Updated on 10.06.07

How Can A Frugal Person Buy Expensive Items? A Deeper Look At Frugality

Trent Hamm

One of my more faithful readers sent me the following request:

perhaps one day you could post a simple definition of what living frugal is. I wrote my niece and told her living frugal was a better alternative to living broke but short a novel length email I couldn’t really explain the concept (which is why I never link to my blog)

This followed right after a person felt the need to send me an IM and berate me for not being “frugal enough”:

anyone who would buy a $600 mixer for their kitchen isn’t frugal

I didn’t pay anywhere close to $600 for my KitchenAid Pro 6 stand mixer, by the way.

Before we even get going, I wanted to quote Wikipedia’s definition of frugality with my own emphasis added:

Frugality (also known as thrift or thriftiness), often confused with cheapness or miserliness, is a traditional value, life style, or belief system, in which individuals practice both restraint in the acquiring of and resourceful use of economic goods and services in order to achieve lasting and more fulfilling goals. In a money-based economy, frugality emphasizes economical use of money in meeting long term personal, familial, and communal desires.

When most people hear frugal, they think cheap or miserly. They’re not the same thing at all, though they do share some techniques.

In a nutshell, a frugal person seeks to find the best deal on an item that meets the desired level of quality. A frugal person will try several different kinds of canned tuna, figure out which one is the best deal for the dollar, and stick with that brand by seeking out coupons and sales to minimize the cost.

On the other hand, a cheap person will always take the route of least financial cost in the here and now. The cheapskate will look at the prices for stuff on a store shelf and always buy the cheapest thing.

What do they have in common? Both look for sales. Both are quite willing to use coupons. Neither one buys anything that doesn’t have a use in their lives.

It’s because of those factors that the two perspectives are often confused, but the truth is that they’re very different. A frugal person seeks to maximize the use of every dollar, while a cheap person seeks to conserve every dollar.

Here are some comparisons that illustrate the difference.

A frugal person is willing to spend $1,200 on a new washing machine, provided that washing machine is low energy and has a long lifetime.

A cheap person can’t even conceive of spending that kind of money on a washing machine.

A frugal person might spend $5 on salad dressing, but follow it with a 70 cent can of tuna, because the frugal person has tried various kinds when they’re on sale and has found out the sweet spot of the best quality for the buck in both salad dressing and tuna.

A cheap person will buy the 99 cent salad dressing and the 70 cent can of tuna and laugh at the money wasted by the “frugal” person.

A frugal person is quite fine with spending a few hundred dollars on an entertainment purchase if the purchase has been researched and carefully considered.

A cheap person would never even dream of buying a Nintendo Wii – the old Super Nintendo their cousin gave them 12 years ago is still working, after all.

The most interesting part? Being cheap is often more expensive. A cheap person will usually buy the cheapest possible washing machine, but that washing machine is more likely to crap out when they really need it and also sucks down a lot more electricity. The cheapest salad dressing is often less healthy and in the long run might contribute to health problems – and also leads to less satisfying meals at home.

In a nutshell, a frugal person is willing to pay more for a significantly better experience, but isn’t afraid to buy generic if it’s the same as a name brand. A frugal person looks at the total cost of ownership of a major purchase. A frugal person isn’t afraid to spend money sometimes on enjoyable things, but only if the purchases truly fill a hole in their life. A frugal person, if they go shopping, would rather upgrade an item they use frequently than to buy something new. A frugal person likely has a lot of energy efficient items in their home and often decorates in a spartan fashion where the items you do find have personal meaning.

In my world, that’s what frugality is, and I’m proud to call myself a frugal person.

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  1. Marsha says:

    Nice discussion of frugality!

    I guess I assume that “frugal,” “expensive,” “cheap” or the like are relative terms. What they mean for any given person depends on that person’s income (plus savings) compared with their expenses and debt.

