12 Ways to Tell the Difference Between Being Frugal and Being Cheap

There's a thin line between being frugal and being cheap, but how do we know when we're in danger of crossing it?

Being frugal is being resourceful and savvy about how you spend your money, whereas being cheap is trying to cut corners to the detriment of yourself or others just so you don't have to spend money. Take a look at some of these frugal versus cheap examples, and let me know if you agree in the comments below.

1. Ordering Wisely at Restaurants vs. Eating Like a King and Skimping on the Tip

It's perfectly acceptable to be frugal at a restaurant by ordering less expensive dishes or appetizers to serve as your main meal. It's completely out of line, however, to order the most expensive dishes on the menu and then skimp on the tip; if you can afford a $26 steak and a glass of scotch, you can afford at least a 15% tip for decent service (more if the service was above and beyond). I've seen it many times over, and there's a special name for cheap people like that.

Likewise, don't be the jerk that goes out to eat with friends and doesn't order anything but then picks off other people's plates. That's a good way to get your hand stabbed with a fork if you're dining with me.

2. New Underwear/Sneakers vs. Thrift Shop Underwear/Sneakers

Underwear and sneakers aren't exactly cheap these days, especially if you want halfway decent pairs. I try to shop for these items thoughtfully, keeping in mind that the quality, often more expensive items will probably last longer. I also try to find any deals and coupons that I can use before I can go shopping to offset the higher cost. Conversely, shopping at thrift shops for these particular items isn't just cheap, it's downright disgusting. It doesn't matter your financial state: you should buy new, clean underwear — always. And with shoes, you run the risk of having to replace them more often because they've already been through the ringer.

3. Turning One Two-Ply Toilet Paper Roll Into Two One-Ply Rolls

I really hate buying toilet paper because it's the epitome of flushing money down the drain — but it's one of those necessary evils that I just have to suck up and deal with. As much as I hate it though, I still buy fairly high-end TP because my bum deserves it. Because of my penchant for quilted softness then, I always buy in bulk with a coupon or discount from a savings app. That's the frugal way to do it. The cheap alternative — and, honestly, I don't know if it gets any cheaper than this — is to buy bottom-of-the-barrel two-ply paper so you can create two one-ply rolls. I feel like this practice is a recipe for a lifetime of bachelorhood — and deservedly so.

4. Buying Day-Old/Clearance Food vs. Freeganism

I've purchase clearance food items from the grocery store in the past, and I've recommended it in some of my articles. I've also visited secondhand food stores, like the Wonder Bread Bake Shop outlet and the Pepperidge Farm Outlet Center to score deals on perfectly edible food that just may not be as fresh-from-the-oven as I would prefer. Ya take the good, ya take the bad. But one thing I will never do — at least while I can afford to buy food — is adopt a life of freeganism, which is the practice of eating discarded food, ie. food from trash cans and dumpsters. The cheapness level here is Code Red, and its grossness is up there with the thrift shop underwear.

5. Making a Homemade Gift vs. Regifting an Arbitrary Gift

The holidays are a hard time financially for many people, and it's perfectly okay to be frugal when deciding on gifts. If you can't afford to buy presents, use your resources to make gifts that recipients' will appreciate because of the thought you put into it. Admittedly I like receiving "things," but I've never received a handmade gift that I didn't love. Regifting is okay too  if it's done properly.

If you plan to regift, take a couple things into consideration:

  • The regift should never go back to the person that gave it to you originally.
  • The regift should be thoughtfully gifted.

If you're regifting a gift just to give somebody something for the purpose of giving somebody something, that's not only cheap, but it's terribly rude. (And if you ever do it to me, I will totally judge for it forever.)

6. Watering Down Liquid Soaps and Shampoos to Make It Go Further

How much money are you saving by watering down your shampoos and liquid soaps? Like 30 cents? I'll give you 30 cents if I can just wash my hands at your house with full-strength soap that I know is cleaning me. To avoid being a cheapskate in this regard, buy in bulk, find coupons and discounts, and look for store brands instead of higher-priced name brands.

7. Buying Inexpensive Permanent Dishes vs. Rewashing Plasticware

I've purchased full sets of dishes on clearance at Target for $16 in the past, which have lasted me many years. Which is why I'm always surprised at people who strictly buy plastic plates, cups, and utensils (which are meant to be disposable), and wash and rewash them like they're acceptable adult dining ware. Eventually these plastic farces will melt, crack, and otherwise end up in the trash. So while you think you're saving money in the short-term (by being cheap), you're actually spending more in the long-run than you would if you just bought grown-up dishes.

