Are you frugal, a little too frugal, or downright cheap?

It’s an important question. I’ve studied it over the years.

“I don’t know how you do it,” a friend said. “I wish I could.” Lots of people looked at my spending and wished they could be as cheap as me.

“You can!” I said, “I’m happy to help.”  Cheap people are always happy to help others be cheap. It’s a gospel and if you asked, I’d preach.

Want to learn to make enough laundry soap for six months for twenty dollars or less? Want to learn extreme couponing? Want to know the secret to getting an empty tube of toothpaste to regenerate for another hundred brushes? Want to find out how to thrift, save, skip shopping, or eat out of your closet for a full year? Just ask. I’d have

I’ve helped friends with budgets, finances, and “waste management” for years. Waste management–looking for pork barrel spending–is something the cheap and frugal especially good at spotting in others.

But there’s a big difference between “frugal,” “too frugal” and “downright cheap.”  It’s hard to tell if you’ve gone over to the dark side. Here were some indicators for me:

  • I was getting several newspapers to coupon, going to multiple stores, and stockpiling way too much.
  • I was using coupons to get things cheap and free–but I didn’t use those brands or eat processed foods.
  • I stocked (cheap or free) beyond expiration dates
  • I wore “a uniform” to work. To be fair, it was partially me being cheap and part protest. But I wore khakis and golf shirts for years. The khakis got pretty ratty.
  • I put off purchases for years in some cases.
  • I got a sick feeling of fear when I eventually did spend.
  • I triple-thought groceries, and obsessed how I could spend “just a little less” all the time.
  • I said no to many activities I wanted to do.
  • I kept things “just in case” even when I didn’t need them.
  • Most of my financial decisions had some degree of self-deprivation or fear attached to them.

Turn that into a quiz. If that sounds like you, you may possibly be cheap.

Are you too cheap?

If you skip buying things you don’t consider important, buy generic when you can’t tell the difference, and you recognize wasteful spending, you are frugal. That’s great!

If you don’t buy things you need, get generic when you really can tell the difference and hate the cheap one, wait excessively long to get things you need, (as in, “I’ll buy that Instant Pot on Black Friday” and it’s July.).. and keep things that cause you pain, discomfort, unhappiness, or negative feelings (think: stained, ripped, or overworn clothes, highly-used athletic gear, low-quality tools or equipment, bad ingredients, or unhealthy but cheap products, you are too cheap. 

Are you “teacher cheap” or “regular cheap?”

This is a special kind of cheap. “Teacher cheap” is when you can easily spend your paycheck to save the world but your own stuff is falling apart.

If you’re the kind of person who can donate, gift, fund your class, buy Christmas presents for your students, or “help” others who need it but have been wearing the same sweater for ten years hoping it may come back in style, you’re not necessarily cheap, you’re “teacher cheap.” You get a different intervention.

But if you’ve got sugar and jam packets from every place you’ve ever eaten out, you order water not because you like water but because it’s free… that’s another story. You’re regular cheap.

One more sign to look for…

Cheap people mean well but often judge others. Let’s peek in the minds of a cheap person watching friends and family spend:

“I can’t believe she bought those boots. Those cost a fortune!”

“My sister just threw out a perfectly good TV because she wanted a smart TV. How wasteful!” 

“Can you believe the money they blow on vacations?” 

“He never cooks at home. He always goes out to eat. That’s so wasteful.” 

“Another new car?”

“Cheap” is a limiting behavior. It stunts the mental possibilities. But judgement can be even worse. I’ve been there.

I once calculated my friend’s monthly restaurant bill. It was shocking to me, especially at a time I was spending next to nothing on my own grocery bill.  I tried to “teach,” “advise,” and “help.”

He didn’t want help. He didn’t want to cook. He liked going to good places to eat, the time saved was more valuable than the money spent, and he had the money to do so.

I have a friend who always takes Uber. That adds up. I walk. Every time, unless there’s a time constraint or a safety issue.

  1. He gets places quicker. If I’m in the city I take 20-30 minutes to get up or downtown.
  2. I own a car. He does not. The cost of my car is actually higher than his monthly Uber bill.

Judgement is never good–and always goes both ways.

What if he judged my car ownership and efficiency against biking to the grocery store or errands? Or compared efficiency since I was walking or taking the subway instead of getting where I needed to go?

“Cheap” and “broke” are not necessarily related.

Cheap is a condition of the heart and soul. It often starts as well-meaning, budget-saving, crisis-era frugal, or even the desire to waste less, recycle, simplify, or get ahead. But, left unchecked, cheap can very easily infect you.

I know plenty of wealthy people who are cheap, and plenty of broke and building people who are amazingly generous.

In the beginning, this blog was all about “cheap,” “spend less” and “save.” I grew. (You can see that journey in “A Broke Teacher’s Guide to Success” )  I still love the art of frugal. Nothing’s more fun than a pantry raid, and I really can make a bar of soap, my personal bottles of shampoo and conditioner, and my tube of toothpaste (I like to have my very own things, untouched by kids, spouses, and dogs!) last the best part of a calendar year. Seriously–I’m not doing shots of conditioner…

How to banish your internal Ebenezer

There’s only one way. Learn to spend. Appropriately, though.

You can’t just go balls-to-the-wall Amazoning. To start, buy one thing you need.

For me, it was towels and underwear. Both are things cheap people don’t replace. “Not good enough,” said my friend after my first cheap intervention.

Over time, more of my non-cheap friends intervened. One friend gave me some designer clothes and accessories–they really were better. Another showed suggested a tailor–he gets a lot of stuff designer thrift. Still another goaded me into buying a pair of high-end leather boots on a site that had last year’s models. The idea of footwear that costs a car payment full price (I didn’t pay full price. I paid half… but still…) that would’ve made me physically ill.

And if you wore them, I’d judge.

Identify the real reason for your inner “cheap.”

For me, this level of cheap was based on fear. I’d been through tough spells, and one was coming around the corner. Must… cut…spending. I babysat every penny coming in and out the door.  Even after the crisis was over.

I couldn’t really cure my inner cheap by spending. I had to trust myself, learn to build the bottom line, and get rid of fear.

Then, I could “practice” spending by becoming aware of things I really loved and spending on those. Travel? A good kitchen knife? Pet stuff? A new canning pot? Upper-end tech?  Nicer clothes instead of the cheapest?

Today, I’m proud to say, I’m okay spending on things I value.  That, to me, is exactly what Broke Teacher is all about.   It wasn’t about that in the beginning. It was cheap, like I was. Today, I’m proud to say I’ve evolved.

Don’t get me wrong–I’ll look for a sale or good purchase.  Before, if I did at all, I would have calculated, parsed, thought about the opportunity cost, and felt guilty.

Now, guilt is gone.

If you find you’re too cheap, take a realistic look at your spending. Stop spending on your job, on things that don’t matter (subscriptions you don’t use, lower-end things you’ll toss, hunger-based takeout rather than food you’ll love). Save for and buy one thing you’ll treasure. Refuse to let yourself feel bad in the least!

Once you’ve done that, start to look for opportunities to declutter your calendar, and consider ways you could build your bottom line, too.

Over time, you’ll develop a balanced spending flow, getting rid of the things that don’t serve you so you can be okay with spending on things and experiences you’ll love.

I noticed this–as I got rid of my inner cheap, I wasn’t walking around with shopping bags. I was buying, doing, and giving key things that made me smile.


Image by Prawny via Pixabay