When Is It a Bad Choice to “Go Cheap”?

One of the challenges of trying to minimize one’s spending is knowing which situations where you aim for minimum spending result in unexpected negative consequences as a result of cutting too much spending.

I’ll give an example of something that’s a clear misstep: an old friend of yours is coming in from out of town and wants to spend some time with you. Rather than going out to eat together somewhere in town, you invite the friend over for a meal you prepare yourself, but the meal consists of barely-seasoned beans and rice. Your friend feels like you’re being cheap, the meal and conversation don’t go well, and that friendship gradually withers away.

Obviously, that’s a bad choice. You don’t want to be an absolute cheapskate to an old friend, and very few people would do a thing like this outside of an extremely difficult financial position.

The problem is that going “cheap” is a gray area where it’s not always clear whether you’re making a sensible choice in terms of bang for the buck or whether you’re cutting too hard in a way that will have negative consequences later.

For example, imagine you work at home and you’ve purchased a chair that you’ll sit in every day for work. If you buy the cheapest chair possible, you’ll save money up front, but it’s likely that the chair won’t last long and that it will be fairly uncomfortable during the time you use it, plus it may cause unnecessary lower back problems due to poor lumbar support or other issues due to bad ergonomics.

The challenge, of course, is that it’s often not perfectly clear in advance whether or not you’re going too cheap or whether you’re getting a good bargain for your dollar. There’s often trial and error involved.

A couple of years ago, I made a list of several specific items that you should avoid going cheap with, but that list really doesn’t help with evaluating new situations. Here are some principles that are worth following that will help you figure out when you shouldn’t go cheap.

Research the items you buy and aim for good value rather than the cheapest sticker price. For really inexpensive items, like household supplies, this usually isn’t much of an issue because the cheapest item is often identical to the more expensive versions except in different store brand packaging. However, as you start looking at somewhat more expensive items, the quality gap between the cheapest item and the best “bang for the buck” item is enormous – often the difference between “barely functional” and “does a great job” – while the price difference really isn’t very much.

The best thing you can do for most purchases beyond grocery store staples and household supplies is to do a little research on them. Hit your local library on occasion and check out issues of Consumer Reports to find out what they have to say about almost any purchase you can think of, and look for what they recommend as a “best buy.” Their “best buy” recommendations almost always perform fantastically well while having a pretty low price.

Don’t go cheap on friends and family, especially when the expense is irregular and you want to maintain a positive relationship. Your immediate family should be a part of the conversation about your frugal choices, particularly your partner. Your close friends and family members that you see frequently likely understand your spending choices and accept them. The real issue is the people you care about but don’t see regularly, as those are situations where there aren’t as many symbols of care as there are with immediate family and close friends and nearby relatives.

In those situations, the best thing you can do is put a lot of focus on regular positive contact with the people you care about a lot but don’t see often so that they know that you care, and then don’t go ultra-cheap when you do see them. This does not mean putting out an expensive spread for every meal, but rather putting out a good, flavorful meal that might cost a little more than you expect. This doesn’t mean going to the most expensive restaurant around, but it doesn’t mean shoehorning such a choice into the cheapest place around – rather, find a place that’s really really good without being overly pricy. If they’re staying in your home, use normal toiletries – don’t use watered-down hand soap, for example. Going super-cheap is not a symbol of caring.

What about gift-giving occasions? A thoughtful gift – one where you really thought about what the recipient cares about and enjoys – matters more than an expensive gift. I’d far rather have a $5 gift that actually lines up with what I care about (like, say, a pack of pocket notebooks or a bottle of interesting seasoning or something like that) than a $20 gift given with little thought, and most adults would fall into this camp.

Don’t go cheap on items you’re going to use literally every day or absolutely rely on. What are the things you use literally every day? Those things need to do their job well and should, at the very least, follow “best buy” recommendations rather than buying the absolute lowest priced version.

What kinds of things am I talking about? Shoes. Your mattress. Toilet paper and other basic toiletries. Undergarments. If those things are causing you discomfort, then it’s going to have a sustained negative impact on your life and the relatively small amount you’re saving is not worth it. Your shoes should not hurt your feet. Your mattress should be comfortable enough that you fall asleep with ease and not hurt your back. Your toiletries should not feel uncomfortable to use or have bad side effects. Your undergarments should not be uncomfortable or scratchy, either. Things you use every day should not be causing an ongoing negative issue for you or else you’re facing a serious quality of life challenge.

If you use your car every day or at least rely on it to get you to work, don’t skimp on it, either. I don’t mean that you should go out and buy a brand new car every year. Rather, I mean that you should stick to the maintenance schedule on your car and be proactive with repairs. The money you “save” by not getting maintenance done on your car or letting a “check engine” light stay on for a long time will usually end up costing you far more in the long run.

You should also be willing to spend for home maintenance. Things like replacing furnace filters might feel like something you can skimp on, but you end up paying for it with more energy use.

Don’t go cheap on hygiene. Yes, basic hygiene products are a constant expense, but things like toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss, deodorant, bath soap, hand soap, laundry soap, dishwashing soap, shampoo, and conditioner shouldn’t be skipped because they cost money. Their cost is pretty small in the big scheme of things and daily bathing and twice-daily brushing and flossing and deodorant use allows you to make a positive impression on the people around you, which benefits your social life, your professional life, and your romantic life. Even if you legitimately do not care about that for some reason, good hygiene also keeps health issues at bay. Things like the common cold and influenza and stomach illnesses are kept at bay with regular hand washing, bathing, and oral hygiene.

For most people, hygiene is an extreme common sense thing, but for a surprising number of others, it’s not. Don’t skip out on it to save money or to save time. You’ll regret it over the long run.

In general, if you follow these principles, you’ll avoid most of the issues that people fall into when it comes to being overly cheap. There’s a fine line between being frugal and cutting back so much that it becomes uncomfortable for you and offensive to others; these strategies will keep you on the better side of the line.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.