What is the Difference between Frugal and Cheap? ($10 Question)

Your Advice - help answer readers' questions This is a question that often comes up — the difference between being frugal and being cheap. This reader asks for help in trying to remain frugal without becoming cheap:

I have a huge problem with my husband’s family. They don’t understand there is a difference between being frugal and being cheap. They constantly complain at how “cheap” we are and badmouthing me as a negative influence because my husband “was never cheap” before we got married.

We are not spending any extra money when not needed because we hope to buy a house in the next 2 years and want to have a good down payment for it. That means that we balked at going to visit his family this Christmas because we knew that doing so would mean that we would have to buy everyone there (13 people in all) gifts of $50 or more and we don’t want to waste that much money.

When they were disappointed that we declined to go this year, they became very worried as to why we couldn’t make it. I felt it was best to be honest and explained the situation. I said we’d love to go if we could skip the gift giving. They in turn told me that I do not value their family traditions at all and I’m nothing but a cheap and petty daughter-in-law.

I am trying to figure out a way to explain the difference between being cheap and being frugal to them that they will understand. How do you show this to people who seem not to understand? What should I say to them? I’m looking for any example that might get through to them so they can understand our situation and why we are trying to save money – G. H.

If you have an opinion you’d like to share to help this reader out, it could be worth $10 as this is part of our $10 comment series and would be greatly appreciated by all those curious about the same topic.

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19 Responses to What is the Difference between Frugal and Cheap? ($10 Question)

  1. Henrik says:

    Being cheap is when you are not willing to spend money, being frugal is when you do an effort to spend the least amount of money on something of the same “value”.

    In my opinoin from reading your letter you are cheap not just frugal.

    you have chosen money over family tradition, and that is a much bigger choice than just having a frugal.

    The fugal choice would have been to go,but not spend $50 *13. You could try to find great gifts that are cheap.

    10 years down the line when you are sitting in your house, does the extra $250-$500 you had for downpayment really made that big a difference in the house house got and the life you lived??

    (I don’t know the housing market in US as I live in Denmark, but in our market $1000 wouldn’t even matter much)

    I know you can say what have $$$ really mattered 10 years down about almost everything you spend money on now, but there is a time and a place for everything. So be as cheap as you can be when it is only you and your husband, but remember to prioritize family..

    I’m sorry I am not more supportive for your choice, but in my opinion you have made a mistake.

  2. melwrc says:

    Frugal is deliberating before deciding whether something is worth the money, and weighing cost/benefits carefully when you do spend money. Frugal people tend to know when spending more money now is worthwhile.
    Cheap people always think they should pay less, with or without justification.

  3. Dave says:

    I have to agree with Henrik, although I can see myself struggling with the same decision. You’re trying so hard to save for something big, that every little expense hurts, but try to keep the larger perspective in view.

    What does your husband think about this? You said that you told his family, and I can certainly see why they would focus on you as the instigator. What has he communicated to them? Perhaps he may be better suited to deliver the tough news to his family in the future. That way, they understand that it’s coming from both of you, and not must you.

  4. sherri says:

    It’s sad to me that participating in a family function means that you are required to bring a gift of a certain monetary value. Everyone should be welcome even without a gift in my opinion.

    If they don’t want to spend the money on gifts that they don’t feel will be worth as much as saving for their house, I don’r see that as being cheap. What if it was for attending a family party that cost $500?

  5. dan says:

    By the sound of it, it was a $50 gifts for each member and anything else would have been considered cheap. If that interpretation is correct, then I think both sides have some major problems. Not giving gifts isn’t the right answer and either is forcing a certain price for each gift in my opinion.

  6. patrick says:

    Family values should come before money. I do find it wierd that you are required to have a gift. On the other hand, Christmas gift spending should be planned for just like any other expense. Afterall, it falls on the same day every year.

  7. Teri says:

    I have to agree more with Dan than anything. I see no way why you would be obligated to pay upwards of $600 to his family for Christmas. They need to be understanding that you are young and trying to save for a house, etc., etc.

    On the flip side, why not show up and bring gifts that look like they cost $50, but don’t. That is what frugal people do. I have to admit not showing up just because you don’t want to buy the gifts sounds cheap. If they don’t welcome you when you come with cheaper gifts, then it is squarely their problem.

    We don’t exchange gifts with most of our family and friends, but dh’s family is really big into the gift thing. We humor them because we love them and their hearts would be broken otherwise. Sometimes there is more to life than money.

