They spend 300$ on a normal restaurant visit, if you can keep up with that as a student, then thank your parents.

    1. I never said layering clothing shouldn’t be done.  My argument was against layering to the point of discomfort while not even using the heating system.  I lived in NYC and Buffalo, so I know what cold temps can be like.  Even still, We would throw on a t-shit (shirt), long johns, and and sweatshirt while indoors and anything else the heat would have to cover.  It just wasn’t worth the discomfort of having on 10 layers and no room to move.

      As for the friends that outspend you, going out to restaurant may not be an option, but is that all they do?  you couldn’t invite them over for a wine & cheese party or some sort of watch party for a sporting event (or whatever you may into)?  There are other ways to go about it without simply throwing away friendship.  Of course, on the other hand, they may not have been real friends to begin with, which is the case in many instances I have come to realize from many people.

    2.  Yes, the layering definitely depends on the climate, in Frankfurt (Germany) it used to be enough to layer clothes without needing to put on the heat, or at least not needing to put it on to high (weather seldom dipped below -5C). While in Montreal where I live now only layering is probably not an option. The point I was trying to make is that you can save a lot of money if you layer clothing and even only turn down the heat by a bit, as the amount of energy used for heating the room by one degree more goes up very fast.

      Yes, maybe they weren’t the best friends, but it always feels awkward to be the one suggesting a cheaper option, you’re just not as flexible as if you can just go out, so why not hang out with people that are closer to your own financial level, which will go out to places you can afford and with whom you can have potlucks etc.

    3. Hmmmm, maybe you were going for t-shirt? Or is that a way of saving money without buying toilet paper? Haha! Classic…

    4. Back in the 1700 and 1800’s no one had toilet paper or newspaper. Humm, what leaves or washable cloth. Not so disgusting now.

    5. Yes, and back then women sat on the front porch churning butter and black people were slaves.

      Just because something was done in the past doesn’t mean it was right or has any bearing on life today.

    6. Joyce, I guess you had to use your T-shi?t back in the day, huh? I should have never gone down that path of toilet humor on my last comment. I’m old enough to have known better. Oh well… My bad

    7. It was also normal to run out in the middle of winter to an outhouse. That doesn’t make it ok today. Comparing today with what your grandparents did isn’t logical and sounds like you belong on the cheap list.

    8. I wouldn’t go that far Kirk, but I do agree with your premise!

      So often I hear that kind of story–“well, it was perfectly fine to do/say X, Y, or Z 50 years ago”. Some people can’t adapt to change or recognize that “accepted” and “right” aren’t always the same.

    9. I just stayed with an 87 yr old widow who, I believe was the cheapest woman ever. I use to walk her dog (for free) and when her roll of dog bags was done, she wanted me to take her to Walmart (10 miles round trip) so she could save $1.00 on cheaper bags. They were not on a roll, so if I forget to get the individual bag, I had to go back to her house to get one. You would think she would be grateful that her dog was being walked, but nooooo. All to save a lousy buck.

  3. Looks like whether one is perceived as cheap or frugal depends on their actions – if they are nice or a jerk about it. A lot of these people aren’t calculating value, just trying to find the lowest number they have to pay now. I’ve grown up and will pay more for something I know will last longer and is a better value.

    1. I don’t think it’s the action in and of itself, but more likely the intent behind it.  Sure, some people may not be able to afford to repair their car, and that isn’t cheap; but if I read that someone is driving around in one that is falling apart and they don’t fix it out of neglect or simply not wanting to spend the money that is cheap.

      I think maybe it could be defined like frugal trying to get the best value while cheap is trying to avoid spending entirely.

  4. Working in the vision care industry, we see people’s cheapness backfire when they try to overwear contact lenses. Frugal is choosing a good quality, low priced lens and buying a year supply to get the rebate. Cheapness is trying to stretch a 3 month supply for two years. It always catches up sooner or later, and corneal rehab is very expensive!

