How to Define Frugal

How do you define frugal? Now more than ever, people are looking to embrace the meaning of frugal.

For the first time since the great recession of 2008, I find myself redefining my frugality, too. With inflation at an all-time high, it’s an important topic to discuss.

Why redefine? Because when I first started this blog, it was all about a frugal aesthetic.

In fact, the blog was called Suddenly Frugal.

That was because our family needed to define frugality for ourselves so we could be smarter about how we spent and saved money.

Frugal books I ended up writing

That blog eventually led to two books, which you can still buy on Amazon.

One is Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less.

suddenly frugal cover

The other is called Toss, Keep, Sell: The Suddenly Frugal Guide to Cleaning Out the Clutter and Cashing In.

toss keep sell cover

The latter book is only available in Kindle at this point. So, your best best is to sign up for a free trial with Kindle first, then download it.

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Finally, you can also buy Suddenly Frugal as an audiobook on Audible. Not an Audible member yet? Sign up for a free Audible trial here.

Definition of frugal vs tightwad vs spendthrift

Back then I wrote a blog post called “Are you a tightwad, frugal or a spendthrift?” Because while those words might seem like they’re a synonym of one another, they actually have very different meanings.

Before I get into the nitty gritty of today’s frugal aesthetic, let me lay out the differences between frugality, and being a tightwad or a spendthrift.

Now I can’t take all the credit for explaining which of these words is a synonym to frugal and which is an antonym.

Years ago I came across a survey from Wharton Business School that asked, “Are you a tightwad, frugal or a spendthrift?”

In surveying 13,000 Americans about these three “labels,” they determined that people who fit into one of these categories have very different personality traits. 

What is a tightwad

According to this study, which created its own “spendthrift-tightwad” scale, tightwads are defined as people “who feel intense pain at the prospect of spending money, and therefore tend to spend less than they would ideally like to spend.”

In fact, tightwads, which some call cheapskates, tend to underspend on many things and therefore always feel as if they’re living at a disadvantage or like they’re missing out on something.

That doesn’t sound like much fun.

A tightwad also often makes money decisions that fit the old adage of cutting off their nose to spite their face.

For example, when taking a road trip they might avoid toll roads because they don’t want to have to pay to drive on such highways.

However, they don’t stop to think that the $1 toll they might pay is a lot less than the two gallons of gas (at $5 a pop) they’ll use up driving a different way.

Here are tips to save on gas.

Finally, tightwads may shop in dollar stores, thinking they’re getting the best price possible. That’s not always true.

Frugal definition

Frugal folks take great pleasure in saving money. In addition, someone who is frugal will spend when they know they are getting the best bang for their buck. 

The Wharton study showed that frugal people tend to be the happiest of the three. “The more frugal you are, the happier you are,” says the study’s authors.

I definitely lean towards being frugal.

In fact, the whole goal of writing my original blog–and this latest iteration, too–is to help you to get the most value for your time and money.

If that doesn’t define the best bang for your buck, I don’t know what does.

A frugal billionaire

You know who else is frugal? Billionaire Warren Buffet. 

I recently learned that Buffet eats breakfast at McDonald’s nearly every morning because of the value he sees in a McMuffin.

I have to agree with him.

Also, the Egg McMuffin is delicious, affordable and not too bad for your waistline either. 

A great synonym for frugal, in this respect, is thrifty. And I mean that in a positive way.

Finally, did you know that the rich like Buffett love to shop at stores like Costco?

Thrifty definition

Since I mentioned that thrifty is often a synonym for frugal, I figured I’d briefly define thriftiness.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of thrift stores or thrifting. I know I love to shop at thrift stores.

This is where you can get something at a great price.

Think Goodwill or Salvation Army stores.

So, in my mind the definition of thrifty is simply trying to get the best price possible for something.

Some people may even believe that they’re born with a thrifty gene. I get it.

My mother is a New England Yankee. So I was definitely brought up with thrifty and frugal values.

What is a Spendthrift

Spendthrifts “feel insufficient amounts of pain at the prospect of spending and therefore tend to spend more than they would ideally like to spend.”

Because of their out-of-control spending, spendthrifts carry a great amount of guilt, which makes them feel unhappy.

At one time I was a spendthrift. I had more debt than I knew what to do with, and I can tell you first hand that I am much happier now that I’m living a frugal life.

Now, I feel like I’m in control of my spending, how I feed my family and what I’m able to save each month.

