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  • Writer's pictureFIRE with a family

The difference between frugal & cheap

The two words are often used interchangeably, and they shouldn't be. They are very different. We can find the difference between frugal and cheap by looking at the reason behind saving money.

Being cheap is about saving money at all costs regardless of quality, while being frugal aims to save money by focusing on getting the best value.

A simple example to illustrate the difference would be purchasing a $20 pair of pants that will likely fall apart after a few washes vs buying a higher quality pair of pants for $100 that will last you 10+ years. The first one is cheap, the other is frugal.

But how is spending more now being frugal? Well, those $20 pair of pants won't last more than a few months so you would have to buy a pair at least once a year, so you'll spend $100 after 5 years ($20 x 5) at minimum. Whereas the higher quality $100 pair of slacks are still going strong 10 years down the track, making them cost $10/yr at worst.

Quality plays a big factor in determining if something is a "cheap" purchase vs a "frugal" one. People who are cheap are solely focused on the cheapest price and tend to forget about the quality piece.

Let's take a look at what the dictionary says for cheap and frugal, some characteristics of each, and compare the two in more detail.

What is Cheap?

From Merriam-Webster:

"at minimum expense"

You can see by the definition that cheap is seeking the lowest $ with little to no regard for anything else.

Cheap people seek out the lowest price for everything and don't care how they get it.

Have you ever been out to dinner with a group of people and one person doesn't buy a meal but will order drinks and then proceeds to pick at the plates of those who've finished their meals? To me, that's cheap.

Those who are cheap are often afraid to spend money. They are willing to sacrifice quality, value and time in order to achieve some short-term savings.

Being cheap is a negative trait and it means always choosing the cheapest option even if it's lower quality or unreliable, or not spending money when you should.

What is Frugal?

From Merriam-Webster:

"characterized by or reflecting economy in the use of resources"

In other words, frugal maximizes value. The lowest price is not always the best deal.

Frugal people will seek out value and don't mind paying a bit more to get a quality product or service.

Take the guy we used in the cheap example who didn't buy a meal and ate the leftovers of others. To act in a frugal manner he could choose to drink water (free!) instead of fancy alcoholic drinks, and order an appetizer over a main meal. That way he could meet his overall budget, still enjoy a meal and company of friends, all without being the cheapskate in the group.

Those who are frugal are resourceful with their spending, maximizing their money, so that they can fund bigger goals in their future.

Frugality is a positive trait that signifies being good with money and spending on what truly brings you value.

Help me understand with a real life scenario

Eating out (frugal)

  • Plans which days of the month they will go out to eat

  • Will often dine at their favorite restaurant when it's happy hour or certain days when special deals are active

  • Usually orders water

  • May order from the appetizer menu rather than a main

  • Could ask the server to bring 2 plates to divide a large serving

Eating out (cheap)

  • Will seek out the least expensive place to eat

  • Orders the cheapest thing on the menu regardless if they actually like the food or not

  • Probably won't tip

  • May ask to eat from your plate


The only similarity between frugal and cheap is the desire to save money. How they achieve that objective is what separates the two. Cheap is all about the lowest price and frugal is all about value for money. Which one are you?

Blake - Fire with a family

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