How Cheap is Too Cheap?

by Katy on June 17, 2014 · 38 comments

I am very, very cheap.

This is neither a confession nor should it be a surprise to anyone who’s read The Non-Consumer Advocate for more than a week or two. It’s simply a fact, a fact I’m proud of. I keep myself stocked with ponytail holders by picking them up off the ground, I bring home the abandoned leftovers from my mother’s guest cottages and I do all my own beauty care. I color my own hair, beg free haircuts from my sister and use the waxing kit from the drugstore for my, umm . . . Mario and Luigi needs.

But I would like to think that within my cheapness lies a certain generosity.

Yes, I nab the cheapest option for school volunteer opportunities, (“clean up” rather than “bring cupcakes”) but I am still doing my due diligence as a parent volunteer. We’re currently housing a former Japanese exchange student without accepting payment and we’ve sponsored a Zambian girl through Childfund over the past eight years. I’m not as generous as some, but I figure that I’m more generous than others.

But I will always try and figure out free or cheap solutions to life’s daily expenditures.

I just finished listening to the audiobook of Maeve Binchy’s Chestnut Street. (Wonderful, I highly recommend it!) This collection of short stories features a character who’s so frugal as to be considered “mean.” (British term for someone who is both cheap and ungenerous.) At first I was excited to have this character, but as the stories were set as morals, this guy was far from being a source of inspiration. He marries a woman because she’s financially solvent and then forces her to work after hours, and generally delights in his cheapness at the expense of all others in his life. (I wish I could include a quote or two, but since it was an audiobook, the words are next to impossible to capture.)

Needless to say, there was no generosity within his cheapness.

I asked Non-Consumer Advocate Facebook Group members this question:

Do you ever catch yourself being too cheap? What do you do that others consider to be crossing the line of acceptable frugality?”

Here are just a few from the many answers.

From Shannon:

“My cheapo confession is that we sometimes fish coke codes out of the trash or off the side of the road. Have gotten $100+ worth of gift cards and we don’t drink soda.”

From Lisa:

“Most things I do the “average” family thinks of as “too cheap.” No credit cards, no tv, no wifi (though that is changing very soon due to a college student) no computer at home (ditto), no go-away vacations, no fake nails, no spa/salon visits, no “essential” mani/pedi/waxing (ok, I wax my eyebrows–but at home!), almost no eating out etc for maybe birthdays, no hording coupons (I don’t buy much of that stuff), no new decorating every time I’m bored (I did do the bathroom this year because it was all over 10 years old and from a previous house, but got everything on clearance), I could go on and on and on. When a friend applied for a mortgage they asked how much for fake nails! I was gobsmacked. This country no longer has the ability to tell a want from a need!”

From Selina:

“I will tell you something that crossed the line, IMO. Before we had kids, we stayed with my aunt and uncle out of state for three nights. They told me I could not shower — at all — while we were there, and they didn’t flush the toilet until it “was full.” Ewww! The whole house smelled, really. My hubby went to the bathroom, then flushed, and it overflowed. To this day, that is one of his most horrifying memories. We never stayed there again! “

I personally can’t imagine a time when I would stop employing creative cheap/frugal solutions to everyday problems. (Even if I did win the lottery.) My cheapness allows my family to pay for things like a summer in Japan, (my son leaves on Thursday!) and frees up my time and money. If I worked full time, it would be difficult to host exchange students, and thrifting for life’s necessities would be too time consuming.

My daily cheap life gives me the wiggle room to live the life I want. If my cheapness means that I have the time and money for the important stuff, then there’s no such thing as too cheap.

Do you embrace a cheap lifestyle that allows for generosity? 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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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenny June 17, 2014 at 11:28 am

I’m a lot like you when it comes to volunteering. I’m often overly generous with my time and will step up and offer my skills any day of the week. So I may sew uniforms, repair tents for a scout group, or even lead the kids’ science club when no one else offers, but I’m less likely to donate cash to a supply fund or bake items out of my own pocket. After years of volunteering I’ve come to realize time is much more generous than money in many endeavors — all the cash in the world won’t help if no one volunteers to implement whatever the cash is supposed to be buying!


