Frugal vs Cheap – What’s the Difference?

Is being frugal the same as being cheap? Not REALLY. Discover what makes a person frugal vs cheap, and why one is better than the other.

The words frugal and cheap are often used as synonyms, as both characteristics are related to saving every penny and spending as little as possible. The word cheap, however, tends to have negative connotations that end up affecting the concept of being frugal. 

So, is being frugal the same as being cheap? Not really. Frugality focuses on a much wider picture while being cheap merely means you’ll save those extra cents for the sake of them. 

Let’s dig into the main differences between being frugal vs. cheap, so you can tell them apart. 

1. Value vs. Cost 

A very important difference between frugal and cheap people is their vision: those who are cheap only care about the cost, and will strive to pay as little as possible, while frugal people will always try to get the best value for their money

While both will want to get the best deal possible, frugal people prioritize the value of the product over the expense. Here are some frugal living tips with a big impact.

Let’s set an example of frugality versus being cheap to make it clearer: a cheap and a frugal person are at the store shopping for shampoo and find a really big and cheap bottle of an unknown brand. Right next to it is an equally big bottle of a renowned brand that costs a little more.

The cheap person will grab the first bottle without a second thought, while the frugal person might consider the quality of the products first. Chances are that the good quality shampoo, even if it’s a bit more expensive, will last longer, justifying the extra expense.

On the other hand, the cheaper brand may not do a good job and require the person to use half the bottle for every hair wash, forcing them to buy more shampoo in no time. So, did the cheap or frugal person spend less money on this occasion?

Sometimes spending a little more means wasting less in the long run, and while frugal people know this, cheap people mostly don’t. 

2. Time vs. Cost

Again, cheap people prioritize cost at all costs (pun mostly not intended), and that’s the bottom line for them. Does that mean they’ll spend a whole night queuing outside a new clothing store to get all the discounts for being the first to shop? Probably. That they’ll leave home 2 hours early to walk to work, so they avoid paying for the bus fee? Also likely.

Now, what about the time? Was wasting two hours of the day worth the few bucks saved? Time is money, we’re often told, and being frugal means you’ll try to avoid wasting time almost as much as wasting actual money. To take the example further, let’s say both a cheap and a frugal person managed to save to go on a trip. 

The frugal person, after considering, will likely pay for a cab ride to the hotel upon realizing the length of using public transport. The cheap person may not even research in advance and will spend half the day jumping from one bus to another to get to their destination.

As for their hotels, they’re not close to each other because the cheap person is staying miles from the city center for the sake of low-cost accommodation, while the frugal person paid for the cheapest hotel in town for the convenience of being close to everything and avoiding not only transportation expenses but wasted time.  

3. Priorities 

The priorities of a cheap vs. frugal person are not the same. A cheap person will always prioritize saving as much money as possible, not necessarily in the sense of opening a savings account and stashing up bills for future needs, but in getting the cheapest deals and spending as little as possible.

They will do that even if that means not paying for tips when eating out, or taking up friends’ offers to pay the bill every time. If you were looking for signs of a cheap person, that’s a good giveaway.

Frugal people, on the other hand, prioritize their expenses, spending as little as possible on unimportant things to be able to afford what really matters to them, which could be paying for expensive concert tickets to be close to their favorite rock start, or going on vacation once a year.

Because they lived frugally during the year and saved toward their goal, they can afford them. The difference between cheap and frugal is that cheap people, even if they can afford those luxuries, are unwilling to spend their money on them (or on anything).

4. Bottom line values 

Cheap people value money more than anything else, and that includes other people. They will save a few cents at the expense of their friends, family members, or strangers, and at the expense of their time and their own enjoyment, never giving in to indulgences.

Being cheap can easily become a habit, and people don’t realize anymore what they’re doing or how it affects their life or those around them. This means they’ll even skip doctor appointments or visits to the vet to avoid paying the fees.

Frugal people choose this lifestyle as a means of being more financially sound, and to have enough money to spare for emergencies, special occasions, or helping out family and friends in need.

To reach those savings funds, cuts need to be made in the everyday life expenses, and that’s where frugal individuals try to spend as little as possible, as long as they get value for what they’re paying. 

How to be frugal but not cheap, then? These groups spend money with different objectives in mind, and while each specific case might have its nuances, the bottom line difference is that frugal people look to get the most value for their purchase, while cheap people look to spend as little as possible, regardless of anything else: price is the only aspect that matters. 

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