I used to think that “being frugal” and “being cheap” were basically the same thing. Along my saving journey, however, I found out that the two are very different. To me, In a nutshell, “being cheap” means trying to spend as little as possible and “being frugal” means to spend as thoughtfully as possible. What do those concepts really mean?

Here’s a more broken out comparison:

Being CheapBeing Frugal
Don’t buy anything you don’t have to.Don’t buy anything you won’t appreciate.
Buy the cheapest version of everything.Buy the best value that solves the problem.
Keep until you’re forced to replace.Maintain things so they last.

Ok, so how are these ideas different?

Don’t Buy Anything…

Let’s take groceries, for example. If I want to be cheap, I make a list of meals for the week and groceries to buy, and I only buy the things on the list. It’s definitely the cheapest way for us to eat. We miss out on things doing this, though. Maybe ground beef is on sale, and I know we will use it even though it’s not on the list for this week. Or I see that Rainier cherries are out this week and look good, and I know my family loves them.

If I’m feeling frugal, instead of asking whether something is on the list of needs, I ask whether we would appreciate it. I know we like Rainier cherries, so I’ll get them. I won’t get three different kinds of fruit, however, because I know we won’t get through them before they spoil.

Buy the Cheapest…

Continuing the grocery example, when I’m feeling cheap I’ll stick to the cheapest version of everything I can find. Red cherries are cheaper than Rainiers, so I’ll stick with them (if I get fruit at all). The store brand milk and bread will be fine.

When I’m feeling frugal, I am willing to spend more if I know I appreciate the difference. My family really does love the Rainier cherries a lot more. I will still get grapes instead of cherries if the grapes are a much better deal this week, because I know my family will enjoy either of them. I think the Franz breads are worth paying more for, though I don’t think the brand milks taste any different from the store brand.

Shifting to another example, I tend to buy midrange smartphones. It’s possible to buy a smartphone for $150, but I know I appreciate a high quality screen, top-tier performance, and wireless charging, and I use my phone every day. When security updates stopped for my Pixel 2, I looked around and found that the $700 Galaxy S20 FE ticked the right feature boxes. It wasn’t a cheap choice, certainly, but I knew I’d appreciate the extra speed and features over the $500 Pixel 4a 5G. On the other hand, there was little difference between the FE and the $1,200 S20+. I’m looking for that “sweet spot” that solves the problem I want solved at the best price.

Keep Until…

Whether I’m feeling frugal or cheap, I want my things to last. I get a case and screen protector for my phone. I keep my car maintained. The difference is that if I’m feeling cheap, I’ll try not to replace something until it’s absolutely used up. I could’ve kept my Pixel 2, for example, until it wouldn’t hold a charge. If I’m feeling frugal, I’m open to replacing something if a replacement will be a lot better, but I still maintain my things so that I’m not forced to replace them before that. I’m also willing to attempt a repair even for an old item if I don’t think I’d really appreciate a replacement. Earlier this year the a heating element in our oven failed, and though the oven is at least 15 years old, we decided to try getting a replacement element first, and we successfully fixed the problem for $35.

What’s the Point?

To summarize, to me being cheap means not spending money unless I need to, and being frugal means not spending money unless I’ll appreciate what I get for it. In both cases I’m being mindful of my spending and trying not to waste money. The difference in mindset is really important to me, however.

When I’m being cheap, I sometimes feel like I’m just scraping by and I can’t have anything that I merely want. I feel like I don’t have “enough”, no matter how much money I’m saving every month. In contrast, when I’m being frugal I feel a lot better. I don’t feel like there’s anything I can’t have, only things I don’t get that aren’t really worth getting. At the same time, I also feel good that I’m not wasting what I have, and I’m making progress toward my longer term goals by saving.

Of course, I feel lucky that I can choose to spend more on living frugally. Many people can’t afford more than their needs every month, and they’re stuck in a difficult place until they can find more income or lower core expenses. I’m sure it feels much more painful than the “not having enough” I stumbled into voluntarily.

If you do have the choice, striking the right balance ideally means progress toward long term freedom without feeling like you don’t have enough along the way. If you’re feeling regret about not saving enough for the future, or feeling like you don’t have enough now, it’s a good hint to consider adjusting your balance in making spending choices.