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How do you know if you’re frugal or just ridiculous?

A reader question:

How do you know if you’re frugal or just ridiculous?  There seems to be a thin line. For example, is it frugal or ridiculous to postpone shopping for new undergarments for a year because new undergarments are not necessary for survival?

In the years that I have been reading content about frugality, I have noticed that this is a common theme/question/issue.

How frugal is TOO frugal?

What’s sensible, and what’s just cheap?

Where’s the line between frugality and deprivation?

I’ll write down a couple of principles I use to guide me, and then I’d love to hear your thoughts!

A few notes:

  • I’m writing this from the perspective of the most frugal household member since that’s always been my role
  • I have in mind people who are choosing to be frugal, not people who will literally go hungry if they don’t save every penny possible

Everyone gets to decide this for themselves

Since we all have different backgrounds, priorities, and sets of expectations, the answer to these questions is going to vary from person to person.

One person’s frugal might be another person’s deprivation, for example.

As long as a person’s frugal choices aren’t harming another person or harming themselves, I think they should be left in peace, even if others might happen to view their choices as too extreme.

A lot of us don’t live by ourselves, though, so…

You should compromise with other household members

The odds of everyone in your household having the exact same standards for frugality are very low.

And since some frugalities do not just affect you, you need to consider other people’s comfort levels as well. Frugality is important, but so are relationships!

This means that if a fellow household member is miserable if you keep the heat at 65 degrees, you should compromise.




Or if you don’t mind using raggedy bath towels, but a family member hates it, you should probably get some new bath towels for that person to use, even if you continue to use the raggedy ones.

And hopefully, the less-frugal members of your family will also compromise and humor you. Flexibility on both sides is key!

Most cheapness is selfish

I think the line between frugal and cheap often comes down to a selfishness issue.

When your money-saving efforts affect just you, and they don’t cause harm to anyone else, that’s frugal.

When your money-saving efforts hurt or deprive someone else, that’s when you’ve crossed the line into cheap.

For example, if you don’t tip your waiter, that’s cheap (who’s affected? the waiter, not you.)

But if you choose to cook at home instead of eating out, that’s frugal (who’s affected? you.)

Chicken parmesan pasta

If you take a cold shower to save on hot water, that’s frugal (who’s affected? you! no one else.)

If you make your children take cold showers, and they don’t enjoy that, you’re being cheap (who’s affected? the kids, not you.)

Remember that money is a tool

Sometimes those of us who are frugal have to be reminded of this: money is not just a thing to sock away for the future; it is also a tool to use in the present.

Sure, we could choose to live on the most bare-bones budget possible. We could:

  • choose to wear undergarments until they’re literally falling apart
  • go without A/C
  • eat beans three meals a day
  • eat margarine instead of butter (!)
  • wear socks with holes in them
  • never, ever eat out or pick up a coffee

soft stick of butter

But our years on this planet are limited, and I think there’s value in using money as a tool to bring joy into our days. Unless you are teetering on the brink of financial disaster, it’s not going to kill your budget if you buy a new pack of underwear every year.

It’s also not going to bankrupt you to get coffee with a friend each month.

Don’t suck all the joy of your life in the name of saving money!

When possible, find ways to save without being deprived

I’ve written before about how I am not into a lifestyle of suffering.

But I DO like saving money. So, I am always figuring out ways to live a nice life on a budget.

I like quality furniture, so I get it for free and I refinish it.

before and after

I like good food, so I do a lot of cooking.

fried cornmeal mush with butter and syrup


I like to drink coffee every day, so I make it myself.

A cup of coffee in a white mug.

On a related note, this frugal-but-not-deprived thing is very handy if you live with people who are less frugal than you; you can save money and avoid having them feel like they are suffering.

And to bring this back around to the initial question: instead of going without underwear shopping, why not choose something that’s less like deprivation? What if you shopped a clearance sale or looked for a discount code or bought a bulk pack from a warehouse club?

There’s almost always some choice besides going without.

What do you think? How do you know if you’re being frugal or ridiculous?

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Thursday 10th of November 2022

Money isn’t just for the future but also a tool for now. I like that and it’s something I’ve had to learn as we care for our disabled son. We had been saving aggressively to help him be set for adulthood (while also not knowing what we were doing with saving money) until a special needs financial planner walked us through our finances and asked what we were doing for him now that we couldn’t do in the future. It was a lightbulb moment: by saving so much for his future we were depriving him of developmentally stimulating experiences that could help him grow and thrive now so he (hopefully) won’t need as much later. We are still saving quite a bit (now with guidance from people who specialize in setting up finances for the disabled population) but have loosened the purse strings to make sure we are taking care of him and us now. It looks like getting him everything he shows interest in (motivation to learn more), eating take out (or grocery freezer meals) once a week so I can spend more time with him in the evenings and at therapies during the day. And buying a 130 year old home that needs extensive repairs so he can have full access to everything he needs without navigating stairs.