    Frugality, then, would be a set of principles – such as you have articulated – and could not be reduced to specific dollar amounts of purchases or savings. JMO. :)

  2. Johanna says:

    I like this post, but I think that for me it’s a little bit more complicated than that. To me, frugality is about balancing my present needs, future needs, present wants, future wants, values, and effect that my spending has on others, to come up with the best use for my money. Cheapness is just spending less for the sake of spending less.

    For example, if you’re not saving enough money for retirement (or other goals), then it’s not frugal to spend $50 on a ticket to a concert you really want to go to, because you’re sacrificing a future need to pay for a present want. But if you are already saving enough, then spendiing $50 on a memorable night out may very well be a frugal purchase, and skipping the concert to save the $50 may qualify as cheap.

    For another example – and I’ll admit here that there may be exceptions depending on the circumstances – I think that saving money by shopping at stores like Walmart generally qualifies as cheap, not frugal, because you’re saving money for yourself by making life worse for other people.

  3. tyler karaszewski says:

    Who cares, it’s arguing semantics. Exactly how one defines “frugality” for himself only matters to him. I spent $1,500 on a bicycle last summer. Is that frugal? I don’t know, but I’ve saved about $15,000 so far this year, so I really don’t care if buying my bicycle makes me more or less “frugal”. I don’t really care if anyone thinks I’m frugal or not. Unless you can discount my savings, then I must be doing something right. Right?

  4. I think that’s one of the best definitions of frugality that I have ever seen!

  5. SJean says:

    I would appreciate knowing about what you paid for your kitchen mixer, and how you were able to get it for that price (even a vague explanation)

    You have mentioned it a couple times on your blog, but it all seems very mysterious and secret!

    I agree more with the noter who said cheap is spending less just for the sake of spending less. Frugal is balancing things and thinking about your purchases.

  6. I believe there’s a difference between being frugal and cheap. Cheapskates will save on a dollar on anything (I repeat anything) without any thought. Frugal folks think about each purchase and spend money on stuff they treasure such as traveling etc. They are willing to spend money on pleasurable items that create happy memories. However, frugal folks find ways to save money on stuff that is meaningless…nothing of value…such as bills!

  7. Celine says:

    Hey that Kitchen Aid is really worth it, hands down. My mom bought hers in the mid 1980s and it still works perfectly. It has a bit of rust on the paint though, but nothing scary. I don’t even remember taking it to a shop for repairs. If you really love making your own food (and you should, if you want to be healthy) it’s very, very useful. Plus, sometimes I make play-doh for the neighborhood kids with it :)

  8. Soham says:

    Thanks for the article,

    buying sunglasses every yr from walmart does not make you frugal, buying one expensive good quality sunglass that is expensive does.

  9. Rob in Madrid says:

    The interesting thing is that there is no difference between being cheap and being a spendthrift, both are bad financial habits.

    On a more personal note being frugal for my wife and I means getting used to not spending money. This means not going away as often or eating out as much but I find I dont’ miss those things. We learning (with the help of blogs like this and others) to repleace spending with other things. On the plus side it sure is nice having money in the bank.

  10. Jeff says:

    Great post. I have examples in my own family. One relative is frugal, the other cheap. The frugal one spend four figures on a really nice suit, but doesn’t get cable. I’m convinced the suit helped him get his current job — a very good one — because the guy who hired him is the kind of guy who would recognize a nice suit and his job requires making a good impression to clients.
    On the other side of the scale, my cheap relative has to have one of everything that anyone else has, but he always gets the cheapest model of it. The end result being that he doesn’t always get the most enjoyment out of the stuff he has and he is always replacing, fixing, or buying extras.
    Its interesting to watch the cheap one give the frugal one a gift. He will pick a budget, then buy the cheapest thing available at that budget. So, if he wants to spend $X, he will buy something that normally costs more than $X, but has one really cheap model that just barely makes it under $X. Then he gives it to the frugal one, who even if he liked the gift concept, would never have bought that cheap of a model. The gift then gets returned, broken, or discarded.

  11. Lynn says:

    I always think the best example is if you use a coupon at dinner for a buy one, get one free, that’s being frugal. If you then tip your waiter on the discounted bill, that’s being cheap. Frugality means living below your means. Cheapness is forcing others to live below your means.