Katy June 17, 2014 at 11:53 am

So true!


Sarah June 17, 2014 at 12:08 pm

I agree with you about volunteering. I refuse to buy fundraiser suff from my daughters’ school. Instead, I’d rather write a check for $10 and the school can use 100% of that donation. We donate to our church and I don’t min giving some coins to a donation jar, but overall, that’s it! I saw the comment about the Coke caps. I collect them too (they’re scattered aroud by recycling machines – hint, hint). My husband loves his Bass Pro Shop gift card, which I picked up for free from the rewards program. I rarely drink soda!


Linda in Mass June 17, 2014 at 12:36 pm

I definitely can give my time vs money. I volunteer at the library, local Council on Aging and a soup kitchen. I can cook and am not afraid to cook for a large group of people, so these are a good fit for me. At the library, I am not afraid to give my time and ask businesses and people to donate money and their time. With a daughter in college and another a year away from college, I definitely need to use every frugal trick in the book but I can still give some of my time. Others cannot give time but can give some much needed money. Both time and money are needed at all these organizations.


Laura June 17, 2014 at 12:45 pm

I have a strange weakness for saving clothes pegs (pins) that I find lying on the street etc. And I find I cannot throw out even the tiniest morsel of soap – they all get “glued” to the new bar, no matter how odd it looks.


Betsey June 17, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Although I am frugal when it comes to spending on myself, I find myself being very generous toward causes I believe in. That includes my church, the Salvation Army, a local Gospel Mission home, and donating food and time to the food bank. I do not, however, buy stuff from fundraisers ie candy, tshirts etc. I would rather donate my time helping the organization than buy stuff I do not need.


erin @ dfmi designs June 17, 2014 at 2:21 pm

The older I’ve gotten, I feel like the cheaper I’ve gotten, but not at the expense of living. Most of my clothes and my daughter’s clothes are from yardsales. I like the thrifty-ness, plus I didn’t pay full price for a sweater to perhaps pill the first time. (My husband is quite tall, so his stuff is usually purchased, but not without a coupon.) When I go to the grocery, I try to use coupons and buy reduced items, like marked down meat. It saves so much! Basically, overall if something is needed or wanted, I try to find it at Goodwill or yardsales first before going out and buying retail. I like the challenge and the savings.


marie June 17, 2014 at 2:44 pm

Well, I spent 2 hours today looking at clearance racks for a new pair of tennis shoes, though tennis will never be played with them.
It’s been over 4 years, since I bought some, and all my others are crap, just fit for gardening.
I refuse to pay $60+ for shoes, I just can’t fathom that. Plus most were pink!!! I am not a pink girl
So I finally found some and I love them!! $29.99 and they are boys size, for some reason I always end up looking at boys shoes, glad I have small feet. So, if that makes me cheap, so be it. The way I look at it, I saved $40.00


Diane June 17, 2014 at 2:59 pm

You can be generous without spending money. I donate to Austin Pets Alive by knitting dog sweaters, saving newspaper for their crates, giving them any pet related freebies from I pick up any litter I see on my daily trails walks. I make items for several non profit organizations that go to children in need.

There are so many ways to give back that cost nothing.


Kathleen June 17, 2014 at 3:09 pm

This is a very interesting post. I’m been thinking a great deal lately about the difference between being non-consumeristic and being cheap/frugal. I worry when being frugal/cheap means not considering the relationships between ourselves and others. I have a CSA share and buy local meat, because I value having positive relationships with the peoples and animals involved in producing my food. I donate money to several organizations, because I believe in what they do. Valuing relationships over stuff seems non-consumeristic to me. I sometimes read blogs about being frugal that focus entirely on getting stuff for as little as possible. The writers of these blogs might be frugal and cheap, but they are stull focused on consuming, oftentimes at the expense of their relationships with others.

So that’s a bit ranting, and I apologize. This is my first time trying to articulate all this.


chicknlil June 21, 2014 at 6:54 am

Thank you Kathleen. I farm and it’s so nice to see that others share your thoughts. Well put. thanks again (:


Marcelle June 18, 2014 at 3:42 am

I thought of you this weekend as we cleaned out the fridge of the cottage rental we stayed at with my parents and in-laws. We could pack up and bring back most things, but left some yoghurt and milk (8-hour drive+border crossing was too long to keep these in the car) and I was hoping the owners would use these and not throw them out.


