Save. Spend. Splurge.

When you say you’re frugal, are you really just cheap?

Some people might think that “being frugal” is the nice way of saying “you’re cheap”, but I beg to differ even though I really hate the word frugal.

If you’re cheap, you simply don’t want to spend any money. Your main goal is NOT SPENDING MONEY, and you go as far as to cheat others, or steal so that YOUR money stays intact.

You can also call cheap people “misers”, because that’s kind of their attitude towards money and life.

I’m in the frugal camp, but I am not cheap.


You spend your money wisely and carefully.

When you spend, you put your money where you get the best return on satisfaction and life, even if it means spending more up front to get higher quality.


You don’t spend any money.

When you do spend, you try and spend as little as possible, even if it means buying crap that will break again, and again..

Here are some reasons why I am frugal but not cheap:


I spent about $20,000 on a year-long relaxing/vacation thing, but even though I traveled on a budget, I stayed at budget hotels, not hostels, and I kept costs as low as I could, but not to the point where I ate oatmeal for every meal to save money.

I could have been cheap and just stayed at home doing nothing, or working that year instead of spending my net worth on a once-in-a-lifetime-mostly-before-any-kids vacation.



In 2012, I spent about $9000 on shopping for clothes and accessories.

I am neither absolutely frugal nor cheap in this regard; but my only other saving grace is I started to appreciate and enjoy consignment/thrift shopping a lot more than I had in the past.

This was a bit excessive in my eyes even though I bought great, expensive pieces I will wear for a long time to come, so I decided I needed to learn how to cut this number in at least half for 2013.

To be cheap, I wouldn’t even buy clothes. I’d probably make my own with discount $1 fabric, or towels from the dollar store.


People who are cheap, don’t bother to even glance at W-S. They can’t imagine paying $200 for a frying pan when they can pick one up for $20 at Canadian Tire or Wal-Mart.

However since food and cooking plays a big part of our lives (it’s just so NICE to have great food, especially when it comes down to the eating part), we are willing to spend top dollar (within reason) on the best stuff.

We don’t need diamond-encrusted pans, but we do need good, stainless steel ones that we can ideally keep for life.

To be cheap, I wouldn’t even buy pans. I’d probably be dumpster-diving and/or taking pans from college students as they dump their stuff to move back home for the summer.


We cook everything from scratch at home, which is a frugal activity, but you can’t tell me that I’m doing it cheaply.

That’s about $400/person a month, or $800 for the two of us, and it’s just Groceries which doesn’t include Eating Out, because I don’t go out to eat unless I have a specific dinner or a lunch with friends and/or family (again, this is considered frugal, not cheap).

I am willing to spend more money if the food is better and I’m happier.

I can always just eat hotdogs and ramen and take a chance on my life expectancy just to save that money, but that isn’t living life to the fullest to me.

What if I died tomorrow?

I’d have sorely regretted just before I died from hotdog poisoning, that I passed up some of the best meals in the world.


Maybe not these guys, though. Photograph of insect street food I took a picture of in Beijing.

We also aren’t total eco-hippies in this regard:

We buy organic chicken because it tastes better than cheap chicken, but we buy regular beef from a local ethnic grocery store because it doesn’t taste any better than the fancier organic, free-range, oil-massaged beef with a cute name at the butcher’s.

We buy vegetables at the cheapest grocery store we can find (No Frills, which turns out is cheaper than Wal-Mart), because it tastes and looks just about the same as in the fancy Whole Foods grocery store.


You might be wondering how I can call myself “frugal” with that kind of spending.

To you, they’re ridiculous because you have your own numbers, but have you examined your own spending to see where you’re perhaps wasting money?

Maybe you have a house you can’t afford, or a car that is 50% of your income.

Do you know what your numbers are?

I’m frugal because  it’s all relative to what I earn, and what I DON’T do, so that I have the money to do all those things.

I spend where it gives me the most benefit and happiness for my life — travel, eating, shopping.

I don’t spend on areas where I don’t see a benefit for me — high mortgage, cars, impressing others.


I take the bus, not because I can’t afford to buy a car in cash, but because I CHOOSE to do it, so that I take the savings from Transportation and use it to increase my budget for traveling, eating or shopping.

No car payment, car insurance or gas either. I do contribute 50% to the house car, but I don’t have one of my own.


I don’t use my phone often. I know it sounds weird when people say: How can you NOT have a cellphone?

Yeah, but email is just so much easier, and I rarely use the phone to call or receive calls, and I don’t need anything beyond a super basic plan. I’m not really into being connected to the Internet 24/7 and I don’t really see the point of a $150 bill each month for that privilege.

I’m obviously an outlier in this regard, but still.. considering that some people can pay up to $250 for 2 cellphones in a household, $12 a month ain’t too shabby.

Read: Bye, bye smartphone

RENT = $300 TO $1000 A MONTH

Versus having a mortgage, maintenance fees (3% saved aside each year to take care of problems), buying furniture, utilities…

Not to mention that I’d be putting my money into my investment (my house), but there could be a lost opportunity to make a better, steadier return by investing my money on the stock market.

