We Are Often Frugal, But Rarely Cheap

I’ll be the first to admit that I am a frugal physician. Frugal living has served me well, and I wouldn’t be financially independent without that quality.

Yes, I refer to frugality as a quality, and as far as qualities go, it’s a quality to have. While not everyone thinks of frugality as a decidedly positive quality to possess, it just might be that others confuse frugality with its ugly distant cousin who is just plain cheap.

You see, frugality and cheapness may have a little bit of overlap, but they are hardly alike.


The Difference Between Frugal and Cheap


Let’s start with definitions.


According to Dictionary.com, frugal is an adjective meaning “economical in use or expenditure; prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful”. Synonyms include thrifty, careful, prudent, and penny-wise. Antonyms are luxurious, lavish, and profuse.

The definition of cheap is broader, but includes inexpensive, of small value, and shoddy. When used to describe a person, it can mean embarrassed, sheepish, and can even mean (i.e. cheap shot). Synonyms are paltry, low, and inferior. Antonyms include costly, dear, expensive, generous, and charitable.

Clearly, the traits are far from identical, and one should not conflate the two. Frugality is a useful tool that can help a motivated individual achieve his or her financial goals. Cheapness might help you save money, but acting cheap comes with costs that often outweigh the initial or perceived advantages.



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Frugal Does This; Cheap Does That


A frugal person looks for a good value; a cheap person looks for the lowest price.

Frugal is finding ways to make an amazing vacation affordable; cheap is skipping a trip you can afford because it costs “too much.”

A frugal person orders a sandwich and one drink at dinner, but doesn’t balk at paying half the bill along with the cheap person who ordered a steak and three drinks and offers to “split” the bill.

A frugal person “cuts the cord” and forgoes football for the fall. A cheap person uses his brother’s password to watch football from his PC for free while writing blog posts. I owe you some beer, bro!

To be frugal is to buy quality, nutritious food when it’s on sale or from a discount grocer. To be cheap is to buy unhealthy, inexpensive food to keep the grocery bill as low as possible.

I could continue on in this fashion for a while, but it might be more useful to show you a number of ways in which we are frugal but not often cheap.


Ways We Are Frugal


My wife and I have developed all sorts of frugal habits that have allowed us to achieve financial freedom in short order on my generous salary. We didn’t necessarily have to be frugal in all of these ways, and perhaps we’ll shed some of these habits as our nest egg grows, but we love the life we live, so I don’t see any major changes in the foreseeable future.


What frugal habits do we employ?


Save on groceries. We buy most of our food from Aldi and Costco. The cart is filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, seafoods, meats, and yes, some junk food, but we get the goods at a very reasonable price.


I bring a packed lunch to work. I’ve been doing it since I was six. Habits die hard. Plus, I often eat lunch in five-minute increments and can never leave my worksite at lunchtime. If I’m not munching down leftovers, my lunch looks very much like it did in grade school. Sandwich, apple, side, treat. The main difference is the Jell-o or Snack Pack has been replaced with lowfat yogurt, and my mom’s no longer in-house to peel and slice my apples, so I pack the intact fruit.


We cook. To continue with the food trend, we prepare > 90% of our dinners at home. When we do dine out locally, we often use discount certificates sold by the local radio station or coupons from a fundraising booklet.


We buy used vehicles and hang onto them. We currently both drive American cars with > 130,000 miles. We bought them lightly used and have owned them for six and ten years. The only reason we are tempted to upgrade one is to have the ability to pull an RV.


I bike to work (when the weather cooperates). Lately, I’ve been using my Fortified commuter bike, which has seen a not-so-frugal electric upgrade, and it’s a wonderfully efficient and exciting way to make a short commute.



We board our dog with family and friends. As frequent travelers, we need to find our dog a place to stay while we’re away. Staying in the home of familiar folks is much better for her than a concrete kennel and far more affordable.

We return the favor by watching friends’ dogs while they’re away, and we’re now registered to watch strangers’ dogs via Rover. It’s a great way to give our kids earned income to justify opening their first Roth IRAs.


We Buy used. For some things, new is the only way to go. But many consumer products are nearly as good lightly used, and often at a fraction of the price. We’ve found great buys at garage sales and thrift stores. We buy and occasionally sell on eBay and Craigslist. I like to let others pay for the depreciation.


