Rant: Frugal Doesn’t Mean “Cheap.”

June 29, 2012

I was recently discussing fashion with a retailer about frugality and if their wares would appeal to my audience.  They expressed their concerns that mid-level price points (meaning, not Target but not Saks Fifth Ave- right in the middle) wouldn’t appeal to people who identified as “frugal.”  The conversation that followed I feel is worth sharing.

I made the point that modern frugality doesn’t mean you’re cheap.

Modern frugality isn’t about hoarding nearly useless items because you might “need it” someday.  Being frugal doesn’t mean stealing sugar packets and sauces from restaurants because you refuse to buy condiments yourself (though I’m sure we’ve all done that a few times, ha!)  Frugality doesn’t mean that you only buy thrifted, or you wear clothes that are frumpy simply because they were $2 on the clearance rack.

Let me clarify, that frugality can be those things, but it isn’t universally constructed that way, nor can you paint all frugal people with one brush.  At times, I’ve had a near Baptist Church Revival session at the clearance rack at Target (Can I get a Hallelujah?!)  and there have been times I’ve been so broke that I would walk an extra block or two just to save a few bucks on groceries, or sustain myself on rice & beans for a few days because that’s what I was working with financially.

I snag my Coach Bags from Outlet stores!

Yes, it is possible to be a frugal fashionista and  be debt free.  I did it,  and tons of us do.

Am I cheap? No.  I’d argue that I was being selective.  During the dry spells where I had no money, I did scour the halls of thrift stores & clearance racks of (already) discount stores.  I would agonize over the purchase of a $5 nail polish and tally up receipts with the self-hatred of a penny pinching drill sergeant.  Those days are gone- and luckily, they enabled me to work with a very limited graduate student budget and be able to afford a nice dinner out or a cute pair of shoes that were compliment-worthy.

Modern frugality isn’t about “cheap,” it’s about being smart.  Many of us young folks are grappling with student debt, saving up for weddings, homes or babies (or heck, cars, vacations or healthcare!) and we choose to be picky with our spending.

Being savvily frugal is about putting your money where it matters & putting consciousness into your consumerism.


I do agree that some frugal people are cheap- they brag about cutting their cable and laugh at all the “stupid people” who  choose to pay for it.  Others forget that sometimes paying for convenience is a necessity for some who would make more money in an hour working, than they would scavenging around a garage sale for something in the same amount of time.

Even in my broke-est of days I was able to funnel my money into purchases that had the most impact.  If I only had $50 extra to spend it went towards a nice dinner out and a new nail color.  It’s nothing to brag about, but when I had very little money coming in as a student, frugality kept me out of debt and I was able to sleep at night.


So- to bring me back to the discussion with the retailer.  Would I pay $100 for a beautiful necklace? Yep- if I made room in my life for it and absolutely loved it, you bet I would.   To me, being smart & frugal means a tradeoff.  Would I rather have 5 cheap necklaces from Target or one $100 necklace I drool over?  I’d opt for the expensive piece if it speaks to me- that’s what it is- choice.


Victoria's Secret's Semi-Annual Sale means everyone can afford it!

We snag our high end fashion at outlet stores, semi-annual sales &  discount department stores.  Same stuff, just at half the price.  

That’s not “cheap,” that’s smart!


Frugality enables us to make choices.  If we have to save up for a $100 necklace, we do.  Frugal folks aren’t cheap, they attempt to curb their impulses and are willing to pay more if it garners more satisfaction.

I would say non-frugal folks aren’t always willing to pay more for an item- they sometimes are just wanting to buy more.  “More,” being more clutter, more that they can’t pay for, more debt, and more credit cards they can’t manage.

Conversely, being truly frugal means that you have more.  

Even with less stuff, you have more control, more joy out of what you do buy, more funny stories, and sometimes, yes, more ketchup packets in your purse.

I don’t think the issue with frugality is necessarily that we won’t buy high end items- it’s just that we need to direct our way from the impulse shopping, the cheap purchases that really add up over time.  It still amazes me how much my experience around shopping changed when I saved up for a pair of Christian LouBoutins, a MacBook Pro or a silver necklace from Tiffany & Co.    As soon as I curbed my “cheap” purchases- the costume jewelry, the shoes that I only bought because “it was on sale,”  or the obligatory nights out with overpriced martinis,  my spending was ready for the big fish and it felt damn good.

Frugality means buying less, but having more.  I have less junk now, and more shoes that I still swoon over- months later.  It’s authenticity.  When you wear a designer handbag- it may be the only one you own, but it’s bought and paid for- truly, authentically YOURS. When it’s not a debt, but it was paid for without someone (a lender) chipping in, you lie to no one about who you are.


I love Betsey Johnson & get mine for cheap at Nordstrom Rack!

So, to answer the retailer-  frugal doesn’t mean cheap.

We may have to adjust our spending to make room for a high end purchase, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or won’t do it. Before we take the plunge, we make room for it in our life.   Frugal fashionistas have discerning tastes too- we just pay for it in cash & use a coupon!

