It’s Okay to be Cheap!

by Katy on October 6, 2014 · 49 comments

Happy Birthday!

The word “cheap” gets a bad rap. It’s grouped in with “miserly” and is rarely used as a compliment.

“Wow, that awesome lady sure is cheap!”

Nope.

I used to try and distance myself from the word, saying that I preferred “frugal,” but the plain and honest truth is that I am cheap.

Cheap, cheap, cheap!

I don’t like to spend unnecessarily, and I prioritize having enough money to pay my bills. I don’t want to work more than part time, and if you ever see me in a retail store, you’ll know that I’m being held prisoner.

Cheap.

But I make zero apologies for my cheapness. Because without my focus on the nickels and dimes in life, my family would be in serious financial trouble. I do not owe the world an outward appearance of wealth, and I’m comfortable making cheap decisions, even when that cheap version is slightly less desirable.

Need an example?

Tomorrow is my older son’s nineteenth birthday. Because the actual day falls on a Tuesday this year, we spent yesterday, (a Sunday) celebrating him. We have a family tradition where I plan a “Birthday Day of Adventures,” and the four of us spend the entire day going from activity to activity that caters to the birthday person’s specific tastes. It’s all a surprise ahead of time, and it’s an extremely fun way of making the birthday person feel special. (It’s part of how I’m transitioning my kids from gifts of things to gifts of experiences.)

But since I’m the one doing the planning, it veers towards the cheap. I take full advantage of available discounts, and I hoard any credits I’ve accrued throughout the year.

I decided one of our activities would be to see a movie. My first thought was Guardians of The Galaxy, as I knew he’d enjoy it. However, it’s still only in first run theaters which would set us back $36 for tickets, plus the cost of parking. (It would have been a downtown theater.) Instead I found a showing of the movie Chef at a great old refurbished theater which cost only $2 per person, (plus the parking was free!)

I chose to be cheap.

Would my son have liked to see Guardians of The Galaxy? Sure. But it’s mindless Hollywood entertainment that’s great fun while it’s happening yet completely leaves your mind by the time you’re home. Plus it’ll be in second run theaters and on DVD within a month or so. I figured he would like Chef, even though he’d never heard of it.

Guess what? My son really enjoyed Chef. He liked that it wasn’t yet another formulaic Hollywood blockbuster with nothing to offer beyond mindless entertainment. He values having stuff to ponder, and he’s old enough to understand that the $40 we saved by seeing a second run movie completely covered the cost of the Indian buffet lunch we’d just consumed.

It was a cheap decision, but it was the right decision.

When we spend beyond what we can afford, it’s the same as admitting that there’s shame and embarrassment of living within a budget. No one should make you feel bad about staying out of debt. Period. Living beyond your means in the here and now robs your future self.

Do you feel bad about being cheap when it’s all that you can afford? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Thel Burton October 6, 2014 at 4:58 pm

In the category of “cheap” vs frugal… I want to share that hubby and I were recently on a vacation where we did seek out ways to cut some costs on a vacation. We visited free or reduced price parks and events wherever we could. On our return trip the question was posed (after having already driven 8 hours) about driving the 5 hours to get on home late Saturday night, or finding a room to rest up and drive on a more leisurely pace the next day. The extra night out set us back over $100.00 beyond what we had planned to spend on our long road trip, but the rainy road conditions might have made it unsafe to do otherwise. I really enjoyed that extra night of rest and was much better equipped to handle the unpacking and resettling. I think it was money well-spent.

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Katy October 6, 2014 at 5:02 pm

And you were likely able to make that decision based on earlier “cheap” decisions. Smart to choose safety!

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Diane October 6, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Kudos to your son for liking Chef…featuring 2 of my home cities…New Orleans and Austin. It was a terrific film in every way.

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Katy October 6, 2014 at 5:07 pm

I love seeing a film where I don’t already know the plot line. To sit and let the story unfold naturally is a rare treat.

