Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Frugal vs. Cheap

Another frugality blogger asked her readers for their opinion as to whether or not her behavior was cheap. She had gotten a coupon for a free item from a fast food place, and went there to get only that item and nothing else. She said that the employees of the restaurant were rather rude to her, and the other people in line sneered a bit. "Did I take it too far and veer into cheap territory?" she asked. All of the commentors were pretty unanimous, the restuarant gave out the coupon and didn't require you to buy anything else to get the deal--not cheap behavior

Later in that same post she mentioned that she and her husband brought in their own cream cheese when they ate in at Panera Bread. That was when I had to chime in on the discussion.

To me, and I think many agree with me, doing something like bringing in your own cream cheese to sit and eat in a restaurant is appalling behavior. If saving $1 is that much concern, get the bagels to go, but don't dirty a table, use the restaurant's silverware and most likely their bathroom if what you're doing is really eating food you brought from home. It's that kind of behavior that gives frugal people a bad name and that nets us those dirty looks if we use a coupon for just the free item without purchasing anything else.

To me, cheapness is mean, penny pinching behavior where you're saving money just for the sake of saving money and watching the pile grow. It's Ebeneezer Scrooge and Silas Marner behavior vs. Ben Franklin (though he could be cheap at times too). Who watches A Christmas Carol and thinks that Scrooge has some good ideas! Probably no one who reads this blog, because that person most likely doesn't want to pay for internet.

I read an article in the New York Times that more clearly breaks down the difference between frugality and stealing. It seems a bit shocking to call it stealing, but that's kind of what it is in some cases. For example, when you're staying in a hotel, they expect you to take the soap and shampoos--it's built into the cost of the room. What's not built into the cost of the room is when you loot the housekeeping cart as you dash out of there, or if you take the lightbulbs and ice bucket. That's cheap behavior, I think everyone can agree on that.

Likewise people who go to expensive restaurants and save money by tipping poorly. If the service is bad, that's one thing, but when you go in there thinking you'll drop 10% or less no matter what just to save money, that's just not right. I hate the fact that Americans are expected to tip so much too; I hate the fact that servers are paid so poorly that they rely on tips to make a living, but I don't eat out very often at sit-down restaurants because I know that the meal is going to cost more than what's printed on the menu.

What I really like about the article is that it invokes a rule that's easy to remember and repeat if you're ever in one of those situations where you're not quite sure if you're crossing a line: "when you wouldn’t feel comfortable asking a person in charge if what you’re doing is all right" you may be veering into cheap territory.

I step a toe into cheap territory on occasion, I admit it. I frequently bring my own water when I go to the movies. This is because I don't often want to drink soda, and the bottled water they sell at the theatre closest to me is $3.75 for 20 ounces. That's ridiculous, but maybe they have to charge that much because of people like me. So I break my own rule because I see the sign that says "No outside food or drink" every time they rip my ticket, and I'm certainly not going to fess up. I could bring in an empty bottle and fill it at the fountain, which is what I used to do, but then I can only really get it half full since water fountains usually have poor water pressure and a shallow depression.

Maybe that's a grey area, or maybe I'm a total hypocrite. I'm not sure. What are your thoughts on this?


  1. I think there is a HUGE difference between being frugal and being cheap. Often times a frugal person knows where to cut in a logical way. A cheap person will not spend extra money for something of quality. Instead, they want everything as cheap as possible. I don't know if that makes much sense.

    As far as the movies go, I totally see why people don't want to pay the prices, but from a business end I understand why they are so high. I've brought items in and I've purchased stuff at the theatre. If anything, it is better to smuggle in water than buying one ticket and sneaking five extra people into the back door. ;)

  2. I don't think bringing your own drink to the movie theater makes you cheap. But I do think you are bordering on a gray area. I'm not sure why I think that bringing your own water/soda to the movies isn't cheap, but bringing your own cream cheese to Panera is; perhaps it has something to do with the price of said items. Cream cheese isn't that expensive, but the prices for the water are ridiculous.

    You might find this post on cheap v. frugal interesting as well:

  3. There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to stretch your dollar.