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When frugality goes too far

A frugal person spends money in the smartest ways possible, while a cheapskate risks damage to health, possessions or reputation just to save a few dollars.

By Donna_Freedman Apr 16, 2012 3:30PM
Image: Piggy bank (© Corbis)At times I've been called cheap. I'm not. I'm frugal.

Cheapness is clinging to every cent. Frugality is spending money in the smartest possible ways.

Cheap behavior harms your qualify of life. Frugal behavior helps you build a better life.

A cheap person risks damage to health, possessions or reputation just to save a few dollars. A frugal person knows when it's time to loosen the purse strings -- and does it on his or her own terms.

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For example, a cheapskate might stick with a 30-year-old mattress because he's too miserly to buy a new one. A frugalist replaces a bad bed to avoid a bad back, but he'll use a price-comparison website to find the best deal and maybe order through a cash-back shopping site.

Cutting your food bill might be frugal, if you choose the right foods. Eating nothing but oatmeal and ramen would be cheap -- and counterproductive, since your health could suffer.

Getting free Internet access at the library? Frugal. Piggybacking on a neighbor's unprotected Wi-Fi signal versus paying for your own Internet? Cheap, because it may be illegal (though prosecution is unlikely) and may expose you to identity theft.

Don't be that guy

Thrift stores, yard sales and clearance tables are all frugal, but they can also breed cheap behavior, such as buying:
  • Clothes that aren't flattering (especially if they're for your kids).
  • Shoes that don't fit right or provide enough support (plantar fasciitis is not frugal).
  • Inappropriate presents (a bib with spit-up stains is not a good shower gift).
Speaking of presents: Re-gifting can be frugal, or it can be appalling. If you have an unopened game or unburned candle, wrap it up. But don't insult a relative or friend with an obviously used item or one with your initials on it.

Borrowing can be frugal or really chintzy. The truck-owning friend who helped you move might ask to use your power washer. The neighbor who borrowed your shop vac will bring over his chainsaw if a limb comes down in your yard.

Don't be that person who borrows but rarely reciprocates. And definitely don't be the person who borrows solely to avoid buying his own power tools.

Take care of yourself

Some people skip health insurance to save money. Really bad idea. Regular dental and medical exams can catch small problems before they turn into serious problems, or fatal ones. (If coverage truly isn't in your budget, see "Can't afford insurance? Your options.")

It's not that I want to spend $442 a month on an HMO. It's that no body runs for 54 years without some maintenance issues.

I was reminded of this last month when I suddenly needed surgery. My share was just over $2,000. If not for insurance, I'd be setting up a payment plan for more than $10,000 in total costs.

Skipping insurance would have been not just cheap but dumb. Luckily, I'm neither. I'm frugal.

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Apr 16, 2012 10:28PM

Frugal is in the eye of the beholder.  I call myself cheap, my customers call me frugal.   I've been an auto mechanic for 28 years and shop owner for 18.    I will not pay for a professional made sign but I have no problems paying for items or equipment that will return the investment.  I tell my customers if the repair is important, safety related and the possible consequences of not doing the work, and if the work can be put off for a period of time without serious consequences.   I have not been caught up on work for over 12 years and have seen backlogs of 12 weeks or more.  Jog your memory, frugal people are typically dependable, hard working and honest.  Why not join this class of people?


I have health insurance and a thousand dollar plus bed but I never had cable television or satellite.  I don't have a big screen television but do have internet.  All 5 of my families vehicles have over 100k miles and four have over 200K.  My home and 80 acre play-farm is paid for.  I started out at zero or below.   My kids college is covered.  I have clothes I bought in the 1980's and currently wear.   The average persons reasoning is highly illogical with no foresight or very little consideration for the future.    When I don't make a house payment this month I have little sympathy for those in foreclosure who had their cable television, cell phones, and new cars
Apr 17, 2012 12:14AM
Cheap is just being stingy. It is not leaving a tip because you complain about the service but all in all your just to stingy to share. Cheap is always letting someone else get the tab and never ever offering. Cheap is a quality of life, a cheap, stingy lonely one because most people don't like free loaders very long.
Frugal is taking your turn and doing your part. Finding the best quality and value at the right price. Who wants to over pay for something? I have a lot of frugal friends but they are anything but cheap and stingy. I agree be smart with your money, cut coupons, go online, find the best quality for your hard earned dollars. Frugal should not even be in the same sentence with cheap. I know many cheap people and many frugal and they're not even in the same class.

Apr 16, 2012 7:35PM
I live in the country, When I take my walk along the country roads I pick up aluminum cans. I get paid to exercise, help the environment a little. Am I cheap or frugal?