8. Enjoying Free Refreshments vs. Stuffing Your Pockets With Them

If you're attending an event where free refreshments will be available, it's absolutely fine and frugal to decide to make your meal from whatever's available while you're there. If you're a human person with food in the fridge at home and you make a decent-enough living and you're stuffing your pockets with the free food that's offered so you can make three or four meals out of it, you're cheap and you're stealing and I will totally tell security on you.

9. Paying for a Trial Online Dating Subscription vs. Trying to Trick the System by Distorting Your Contact Information

Rochelle Peachey runs the transatlantic dating site I Love Your Accent, and she sent me her take on the difference between being frugal and cheap. "Joining a dating site for just one month is frugal," she wrote. "Making a profile and writing your email address backwards or adding your Facebook details to avoid paying is cheap — especially if you are trying to meet someone across the pond."

To clarify her point, many online dating services require a subscription for users to exchange personal contact information — that's how they make their money and build the community. Without a subscription, the service will block attempts to share phone numbers, email addresses, etc. Some people, however, try to trick the system and save on subscription fees by distorting their information (like spelling out their phone number in letters and characters) to avoid paying for a membership — which probably isn't the best first impression to make when you're looking for someone to go out with you.

10. Turning One Admission Stamp Into Two With the Lick of a Wrist

I heard a story once about a guy so cheap that when he went to the club with his buddy, he made his buddy lick his wrist after paying and receiving the admission stamp to transfer the admission stamp to him. They both got into the club, but only one of them paid. That's not only super cheap, but also disgusting. One of them should definitely reevaluate that friendship — and see a doctor.

11. Researching an Inexpensive Company vs. Accepting the Lowest Bid

As a homeowner, I sometimes have to hire contractors to do work around the house, and I like to consider all my options. I use sites like Angie's List and Home Advisor to find the right person for the job while also trying to mind my budget. I don't always get the lowest price I was hoping for, but being frugal means making the right decision after considering all factors — not just saving money.

Being cheap in this situation and automatically choosing the lowest bid can go south very quickly, and more times than not it will result in a higher fee in the end because you've had to a hire a second contractor to fix the first contractor's cheap mistakes. Sometimes you have to suck it up and pay a little extra to have it done right the first time. Cheap is a huge headache in this case.

12. Pre-Gaming vs. Smuggling Alcohol Into the Venue

All you twenty-somethings out there can learn a thing or two about the difference between being frugal and being cheap from Alex Zaragoza, a spokesperson for the coupons and deals site ClickSNM.com. He brought up a good point about alcohol etiquette when going out. "Having drinks at home before going out at night is frugal," he says. "Smuggling your own alcohol to a bar is cheap." You've seen it, I've seen it, and it's embarrassing for all of us every time.

What are some other instances that tell the difference between being frugal and being cheap? Please share in comments!

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Guest's picture

I have a ruke of thumb: if you watch the TLC TV show 'Extreme Cheapskates' and you identify with any of these practices, you're cheap! Period.

I watch that show and shudder. Unbelievable!

Guest's picture

While I agree on the bit regarding underwear, I absolutely disagree with buying sneakers at thrift shops. Sure, buying shoes that you want when you have the money is perfectly fine, but there's no harm in finding a nice pair of sneakers in exceptional, to even new condition. The deal about thrift stores is finding quality items for a reasonable price, and when it comes to shoes, it wouldn't make any sense to buy shoes that are completely dirty, or all worn-out.

Guest's picture

I agree Joe! I have a collection of thrift store finds in my closet. I shutter at the thought of paying retail for my wardrobe. I have Michael kors boots I purchased for $14.99 from Goodwill, and retail is well over $200. Image what I could purchase from a thrift store with $200. I am frugal and proud. I am cheap when I have to be.

Guest's picture

The core difference is that frugal people are saving money in order to have a good life. They denied themselves often, for a their big goal.

While cheap people just saving money every chance they get, even in the expense of others.

So if your money saving means someone else would suffer, (e.g. not tipping, feeding your children's crap, resteep used tea bags for guests) you're cheap.

If you are the only one suffering (e.g. spend time couponing, wait for sales, shop less) you're frugal.

Guest's picture

Sorry, but if I don't drink and someone who doesn't know that gives me a bottle of wine, how is it cheap to give it to someone I know who does drink and will enjoy it? Otherwise, it's just going to be wasted by either sitting on my pantry shelf until it ferments, or being thrown away. What's rude in that case is not checking beforehand to make sure the person you are buying wine for can actually drink it-it's sort of a thoughtless thing to give someone unless you know for sure they will enjoy it.

Guest's picture

That first one is crap, assuming that every restaurant has good tip-worthy service. It's only Americans that feel the need to tip and look down on anybody who doesn't. The rest of the world tip when it's deserved not because they don't want to look cheap.
I'm only tipping if the service is exceptional and I'll be ordering whatever I want.