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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.

Post continues below.

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 17, 2012 11:05AM

76dragon -


I had insurance and after a car accident that was the other driver's fault, my bill for 16 hrs in the hospital was over 24,000.  I was unable to talk or answer questions when brought into the trauma center.  I can guarantee you that because I had insurance, they ran me through every effen test imaginable (which they would not have done had they not gone through my wallet to find my insurance card).  They should treat every human being that enters an emergency room as if they are not going to get paid for the treatment.


I paid $1,400 out of pocket for that incident.  Insurance negotiate the bill down to $8,000!  Imagine that!  If I had no insurance, they would be coming after me for the whole $24K!


I now have catastrophic only @ under $50 per month and I save the $550 per month (my premuim was $600 per month).  I now have $38K in that account.  I am responsible for any cost up to $100K per year and I am willing to take that chance.  If something bad happens that is out of my control, the most I am on the hook for today would be 100K-38K = 62K.  If nothing happens to me in the next 10 years, I will have about $100K in the account so I will have no costs associated with any ailment up to $1million dollars.  I will cover $100K or less and my $50 per month cat insurance will cover 100K to 1 million.



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.   

Apr 17, 2012 10:43AM

And those blood tests are only $600 because there is not free market process to drive that cost down.  If it people had to write the check on the spot, they would probably shop around to save money.  Today, insurance covers all or most of it so why care about the cost?  Meanwhile, I would still argue that you are paying more in premiums every year then you would pay for any and all preventative care programs - if we were shopping around for those programs.


That blood test you speak of would cost less then $100 if it were not "free" to the end user who has no skin in the game!


The system that the weak in this country desire is destined to fail!  It is just a matter of time!

Apr 17, 2012 10:39AM

Someone -


Money does not grow on trees!  Once upon a time, we used to pay for shiet we wanted!  In this day and age, everyone thinks it is their god given right to have their lives spoon fed to them by the government!


It's all good though!  The morons in this country will keep electing those that promise them the most from the public treasury (i.e. my hard earned tax dollars).  And one day, when the rest of the world wakes up and smells the coffee, our party will be over.


Although one could argue that the USA doesn't need to outrun the bear, we just need to outrun all the other countries also running from the bear!



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.

Apr 17, 2012 7:36AM
Frugal is smart,cheap is not....thanks again Donna!!
Apr 17, 2012 5:20AM

You cannot put a price on love, life, or happiness -

 if you do you're cheap, and probably miserable (whether you know it or not) 

 and if you only want them at the best price you're frugal,  and

never give of yourself whole heartedly.


No cheap and frugal are not the same thing, but neither one

has anything to do with  esprit de joie

Apr 17, 2012 3:21AM
@Someone-- I just read an article about a medical doctor with similar coverage to yours- 5K deductible, so routine care is out of pocket. When he needs typically expensive medical care, such as various tests, he said he just goes in as a cash customer. He just had an MRI, for which he paid about 350 out of pocket, and said that, had the MRI been billed at the insurance negotiated rate, it would have been billed at nearly 2 grand. Something to think about. I think the article was in the LA Times Sunday edition, 1 or 2 weeks ago.
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 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 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 11:32PM
Something serious costs around $200,000 more or less. The price is inflated due to over charging. The surgeon who did my life saving was around $35,000 and was well worth it. Everyone who touches you charges you. The hospital was the most expense, Drugs alone were over $6,000. The after care also costs. Your going to fall apart, some sooner and some later. Read the labels and stay away from salt & surgar as much as possible. I made some pancakes after I got out and was seeing triple after eating them. Your never the same but close.
Apr 16, 2012 11:00PM
Get insurance.  $400 a month? For older people.  My insurance as a 22 yr old with no history was $100/month.  I made that back by not having to pay for MRI scans and doctor's appts for a injured knee and shoulder.  I had a high deductible (5k, but thats better the $5-6 figure numbers medical costs could run up).  If you are young and healthy, GET PRIVATE INSURANCE.  
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 16, 2012 9:33PM
this is not an article about frugality, it is an advertisement for health insurance

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 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.. 
Apr 16, 2012 8:31PM

If you're frugal don't pay $442 a month in health insurance premiums. Rip off! Stay away from hospitals Excerise and eat right and you're be good, after all all that radiation can't be good!

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!
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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.