Very Low-Cost Cell Plans.ย  We’ve been using Republic Wireless for a couple of years now (uses Sprint towers). For two lines, our monthly bill is between $26 and $30, or $13 to $15 each.


Republic Wireless Bill
a frugal phone bill for two


I Once Was Cheap, But Now Am Found


I know I defined cheap earlier, but I’d like to provide an example of how I’ve been cheap in the past. I’m not going to pretend I don’t do anything that crosses over line from frugal to cheap, and it doesn’t get much cheaper than this.

When a group of friends and I graduated from college, friends of mine who shared a large house threw a house party in our honor. The next day, we inexplicably had gallons upon gallons of beer left in a keg, but the tap and empty keg had to be returned for a deposit. It was a quandary of a dilemma.

Our solution? A few of us were going to a baseball game and why not tailgate with the free beer? We emptied all of the now-room-temperature beer that we could fit into a Gatorade cooler, twisted the cover on, threw it in the back of the truck, and went off to the game.

When we arrived, we realized sand and dust had swirled around the truck bed and found their way into the serving cooler. Apparently, the top doesn’t fit all that tight on those round coolers, a fact also evident by the flatness of the warm, dirty beer.

And yet we drank that pale, fizzless, gritty liquid. Because it was free.


Beer Lacing


That, my friends, is cheap.

I’ve graduated from that graduation weekend behavior. Not only am I not cheap enough to drink that nastiness the following day, but I’m too proud to drink a light beer like that when it’s cold, carbonated, and sediment-free. It seems I’ve found my way, or at least I’ve found a better beer.

Ways We Are Not Cheap


In addition to buying the occasional $22 bottle of beer, we avoid being cheap in a number of ways. A couple of the antonyms to cheap are generous and charitable, and we try to embrace those traits.

We are charitable. This site has a charitable mission, and I donate half of my profits. We’ve given tens of thousands from our donor-advised funds, which now have balances of over $250,000 while being the source of grants throughout the year.

We are generous at times. I feel like we host as many or more gatherings and parties as we attend. That may just speak to our popularity or lack thereof as infrequent invitees, but the presence of 5 or 6 homebrewed ales and ciders on draft in our basement may have something to do with our frequent hosting.

We pay our fair share. In large group outings or meals, we’d rather be the couple that orders a bit less when splitting a bill five ways or chips in a bit too much than we owe. Fortunately, most of our friends seem to operate in the same way, and the wait staff often end up with a generous tip. I don’t throw my money around and offer to pick up the whole tab for the table of 12. That would be a bit ostentatious, and way more than I care to spend. ๐Ÿ™‚

We don’t skimp on experiences. We travel a fair amount, and it would be a lot cheaper to vacation less and do less on vacation, but we find value in family adventures.

We spend on our properties. Our primary home is our castle, and it’s also where we entertain friends and family. We’ve got 3,600 square feet and a few hundred feet of riverfront. Then there’s the second home and the 7 acres of lakefront, but I feel we got excellent value for our money in all three cases, so while none of it came cheap, those purchases were aligned with our frugal values.


You Don’t Have to be Frugal, but You Don’t Want to be Cheap


I’m not here to tell you you ought to be frugal.* I do challenge my readers to live on half and that’s tough to do without some level of frugality or an exceptionally high salary.

Of course, you don’t have to accept that challenge, either. I’m just telling you what I do, and in some cases why I do it, but to be honest, I don’t always have a good reason. As I’ve said before, I’m sometimes frugal without a cause.

I would like you to see frugality in a positive light, even if frugality is not for you in most cases. The habits of frugal people, if they’re doing it right, should have favorable consequences for themselves without negatively impacting anyone else. Cheap tactics, however, are not necessarily beneficial for the tactician, and often do affect others in an unseemly way. Don’t be a cheapskate.


* I somehow managed to use the same word consecutively three separate times in one post. That’s got to be some kind of record.


This post is a link in a chain of posts by personal finance bloggers discussing frugality and cheapness.


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Care to share some frugal habits you employ or cheap habits you’ve witnessed? Do you have an Achilles heel when it comes to frugal living?

