Feb 16

The Difference Between Frugal and Cheap

 Sometimes being frugal is more expensive

Cheap or Frugal?

Many people confuse being frugal with being cheap. I certainly did for much of my life. They are not the same, and understanding the difference matters. I wish I knew the difference earlier in life, as I could have more efficiently optimized my happiness . I want to give you some examples of this so you can apply this important principal to your life.


As you may know, Mrs. Happy Philosopher is training for an ultra-marathon. She runs a lot, and I have started running with her now and then. Running is a pretty cheap sport, unlike the club soccer my son participates in. There are no coaches and referees to pay, no team dues or crazy driving all over the place for practice and games. All you need are a few articles of running clothes that seem to last forever and shoes.


Running shoes are the big one. Good running shoes cost a lot, like $80-200 a lot. You can buy cheaper ones but in my experience they fall apart before the more expensive ones. Buying cheap actually costs about the same in the long run as you have to replace the shoes more often.


On my last run my feet started hurting after about 8 miles. This is how my shoes tell me they are ready to retire to the front porch, only to be worn for yard work or the odd walk to the mailbox. I could push them longer and just bear the mild pain, but I would be risking injury. This would be cheap.



Buying Shoes Frugal Style

I got online and looked for a replacement. I love my trail running shoes; in fact so much that I bought two identical pair a couple of years ago in anticipation of one wearing out. Well, now they were both worn out. I knew they would not have this exact shoe, as shoe companies upgrade every year to a “better” version of the shoe.


I was thrilled when I saw that a newer model of my exact shoe was on sale for around $75 (to make room for an even newer model) so I snapped them up in spite of the fact that they were about the ugliest shade of green someone could have come up with. It was like someone melded together one of those fluorescent yellow glow sticks with an alligator (and you all know how I feel about alligators!).


A few days later the ugly shoes arrived. They were even uglier in person than online, but I could not have been more excited! I put them on, quite proud of myself for flexing my frugality muscles.


Frugal running shoes

No alligators were harmed in making these shoes.

Hmmmm. They felt very different than my old shoes. Maybe a little tight in the forefoot? Could be the extra thick socks I’m wearing. I think they will be all right.


WARNING: In case you are wondering, never buy a pair of shoes if this dialogue is running through your mind. Running shoes are like love, there is no question. You don’t sit down with a spreadsheet to figure out of you are in love. I should have known better but I put them on and hit the trails anyways.


Let’s just say the run was suboptimal. Uphill was good, but downhill was a total disaster. Shoes that are a tiny bit too small become a huge amount too small when dropping 2000 feet of elevation over a few miles. I’m surprised I did not lose any toenails, or toes for that matter.


I knew they needed to be returned or given away.


I was sad because they were such a good price.


Buying these shoes was frugal, but keeping them would have been cheap.


Avoiding Cheapness

I called the store I purchased them from and sheepishly explained my situation and asked them what I should do. I was very surprised when they not only said I could return them for store credit, but they would send me a shipping label free of change.


By the way, they just gained a lifetime customer by that sly little move. Making me pay for shipping would have been cheap. Paying for my shipping was frugal. That was some high level persuasion jujitsu on their part.

Keeping these shoes would be being cheap

Goodbye and Godspeed my dear alligator-bile-vomit shoes.

Since I really didn’t want to take another chance with this shoe, even at the next size up (the new design just didn’t feel great on my foot) I went to my local running store. This is the most expensive option for sure, but I still buy there frequently. They are extremely knowledgeable and passionate about running and it makes me feel good to support a local business that I want need to stay in my community. I also really like to try on a pair when I don’t know exactly how they will fit.


Spending More in the Name of Frugality

Mrs. Happy Philosopher and I took a trip to the running store that afternoon. After some thought, she decided that she needed new shoes as well, as her current trail shoes were getting up there in mileage.


Seeing all those new shoes on the wall made me happy. I tried on 3 or 4 different shoes from a couple of brands I have had good experiences with. Amazingly they had one on sale for around $70-80. What luck!


It fit better than the neon alligator shoes that I was returning, but not…perfect.


“We have the 2017 model of that shoe that just came out. It’s not on sale but I can bring it out for you to try. It’s a little wider”


I agreed to try it.


As I placed it on my foot I felt a little like Cinderella. I knew this was the one. It was love.


Price: $130


Ouch. That’s usually more than I like to pay. But I hesitated only a second before smiling and handing him the box.


“I’ll take them.”


I could have purchased the ones on sale. I’m sure they would have been fine, but that would have been cheap. I would be spending a lot of time with these shoes. If they lasted 500 miles at about a 9 minute per mile pace I would be spending at least 75 hours in these shoes, and that didn’t even include all the walking and whatever life the shoe had in retirement.


