When is Being Frugal Really Just Being Cheap?

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Buying a Home

A common objection to being frugal is that it’s really just a nicer label for cheapness. Many a family member has told me that I am cheap. I would be the first to admit that I am always looking for a deal and love to save money. People trying to be frugal love finding ways they can make their budgets stretch further. But, there is a fine line between being frugal and being cheap.

When Does it Pay to Be Frugal?


Every day we have choices of how we should spend our money. Do we stop at the coffee shop, or make one at home? Do I go out for dinner, or do I enjoy a meal at home? These are some of the more simple questions we face each day, and when you’re trying to be frugal the answer is usually simple. But, what do we do about bigger purchases and decisions?

How can we be frugal and still spend money on a big expense? The answer is quite simple. The key to being frugal and making large purchases is doing your homework. As someone who champions living frugally I thrive off of information and can’t overemphasize the importance of making informed purchase decisions.

One instance I can think of when it pays to be frugal is the last time my wife and I bought a washer and dryer. Anyone who has bought those recently knows they can cost a pretty penny. After doing a little research and determining the brands we’d like, my wife and I were told about the “ding and dent sale” at our local appliance store.

Every Thursday they bring in all their items from the warehouse that have some sort of minor defect, and are priced accordingly. This set off my frugal sensor and went looking for something we’d be happy with. In the end we were able to save several hundred dollars and have perfectly running machines.  Sure our washer has a scratch on its side, but seven years later, we’re still using them and the frugal person in me knows that scratch can’t be seen and doesn’t affect the performance.

Does Being Cheap Really Save You Money?


Unfortunately, we’re not perfect (myself included), and make stupid decisions from time to time. This can happen when trying to be frugal, but is really just masked cheapness. Case in point was when we got the exterior of our house painted three years ago. I decided to go with the lowest bidder as I wanted to save money.

I thought, “it’s just paint, how hard can it be?” Well, you get what you pay for. Suffice it to say that I will NEVER go with the lowest bidder on another painting job. Our house is an eye sore and can be seen from a mile away because we chose a painter who gave us no direction and just threw paint up on the house.

Thanks to that choice you see the house of blue nastiness above. We used to laugh at people who rubber necked when they passed our house, but now we laugh at ourselves because it’s so awful. The lesson to be learned is that being cheap will not always save money because you’ll just have to turn around and fix it again…something that the frugal person in me hates.

A Frugal Person Always Looks Beyond the Price Tag


My Dad always told me while growing up that you get what you pay for. Being frugal doesn’t mean that you can’t buy a quality product, but it does mean that you justify your purchases. If you buy the cheapest product that needs to be replaced soon after because it’s cheaply made, then is it really a cost savings? I would argue that it’s not.

Sure, the frugal person in me wants to save money when I am buying something, but at what expense do you save money? I believe that spending the extra money to buy a better product is wise and frugal because in the long run you’ll end up spending less money. The money saved can help stretch your budget and in the long run allow you to spend money on other needs or wants.

If you consider yourself a frugal person, have you ever struggled with the feeling that you’re just being cheap?


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John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.


  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    I am always willing to spend extra money when I want/need something high quality that will last a long time. Sometimes being frugal does mean being cheap…whether it’s not ordering a pop at the restaurant (which has saved me literally thousands over the years) or clipping coupons, these are not negative things. I think it’s important to factor in quality, though, and not always buy the least expensive thing out there.

    • John says:

      I completely agree DC. I think a lot of it comes down to quality. I am generally willing to spend a little more if a product looks better than ones that are cheaper.

  • Jordann @ My Alternate Life says:

    I completely understand what you’re saying. There are instances when being frugal gets you the same result for a cheaper price (like buying ebooks versus paperbacks) and when it comes back to bite you in the butt. This happened to me once when I went for the cheapest dog collar for my dog Molly. We were out walking one day and the cheap plastic clasp gave way and off she went chasing after a car. I had to follow her over hill and dale to get her back. Needless to say I immediately upgraded to a higher quality, metal clasped collar the next day!

  • Michelle says:

    I would say that I am cheap in some ways, and it has almost always worked out to be a bad thing. To me, being frugal still means that yo are buying quality items, while being cheap means that I’m trying to bypass that just to get the best deal.