Denise June 18, 2014 at 4:22 am

We stayed in a rental a couple of weeks ago, and I too, left some condiments (ketchup and mustard) for whoever could make use of it. We used some of their stock while we were there, so for me, it was a pay back.


K D June 18, 2014 at 4:43 am

We are frugal in our everyday life but don’t hesitate to spend on friends and family. We will likely pay for the meal for a family reunion this summer (it is out of town and hosted by a non-frugal relative) but we will give ample funds to provide everything needed with plenty of leftovers for the host family. Just last night my husband bought a gift for someone that works for him, as a thank you for something he appreciates him doing. We often do similar things.

When our community has a yard sale at the end of the month we will put out items we don’t want for free. We know the items will go to people that want them and that makes us happy.


JD June 18, 2014 at 5:32 am

To me, crossing the line into outright stingy is when a person spends on himself but not on others, i.e., buys a luxury car and eats out a lot, then gives a pack of pencils to his grandkid for his birthday because “money’s tight”. When a person doesn’t spend on himself, but still is so cheap with others as to be the other mean — unkind — is a different kind of cheap to me. Making your guests go 3 days without a shower and not flushing a toilet is mean (re: Selina’s post — ugh!) Both are what I consider the unpleasant variety of cheap, but in different ways.
I am the Katy type of cheap. I use so many frugal tactics, but still give to church and charity and if I can actually do some work to help out, I will. I give decent gifts, too — although some will be homemade, they will still be very nicely made.


Allyson June 21, 2023 at 1:42 pm

I agree, frugal is good – stingy, not good. This is bad, I know, but one time I went out to lunch and my boss (co-owner of the business) was just finishing lunch with his brother and fellow co-owner at the same restaurant. They left before my lunch came. I sneaked a look at their tab which was still on their table: a $10 tip for a $100 lunch bill. That’s cheap/stingy! And they both drove Tesla’s at the time, back when Tesla’s were a big deal. SOO glad I don’t work for them anymore.


Cindi June 18, 2014 at 6:40 am

You’ve hit the nail on the head…that’s why I’m cheap!
My cheapness has allowed for me to adopt 2 orphan horse foals who would have otherwise been euthanized through no fault of their them at 7 days old and are raising them on rather expensive mare milk replacer, but would not trade them now for anything, this is going to be an amazing experience!
Also, frugality allowed my husband and I to go to Ireland in April for a week with friends, had a delightful time there and it cost less than what it costs to stay in NC Outer Banks for a week! Seriously!
Also have contributed to SmileTime monthly for close to a decade now…
Live frugally and have a rich life!


Linda Gertig June 18, 2014 at 7:16 am

Don’t tell yourself or anyone else that you can’t afford something or don’t have time. Be powerful and say, “That is not how I choose to spend my money” or That is not how I choose to spend my time.”


Cyndi June 20, 2014 at 7:22 am

It’s amazing what a difference this change in attitude can make as we move through the world.


Coral Clarke June 21, 2023 at 5:54 pm

100% agree with that! “ I’m buying “ freedom to quit” at the minute! Almost always got a “ WHAT?” response ! The answer, of course , was that 3 months wages in the bank ( or 6 mortgage payments, or whatever) keep me out of the “ I have no choice” trap.


Lisa June 18, 2014 at 8:27 am

I may have posted this here before, I can’t remember. The most egregious incidence of excessive cheapness I know was perpetrated by the father of a good friend of mine. She was accepted to Princeton for undergrad, and received scholarships and a good financial aid package. Her father decided that while the scholarships and aid put Princeton in the range that the family had budgeted for her education, attending the local state school and living at home was much cheaper and that’s what he was willing to pay for. The state school provided her a fine education, but…Princeton.

His stinginess may have saved him some money, but the message it sent my friend about her value to him cost him a lot in the long run.


Katy June 18, 2014 at 10:13 am

That is just awful!


