I’m really not a miser, am I? Chiming in on the Frugal vs Cheapskate vs Spendthrift debate!
I’ve seen this question asked around a lot in the financial online community: “What does it mean to be cheap?” The questions are usually some variant of “when are you frugal, versus miserly, versus profligate?” It’s been said time and again that the terms “frugal” and “thrifty” have positive connotations as admirable traits, whereas the terms “tightwad”, “miserly”, “scrooge-like”, “stingy” or “cheap” mean you’re a grumpy old sourpuss who won’t share.
So frugal and tightwad aren’t the same thing, as these examples from the blogosphere can tell you.
Cheap people care about the cost of something.
Frugal people care about the value of something.
Cheap people try to get the lowest price on everything.
Frugal people try to get the lowest price on most things, but spend a lot on items they really care about.
Frugal – Going to a buffet and eating enough to get full and satisfied.
Cheap – Getting full and satisfied, then filling your pockets and bags before leaving
Frugal – Satisfied with only spending a dollar on a kids meal for your child.
Cheap – Ordering an extra kids meal for your self to avoid the regular price.
But even if being frugal and being cheap don’t exactly mean the same thing, these characteristics are closely related enough that they are easy to confuse. One is the euphemistic form of the other, which you can tactfully use in defense of yourself once somebody complains of your lack of generosity. What you may possibly have not heard before was that there have been studies and scientific evidence that reveal more about how our minds influence our money mindsets. What does the research tell us?
The Science and Rationale Behind Being Frugal or Cheap or Extravagant
Study #1: The Stanford University MRI Shopping Brain-Scan Experiment
Scientists and economists decided to band together to prove this point: that your brain has something to do with your money profile. Behind the tendency to save, squirrel stuff away and hoard, is the reality that your genetic makeup can have something to do with it all! Similarly, this works for the opposite side of the spectrum as well, so your urges to spend, squander or gamble your money away can also be explained by the internal workings of your mind. Does that mean you can blame your parents or ancestors for your overly conscientious behavior or on the other hand, for being so careless about your money? Maybe….. but at least now you know where all that angst comes from.
Conclusion: Your brain and genetics can be held responsible for some of your saving or spending habits.
Study #2: The Carnegie-Mellon Tightwad-Spendthrift Scale Survey
Behavioral economists also came up with a way to measure how people’s money attitudes affected their overall happiness. Before we get into the findings, let’s review the money profiles that were studied:
- Spendthrifts spend without thought and control such that they often get into money trouble. Biggest complaint: lack of money, not enough dough.
- Tightwads refuse to spend on anything, period. And will even avoid buying stuff that they actually need.
- Frugalists are value conscious and are more careful about their finances than the average person. They usually do spend, albeit in a controlled fashion or when it counts.
You’ll find more about Study #2 here.
It has been determined that the subjects of saving and consuming evoke different levels of happiness in people. This finding came out of a few studies, including one that involved a questionnaire taken by more than 2,600 subjects. Here are some details:
The Unhappy and The Miserable
Even though they love to spend, spendthrifts aren’t happy when they do. That sounds pretty ironic, but that’s because after the short-term excitement associated with the spending spree, the spendthrift’s guilt over their behavior eventually takes over and ruins their mood. So does it follow that those who refuse to spend would feel greater happiness and satisfaction over their ability to hoard money? Not in the case of scrooges. Surprisingly enough, tightwads are more miserable than spendthrifts. Since according to a Carnegie-Mellon scientist,
A spendthrift suffers after he buys something. A tightwad suffers while he buys something and then again afterwards.
Sounds like twice the pain for a tightwad. They suffer because their need to be cheap is driven not by practical sense but rather by painful emotions of not wanting to part with their money. I can just imagine how tortured such an existence could be where every purchase feels like punishment.
The Happier Than Average
Meanwhile, frugalists are considered happier than average since they derive pleasure out of saving money and putting their budgets to good use. And since they’re able to spend prudently, they don’t feel the frustration brought about by repressive budgetary constraints and self-imposed shopping boycotts.
The Happiest Of All
Now for those who don’t fall under any of these categories, you are considered “unconflicted”. To me, financially unconflicted individuals take the middle road by spending and saving with ease and without stress. These are probably the most relaxed money types out there who have successfully brought balance and sense into how they manage their finances. This would explain why they are the happiest of all money types.
Conclusion: If you want to be happy, you’ll need to relax about your money and find some middle ground between saving and spending so you’re not “conflicted”.
As we have seen here, tendencies and inclinations can vary in degree across a behavioral spectrum. A characteristic can present as a good thing, but when done to the extreme, crosses the line to neurosis. I guess that’s where the difference between frugal and cheap actually lies — frugal is still a good thing, while cheap is frugal gone bad or extreme. Oddly enough, I suppose there really is such a thing as “saving too much”.
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