The Difference Between Frugal and Cheap

Ever since I have been more passionate about personal finance and managing my money, I have noticed that there are different definitions of being cheap and being frugal, depending on who you talk to. When my wife and I started telling people that we couldn’t go on vacation, because we were paying off debt, or that we don’t use credit cards, they looked at us funny. When we clip coupons and go to the $1.50 movie theater, some people laugh at us. We’ve never been heckled about it, but we’ve definitely heard the “you only live once” line when we tell people that we are saving money or paying off debt before we spend it on a major purchase.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s my definition of frugal and cheap


  • Looking for deals and taking advantage of sales and promotions when you were already planning on purchasing something
  • Delaying pleasure and instant gratification to make a big purchaseNot making a point to tell friends and family every time you saved money
  • Not obsessed with brands
  • Does not sacrifice quality to buy something only because it is cheaper


  • Your cheapness affects the quality of life of others such as spouse or family
  • Your basic needs are of lesser quality
  • You never splurge a little when you have the money to spend
  • You will sacrifice quality to buy what is the cheapest

I think the most important aspect of frugality is the last bullet point. When you are willing to identify what items are worth spending more money on to buy a better quality product but you do everything you can to get the best deal on it, that is frugal. When you refuse to spend more than $100 on groceries when it’s not feasible due to the size of your family, you’re being cheap. When you clip coupons, and purchase items to make meals from scratch, that is being frugal. When you won’t spend money to perform routine maintenance on your car or home, that is being cheap.

A good example of being frugal in my own life is when we bought a Dyson vacuum. We had gone through two other vacuums in two years, because we have a dog that likes to shed. Our rugs started to stink in our new house, because we knew that our old vacuum wasn’t picking up all of the dog hair. We had heard great things about the Dyson vacuums, but we couldn’t get ourselves to spend $400, much less on a freakin’ vacuum! Once we had a couple of hundred extra dollars in savings that we wouldn’t notice was gone, we started looking for a Dyson. Instead of going out and buying the new $400 model at Target, we purchased last year’s model on Amazon for $329, and we used a gift card that my brother had given me the previous Christmas. We were frugal about a purchase we already planned on buying.

What are your thoughts on this? What is your definition of cheap and frugal? Do you think cheap and frugal mean the same thing? Do you have any examples of being frugal, rather than being cheap?

  • pharmboy

    I used to be CHEAP and I would buy Dr. Thunder at Wal-mart instead of Dr. Pepper, it was definitely at sacrifice of quality for about 16 cents a can.

    Basically I view cheap as the negative view on saving money (glass is half-empty) and frugal is the positive (glass is half-full).

    Cheap people don’t have an quiet inner sense of excitment of where these current sacrifices are taking them, frugal people do.

  • author

    That’s very well put! I like that last line, you are definitely right that cheap people probably don’t have a plan with their money. Whereas, frugal people have financial goals, and they are acting frugal to help achieve those goals.

  • Craig

    Big differences, being frugal makes you a more conscious spender, being cheap means you won’t pay for anything.

  • Dorothy

    Love the comments on sacrificing quality, I could not do that! I had tasted some generic drinks and found them appalling, I won’t sacrifice my Pepsi for one minute! :)
    I am a reformed frugal person because I like the thought of having money and I like to eliminate debt. Great article! :)

  • emma

    a good article

  • The Ceej

    The real difference between cheap and frugal is in motivation.

    A frugal person wants to save money. A cheap person withholds money to punish people or society in general.

    Imagine if you KNEW that if you didn’t pay $5 today, you would lose $500 tomorrow. A frugal person would pay the $5 because that saves him $495. A cheap person wouldn’t care because it’s not about the money to a cheap person. A cheap person would refuse to pay even knowing he’s costing himself $495.

    Knowing this, most actions a person takes have a clear distinction between cheap and frugal. However, there’s a third category: Broke. And a broke person may resemble a cheap person in some ways and a frugal person in others. In the above scenario, the broke person would pay the $5 if he had it, and he wouldn’t if he didn’t.

  • Kloe

    Just yesterday, i’ve been called stingy by a relative and that really bothers me. People are so quick to tell you stuff like that when they know nothing.
    Just speaking about clothes, she’s the one always wearing the most cheap-looking (and costing) piece of crap. So yeah, in term of money, I might spend less, but i’m buying quality. Always. Rather have one good dress than 30 ones made from recycled toilet paper.
    And in general, i’m just living below my means because i have goals! Like, i’m on my way of investing in real estate. But i’m the cheap one because i just don’t throw my moner away on overly stupid stuff?
    So bothering!

  • Frugal2Freedom

    You are right on point to describe the differences. I think to myself why do I want to spend less all the time. Most of my life I have lived without regard to prices. However, I have gotten more savvy. I pay attention to the ultimate price and I try to find a way to buy it for less. Frugal is not a bad word, it is a state of mind that your conscious will not let you break.