53 thoughts on “We Are Often Frugal, But Rarely Cheap”

  1. Subscribe to get more great content like this, an awesome spreadsheet, and more!
  2. To me the difference between frugal and cheap is that a frugal person will spend their money carefully to get best value that meets their needs and wants.

    A cheap person will often take advantage of someone else to get what they want. i.e. skimp on tipping to justify the meal out; ordering expensive meal but insisting on splitting check equally, which gives cheap person a discount on what was ordered; or crying poor mouth to manipulate people into giving them goods and services that they want but don’t wish to pay for.

    I personally know someone in the latter category, and she does this constantly and is totally unabashed at her behavior. Every conversation is spiked with a comment about how she cannot afford this or that, and what she got for free from someone else. And she expects to get the best of everything in her life too.

  3. Yes! Love all your tips and I employ almost all of your techniques. So many people equate frugality with cheapness but I really look at it as EFFICIENCY with daily spending and creating healthy money habits so that there is more room to spend occasionally on the fun stuff. We just switched to Google Fi and that is working out great too.

  4. I think the biggest way I categorize the two is how it impacts other people around me. No one around me cares that I bring my own lunch instead of ordering subway, and I’d rather eat a pb & j anyway. If I’m clearing plates at a wedding into Tupperware dishes to stash in my purse at a wedding, that’s embarrassing to other people, and myself. I’ve literally seen this happen.

    I will, respectfully disagree with the tv login though. I have Netflix and game center for hockey, but occasionally like HBO shows. My parents encourage me to use their login info because they pay an absurd amount of money for their cable (which they can comfortably afford), so I do!

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  6. I think the terms are, like you say elsewhere, “squishy.”

    To many, I would likely be considered cheap. But I have a wife and 3 kids to support on a resident salary. Penny pinching goes on every day. Sacrifices have to be made on the quality aspect often. This goes without mention of the many many things I forego altogether because, while I would like a new pair of kicks, those won’t bring me as much joy as putting my kids in swim lessons. But all of this is by virtue of the fact that I have a fixed, limited income, with little to no room to be anything more than cheap at times. In my mind, this is equivalent to me being frugal! I do it to still have enjoyment in my life, while avoiding taking on additional debt. If I were to try to avoid being cheap altogether, I pretty much couldn’t buy/do much of anything.

  7. Very well played, Doc! Having grown up with a cheap dad, I know the difference between the former and “frugal.” You describe it spot-on.

    Curious how many miles your cycling commute is, (in case I need to give you some flack?)

    And the tailgate with dirty beer anecdote – that’s awesome. I’m pretty sure me and my friends would’ve done it too.. Maybe use an old tee shirt to filter out the grime. Maybe not – just call it Belgian style.

  8. The transition from cheap to frugal is like quitting smoking. It’s hard to loosen the purse-strings! What made you start the transition from your old self proclaimed cheap self to the new frugal PoF?

    • I started making money!

      Back then, every dollar spent was another dollar I’d be further in debt. Now that I’ve got a great salary and solid nest egg, it’s easy to avoid being cheap. I haven’t found a good reason to stop being relatively frugal, though.


  9. Love the post. I use very similar tactics as yourself. We always pack our lunch (and dinner for when Iโ€™m on call) and my wife rides her bike to work. We also use virgin mobile which is $30 a month each. (Admittedly, I am a fan of Apple and thatโ€™s why we use virgin, but we do have to pay upwards of $600 for the phones: this is where I am not frugal.)

    Quality food is also important to us. We generally buy at Costco, and look for the best deals on items we canโ€™t get in bulk. Sometimes this means shopping at 3 or 4 different nearby locations

    The rest of our money goes to maxing out our Roths and looking for great deals on vacation

  10. I have used the term “selectively extravagant”, and I consider it to be a step away from frugality, in the opposite direction of cheap.

    I am happy to pay up for excellent quality, great service, or a once-in-a-lifetime experience. within reason and when I can comfortably afford it, and it gives me pleasure to do so. I gladly pay more to support local/small businesses over large corporations

    For quality beer/wine (and food), I do not make sacrifices. I eschew commercial grade beer and wine– I would rather drink water.