  8. Hilary says:

    I have to agree with most of the people above. Telling someone that you don’t want to give them an expensive present because you want something for yourself sounds cheap, whereas faking that you got them an expensive present when in fact it wasn’t is being frugal.

    For example, one of my friends bought me a book for Xmas last year, wrapped it in brown paper and hand-decorated it. Wonderful! I was charmed. But then she told me “Yeah, I got your book at half-priced books because what’s the point of spending money when you don’t have to?” It left a sour taste in my mouth. Whenever you give the impression to someone that you are not willing to be generous because you want to save for something for yourself, that becomes cheap.

    Look at the language you used: “…we don’t want to waste that much money.” They certainly don’t see it as a waste of money when they receive a present. Do you really see gift-giving as a needless waste? You certainly have shown them how little you value them.

    Also, who was it that decided that you had to buy $50 presents? You or them? I’d find it suprising if they sat down every year and said “Remember that you must spend at least $50 per person.” More likely, you are probably feeling social pressure to “keep up with the Jones'”, something that frugal people don’t succumb to.

    I would rethink the way you are doing things if this is your idea of frugal.

  9. Scott says:

    Cheap is not spending money just because you don’t want to.

    Frugal is not spending money because you other plans for that money.

    You are saving up for a house so therefore you are being frugal. The way you phrased your reason for not attending the Holiday made you sound cheap.

  10. Rocco says:

    I agree with most of the comments posted so far, and especially with what Scott had to say. Your choice to cut back on spending in the hope of saving enough money to buy a house is certainly a frugal decision. However, your justification for not attending (becuase you don’t want to “waste that much money

  11. Hilary says:

    The more I have thought about it throughout the day, the more I realize that being “cheap” is something you do to other people, whereas being “frugal” is your own lifestyle. You can be seen as cheap if you take your date to Burger King (from a movie, I promise!) but you can be a frugal couple if you decide to go to the park instead of going to the movies.

    Skimping out on someone else will seem cheap no matter what. But, like Rocco and others have mentioned, not skimping out on someone doesn’t mean spending $50 on them, but rather showing them that you care in some alternative fashion.

    The posts on this blog are never entitled “How to get out of giving your family presents” but rather “Alternatives to exchanging presents at work.” The key difference is the desire to do something nice for someone else in a creative, but still meaningful way, which is something that this person seems to have forgotten.

  12. Kelly says:

    I think that missing out on a family event so that you don’t have to give gifts is cheap. Making presents for your family can be a frugal alternative for gift giving. It is more meaningful because you put some effort and love into it and can be less expensive than buying presents. And you don’t have to be a crafty person to make gifts. Simply arranging some soaps and lotions in a basket is a good gift or a coffee mug with hot chocolate mix. I have discussed with some of my family how commercial Christmas has become, and we are making an effort to make the holiday more about time with the family and less about presents.

  13. Debbie M says:

    To me, the difference between cheap and frugal is often a matter of perspective. If you are refusing to spend money that should be spent, you are being cheap. If you are refusing to spend money on stuff you don’t care about, you are being frugal. So, since the presents (and, apparently many other things your husband is spending less on) seem important to your family-in-law, they see you as cheap. Since these things are not important to you, you see yourself as frugal.

    (There is also a third category, which I think of as “thievery,” where you do things like take extra ketchup packets to bring home. If you had arrived with no presents, but gladly accepted presents from them, that would be closer to this category.)

    A lot of people, especially folks living paycheck-to-paycheck, see EVERYTHING as important, and so they see almost any lack of spending as cheap. Your in-laws may be like this.

    They may see you as not letting your husband have all the special things he deserves and that he has been used to getting. They are forgetting about the part where he is getting other things in return, in this case a house.

    For this particular issue, you have a lot of work to do. Mainly you need to let them know that they do matter to you. (Even if they don’t–they matter to your husband, and your husband matters to you, therefore you’re stuck with these guys and need to make the best of it.) What they have just heard from you is that a house–a possession–is more important to you than family. It’s not what you meant, but it’s what they heard. That’s because expensive presents, which are obviously a waste of money (to you) could also be a way of showing how much you care (to them).

    That’s not going to be easy to undo. You might want to apologize for giving them the impression that you don’t care about them (or your husband). The other folks’ comments about showing up with thoughtful but inexpensive presents could help. You could thank them for changing your mind about coming and tell them you are looking forward to getting to be with them, etc.

