When Did You Become so Damn Cheap?

Image by Jost Amman, from the Book of Trades (1568)

The devil lies brooding in the miser’s chest.
— Thomas Fuller

A couple of days ago, I was chatting with my dad on the phone about my new house, and in particular, the virtues of the lovely wood-burning stove it came with. Dad agreed that a wood fire is cozy and pleasant, but then he said something odd: “I’ll bet firewood is expensive as hell out there in California.” (Dad lives in Mississippi.)

“I suppose it is, but only a fool would pay for it,” I replied. I’ve been getting mine from my own yard, and a giant pile of tree trimmings from the local golf course. Of course I have to chop it myself.

Then came the response I’ve been hearing more and more these past few years. “God, Son, when did you become so damn cheap?”

I was tempted to describe an article I once read on Early Retirement Extreme, where Jacob compares the average American, who pays for firewood and for an expensive gym membership he rarely uses, with a more sane strategy of simply chopping your own and getting both the firewood and exercise for free. But I didn’t. I know better than to argue with Dad about such things at this point.

With Friends Like These…

One of the biggest challenges you are likely to face if you choose to embark on the path to financial independence, sadly, will come from your friends and family. Chances are some of the people in your inner circle will have a difficult time accepting the changes you make. They might respond with criticism, ridicule, or even downright hostility.

Theories abound as to why this is so. One of the more plausible ones suggests that people become uncomfortable seeing others do things that they know they ought to be doing themselves, but aren’t. (Ever notice that no one seems genuinely happy for someone who loses a lot of weight?) It has a way of laying bare whatever excuses they may be making.

I know that’s not what’s going on with Dad, though. He sees my new focus on frugality, and is genuinely worried about me descending into cheapness (Yes, they are two very different things. More on that later.)

Dad came from a dirt-poor family in the rural South. He has seen how hard times can lead a person to become a bitter, joyless cheapskate, and stay that way even when the troubles have passed. Naturally, he doesn’t want to see me turn out that way — he wants me to enjoy my life and not worry so much about money all the time. He managed to escape this fate himself, albeit with some struggle. In fact, he is generous to a fault with others, even though he still struggles with spending money on himself.

In truth, I’d really like to be just like him in this regard — generous with others, but conservative with myself. After all, I’m saving up to buy myself the biggest gift of all — my remaining time in this world. I can’t stop him from worrying, though. So whenever the c-word comes up nowadays, I just smile and change the subject.

8 Comments

  1. Haha, my dad just said the exact same thing to me over the holidays. It’s a case of “the pot calling the kettle black” though because it was his frugality that inspired mine (although I admit, I’ve taken it a step further).

    I’m really enjoying your daily posts, by the way. It must be a lot of work cranking out that many articles!

    • Sean Owen

      Hah yeah, I felt the same way. I grew up thinking my dad was a major cheapskate. I learned the truth as I got older.

      Glad you’re enjoying the challenge. It is indeed a lot of work! Luckily I have a wonderful wife, now, who is willing to do a bit more of the cooking than usual this month.

  2. I actually take it as a compliment or sign that I’m doing the right thing. Not being called cheap, but more just those various reactions of hostility, surprise or whatever it may be. Most of the time it just seems to be the person having issues with Confirmation Bias though.

    As far as I’m concerned I don’t EVER want to be doing what everyone else is doing… otherwise I might end up like them! *shudder*

    • Sean Owen

      True enough. Still, there’s a difference between frugal and cheap. Frugality to me means wisdom and level-headedness. Cheapness is just petty. A frugal man cooks at home. A cheapskate may eat out, but choose not to leave a tip.

  3. Oskar

    Me and my wife are rather frugal, especially if we compare to others on the same income level. We spend on the things that are important for us but very little on other things. The interesting part is that I think my mother viewes us as cheap as she has great difficulty not to spend to much money and has been used to a higher income level. At the same time my in-laws think that we are spending way to much money as they are used to raising 4 kids on one (teachers) salary they have been used to living well with very little money.

    • Sean Owen

      It’s all a matter of mindset, isn’t it? I remember overhearing the CEO of a company I worked at talking about his wife being “cheap” for staying at 4-star rather than 5-star hotels when she took her seasonal trips to Paris to shop.

  4. I was once cheap, I spent basically nothing for years. (mostly because I had no job and earned nothing for years). I now know the value of items, and what I am willing to spend money on, and what I’m not.

    The line between cheapness and frugality can become blurred. But as long as you know what’s important to you, very little else matters. I don’t cringe at the criticism of others, nor do I judge them (much).

    Fortunately I have friends who are cheap/frugal. So my frugality is seen as an extravagance by some (particularly their significant others).

    Everyone walks their own path, some will just take longer to reach their destination than others. To each their own.

  5. Cujo

    Maybe I’m just a sociopath, but this touches on a common complaint among FI seekers that always baffles me. Why do you care at all what anyone else (even your dad) thinks about the way you live?

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