  12. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Excellent, Lynn. That’s a very nice description.

  13. Awesome post – it is about time that someone wrote about this – there is a difference between frugal and cheap. It also has a lot to do with still enjoying life!

    The Dividend Guy

  14. Lana says:

    Frugal is a frame of mind – it’s a thoughtfulness regarding money. Giving a birthday gift of someone’s favorite homemade cookies, or even a mix CD is frugal – time, effort, and genuine caring went into it. Spending $20 on a gift for someone just because you feel like you should get them something, anything, is cheap – that person could care less, they’re just going through the motions.

    Frugal people act based on their values, and give based on the values of the people they’re giving to. A good-quality kitchen mixer shows you value your home, your family, good cooking, and doing things yourself. Those are all worthy values to invest in, however you choose to manifest it.

    I think other countries have a good handle on frugal vs. cheap. For instance, in many books on budget fashion, French women are universally touted for buying high quality, classic items of clothing that last a long time. The trick is that they save what money they could be spending on more clothes that suit them less, and spend it on items that won’t go out of style. Quality over quantity. And I think that’s exactly the struggle most Americans have – embracing quality over quantity.

  15. Siena says:

    I think the best advice for the niece is to sit down and do a budget. Learning to live within the means of a budget vs. living paycheck to paycheck is the difference between being broke and learning frugality.

    Because I have a budget, after bills, expenses, savings and debts, I know I can have anywhere from $60-$80 a week on frivolous stuff–entertainment, eating out, clothes, books etc . . . It’s not a lot but knowing I have only a certain amount of discretionary money has forced me to make wiser spending decisions. I can’t afford $130 a month to take my dogs to the groomers, so I do it myself. I can’t afford a $100 haircut so I found a girl who does a great job for $20. Sometimes I look at designer shoes and want to buy them, but know I can’t–and it gets easier as time goes on. If I can’t afford it, I don’t buy it. And that’s the key to frugality.

  16. debtdieter says:

    Great post! I’m definitely aspiring to frugal rather than cheap.

    My sister and brother in law have the whole frugal thing down pat, they have an amazing life and lifestyle, they just don’t blow their money on silly things, they seel out quality and experiences that they find value in.

  17. vh says:


    “…but short a novel length email I couldn’t really explain the concept”

    Don’t hafta write a novel; there’s an ole’ saying that will do the trick: Penny wise & pound foolish.

    I used to live with a gentleman who insisted that everything had to be the cheapest we could get. Even when it was my money being spent for something only I would use, he would discourage me from getting something that I wanted and try to talk me into getting something cheaper. As a result, too many times I found myself having to throw out a broken or pi**-poor piece of almost brand-new junk and replacing it with what I wanted in the first place: to the tune of 1 1/2 times as much as it would have cost if I had bought a better grade of the item the first time around.

    “Cheapness is forcing others to live below your means”: great candidate for a NEW ole’ saying!

  18. Susan says:

    The Kitchen Aid mixer is poorly designed due to the plastic piece that holds the gearbox together. Google it to see what I mean.

  19. MossySF says:

    I don’t know about Kitchen Aid in the past — but the stuff they make today is all looks, no action.

    Their dish washers? The slowest pieces of crap I’ve ever seen. They take about 6 hours to do a load. But that stainless steel looks great!

    Their stoves? Had one catch on fire because the seals in the front panel were not watertight. Water from a boiling pot seeped right in, got into the wiring, caused a short and it was 9-11 call the fire department time. (Kitchen Aid immediately came by, took the stove away and gave us our money back to hush us up.)

  20. kitty says:

    Great post. I see now that I hadn’t really understood the meaning of this word. I’ve never thought of myself as frugal because I’ve always confused frugal with cheap. I thought that if I travelled to Europe or occasionally bought expensive theater tickets or, at some point of my life, paid for voice lessons or bought a nice jewelry item or didn’t cut coupons, I am not frugal, even though I could comfortably afford every single thing I bought, have always lived below my means, researched major purchases and never took out a credit card or wallet without thinking.