The extra 60 or 70 cents per hour of running is well worth it to me. Good running shoes really make me happy. I can just run and forget about what is on my feet. Buying happiness at this price is pretty frugal, even though it is not the cheapest option.


A few years ago I would have bought the cheaper shoes.


Today I bought the more frugal option.


My wife had the women’s version of the sale shoes in her hand. After hearing me describe the differences in the forefoot of the shoe I could tell she was thinking about the newer shoe.


“These will be fine” she said.


I knew they would be. They fit her foot better than the sale shoes fit mine, although not perfectly.


“You should try on the more expensive ones. You run a lot more than I do and you should really get the pair than feels the best.”


She hesitated, but finally tried them on. She did like the new ones more.


“Get them!” I exclaimed. “Running is your passion so it makes no sense to save a few dollars here. We are not being frugal if we buy the less expensive but inferior shoes, we are being cheap.”


She agreed and we both walked out of the store with two of the more expensive pairs of shoes in there.


Spend More but Buy Less

I’ve been running my life this way for a while now, and interestingly it doesn’t cost me any more money to buy nicer things. I end up buying less. Less becomes more because I love the things I have. I use them. I wear them out.


When I was a teenager I didn’t have much money for clothes. I bought many of them myself. I had to buy cheap out of necessity. Either that or do more laundry which I hated.


As I started making some money I kept this habit, even when my income was quite comfortable.


I would buy a pair of cheap jeans for $25 or $30. They would fit…kind of. I wouldn’t wear them much. I would find myself at another store a month later looking for another pair of jeans…


Eventually 5 pairs of jeans would be staring back at me from my closet and I would lament how I had nothing to wear. I would to put on the least worst pair.


A year or two later I would take a box of almost new clothes to a charity and say goodbye to my jeans.


Then I would go to the store…


You get the idea.


About 4 or 5 years ago I decided to treat myself with a really nice pair of jeans. Since I was taking a wrecking ball to many of my habit loops I went to the mall (don’t judge) and found a store with more jeans than I have ever seen in my life. Everyone working there was unnaturally beautiful, like I had stepped into a clothes catalogue or something.


I tried on many pairs as the visually stunning and very pleasant smelling sales clerk brought several styles and sizes to me. She smiled at me in ways the clerks at Costco and TJ Maxx never did. I felt way cooler than I actually was. I’m sure the subliminal sexuality and implicit message that I was cooler if I purchased jeans from this store didn’t influence my purchasing decision at all. Before this encounter I didn’t even realize jeans sizes came in odd numbers. As a skinny dude I was always seemed to be between sizes in the cheap jeans.


I finally found a pair that fit perfectly. It was like those sweat shop workers knew my body better than I did. I tried not to look at the price tag but I had to…


Fancy cool jeans: $125


Now I know some of you are laughing right now because this may seem cheap to you, but this was 4 or 5 times what I was used to paying. I felt a little lightheaded and sweaty as I pulled my credit card out.


The sales clerk smiled at me reassuringly…


I bought a new tee-shirt just for good measure to go with the jeans.


That was the happiest a clothing purchase I have ever made. I wore those jeans all the time. A couple of years later holes stared appearing everywhere and the cuffs were becoming frayed. I became afraid to wash them as I thought they may disintegrate.


It’s like I was playing Russian roulette with the washing machine.


They were becoming borderline obscene.


I finally let them go.


At the end of the day they cost me no more than the basket of cheap jeans I would have bought in their place.


When I became frugal instead of cheap my spending did not change, but my happiness did.


Frugality is not about spending less money.


Frugality is about efficiently converting money to happiness.


Trade wisely.


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  1. As a fellow, runner, it is always okay to spend a little to get good shoes. That being said, one of my favorite trail shoes was a pair that was on clearance because of the color and my son also worked at that store and we got a another big discount, double score. Same for clothes and I actually (as I have mentioned before) have spent a bit on socks. My feet are happy when I am run, thus I am happy.

    BTW, your header image always reminds me of a book series that I a read in my late teens: The Chronicles of Amber I really don’t remember a ton except one of my favorite characters had a name I fell in love with: Corwin. Unfortunately, my wife did not feel the same affinity so non of our children have that name. Maybe a grandchild some day.

    1. I took that picture at a church somewhere in San Fransisco, can’t remember the name but it was a beautiful place.

      All I care about is now my shoes make my feet feel. My wife and I have bought some extremely ugly running shoes just to save a few dollars…but that is frugal of course, not cheap 😉

      • wendy on July 30, 2017 at 3:52 pm
      • Reply

      Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny… Walk the Pattern!