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Lindsey October 7, 2014 at 10:54 am

Have you seen The Lunchbox? It is out on DVD, made in India so you’ll probably need the subtitles, but it is worth your time. Slow moving, sweet…

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Rebecca | LettersFromSunnybrook.com October 6, 2014 at 5:01 pm

I am the exact same way and do not feel bad about it. When I feel bad is when I spend on something I didn’t need or at a price higher than I would like to have spent.

My husband, however, seems a little upset sometimes that I like to get stuff at thrift stores. He’ll make comments like “We aren’t poor. You don’t have to buy used clothes.” I try to explain that I like the challenge of finding special items, items that from other years when there were particular styles I liked and can’t find again, etc.

And then there are times like a couple of weeks ago, when I needed to get a computer monitor. I checked the goodwill first, as usual and there was a perfect Dell flat screen monitor that had just been placed on the floor, for $4.9. It works great and was a much better solution than getting a new one. I feel that it is at least worth checking there first.

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Katy October 6, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Great deal!

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WilliamB October 7, 2014 at 4:39 am

My mother had the same response when I bought a wooden side table at Goodwill. I think it’s a reflection of her youth, when money was tight. As a child my family was at least comfortable, so I don’t consider buying used to be a stigma.

In the case of the table, Goodwill was the first place I went and – as luck would have it – I found the perfect table for $10. Had I done what my mother wanted, I would have had to go to 3-4 stores and would have spent 5-10 times more.

There are plenty of things I won’t buy used (upholstered furniture for the dirty factor, clothes because buying used is even more work than buying new) but in this case it worked out perfectly.

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Roberta October 7, 2014 at 5:47 am

Great job on the monitor.

In the UK, they call thrift shops “charity shops,” as the shop supports a charity (as so many do here). Maybe if you talked to your husband about supporting a charity by shopping there (instead of the multimillionaire owners of whatever) your husband would feel better about shopping secondhand.

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Constance October 6, 2014 at 5:16 pm

you’re awesome and cheap! I’m always calling myself “cheap”, glad to hear I’m not the only one

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Laura October 6, 2014 at 5:29 pm

“Cheap” to me has always meant that the effort to save money negatively impacts or involves others in some way. Frugality either doesn’t impact others, or the impact is a positive or neutral one. I don’t think anything you did qualifies as “cheap” in the least. Very frugal though.

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Katy October 6, 2014 at 5:57 pm

I’m here to flip the “cheap ” word upside down! People so often get pressured into spending too much an an effort to not appear “cheap.” And often that pressure comes from within.

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Megyn October 6, 2014 at 6:20 pm

I definitely feel a pressure to not be cheap when it comes to family gifts. My family is VERY generous, but we are the only ones with kids and have to be on a tight budget. My siblings love to make comments, but I at least rest knowing that I’m not in debt like they are (mostly student loans).

People can also be judgmental about things I get for free, like mattresses that they assume must be pee stained or have bed bugs. Yet we have gotten both a full and queen bed set in amazing condition for free…and those naysayers are the ones reaping that benefit when they come to visit us. I feel grateful for finding your blog and completely changing the way I shop/acquire goods…it’s allowing us to actually find ways to live in a larger home and stay out of debt 🙂

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Elizabeth Vega October 6, 2014 at 6:35 pm

Three and a half years ago, when the man who is now my husband rolled up for our first date in the 1987 Tercel he had paid $400 for and nicknamed “The White Shadow,” I thought “Now here’s a man without a car payment!” Sexy! We spent the summer cooking each other meals at home, hanging out at the pool in his apartment building, and seeing $3 movies in the second-run theater. Ten months later, we paid cash for our wedding, and now we are debt-free, have a fully-funded emergency fund, and are halfway toward having a down payment for a house. And the whole time, some broke friends and relatives have chided us for our choices. But we’re very happy with the life we’re building together.

So, no, I don’t feel bad about living as far beneath our means as we can, and I certainly didn’t feel bad about it when we really couldn’t have afforded more. Every time I see a person making a conscious choice to spend less, I cheer them on: the “cheap” life inspires creativity, and can be a heck of a lot of fun!

By the way, we visit family in Portland often, and we’d all much rather see a movie at McMenamin’s than one at a first-run theater… and we loved “Chef,” too!

