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At Peace with Being ‘Cheap’

A few years ago, I wrote and published a book entitled 365 Ways to Live Cheap. It’s a fairly straightforward guide to frugality that delivers exactly what the title implies – 365 tactics that people can use to reduce their living expenses.

It was an enjoyable book to write and a fitting “first book” for someone writing a personal finance website. However, there was one little hitch along the way: I intended to call the book 365 Ways to Live Frugally.

The publisher felt that the title wasn’t catchy enough and insisted on the title change. Their arguments made sense – a single word change in the title could make a huge difference in attracting attention on the bookstore shelf.

So, I relented.

That didn’t change the fact that I hated the title 365 Ways to Live Cheap. Every time I saw that book on the bookstore shelves for years, that word grated at me.

Cheap.

I viewed myself as “frugal,” not “cheap.” Cheap is a word that had some very negative connotations for me, connotations that frugal just didn’t have.

To me at the time, cheap meant that I was so obsessed about saving money that I missed out on even the simplest pleasures in life. Cheap meant that I put out shabby things for the guests in my home in order to save a buck. Cheap meant that I put the virtue of my account balances above virtually everything else in life.

On the other hand, I proudly thought of myself as “frugal.” To me at that time, frugal meant finding the best value for the buck. It meant cutting back on the things that were relatively unimportant to me so that I could preserve the things that were more important to me. It meant finding ways to be a great host without just throwing fistfuls of money around.

I was frugal. I wasn’t cheap. And seeing the word CHEAP in bold letters right above “Trent Hamm” on that book cover really bothered me.

Over the ensuing years, though, my attitude toward “frugal” and “cheap” has changed a fair amount. When I see that cover today, I actually smile a little because the book reminds me of a very happy time in my life.

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What changed?

Over time, I began to realize that worrying about the words “frugal” and “cheap” meant I was worrying a lot about what other people thought of me. Quite honestly, outside of the core people in my life, I don’t care that much what other people think of me. I hope that they will treat me well and I strive to treat them well as per the golden rule, but what they think of me? That’s the domain of their own thoughts.

The truth is that I can’t really control what other people think of me. All I really can do is treat other people in a kind and respectful fashion, to listen to them, to put a nice plate of food in front of them if they’re a guest in my home, to laugh with them, to respect our differences and celebrate our respective humanities.

I can’t control what they think. I can’t control what labels they apply to me.

However, I don’t act towards others in a fashion that I would define as “cheap.” If that’s a label that someone else chooses to apply to me in a negative fashion, then that’s their own choice. It is my belief that I don’t treat others in a “cheap” fashion and I am content that I treat others in a way that I would like to be treated, so if someone calls me “cheap” in a negative way, it doesn’t really bother me at all at this point.

I suppose that I could work hard to treat them in a way that would cause them to not call me “cheap,” but why? Why would I treat them in a way that’s different than how I would like to be treated? I could foist an elaborate homecooked meal on them to impress them, but I genuinely wouldn’t want the same treatment in their home. I’d far rather enjoy a very simple meal and have them in the room with me for some pleasant conversation.

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So, am I “cheap”? I probably am “cheap,” at least to some people. I don’t spend a lot of money on some things that I see other people spending tons of money on. I drive a 13-year-old car I bought off of Craigslist that has a bit of rust on it. I buy a lot of store-brand items. I often make really simple meals for guests and serve it in humble earthenware bowls made by an old family friend so that we can sit around the table together and laugh and tell stories for as long as possible without me having to constantly run back to the kitchen. We have some beat-up furniture that shows the wear of years of children bouncing around on them.

But if you are a guest in my home, I will serve you the best foods from my garden. You will be as welcome as can be and as comfortable as I can make it. I can’t guarantee perfect cleanliness – no one with three children and without a cleaning staff can guarantee such a thing – but I can guarantee that I’ll be as attentive as I can.

If you are a close friend of mine, you can call me any time you want for any thing you can think of that I can help you with, whether it’s a ride to the airport or a few days of pet sitting or a person to talk through your troubles with, and I’ll do everything in my power to give that to you.

Sure, I might have a store-brand type of hand soap in the dispenser in our bathroom. We might have a few scuffs on our couch.

But are we “cheap”? I don’t think so.

If we’re “cheap” by your definition, then I don’t feel bad about it, honestly. I’ve done everything I can to treat you in the way I would like to be treated, and that’s all that anyone can ask for.

All of this brings me back around to the title of that book. Sure, 365 Ways to Live Cheap offers up a ton of tactics that a cheap person might use, but using those tactics doesn’t define you as cheap. That’s a label someone else applies to you, and as long as you live in such a way that you treat others in a way you’d like to be treated should you be in their shoes, then that’s all you can ask for.

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Cheap is just another meaningless word, really. It’s a word that only defines you if you let it.

What actually defines you is the way you actually treat others. Do you treat them in a way that you would be happy with? When you’re in public, do you act towards others in a way that you’d like strangers to act toward you? When someone comes to your home, do you act toward them in a way that’s similar to how you would like to be treated in their home? When you go out to lunch with a coworker, do you do things in a way that you would like a coworker to act when they’re with you?

If you can honestly answer yes to those questions (and many more like it), then the negative label of “cheap” is just another useless label attached to you by people whose opinions you will never change. So why worry about them?

Be frugal. Get the most bang for your buck. Cut back on areas less important to you.

At the same time, live the golden rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated and they will usually do the same in return.

Cheap, as a negative word, only matters to people who don’t do those things.

When I see 365 Ways to Live Cheap today, I see a cute title, one that doesn’t define me as a cheapskate, but as a person who might use cheap tactics in some portions of my life. Those tactics don’t take away from how I treat others or how I treat myself – they just help me to build a better life.

Cheap? Who cares?

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