Cheap, Spendthrift or Frugal?

Cheap and Frugal are often used interchangeably, but I see them as vastly different ways of living and spending. One increases the size and quality of your life, the other makes life smaller and lonelier. How do we find more value in every area of our life? Is it EVER a good thing to be a Spendthrift?

difference between cheap, frugal and spendthrifts

Let’s look at the assumptions that underpin all three, and see what the difference is. And if there is ever a time and place for them?

Cheap Motto:

It has no value

This is the core of cheapness. It has no value. It’s not worth spending money on. So the cheap try to spend the least amount of money on everything, or spend no money at all.

When something adds value, people will exchange cold hard cash for that. But not cheap people. Because at the core, they don’t see it’s value.

This is super sad to me. An overall cheapness in life makes life smaller and smaller till it’s just one person sitting alone in a room.

I think, if we aren’t careful, cheapness can creep into important areas of life:

Marriage:  “I would never spend money on growing and thriving with my partner. Dinners out, hiring a sitter, weekends away, or meeting for a cup of coffee during the work day is a total waste! Marriage conference?! You have got to be joking me.”

Experiences: “I never spend money on a new or fun experience.” “Why go do things when we can just stay home. We’re already paying for cable TV.”

Education: “I would never spend money on books, classes, courses, coaching or consultants. Those are just a waste of time and money that you will never see again. ‘Personal development’ is for lazy, entitled people.”

Household items: “I’ll just go without or buy the absolute cheapest version, no matter how much it makes my life suck.” (I recently bought a $1 can opener, I speak from experience! After 3 weeks, we found the best rated one Amazon had to offer and bought it instantly.)

Celebrations: “I’ll never spend money on gifts, parties, or getting together to celebrate.”

Relationships: “Getting together with friends, traveling for family, having kids – they’re all money pits.”

Health: “Why waste money on vegetables, a gym membership, or heaven forbid personal trainer! I haven’t even been to a doctor in a decade. The quality and quantity of life is just luck anyways.”

Happiness: “I never spend money on things that would make me happy. Look at me! I haven’t been happy in a decade and I’m doing just fine!”

Paying for other’s time or skill: “Other’s time and skills have absolute no value or use. Hiring skilled people, or adding a tip because someone is trying to add value to my experience is crazy talk! Remember the last point? Happiness doesn’t have value. Working promptly to fix my back up sewer system, having artful barista skills, or a pleasant attitude in bringing me food is wasted on me! Nice try, being awesome at your work, I don’t care. It has no value. And I will show you by constantly negotiating down your rate, or leaving a big fat $0 on that tip line.”

When to be cheap:

If something holds NO value to you, go cheap. Avoid spending the money or spend the absolute least amount of money possible. There are LOTS of things I go cheap on, like sunglasses! (with 5 little kids, they have a short life span!) And about a million things I just skip all together. Because something is “the norm” doesn’t mean I need it.


Spendthrift Motto:

Low expectations of value for the money

The opposite side of that coin are the Spendthrifts.

noun 1.a person who spends possessions or money extravagantly or wastefully; prodigal.

Where the cheap person assumes that nothing has value, a Spendthrift has a low expectation of value for the money they spend.

Money seems to just flow out of their wallets like water from a strainer. If something is slightly more convenient, slightly nicer or just happens to be at the right place at the right time, they will easily part with their cash.

They are the folks who would pay and extra $80 a month for their TV channels just in case they might need it. They will buy milk from the corner store for 30% more instead of go without for a day. Money just doesn’t seem to hold much value to them and therefor they don’t require much value from the ways they spend it. Sure they might enjoy a $50 dinner about as much as a $80 dinner, but “meh” what’s $30 extra bucks?

Sometimes we can secretly admire the spendthrifts, because they seem utterly unconcerned about money. It comes, it goes. Life moves on.

Until things get tight. Then they are often the most confused about how exactly they ended up in a jam. They were just living life, right?