      (all you 70’s and 80’s SF/Fantasy geeks, stand up!)

  2. I still buy cheap shoes from good brands. New Balance, Asics, Brooks, etc… I am glad to say I haven’t noticed a huge difference in quality or the way I feel after running in one shoe or another, as long as they fit well.

    OTOH, there is a huge difference between being cheap and frugal. To me, cheapness affects other people, while frugality does not. An example — you go out to eat with a group of friends. To be frugal is to order the sandwich for yourself, but tip well. To be cheap is to chip in enough to pay for your sandwich, but underpaying for tax & tip. I found myself covering for others’ cheapness often as a medical student, when none of us had much money.


    1. Hey, if the cheap shoes work then that’s the frugal power move, I’ve just never found them to be satisfactory overall. They are too hit or miss for me, I need my shoes to be awesome at all times! We would save a lot of money in my house if $40 running shoes worked for us!

      I’m not sure I would make the distinction of who is affected to determine if the outcome is cheap or frugal. For instance, if I buy shitty shoes that hurt my feet it doesn’t really affect anyone else…but it is still a cheap move, best to be avoided.

      To use your restaurant metaphor, being cheap is purchasing the least expensive thing on the menu per calorie, but you hate eating it and it makes you miserable. Frugal is finding that balance between price, nutrition and taste that is of maximum utility or happiness to you. Either way no one but you is affected by that decision.

      Not tipping well is cheap though. Always tip well or the universe will hate you 😉

  3. That was some sweet customer service you got there. That company should do well over the years. Maybe buy some stock.

    Cheap is being penny wise and pound foolish. Cheap is risking relationships by putting money first. Cheap is valuing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. Frugal is understanding the true value of things, and spending only where the ROI makes sense. I often feel sorry for Frugal. His ugly noisy step sister is the one that people remember, and they tend to paint him with the same brush.

    1. I think they will do fine. I should give them some love in the comments here though.


      I’ve ordered from there several times and have yet to be disappointed.

      You are right, cheap does not take value into consideration, only price. In isolation price is a very poor way to make decisions.

    • VagabondMD on February 18, 2017 at 4:15 pm
    • Reply

    I enjoyed the blog very much. I have had similar experiences and conclusions with jeans and running shoes. I have been running for 29 years. I learned early on that the “sale” running shoes never hit mark. They ALWAYS underperformed and were discarded or designated for walking the dogs in short order. I do not even try.

    I might recommend that now that you know which running shoes work, buy a second pair, at full price, from the online seller that allowed you to get “unstuck” from the alligator shoes.

    I will also recommend that you not purchase ten more of there pairs. Your feet, stride, weight, mechanics, etc. will change subtly over time. There is a good chance that what works great now may not work in a couple of years, and this may have been at play with the alligator shoes.

    1. Haha, good points. This is usually what I do, find a perfect pair at full retail then buy the same pair when they are ‘upgrading’ to the next model. Agree on not buying more than a pair or two. I’ve heard that running shoes have a ‘shelf-life’ and will lose some of the elastic and cushioning properties as they age, but this may be complete nonsense. Another reason to not buy too many is that there is generally deflation in consumer manufactured goods. In 10 years the shoes will be cheaper and better, so you are effectively locking in an inferior product at a higher price.

    • squirrel on March 5, 2017 at 5:46 pm
    • Reply

    Great post. First time wandering over to your blog. Totally agree. Have been running over 20 years. About 2 years ago I made this switch. I used to look for clearance shoes at the outlet store! On a whim I went to a running store a couple years ago and tried a pair of Hoka brand shoes. Truthfully had bought 3 different pairs that only lasted a month a piece before getting “retired”and I was desperate to find a good shoe. They felt great especially on the treadmill the store had to trial run shoes. Talk about sticker shock. $150!!! The is what I used to pay for 2 or more pairs of shoes. I have to say though they are the best shoes ever!. Like the point you made they last twice as long, and ever since I switched, I don’t get all the nagging little aches and pains I used to (and I’m running more than ever).

    Sorry to sound like a sales rep, but the point is you are right in this blog. I have since found slightly less expensive places to buy the same shoe (frugal) but I no longer go cheap on my shoes! Plus they have saved me little injuries which is a huge long term cost savings Im sure.

    1. Thanks for stopping by squirrel. I agree, if shoes cause injury there is no price low enough to justify. I’m not sure I’ve ever paid $150 but I’ve been pretty close. It is still a bit painful to swipe that credit card though 🙂

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