How to Tell If You’re Frugal or Just Cheap

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett is often labeled frugal.

He lives in the same house he bought back in 1958 for $31,500.

He never spends more than $3.17 on breakfast, and up until 2014, was driving the same 2006 Cadillac DTS.

It wasn’t until his daughter told him it was embarrassing that he traded up for the new XTS model.

Contrast Buffett’s frugal lifestyle to this story shared on Reddit a few months ago:

RE: What’s the cheapest/stingiest thing you’ve seen someone do?

My grandmother, as she didn’t own a computer, had to mail in all her bill payments. One month she didn’t get her water bill or it was delivered to someone else by accident. Whatever the cause, her next bill was for both that month and the previous month and included a late fee that was less than the cost of a stamp.

For the rest of her life she skipped the bill one month and then paid both the next because she saved a few cents by using just one stamp instead of two. This was a woman who had somewhere around a million dollars in the bank when she died.

There’s a fine line between frugal and cheap. And I’ll be the first to admit I sometimes toe that line. But for many Americans, frugality is a necessity.

Credit card and student loan debt are at the highest they’ve ever been. On top of that, inflation seems to be outpacing wage growth.

These factors make minimizing spending and reducing expenses that much more critical to the average household.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to take frugality too far. Here are a few telltale signs that you’ve crossed over from being frugal to just plain cheap:

Leaving a Bad Tip or No Tip At All

You know you’re cheap when you go to a restaurant and don’t leave your server a tip. If you think, “well, I’ve already paid for the meal therefore I shouldn’t have to tip,” you’re justifying your cheapness.

Waitstaff rely on tips as part of their income. Legally, they can be paid as little as $2.13 an hour plus tips. If the tips aren’t enough to bring their earnings up to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, their employers must add enough to make up the difference, but no more.

Instead of stiff-ing your server, you can save money by eating at a buffet or restaurant where you serve yourself. Or, you can save money by picking up your order rather than having it delivered or dining in.

Cheapos Buy-and-Return Shop

Another sign you’re cheap is if you buy-and-return shop. This is when you buy an outfit for a special event, you leave the tags on, wear it and then return it the next day to get your money back.

I’ve seen my cheap friends do this with appliances and power tools they needed for a season or one-off jobs. It’s not cool. Typically, what happens to these returned goods are the stores have to sell them at a discount since they’re no longer new, or they get scraped, adding to the waste in our landfills.

If you can’t afford to buy new, consider shopping at consignment stores or find used tools on ebay or Craigslist.

Rebate Double-Dipping

If you’re buying a product with a $25 mail-in rebate and you think it’s a great deal, you might be tempted to buy two. However, at the bottom of the coupon it usually says one rebate per household.

To get around this, you fill out a second form using a different mailing address, like a PO box. Legally speaking, this is a form of fraud – and since you’re using the postal system to do it, it can be prosecuted as mail fraud.

But even if you don’t get caught, you’re still being extremely cheap and it’s unfair to the manufacturer.

Instead of trying to double-dip your rebates, look for ways you can stack them. For instance, use a discounted gift card to make a purchase using the rebate code. This way, you save on the gift card plus you get the savings from the rebate.

Stealing Supplies

Your boss might not pay you enough, but that doesn’t mean you can pilfer pens, paper, markers, or sticky notes. Sure, these small office supplies might not seem like a big deal but it’s still theft.

The same goes for condiments at restaurants. If you’re stuffing your purse or wallet with ketchup, mustard, sugar or jam packets, you’re not being frugal, you’re being cheap.

This kind of petty theft hurts companies over time. Your company bought those supplies for office workers to use at the office, and taking them home costs the company money – which in turn leaves less money in the budget to pay you what you really deserve.

Similarly, restaurants have to cover the cost of all those condiment packets by raising their menu prices.

Regifting

There’s an art to regifting and it really boils down to thoughtfulness. If your budget is tight and you decide to regift, don’t gift someone you love something they’ve either given you as a gift or have seen you around using it.

Secondhand gifts don’t always have to be your own. If you find a nice cashmere sweater or leather jacket at a thrift store, your brother or sister won’t care if you paid $10 or $150 for it if it’s been something they’ve always wanted. It’s the thought that counts.

The Bottom Line

There’s a fine line between cheap and frugal. If you find yourself crossing over to the cheap side, think of who your cheapness is affecting. You might be saving a few dollars by being cheap, but you risk hurting your relationships and your own savings in the long run if you continue to be stingy.

To a richer life,

Nilus Mattive

— Nilus Mattive
Editor, The Rich Life Roadmap

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