Help a Reader – How Cheap Is Too Cheap?

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The following is an email I got from Joe. B, a MPFJ reader. 

Having watched part of an installment of Extreme Cheapskate, I can say urinating in a bottle is way too cheap for me.  

However, I ask myself periodically how far can/should I go in the realm of cheapness? For example, how about turning off electronics that use power even when not in use, like TV’s and DVD’s? I figured out how to do it, I put them on power strips and turn several off at once. However, I wonder if on-and-offing them is deleterious to their function and would it cost more in wear and tear and subsequent replacement than leaving them turned on full time?

I also wonder about such things as walking to save money. Certainly, it is healthful and even nice to connect with the world outside my four walls (maybe even enjoying nature occasionally). The issue is one of available time, energy and even the cost of shoe leather – or plastic. If I can make money with my spare time, does driving because it is faster make sense? I already own the car and have paid for the maintenance and insurance; the only cost is depreciation and gasoline, right? And how far is too far to walk: one block to my Postal Service cluster box, a mile to my fitness center (is driving to a fitness center an oxymoron?), three miles to the nearest grocery store? 

I do my own minor auto maintenance since I have trouble paying someone $5.00 to replace the air filter on my car. I have also done home projects like making book cases and adding ceiling fans (I live in a hot climate; they really do pay for themselves!) I do it myself in part because I enjoy accomplishing projects, but also, I save money and assure the job gets done timely and well (mostly).  However, then I am buying tools – – however, how good a tool to buy, the Professional quality one – often way south of $100 or the “homeowner” version for $40 –  but don’t expect extreme durability.

Speaking of do-it-yourself, how about gardening, making your own baked goods, always home cooking your own meals instead of going out and even preserving your own fruits and vegetables when they are in season for later use? All can save money but they take time and most require equipment, use energy and, did I say, time? Is it worth it?

Also, look at activities like going to movies. I can go when they are first released and pay $10+, I can wait 4-8 months and rent them for a dollar or two and the whole family can watch it, or I can wait a year or so and see it on television. Is it worth the wait? What if I forget I wanted to watch it and miss it? How about a new ipad? It would be pretty cool to be able to carry 100’s of books at one time and get books on-line from the library for free (I rarely buy new books). How about my 7 year old PC? It still does what I want and I’m afraid some of the programs I use are so old they likely will not be compatible with a new OS. What about a smart phone?… 

My Thoughts – How Cheap is Too Cheap?

This is a great topic to discuss, so a big thanks goes to Joe for bringing this up! Indeed, the line between cheap and too cheap can often be a fine one (and one that I, as a pretty frugal-minded person, often walk).

To help myself define whether something is worthwhile to be cheap about or I need to “loosen up the purse strings,” I generally follow 3 guidelines:

  • # 1 – Don’t be cheap on things that help you work towards achieving your life values and/or life dreams?
    • In general, I believe that for the things in your life of which you feel very passionately (your life values and dreams), those are not areas in which you want to be cheap. 
    • For example, if helping others by donating to charity is high up on your life of life values, then it would be best to skimp in other areas in order to free up some money to donate to your favorite causes. 
    • As another example, if traveling to see the world is high up on your life values/dreams listing, it is OK to be cheap about what type of clothing you buy if that means that you’ll be able to finally take the “trip of a lifetime” you’ve been planning for 5 years.  
  • # 2 – Focus on saving money on “the big things” and value your time.
    • As Joe hinted at above, for everything (big or little) we do, there is likely SOME WAY that we could technically be doing it cheaper. 
    • For example, instead of driving my car the 2 miles to work on days that it is rainy and cold, I could ride my bike. However, the mental anguish that comes along with being really wet makes the little bit of money I spend in gas very worthwhile. 
    • Likewise, I probably could save a little money over the long run by replacing the 4 regular light bulbs in my house with energy-efficient CFL ones. However, how much money would that really save? A few dollars? It’s probably not worth worrying about every little detail like this. 
    • On the other hand, it is very important, in my opinion, to address issues that cost you very large amounts of money. For example, if you are eating out 6 times a week, that’s likely costing thousands of dollars a year, and as such, it would be very well worth your time to investigate the issue and find a way to eat cheaper.
    • Lastly, in all of this, always make sure that the work required to do something cheaply doesn’t take up more time than it is worth in cost savings.
  • # 3 – How well are your savings goals being met?
    • After figuring out ways to save money on the more significant items in your life as discussed in #2, the next important issue becomes to determine if you actually need to worry about “going cheap” in the more minor areas of your financial life.
    • To determine this, you must ask yourself if you are able to save the amount of money that you want/need to. If at that point, you are already saving enough money, I wouldn’t worry too much about going more hyper-frugal.
    • In my experience, most often, people are prevented from meeting their savings goals by some systemic, fairly clear ‘problem’ in their spending patterns, not because they, for example, decided to pay a mechanic to do their oil change/tune up versus do it themselves.
    • However, if after addressing any major spending issues in your finances, you define that you need to save more than you are, it would be worthwhile to look in to ways to be cheaper in other aspects of your life. 
    • And, by going through these 3 guidelines, you would then have a solid justification for why you need to be cheap in a certain way (and then, it would not be ‘too’ cheap at all, right?! haha).
How about you all? What questions about how far to go down the road of cheapness have you asked and resolved? What do you think? And, more importantly, what do you do?

Share your experiences by commenting below! 

***Photo courtesy of


  1. Awesome post. I ask myself these questions all of the time. I also calculate my time as if I was being paid. Will it take me more time to complete something compared to a professional. I also don't unplug my electronics on a regular basis. I ran many tests on this and at the most I saved about $0.75 a month. What a deal!
    My recent post The First Step to Recovery is to Admit You Don’t Have a Budget

  2. Being cheap for me is like going on a diet. You spend all of your time depriving yourself of the things you want and eventually, all those cravings just piled up and you found yourself buying things just to satisfy the craving without really dwelling on how useful they will be to you. So, I prefer to be very organize with my finances, pay all the bills, save a percentage of my money, and spend the rest on what I need and want without the guilty feeling.
    My recent post 6 Ugly Investment Realities to Remember in the Wake of the Dell Deal

  3. Every person has the stop-point when frugal because cheap. I fully believe you have to be responsible with your money, but I also believe money is gift. You're eating out example is perfect. Eating out 6 times might be hard on both your pocketbook and waistline. But if food is your passion then eat out 1 time a week at your favorite restaurant and enjoy every bite. Then use the money you saved to pay off debt or to fund another goal. That's living to me.
    My recent post Gratitude versus Entitlement

  4. myfijourney says:

    These are the kinds of questions that I ask myself.

    First nail down your minimum savings goals, then your desired savings goals. So for me, my minimum would be 20% and my desired 50%. Then start making conscious decisions about what to be cheap with and what not to. I have no DIY skills and I don't particularly like the idea of manual labor, so you won't see me changing my own oil. But I love cooking, so I'll probably be cooking almost every day.

    As for the luxuries, prioritize. Try to buy the ones that you'll actually use all the time. I don't own an iPad in part because I can't really see myself using it all the time. I'd much rather buy a new laptop.

    Unless you're living on the poverty line, you need to set aside some splurge money. For me, I'm going to allocate 50% of my bonus to splurging. The other 50% gets saved.
    My recent post Should Americans Be Forced to Save For Retirement?

  5. It is not good to be cheap. We can use the word sensible or savvy but not cheap. We can be more detailed and watch out for unnecessary expenses. The objective is to save money and time.
    My recent post Creativity Can Make You Debt-Free

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