    1. Absolutely Kim—you have certainly hit the heart of my thinking on this whole matter!

    2. As someone who’s never had access to a higher tier of wages, if you’re truly trying to be frugal (or cheap) just wear glasses. Mine last forever bc my scrip rarely changes

    3. There’s no such thing as “good quality with a low price” except if you buy it used….

  5. I like to think that I fall into the frugal camp on all of those but if you ask some people, they’d probably classify me as cheap. Oh, well. To each her own. 

    I would caution against reusing food containers. I used to do this, too, but then I read that they’re intended to be one time use only and that there’s some chemical in them that makes them unhealthy. Whether it’s accurate or not, it was enough to make me stop using the Chinese food containers and buy some GladWare. 

    1. You may want to ask those people if they even know what the word frugal represents–they’ll probably just say cheap so their opinions would be pretty worthless if you ask me 😉

      As for the container thing, those plastic ones that look like the GladWare are 100% safe to use if they are the correct ones.  You need to look at the bottom of the container for the rating, and if it’s anything other than a “1” in the little triangle-symbol you’re good.  It has to do with the type of plastic and the way it breaks down.  Plus, if it says dishwasher safe on it then you know it’s good.

  6. Not sure I quite agree on some of these points. My husband and I were both out of work when I was pregnant with our 3rd child. We both found work before the baby was born. That January, prior to us both being temporarily unemployed, our gas furnace died on us. We had recently put in a wood stove, and decided to live off of that, because we had the opportunity to buy a new electric furnace (and have a/c for the first time) at whole-sale, and an uncle would help us install it for free. It was pretty cold at night and in the morning, but I am so glad we dealt with it, as having the additional money ended up being essential to us not going into debt that year. Also, I’ll add that during this time, we kept up our giving to some charitable causes. It was tough, but I’m so proud of how we managed that year. Your article kind of glosses over the realities of life for many of us.

    1. Honestly, I have no clue what you’re trying to say. You decided to live off the oven *because* you were able to get a heating system wholesale and have it installed free?

      Aside from that, I’d have to say that it is in fact cheap and wrong to sacrifice something like heat for children even if it is to avoid debt. If there was ever a good reason to owe money, I would tend to think that it would be to ensure the safety, security and health of family–and that’s what keeping warm is a part of (at least to me).

    2. its no-ones business if another person is cheap or frugal, stay out of my purse and ill stay out of yours, if i dont want to put the heating on to save money i wont, personally i always tip in restaurants but dont accuse people that dont of being cheap, and your not obliged to dine out at a friends say so, some people just want to do expensive things all the time, frugality isnt a fashion trend, it is born from necessity

    3. I agree with Loise. The article, despite the fact it stated that the following didn’t apply to the poor, had an air of judgement. No one can really know someone’s situation entirely. If a person wants to save money and doesn’t want to burden someone else, that is commendable. I’m sure the author is not trying to sound judgemental, but that’s what’s coming across. As well as his distaste for certain behaviors. I guess it’s wording, I hope.

    4. Hello Isabelle

      No judgement, just taking talking points that are common among “frugal living” folks and commenting on the extreme takes on some of the behavior.

    5. I think AGS was saying that by using the wood stove they were able to save for the new heater, and to pay cash and not have debt. Good for them. You seem to me to be a person who has never had to go without. I keep the thermostat at 65 during the day and wear long sleeves tops and a vest. Not cumbersome and not cheap. I like keeping my bill down and conserve energy. You can sound a little snippy and condescending. I hope not intentionally

    6. Yes Lance, “owe money” as in have a bill to pay at the end of the month like a utility bill.

  7. Uggh. I had to quit reading halfway through. This is just a list of one person’s very personal opinions that seem picky, picky picky. Let people enjoy their chrome rims. Let frugal folks sanitize and reuse zipper bags that are in good, cleanable shape. Geez.

    1. Um, isn’t every opinion “very personal” Jona?

      I mean unless you’re just saying something just to parrot what you heard elsewhere. Heck, you probably have gone on about someone’s musical taste or food preferences. There’s no difference.

      I’m also guessing you don’t follow many personal finance writers/blogs that this piece is a response to.

