Can you distinguish frugal from cheap?

How do you distinguish frugal from cheap?

Saving money has always been a major concern among people trying to be financially responsible.

Adopting a minimalist and frugal lifestyle can only be beneficial if you’re looking to spend less and save more.

However, there’s a fine line between being meticulous with finances and being downright stingy.

Do you know where you stand? Are you frugal or are you cheap?

Personally, I admit there I’ve managed to fall victim of the darkside quite a few times. Paying debt while being unemployed was tricky, so there were plenty of times I chose the cheap way around. (I don’t anymore, so you can keep reading).

The problem with being cheap, however, is it can affect others.

So where do you draw the line between being cheap or frugal?

Being cheap vs. being frugal

There's a fine line between being meticulous with finances and being downright stingy. Do you know where you stand? Can you distinguish frugal from cheap?


Cheap people think quantity over quality

Back when debt was a priority, I admit I would have rather bought 9 cans of really cheap tuna fish, instead of one pack of smoked salmon.

For the same price, I could either get fish that would last for 1 meal, or fish that would last for a week’s worth of meals!

When money is tight, often times we think about how can we get more of something’s that cheap. It lasts longer so you spend less money, right?

However, the quality of a product should definitely be taken into consideration when making a purchase.

The fish example isn’t even that big of an issue. But think about the difference between a cheap, 1 layer toilet paper, versus a more expensive, 3 layer toilet paper.

Sure, you could buy more toilet paper for the same money you’d spend on the thicker one. But would you risk it?

Related article: 10 money saving tips to grocery shop smart

Frugal people think value over price

Not everything that’s expensive has great value. Just as not all cheap products lack quality.

However, cheap people tend to look at the price tag, rather than the value the purchase may offer.

Think about whether or not it’s wiser to buy one $30 T-Shirt you’ll still wear after 10 years, or one $3 T-shirt you’d have to throw away after few weeks.

Unfortunately, few years ago I didn’t take the value aspect into consideration. I managed to get rid of dozens of clothes I bought for cheap. Somehow I’ve actually managed to lose money. Oops!

But clothes aren’t the issue here.

One cheap person and one frugal person walk into an appliance store.

The cheap person looks for the cheapest fridge they need for their new home.

The frugal person, on the other hand, compares energy efficiency levels, reads online reviews before even entering the store and maybe consults friends and family before making a purchase.

The frugal person will probably end up paying more for the new fridge they need.

The cheap person will be thrilled they found a bargain! Ha! But wait, who gets stuck with a higher electric bill from now on? And what if the fridge stops working? What if it isn’t big enough and they’ll end up wasting food?

Related article: How to live well below your means

Refusing to spend money might affect relationships

Intimate relationships as well as friendships can suffer because of someone’s refusal to spend money.

While frugal people do put savings above all else, they probably know not to offend friends by purposely refusing to go out, if that means spending a few bucks on a drink!

Often times, being stingy can make you downright grumpy.

“Ugh, going out again? Great, another chance to throw money out the window!”

Sound familiar?

What about not leaving a tip after a romantic dinner at a restaurant? Or refusing to go out at all, just so you’ll “save money”?

I admit to having suggested alternatives to spend less on meals, but have never pulled a Scrooge McDuck on a waiter!

There’s a difference between being attentive with how much you spend and being too stingy.

Related article: 5 surprisingly frugal ways to be romantic

Being cheap can potentially damage your health

Saving money on water or saving on your electricity bill is just common sense. Everyone adopting a frugal lifestyle is probably looking for ways to spend less on utilities around the house.

Others though, in their attempt to save money, are actually doing more harm than good.

Turning off the lights if you’re not in a room makes sense. Keeping them turned off when you read or, say, fold laundry, isn’t a good idea for your eyes.

Making sure you avoid food waste by cooking those veggies you bought 3 days ago is wise. Eating a banana that’s been standing on your kitchen counter for the past 3 weeks definitely isn’t!

When being cheap meets potential damage to your health, that’s definitely a red flag you’re way too close to that thin line!

Related article: 10 ways to budget money on a low income

Stinginess can be.. unusual

Few years ago, when the recession was at it’s peak, I remember reading an article online on how to save money.

People were losing their jobs, I was having a hard time finding one myself, the situation back then was anything but rainbows and unicorns.

Naturally, in order to ‘survive’, many found inventive ways to save money and posted them online to try and help others.

One piece of advice that stuck with me to this day went something like this:  save money on toilet paper by using one sheet at a time. 

(pause for dramatic effect)

Over the years, I’ve also heard of many other ridiculous ways to save money:

  • smuggling food through airport security to avoid buying anything on board (why not just eat at home before you leave?)
  • reusing paper towels after drying them (why not use cloth towels and avoid buying paper altogether?)
  • separating 1 two-layer toilet paper roll into 2 one-layer rolls (what’s this obsession with saving money on toilet paper?)

Related article: 5 extremely cheapskate things I wouldn’t do to save money

As you probably noticed, it isn’t all that difficult to distinguish cheap from frugal. At least in some cases.

Where do you stand on the verge of cheap vs. frugal? 

Have you ever chosen to be cheap in order to avoid spending money?



I'm Adriana, a passionate SEO expert with a knack for budgeting. As an SEO whiz, I help businesses reach their goals. In my personal life, I care about empowering myself and others to make the most of every cent.


  1. LOVE this! People often interchange the two terms and they are SO different. We used to be cheap when money troubles clouded our vision, now we are fabulously frugal, which allows us to be generous when we want to. 🙂

    • I’ve never heard about being ‘fabulously frugal’ before. Sounds like something many should work on 🙂 😀 😛

      Thanks for stopping by, Laurie!

  2. I would like to think that I fall in the frugal category. I don’t buy things on sale just because they’re on sale. It has to help me and I definitely try not to eat bad food b/c it’s on sale or I can get a ton of it cheap. It’s definitely a fine line. Great article.

    • Totally agree. Spending money on something that does the opposite of helping isn’t very smart. I did it in the past though, but good thing we’re able to learn from our mistakes 🙂

  3. My wife and I just got back from a very inexpensive trip to St. Martin, and when people hear about it they find it hard to believe how little the trip cost in total. It was the result of months and months of planning, though, and we certainly put in effort to make it inexpensive. On our trip I joked that we were cheap, and my wife corrected me, “we are frugal, not cheap.” And I do think it’s a very fine line. I also recognize there will always be a “gray area” where the lines are blurred.

  4. Great points. When conducting research and evaluating different products and services to spend hard-earned money on, people should definitely consider quality and consistency. Being frugal does not mean automatically buying the least expensive good or service. Practicing frugality means taking the time to do research to determine which products and services will give you the best bang for your buck, both for one time purchases and for those made on a regular basis.

    • Indeed! Many believe in saving money at all costs (self included up until a while ago), but that’s not always a healthy choice. I say ‘not always’, because sometimes the cheaper option is actually worth considering. Which is why I also believe taking some time to research is a good idea 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by, James!

  5. Adriana, this is on point. I especially liked this: “The problem with being cheap, however, is it can affect others.” Makes sense. I’ve danced the fine line between frugal and cheap. It’s tough to know sometimes though where I stand because it’s hard to look in from an outsider’s perspective. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I’m frugal but not cheap (at least I like to think I’m not lol). I’m cheap with myself but am pretty generous with others. Great point about being cheap is that it can affect others. Frugal is about valuing value and not wanting to pay more for something that you know you can get for a good/low price.

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