Linda in Mass June 20, 2014 at 1:32 pm

That’s outrageous! My daughter got accepted to all her schools and then got the choice down to two. One was a state school and one was a very expensive private school. The difference between the 2 with all scholarships and aid was $2000 per year. I told her at that difference, she could just choose whichever was the better fit for her. She ended up at the private school and is loving it. She worked for it and I don’t mind being frugal to help her get there. I knew I could make more money and cut expenses to pay that $2000 more.

My youngest has one more year of high school, so we will see where she chooses.

I can’t believe her father did not pay for Princeton when they had the money!!!!!


cathy June 21, 2014 at 4:19 pm

On the surface of it, this seems like the father was too cheap, but there may have been extenuating factors. Just because “It’s Princeton!!” doesn’t mean that it was the best for your friend and for her family. I know my son, who’ll be in college in a couple years, doesn’t always understand all the nuances of our financial decisions. That said, if the father told his daughter that X dollars were available for her to go to college, and she figured out a way to cover all but that amount, then it is a shame. Sounds like tuition was accounted for, but not room/board/transportation.


Lisa June 23, 2014 at 11:11 am

There was $X budgeted for all college costs. With the aid and her scholarships, Princeton (all costs) was less than $X. State school and living at home was less than Princeton, so that was what he decided upon. Princeton was her dream school. She never really got over his stinginess, and their relationship has suffered. It was an egregious statement of his valuing saving money over his daughter’s happiness..


Heather June 18, 2014 at 8:43 am

My husband and I want to live frugally so that we can give. It is not hard for us as we are rather conservative and really content (such a blessing) we love giving! Especially giving to Compassion or others organizations like this to give other kids a chance, or helping with refugees, immigrants, or others who need encouragement. There is a time and money balance in giving to be sure. Life is much, much richer and more satisfying when we give to others generously. My parents had foster children and we loved them as best as we could, we gave and served – how very grateful I am for this example. My parent told me – we have been given much therefore we have the opportunity to bless others; we have the responsibility to make the world a better place as we can right where we are.


Rachel S. June 18, 2014 at 11:36 am

Two things come to mind. The first is a hand soap experience I had at my MIL’s house shortly after getting married. I went to wash my hands at the sink, using the soft soap pump that was provided for that purpose, and discovered that she had filled it with diluted body soap left over from her teenaged sons bottles in the shower. Not so bad, except that the viscosity was much lower than what the pump had been intended for, so it sprayed sideways and drenched the front of my shirt in old spice scented liquid soap. The second is the temperature at which I keep my house. I grew up freezing since my folks always kept the heat low. Oh, put on a sweater? Gosh why didn’t I think of that when I am here wearing long johns, sweater, and winter parka at the dining table? And my nose is still frozen? My MIL is the same way and keeps the temp very low in the winter. She hosts weekly Sunday brunch for her offspring and their families, which is generous and wonderful, but we all wear our winter coats to the table. In my house, a light sweater will always do for me and any guests. I think it is a kindness on my part to make everyone comfortable, even if I could save some money by keeping it cool.


lyle @ the Joy of Simple June 18, 2014 at 11:45 am

Hey Katy. If being frugal and cheap means you get to your life a little – or a lot – better, then so be it!

I tend to live way frugally as well, but have a few indulgences that I full price for, like breakfasts out and the occasional movie in a cinema!

This way, I feel great about how I live my life while not feeling at all deprived, like some folk seem to think I feel!

Take care Katy and thanks for sharing. All the best.



Barb June 19, 2014 at 7:51 am

One of the reasons I am frugal is so that I can help others, and give to those causes I care about-a certain amount of cash is essential for many organizations to function.

In my case because I am also a freebie and coupons hopper I am able to donate more cheaply-almost all the personal products and can goods I purchase for nearly free are donated. I also make alot of things and give them away (quilts, dog beds and the like) but I cannot say that those donations are ony my time


Gretchen June 19, 2014 at 8:06 am

Reading this made me think of a time when I turned down an invitation to a baby shower for someone who was just an acquaintance. The shower was at a restaurant and guests were expected to pay for their own meal. I thought that cost, on top of the cost for a gift, was more than I wanted to spend for someone that I didn’t know well at all. I might have been perceived as cheap – but I thought those planning the shower were greedy by inviting such a large crowd (to presumably get more gifts) and expecting guests to pay for their own food (to avoid spending their own money on refreshments.)
I think frugal becomes cheap when a cost (money or time) is passed on to another with no intent of returning the favor someday.


