Are you frugal or stingy?

James Ryan Jonas

All of us have to make choices about how we spend our money. Wise choices allow us to build our wealth and, eventually, achieve financial independence. But how do you decide when you're being frugal, and when you've crossed the line into stinginess?

Here are some benchmarks to check if you are stingy or not.

  • If you use 2-for-1 coupons at a restaurant, you might be frugal. If you base your server's tip on the discounted bill, you're probably stingy.
  • If you decide in advance how much to spend each year on charitable contributions, and then try to stay within that budget, you might be frugal. If the last thing you gave to charity was an ancient can of lima beans you wouldn't eat yourself, then you're probably stingy.
  • If you use a tea bag for more than one cup of tea, you might be frugal. If you offer a guest the cup made from the used bag, you're probably stingy.

Frugality can be, and often is, a virtue. It implies you're being careful, not wasteful, with your resources.

Stinginess is a vice, and it carries a whiff of meanness. The word "implies a marked lack of generosity," as Webster's tells us. Stinginess is about pulling back when the more-human impulse is to give.

"Frugality is the activity required for me to live below my means," said Hunt, whose latest book is Live Your Life for Half the Price. "Stinginess is the activity of requiring others to participate in my frugality."

She cited some examples:

"A stingy person wouldn't be caught dead leaving a decent tip, always splits meals, tries to return stuff after having worn it once … hoping to trick the store into a full refund, never gives a dime to the church or synagogue, doesn't honor the kids' teachers with a thank-you gift, does everything possible to keep as much money as possible — at the expense of others!"

By contrast, Hunt's definition of frugality well-lived includes the concept of generosity.

"Giving and saving are frugality's magic bullets: Giving is the antidote for greed; saving is the antidote for fear," Hunt said. "If you always give and save first, you won't become greedy and you'll never be broke."

If someone's accusing you of stinginess, or you're wondering if you're being stingy, you might consider the following:

How do I feel about my choices regarding sharing, charity or tipping? If you're guided by a spirit of generosity, your choices should sit well with your conscience. If you're feeling angry or defensive or rationalizing with a rant that involves the deficiencies of "the System," though, you might want to take a look at why you're so rattled.

Am I being fair? When in doubt, trot out the Golden Rule. Are you treating others as you would want to be treated? Or are you doing something you wouldn't want done to yourself? Is someone else being forced to pay a cost while you benefit?

What are my alternatives? There's usually a path between being a spendthrift and being stingy, although you may need some creativity to find it. For example:

  • You don't have to shell out a fortune for a wedding present if you put some care into its selection. That takes more time than snatching something pricey off the registry, but a thoughtful gift is never stingy — and vice versa.
  • If your friends want to go to an expensive restaurant you can't afford, you can always suggest a less expensive (but still fun) alternative. But you do have to contribute your full share to the bill, including drinks, tax and tip. Asking your friends to subsidize your meal may not be precisely stingy, but it's certainly freeloading.
  • You don't have to give to every panhandler who asks you for change. But you may feel better saying no if you regularly give to a charity of your choice.
– Excerpts from "Are you frugal or stingy?" by Liz Pulliam Weston, published in
James Ryan Jonas teaches business management, investments, and entrepreneurship at the University of the Philippines (UP). He is also the Executive Director of UP Provident Fund Inc., managing and investing P3.2 Billion ($56.4 Million) worth of retirement funds on behalf of thousands of UP employees.