Almost sadder, Spendthrifts rarely get the things they really want.

The money slipped away on all the things they happen to see first, but that one big dream remains just that: a dream. Retiring early. Traveling the world. Starting a hobby farm.

This attitude can sneak into our lives as well in areas where we don’t want it.

Retirement Fund expenses: “1% isn’t that high of a fund fee, no need to worry about it.” (on $300,000 you are paying $3000 a year no matter if your stocks gain or lose money! How much value are you getting for that $3000?)

Insurance: “We have just always used this company. Sure, we might be able to find a cheaper plan, but is it really worth the hassle?” (You might save $200 a year on all your insurance x 10 years= $2000. Yes, it might take 3 hours of calls and a few days of follow up.)

Moving expenses: “Moving is stressful, and it’s just easier to pay someone to pack and haul the boxes.” Yeah, but it might set you back an extra $5000. Is it really $5000 easier?

When to be a Spendthrift:

I am trying more of a spendthrift when bring a blessing to others. This is the one area I won’t go cheap. I am still frugal at times. But sometimes love and generosity ought to be extravagant. I think there is a time and place for money to flow freely, almost like the money doesn’t matter. My mind is often still frugal to the core, but my heart is learning to be more of a spendthrift.


Frugal Motto:

Carefully consider value in relation to price


Frugality sees the value in things.

Where Cheapness makes life smaller, and Spendthrifts often miss out on the most important things because of money frittered away, frugality expands life in the most important ways.

Life, happiness, relationships, health, education, adventures or celebrations get bigger and bigger. More and more good things get packed into each day and year without spending any more money.

Frugal seeks to increase the value while spending the same amount of money or to find the same value for less money.

Frugality is mindfulness and creativity.

How can we make life bigger, better and more awesome, all while spending less cash? How can we increase the things that are most important to us and forget about the rest?

How do we make sure we arrive at our biggest goals and dream, and not trade those away for things that don’t really matter to us?

For example:

The Spendthrift spends $80 on dinner.

Fancy dinners don’t add a ton of value for me. What I really crave is that time to connect with people I love. And something yummy.

So finding more value from that $80 might be:

  • Heading to the hot springs with a best friend with snacks (I cover the whole cost of gas, entry and snacks): $24
  • Grabbing coffee with Mr. Montana twice: $12 (with tip)
  • Meeting my mom for gourmet ice cream and a downtown walk (I do LOVE good ice cream! I pay for both of us, with tip): $8
  • Taking the kids out for .99 cent biscuits and gravy with a 1.29 monster donut: $20
  • Going out for $1 tacos on Tuesdays with 2 friends with fried ice cream (I seriously love ice cream!) (I pick up the tab for all of us): $16

Because I value time with family, my marriage, connecting with friends, tipping people for their work, fun experiences, and being generous: that is an amazing value for $80 spent….to me. The real trick in knowing what we each value and finding a way to get to that end, while spending less money.

That to me is frugality. Not being cheap and skipping all those amazing experiences. Not being a Spendthrift and getting a poor value for my $80. But finding ways to add more and more greatness into those times within the budgeted amount of money. Instead of 1 nice evening, that is a whole month of fun outings with people I care about.

When we go cheap on the things that matter to us, life can get smaller.

Spendthrift ways can dilute the focus on our spending so we end up spending a lot on everything, important or not.

 Frugality makes life bigger, more intentional, and more meaningful.


For Conversation:

1. Anything you go cheap on?

2. Have you found life getting bigger with frugality? Or does it feel like saving money is making life smaller?

3. What do you think about my Spendthrift with giving idea? Should we be super frugal in our giving as well? Making sure the person or organization is getting the very best value for our dollars? Is there a balance? I doubt any organization can out frugal me, so I worry it’s an unreasonable expectation.




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25 thoughts on “Cheap, Spendthrift or Frugal?

