The difference between being frugal and being just plain cheap

Ivy says:

I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between being frugal and being just plain cheap. I don’t mind being called frugal, or even a tightwad, but it rankles me to be called cheap. So, what’s the difference? Here’s a handy guide:

  • A frugal person shops around for the best price on toilet paper and uses a coupon for that toilet paper. A cheap person just steals toilet paper from the gas station. An even cheaper person steals toilet paper from church, because they have nice toilet paper.
  • A frugal person saves any extra condiment packets from a (probably very rare) trip to a fast food restaurants. A cheap person grabs handfuls to save.
  • A frugal person uses online banking to save on the cost of stamps. A cheap person steams any unpostmarked stamps off and reuses them.
  • A frugal person uses a coupon when they go out to eat (again, probably pretty rarely) and tips appropriately (15-20% on the price of the meal BEFORE the coupon- of course, this is assuming you live in the United States. I know you wily Canadians don’t have to tip so much because your servers are paid a decent wage). A cheap person undertips massively or doesn’t tip at all.

I’m sure you guys can think of more differences. The difference to me is that of a moral one. I am frugal within moral guidelines. I don’t cheat or steal. I don’t cause others hardships (like in the tipping situation) to save myself money. The tipping one I probably need a whole post to flesh out, but let me just say this. In most states, servers make $2.13 an hour. They generally have to tip out to bartenders, hostesses and bussers based on their sales, not how much they actually collect in tips. If you seriously undertip or stiff a server on their tip, they may have to pay to have served your table. If you have a server whose service doesn’t warrant a 15-20% tip, speak to a manager so that the manager can coach the server on their performance.

Why, yes, my husband *is* a restaurant manager and hears tipping woes every day and brings the tales home to me! 😉

I’m sure we’re all of the frugal and not cheap type people here. But I think we all know someone who is just plain cheap. What do cheap people do to drive you nuts?


  1. 168 Frugal Tips to Make Your Dollar Stretch + More » on April 11, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    […] On Home Ec 101: The Difference Between Being Frugal And Being Just Plain Cheap and How To Live On Less: A Guide To Thrifting. Home Ec 101 also publishes economical recipes and […]

  2. Meangoose on April 10, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    Undertipping, just because you *can*, is really rude. Can’t afford to tip – you can’t afford to eat out. I’ve been a server, and it was a far harder and less lucrative job than I have now.

    The 20 CVS cards thing really annoys me – I don’t know why the store allows that.

    I think of cheap as spending as little as possible, including doing things that are immoral but legal (or at least unlikely to be prosecuted). Cheap is stealing toilet paper from public facilities, not tipping service staff because no one can force you to do so, violating sale limits, using coupons in a way that’s not in accordance with the terms on the coupon, etc.

    Frugal is being wise with your money, but not in such a way as would warrant a visit by the ghosts of Christmas Past, etc.

  3. AllisonWonder on April 10, 2008 at 6:36 am

    I’ve never worked as a server, but I always tip well. I hate that those poor people have to rely on the decency of other people to make a living. I really think restaurants should charge more for food and pay the staff decent wages, but until that happens, I’ll be keeping 15-20% my bare minimum for tipping at restaurants.

    Does anyone know what the standard tip is at a buffet? The server brings the drinks and the bill… I don’t know what they get paid.

  4. tammy on April 8, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    Cheap people have 18 different CVS cards. Seriously? Who needs 25 tubes of free toothpaste every month?!

    Frugal people learn how to use the one they have wisely! 🙂

  5. Pam on April 8, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Ivy, thank you for bringing this up. The “bad tipping” thing drives me absolutely nuts! (I’m not in food service, but I have been in the past, so I know how hard they work, and how little they make, and how the IRS treats them at the end of the year.)

    I’m convinced that if restaurant patrons worked as a server for even a week they’d change their tipping ways. I rarely tip less than 20% anymore, and I always tip on the full amount the bill would have been without the coupon. I mean, the difference between 15% and 20% is usually a couple of bucks, which isn’t going to break me, but could really make a difference to the server. (As a bonus, it’s easier to calculate in my head — I just calculate 10%, double it, then round up to the next full dollar.)

    ScrappyQuilter brought up a huge issue for me as a Christian — when fellow Christians fail to recognize that their poor tipping really damages their testimony. I figure my tip speaks far louder than the fact that I bow my head before the meal.

  6. Lisa- Domestic Accident on April 7, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    I like to think of frugal as smart. Why pay more than I have to? I’m proud to have champagne taste on a beer budget!

  7. Eyebee on April 6, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    I like to think of myself as frugal. I won’t be taken in by slick advertising, and I’m generally always one to compare brand to generic. I’ll always go for a generic, or store’s own brand if it’s as good (which is often is).

    As for tipping I do try to aim for between 15-20%, although there has (in I guess the last ten years) been two occasions when the service was so darn bad, I didn’t leave a tip at all.

    We don’t ever have food delivered so that one doesn’t arise.

    OK, is this cheap? I’ll go to local bookstore, get a coffee, look at some books (very carefully, mind) and then more often than not come home and buy what I decided I like on Amazon as their prices are usually way under the bookstore.