Coral Clarke June 21, 2023 at 5:59 pm

Frugal is looking for maximum value, cheap is taking advantage of other’s generosity, or failing to provide the necessities of life for your dependents.I do see joy as a necessity, but it doesn’t need to be Disney Land!


Jenny June 19, 2014 at 2:16 pm

I draw see the line between frugal and cheap as the line between saving money in a way that benefits everyone, versus doing so at a cost to someone else.

For example, using old t-shirts as rags saves me money on buying paper towels, and also saves the energy, oil, water, trees, etc, used to manufacture, package, and ship them, benefiting everyone. Using items that would otherwise be trash such as your hair elastics example or using food from guest cottages is the same thing, as are most cases of buying used instead of new. Everyone benefits from these, and nobody is harmed, so these are examples of frugality.

However, if you save money by taking many extra condiments from a restaurant or abusing a stores return policy, this costs everyone over time. The restaurants will have to raise their prices a little, or stop providing free condiments, and the stores will have to better police their returns, which will frustrate honest customers, and also likely cost the store more, which in turn will be reflected in their prices. Of course there are more obvious examples of this, such as ‘forgetting’ your wallet at dinner with friends, or heading into the bathroom when it is time to pay the bill. These are cheap because while they save you money, they either directly or indirectly cost someone else.

I also find it cheap where people cause discomfort to others to save a little money, such as the example of not allowing guests to shower or flush, or keeping houses cold enough to require jackets at the dinner table.


Lillian June 20, 2014 at 4:48 am

I agree with what you said on the extra condiments taken. Would hope if customers do take more than they will used at that time them please take them with you because, what the waitress/waiter say that even if the customer didn’t use them and just left them on the table by law they have to through them away. That’s just a waste and does affect prices. Another one is on napkins, and I do admit that sometimes I may grab more than I may need especially when you try to pull one out and like 10 come out lol. I will not through them away or just leave them laying there, but will take ones that were not used and but them in a ziploc bag and keep in car. They come in handy with grandchildren.


Annie June 29, 2014 at 12:36 pm

My husband and I always take the extras home if we end up with any. We rarely buy ketchup because so many places give you so many with takeout, and we don’t eat out that often.

I draw the line at some things though. My aunt who was a nurse for her county went to someone’s home where there was a strong odor in the place. She looked up and noticed small strips of paper drying on strings in the house. She later was told they rinsed and reused the toilet paper that they wiped their pee with.


Liz July 16, 2014 at 8:54 pm

In the fall of 2003, after living like students for years, my husband and I paid off all our student and other debt totaling over 100 k. The following year, we closed his office, sold everything we owned, and hit the road for almost 8 years volunteering and traveling full time , mostly in Alaska and Belize in national and state parks and a public library on an island and also spent many weeks in Mexico and Thailand and 5 months in India. My husband now works full time. I do not work but continue to volunteer at a nearby national park and spend a lot of time figuring out how to best spend and save the money we have.


Judit Maria Pavlovszky June 18, 2021 at 7:04 am

There is such a thing as false economy. If you work on your feet all day it is worth while to invest in good fitting, comfortable shoes. I’d rather pay more for something and know that it will last than buy cheap and keep replacing it. I don’t like battery watches for this reason, every year you need to buy a new battery. I like to consider myself more frugal than cheap.


Katy June 18, 2021 at 10:48 am

Very true, I was just watching a youtube video yesterday where somebody said that there’s a German saying of:

“I’m too poor to buy cheap things.”

Of course I wrote it down!


Coral Clarke June 21, 2023 at 6:11 pm

I’m sad that so many economies aren’t available to those really battling to get by. Good quality items ( not always available second hand) further education, medical attention before an ailment becomes an emergency, bulk buying etc. When I had very poor students living next door, I often bought a kilo of fruit /veg when I , as a solo, only wanted half, because I could , for very little, give them half, and the means to spend a little extra


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