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Frugal Vs. Cheap: What Is The True Difference Between These Two Traits?

A Rehearsal Dinner In The 1980’s

Wearing an ill-fitting turban, I tapped my temple three times with a hermetically sealed envelope.

It was the mid-1980s, and the event was the rehearsal dinner for my brother Matt’s wedding.

For reasons lost in the mists of time, my brother Tom and I had decided to provide some entertainment to help welcome our new in-laws into the family.

I was channeling Johnny Carson’s “Carnac the Magnificent,” a “Mystic from the East” who could psychically “divine” unknown answers to unseen questions.

Tom was my Ed McMahon, dutifully chortling and handing me the envelopes.

I tapped my temple again.

A Laugh About The Waite Men

“Dirty laundry … a ringing telephone … and the check,” I intoned.

Tom — er, Ed — solemnly repeated the litany. He assured the crowd of about 40 that Price Waterhouse had certified that the question posed, contained in the envelope, had remained secret to this very moment.

I ripped the end off the envelope, blew into it, and, with a flourish, retrieved the message within.

“Name three things … that no Waite male will ever pick up!”


For some reason, our mother seemed to find this more amusing than did our dad. And the in-laws laughed — but somewhat nervously, likely fearing they would unexpectedly be picking up the tab for the four-course banquet.

What Is The Essence Of Cheapness?

In truth, I am not sure the Waite clan is any tighter with a dollar than any other. As for failure to pick up dirty laundry or a ringing telephone … well, guilty as charged.

Which brings me to a long-standing debate.

What is the difference between being frugal and cheap? What is the essence of cheapness?


To my thinking, frugality implies prudence and thrift. Warren Buffet comes to mind. The word cheap, on the other hand, has a tinny sound to it. Synonyms that pop into my head include words like miserly and parsimonious. Think Ebenezer Scrooge.

But what is the dividing line? I decided to seek expert advice from two eminent scholars.

Price vs. Value

The first, Professor Hamish McDufflebag of the Edinburgh School of Advanced Economics and Caber-Tossing, said the difference between being frugal and cheap has to do with price versus value.

“A frugal person is interested in paying a fair price for something that has utility and value,” he said. “A cheap person, on the other hand, is not willing to pay a fair price for anything.”

Who’s Footing The Bill?

My second source, Dr. Luuk De Longshot, holder of the Hans Brinker Chair in Cutting-Edge Econometrics at the Amsterdam Institute of Technology, put it differently:

“Frugal is when you’re paying; cheap is when someone else isn’t paying.”

I still wasn’t sure I fully understood, so I set up a three-way Zoom call to ask for some specific examples.

An Example Of Cheapness And Frugality

“Examples are easy,” intoned Professor McDufflebag. “Someone who installs a low-volume toilet is frugal. Someone who only flushes once a week to save on his water bill is cheap.”

I was starting to get a clearer picture.

Walking Towards The Light

Dr. De Longshot chimed in. “We at the Institute have done extensive research on cheap people who have had near-death experiences. All they can remember at the end is walking towards the light … to try to turn it off. Frugal people, on the other hand, try to replace the bulb with an LED.”

I finally found I was really getting somewhere. But then a notice popped up on the screen that we had less than a minute of our free Zoom time remaining.

“Would one of you like to pay so we can continue this enlightening discussion?” I asked.

And like that, they were gone.


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About The Author
Robert Waite
Robert Waite
Robert is Managing Director at Waite + Co., a communications firm with offices in Boston, Ottawa and Toronto. He also teaches at Seneca College. He has more than 35 years experience leading communications, marketing and government relations functions for some of North America’s largest firms, including Ford, IBM, CAE, CIBC and Canada Post. He served as Press Secretary to Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-MA) and Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) and in the Reagan Administration. He is a three-time winner of the New England Press Association’s Best Column Award. He can be reached at [email protected].
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