  1. I cheap out on sunglasses too. I had a really nice pair from PiC about ten years ago but if I wore them too long, they’d give me a terrible headache so I just stopped wearing them.

    Last weekend I picked up a pair for $6 while using up a Gapcash discount and it was perfect! Doesn’t give me a headache, I don’t have to worry about them too much (with JuggerBaby), and I’m glad I got them.

    Being frugal doesn’t make my life feel limited or small – I like the challenge of finding a better way to achieve an otherwise expensive goal, I see it as a win (getting what I want)- win (for not as much as it might normally cost).

    Sometimes the challenges are too difficult or not worth the climb, that’s what I spend the money. Like on this summer’s theme song: getting the house stuff settled.

    As for giving, sometimes I do work it frugally. Sometimes I give straight cash. There is a balance but as always, we have to figure that out for ourselves.

    • I think my sunglasses cap would be about $10. But I often pick up a pair at the dollar store. =) Especially sunglasses for the kids! I always buy those at the dollar store. They destroy those things. I wouldn’t buy them at all, but then they bug me to borrow mine if I don’t. =)

  2. A clean and clear set of definitions and guidelines. Thx for that.

    It takes some time and mistakes to learn when to be frugal cheap and spendy. We still learn each month.

    A way to be frugal is outlet stores. I do not mind wearing last year’s fashion

  3. I’m with you on the sunglasses. What about things in the kitchen section of the dollar store? The spatulas are OK but I bought an egg slicer that’s awful. (Note to self: if it’s in a drawer throw it out.)

    I go cheap on makeup. I don’t wear it often but I get a little thrill out of buying from Avon, E.L.F. and my $5 Maybelline mascara. This is especially because when I was younger my allergies were so horrible, all I could wear near my eyes was the Clinique brand. I just found a brand from an exercise instructor on YouTube. I posed a question asking about her lipstick and then I found she actually did a video on her makeup because people ask her all the time! The company is called Melanie and the item is Amore Matte Lip Creme.

    Being frugal helps clarify what’s important. It makes life larger for me.

    • Oh man, I didn’t even think about makeup! I only buy concealer now and get everything else as hand me down samples from my mom. She buys a few Clinique items and always buys them when they come with a free make up sample kit. Then she passes off all the samples to me that she doesn’t need. =)

      And I totally tried to buy that can opener from the dollar store. HORRIBLE idea. After 3 weeks, it was almost useless. Cheap fail right there.

  4. I buy my sunglasses at the dollar store – because I usually destroy them. Or lose them. Sometimes both. Alan gets free T-shirts from the home improvement store – they have the logo of the store on them, but he wears them to work around the house and uses them for rags when they’re no longer wearable.

    I’ve been trying to be more of a spendthrift with giving as well. I don’t think that’s the time to be cheap. This week, we are giving a generous gift to my daughter’s teacher for whatever he needs for the classroom. If there’s ever a time to be a spendthrift, giving is it.

    Frugality has helped me focus on the most important things in my life. It helps me evaluate if my money, time and actions are spent in accordance with my priorities. It helps me be more intentional, increases my freedom and expands my choices. So, yes, it’s definitely helped my life get bigger!

    • Love it. Frugality is intentionality, mindfulness and creativity. I think it should make life bigger and more focused on the things that matter most. That’s my rub with spendthrift ways. If you get a little bit of everything and anything, you rarely get the most important stuff. Because the most important stuff never shows up first.

  5. Hey Ms M. I go full-frugal on TV, clothes, cars, sports, and dining out. These things just aren’t that important to me. I enjoy them, of course, but see no reason to go high-end. I get just as much enjoyment out of a minor-league baseball game as I do from a major-league one. So if the utility isn’t there for high-end purchases (how’s that for economic jargon?), why waste the money? I’d rather drive an old Camry and have more money for travel (i.e., something I really care about). Thanks for another great post that explains the various mindsets out there and how each will affect your long-term success and happiness.

