When Frugal Becomes Cheap


Recently, I was sick.  The kind of sick where I couldn’t do anything but lay on the couch, waiting to get better.  During this week of enforced rest, I watched numerous tv shows, looked at countless blogs, and read several magazines.  While watching all of this tv that I would normally not have time for, I ran across a show about saving money.  I thought I’d have an interest, obviously, so I watched several episodes.  I was appalled.  Instead of joyfully saving money, the people on the show lied, cheated, stole, and were otherwise quite miserable in their quest to economize.  I learned a lot about what I would never be willing to do to save money.  Since the most popular posts on my blog deal with saving money, I thought I’d pass along my thoughts

Balance is the key with saving money, along with everything else in life.  Quality of life is important.  If a person gets to the end of life with lots of money, but is miserable and has been miserable for years, what have they gained?

In the show I watched, some of the houses the people lived in were dumps.  They were filthy, unkept, and unattractive.  They said they kept them this way to save money.  In my opinion, this is not necessary.  Soap and water are very cheap.  There are many home-made cleaners that could be used, or cleaning supplies can be purchased with coupons or from the dollar store.  At my house, I use rags for cleaning.  When an item is worn out, I cut it into pieces.  These pieces are stored in a basket in the garage in a place where they are easy to grab.  When we are done cleaning, I wash them.  I do keep a few paper towels for really gross messes, but we mostly use rags for all of our cleaning.

Paint and decor can add up.  I would suggest that if you are on a tight budget, you save up for a can or two of paint, and then go to yard sales of thrift stores for decorations.  You can also craft items.  Sometimes friends or relatives are finished with an item, such as a couch pillow or a picture, and they are looking for a home for it.  If it fits in with your decorating scheme, gladly accept it if it is offered to you.  On the flip side, don’t take or buy everything that is offered or is on clearance, you may end up with a cluttered mess.  Sometimes furniture can be found second hand on Craig’s List or at a yard sale or thrift shop.  Rob found a dresser we needed at a second-hand store for a fraction of the cost of a new one.

Although I’m sure some of the show I watched was dramatization, I was not amused when some of the participants actually stole things in the name of frugality.  One main tip from a person was to go into restaurants and take large handfuls of things like napkins, ketchup, and disposable cups, etc.  They suggested that you “never buy those things again” and, instead, just keep going back for more.  That’s wrong in my book.  The owners of the restaurants have to pay for those things—they are only free to the one who just stole them.  Instead, use dishes and wash them.  Seems obvious, doesn’t it?  At this house, we do not have a dishwasher.  We are still making out just fine.  There are times when we do want paper, though.  There are several ways to obtain inexpensive paper plates for times when they are useful.  Sometimes you can get a large quantity for a low price from a place like Cash and Carry or Costco, or from Amazon.  I actually have several boxes of them that have been gleaned from yard sales, thrift stores, or given to me by people who were cleaning out.  We are not picky about the pattern, i.e. we will use Thanksgiving plates any time of the year.  Many people on the internet use cloth napkins.  We do not, but I can see the value of them.

One of the most helpful things Rob and I do to manage our money is to have regular “meetings” about money.  These consist of a short talk where we go over our budget, bills, and upcoming expenditures.  We make a plan about what and how we are going to handle each item (i.e.: pay the bills, do we want to buy this or that, etc.) and then we pay the bills. This keeps us on the same page as each other.  We both know if we have money to spend on extra items, and what we have in savings.  I was saddened to see husbands and wives lying to each other on the show I watched.  Some people were hiding money from the other partner, and outright lying about what funds were available or in savings.  I believe that we have more harmony in our marriage and more happiness even though we likely have less money in the bank than those people did.  It is much easier for me to face a “short” month if I have someone to do it with.

The last thing I noticed about the show is the level of unhappiness for everyone concerned.  The families of the “cheap” person were miserable and embarrassed as they witnessed the “cheap” person be vocal in trying to get the clerks to lower the prices of the items or charge less for meals, etc.  They were often without any small comforts in life in the name of frugality.  Some wore very outdated, dowdy clothing when attractive clothing was the same price at a thrift store.  Underneath the surface, it was easy to see the anger simmering in the people who were getting to live this lifestyle because they had no control over the choices others were making for them.  I’m mostly talking about children, but I also saw a wife or two who were very unhappy.  I’m quite sure those children will run from that lifestyle as fast as they can as soon as they can.  I would not be surprised if some of the couples end up splitting up.  Even the “cheap” person did not often seen very happy.  They seemed so concerned with saving money that it overshadowed everything else in their life.

So, I’m going to continue to save money when I can.  We work pretty hard at it around here, and will continue to do that.  But, I’m going to keep striving for balance.  When we can figure out a way to do something fun, we will do it.  When we can afford an item I think we just want, we’ll buy it.  I don’t plan to worry or stress about it, but instead enjoy my life the best I can, and hopefully stay frugal–not cheap!


16 thoughts on “When Frugal Becomes Cheap”

  1. Excellent write-up, Becky! I agree with everything you have said and you always give good advice and example on your blog! I admire that and think you are the best blog to go to for ideas. Plus your cooking always looks delicious and you feed a large family! That is the true test! Andrea

  2. I wonder why the producers of that program preferred to show some extreme examples of frugality? I don’t believe people of the sort you mentioned truly are frugal. They have made money either something they worship or fear, giving it too much power! Yet, I know full well there are many frugal people who live financially responsible lives and live well on a small budget without resorting to any of those supposed methods of ‘saving’…But you are quite right: it’s a balance of doing what saves and at the same time IMPROVING the quality of live for everyone. It always amuses me that the meals my kids remember most fondly were the ones that worked the hardest to stretch the budget, lol. I did my best to insure that food tasted good, that we ate at a beautifully set table, and that it was pleasant. I think what they really remember is the environment in which we ate. Great post Becky!