    A few months after I started working (in the 80s) I went on a shopping trip with a group of people. I think I was the only one who came back empty-handed. I really liked a $150 pair of shoes, but I knew I couldn’t afford them, so buying was not an option. Same happened with other things – I either didn’t like them or thought they were too expensive. At around the same time my roommate – the first few months after I started working I shared a two bedroom with another woman – told me “you are so cheap”. I’ve never really understood why she made the conclusion – I’d never refused to buy anything she thought we needed for the apartment (OK, I had bought these things in K-Mart, but I tried to choose nicer things at a reasonable price), and we drove to NYC, to the Metropolitan opera together and choose pretty nice tickets, maybe 3rd highest price. So her statement was a total surprise to me.

  21. Jessica says:

    Clearly a frugal person will only spend what they can afford to. You’re NOT being frugal if you spend $1200 on a clothes washer vs. the $200 one if you only have $500 to spend on a washer.

    I have a friend who used to scorn their significant other for buying something that wasn’t on sale. However, that friend was buying all those sale items on a credit card (and now has tons and tons of cc debt), where as their significant other would buy one full-price item, and do it in cash.

  22. Imelda says:

    Jessica, I think *that* is the best definition of frugality I’ve ever heard.

  23. !wanda says:

    I’m frugal, you’re cheap, and he’s stingy.

  24. Mrs. Micah says:

    Another question with the frugal/cheap dilemma is “how likely is it that I’ll break or lose this item?” For example, I have a bad track record with sunglasses, whether cheap or expensive. I’ve actually stopped buying them because there’s no point. They’ll get twisted. I did get a pair once from a lost-and-found, because they were free…and they ended up twisted.

    I guess what I’m saying is that when something in a perilous situation, the best way to be frugal is to be cheap. I think that’s in harmony with what you’re saying, but it’s a different aspect.

  25. Michiko says:

    I agree that being cheap and being frugal are two very different concepts, but can be easily confused since they start with the idea of spending less. You’re not being careful with your money if you buy something that constantly requires replacement. So someone who only shops at dollar stores and Wal Mart does not mean they’re careful with their finances.

    I will always cost and compare prices of any items I buy. And yes, if in the end buying new means it’s going to save me more than that’s the road I’ll go down.

  26. xshanex says:

    I’m a recovering cheap person who is trying to be much more frugal and know many in the same boat. Your definition of cheap and frugal is right on. I’ve bought a lot of cheap stuff in the past that had to be replaced because it wouldn’t last that long because of poor quality or low enjoyment from it. Cars, clothes, and elctronics were a few of my weaknesses. Now I research higher quality things that will last a long time and pick where I’ll spend spend my money instead of getting a lot of cheap things I’ll get a few higher quality items on sale for certain areas of my life where its important to me. I don’t mind spending a fair amount of money on high-use items that are of good quality and moderate price. I rent a lot of movies, watch TV, and play video games a lot so a well-researched $1k HDTV on sale and using a discount coupon makes sense to me because of how much use and enjoyment I’ll get out of it on a cost/hour basis.

    I would much rather have much fewer things of higher quality that I truly enjoy owning and don’t mind paying for rather than a ton of cheap things which I don’t use that often and don’t enjoy much

  27. julie says:

    Don’t know the quality of kichen aide mixers now bought mine in 1980 still going strong only had to have fixed once, kid’s got spoon caught and had to fix a gear. It cost about 300 dollars at the time and has saved us thousands in the cost of grocerys,compare the price of artisian breads, double batches of healthy oatmeal cookies verse what it cost in the store.

  28. Andrea says:

    I like these definitions, especially your statement that being cheap is often more expensive.

  29. Wow, you guys are so serious about the semantics! The title of my blog, Cheap Like Me, is a little bit tongue in cheek about saving money while living a good life. I didn’t feel the need to buy a $1200 washer when I got both the washer and dryer for $200 by scouring the sales (and yes, it’s a high-efficiency front-loader, because ecology is another focus of my life and blog). So here’s my effort to take back the word “cheap” — because I know people would say to my face, “you’re so frugal,” but behind my back they might say, “she shops at the thrift store because she’s so cheap.”