22 comments so far.

22 responses to “Rant: Frugal Doesn’t Mean “Cheap.””

  1. Great article. This article reminds us not to put all people in a box. We all have different financial priorities and spend differently during different periods of our life. I take very nice vacations, purchase quality items and mix in cheap items that are not as important to me. I am a Conscious Spender which means I decide what is important for me. Thanks for sharing the rant.

    • Shannyn says:

      Love it Shareeke! It’s all about conscious spending and being aware of our choices- nobody fits the mold perfectly, frugality is unique!

  2. So, so true. Frugal is how my spouse and I identify. We go all out on “capital” items, but are stingy on “operating” costs. ie – we’ll buy an expensive suit, or really nice bicycles, but we know that they’ll last. We try to avoid the lattes, the huge bar tabs and the expensive cheese (okay… I succumb to that one a lot).
    We drop huge dollars on some things and are super penny-pinchers on others, which is our way of being frugal.

    • Shannyn says:

      I hate to bring up the cliche “latte factor” but it’s true, making small changes leads to big rewards! You can’t have everything all the time, but you can have more of what you want if you give it some thought and a bit of desire instead of just impulse. I love that you have laser focus and goals- I’m the same way!

  3. Karen says:

    Definitely agree that being frugal is about really thinking about your buying choices. It’s fun to be able to buy small, cheap items on a regular basis, but there’s a unique rush with getting some long-coveted luxury item after saving and planning. The feeling never seems to fade for me, while I almost always get buyer’s remorse when I thoughtlessly spend on some cheaper items I could have done without.

    • Shannyn says:

      Thanks for the comment Karen…I agree about the rush! That’s how I feel when I finally do shop- it’s so savored and appreciated. It’s more of a hunt than a whim, when you finally find that right item or save up for it, it’s such a thrill! Love your attitude!

  4. Tammy says:

    Amen sistah! I am currently saving for a BIG purchase, hello Louis Vuitton, so I stopped buying makeup and frivolous things for 32 days. I saved $450. Crazy what a major want that happens to be very expensive, can change your mind.

  5. Kelsea says:

    I score all my big name brands like Betsey Johnson, Coach & Vera Wang at Nordy Rack or Marshalls- you get the more generic pieces there for a reasonable price, but it’s still a great deal and you can find wonderful stuff!

  6. Christy Ann says:

    Love this post! I really need to work on the impulse purchases, and I’m trying to get over my quantity over quality mentality. I’ve noticed that I’m running out of room for any more clothes and makeup, yet I feel like I don’t have many things I’m totally in love with.

  7. faith says:

    Can I get an amen! Love it

  8. denise says:

    being frugal on some things means we have the means to buy the other things we want, too! great article!

  9. Kat E. says:

    Great post! I like thrifting because it’s also a form of recycling and the money goes to charity 🙂

  10. Revanche says:

    I can’t tell how many times we have to remind people not to conflate frugality with cheapness – just because we choose some things that Cost Less on Purpose doesn’t mean there’s an inability to do the opposite or that it’s not a conscious choice to do that for a reason. I generally Choose Cheap so that I can Choose Expensive when I want it. It’s all conscious spending, doofus! (directed at the dork who can’t seem to see the complexities of life)

    And yes, there were times I always had to choose to be frugal forever. Guess what? Years of frugality brought years of flush. It’s all just a matter of perspective.

  11. Desi says:

    I love this. I feel the same way, and can’t wait to be established enough to not beat myself up over a $5 nailpolish. I know I’ll never pay full price for anything – god bless the outlet store and clearance rack!

  12. Trishy says:

    This is so true! It’s definitely worth the money if the purchase is something you’re going to love and use over and over. Or if it saves you time, is more convenient or provides some other awesome benefits.

    Like, for example, you buy cheapo plane tickets (yay cool it’s cheap!), but then they randomly reschedule your flight, and suddenly you have to pay to stay an extra night in the place/country your stuck in, or you have to pay cancellation fees for stuff because suddenly you have to leave a few days earlier! I’d rather pay for a slightly more expensive plane ticket in that case, knowing that it’s more reliable, and I won’t go nuts because of last minute changes I can’t control. :]

  13. Great article! I have a huge problem with this. Sometimes I am called cheap because I love to shop sales. Someone actually said that sale items are the ones nobody wants, and thus that’s why they are on sale. :/
    I wear a lot of mid tier designer labels. I have coach purses, nice shoes, nice clothes, etc. Did I buy most of the stuff at full price? No. Fashion rotates. Plus, I love buying classical items that I can wear at any time. I am smart with my purchases. I bought my Macbook Air on sale, even though it was still 1K. I just bought the 2011 version instead of the 2012 version. I did exhaustive research and found out there was very minimal difference.
    Do I buy some items at full price? Yes, of course. When I deem necessary.

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  16. Solavei says:

    Hi I like your post, very informative!

  17. Heather says:

    I couldn’t agree more! Frugal means you value quality because you want your items to be classic and last! (fb)

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  19. Great post! Thanks for the share!


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