Frugal Amy: Staying on The Right Side of The Frugal/Cheap Divide

I went to my niece’s wedding this past weekend, and at one point, I chatted with Amy, my sister’s friend. Somehow, we got onto the topic of frugality (Does that ever happen to you at weddings?) and Amy said, “I wasn’t just frugal, I was cheap.”

After writing last week’s post about Frugality’s negative image, I was so interested to know more about Amy’s experience and her views on high personal debt in society. When I asked her if she’d be willing to be featured for this week’s post, I was so grateful that Amy accepted.

What would you say were the influences as you were growing up that led to your becoming a frugal person?

My mother grew up in a working class family, so she was careful with spending. Even though she worried about money, I wouldn’t call her cheap. She made choices—she spent money on good furniture and we never scrimped on food. She donated lots to charity.

I also went to Catholic grade school, where the nuns were always drilling messages into our head about not wasting things, because of the “poor starving children in Chimbote,” (where their order of nuns ran a mission). I’m not sure that was a particularly healthy message, since it can make you hang onto stuff you don’t need. I also got involved in the environmental movement when I was in high school.

What are some of the more extreme things you did when you were younger to avoid spending too much?

I used to take a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom in the university dormitory so that I wouldn’t have to spend money on Kleenex.

What habits have you maintained to this day that you recognize as being “frugal”?

I love buying used clothing, though I do I draw the line at used shoes, which I find kinda gross.  I love buying used furniture, too. Often it is better made than new Ikea stuff and it has character. I enjoy the ‘hunting’ aspect of looking for good used goods.

Do you think there is a line between being frugal and being “cheap”?

Frugal comes from a more conscious awareness of money as energy; cheap can come more from fear of not having enough.

Is there any part of your frugality that you look back upon with regret?

Yes: I declined to go to a couple of weddings of very good friends because I didn’t want to spend the money on the flights.

What benefits would you say your frugality has given you?

Being frugal is just one way to live life more intentionally. It’s not a knee-jerk negative reaction to spending money, but it’s a frame of reference to consider when making decisions consciously. Being frugal reminds me that a choice to spend money impulsively on one thing means less money to spend on something else that might be more important to me.  Frugality is actually empowering when looked at that way, not ‘restrictive.’ It’s not about what I can’t have, it’s about being clear and empowered when choosing what goods or experiences to invite into my life.

Was there ever a time in your life when you got the impression that other people thought you were “weird” because of your frugality? 

Yes. In the last few years, I was invited to a couple charity galas by friends and the event would have required looking for (waste of time) and then spending money (waste of dough) on a long fancy dress that I don’t want to own or wear. So, I said I would support their charity with a donation but not waste money on clothing I don’t need. They didn’t understand. It still feels like the right decision.

How would you describe your response to people in your life who spend mindlessly? Would you say you have ever been judgmental?  Or bewildered? 

Yes, both judgmental and bewildered because it is so far from my own choices and values. Now I see these people more in context as people who have a neediness or hunger ( ‘I deserve this; I’ve been good’) that they tend to assuage with stuff. And because of this neediness, they are more influenced by the advertising that shouts at us every day, so it is hard for them to combat the urge to buy. Plus, face it, there are a zillion adorable/cute/interesting things to buy out on the marketplace.

Describe the 30 Day Challenges you hold at work.

I work with a lot of young colleagues who have expensive habits, and I hold 30-Day Challenges to try and show them that a real difference can be achieved with small changes. We had a “Bring Your Lunch To Work Challenge” and a “Drink The Coffee We Make At The Office Challenge”.

What do you hope they take away from these challenges?

Usually the office gets right into the spirit, taking it on as a dare. They’re proud of themselves, and report their victories to each other, e.g. showing off the good lunch they brought. I hope they take away a greater consciousness about their money choices.

What have they said about the challenges so far?