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Katy October 6, 2014 at 6:48 pm

I’m kind of in love with your husband. 😉

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local Joe October 6, 2014 at 7:04 pm

where can i buy a Tercel for $400?

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Elizabeth Vega October 7, 2014 at 2:57 pm

Joe, it wasn’t even street legal! As soon as he was able to, he replaced it with the $4K 1991 CR-X he’s still driving.

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AnnW October 6, 2014 at 6:55 pm

I think it is worse being shamed into spending money you don’t have. What some families do to each other at Christmas seems criminal. No one needs all the extra cr*p. Spending is a choice, and some people can’t make good choices. I have been poor and I have been rich, and maybe rich is better, but I could be poor again. I don’t really care. Also, being cheap allows you to have money to help people when it really matters. The worst is being stingy and mean. I have enjoyed this blog’s dialog a lot over the last few years. Well done, Katy.

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Loobie October 6, 2014 at 6:56 pm

I’m afraid I still fear people considering me cheap and only last night found myself shouting friends a round of drinks in a bar because I happened to be the one getting up to get another drink and I feared my friends would think I was being cheap if I didn’t. $29 later and I’m still kicking myself! I need to build that bridge and get over it! You are right Katy. Cheap shouldn’t be a dirty word.

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Cattis October 6, 2014 at 8:48 pm

This is interesting because I started with christmasgifts yesterday and bought a childrens book on 20 %discount for my cousins baby. BUT then the dilemma on how much to give in cash gifts for those teenagers that only wish for money. My husband and i disagree on the amount. He thinks higher and i think a lower amount is better because otherwise we’ll set a trend and they’ll expect a higher amount. Plus thats money up on ALL gifts throughout the year since we try to be fair and have a set amount for gifts per person…

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CarrieP October 6, 2014 at 9:35 pm

I have embraced the word “cheap” for years. I refer to myself this way a lot. I think selecting a word used with a negative connotation and using it to refer to yourself creates a fun sense of confusion and takes the sting out of it.

I do worry about appearing stingy with gifts and generosity with others. So, I do spend a good amount on “crap” presents for kids birthday parties and relatives. I need to get some new mojo on this issue.

Love your blog, Katy. And, if you feel so inclined, I’d love to see a blog post about the house you grew up in. Sounds fascinating and fun and creative.

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Nancy B October 10, 2014 at 6:58 am

We’ve continued a tradition my late mother-in-law used for cash birthday gifts: $1 for each year. I realize that a ten year old doesn’t think much of $10, but it’s better than sending just an empty card, and it sets expectations. I also send my grandchildren and great nieces and great nephew a $5 bill with Valentines and other holiday cards throughout the year. Cheap? Yes, probably so in other people’s eyes, but I am retired and don’t earn a paycheck. We paid cash for our cars, and built our retirement home on 28 acres with cash. At least we won’t be showing up on my children’s doorstep saying that we are broke and expect them to take care of us in our old age. They will still be paying off school loans when they retire and have nothing to show for a lifetime of work.

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Allison October 6, 2014 at 9:47 pm

Years ago when my husband proposed, he expected that I might want a different style ring than the one he chose (he was right). He also offered to get me a bigger ring. At the time many friends were getting engaged, and some of my peers were expecting serious bling. We were in our thirties and had lived together in apartments for years. I said, “Heck no, I’d rather have a house.” Six months after our city hall wedding, we had enough for a down payment on a house. Fifteen years and two kids later, I sit in my very comfortable house contemplating my still-modest ring. And dang, I’m still glad about that decision.

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Katy October 7, 2014 at 7:21 am

My husband offered to get me a new wedding ring years ago. But I only wanted the one he actually put on my finger at our wedding. Sure it was only $40 for the plain gold band, but I liked it.

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Elizabeth Vega October 7, 2014 at 3:17 pm

I love “modest ring” stories! I knew a woman who, when her man asked if she’d rather have a big diamond or a house, answered “Both!” and she ended up with neither. I figure, if the size of the diamond had anything to do with the quality or length of the marriage, then no one in Hollywood would ever divorce, right?