  30. N'Awlins Kat says:

    My dad always explained frugal as “the best value for the money spent.” Example: when my folks married, they got a Hamilton Beach stand mixer (couldn’t afford the Kitchen Aid). I’m 42, the mixer is two years older than me, and I’m still using it regularly. (That probably qualifies me as cheap!) :) As much as I drool over the Kitchen Aid models, my old workhorse is still running fine. So’s my manual meat grinder that attaches to the kitchen table, and my mother’s old canning kettle, and my grandmother’s 1950s era pink-handled meat tenderizer and manual hand mixer (which does GREAT for mixing scrambled eggs or pancake batter). AND all her old kitchen knives. I can’t conceive of getting rid of any of them.

    My grandfather, who died several years ago at age 90, had a favorite camel suit he always wore. It had a timeless cut, he wore it all the time and it never wore out. I once had to replace the button on it and noticed all the buttons were secured by hand, with button twist thread. When I looked at it more closely, I realized it was cashmere, and had been handmade in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was posted in the late 1960s and early 70s. That suit at least 30 years old when he died, and still looked new in spite of all the use it saw. He did take meticulous care of things. I’m sure, being cashmere and custom, it cost a pretty penny even in 1970, but the thing was an investment. In the same vein, my mother still wears HER mother’s sheared muskrat coat, which was made for my grandmother in 1967. Still looks beautiful, too.

    Whenever I think of the definition of frugal, I picture my Mom’s 40-year-old Kirby vacuum, the 44-year-old stand mixer, the coat and Grandpa’s beautiful suit. Would that we could get that quality and longevity today, at ANY price!

  31. N'Awlins Kat says:

    In the same frugal family tradition, my sister and I each use our (respectively) grandmother’s and great-grandmothers wedding bands. My husband did buy me a set of my own, but with the understanding that the other would be worn with it. We figured any ring worn in happiness for 50 years probably had a LOT of great karma attached to it! ;)

  32. astroboy says:

    Great post! Important distinction between the two, as I wouldn’t consider myself cheap. I just spend money on what is important to me, and look for the best value for my money. If I can get something I want for cheaper than I will, it just makes sense. I hate it when people I know say “you make $XXX, so you shouldn’t care so much about what it costs”. Saving money is saving money, but it doesn’t mean I’ll get the cheapest things on the market.

  33. Quinton says:

    buying sunglasses every yr from walmart does not make you frugal, buying one expensive good quality sunglass that is expensive does.


    Sorry Soham,

    But that is NOT frugal. If said sunglasses would last 30 years for the $50 and up you would pay for them, yes, that would be frugal.

    But the $1 dollar glasses that I have to buy 4 times per year since I have crushed them (and yes I have a sunglass holder on my visor! So the 10 times a year has gone down to 4) or my kids have taken and used them, or the dog somehow ends up with them, that makes a frugal buy!

    Frugal is buying a used camper that someone has gone camping with 4 times in its 4 years of life for 1/2 the price. (As long as you will use it more than the price of a hotel when you travel for your payments!)

    Frugal is finding a 22 piece set of oak kitchen cabinets for $600 that retails for $10,000 new. The previous owners HAD to redo their kitchen in a new scheme, so you get the benefit!

    The cost benefit to you vs the savings benefit should be looked at when you do these comparisons.

  34. Bill says:

    I enjoyed the post, but I wouldn’t refer to any front-loading washer as reliable.

    They are more efficient (most of that efficiency comes only if you use hot water), but are very complex (lots of computerization)

    They have not been reliable, at least compared to a direct-drive top-loader.

    If I had to buy a new model I’d buy this horizontal-axis, but top-loading washer:


  35. flightgirl78 says:

    Hi –

    I am the person who sold Trent his KitchenAid mixer. I will not disclose the amount that I sold it for – though Trent is welcome to if he wishes.

