Physicians: It’s possible to be frugal, but not cheap

I’ll be the first to admit that I am a frugal physician. Frugality has served me well, and I wouldn’t be financially independent without that quality.

Yes, I refer to frugality as a quality, and as far as qualities go, it’s a quality quality to have. While not everyone thinks of frugality as a decidedly positive quality to possess, it just might be that others confuse frugality with its ugly distant cousin who is just plain cheap.

You see, frugality and cheapness may have a little bit of overlap, but they are hardly alike.

The difference between frugal and cheap

Let’s start with definitions.

According to Dictionary.com, frugal is an adjective meaning “economical in use or expenditure; prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful.” Synonyms include thrifty, careful, prudent, and penny-wise. Antonyms are luxurious, lavish, and profuse.

The definition of cheap is broader, but includes inexpensive, of small value, and shoddy. When used to describe a person, it can mean embarrassed, sheepish, and can even mean mean (i.e., cheap shot). Synonyms are paltry, low, and inferior. Antonyms include costly, dear, expensive, generous, and charitable.

Clearly, the traits are far from identical, and one should not conflate the two. Frugality is a useful tool that can help a motivated individual achieve his or her financial goals. Cheapness might help you save money, but acting cheap comes with costs that often outweigh the initial or perceived advantages.

Frugal does this; cheap does that

A frugal person looks for a good value; a cheap person looks for the lowest price.

Frugal is finding ways to make an amazing vacation affordable; cheap is skipping a trip you can afford because it costs “too much.”

A frugal person orders a sandwich and one drink at dinner, but doesn’t balk at paying half the bill along with the cheap person who ordered a steak and three drinks and offers to “split” the bill.

A frugal person “cuts the cord” and forgoes football for the fall. A cheap person uses his brother’s password to watch football from his PC for free while writing blog posts. I owe you some beer, bro!

To be frugal is to buy quality, nutritious food when it’s on sale or from a discount grocer. To be cheap is to buy unhealthy, inexpensive food to keep the grocery bill as low as possible.

I could continue on in this fashion for awhile, but it might be more useful to show you a number of ways in which we are frugal but not often cheap.

Ways we are frugal

My wife and I have developed all sorts of frugal habits that have allowed us to achieve financial freedom in short order on my generous salary. We didn’t necessarily have to be frugal in all of these ways, and perhaps we’ll shed some of these habits as our nest egg grows, but we love the life we live, so I don’t see any major changes in the foreseeable future.

What frugal habits do we employ?

Save on groceries. We buy most of our food from Aldi and Costco. The cart is filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, seafoods, meats, and yes, some junk food, but we get the goods at a very reasonable price.

I bring a packed lunch to work. I’ve been doing it since I was six. Habits die hard. Plus, I often eat lunch in five-minute increments and can never leave my worksite at lunchtime. If I’m not munching down leftovers, my lunch looks very much like it did in grade school. Sandwich, apple, side, treat. The main difference is the Jell-O, or Snack Pack has been replaced with low-fat yogurt, and my mom’s no longer in-house to peel and slice my apples, so I pack the intact fruit.

We cook. To continue with the food trend, we prepare more than 90 percent of our dinners at home. When we do dine out locally, we often use discount certificates sold by the local radio station or coupons from a fundraising booklet.

We buy used vehicles and hang onto them. We currently both drive American cars with > 130,000 miles. We bought them lightly used and have owned them for six and ten years. The only reason we are tempted to upgrade one is to have the ability to pull an RV.

I bike to work (when the weather cooperates). Lately, I’ve been using my Fortified commuter bike, which has seen a not-so-frugal electric upgrade, and it’s a wonderfully efficient and exciting way to make a short commute.

We board our dog with family and friends. As frequent travelers, we need to find our dog a place to stay while we’re away. Staying in the home of familiar folks is much better for her than a concrete kennel and far more affordable. We return the favor by watching friends’ dogs while they’re away.