In conclusion, if you want the antonym of frugal or frugality, then I would say spendthrift or even just an out-of-control spender would be that opposite.

Frugality can lead to good spending and saving goals

Back in our Suddenly Frugal days, my husband and I made a conscious effort to cut back on our spending. We did this because of various goals we had. 

One of them was to pay off our car so we could free up $400 a month.

In 10 months time, we saved up the $20,000 we needed to clear that loan.

It felt great to send a payment to the bank that held the car loan. 

Paying off that car gave us a little more financial flexibility each month. Why? Because of the $400 we didn’t have to send in car payments anymore.

How to live your own definition of frugal

I truly believe that you can define frugal as something that can be embraced. Being frugal doesn’t have to hurt. In fact, you can find great joy in it. 

That’s why for the remainder of this article I’ll offer you ways that you can be frugal in everything from fashions to furniture, and love everything you own.

You may just be surprised that once you define frugality for yourself, you may come to love it.

One last pro for being frugal–it is also a way to live green. I know that in the past few years, our world went back to disposable everything for our health’s sake.

But it doesn’t have to remain that way. So as you learn to embrace and define frugality for yourself, you may just find that you’re embracing and defining green living, too.

Frugal furniture and home

Any college student that has picked up a free couch off the curb knows how to work with frugal furniture.

But actual grown ups probably don’t want to get used furniture like that–stuff that’s been sitting outside. That is unless you know it was just put outside.

That’s where things like Freecycle, Facebook Marketplace freebies and Buy Nothing Groups come into play. If you see someone giving away perfectly good furniture, you can go get it.

In addition, even if the furniture isn’t free, my guess is these groups can get it for you for a frugal price.

For example, we’re not a big fan of mounting TVs on the wall. So when we cut the cable cord and got a Roku TV, we also needed a new table to put it on. (Don’t ask why; we just did.)

Well, guess what? I found someone on a local Facebook group selling the perfect TV table for just $25. Of course, I bought it.

Frugal furniture at thrift stores

In addition to online marketplaces, I love getting frugal furniture at thrift stores and places like Habitat for Humanity ReStore. I

In fact, a few years ago we furnished nearly an entire three-bedroom house with finds from either ReStore or the local thrift store.

I think we spent a total of $500 for all of the furnishings. This includes a dining room table with six chairs (below), two side tables, a kitchen table, nightstands for all the bedrooms, and headboards, footboards and bed frames for all those beds, too.

Where we drew the line of buying used was the soft goods. So we ordered a couch and chairs from a nearby furniture store, and then new mattresses from a local mattress company. In this instance we were supporting local businesses. 

How to create frugal kitchens

Back in my Suddenly Frugal days, I was always looking for ways to build a frugal kitchen. This included making my own dishwasher detergent and investing in kitchen tools that could save me money at the butcher.

For example, these Pampered Chef kitchen shears (which I gave a Suddenly Frugal seal of approval to) allowed me to create chicken tenders without paying for chicken tenders.

In addition, this attachment to my KitchenAid standing mixer let my husband create ground beef at home. As you likely know, tenders and ground meat are much more expensive than whole pieces of meat.

Being a frugal vegetarian

Of course, these days we don’t eat meat–just fish–so those techniques don’t work as well.

However, what does work to keep our kitchen frugal is taking full advantage of our Costco membership

For example, we’ll buy bulk bags of frozen fish, vegetables and fruit that’s way cheaper than fresh.

Also, we upgraded to the Costco Executive membership because it gives us cash back based on our spending.

We more than make back the difference in the membership price with this cash back program.

Costco membership deal

Costco Membership Deal via Groupon

The best deal on a Costco Membership right now is through Groupon. When you sign up, you’ll get your one-year membership plus a $40 Costco Digital Shop Card for free.

In case you didn’t know, the Costco Shop Card is the store’s gift card. You can use it in store or online.

This offer is for new Costco memberships only or for former Costco members whose membership expired more than 18 months ago. So, if you’ve moved, there wasn’t a Costco nearby and you let your membership lapse for more than 18 months, you’re good to go to sign up for this deal again!

Also, you can avoid the lines at your Costco location by signing up for this Groupon Costco deal. This was the crowd at the new Costco in Maine near where I live. Yikes!

lines at costco on opening day
Photo credit: Leah Ingram.

