Growing up, I was taught a lot about frugality, though we never used the word directly. Our family didn't have a lot of extra money growing up, so we learned how to stretch the dollars that my parents had earned in order make our monthly budget work.
While I wasn't a part of making the big decisions, I was given a small weekly allowance from which I learned to save for larger purchases, to make good purchasing decisions, and to prioritize purchases. As it was a small amount of money, I often had to wait months, if not years, to save up enough to make the purchases that I wanted, and I was encouraged to explore all options while I was waiting for my bank account to grow. This made sure that when I did make a purchase, I really wanted it, and I knew that it was the best deal available. Unknowingly, this was teaching me all about frugality.
What is frugality?
Frugality can simply be defined as avoiding waste. For example, its frugal to make smart food purchasing decisions so that you won't have food rotting in your fridge before you can eat it. This can be anything from choosing to not buy something even though it is a good deal if you're aware that you can't eat it before you go on vacation.
It could also be frugal to be aware of what you already have at home in your pantry and freezer so that you're not making duplicate purchases. It's also frugal to make purchases that will last longer than other, less expensive purchases. If you consider “cost over time”, the purchases that will last longer and not need to be replaced are the more frugal purchase.
Take, for instance, the mattress purchase that we made a few weeks ago. We paid quite a bit for our mattress, but it has an expected lifespan of 8-12 years. Other mattresses that are available are half as much, but only have a 2-3 year expected lifespan. In the long run, we should be spending less money on mattresses assuming it doesn't have a factory defect.
Frugal vs. cheap
For your finances, it is good to pursue frugality. While some personal finance bloggers think of frugality as avoiding $5 lattes, frugality is more about a lifestyle. A lifestyle of maximizing your money is financially useful, regardless if you make $20,000 a year, or $200,000 a year.
Unfortunately, a lot of people confuse frugal with being cheap. Cheap is used as a synonym for frugal, and it shouldn't be. Cheap refers to something of poor quality, or of being embarrassingly stingy. Things of poor quality are the opposite of frugal. It is never a good financial decision to buy something that is of poor quality. Even if it something that you are only going to use once, it is better to purchase something that is of good or decent quality, and then resell it or even store it rather than buy something that is of poor quality.
Take garden tools, for example. A cheap shovel is the least expensive shovel that you can find at your local Canadian Tire. On sale, you can get a shovel for about $10. I've purchased a few of these over the last year or two, so my total investment is about $30 so far. Wait, why did I have to purchase multiple shovels from Canadian Tire? They keep breaking. I've snapped two shovels since buying my house and going through my garden renovation, because I bought a cheap shovel.
A good, quality shovel, on the other hand, seems to cost $60+. The more I think about it, the more I wish I would have purchased that more expensive shovel. The quality that you get when you buy a top tier item usually means that the item will last longer. I'd much rather purchase a shovel once, and use it for the next 10 years, rather than buy a shovel or two every summer.
Why frugality is better than cheap
Frugality, as well, is not about being embarrassingly stingy. I've had friends that are cheap. If you go out to a pub with them, they'll order whatever beer is the least expensive, and tip lightly at the end of the night. If you're hanging out at their place, they won't offer you food or drink. If a group of friends wants to hang out, they'll suggest doing anything that doesn't cost money, and may only come to the movies if someone agrees to pay for them.
At times, being friends with people who are cheap can be embarrassing. I try to avoid eating out with them unless I pay for the meal because I don't want to be associated with someone that isn't willing to tip properly. In the end, it just doesn't feel like a good friendship when there's this looming cloud of finances that is laid over top of all conversations and activities.
How can you tell if you're being cheap or if you're being frugal? Notice that when we're talking about frugality, we never talk about price. A frugal purchase may be the most expensive purchase, whereas the cheap decision is always about cost. Consider, for yourself, what your priorities are the next time you're wandering through a mall. Are you just looking for a deal, or are you looking to make the smartest financial choice? Are you being cheap or frugal?