Frugal vs. Cheap — Part I in an ∞ Part Series

Image by Art Spiegelman, from Maus

The miser, poor fool, not only starves his body, but also his own soul.
— Theodore Parker

The distinction between frugality and cheapness can be subtle at times. In my mind frugality is about wise use of resources, getting value for money, and (less obviously) value for time. Cheapness, by contrast, is characterized by short-sightedness, and putting money before all other concerns, including manners, self-respect, or common decency.

This is best illustrated by example:

Frugal — Cooking at home.
Cheap — Eating out, but stiffing the waiter on the tip.

Frugal — Netflix.
Cheap — Pirating.

Frugal — Sending a hand-made greeting card for your mother’s birthday.
Cheap — Just saying “Happy Birthday!” on Facebook, and only because they emailed you a reminder.

Frugal — Hosting a dinner party at home.
Cheap — Never buying a round when out with friends.

Frugal — Getting bargains on food at local ethnic groceries.
CheapWaiting in line for hours for a “free” $6 bucket of chicken.

FrugalPaying a premium for quality goods that last, then maintaining them.
Cheap — Buying second-rate goods that soon wear out and wind up in the landfill.

Frugal — Lowering your thermostat a few degrees to save energy.
Cheap — Leaving a burner going on your stove 24/7 to save matches, because the pilot light is out and the landlord pays your gas bill.

(That last one is from the brilliant graphic novel Maus, by Art Spiegelman. If you haven’t read it, you really should.)


  1. Oh God… I can’t even begin to calculate how much gas that last one would waste. It’s making me sad just thinking about how much resources it’d waste 🙁

    • Sean Owen

      He really did this, too, apparently.

  2. Betty

    Cheap- You take your date out for a drive. You stop for gas and,
    politely ask “Would you like a coke?” Your date smiles and
    says “Yes.” You come back to the car with, one coke. You
    open the coke and, guzzle half the can. Then, you hand the
    coke to your date.

    That is a true account of a date I had many years ago.

    Now buying a coke had great meaning to me. My father was mean,
    cheap, and, quite a nightmare to be around. My mother once told
    me a story of one of their dates. She said my dad had went into
    the gas station to pay for his gas. He came back with one coke. He
    never asked her if she would like a coke. He didn’t even offer to share
    his coke. I knew right then that this would be a sign to run, if a date
    ever did such a thing.
    My husband of 29 years, went into the gas station to pay for gas. He
    never asked if I would like a coke. He simply returned to the car with
    two cokes in hand. I was in love. 🙂

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