Are You Being Frugal, or Just Plain Cheap?

in a previous post, I described how I was able to become economically independent of my job. To do this, I had to clarify my values around spending. This included becoming more frugal.

In today’s society, frugality can lead to accusations of “cheapness.” But there’s an important difference:

Being frugal means finding the least expensive way to own a product or receive a service. Those of us on the path to plentitude, an economy based on sustainability, must be ethical as we do this.

Being cheap refers to owning a product or receiving a service in a way that exploits other people. It can also refer to exploiting yourself. 

Here are some examples of frugality vs. cheapness from different areas of my life: 

Gift Giving

Generosity is a key value for me, so it’s important to me to give people gifts that they can use and appreciate. Yet I need to do this within my means. 

Frugal: Finding the least expensive, most environmentally friendly way to give someone a gift that you know they really want. 

Cheap: Reviewing your regifting pile and selecting something—anything!—that you think the recipient might be able to use, even if you aren’t sure they’ll find it useful or appealing. 


I love eating with other people and dislike eating alone. Eating together is an important way to make friends and build community. But my food bills need to be reasonable. 

Frugal: Cooking at home, inviting friends to share a meal, and eating out at less-expensive restaurants.

Cheap: Giving less than your share in group restarant bills or skimping on the tip.


Of course it’s great to bike or walk somewhere if you can—to get the exercise, save on gas, and reduce pollution. But for many of us, driving is a necessity because our communities fail to provide pedestrian friendly roads, public transit, or bike paths.   

Frugal: Organizing your errands so you drive less. A side benefit is getting the errands done faster and more efficiently, freeing up more time for you to do other things.

Cheap: Always asking your friends to drive you places (unless of course you graciously return the favor in some other way that really works for them).


Let’s face it, we’re always going to need certain “stuff,” and most of the time we’ll need to buy it. But we can do this within our ethical and financial guidelines.

Frugal: Determining the least expensive way to buy an item, and finding the best possible quality at the lowest possible price. This might involve comparative shopping, spending time online, and talking to your friends.

Cheap: Visiting a specialty store and spending a lot of time talking to the clerk to learn about an item and decide what you want, then going online to buy it. This deprives employees of their commissions, and the store loses the profit they deserved from talking to you, which can cut into their own business.


Frugal: Noticing something that you want on Freecycle (an online service that allows people to share free items), emailing the person who listed it, and obtaining the item.

Cheap: Seeing something that looks interesting on Freecycle and pouncing to get the item even though you don’t really need it and someone else in your area might have greater use for it but may not have immediate Internet access. Or, picking up the item and realizing that it isn’t going to work for your needs but taking it anyway, even though someone else might really be able to use it.


Each of us has to work out the distinction between being frugal and being cheap based on our own circumstances and social network. In today’s materialistic world, people who are frugal are often unfairly accused of being cheap. And sometimes, the discipline of watching your pennies and dollars can cause you to value them too much—leading to actual cheapness.

The important thing is to think about your values and to do your monthly review of whether or not your spending is in accordance with your values. My previous blog described some spending strategies that definitely were frugal. And my first blog, My Story of Frugality: Breaking My Economic Dependence on My Job, explains the general philosophy behind my spending decisions.

Use the comment section of this blog to send more examples—or to argue with these. Those of us on the path to plentitude need to work on clarifying this distinction. And by sharing our experiences with each other, we can become more generous as we become more frugal.

Dale S. Brown works on a portfolio of projects that empower people both in personal growth and political power. She lives in Washington, D.C. and is a guest blogger for the Center for a New American Dream.

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Thanks for this enjoyable and helpful article, Dale. As a frugal New Englander with a distaste for waste, sometimes it’s hard for me to know where to draw the line. The good news is that your article confirms my instincts are about right!

Posted by Caryn Ginsberg at January 16, 2013 at 3:16pm

I would like to thank Dale Brown for putting into words an important concept that I have never been able to articulate well. I think I might add that the distinction may come down to “are you making yourself and/or the people around you miserable?” I would also add that I find that I need to be careful to limit my criticisms to those whose cheapness is self-inflicted—who could afford to be frugal but refuse to. I find that often to be frugal means to have the resources upfront—time and, yes, money—to invest in somewhat better quality so an item will last longer than the cheap version. Or it requires time to make use of the less expensive alternative (cooking dried beans vs take out, if you are working two jobs to make ends meet).

Saving money and resources is a means, not an end, and not worth harming people. The other thing I notice about cheapness is that is tends to be more expensive in the end. I associate cheapness with someone who ends up buying the cheapest, flimsiest whatever and then has to keep paying to replace it (and ultimately spends more than if they just bought a solidly-made-but-more-expensive item in the first place). Or they spend so much time patching or repairing or coddling it that it hardly get any use out of it. Again, self-inflicted cheapness is different from someone who cannot afford to be frugal.

Posted by Amy Pemberton at September 12, 2011 at 11:01pm

Anne: perhaps the person who called you “cheap” for your home haircuts was assuming that you are doing an inferior job of it, and thereby depriving your husband and son? (Hardly a fair accusation if they haven’t seen the results, I’d say.)

Posted by haverwench at September 11, 2011 at 5:45pm

I was once accused of being “cheap” because I cut my husband’s and son’s hair myself. I didn’t understand the problem, and still don’t. Do I owe it to somebody to pay for a service I don’t need?

Posted by Anne at September 9, 2011 at 9:33am

Thank you both for your comments. It means so much for me to hear from readers.

Posted by Dale Brown at September 7, 2011 at 1:01am


     You hit things right on the head. It is not necessary to spend bucket loads of money to get your obligations met. It shows me that I should think not once, but twice, as I go out into the world with my money and proceed to buy my stuff.


Posted by Lenny Goldberg at September 3, 2011 at 12:16pm

very nice! really liked this.

Posted by Joan McKniff at September 2, 2011 at 6:48pm


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