  11. Glad to see you joined in!
    For us, the transportation part is the most important. We have so many colleagues driving cars worth more than their annual salaries!!! That’s right! More than a whole year of income, but the dealership approved his loan.

    Just like you, we only buy used and drive our cars 10 years. I just wish I could bike to work.

  12. The point about buying quality products is often hard for people to understand. If you buy something that can last a long time and you get enjoyment, it is much better than buying several lower quality goods over the same time frame. It also might turn out that it is cheaper to buy one expensive item rather than multiple items. I’m pretty much done with buying junk. That’s why I won’t buy Android phones anymore. I had a few and am not going to waste my money or my time with them. Since having the iPhone a few years ago there is no going back. I can also sell it on eBay when I want to upgrade!

  13. Your example of drinking old keg beer in college was not cheap. . . because you were in college (and you had no/little money). You were being thrifty, careful, and prudent. I think you and your friends derived a great deal of VALUE from drinking the leftover beer. So, not being cheap.

    Now if you did the same thing tomorrow, that might be a different story. . .

  14. I’ve found that one person’s frugal is another’s cheap is another’s extravagant. I was raised by frugal parents and still have a different threshold than a lot of my friends for what I consider expensive. And then there’s the residents I work with who wear $250 shoes or drive a $600/month leased car but tell me they can’t afford a book or course to assist with their training! One of the things that helped me the most was challenging myself the first year after residency to not buy any nonessential nonconsumable goods–e.g. clothing, sports equipment. During residency I would use “retail therapy” as a pick me up and would find great deals at consignment shops, sites like sierra trading post, etc.–it wasn’t a huge amount of money but I ended up with way too much stuff I didn’t need. By not shopping for a year I all but eliminated that habit of shopping because I was bored, tired, sad, etc., and found healthier (usually free!) methods of self care. Looking back, I think this may have been key to getting on the path to FI. I don’t know if the habit of “not buying crap you don’t need despite it being a great deal” is frugal or cheap, but it works for me

    • I bought $600 shoes my 3rd year out of residency. 7 years later, I still wear them to work most days, and my feet very rarely hurt. Money well spent.

      • You can also get shoes that last for 7 years that don’t hurt your feet for much less. Or at least I have. Nothing wrong with buying expensive shoes (I love my $300 Sidi cycling shoes). The fallacy is thinking that because your feet don’t hurt and the shoes have lasted, the additional expenditure was necessary to achieve that goal. Kind of like “this Tesla model s has taken me to work every day and I’ve never had an accident! What a great investment! My 14 year old Honda also gets me to work everyday without any accidents.

      • I had a random, super cheap pair of tennis shoes (<$30) given to me 2 years ago that I wear to the hospital every single day. The are actually the only pair of shoes I've ever worn (this often and this many consecutive hours) that prevent me from having foot, leg, or back pain. Not to mention that they were given to me used.

    • Some people just don’t see the value in frugality or like to think they’re somehow above having “to make sacrifices.” I have no problem with that as long as it doesn’t affect me.

      Of course, if someone is blowing lots of money on dumb stuff while complaining and borrowing my books or mooching off others somehow, then the spendthrift is actually being cheap.


  15. It has been a long time since I’ve been cheap – but I did get up to some impressive cheapness during college and in my early 20s.

    In my final year of engineering college I needed a very specific book for a project I was working on. The $ price of the book was far beyond what I could afford, so I got my hands on a copy from the company I was interning with (unpaid of course), and made a copy of that copy. Cut to two years down the road and I was hired by the author of said book – he founded a company with a branch in Mumbai. When he flew down to visit the Mumbai office, he stopped by my desk to discuss the module I was working on. His eyes flicked to my bookshelf. At the end of the conversation he picked up my lovingly xeroxed copy of his book, and flipped through it. Then he said, “Well I guess the fact that this helped you end up working here was worth in lost royalties”.

  16. Life’s too short for cheap beer… cheap is a poor way to live and may end up costing you in the long run. Frugal is a question of optimization not low price. Optimizing doesn’t hurt unless it becomes an anxiety causing obsession.