About the 30-day bring your lunch and make coffee/tea at the office, one colleague said “it’s a good way to hold yourself accountable, and to be conscious of the consequences of your choices on your budget. And I’m still pretty good about trying to bring my lunch.” Another said she cured herself of her Starbucks habit because the challenge helped her find an alternative—PC brand ‘chocolately chai tea’ which she can make at the office.  A third said about the challenge “ I am proud of doing it, damn right, but it is too hard to keep up.”


Which of Amy’s answers hits home the most for you? How do you think a 30-Day Challenge would go over at your place of work? Your comments are  welcome.


Image courtesy of Pixabay

14 comments on “Frugal Amy: Staying on The Right Side of The Frugal/Cheap Divide

  1. I really love the way this is worded: “Frugal comes from a more conscious awareness of money as energy; cheap can come more from fear of not having enough.”

    And I am absolutely smitten with the 30 day challenge idea! Twice a year my coworkers hold a Biggest Loser type of weight loss challenge for a pot of money. I never participate and feel that it does very little to create healthy long term habits — for example I hear people talk about making sure they do their initial weigh-in after a large breakfast and other tactics to win the game.

    30 days of bringing your lunch could be used both for demonstrating a budget benefit as well as healthy habit forming. I’m borrowing this idea for sure! 🙂

    1. I was also struck by Amy’s use of the words “awareness of money as energy” to describe frugality. I have never heard of it described like that. Amy’s colleague’s are lucky to be challenged by her. I can’t help but think those challenges will have a more powerful impact than anyone involved realizes.

  2. “It’s not about what I can’t have, it’s about being clear and empowered when choosing what goods or experiences to invite into my life.” I totally agree with this!

    Thanks for sharing! I wouldn’t have bought the long fancy dress either! 🙂 And I LOVE the idea of the 30 day challenges. Changing one small thing can lead to even bigger changes.

    1. Amy is certainly eloquent. And the idea of “choosing what goods or experience to invite into my life” is pretty profound. As for the long fancy dress . . . I’m afraid I would have wanted it. Good thing nobody’s inviting me to a gala : )

  3. I really enjoyed how Amy still supported the charity with a donation, but chose not worry about spending the money on a dress that she did not want to wear. I believe that is a true definition frugal – Not spending on what you do not need/want.

    I also believe that it shows she is still willing to donate to the charity, which is still spending her money, but it is selective. That is perfect!

    It seems that many think frugal people are misers, when in all seriousness we just spend our money more wisely.

    1. We need a new stereotype of “fugal” as “generous”. It’s ironic because I know from experience that thoughtless spending makes giving very stressful. Frugality actually opens the doors to giving. Thanks for your comment, IH.

  4. I like Amy. She doesn’t seem to worry about what other people think of her lifestyle. People whose only goal is to impress other people are just chasing their own tails. What are the results when a dog does it? Same as a human’s. Dizziness and pain!

    1. As soon as you start talking with Amy, you know she’s the real deal. I like that too. You’ve got a unique perspective, Kay. I like that too : )

  5. I applaud Amy for donating the money instead of going to the charity gala. Supporting the cause is what is important, not the party with the expenses placed on the party-goer.

  6. Funny how this bounced off of my Monday’s post and neither of us knew it or planned for it. 🙂 Amy’s on the right track, and I totally agree with her about the dress and the fancy dinner. 🙂 I like dressing up, but it really has to be for the right occasion for me to spend the money. 🙂

    1. It’s kind of nice to know that someone who has always been frugal is humble enough to say, “I regret the times when I was ‘cheap’ .” I admire Amy for that humility. And I admire her for the strength of character that came through in the way she handled that charity gala. And it IS cool that this post tied in with yours : )

  7. I like Amy’s idea of prioritizing what is important to her. We do spend a lot our energy performing our life’s work and earning a living. So it is wise to spend our money intentionally in ways that restore and enrich our lives. It is also important to find meaningful pursuits that don’t involve opening the wallet – walking with a friend, reading a book etc…, sometimes the happiest of moments.

    1. Thanks Shirley : ) I love what you have to say about honouring the energy we put into our life’s work by a conscious intention in choosing how to spend the income we derive from it. And I’m with you on those free pursuits – as I know Amy is too.

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