My custom-made wedding band has, set in flush with its surface, 14 tiny diamonds that were in a couple of cocktail-type rings my mother-in-law gave my husband when we started dating. I didn’t want a separate engagement ring, but I’m happy that my wedding band is very sparkly! I’m happier still that he/we didn’t acquire debt to get the ring.

We traded in the gold from the rings, as well as a few gold pieces that had belonged to my mother, cutting the $1200 cost in half. Every time I went for a ring fitting, my husband-to-be (he of the $400 Tercel) brought another small pile of cash that he’d saved up, so by the time the ring was ready, it was also paid for.

It was a little humbling to bring in the cash little by little like that, but I think it also gave the jeweler a real sense of who we were, and of how much this meant to us. My ring is a blessing from both of our mothers, and every time I look at it, I’m reminded of them, and also of how hard my husband worked to buy it for me, at a time (only three years ago!) when $600 was a huge sacrifice for him. I wouldn’t trade it for the world!

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Bellen October 7, 2014 at 1:59 am

I’ve labeled myself and husband frugal forever. Now, it’s really paying off. I’ve had 2 surgeries within the last 3 months – I mean really who expects that – but we know we can pay off the $4000+ not covered by Medicare within 2 years by spending $150 less per month. How? By being more careful with water, electric, food and declaring no gifts to anyone for the next year. Last month we reduced the electric bill by $30, the water by $20, eliminated a $25 gift. This month will be the same plus $25 on food and much less travel/gas for truck going to Dr. appts. should be an additional $25. Do I care that family uses cheap to describe us? NO. Would they rather we have to sell our home, depend on them for money or leave them with piles of bills to pay, I doubt it. As far as we’re concerned Cheap Rules! And, I really don’t think my sisters, his brothers or 2 of our 3 sons could do it as they are anything but frugal.

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marieann October 7, 2014 at 4:13 am

Cheap and proud of it, though with our Scottish background it’s been easy, so we make a joke of it.(I know people might be upset at the stereotypes but we aren’t)
Imagine Scrooge with his steepled fingers saying to Bob Cratchit (about Christmas) “now I suppose you’ll be wanting the whole day off”.
This is my husband.
I don’t have to explain my shopping habits to anyone.
However being cheap has allowed us both to retire early me at 55 him at 52.
We live very well on our pensions.
Keep up being cheap everyone…that is the path to the good life
Marieann

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Laura October 8, 2014 at 10:53 am

Had to laugh at this Marieann, I was born in Scotland and when I am being especially frugal I say “I am bringing out my inner Scotswoman”. The kids know what THAT means…

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Anne October 7, 2014 at 6:35 am

Katy, this may be one of the best columns you have written.

For years I cringed under brother-in-laws snide remarks about husband and I being “too poor” to match their purchases: $45,000 for a pick up truck that he mostly didn’t drive because of the gas cost. We always had far more savings and investments than him but I was too polite to speak up.

For other reasons we finally stopped seeing him, but I wish I had spoken up all those years instead of taking the guff.

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cathy October 7, 2014 at 7:14 am

Great post! I like that you’ve embraced a pejorative term, though for some the word “frugal” is still considered a bad thing. Too often, I think people equate being cheap or frugal with being poor and, in some cases, that’s true. It seems for many of us who read this blog, though, being cheap/frugal and “doing without” allows us to live more of the life we want. I also really like your birthday day of activities. I’d like to incorporate more of that into my kids’ lives.

Unrelated to the post, but what’s up with the flashing pop up ads? I’ve got a vertical one for the Company Store, just to the right of the photo of you and your son. If it’s a new BlogHer thing, you can let them know it’s really distracting for readers. I like Company Store products, but the flashing ad is just annoying and doesn’t make me want to buy anything!

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Vickie October 7, 2014 at 7:19 am

Good job on the movie and birthday experiences. I want to see that movie now!!

