The Difference Between Frugal and Cheap

My post comparing being frugal with being environmentally friendly sparked some discussion about the difference between being frugal and being cheap. I recently read two books on just this topic: The Complete Tightwad Gazette and America’s Cheapest Family. In comparing the two books and the two concepts, I’m going to look at two areas I mentioned yesterday, that also consume a large portion of many budgets: food and clothing.

Cutting Grocery Costs: Frugal or Cheap?
To me, the Tightwad family is cheap, but the Cheap family is really just frugal. I define being cheap as going to great lengths to save money, even if it costs more in time and effort. Frugal means saving money without sacrificing quality of life. For example, the Tightwad family discussed one time they found off-brand sugared cereal at the ninety-nine cent store for thirteen cents a box, so they bought 50 boxes. I take issue with that for several reasons:

1. Despite the current gourmet 99-cent store press, some of the food in ninety-nine cent store is imported from countries with much lower food quality standards. At least in Los Angeles, a lot of it comes from Mexico. I don’t know that I can trust what’s in those boxes to be safe or healthy.

2. My family didn’t eat sugared cereal when I was a child because it’s not a healthy choice. I would rather spend more on quality cereal than save money by making unhealthy choices.

3. You have to have a lot of space to store that much cereal, which means your house is larger, which means the costs for heating and cooling said house are higher. Even if you store it in the garage, you’ve still got to have room in the garage for it.

4. You have to spend a lot of time driving around hunting for that sort of deal. Once the cost of gas is factored in, does it really save that much money? Isn’t my time worth more than that?

The Cheap family suggests ways to cut grocery costs without going to extremes, such as avoiding brand or store loyalty and stocking up (in smaller amounts) when something you like is on super-sale. Despite living in a huge city, I really only have a few grocery store options nearby and they don’t carry the same products. Comparison shopping between major grocery chains requires driving a couple of miles. In Los Angeles, that can be a substantial time investment. In my attempt to be more frugal, I buy a lot of my food from Trader Joe’s, where nearly everything is store-branded. Unlike either family, I do have to be brand loyal for some because of food intolerance issues. For example, I can only eat one brand of wild rice. Fortunately, that brand is around the same price as the major labels and comes in a smaller package. Unfortunately, it’s rarely on super-sale.

In my quest to be more frugal, I have adopted the Tightwad family’s suggestion to keep a price book. So far, I’ve discovered a few items where I’m spending more than I need to.

Cutting Clothing Costs: Frugal or Cheap?
Both families buy second-hand clothes, which is frugal, but I’m frugal in a different way. I buy 90% of my clothes from one chain store. The designs are classic yet fashionable, the styles fit me, the quality is excellent, and the prices are reasonable. They also regularly send me coupons by email. Rather than scour second-hand stores for my clothes, I can sit at my computer and order enough to use my 20% coupon and get free shipping. I return what I don’t like to the store I can walk to from my apartment. The clothes I keep usually last three to five years. So if I buy a dress for $50 and wear it 50 times, that’s $1 per wear. If I bought a $15 dress at a second-hand store, but only got 10 wearings out of it, that would cost $1.50 per wear, not to mention the amount of extra time it would take to find a dress I liked that fit me well.

I could definitely be more frugal, but I would never go as far as the Tightwad family. Yes, it’s nice to keep costs low, but I also value my time and my life too much to scour the area for thirteen-cent boxes of cereal. What is the line between frugal and cheap for you? Tell me in the comments.

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