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

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.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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