    • John says:

      I would agree Michelle. I think being frugal means simply being wise about what you spend and getting quality for what you buy.

  • Catherine says:

    I’m frugal, I grew up that way, again, not to say I won’t spend money on quality products though. I can be cheap too, I think we all have a little bit of it in us. I hate when I chose the cheap option and end up going back to buy the more expensive option in the end though, kills me.

  • Miss T @ Prairie Eco-Thrifter says:

    I am cheap and frugal in lots of ways. It just depends on the situation.. I buy cheap clothes and shoes all the time. It seems they last just as long as the expensive stuff. I also grow a garden so I can save money on eating organic produce. So far both have worked out well for me.

    • John says:

      I agree with you Miss T, the situation can determine which you’ll be. We garden and buy second hand clothes regularly to be able to stretch our budget.

  • Holly@ClubThrifty says:

    I am usually willing to spend a little more for something that I feel will be better quality. At the same time, almost everything we buy is second hand. I’m cheap and I know it. I wouldn’t pay even $20 for a new shirt if it was the last shirt on earth!

    • John says:

      I am the same way Holly. There’s very few things we’ll buy that’s not second hand. I’d rather get something used that’s still in great condition and use the savings on other things.

  • Sean @ One Smart Dollar says:

    My definition for this is a frugal person looks to save money on something they enjoy. A cheap person will either cut something out completely or find ridiculous ways around paying.

    • John says:

      I would agree Sean. We have family members who could be poster childs for being cheap. I am all for saving money, but there’s only so much effort that can be put into not spending money at all.

  • Jacob @ iheartbudgets says:

    I am very selective on what I am cheap about. I, too, have learned that up-front cost savings does not necessarily mean a good long-term ROI. With most things, I find the best quality product, and then try to find it on sale or used, because I know it will last much longer. And plus, have you ever tasted off-brand cereal? PUKE!

    • John says:

      We’re the same way Jacob. Some things are just fine generic, but other things you just have to pony up the money and buy name brand.

  • Debt and the Girl says:

    I think it comes down on what you really need in life and what you are willing to scrimp on. There are things that don’t bother me as much that other people cannot seem to live without…iphones, premium cable, take out lunches. On the other hand, if you ever took my organic milk away, I may hurt you. LOL

    • John says:

      I totally agree. We all have things that we spend our money on that others may frown upon. It’s all about finding that balance and still allowing yourself room just to enjoy something you like.

  • Pauline says:

    I am painting my mum’s ceiling right now and my poor mum is going to get what she paid for, painting is hard!! She doesn’t care much about the house’s aesthetics, so let’s say she is being frugal 🙂

    • John says:

      Yes it is Pauline! We’ve painted part of our house and you can tell the difference between the rooms that we painted vs. the ones we paid to have painted.

  • Tackling Our Debt says:

    I’ve only tried to be more frugal and aware of my spending in the last few years. I do like finding great deals, through research and hunting, and I have tried to find appliances through scratch and dent as well. My definition of a cheap person is someone that mooches off of others. Someone that always forgets their wallet, so to speak. If a person chooses not to spend money on themselves that is their business, but when people willing accept and allow other people to pay for things for them, that bugs me.

    • John says:

      I would agree. I think that simply just boils down to rudeness if done on a regular basis. I love a good scratch and dent sale as you can often find deals on brand new items with nothing really wrong with them at a good discount.

  • Bobbie @ Bogofdebt says:

    I’m getting better about being frugal and not cheap. We did buy our washer and dryer at a repair shop and saved a lot of money doing it that way and it’s worked out. I’ve had issues with clothes when I bought the cheap ones because I was just replacing them a month or so later. If I’d spent a little bit more, they’d have lasted a lot longer.

    • John says:

      I’ve found the same thing with clothes Bobbie. I think you just have to be wise about what you buy. If you’re lucky you can get a really good brand that’s not been used because it didn’t fit the person or something like that.

  • Mo' Money Mo' Houses says:

    That’s definitely how I define being frugal as opposed to cheap. Getting the best value for your money and buying something of quality that will last longer than something cheaply made because it will save you money in the long run.