I learned “cheap” from my Mom – however, she and my grandmother called it thrifty. I don’t care what others think, my parents both came from poor families, so being thrifty was a way of life.
I grew up going to garage/yard sales – in my grandmother’s time they called them “rummage” sales. To me it was like a treasure hunt. My grandmother was a quilter and a seamstress and made many of my dresses when I was little. I loved them! Most of the quilts she made our family had scraps from those clothes in them and I still have some of her quilts.
I can remember my Mom going to the grocers on payday and coming back thrilled when she’d get 10 full bags of groceries for $50. She was a deluxe couponer and watched the sales every week.
I feel so blessed to have grown up like this – it’s always helped me see the value in the things I own and made me realize it’s much better to be debt free than a debt SLAVE!

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Carla October 7, 2014 at 8:38 am

Serendipity in the media: The Atlantic published today an article on a study on why experiences are better than material goods. In it, the authors note (which I think will sound like “duh” to many readers here, but still the fact it’s on mainstream media is a good thing)

“Essentially, when you can’t live in a moment, they say, it’s best to live in anticipation of an experience. Experiential purchases like trips, concerts, movies, et cetera, tend to trump material purchases because the utility of buying anything really starts accruing before you buy it.”

“Waiting for an experience apparently elicits more happiness and excitement than waiting for a material good (and more “pleasantness” too—an eerie metric). By contrast, waiting for a possession is more likely fraught with impatience than anticipation.”

“Those waiting for experiences were in better moods than those waiting for material goods. “You read these stories about people rioting, pepper-spraying, treating each other badly when they have to wait,” he said. It turns out, those sorts of stories are much more likely to occur when people are waiting to acquire a possession than an experience. When people are waiting to get concert tickets or in line at a new food truck, their moods tend to be much more positive.”

Here is the link: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/10/buy-experiences/381132/?single_page=true

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Katy October 7, 2014 at 8:51 am

Interesting. Also, people waiting in line for a “thing” are in competition with each other, as the “thing” is a finite item. However, experiences are by definition shared, which in infinite.

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emmer October 7, 2014 at 9:43 am

*strangely, we have more in retirement than in our working years. but it was the penny-pinching ways that allowed the early retirement to happen–when the opportunity presented, we could take advantage of it because we were without debt.
*some of us cheapers find that ascribing “green” reasons to our behavior is more understandable to the world at large, and something worthy of emulating.
*my original forays into saving pennies were so that i could afford to stay home when my kids were little. having a mother who turned 12 the year of the great depression stock market crash had already given me a lot of resource saving tricks. by the 70’s, the green angle fueled my behavior and the “back to the land” movement taught me a lot more skills. later, i used scrap from my dressmaking business to make clothing for my kids and goods for craft fairs.
*now i must take care not to become a hoarder–after all, we might need that abandoned widget sometime–can’t let it go to waste! 🙂

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Betsey October 7, 2014 at 10:57 am

I have searched the city for an area rug to no avail. I went into a big box store this morning and found one! Of course it was near the bottom of the pile, so I helped the store clerk take off the top rugs and then put them back when we had fished out the one I wanted.
Guess what. He marked the rug down 25% for my help. My cheap soul rejoiced!!! Plus he offered me a job. If I weren’t 65, I probably would have taken it.

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Katy October 7, 2014 at 11:01 am

You can’t go wrong with being a nice person!

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Lara October 7, 2014 at 3:44 pm

My policy has always been to be cheap with things not people. Example – buy your lawn mower used but if you are paying a neighbor kid to mow your lawn be generous. The same with babysitters, pet sitters and waitresses. How often can you make someone’s day with $2 to $5? But when my kids pet sit and get an unexpected $5 they are thrilled. So, I guess I am cheap with purchases so that I can be generous with people.

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Katy October 7, 2014 at 5:09 pm

I LOVE this! I am going to have to work this into a blog post as it’s exactly how I try and live my life!!!!!!

