Being frugal is a good thing, but there are times when being frugal goes too far and you’re just being cheap. Let’s talk about how to know when you’re being too cheap.
I grew up learning to be frugal from my parents. Even when they had money to spare they were always very careful with it. We rarely ate out (like, a couple times a year) and didn’t spend money on many extras.
I got a regular job when I was fifteen and socked away all my money for college. While lots of my coworkers spent their paychecks as fast as they earned them I rarely spent money on anything besides necessary clothes, etc.
When Pablo and I got married I quickly realized that he and I didn’t always have the same approach to money (though he was certainly still careful with it.) For example, when we stopped for fast food he ordered a regular combo instead of something from the value menu. I know you’re laughing, but at the time that really bothered frugal little me.
Over the last few years I’ve learned that while frugal living is important, there are times when I can take being frugal too far and end up being a cheapskate (and I’m thankful for a husband who has helped to balance me out a bit!)
So, what’s the difference between frugal and cheap? And how do you know if you are being too cheap?
What’s the difference between frugal and cheap?
The word frugal is generally a positive term. When I looked up the definition of frugal I found the words sparing and economical. If you’re frugal you’re someone who is thoughtful and careful with how you spend and save your money. That’s a good thing!
Cheap on the other hand tends to be a more negative term, specifically when it’s used to describe someone as being a cheap person. Some words I saw when looking up the definition of cheap included miserly, stingy, and tightfisted. A cheap person can also be described as a “cheapskate”.
So, how do we know when we’re just being frugal and wise with our money versus when we’re taking things too far and being cheap? Let’s talk through some examples of how to know when you’re being too cheap.
7 Times When You‘re Being too Cheap
1. When the quality of what you buy is even cheaper than the price
You shouldn’t always buy the cheapest item. In fact, it’s not always the most frugal thing to do.
For example, I like to buy a lot of my kids’ clothes second hand. You can often find really great deals at consignment stores like Kid-to-Kid and Once Upon a Child.
However, I’ve realized that for some things it just makes sense to pay a bit more and buy them new – like jeans for my active boys (because they’ll wear holes through the knees of used jeans within a week!)
The same goes for clothes for me. You know you’re being too cheap when you grab the cheapest thing you can find and it quickly pills after the first wash. I’ve realized that – when possible – it’s better to pay a little more for something that will last a good bit longer.
And of course this doesn’t just go for clothes. That cheap set of baking sheets that pop every time they get hot in the oven? Yeah, it’s worth it to pay a bit more for a quality set (and I’m speaking from experience.)
Spending less in the short term can sometimes mean spending a whole lot more in the long term.
2. When you waste a lot of valuable time
I make an effort to save money on groceries and one thing I do every week is check the store ads to see what’s on sale.
However, when the sales that I’m interested in are at three different stores, I often have to choose just one of the stores to shop at, simply because I don’t have time for them all.
It’s important to remember that time is money too.
It’s not worth my time to regularly stop at three or four different stores for groceries, especially if it means driving all the way across town. If I have the time and freedom I’ll absolutely go to a couple stores to save money, but that’s not often the case, especially with kids in tow.
A frugal person knows to also value their time.
3. When you turn into “that” customer
If you’ve worked in fast food or retail you know who “that” customer is. The one who argues with you about the price, doesn’t understand why their coupon isn’t giving them the discount they expected, loudly complains, etc. Well, I have a vivid memory of being “that” customer once!
We took the kids to Baskin Robbins a couple years ago and the coupon I brought didn’t ring up properly (or at least I didn’t think it did!) We were charged a couple bucks more than I expected and I questioned the cashier a couple times and complained about it . . . and ended up embarrassing my husband a bit (oops!)
He reminded me afterwards that it was only a couple bucks – really not a big deal – and since then I’ve thought back to that time when I’ve been tempted to make a fuss about something truly insignificant.
It’s not wrong to make sure you’re paying the correct amount, don’t get me wrong, but if you find yourself getting upset and acting ridiculous, know that you’re probably being a bit too cheap and you need to chill.
4. When you and your spouse disagree
It’s inevitable – at some point or another you’re going to disagree with your spouse about a purchase. We all come into marriage with certain ways that we are used to doing things and certain expectations when it comes to our spending.
To give you a silly personal example, I always pack food for trips. I make sandwiches ahead of time and pack some fun snacks. I never buy anything at gas stations because in my opinion they’re way overpriced.
Pablo loves that I pack stuff for trips, but no matter how much I pack, he still typically buys something when we stop at a gas station. When we first got married I felt offended, like why was he buying an overpriced drink or snack when I’d already packed some things?
But then I realized that for him, that’s part of the fun of the trip – splurging a little bit – just like for me part of the fun is preparing everything ahead of time. I could either freak out about the extra five bucks that we spent, or I could accept that he is not me and go with it . . . and maybe even ask him to grab me something too!
The point is that in marriage it shouldn’t be “my way or the highway.” Whether it’s something as little as a snack at the gas station or something more significant (new furniture instead of second hand, etc.) if a certain purchase is important to your spouse, try to see it from their perspective, even if it pains your frugal heart a little bit.
Because ultimately, people and relationships have more value than money.
5. When you aren’t willing to be generous
Can a frugal person be generous? Absolutely – but a cheap person probably won’t be.
Being generous doesn’t mean being stupid and giving away more than you can afford, putting your family in a bad position. You can be generous and smart about it. And of course, if you truly can’t afford something, you can’t afford it and that’s that.
However, I think we all know the times when we’re truly just being stingy and tightfisted as well. Do you never offer to drive because you don’t want to pay for gas? Are you stingy tipper? I won’t give more specific examples because it’s obviously going to vary for everyone. Ultimately, generosity comes down to our hearts.
6. When you judge others for their spending habits
We’re all at difference places in our finances and we all have different priorities. But one clear sign that you’re acting too cheap is when you start to secretly (or not so secretly) judge your friends or relatives for their spending habits.
Now, I’m not talking about noticing bad spending habits and avoiding them for yourself. That’s smart. But I think – no, I know – that there can be a tendency for some of us more frugally minded people to sort of sit on our high horses sometimes and look down on others who don’t have the same spending and saving priorities that we have.
7. When you buy what you don’t need in order to save
Saving money is fun! I love looking at my receipt and seeing how much I saved at the grocery store or buying clothes for my kids on clearance and seeing how much I saved off the original prices. It’s a good feeling!
However, where you can get in trouble is when you buy what you don’t need because it’s such a good deal. You may feel like you’re being super smart and frugal because you just “saved so much”, but did you actually need what you just bought?
A cheap person easily slips into mindset that you should never pass up a good deal but in reality if you don’t need it, it’s not a good deal.
So, those are seven examples that I can think of for how to know when you’re being too cheap. Now I want to hear from you: Have you had a time where you were probably being a bit of a cheapskate? If you’re married are you typically the spender or the saver? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
You may also be interested in:
The Best Things to Buy on Facebook Marketplace to Save Money
How to Spend Less and Stick With a Budget
How Much to Budget for Groceries Monthly