Where is the line between frugal and cheap?

A restaurant check showed a $7 upcharge for substituting fruit for meat. The server had said that we could substitute anything, not mentioning a charge. 

Although irritated, I wondered whether begrudging a few dollars when restaurants are hurting crosses the line from frugal into cheap. (I’m sidestepping the issue of feeling deceived.)

But if it is cheap to care about a few dollars, why are there coupons?

Frugality is a virtue and cheapness a fault, but where frugal ends and cheap begins is fuzzy. 

Online articles describe cheap as looking for the lowest price rather than the best quality and spending too much time hunting a deal. Was it frugal (quality conscious) or cheap (wasteful of time) for me to spend hours searching for the best price on a highly rated cellphone?

Most people look for sales, but fewer take thriftiness as far as I do: Supercuts haircuts, secondhand clothes, modest ethnic restaurants, museum free days, theater ushering.

Finding a deal gives me a kick, although I understand thinking that time could be better spent. Actually, I don’t buy much, shopping only when necessary. Limiting consumption is consistent with my politics — it makes for a small carbon footprint. I can relate to the person who wrote advice columnist Amy Dickinson: “I have always been against senseless consumerism. I am a minimalist in almost all aspects of my life.”

To me cheap implies ungenerous — such as seldom spending money on others, shortchanging on a tip, and giving little to charity. I hope I’m not cheap like that. 

Not acknowledging a difference between antimaterialistic and cheap, people sometimes encourage me to spend more on myself. I have been trying to drop more money on experiences that seem worth it, although with my thrifty habits ingrained, I don’t expect to change much at my age.

Perhaps a way to decide whether I take thriftiness too far is to ask whether it affects anything or anyone other than me. For instance, friendships could be strained by one person’s reluctance to spend money. Cultural institutions would struggle if everyone took advantage of free days. 

The restaurant mentioned at the start recently opened and is probably still finding its feet. I’m glad I paid the bill without making a fuss.


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  • To me, frugal and cheap seem like viewpoints: It's frugal to get the longest possible use out of clothes; it's cheap to buy the lowest-priced item which will wear our rather than the expensive one which will last. It's frugal to use as little electricity as possible; it's cheap to sit in the dark at sunset with your only light coming from the PC screen. (Oops, bye!)

  • Good examples that make the distinction clearer, Margaret.

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