Terms and Conditions

  • After purchase you’ll receive an email from Costco confirming your membership details. To pick up your membership card, stop by the membership counter at any Costco location and bring a copy of that email with your photo ID. Incentive will be emailed within 2 weeks after sign-up to qualifying members.
  • You’re receiving a One-Year Costco Gold Star Membership
  • A membership card for the Primary Cardholder and one additional Household Card for anyone living at the same address, over the age of 16
  • A $40 Digital Costco Shop Card (valid at Costco locations and
  • Valid only for new members and those whose previous memberships (Primary and Household) have been expired for at least 18 months or more.
  • Please allow up to two hours to receive your confirmation email from Costco. You must have either your Costco or Groupon confirmation email to receive your physical membership card at a Costco location.
  • A physical membership card is not required to shop online or receive your incentives.
  • Incentive includes a $40 Digital Costco Shop Card
  • Digital Costco Shop Card will be emailed within 2 weeks after sign-up to qualifying members.
  • Digital Costco Shop Card will be emailed to the email address provided by the Primary Member at time of sign-up.
  • Not valid for the renewal of an existing Costco membership.
  • To purchase this package, you must be 18 years of age or over, and agree to Costco’s Membership Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy.
  • All sales final.
  • $40 Digital Costco Shop Card is not redeemable for cash, except as required by law. Digital Costco Shop Cards are not accepted at Costco Gas Stations, Car Washes, or Food Court Kiosks.

Again, this a Groupon-only deal for a Costco membership.

Other warehouse club memberships

Perhaps you prefer to shop at another warehouse club because it is more convenient to where you live than Costco is. Good news: Both BJs and Sam’s Club have Groupon deals right now for memberships. Plus, both tend to have gas stations where members can get a cheaper price when filling up the gas tank.

Suddenly Frugal seals of approval

I mentioned above that I’d given a Suddenly Frugal seal of approval to Pampered Chef kitchen shears. We got these shears in the early 2000s.

They are still in my kitchen drawer, and still work beautifully. Talk about a bang for your buck.

Other items to which I gave this seal of approval included a rice cooker, which you can read about here. However, that original rice cooker recently died and we replaced it with an Instant Pot.

Let me tell you, the Instant Pot is a must have for a frugal kitchen. Not only can I use it as a rice cooker but also we can cook pretty much anything in there.

I’ve made butternut squash soup, my husband has cooked dry beans (which cost pennies, a real money saver) and even a cake. If I were still giving out these seals of approval, Instapot would be on the list.

For a ton of terrific Instant Pot recipes, you must check out my friend Michelle’s blog Honest and Truly.

Finally, you can find a lot of frugal kitchen advice in this blog post about quarantine baking essentials. I realized we’re all out and about, and living our normal lives again. But I think you’ll find some gems here. 

Again, I wrote two books about living frugally. You can find them here on my Amazon author page. There’s even an audiobook version of Suddenly Frugal.

shopping etiquette money expert


  1. Being frugal I see is not necessarily not spending, but spending wisely.. Buying something expensive, spending alot of money and leaving wallet almost empty was such a tightening experience Indeed when you are plentiful you have more rooms for joy.. Seriously, I have changed to frugal, and overspending beyond one’s capacity really burdens and frugal is good^^

  2. We run our custom jewelry design studio the same way that we run our household- we only charge what we can pay for in full when the bill comes. We are watching a local reatail jewelry store, that charges far more than we do, go out of business. We deliberately chose the studio model so that we would not have to charge retail prices to our customers. We reward ourselves with coffee out instead of lunch or lunch out instead of dinner. And we always prepay for our vacations so that there is no bill when we return home. We consider ourselves frugal.

  3. We are fairly frugal, but the one thing that keeps us in good financial shape is this: NEVER, ever, ever, ever run a balance on any credit card. If a purchase would mean you couldn’t pay off the whole c.c. bill that month, you don’t need it that badly.

  4. Kay:

    Thanks for the suggestion about Game Stop. We were able to get the system via–before they declared bankruptcy.


  5. I am in Pa and found a large supply of Wii’s and Wii fit in stock at Game Stop today.

    We bought the basic package with the Wii Sport game included for $249.99

  6. I’m glad that so many of you saw yourself in the frugal description in this post. And how cool that others have saved up for a Wii, too?! Enjoy.


  7. We are frugal. Frugality has enabled us to become debt free including the mortgage. I cannot emphasize how empowering it feels to know we have a secure home, in a place (North Las Vegas) where it seems like every other house is either in foreclosure or in danger of falling into foreclosure.

