“Being Cheap” is a post by Adina J, TimelessFinance columnist and author of Blue collar / Red lipstick.
My in-laws and I don’t see eye to eye on many things. This is practically a requirement given the nature of our familial ties, so it barely warrants an eyebrow raise. Most of the things we disagree on are mundane — child-rearing, relationships (mine with their son, to be precise), and other things I won’t bore you with. In a different category altogether is our on-going difference of opinion as to the definition of “being cheap”.
To understand the fundamental nature of our disagreement, you have to know that “being cheap” is, in my in-laws’ catalogue of social sins, one of the worst. When they affix the label to someone, it’s not merely a non-compliment; it’s an indictment. Being cheap means “losing face” within one’s social circle. It’s different, and infinitely worse, than being poor. Being cheap means having no self-respect – or, rather, no respect for others’ expectations and impressions of you. The worst part, though, is being cheap when you can afford not to be.
Needless to say, I don’t consider myself as being cheap. Frugal? Maybe. Although anyone who has read my blog might consider that debatable. To me, being cheap means sacrificing quality for the sake of some insignificant savings. Being cheap is the opposite of a wealth-building strategy, because it generally focuses on mostly irrelevant minutiae. Trent Hamm is the patron saint of cheapness. But as annoying as it might be for other people, being cheap is not an inherently evil thing in my books. As long as no one expects me to count their pennies for them, their cheapness doesn’t offend me in the least. (Which is probably a good thing, considering that, if I were to get offended every time someone made a decision I considered stupid … well, let’s just say I would be living in a state of perpetual rage.)
My in-laws’ notion of cheapness is different, though. What my affinal kin consider “cheap” is actually my complete disregard for what others think and expect of me – and my wallet. I will happily spend money on the things that are important to me and just as happily spend no money at all on things that are not important to me … even if other people think they ought to be. It bothers me not at all if someone wants to judge my “success at life” based on the fact that my husband and I share a seven year-old family wagon we bought second-hand. (Hey, at least it’s not a minivan, amirite? Or, you know, costing us hundreds of dollars a month in financing.) Or that I haven’t been anywhere outside of North America since 2005. Or that my my cell phone might as well have a dial. Or that, more often than not, my clothes come courtesy of fine establishments like Goodwill. It also doesn’t bother me (or flatter my ego) when someone wants to judge me based on my designer bags, or the fact that I only buy the very best toilet paper and subscribe to premium cable. (Joe, I am never giving it up, so quit trying to convert me.) (Editor Joe’s Note: saying it doesn’t make it right: cut your cable! And the Wood household has very nice toilet paper. I just stock up when it’s on sale.) The bottom line is this: I don’t buy things based on what other people think is appropriate for my “station in life”. And I don’t think that makes me cheap.
Being frugal might not be a virtue, but it’s a sure-fire way to get richer – not richer than our entrepreneurial peers, but definitely richer than you would be if you were an irresponsible spender. Not all people who are frugal are also cheap; the two are not synonymous, although you might be hard-pressed to realize that reading some PF blogs. (Editor Joe’s Note: at TF, we try to read aspirational blogs that aren’t only about “playing defense”– even if we don’t always achieve their higher standards.) Maybe it’s my innate aversion to extremes of any sort but I think that going too far in either direction (cheapness masquerading as hyper-frugality, or recklessness disguised as liberality) is ill-advised. Ask yourself what the purpose of your action is. Is it to show off the wealth that you have (or, more likely, the wealth you would like other people to think you have)? Is it to save some infinitesimal fraction of money, usually at the expense of another person’s comfort or well-being? Is it to win some imaginary contest about who can be the most hard-core – whether at saving or spending money? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you might want to re-think your motivations. My advice: don’t fetishize money, either the saving or the spending of it. But if you must, please — don’t make us watch.