The world of personal finance is a relatively simple place.

At the root of it, getting ahead financially is a simple math problem even a fourth grader can solve. All one needs to do is spend less than what they make. You’re really just adding and subtracting numbers to create a comfortable savings rate.

After that, it’s all semantics. There are a number of ways to create yourself a comfortable savings rate. You can spend less or make more or a combination of the two.

This is the main reason why I don’t write much about personal finance anymore. The world of investing is infinitely challenging. The world of saving is not. I’ve been saving so long it’s automatic. Growing my pile is much more complex.

But every now and again I get pulled back into the fray, mostly to make fun of something that’s pretty stupid. Today is such a day. The topic? The difference between frugal and cheap. God, what a useless “debate.”

The only difference

That I seeeeeeee

Is you are exactly the same

As you used to be!

Really, Nelson? The Wallflowers?

That song was good! Did you know the lead singer’s dad is Bob Dylan?

Anyhoo, let me run down the difference between frugal and cheap for those of you who luckily have no idea about this debate. Frugal people are smart with the way they save money, while cheap people will save cash in any way possible, including outright theft from their friends!

You know I’m alarmed when I put an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence!

(That exclamation point was a typo)

Some examples? Don’t mind if I do. A frugal person might spend time finding the right pair of shoes on sale, while a cheap person would go and buy the cheapest pair that fit. A frugal person would shop around for airfare, while a cheap person would take the bus. Or (and this one is my favorite), a frugal person orders water in a restaurant, while a cheapskate gets a soda and makes sure to take advantage of free refills.

Yes, that was actually presented at least once, presumably with a straight face.

There are a million other examples, but basically, it boils down to this. A frugal person saves money in socially acceptable ways, while a cheap person is willing to go the extra mile. That’s the only difference between frugal and cheap people.

So if you intentionally only put in $20 for your part of the tab knowing your contribution was really $23, congratulations. You are officially a piece of trash. HANG YOUR HEAD IN SHAME, ASSHOLE.

The problem with this “debate”

There are a couple of problems with this debate.

First of all, the average person does. not. give. a. shit. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing whatever the personal finance circle-jerk-o-net has decided is acceptable. If all of your co-workers go out for lunch and you’re brown bagging leftovers every day, you better believe they’re mocking your ass at Subway. Even if they’re doing it lovingly.

Just because everyone in an obscure corner of the internet considers something acceptable doesn’t mean normal people will.

Because that’s what we are. Personal finance folks are freaks. We’re the money equivalent of that guy who’s up at 5am every damn morning jogging. We’re the financial version of 5th level vegans who don’t eat anything that casts a shadow. The average person looks at us with a mixture of admiration and contempt.

And we’re the group who decided the difference between frugal and cheap? We’re not normal. They’re normal. We’re weird.

Besides, the average consumer has no idea if one product is better than a competing one. Even the average personal finance nerd can’t do it. Have you ever noticed that the average person ALWAYS replaces a broken model of something they use a lot with something higher priced? They get pissed off that their precious whatever broke and want to avoid that feeling again. So they upgrade.

I’ve done it. I replaced a $400 laptop with a $1,200 MacBook when a $600 laptop would have been just as good. That $1,200 computer was just a $600 one dressed up in a nicer package. I fell for the marketing hook, line, and sinker.

That was the opposite of being smart. At least I can admit it. The number of “I’m smart by spending extra” blog posts outnumber “boy, that was a dumb buy” 87 million to one.

Remember this

This whole difference between frugal and cheap argument would be nothing but an amusing sideshow if it wasn’t for one scary thing. Many cheapskates have been shamed into abandoning perfectly fine habits because of pressure from other cheapskates who think such a thing is unacceptable.

I knew a guy whose mom would wash plastic forks after they were used. Oh lordy, did we make fun of him. It got to the point where he’d make sure to throw out his plastic fork after using it to eat his lunch.

I happen to think washing plastic forks is a poor use of someone’s time. But his mom didn’t.

The person who doesn’t wash plastic forks has no moral superiority over the person who does. That’s what all of this comes down to. This whole debate is nothing more than people who save money in acceptable ways trying to shame others into having the same outlook on life.

So if you’re a dumpster diver, or someone who uses the generosity of groups to save a few bucks, or even someone who will take advantage of 19 different free meal offers on your birthday, knock yourself out. You be you, no matter what guys like me think about it. Just don’t be a dick about it and we’re cool. And in exchange I promise not to laugh at you for making your own laundry detergent.

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