    1. Thanks, Terri. You know, one of my fondest memories from childhood was when we got bowls of rice, milk and cinnamon sugar for supper on an occasional Saturday night. I know my mom was tired from a long week, it was frugal, and easy. But, we loved it and begged for it while all the while, she was feeling kind of bad about serving that for dinner–she always made us big, well-balanced meals.

  3. I read your comment on the Prudent Homemaker site this week about this show. Are you talking about “Extreme Cheapskates”? I also watched that show on Netflix sometime ago. The family that stood out to me was the one who made her family use cloth toilet paper. I looked her up online and found out that she has her own blog. Just Google “Angela Coffman: The Grocery Shrink”. It was interesting to read her insights about being featured on this show. She explains that they left out quite a bit of details and made them out to look bad on the show (I am not quoting her but it was something to that effect). They had no say in how they were portrayed but the end result was not what they had planned. They left out the details of the how and why and kind of twisted it to make them look how they appeared on the show. After I read her account of this “manipulation”, I believe that most of these shows are completely made up and twisted so I don’t believe any of them. And in fact, truly can’t stand any of these shows. But I think it is kind of funny because I have family members who think that I sometimes go to “extreme” measures to save money, which I admit I am guilty of! I have enjoyed Angela Coffman’s money saving posts and her family (if I remember correctly) won a vacation in a contest on the Dave Ramsey show. I enjoy your blog, Becky and hearing of all your families adventures. God Bless!

  4. Oh, Becky, I so agree with everything you said! We have some friends (who are certainly financially comfortable) who have wanted to borrow our Sam’s card to buy things and who have wanted to ‘split’ a Turbo Tax purchase. These things are not honest and bother me so much! I feel like it’s stealing! If I don’t use all the paper napkins I get at a fast food restaurant, I will take them with me rather than throwing them away, but I never take more than I need intending to take some with me. I am always reminded of the scripture “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” Luke 16:10. I am not perfect by any means, but I hope never to harm someone else trying to improve my own situation.

  5. You’ve hit on a very important difference between “cheap” and “frugal” – happiness! Thank you for posting this. I think it’s really important that people understand you don’t have to be sloppy and resort to petty thievery to live on a small budget. I see this in the homeschool community sometimes; people will say “My house isn’t clean/neat because my kids are home all day.” So are mine…. and part of my responsibility in educating them is passing on life skills, which includes cleaning up after themselves and contributing to the household via chores that assist the health, well-being, and happiness of the whole family. THANK YOU for this post! I do so hope that you’re feeling much better now!

    1. Thank you! I am feeling better each day. It was just the flu–but no fun.

      I agree that a house can be at least fairly clean while homeschooling. There again, it’s a balance. Sometimes, during times when I had many, many young children at home, there were areas that really got away from me, especially areas like the school room where I kept books, etc. But, it was very livable, especially the kitchen where food was prepared. It’s good when kids get old enough to help!

  6. I have watched that show that you are talking about and some of those people either are or are made to look like complete misers. Stealing is wrong and there is no excuse for it.

    1. Yes, one man gleefully deprived his family of basics so that he could rack up his bank account—-they were miserable and he was proud of himself. I think he was a true miser.

  7. Great post Becky! I’m in total agreement with everything you’ve written. Although I sometimes wonder if these sort of shows are not totally scripted to make the people look bad, or even if the people on the shows are real people and not just actors. Stealing is stealing, who would allow themselves to be portrayed that way for all to see? And I really don’t understand the living in squalor business. What has that have to do with being frugal? Happy frugality!


  8. What a wonderful and thoughtful post. When I was first reading it, I was reminded of a visit I had with my Dad when I was just out on my own. I didn’t have much money at the time and was renting an apartment in a less then desirable neighborhood. My Dad sat me down during this visit and basically said that he knew I didn’t have much money but that I could at least keep my apartment clean. Soap and water and time and effort really didn’t cost much. I took that life lesson with me.
    I don’t agree with you on one point though. I read in the Tightwad Gazette to willingly and cheerfully take anything someone offers in the way of furniture, supplies, whatever. Even if I was just going to take that something directly to the dump or a thrift store. The rational being, maybe this time the person’s item isn’t something I’m looking for but they may have something later that would be useful. Anyway, I’ve mostly put that into practice to my benefit. I say mostly because I have said no but only a few times. I just wanted to share a little different perspective.

    Also, totally agree with the idea that paint can really turn around a room. You most likely are aware but many hardware and big box stores will sell their paint that’s been color mixed already but not the color the first customer wanted. I’m not sure really what they call that paint but I know it’s really cheap. Also, the Habitat for Humanity’s Re-Stores often have unopened paint at a really low cost. If you like thrift store shopping, the Re-stores are like thrift store shopping in a hardware store.

    I, too, think these TV shows are going for the extremes, at least I hope so. You are so fortunate to have a marriage where you two can work together on your finances. Having a spouse who shares the same goals and values is so very important. It can be a lot of work at times to get on the same page, but working for something is not a bad thing.

    1. Actually, when you mention it, I’ve turned things down too. I guess there are times when a person just can’t use something, and I would hope that the giver would fine someone who could.

      I am blessed in my marriage. We got married when we were babies (only 19) and have worked very, very hard for years to make it work. We were very determined. So, it’s been 34 years, and we are still determined to keep working on it!

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