    • True. I think there have been times when I’ve spent too much time trying to optimize and get the absolute best product for the price when I would have been better off spending 20 minutes to research it and just taken the best price on Amazon at the moment.


  17. Glad to hear you are not cheap…I know invite you to come stay with us!

    It is a fine line and one I think gets skewed by those not in the know. We are definitely not cheap and often inadvertently pick up more of the tab (mainly because my wife’s friends have been in grad school up to this point).

    Despite that we continue to try to be frugal in things without lowering value. For instance me mowing the lawn or shopping at Costco and asking for a refund when the furniture goes on sale 1-2 months later. Good quality at a good price.

    As for bad tasting alcohol, I won’t waste my time with it anymore. I figure at the end of the day it better taste good for me to drink it, since its purpose is enjoyment

    • Here is two other cheap examples that I have personally seen from a Costco: Returning the Christmas tree that you bought in November after Christmas because you do not need it now for another year (a live tree at that) and returning your dog kennel (plastic igloo looking item) that your purchased over 5 years ago because your dog passed away….Sometimes Costco’s return policy is too good…lol

  18. Hi- great post (a frugal dentist here)- care to share which electric upgrade you made to your commuter bike? I bike to work too and have yet to pull the trigger for a mid drive motor(!)

  19. I couldn’t agree more: buying quality things at low prices is not being cheap, it’s being smart.

    On a side note, I would love to know the name of this $22 bottle of beer that you speak of. Perhaps a nice San Diego IPA that they gouged you on shipping cost? Or a magnum Bud Light?

    I’m not judging, just realizing there might be a new beer I need to try!

    • There are lots of them, although I don’t often fork over that much for one bottle.

      The one I had in mind when I wrote the piece was Surly Barrel Aged Darkness. It’s actually more most places, but Costco usually gets a supply, and it’s $5 cheaper there than anyplace else.


  20. In college, we used to empty milk cartons and orange juice cartons and fill them up with the leftover keg beer. It was our “work week” beer when we were in college. And, it was free because we would always make our money back selling red solo cups during parties we hosted ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. I’m still trying to stop thinking about the homebrewed ciders on draft. Yum! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Anyway, I think of frugal versus cheap as whether some thing or activity has a excellent Happiness Return on Investment (HROI). For instance, your 3600 square foot house sounds like it has a high HROI to you. So it’s frugal even though the cost is significant. If you refused to buy it because of the expense, then that would be cheap (my blog calls it Stupid Frugal).

    HROI is very personal. Mrs. FF and I are very happy living in an urban 1150 square foot apartment, but that’s just us. We consciously downsized from a bigger house after we became Empty Nesters.

    • Cheap = stupid frugal. Makes sense to me.

      I can see us in a place half the size once it’s just the two of us. The HROI will be less when we don’t have rowdy boys and their friends who need the room to roam.


  22. I was not frugal at all when I was younger. I practiced retail therapy for a number of years. As one ages it is possible to moderate lots of things. I really think expense tracking is eye opening in this regard. Interestingly I think couple of nurses who worked for me as a second job who were very frugal because one had 5 kids and the other had 4 taught me a lot about frugality.

    • Interesting how you can learn from others in that way. I’m often surprised to see nurses, techs, neighbors, etc… making less frugal choices than we do. I guess we all have different philosophies and priorities.


  23. We are really frugal as well and not cheap. The one thing that I wish I can give up is my iPhone. I’ve had an iPhone since it’s inception 10 years ago and it’s so user friendly and we’re a Apple family with MacBooks at home. I wish Republic Wireless would start carrying iPhones so I can jump ship and join their service.

    I think back in college, many people are just plain cheap out of necessity, I loved your beer example. Glad you learned from that, I was tasting the grittiness in my mouth as I was reading.

  24. Yes there is a very thin line between frugal and cheap. I heard a podcast that used the phrase money miser or Scrooge. It is so easy to get laser focused on beating debt and saving that you forget to live life and enjoy it. Thanks for sharing!

  25. Another chain!? Love it! Somehow missed this one, but LOVE the topic, and proud to see the “chain” concept (which I’ll proudly claim credit for conceiving) gaining steam.

    Frugality. A trait to be pursued, while avoiding being cheap. Going to have a look at the others in the chain!


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