Houses in the areas where I live, have typically returned a real return of 0% by my calculations based on a 30-year mortgage.

I would be better off sticking my money in savings account in that case.

It definitely depends on the city and situation, but I don’t see renting as tossing my money in a garbage can — I’m buying the whole package for shelter.

I’m not saying NO to a house forever, but I probably won’t buy one until I go to settle down in retirement, or unless I find a good deal where I can rent the place out and make money.


At the end of it all I’m still spending the same amount of money (I guess), but I’m heavily weighting it instead to where it gives me the best return on lifestyle and satisfaction, which is the essence of being frugal.


Photograph I took of Macau in 2010

Aside from 2012, I spend on average $30,000 – $44,000 a year, which includes traveling!

Considering what I make as an income ($20,000 a month when I’m on contract), you will have to acknowledge that I can work about 2 months a year and more than cover my luxurious lifestyle, and the rest is a bonus.

For those judging me out there for not being “frugal”, can you say the same for yourself?

To further drive home my point, in 2010 when I had a stellar contract, I had enough self-control (read: I was too exhausted to shop) and single-handedly saved $130,000, net from my earnings.

Then I took a year off.

When I started working again for 10 weeks, I could have saved a lot more from 2012, that’s true, but I was moving from a country to another, and still managed to bank $44,000, net.

Finally, even knowing all of the above, I am still personally working on lowering my expenses going forward because I still think I have a ways to go before I reach an optimum level of balance in spending wisely and not wastefully.


I know cheap-ass folks who have gone pretty far to the point where I call them thieves:

  • Stealing napkins from every fast food restaurant
  • Stealing ketchup and other condiment packets from McDonald’s
  • Taking toilet paper rolls from every restaurant they go to
  • Taking liquid soap from any public bathroom into a tub to use at home

THAT, is being cheap.

Frugal on the other hand, would be if you waited until those things went on sale and/or went in with a coupon to get the best deal.

Or maybe, you just make your own ketchup like we do, by reducing quality canned tomatoes from Italy down into a paste and adding spices. We do it for other reasons (it tastes better) than just to save money, but it’s still a frugal endeavour.


If you want to call yourself cheap, go ahead and do it, but don’t try claim that anyone who calls themselves “frugal” is similarly as cheap as you are.

It’s also not an awful thing to be frugal, and I’d like to be more frugal going forward.

Some people can take it too far, but it’s a good thing for everyone to be aware of the virtue of thrift because no matter what some bloggers might want to make you believe, money doesn’t fall out of the sky just because you want it to.

You need to save what you earn, and being frugal is one of the ways you do it.

Being cheap will probably just end in you spending twice what you should have, to get the result you originally wanted.



  • Kristen

    Great post! I have been called “cheap” many, many times, but I always thought this sounded so negative. “Frugal” however sounds much better, and this is the title I have chosen for myself…..aside from the fact that I may or may not have considered taking toilet paper rolls before. hahaha only CONSIDERED though! I like to forget that almost happened.

  • Tania

    My dad is frugal, but not cheap. He keeps his clothes, cars and home stuff longer than anyone I know but he buys quality items and takes care of what he has.He also doesn’t skimp on food. I do feel him and my mom could cut back on the costco trips but we all have our thing right? I for one could cut back on shoes and jewelry.

    When I got married in 1998 I registered at Williams Sonoma. At my bridal shower, two of my ex hubby’s cousins were talking at a few tables away from me but the noise carried and I could hear one of them saying how it was so expensive, why did I register there. Well honey, you don’t have to buy me anything from my registry if you don’t want to! It’s not a requirement. And there were many affordable items on the list. I got a few pans and most of my knives as gifts. We bought the remaining pans we wanted on our own. It is now 2013 and I still have every single WS gift! All in wonderful condition too.

    • saverspender @ save. spend. splurge.

      YES. I am planning on keeping all of my W-S items too. That, and if you don’t want to buy what I am going to use, I’m happy for you not to waste your money because that’s what will happen — the gift will be given away or trashed, so… money to me, is always the best gift.

  • maria@moneyprinciple

    I call myself a ‘frugal artist’ which is very similar to what you describe – it is about getting value and about taking into account considerations other than the immediate saving. Can’t stand cheap or, for that matter, extreme frugality. Pointless!

  • Debt Blag

    Exactly! Frugal implies that we’re real people who are introspective enough to know what we value and to prioritize those above other things.

    Cheap people only value keeping the money with them…

  • Jane Savers @ Solving The Money Puzzle

    I am frugal. I am not cheap. When there is a pot luck supper I bring a dish that will feed the estimated number of guests. I don’t bring a dozen rolls to a party for 18 people. I don’t bring a bag of nachos because I heard someone else was making chili.

    That example is a certain person in my social circle who cheaps out when it comes to group activities.

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