I’ve been called frugal. I’ve also been called cheap. For a long time, I assumed the two were synonyms, one easily replaceable by the other. Well, you know what they say about people who assume. I was perfectly fine with being cheap – or being frugal, didn’t matter to me – until I gave a dear friend of mine a birthday card I’d bought from the dollar store. It actually hadn’t cost me a dollar, it had cost me 50 cents, a fact of which I was pretty proud. My friend, however, was nonplussed.

“You’re so cheap,” she hissed after opening my card.

It was in that moment that I finally realized that while the denotation (for you non-English majors out there, that means “literal definition”) of the two words may be similar, their connotations (ie, “secondary” or “implied meaning”) are practically polar opposites.

The Definition of Frugal

Of the two terms, frugal definitely carries a more positive connotation. Merriam-Webster describes the definition of frugal as:

“Characterized by or reflecting economy in the use of resources.”

In fact, the word itself comes from the Latin word frugalis, which means virtuous. Another possible root for the word (can you tell my grandmother was a linguistics fan?) is the Latin word frui, which means to enjoy. “To enjoy,” “virtuous” – these terms make being frugal sound like a rather noble endeavor indeed.

The Definition of Cheap

For the budget-conscious among us, being called frugal is a compliment. Being called cheap is not. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of cheap has multiple layers. The basic layer is pretty simple:

“Purchasable below the going rate or real value.”

Ok, that doesn’t sound all that bad. But when you start looking at the secondary and tertiary definitions of cheap, you start to see that being called cheap is far from an admirable attribute:

“2: Gained or done with little effort, ie, a ‘cheap’ victory.”

“3: Of inferior quality or worth; stingy.”

Stingy… ouch. When my friend told me I was cheap, it was more of an accusation than a virtue. She was telling me that I was being tight with my money – too tight, in her opinion – while making a point that our friendship was worth more than a card that cost two quarters (to be fair, I was taking her out to a nice dinner – following  a pedicure – when she opened her card… ok, ok, I’m making excuses. The card was cheap).

Are You Frugal Or Cheap?

Desperate to find redemption, I started contemplating whether I was truly being cheap or simply a misunderstood frugalista. I came across this fun quiz on the web (who doesn’t love quizzes?), and honestly answered all 12 questions. The result? I scored a 35, putting me in the “eh, you’re probably a little cheap” category – albeit just one point away from being labeled as frugal. The quiz didn’t give me the gratification I was searching for; instead, it made me realize that maybe I wasn’t misunderstood after all. Maybe I was being too stingy with my money.

Which Is Better When It Comes To Saving Money?

I tried to embrace being cheap. After all, my spending habits had helped my family survive some tough financial times. If being cheap resulted in us saving money, then I was all for it.

Then I came across this article from Mike at Saving Money Today. In this post, Mike compares saving money to dieting. To him, being frugal is losing the weight the right way: establishing a meal plan, lowering your caloric intake while getting in daily exercise to increase your calorie burn. Being frugal, therefore, requires establishing a budget and slowly building up your financial foundation by decreasing your spending over time.

Being cheap, on the other hand, is like crash dieting. You start out strong, maybe eliminating all carbs from your diet on day one. You’re doing great! You’ve lost eight pounds in three days! Way to go! Then, you eat a piece of bread. Then, you eat the whole loaf. Then, you rob a bakery and gorge on all the dough in sight.

I’ve seen that play out in my own life. Being cheap is tough – it requires so much vigilance that once you start to slip, you fall… and fall hard. For example, after my son was born last spring, I found myself in desperate need of some new, non-maternity clothes. But I hadn’t put any wiggle room for non-essentials (food, gas, utilities) in my too-cheap budget. I managed to avoid clothing stores for a while, until I stopped in Target one afternoon to pick up a prescription. That’s when I saw the clothing section! The result? Within 15 minutes, I’d spent over $200 I hadn’t budgeted for; I later returned half of them because they didn’t fit or just weren’t my style. I’d simply bought them without thinking (or trying them on) because I’d been so starved from my “cheap money diet” that I went financially insane.

Learning To Be More Frugal

Now that I’ve seen the damage being cheap can do to my budget (not to mention my wardrobe), I’ve started to make a concerted effort to be more frugal. I’ve started to include a little extra in our monthly budget, which my husband and I can either spend at our discretion – no questions asked – or save up for a bigger purchase down the road.

To me, being frugal means making smart decisions with my money. To me, being frugal means buying needs as well as the occasional wants. But most of all, being frugal means budgeting in a little forgiveness as well.

Reader, what does being frugal mean to you? How different is it from being cheap?

Libby Balke

Libby Balke