    With our house paid for, we continue to be frugal. Frugality is enabling me to quit my job and homeschool my daughter.

    Although we’re not a family for for computer games, and don’t understand the attraction of iPhones, Wiis and the like, we too indulge in the occasional luxury. I don’t understand the ‘bitter grapes’ from people like your reader who left the rude message. Enjoy your Wii, you’ve earned it.

  8. Congrats to Mike! My family also follows the Total Money Makeover. For us, it gave us some focus about where to put that extra $100 a month. It helped us make saving priorities and goals. Good for you on being debt-free!

  9. You sound exactly like us, frugal but we want a Wii also. That is because my husband and I will forgo exchanging gifts this year to get it. You give some, you get can get some more. It will be a challenge to find it discounted now that the holiday shopping season is here and the sales projections are fairly abysmal! Costco is my best bet, or eBay I think.

  10. My wife and I are newly frugal. We started on Dave Ramsey’s “Total Money Makeover” plan in April of 2007. At that time, we had $58,000 in debt made up of student loans and car loans. We learned to bargain shop, cut unnecessary expenses like dining out, and looked for coupons before we went shopping. Today, we are debt free with the exception of our mortgage. We made the final payment to Sallie Mae on October first and it felt wonderful! We are now on step three of the plan and will have a fully funded emergency fund by January.

    Someone asked about the best deals on a Wii. I found Circuit City and Best Buy have the best prices on them at $249.99 each. I bought one at Best Buy yesterday. I asked the store manager if they offered a discount if people pay in cash. He agreed to take an extra 5% off the total purchase. It wasn’t a huge discount, but every little bit helps. Plus, I got it purchased without the hassle of having to battle the “Black Friday” crowds.

  11. Grace:

    I'm going to use your question as a Q&A post this Friday. I hope you'll check back then.


  12. I’m trying to work towards frugal, but I’d honestly rather keep being a spendthrift than become a tightwad. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as I read more and more frugality bloggers–how do you avoid becoming miserly when you focus so much on saving money? I’d like to see more people write about it.

  13. I am also a former spendthrift and I agree being frugal doesn’t mean not getting anything extra it just means not going in the red further and further with every purchase. We are also buying a Wii for the family for christmas and it will be the one big gift we watched and found it on amazon at a great price and have saved to pay for it. We happily classify ourselves as frugal and hope we get better at it every day.

  14. We’re frugal. Like you we paid off our car loans early. Now we have $450 ‘spare’ a month which we’re paying onto the mortgage. We have a cushion of savings to fall back on, but the ONLY debt we have is the mortgage now. We use our AE card for gas/groceries (we get points/cashback for using it) but pay it off in full each month.

    All our bonus money right now goes to the mortgage. Our aim is to pay it off in less than 10 years which we’re well on the way to doing.

  15. I’m a work in progress trying to leave spendthrift behind, and working towards frugal.

    Finding a wii and a wii fit are exercises in patience and collaboration… and I’m guessing demand is going to be creeping back into the hard-to-find realm as Christmas approaches. I found my dad’s wii at Sears in June, and a friend found mine at Walmart a few weeks later… and I found Wii Fit on the shelf at Meijer in September and picked up 2 of the 3 that store had and sent one to my brother. Enlist other people to look while they are out and about and be ready to decide at a snap with a phone call.

  16. We’re frugal, no question about it. We live carefully each month so that we can do nice things.

    We have a budget that covers our monthly expenses and includes money for savings. We even have a category for vacations so that we never shortchange ourselves.

    Our budget only covers my husband’s salary, so we spend only what he earns. Anything I earn goes straight to savings. I’ve always worked for non-profits, so we’ve learned the hard way not to rely on my salary, because I never know when my funding might be cut and I’ll be out of a job.

  17. I am a reformed spendthrift who now falls comfortably into the frugal category. We’re giving our boys a wii also, and I had a similar conversation with a friend of mine the other day (she was surprised that we’d spend the money on it) Imagine her utter shock when I told her we got it free this summer for signing up with Comcast when they were running a wii promo (sign up for 2 years of service, get a free wii)Since there’s no way my hubby is ever going to give up cable, it was a no brainer for us to make the switch from RCN and get the free wii!

  18. It’s not so much that we ended up finding a great deal on the Wii but finding one available on Unfortunately, Circuit City filed for bankruptcy yesterday.


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