      Have a great one ?

  8. As a frugal person I agree with most, but don’t fully agree with the sweater wearing at home. I have to even wear sweaters at work too because they keep the temperature for people who run hot. It would be unreasonable and hurting the planet even more if I kept my house at 78 degrees in the winter. I do turn on some heat though so maybe you’re referring to people who put on 10 layers or can withstand more than I.

    1. Hey there Frugal Lady.

      My mom is the sme way–always cold and takes a jacket with her everywhere! That’s not what I was referring to, but people who do exactly what you said–layer up inside of their homes because it’s “not frugal” to turn on the heat and they avoid it at all costs.

  9. Some of choose not to even own a car, the ultimate cheapskate move. You’re probably thinking: OMG I can’t believe someone might resort to riding the bus they must be so poor.

    This post is an insult and a waste of time.

  10. Comments were fairly one sided. Appears to me that most people who actually comment have no voice in their day to day life and came here to hate on your article. Jokes on them for one it’s your opinion and I highly doubt you give a damn what these weirdos think. Anyway I enjoyed your article and the thought you put into it Eric.

    1. No worries Mikey!

      Stuff like that happens all the time, which is why so many sites don’t even allow for comments. It comes with the job ?

  11. I have been reading a lot about this FIRE movement and I have to say, I agree with a lot of what you said. It’s one thing to be smart with your income and savings plan. But quite another to be a cheap “ass” (quite frankly). These people living on rice and beans for 7 years and never going to a single social activity that costs money… Or saying no to every request from friends, even potlucks! I read someone who said they told their family they wouldn’t fly to visit them for 5 to 7 years and if the family wanted to visit them or the children they would have to make all the effort. That is just being an ass. I also wonder if these people contribute anything to any organizations in their community. Being frugal and retiring early or paying off debt is awesome, but basically refusing to contribute to society or to your greater family is being a cheap ASS. If I told my mother I wouldn’t visit her in my home state for 7 yrs because I wanted to pay off my house, it would break her heart.

    1. Hey Taylor!

      I’m not a big fan of many of the methods used to “get ahead” either, but there is a thing called Slow FIRE you should check out. This site deals with that subject excellently if you’re interested:

  12. I reuse Ziploc bags. If I put some chips in, then wash it, I can safely put carrot sticks in. You can’t reuse if it had MEAT. Otherwise why not??? And you SHOULD add extra layers of clothing in cold weather. This article was ridiculous.

  13. I think you left off a huge example of ultimate cheapness: vacations that always involve sleeping on some relatives couch or extra bed. I had a gentleman friend who would never venture off anywhere if it involved paying for a hotel room. Once he went to DC for a week…and slept at a friends house IN A RECLINER! and of course. Ate every meal at the friends house too. That’s not being frugal. That’s being a cheap ass mooch.

  14. Choosing the people you mingle with makes a big difference .Having said that. some people choose to keep their status quo to feel and look good . It has to come from deep inside and the person’s desire to change his/her life.

  15. I use hand towels in the kitchen to dry my hands, and bath room. One is kept for my hands and a separate one for dishes. Then I change them frequently and they are washed. This saves me from buying paper towels. I also use a disinfectant on my counters etc. instead of buying all those handy wipes that can cost a lot of $$ .

    1. Hi Nancy!

      I think I remember people saying that the cost savings aren’t that great when you factor in the money you spend for the washing of the towels over time. Some people literally do the math including the cost of the detergent, electricity, water, etc. I can be remembering it wrong but it might be something interesting to look into.

  16. I live frugal, I buy what I need and timing is important as to when I purchase the items that I need. I buy lots of food for my house, I love good food and this is my largest expense. I shop at the clearance rack at high end stores (I get my tips from store employees and blogs on YouTube). I have cheap friends who only spend if it is only necessary, when we are in a group setting.

    1. Thanks Sarah!

      I’m the same way. I don’t count every penny but I like to spend money only when I need to, especially food. And my closet is full of clothes from outlet stores that were labeled “past seasons” for a fraction of what it would cost.