All I have heard concerns health insurance. One must consider all insurance. A couple of years back I considered becoming self insured for my home, since I did not have a mortgage. I decided to continue my insurance and 2 months later I had a house fire. Total payout from the insurance comapany was $247,000. Since then my comment about insurance is "Insurance is expensive until the day you need it". 

Apr 17, 2012 2:18PM
@LMT Mr. Ho: You are to be commended for living a healthy lifestyle. But it won't do you a bit of good if you are in an accident or are suddenly stricken with an illness.
Two examples:
My best friend was going up the stairs from her garage to her home. She tripped, and broke her arm so badly that it took a solid year (and a surgery with pins and a plate) before she was completely healed. If not for insurance, she would probably have had to declare bankruptcy.
My daughter was a superbly healthy 19-year-old student when she got a virus that she couldn't seem to shake. She wound up on life support and paralyzed up to her eyeballs: The virus had triggered a near-fatal case of Guillain-Barre syndrome, which affects the peripheral nervous system. The illness kept her in the ICU for 19 days, in a long-term respiratory-care hospital for a couple of months and in physical rehabilitation for a couple of weeks. (It also left her with some permanent health issues.) If we hadn't had health insurance, we would still be paying for this 14 years after the fact.
Don't get complacent. You can't predict whether a drunk driver will hit you or whether your appendix will burst. Life happens.
Apr 16, 2012 8:09PM
Doing without insurance is not the smartest idea.  Sure, you save money, but what happens if you have a catastrophic illness?  14 years ago, I was stricken with pancreatitis.  No warning, nothing.  I started hurting real bad & drove myself to the ER.  I remember being admitted & being wheeled down the hall-the last thing I remembered for 5 weeks.  Spent 49 days in the hospital-39 in ICU.  Developed complications-had 3 more hospital stays & 3 surgeries.  Total bills in excess of 450K.  So...needless to say, without insurance, I would have been paying the rest of my life on these bills!
Apr 17, 2012 12:46AM
Spent 20 in the military. Nearly died a few times along the way but I survived. It was worth it. My health is way above average. When I need a doc, I go to the VA. They treat me like a human being and a patient, not a customer. I learned to live with nothing and be happy. Money is useless to me. Time with friends and family mean more. I graduated from College for free too, but it took 16 years after HS to complete, yet worth more, because I had to juggle family, career and school around. I am the stingiest, cheapest, miser on Earth because I value time. Money I give to my wife and children. What am I supposed to do with it, buy crap? Useless plastic crap from China is about all I see in every direction. I also ride a bicycle because it keeps my heart BIG and STRONG. I never smoked ciggs, but I drink beer like a frat brother. Gotta run. NHL playoffs continue and the family is together for this classic time of year. The entire monetary system in my opinion is out of balance and based on ****-kissing philosophy. No wonder so many are unhappy with it.
Apr 17, 2012 10:47AM

well I pay for insurance but still don't go to the dr because I can't afford my copay or deductibles.... not cheap, just have more important things to pay for like food for my child to eat and electricity and water.  I will not pay regular price for shoes or clothes.  if they aren't on sale at least 50% off, I'm not buying. It also depends on who we're talking about. When it's for me, I'm cheap. When it's for my daughter, I'm frugal.   

May 16, 2012 9:09AM

Call me cheap if you want!  I will have the last laugh.  I was poor most of my life and learned early in life to be frugal “spending money in the smartest possible ways”.  Most of the people that have called me cheap did so because they could not get in my pocket.  Well I have a wife and three boys,  I own my own business, paid off my house when I was 40, have a good chunk in the bank,  drive a 2011 Cadillac CTS Premium,  have a 18’ boat,  a Harley,  two Quads, eat well, dress nice, do what I want and have ZERO debt.  I still shop for the best deals and use coupons. Frugal is the way to go!   

Apr 17, 2012 7:36AM
Frugal is smart,cheap is not....thanks again Donna!!
Apr 17, 2012 9:25AM

If we did not have insurance, we could not pay, in a reasonable amount of time, the bills for maintenance blood tests and the doctor bills.  Some blood tests are as high as $600+, and if you need one every 6 mths. or so, that is difficult for most folks to pay out of pocket.  And medications can run as high $20 -25+ a pill.   Even healthy people have genetic issues such as cholesterol and high blood pressure.  Mental health issues are even costlier than most physical issues.