    My parents gave me the mixer at the same time that they gave my sister and my stepsister identical ones. We are all considered wildly successful. However, I consider myself exceptionally frugal, despite my income/investments. The mixer sat on my counter for four years. I used it once. The bowl didn’t fit in any of the dishwashers that I used during that time (I was in school, then an apartment, then a house) and my hand mixer was much more suited to my single girl situation. I was careful to polish it (it is a shiny cobalt blue) with Windex and looked at it every day when I was making my breakfast toast. I was afraid to sell it because it was a gift (I call them “guilt gifts”). After confessing as much to my mom, she said I should definitely sell it and buy a smaller one or invest the cash. Either way, she just wanted me to be happy.

    So I have invested the cash (rather, will invest, but it is in my money market account right now, while I save to invest a large chunk). I now have two square feet of my countertop back, which is far more useful to me than the mixer. My priorities are different.

    And I made two wonderful, fancy cakes this weekend quite happily (and guilt free) with my hand mixer.

  36. lockheed says:

    Frugal is budgeting for occassional get-togethers with work colleagues.

    Cheap is feeling compelled to go more often, but sourly sipping the least expensive drink on the menu and calculating the difference between what you paid for your house salad and what every one else paid for their normal meals.

  37. Adventures In Money Making says:

    I guess my Schumacher Legend Omega Speedmaster disqualifies me from being frugal!

  38. Amy says:

    There was a really good article in Sunday’s Washington Post which had the best description of being frugal / thrifty – A Thrift Idea – http://tinyurl.com/2gztu2

    “Historically, thrift didn’t carry its current association of being cheap or stingy. Rather, it meant the wise use of resources. It meant an abhorrence of waste, whether of raw materials, time, energy or money. In short, it meant conservation”.


  39. Dana says:

    I can’t help but laugh at the person who scolded you–automatically assuming someone paid full retail price for something is NOT the mark of a frugal mindset! Think outside the box, people!

  40. chris says:

    How many times have my husband and myself purchased the “cheap” item, only to be disappointed and had to go out and spend MORE money to compensate for it either breaking or its short-comings! There is nothing wrong with spending more money on useful items which will last and be enjoyed for a long while.

  41. Anielle says:

    The article described me to a “T” and I always felt I was frugal. I think of myself as outsmarting the system. No one could live on what I make but me. I get to work only part time because I put every dollar to good use and take my time to hunt for the best deals at the best prices. I have a dollar amount in my head when buying and I always find it. Yes it might take a while, but I plan ahead and do not do without anything. I never consider myself cheap. Just smart. After all, how many people work three times as much, make only twice as much, and have less than I do , have no money in the bank and are stressed out. Frugal is a choice, but in the near future, it will become a necessity for many spenders. Before I became frugal, I did without a lot. I always justified not getting IT. Now I have all I want and then some. Only a snob would consider Frugal to be cheap. Love to stretch that dollar as far as I can while others are clueless.

  42. Schwamie says:

    I think that there is definitely a discrepancy when Trent gave examples of cheap and frugal. I consider myself to be cheap. I will usually (but not always) buy the least expensive item. However, I do take all costs into consideration (to include lifecycle costs and additional consumption costs). That said, I do still have and use my ATARI 2600 from when I was in high school (1980’s) and will buy whatever salad dressing is on sale (with the exception of blue cheese as I cannot stand the taste or smell!).

  43. J. says:

    To give a slightly odd contribution to this discussion, I was at Victoria’s Secret for the Semi-Annual sale with my mom. We ran into a friend of hers at the register. That friend said she was shopping with her daughter, but that she “wouldn’t waste that much money on my bras; I buy them at Target”. I told her that I used to buy bras at Target, but the bands lost elasticity, the fabric of the cups shrank and puckered and they just didn’t fit right. I was tactful enough not to point out that I’m, ahem, well-endowed, while she is not. Spending $20 each on bras I had to replace after 2 years makes less sense than spending $40 each on bras that I haven’t had to replace after 4-8 years.

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