    It sounds like they are also worried that you do not value their family traditions at all, so try to find a way to show that you do value at least some of them. Ask for recipes for example, and ask about how decorations were done, etc.

    It’s good to talk about your motivations for frugal decisions, like having lower-stress lives, but at this point, it’s probably better to focus conversation on others; I’m afraid they’re seeing you as self-centered.

    (Sadly this sounds like one of those stereotypical character-building parts of your life (she says with a grimace). Figure out how to compromise with these guys: it will build character.)

    Also, your husband should explain that he is deliberately foregoing special things that he has enjoyed all his life in order to have other special things. If he can make it clear that he is happier now, but still appreciates his family and how he has been before, that could help.

    One final point – Try not to think about them as ruining all your dreams with their petty antics. They are just postponing them a tiny bit. Don’t let this ruin your holiday.

  14. Debbie M says:

    P.S. They may have already gotten presents for you and your husband and gotten excited about being able to give them. And then when you don’t even want to come, it’s very disappointing.

    So then they might mail the presents anyway, and then the gift-giving is all one-sided.

    Messy! Good luck with this.

  15. Zook says:

    Don’t see what values has to do with this. This sounds like a family tradition to me. Tell the family to give you gifts for your house, I guess.

    My question here is….Is $650 REALLY going to make or break a home purchase in two years? Not if you prepare for it and it sounds like this is kinda “cheap”. Telling your family that I can’t join in the gift giving in December 2007 because we might be buying a house in 2009 is “cheap”. I don’t know all the facts, but that is my first instinct.

    What will this person do next year? And the following year? NOT do the gift giving until they have a home? And if you can’t do this now withOUT a house, how will you be able to resume this when you do have a house? As if things get cheaper when you buy a home.

    I would suck it up, start saving in August [for next year] so it doesn’t hit you all at once and ENJOY giving the gifts.

    It does seem like a lot of money, but what is “a lot of money”? Maybe this family went from $100 to $50 to help this person be able to afford this?

    I think for cheap and frugal, I see it through this scope in terms on being a consumer. A “cheap” person goes to Wal-Mart to buy a $10 pair of crappy jeans that last a year and fall apart. A frugal person waits, saves and decides against other spending in order to get that $100 pair of jeans for $40, that lasts a few years and becomes their favorite pair.

  16. Jenna says:

    Wow, tough one.

    My dad was one of 5 kids, and when I was growing up, Christmas meant seeing all of us in one room. This translates to my mom & dad, me, grandparents, 4 aunts, 4 uncles, and (depending on the year) 9-14 cousins. That’s between 22 and 27 people. It was MAYHEM. My parents were poor, but some of the others did very well, and bought multiple large gifts for each person. Some people spent in excess of $4000 just for this section of the family. GAH!!

    As I became an adult, I started to worry about the ton of money that got dumped into that every year, and I got creative just like mom had to. I certainly couldn’t afford to get everyone electronics, etc.!

    What I do is make or buy Christmas ornaments. they are less expensive, get used every year, and with all the varieties out there, there is a unique ornament available for everyone. One year, I made handmade chocolates, and I did that for more than 50 total family members… and it cost me $375 total, including molds, supplies, wrappers, boxes, wrapping paper, etc. They were a hit, and I sold the used chocolate molds on eBay! I’ve made recipe/cookbooks (OfficeMax printing is very affordable), vine wreaths that I cut and twisted myself, family photos that I’ve photoshopped with neat effects and printed at pro photo places on canvas ($8-30 each), or even made little paintings for everyone. Goofy poems, caricatures, dried herbs and sachets, homemade herbal teabags, music compilations, decorated pressed paper boxes, hand-lettered premade ornaments, magazine subscriptions (often at a 2-for-1 price), or unique editions of favorite books from book sales are all things I’ve done over the years.

    The main thing is to tailor it to the person you’re giving to, and you tell them when they get it “That’s a picture from when we went to so-and-so” or “I made it your favorite flavor/color/movie”.

    I’ve never had my gifts rejected or thrown away, because everyone loved them. They knew I was broke, but tried like nuts anyhow because I love my family, and they got something uniquely me. Many a year now, I’ve gone to someone’s house and seen an item on display that I made them for Christmas, and it makes me happy. I also save my Christmas cards, and in following years, I cut off the front of the cards, and use those as huge, pretty gift tags. Hole punch + ribbon makes an impact like you’d spent more.

