Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Difference Between Frugal and Cheap

I was privy to a discussion that a few others were having about a third party. An argument ensued based around whether or not this party should be considered as frugal or cheap. I'm not sure what the decision was because I left, not wanting to take part. However, I did think about the two terms being argued about. By definition the two are different.

Frugal is defined as "characterized by or reflecting economy in the use of resources: economical in use or expenditure; prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful: practising economy; living without waste; thrifty." Its etymology is interesting: " from Latin frugalis virtuous, frugal, from frug-, frux fruit; akin to Latin frui to enjoy." In short, the word has a positive connotation regarding the use of resources.

Cheap is defined as follows: "stingy; miserly: costing very little; relatively low in price; inexpensive: of little account; of small value; mean; shoddy: cheap; now usually suggests shoddiness, inferiority, showy imitation, complete unworthiness, and the like." The connotation is negative.

The problem, as I see it, is that there are only a few areas where you might get 100% agreement as to whether or not something was an example of frugality or cheapness. When trying to apply the terms to human actions, you run into real problems, because truly one person's frugality may be another person's cheapness.

Go ahead, look at any item in your home. Now ask yourself, how much is enough to spend to buy that item? Easy answer? Nope. First ask yourself the following questions. What will the item be used for? How long do you want that item to last for? How many people will be using that item? Will the use of that item be heavy or light? Is that item what you consider a true necessity or does it fall in the category of wants rather than needs? Do you have anything else that is similar in function to that item? Other questions to ask: Will I be able to afford any peripheral costs that come with owning that item? What is maintenance going to cost on that item?

Now look at part of the definition of frugal: not wasteful. How do the answers to your questions apply to this idea? Let's look at an item that quite a bit of discussion on an Orthonomics posting: a food processor for Pesach use. There will be two people cooking in your kitchen over the holiday and you both use the food processor for myriad kitchen cooking tasks. It is going to get heavy use over the course of the few days before the holiday and on chol hamoed. You estimate that you might use the processor about 60 times during that period. Repairing food processors isn't really done, so if it breaks you are in for buying another one.

Your store has three processors for sale. One is very cheap in price, one is fairly cheap and the other is fairly expensive. Which one do you buy? The cheap processor is not made to withstand a lot of heavy use. It might, with heavy use, last one Pesach season--it might last up to 3-4. The mid-priced processor is owned by people you know and they got about 8-10 years under ordinary use out of the processor. The most expensive of the three processors has a life span of 15-20 years with moderate to heavy use. So, which one do you buy? Some people would say that to be frugal you buy the least expensive of the processors and you worry about replacement when that becomes necessary. A different view says that to fulfill the "not wasteful" part of the definition you buy the expensive processor that will last at least 4 times as long as the cheapest model. They say that spending the extra money now saves you money down the road.

And if you plan on using the processor for maybe 3-4 items in total? A wholly different scenario, and frugality is going to be defined differently.

To return to my original statement, yes, there is a difference between frugal and cheap. But there are differing applications of frugal that will depend on a whole slew of factors. What is frugal for one person may seem to someone else to be overspending or underspending, and vice versa. Only you, the individual, can correctly gauge whether a purchase or expenditure is being frugal or being cheap for YOU.


Anonymous said...

For lots of people the difference between frugal and cheap or frugal and spending too much is really simple. If they are spending it whatever it is then it's frugal. If someone else is spending it then it's either cheap or spending too much.

miriamp said...

The commemt above sounds like my husband's "definition" of centrist Orthodox: wherever I am is centrist, to the left is frei and to the right are the fanatics. (No, he doesn't really believe that, he just thinks others do. )

I do think that frugal takes thought and cheap means always either not buying or going with the cheapest one. I have a stand mixer for Pesach, albeit a less expensive model than the one I have for year round, but I didn't get it until I'd burned out the motors on three different hand mixers making kichel. (Over several years) If I'd only known, I'd have gone straight to the stand mixer, but it seemed like overkill for a week with 5 days when I couldn't use it!

Oh and you have an extraneous apostrophe in your definition of frugal. Its, not it's etymology.

Sandy said...

My mil gave me a hint many years ago that allowed me to be frugal instead of cheap for Passover. The first 6 years we were married we went away for the whole Passover to our parents. The first year my mil asked me what I had purchased for Passover. I was really wondering what she was talking about since I was away for that Passover.

What she told me was to take whatever money I could spare and buy at least one of the things that can cost more, like a mixer or dishes or silverware and stuff like that. Those six years we weren't home I managed to buy everything I would need for that day when I would be having Passover in my own house and I didn't have to cheap out on anything because I was buying the things over time.

The stuff stayed in my mils attic until last year. First time I was at home for Passover and I didn't have to buy anything but food items thanks to her advice.

Might work for other young marrieds who are still going away for Passover. Shop anyway and put it away for later. If you have to buy it all at one time the shock of how much things cost could easily make you cheap when frugal would be better.

Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree with the food processor example. If you are the one who will bear the extra work by not having a food processor, then it is frugal. On the other hand, when you impose the consequences on others of your unwillingness to part with money that you can readiy afford to spend, then that is cheap. An example would be if you were giving the food processor as a wedding present to a relative, but opted for the no name cheap version to save a few bucks.

%Shocked% said...

Interesting post! But I'm not sure I agree with you lol. Let's use a different example. I have ties. Not a ton, but a fair amount. When I first started buying my own ties (my mother could never buy a tie that I liked) I had the option of many ties that were cheap or a few ties that were expensive. I decided to go with the former of the two options. I still have every one of them, close to three years later and they are all in fantastic condition. TIhe $75 one that I have is I abysmal condition and I wear it much less than any other tie that I own. Quality is a hard thing to find nowadays and often I see that price has very little to do with the small little price tag affixed to the item. 5 minutes ago I read an article about a new stroller that's coming onto the market soon. Price tag? $1500. I'm not really familiar with prices for strollers (I DO know that they can cost several hundred dollars but that's about it), but What. The.......?!?!?!? I'd venture to say that nowadays, people are more concerned about brand names than they are about quality. That being said, yes, being frugal and being cheap depends on a factor or two, but I'd say the overriding one is how much money you have. Being cheap means that although you have the money, you skimp on things. Being frugal means you make a cost/benefit calculation. I think what I'm saying is similar to what you are, but the I think some distinctions could be made, hence I commented :)

Jake said...

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