  • Veronica Hill says:

    I can’t remember where I left a comment about this, but my brother saved upwards of $1000 on a brand new (really nice) refrigerator because it had a scratch ON THE SIDE of it… like anyone’s going to look there! Ding and Dent is my type of appliance shopping from the moment I found out this little secret.

  • John says:

    That’s awesome Veronica! The washer & dryer that I mentioned in the post, we were able to save about $500 total. We even went to make sure they belonged in the ding & debt sale. The scratches were so small and on the side we could not believe it.

  • Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies says:

    Awww, I like the blue paint! Though I’d worry a little about how it’ll fade over time…

    My parents ALWAYS bought the cheapest – no matter what. But luckily I’ve learned a lot from Mr. PoP’s family where value was the name of the game. “Heirloom Quality” is how Mr. PoP likes to buy… if it’s not going to last long enough to be handed down to his (hypothetical) grandchildren, should we really buy it? We don’t really expect EVERYTHING to last 50+ years, but we do try and figure out what we want and buy it to last.

  • John says:

    My thoughts exactly Mrs. Pop. I like the color too, BUT not the exterior of a house.

    I think value is key, as long as as you’re not breaking your budget to do it. I know not everything will last forever, but I too buy things to get some decent mileage.

  • Kim@Eyesonthedollar says:

    Well it must be easy to give directions to your house. I bet no one else in the area is that blue. Frugal is great and cheap is Ok sometimes. If you are so cheap you eat ramen and sit around freezing in the winter because you don’t want the heat on, that’s not a good way to live.

  • Glen @ Monster Piggy Bank says:

    Great advice, I always end up getting burned when I buy the cheapest item rather than a quality one. I’m starting to learn though :s

  • Jason Clayton | frugal habits says:

    I’m also one who will spend more for quality, but even then I’m a bargain hunter. To me the difference between being cheap and frugal is when it begins to effect other people. For example, not tipping at a restaurant will save you money, but is cheap and rude (not frugal) because you are effecting the life of the server. There are numerous other examples, but this is how I’ve always categorized it.

    • John says:

      Great point on the tipping, I completely agree. I tend to be the same way and look for a bargain as I’d rather not spend more than I have to.

  • justin@thefrugalpath says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more about this article. We had our roof done last Dec and had three contractors to choose from. We went with the most expensive because he was the only one who listened to me.
    One other guy didn’t even include gutters in the bid, which I had asked for. So I didn’t go with him because he failed to listen to me.
    The other guy didn’t have any references and forgot his paper at home so he had to borrow paper from me.
    With contractors I definitely think it’s more important how they respond to you than how much it costs. If someone doesn’t listen or they forget something at home then how can I trust them to listen to what I want and not forget something important.

    • John says:

      Great point Justin. They do have to show that their capable, while at the same time someone that will work with you. If you’re spending a good chunk of money on something like that, their willingness to be receptive to you is essential.

  • Paul @ The Frugal Toad says:

    I go cheap at the grocery store, many times the store brand is just as good as major brands. I use the savings to spend on quality items. For instance I just bought a new mattress and spent a few hundred more on a quality mattress. Sometimes it does not pay to go cheap!

    • John says:

      We tend to be the same way Paul. Some things just make no real difference how much you spend. But, if it’s something we’ll be using on a regular basis then I am willing to spend a little more to get a quality product.

  • Jake Erickson says:

    I am constantly trying to figure out if I’m being frugal or just being cheap. It can be tough to know when to spend a bit more to get a higher quality product. I really your point on doing your research. If it’s anything over $50 I like to find online reviews to see if it’s worth the money (and also what prices I should be expecting).

    • John says:

      I really think it comes down to the attitude and your view on spending money on a quality product. I’d much rather spend more to get something that’ll last as oppose to just saving a buck or two. Thanks for stopping by Jake!

  • Alan@escapingmydebt says:

    Being cheap does save you money, but can also at times cost your more in the long run. Being smart by doing research and looking for the best bang for your buck is what I try to do. Hopefully it will not come back to bite me in the butt by always going with the cheapest available.

    • John says:

      It can in the near term, but the long term can be tricky. Research is key, like you said, and I try and be selective about what I’ll be cheap on.

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