Frugal? Or Just Plain Cheap?

by Debra Karplus

DIY Landscaping for Less photo

For some, it is a very fine line between being frugal and being cheap. Consider the following dilemmas when manners and ethics collide with frugality.

I once read the following quote on “It can be hard to do the right thing when no one is watching and doing the wrong thing will get you short term gain.”

You have probably already figured out that being frugal can be one of the best ways to better yourself financially, but with the apparent decline in good manners in American culture, sometimes being frugal can conflict with being considerate and thoughtful of others. Sometimes it might feel like you are living your life as if a camera is watching you!

In an age where every phone is a camera it seems that there are no secrets in this world! Yes, one can, in fact, remain frugal and still look out for the other guy or gal and go to sleep each night with a clear conscience.

There are many dilemmas that people encounter in their everyday lives. Here are just a few conflicts and some solutions that will make everyone happy. You probably could add a few of your own.

Frugal vs. Cheap: Store Samplings

That trail mix at the natural food store or supermarket that’s sold in bulk from a bin looks delicious. But you’ve never tried it before and don’t even recognize the name of some of the ingredients. Nobody is likely to notice if you take a taste  before buying it. But, there are many reasons not to do this.

Win-win solution:

Ask a store employee if it is okay to have a small sample before buying it. Ice cream stores frequently offer small samples and other places do, too. This assures high customer satisfaction, as you, the customer, is more likely to end up with a product that you are certain to enjoy.

The store probably has some safe and sanitary way to provide you with a sample or two, such as a small spoon or cup, a napkin, a small plastic bag, or a toothpick.

So don’t be shy about asking for a sample before you buy; there is a high probability that you will be given one, and with a smile.

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Frugal vs. Cheap: Bad Buys

You have purchased a new item at a store such as clothing or a folding table to use at your next party. You used it only once with the idea that you would keep it forever. But you quickly discover after just one use that it really was a bad fit, damaged in some way, or just not what you thought you were buying for one reason or another.

Win-win solution:

Retailers want their customers to be happy with the product or service that they bought. If you are disappointed in something you bought and have not done anything unreasonable to it, bring it back to the store with all the packaging and tags and your receipt.

By the way, you should never be in too big of a hurry to discard that packaging in case there is some legitimate reason to return the item.

Frugal vs. Cheap: First Time Discounts

A salon, such as for a haircut, manicure or pedicure, or a massage offers a generous discount if you are a first-time customer. You really liked the service when you went there as a first-time customer, not to mention that great price. You’d like to return there, but you wish you could still get the discount. What to do? There is a place across town that offers those great prices, but you’ve heard that they don’t have such a great reputation.

Win-win solution:

Call the place you like and tell them about the great deal at the other place. Often retailers will match the price of a competitor. It happens more often that you might think and is worth at least asking. If that doesn’t work ask if they could offer you a discount if you come at a time when they’re typically very slow.

Frugal vs. Cheap: Dinner Out

You have been able to save money for a dinner out with your spouse. You’ve looked forward to it for the longest time. But when you get to the restaurant you realize that you don’t have enough for the meal, drink, dessert and a tip. It’s tempting to order the meal, drink and dessert and skip the tip. But would that be fair to your waitress or waiter?

Win-win solution:

One solution would be to skip the drink or dessert. You’ll still enjoy the dining experience and not feel bad about stiffing someone who helped make the meal enjoyable for you. 

Reviewed July 2023

About the Author

Debra is an occupational therapist, accountant, teacher and freelance writer. She is a writer for Advance for Occupational Therapy Practitioners. She also writes for Grand Magazine, has some items (fiction and non fiction) selling on Amazon (Kindle), has written several travel articles for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette and several articles for and volunteers as a money mentor for the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension money mentoring program. Learn more about her at

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