How to Know if You’re Being Too Cheap

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Personal finance is personal – one person can choose vacations over a nice house whereas another person would rather keep her creature comforts (and herself) at home. One decision isn’t better than another so it might seem that one person’s “cheap” is just another person’s “frugal.” I think though that both the people listed above are prioritizing what they want – which is good and not cheap. Cheap is a whole different other animal.

A Story of Cheapness

I got free tickets to a baseball game and invited my friend. He asked if he could bring his own food into the stadium. When we got to the game, my friend brought out a bunch of little snacks. And then he told me he had already eaten.

I was a little confused. If you were going to eat beforehand, you don’t need to eat at the game, which was at 7. My friend is someone who eats 3 meals a day. He doesn’t eat snacks or dessert regularly.

And then it dawned on me – he wasn’t bringing in food to save money – he was bringing in food to see what he could get away with.

Why Being Cheap is Different Than Saving Money

Personally, I’ve never understood people who sneak in snacks to the movies. I mean, I realize that movie snacks are expensive but movies are generally 2 hours long. They’re not so long that you’re going to need food or water. I can understand that other people just have the habit of eating during movies, so maybe that part is about saving money. But for me, sneaking food in would not be about saving money because I never wanted food to begin with.

I think part of the fun, though, is feeling like you’re subverting the system. It’s about what you can get away with, even if you didn’t want to do the deed in the first place.  It’s like my friend – he didn’t need or necessarily want to eat at the baseball game but he wanted to feel like he one-upped the game (which he didn’t even pay for). I’ve also brought him to a hockey game where he got a free meal. He had already eaten, but that didn’t stop him from loading up on the buffet because it was free. If it weren’t free, he wouldn’t have bought anything. Because it was free, he ate it all.

In my mind, being cheap is doing stuff with the primary motivation is money.

The Problem with Being Cheap

I understand there are times when people need to feast and famine. If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, then it probably makes sense to feast while you can. It might make sense to carry snacks with you in case you do get hungry because you can’t afford to buy a meal out.

My friend is not one of these people. He has a well-paying job, no debt, and few expenses.  He could have bought something if he needed it. Also, and most importantly, he wasn’t hungry.

The problem with being cheap is that you let money dictate your decisions.

And I’m not here to judge. I think we are all a little guilty of this. For example when:

  • You buy something because it’s being sold at a deep discount even though you don’t really want or need it.
  • You pick the cheapest options even when better options in terms of time or convenience might be just a few dollars more.
  • You eat free food that you don’t want or need and that might not even taste very good.
  • You automatically forgo expensive activities because they’re expensive, no matter how they might benefit you in the future or how much enjoyment you would receive out of them.

Again, when money is tight, it makes sense that money is your chief consideration. But once you have some money saved, it makes sense to allow some other criteria into the mix, such as one’s own desires or needs, others’ desires or needs, or any long-term implications.

Don’t Let Money Be Your Dictator

I’m starting to become more mindful of my money decisions, but it’s a struggle. I’ve spent so much of my life scrimping and saving, it’s weird to think, oh hey, I can choose things that work better for me even if they cost more. Or, hey, maybe there are things more important to me than money. When I see my options laid out for me, it’s like pulling teeth to consider criteria besides money, but it makes sense to.

A lot of social activities will say that consumer purchasing has a lot of power in sending a message to companies as to what consumers want or value. I also think that your purchasing power sends powerful messages to yourself and others. For instance:

  • When you scrimp on food or health, you’re telling yourself, wealth before health.
  • When you are stingy with your friends and family irrespective of their desires, you’re saying, I value money more than our relationships.
  • When you pick the cheapest option for your work or career instead of the one that works best for you, you’re sending signals to yourself that you don’t deserve it, that you don’t believe in yourself.

Again, sometimes we have to worry about every last cent, and sometimes we don’t. I hope that when we get a little more wiggle room, or when we have hotels filled wiggle rooms, that we then start to learn to dictate money to do our bidding instead of the other way around.



7 thoughts on “How to Know if You’re Being Too Cheap

  1. Your theory made me laugh. Yes, I totally sneak in snacks at the movies because I am cheap…and because I feel good about working the system! 🙂

    Thanks for your insights about being more mindful about how you spend money, and even considering if you’re being too cheap!

  2. Really amazed and happy to know your views. It’s exactly the same case everyone should understand that being cheap is different from saving.
    Thank you for this interesting article.

  3. This is great. I actually never thought that me sneaking candy into the movies was me being cheap. Like you said, it’s about the thrill. Yeah, I’ll buy the $15 popcorn soda combo, but I’m sneaking my candy in. Catch me if you can!

  4. Definitely don’t scrimp on health. That way lies disastrous things.

    In defense of sneaking food into the theater… I don’t do it anymore (I splurge on popcorn), but I used to do it. Not to subvert the system but because I just genuinely like to snack while I watch a movie and wasn’t going to pay $3 for a $1 box of Red Vines. If the theater had charged even $2, I might have just bought them there, but… Not paying a 300% markup. I don’t feel like that’s cheap so much as just financially prudent (if a bit sneaky).

  5. i haven’t been to the movies since 2004, but the rare dinner out is over 100 bucks usually. one thing we quit doing in our house is travelling by air at crappy times to save 20-30 bucks. pay the extra and be there enjoying your trip. i would rather travel less and travel well.

    same goes for food. get decent ingredients if you can afford them….and if you travel and your friends put you up in their guest room, then take them out for a night….and if you can’t afford to tip decently then you can’t afford to drink/dine out.

  6. Reminds me of the couple I watched sneak fried chicken into the movies. Love and frugality is when you whip out a giant bucket of chicken and eat it with your hands in a giant movie theatre!

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