Heidi Louise

Thursday 10th of November 2022

@Kaitlin, What a thought-provoking question from your special needs financial planner! Having a special needs child changes one's views of the future and finances; I am glad for you that you are working for a good balance of now and then for your son and yourselves.


Thursday 10th of November 2022

I always love your "philosophy of frugality" posts Kristen. And it is wise to include the perspective from which you are writing, because that helps channel thoughts.

The areas where people will splurge/be willing to -temporarily- deprived on, depends on what gives them most pleasure (good foods, concerts) or comfort (winter clothes, turning AC on) perhaps. What you prioritize depends on personal need and preference. Anyway I am personally not tempted by "buy nothing months" and so on because it seems wiser to me to keep an eye out on good bargains and make a "need or greed" distinction as a general rule and not based on (social media or peer pressure) challenges.


Thursday 10th of November 2022

@WilliamB, Not picking on you today, I promise! I consider myself a mindful spender, even post-FIRE. I like no-spend months because it helps keep me mindful for the rest of the year. I choose February, because it's the shortest month. What I do with the money I save varies, but in one of the early years, I had a friend who was very ill. I was able to give her enough money to pay her rent and groceries for two months, which turned out to be more than she actually needed. I'm glad I was able to give her a modicum of peace during her last days. Had I not just done a No-Spend Month, it would have been much more difficult to do. It was much easier to give joyfully, so I still do them every few years just to keep my skills sharp.


Thursday 10th of November 2022

@J NL, I agree about buy nothing months. I don't think they work well for people who spend mindfully but can be very useful for people who don't.


Wednesday 9th of November 2022

This is an interesting question, but it is also somewhat loaded. I guess if someone asked me that exact question, I would need to know more information to be able to properly advise them. If you are truly struggling to survive, then no amount of (particularly unseen) frugality is ridiculous. If you are just trying to work on financial goals (like pay off something or save for a large purchase) then I guess you just have to ask yourself if the sacrifice feels worth it to you. I don't think anyone else can answer that for you, though I am sure some may try. ;)


Wednesday 9th of November 2022

Many years ago I quit working to go back to college. The first time I went to the store I thought about getting the generic toilet paper instead of the Charmin I preferred. I decided that getting the generic would make me feel negatively. I make many financial decisions based on my feelings. When our son was married in a South American country where I knew the woman would be wearing rented gowns I splurged on my dress so I would feel pretty. My feelings have served me well. Mainly I feel joy at being frugal which allows me to be more generous with others.


Thursday 10th of November 2022

@Nancy, During the Covid crisis, I bought the only toilet paper that I could find which was a 36-roll pack of rough, generic 1-ply. We found replacement TP after using just two rolls. Finally this past April, I made the commitment to use it up. After all, what else was I going to do with it? It had been in the supply closet for nearly two years. To throw it away was wasteful. To give it away would be unkind. I didn’t want my children to inherit it. My husband refused to use it and we didn’t put it in our guest bathroom. I finally used it all by August. It was a long 4.5 months. I hope that soft TP will always be one of life’s affordable luxuries.


Wednesday 9th of November 2022

@Nancy, I'm admittedly a toilet paper snob and I only buy the good stuff. That being said, I'm not sure that cheap TP saves money. You have to use more of it to do the job.

Funny story--when my daughter was in middle school and had a group of friends over for a birthday party, they spent a lot of time talking about our super soft toilet paper. What a thing to be known for!


Wednesday 9th of November 2022

I try very hard not to judge others by their possessions. I think that we all different wants, needs and values. Like you Kristen, I hope that my decisions do not negatively impact myself or others. However, there have been times in my life when sacrifice was absolutely the only way we could reach our family’s goals. This made me appreciate life’s little pleasures even more.

I have learned over the years that frugality and sacrifice look a little different to everyone. For some of us frugality means driving a 12-year old car or making soup from a chicken carcass (me). To others, it means waiting to buy a new Louis Vuitton bag for 20% off at the Sax 5th Ave Friends and Family Sale (much-loved friend). Different strokes for different folks.


Thursday 10th of November 2022

@WilliamB, Here Hermes handbags, but carcasses are going in the pot and my car so old, the hospital where I work don’t want me to park there any more. Books are a major affair . The big after marriage thing for us was putting our books together


Thursday 10th of November 2022

@Bee, It's funny that you used old cars and chicken carcasses as your examples. No matter how much money I have I will always drive my cars a long time and I'm famous for saving leftovers for stock.

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