    • If something won’t matter in 50 years, it probably shouldn’t’ matter today. =) Anything I will really care about in 50 years, I try to spend my money there. But very few things fall into that category. The list of things I don’t care about or hardly value is LONG. =) So an amazing trip (will remember and care about in 50 years) going out to the movies this week (won’t remember and definitely not care about in 50 years) It’s an easy litmus test. =)

  6. The other thing I like about frugality is that it paves the way to being more environmentally conscious and whats not to like about getting your halo burning every more brightly? When you only buy things that you value, and don’t spend on things that you don’t – all those things that you are not procuring are not ending up on a landfill somewhere. Win!

    An example of my frugality? Wine. My tastes have evolved to the point where I can appreciate a bottle in the range of $20-$50, and I can tell the difference between such a bottle and something in the $5-$10 range. Go above about $50 though and my palate isn’t refined enough to tell the difference. I can’t appreciate the oakiness, fruitiness or any other ness any more no matter how high the price goes. So spending any more than that on a bottle of a wine would simply be throwing money away, and I won’t do it.

    • Mmm, wine! This is one of the areas where I like to spend. My spouse cuts my hair… that means another $50 bottle of wine we can drink!

  7. I love this! Thanks for the detailed definitions – I’ve never thought of it this way.

    In terms of being spendthrift on generosity, I totally agree. I recently paid for my sister to start a couple of classes for her to go back to school, and it was probably more than we should have offered because we’re paying off our own student loans, but the idea of encouraging her to invest in her education was worth it! We can find a way to make it work.

    I love the idea of living frugal. Many that I work with call me “cheap” and I find that offensive, because I’m always trying to focus on things that add value to our lives. I love the term “frugal” because that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

    • Hey Danielle! Thanks for the comment! That is awesome you could help your sister go back to school. Sometimes having someone help us with those kinds of expenses can be a huge burst of confidence and encouragement. And that can be even more important than the actual money. Like voting with our money that we see potential and greatness in another person.

      I think “cheap” is often thrown out as a slight. But cheap is saying, “I don’t value THAT”. When we know the short list of things we really do value, it’s easier to boldly declare the things we don’t value. I really value time with my kids. I really don’t care about ordering in lunch vs packing lunch. I’ll spend/save/invest to have one, but not the other. Because I really don’t care if I eat subway 2x a week. That has 0 value for me. I go cheap on convenience almost all the time. =) (Although I would argue picking up fast food isn’t any more convenient than packing a .65 cent protein bar from home!) So if it’s something that has no value to you, it’s cool to own “cheap” on that. And on all the important stuff, frugal all the way!

  8. We alternate strategies with giving. When we know someone really wants or needs something, we’ll spend as much as it takes to make it happen. However, when my nieces want more plastic garbage (Shopkins, anyone?), we’re not going to buy out the store because the gift doesn’t align with our values. When they want to go to the waterpark and get lunch and ice cream, though, we’re all in!

  9. Frugality is mindfulness! Brilliant. It is interesting once you have moved from spendthrift to frugal. Watching other spendthrifts becomes a strange experience. They don’t understand you and you don’t understand them… oh well l, I still like my way of life better!

    • It is really weird to see spendthrifts in action! Mostly because in my mind money=time=life. So I think, “why would you trade this one precious life away for THAT?” But for a spendthrift, money is just money and it comes and goes easily.

  10. This really hits home with me. I think it’s very easy for people to shift towards the spendthrift category because people want to spend money to impress other people and it becomes a keeping up with the Jones’ scenario. Like you said, the $80 or more for a fancy dinner could be used throughout a week to make a great week, or even larger purchases some people might enjoy a new fancy car while others might have a different priority with that money. I guess when it boils down to it we all just need to search to find what is really important to us.

    Jordan @ New Retirement

    • Absolutly! Oddly enough, what is really important isn’t always known. It takes some time, reflections and questions to find it. There are so many other voices competing with their opinions, it can be hard to hear our own voice.