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Carolyn October 8, 2014 at 6:06 am

Cheap has a different meaning than frugal for me. Cheap is often used as an insult when someone wants you to spend money when you don’t think it is necessary. Buying a product that should last a long time like a power tool, washing machine, or a good pair of hair shears can be an investment that saves money. Buyer a lower quality product that is less expensive, aka “cheaply made” will not last as long and may not perform the job as well. My boyfriend tells me the proper tools save money. If he can do the job himself, the tool allows him to save time and labor costs. He has a set of craftsman wrenches since he was a teenager working on his motorcycle that still work just fine. I bought a good set of Wahl clippers that I have given haircuts with that have paid for them several times over already. My boyfriend has a really good set of hair shears that he uses to cut my hair that he bought over 20 years ago and they still hold a sharp edge and they cut my hair very nicely. I have saved hundreds of dollars skipping the salon and getting a better haircut at home.

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Katy October 8, 2014 at 10:36 am

Very true about investing in quality goods. I bought my son a pair of $45 left handed sewing scissors yesterday that he will hopefully have for life. I have the same pair (right handed) which I’ve used for 15 years and will likely use forever.

Katy

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Carolyn October 9, 2014 at 4:51 am

Good for your son. 🙂
One additional thing that will help him is learning how to keep them sharp. My boyfriend has a Lasky sharpening kit. He does knives and scissors with it. He also has a leather strop embedded with the sharpening grit, that he uses to touch up the edges afterwards to keep them sharp. It would cost $20 to get his shears professionally sharpened. It takes him about ten minutes to do a complete job.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-xrP9NTTMI He sharpened my mom’s knives last Spring and she could not get over how much better they cut through meat and vegetables. Buying quality tools PLUS knowing how to maintain them yourself to keep them in good working order saves even more.

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CarrieP October 9, 2014 at 7:54 am

Could you tell me what kind of scissors they are? I am left-handed and would love to have long lasting, quality sewing scissors.

Thanks

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Carolyn October 9, 2014 at 1:06 pm

I have a pair of ZWILLING J.A. HENCKELS sewing scissors, German made that I have had for better than 25 years. They hold a nice edge.
I bought them in a knife and cutlery store. Not sure what brand Katy’s are. I have not seen a pair like mine in any store lately though.

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Bethany October 8, 2014 at 9:44 am

I love cheap. I buy furniture and clothes from consignment stores! I buy the generic brand of food and cook at home a lot. I buy toiletries in bulk and use them for years. I’m a DIY-er and even make my own laundry soap and cleaning supplies. I was raised that way and I will always be that way (I’m only 21 by the way). It’s weird because I married a man whose parents are very wealthy (own multiple homes, brand new cars, spoil us majorly at Christmas). This topic of shaming someone for living within their means has been a major part of my marriage. The side of the family who gives my son (age 2) the most stuff is also the family who spends less time with him. Funny how that works out because presents =/= presence.
With that being said, I am a gift giver – its part of my love language to pick out something that I know the recipient will truly love. Example: For Christmas this year, I ordered my mom’s favorite lip balm online from Walgreens because they discontinued it in her local store. It’s 2 tubes of lip balm – no big deal! But to her it will translate as a super thoughtful gesture. I spend a lot of quality time with her, so I know this little detail. Without that, I might just be stuck buying something she won’t use and therefore wasting my money. I’ve personally received a gift before that was not suited to me and I thought, “I know you spent about $30 on this, but I would have much rather received $5 that I could put towards something I need or want.”
In conclusion, that’s how I justify being a natural gift-giver while also being very cheap. I make sure my money is well spent.

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Betty Winslow January 12, 2015 at 9:51 am

Cheap, frugal, whatever you call it, being that over the years enabled us to put four kids through private school on a factory worker income with a little extra from various part-time pemp jobs, eat well on a budget, to have me at home when the kids were, and have peace of mind. Some of my proudest moments: my daughter wanted shoes to match the (on sale) navy and gold dress/jacket she bought for homecoming, and when she couldn’t find what she had in mind for what she could spend, bought cheap navy flats and painted a design from the dress on the toes in gold paint. Cute AND cheap. That same daughter called home from college once to tell me all about the Thanksgiving baskets their floor was putting together, ending with “We raised the least amount of money, but have the most food to put in them, because you taught me to shop frugally and use coupons!” That’s my girl…. and the other three have learned the same thing. 😀

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