We buy used. For some things, new is the only way to go. But many consumer products are nearly as good lightly used, and often at a fraction of the price. We’ve found great buys at garage sales and thrift stores. We buy and occasionally sell on eBay and Craigslist. I like to let others pay for the depreciation.

Very low cost cell plans.  We’ve been using Republic Wireless for a couple years now (uses Sprint towers). For two lines, our monthly bill is between $26 and $30, or $13 to $15 each.

I once was cheap, but now am found

I know I defined cheap earlier, but I’d like to provide an example of how I’ve been cheap in the past. I’m not going to pretend I don’t do anything that crosses over line from frugal to cheap, and it doesn’t get much cheaper than this.

When a group of friends and I graduated from college, friends of mine who shared a large house threw a house party in our honor. The next day, we inexplicably had gallons upon gallons of beer left in a keg, but the tap and empty keg had to be returned for a deposit. It was a quandary of a dilemma.

Our solution? A few of us were going to a baseball game and why not tailgate with the free beer? We emptied all of the now-room-temperature beer that we could fit into a Gatorade cooler, twisted the cover on, threw it in the back of the truck, and went off to the game.

When we arrived, we realized sand and dust had swirled around the truck bed and found its way into the serving cooler. Apparently, the top doesn’t fit all that tight on those round coolers, a fact also evident by the flatness of the warm, dirty beer.

And yet we drank that pale, fizzless, gritty liquid. Because it was free.

That, my friends, is cheap.

I’ve graduated from that graduation weekend behavior. Not only am I not cheap enough to drink that nastiness the following day, but I’m too proud to drink a light beer like that when it’s cold, carbonated, and sediment-free. It seems I’ve found my way, or at least I’ve found a better beer.

Ways we are not cheap

In addition to buying the occasional $22 bottle of beer, we avoid being cheap in a number of ways. A couple of the antonyms to cheap are generous and charitable, and we try to embrace those traits.

We are charitable. This site has a charitable mission, and I donate half of my profits. We’ve given tens of thousands from our donor advised funds, which now have balances of over $200,000. I plan to increase that to $250,000 before the year is over.

We are generous at times. I feel like we host as many or more gatherings and parties as we attend. That may just speak to our popularity or lack thereof as infrequent invitees, but the presence of 5 or 6 homebrewed ales and ciders on draft in our basement may have something to do with our frequent hosting.

We pay our fair share. In large group outings or meals, we’d rather be the couple that orders a bit less when splitting a bill five ways or chips in a bit too much than we owe. Fortunately, most of our friends seem to operate in the same way, and the wait staff often end up with a generous tip. I don’t throw my money around and offer to pick up the whole tab for the table of 12. That would be a bit ostentatious, and way more than I care to spend.

We don’t skimp on experiences. We travel a fair amount, and it would be a lot cheaper to vacation less and do less on vacation, but we find value in family adventures.

We spend on our properties. Our primary home is our castle, and it’s also where we entertain friends and family. We’ve got 3,600 square feet and a few hundred feet of riverfront. Then there’s the second home and the 7 acres of lakefront, but I feel we got excellent value for our money in all three cases, so while none of it came cheap, those purchases were aligned with our frugal values.

You don’t have to be frugal, but you don’t want to be cheap

I’m not here to tell you ought to be frugal. I do challenge my readers to live on half, and that’s tough to do without some level of frugality or an exceptionally high salary.

Of course, you don’t have to accept that challenge, either. I’m just telling you what I do, and in some cases why I do it, but to be honest, I don’t always have a good reason. As I’ve said before, I’m sometimes frugal without a cause.

I would like you to see frugality in a positive light, even if frugality is not for you in most cases. The habits of frugal people, if they’re doing it right, should have favorable consequences for themselves without negatively impacting anyone else. Cheap tactics, however, are not necessarily beneficial for the tactician, and often do affect others in an unseemly way. Don’t be a cheapskate.

“Physician on FIRE” is an anesthesiologist and can be reached at his self-titled site, Physician On FIRE.  

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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