  8. Sarah on April 6, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    FYI: My Albertson’s and Von’s both carry bottles of Taco Bell sauce. But Albertson’s only has mild and Von’s only has hot. I don’t know why.

  9. Jennifer @Chronicles of a Night Owl on April 6, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    I agree with what you have said. As far as the condiment packages – I do the same – save any extras. The one exception to this rule for me is Taco Bell Fire Sauce. You can’t buy it anywhere, so we always ask for extra (in the drive-through) and they are usually pretty generous. And we use it on home-cooked Mexicn. If I could buy it in the store, I wouldn’t ask for extra. I don’t really think that is being cheap.

    For what minnemom said – I agree. If it says “one per family” I will honor that and won’t try to “cheat the system”. However, if it says one per purchase or transaction, that is different, and I will make multiple transactions to get a good deal. And the stores know you do that too, because the same cashier will ring up 3 transactions in a row for you (without going to the car and coming back in.) If it is specific that you are supposed to only ‘get the deal’ one time though, I think that definitely becomes a moral thing though if you try to do it again, and I won’t cross that line.

    Good points here. I’m glad to see that I fall in the frugal category but not the just plain cheap one!

  10. ScrappyQuilter on April 6, 2008 at 11:11 am

    Cheap–how about someone who constantly requests tons of free samples from their Avon sales person with no intention of ever buying a thing?

    I’m with you on the tipping. Once I went to a luncheon at Olive Garden with my church Ladies Group. We all ordered the soup-salad-breadsticks, but right after we ordered, our server came back with 2 bowls of salad and said that was the last they had because one of their fridges had died and nothing in it was safe to serve–however, because of the inconvenience, our meals were free. We got those 2 bowls of salad plus all the soup and breadsticks we wanted–nobody left hungry, but half the ladies didn’t leave tips! I was so embarassed I left the poor guy far more than I would have otherwise.

  11. Bramble on April 6, 2008 at 8:57 am

    Frugal knitter- raises her own sheep to make her own yarn and sells the extra wool to pay for itself

    Cheap Knitter- sneaks into the barn at night shears all the sheep and runs away with the fleece


  12. minnemom on April 6, 2008 at 7:11 am

    To me, a frugal person uses wisely her coupons and sale ads to get a good price on food. A cheap person ignores the “one per family” stipulation on a deal and buys one, puts it in the trunk, and then heads back into the store to do the deal again.

  13. noodle on April 6, 2008 at 12:17 am

    I totally agree with you on the tipping. I’ve been a server, and a good one (even a decent one) earns that tip. I do use coupons, and I will usually leave a tip equal to the coupon amount (assuming he/she deserves it). FWIW, I made $2.13/hour.

    Oh, I have one for you. A frugal person uses the library. A cheap person reads in the bookstore, not caring how the book is treated and making the book worn and unfit to sell.

  14. Jan on April 5, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    I have a coworker who always tips twenty five cents!!!!! Can you imagine? We all tip extra to make up for her. I guess we’re all too chicken to tell her she is CHEAP!!

    Dear Makeshift Mama in Oregon – even with minimum wage, most (if not all) states exempt food servers. Their minimum wage is usually in the $2.0o range.

  15. Karen on April 5, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    I don’t think you need to cross any ethical lines to be considered cheap. I think that breaking social convention is more where the line falls.

    A lot of people don’t know that pizza deliverers don’t get minimum wage, they pay for their own gas, and have increased car insurance premiums if they are honest enough to report their line of work. I never tip less than $2.

    Once, I left money for my FIL to take my one-year-old to the barber while I was at work. I was horrified that he returned me change exactly equal to the pre-tip price. He even chuckled as he recounted that it took two people to cut my son’s hair – one to cut and one to distract. Yikes.

    And contrary to popular belief, tipping really is the norm in Canada. 15% is standard in sit-down restaurants, almost cast in stone. I don’t know about the US but in Canada, servers pay income tax on 10% of their sales, whether they collected it or not.

    How about regifting? Ecoconscious or cheap? You could donate the unwanted item to charity. Does taking the boxes and boxes and boxes of chocolates students buy me at Christmas to parties count as regifting? I don’t actually need to eat all that chocolate, do I? It’s usually too late to add them to Christmas hampers.

  16. adam on April 5, 2008 at 10:53 pm

    thanks for giving waiters/waitresses a little support. some people have no clue. kudos to you!

  17. jessica on April 5, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    My husband’s a full-time server. People who don’t tip or are cheap about tipping are the reason he had to get a second almost full-time job, because tippers suck at paying the mortgage:)

    i do take hot sauce packets from Taco Bell. They say “Do you want sauce?” and i say “Yes, all of them, please.” i don’t use the sauce for my tacos. But i wait until i make chili (like today) and use 8-9 of them. That is probably bad.

  18. Makeshift Mama on April 5, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    Wow! Now I’m extra-happy to live in Oregon, where the minimum wage is $7.25 (or maybe it has gone up since then). How could a person even rent a single room and eat Top Ramen on $2.13 an hour?