Once upon a time, insurance could be used strictly for catastrophic illness, but no longer.  People are not stupid as you say, just smart and covering their own rear ends!!  Without insurance, more people would have to declare bankruptcy because the medical industry is not very patient or forgiving when it comes to monies owed.

May 16, 2012 9:34AM
My husband is frugal but has one thing that is undoubtedly cheap. That's vacations..... I think a vacation away from work and home is important to a person's emotional and physical well being. He believes a vacation is staying home and worrying about all the things he should get done around the house - but doesn't. In 23 years of marriage we have been on 2 vacations (he considers my occasional weekend visits to my cousins house who lives in-state a vacation, but I'm not counting those). No honeymoon. The first was a splurge that I admittedly had to pay for on credit, but that 15 years later our kids still remember as fabulous (except for dad being unbearable because we were spending money we didn't have).  Learning from that I planned a frugal vacation for 4 years later that I saved for first... a cabin/hiking trip in the next state over. The kids had just as much fun on that trip as they did on the fancy one and actually remember it just as fondly - except for dad being unbearable about the money we spent being better off saved for something important! My belief - Be frugal about vacations, for sure - but not cheap and miserable instead!!!!
Apr 17, 2012 12:12PM
Yeah insurance is a rip off! Until you need it!
Apr 16, 2012 5:31PM
Mine was outpatient, too, and done in the HMO's hospital. Imagine what it might have cost had I gone to a general practitioner, been referred to a surgeon and had to pay a non-network hospital fee.
I feel fortunate to have insurance and access to good care. A whole lot of people don't. I'm also glad that I'm frugal, because I had the money set aside to pay my share. Not that I was delighted, mind you, but what can I say? Sick happens.
Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

Apr 16, 2012 6:26PM

  Excellent article!!!

I remember the cheapskate that drove 22000 miles rather than pay for oil changes, the new engine cost $3600....

Apr 17, 2012 3:14PM



If you read my other posts, you would see that we basically agree on the insurance issue.  I buy insurance and hope to never have to use it.  Apparently, most morons buy insurance and expect to get more out of them then they put in!  For that to happen, insurance companies need more people like me to be on their books!


Well I am tire of paying for everyone else in this country.  I buy them food stamps, I pay them to not work for 99 weeks.  I pay them for ss disability even though they are more then capable of working (i know of several personally), and what does that result in?  They have more time to reproduce then us working stiffs so we then allow them (and almost encourage them) to propogate their lazy genes into our society so we will have even more problems in the future.


Kind of like feeding the poor kids in Africa! You put a starving child in front of me and I will feed him/her (and I ain't talking about USA hungary, I am talking true hunger).  Yet, turns out that child is one of 9!  More time looking for food and less time reproducing!  Now there are nine starving kids, then they each grow up (because we feed them) and have 4-8 of their own!


How sustainable is it to feed them all?  Or then they just migrate elswhere.  Very mean sounding of me isn't it?  But I speakith the truth!  None of this I speak of is sustainable!  You can not make it so easy for the weak to survive!

Apr 17, 2012 1:04AM
This is a pet peeve of mine -- the idea that having medical insurance equals having access to health care.  I have medical insurance -- that pays nothing until a $5,000 deductible is satisfied (though I do get the lower, insurance-carrier-negotiated rates for service, I have to pay all the fees).  I make decisions about care EXACTLY the same as I would if I had no insurance at all, because, for routine or preventive care, I don't.  My insurance will only help with a calamity, and in that case, I will base a decision on survival, not whether I have insurance.

Yes, I could get a policy with a copay for office visits and a lower deductible, but it would cost 2 or 3 times as much, and medical insurance is my second largest monthly expense as it is, and constitutes about a sixth of my total spending -- for something I never use and hope never to use.  And I haven't seen a doctor (other then my dentist) since 2006 -- because I make health care decisions as if I had no insurance.

Medical insurance is not the solution to anything, certainly not to health care access.

Apr 17, 2012 11:13AM
I had a boss that was so cheap he used to make his kids take off there glasses when they weren't looking at anything. 
Apr 16, 2012 7:20PM

Well said, Donna! Frugal is a badge of honor!


And to donkeyjoe - If we all had crystal balls, we could all save a ton of cash on health insurance. What if she had followed your advice and then needed a surgery that costs $100,000?

Apr 16, 2012 9:24PM
If you never had a gall bladder attack, then it would seem to be a unnessary surgery. But if you have a a couple of them, and your tied of not being able to eat anything with out the want that sucker out ASAP. Insurance at any cost now days is a savings in the long run, not having can cost you big time in the long term. Accidents are just accidents until they lead to an ER visit..and that cost..just sayin.. 
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.