    Not to sound judgemental, but the way you phrased your statements was a bit harsh. You referred to giving gifts as “wasting that much money”, and indicated that you were saving for a house 2 years from now or more. You very likely hurt his family’s feelings, and they are probably interpreting this as you disliking them. You did come out sounding VERY cheap, not frugal. The more important thing is that they want to see you & your husband. Go see them!

    You also probably made it sound like you weren’t coming for a while. If you cut out Christmas 2-3 years in advance, then are you skipping next year, too?

    Next year, suggest a secret santa option, with a max of $100 per person, or have 2008 be a “Make it Yourself To Give” Christmas at your place. Or, everyone spend half of the normal amount, but pool the whole thing and have a Christmas retreat at the beach for the whole family. No one will want to travel with big stuff, so small items only on the day of Xmas! There’s ways to be frugal together!

    Go this year. Get good deals and spend the money. Above all, call whomever you’ve spoken to about this and APOLOGIZE, and state that you think they’ve misunderstood, and that they are important to you, and you are coming. Do what you can to clear the air.

    To quote some of your post:
    “they became very worried as to why we couldn’t make it”. This translates to ‘they love you and would like to see you’

    “I do not value their family traditions at all and I’m nothing but a cheap and petty daughter-in-law” This translates to they’re angry that you’re skipping a family tradition of COMING to Christmas because of money. The “petty” is the gifts part. If you were coming sans gifts and asked others not to buy for you either, the “petty” would still be there, but not the injury to tradition. (sounds like you’ve made it out every other year, and this not coming thing is new to them.)

    “badmouthing me as a negative influence”. No one ever though of frugality as a negative thing. Somehow, you are coming across as cheap. Think long and hard why that might be, and perhaps seek advice from a friend, the forums, or even his family as to EXACTLY what you’ve done to make them feel this way. Root it out and try to undo the damage.

    To buy those gifts, use coupons and save however you can. Make $20 look like $75 and wrap those in the prettiest, highest quality paper you can find, with real fabric ribbons and quality tags. Attach an ornament (cute & inexpensive) to the tag. Look like you are balling out! Leave no corner of your frugal cunning unplumbed! Outdo yourself! Finely tailor each gift to the recipient. Go early and help cook. Bring a new, special dessert that looks like a million bucks. Buy a nice cognac or brandy or special reserve rum to take along and add it to the nog or apple cider. Make them know you care. It’s in the details.

    Then, if the money really means that much to you, return the gifts that you get or sell them on eBay. You’ll recoup some of your funds.

    But definitely remember that your marriage is more important than a few hundred bucks, and if you upset his family, you might not have a husband to share a house with in a few years. Take a long, careful look. Be honest with yourself.

    Good luck, and Merry Christmas!

  17. Myself says:

    Interesting article.
    I must say that families can come to terms fairly easily (at least my family and my wife’s).
    The 2 Christmases that we saved for our down-payment on our first house money was very tight. We however bought some materials, and made some Christmas decorations to give to all of our families. They still keep them, and put them out during Christmas, so it’s obvious they didn’t think we were cheap, but frugal.
    Again, we didn’t splurge (I think we spent about $150/yr on the materials to make Snowmen and Santa Clauses – two Christmas’ worth). Of course, we’re pretty handy too!

  18. Ann says:

    Debbie M highlighted some very good points. Instead of beating up on you. I think you know now after reading several peoples comments that your intentions to save for a home is smart, but your approach to money and family is not.

    I would :
    1. Apologize to your mother-in-law,understanding that family is more important than stuff, and you were wrong in minimizing their family traditions.

    2. Explain the importance of owning a home and putting down a good down payment.

    3. Say that you would love to be a part of their traditions and would gladly accept their invitation.

    4. buy inexpensive gifts

    5. be a little thoughtful, and creative by making a family box. In the box have a scroll for each person, and in each scroll share intimately to each one how much they are a blessing to you. Even if you have to search to find something nice to say, try. This should put tears in everyone’s eyes and validate the true meaning of christmas.
    6. Give it some time. Do the right thing, forgive your mother-in-law and yourself for missing the point on saving and whats more important on the holidays. Continue to be a good stewart of your money, but don’t forget that family is more important than owning a home.

  19. pfadvice says:

    Thank you to everyone that commented. The randome numbers came out as #10 and #13 – congratulations Rocco and Debbie M. – I have sent both of you emails. A new new $10 comment question is now live.

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