Frugal or Cheapskate… Am I Just Too Damned Cheap?

So I’m out having dinner with my daughter and the bill comes to the table. It’s my treat (of course, since she rarely has the money to pick up any tab) and I pull out my rewards card for the loyalty points and of course the coupon: “Save $10.00 off any 2 dinners with the purchase of 2 drinks”. And then it happens.

“Dad, do you always have to use a coupon? It’s so embarrassing, like can’t you just enjoy this without having that? Are you that cheap?”

There's a difference between being frugal and being a cheapskate. It takes some self-reflection to determine which you are, and how you got that way.

It never fails to amaze me when that conversation begins, and it often does. I have tried most of my life to teach both my children about being thrifty, or frugal if you prefer! For some unexplainable reason they just don’t seem to get it. Is it being cheap to want to conserve my money? Is it being cheap to take my daughter out to dinner? A free dinner for her? Exactly what is it that embarrasses her?

So it gets me to thinking…

For my grown children, Dad is a worrier, who cautiously guards his money, is a complete cheapskate, and can’t really enjoy anything because it’s always about the money and it costs too much.  Really?  Is that me? So now I have to take some time and look at myself. How did I get this way and why is it such an ingrained part of my life? And why is it so repulsive to the “kids” if I act like money is important and I worry about it?

The Great Depression of 1929 and WWII (The big one!)

I’m a baby boomer and was born in 1949, post WWII and the beginning of one of the most prosperous times ever in the USA. What that also means is that my parents were children of the Depression. At the time the stock market crashed in 1929, my parents were just kids: Mom was 10 and Dad was 12. Having both come from immigrant parents, they grew up relatively poor. Not living in a cardboard box kind of poor, but money was always tight and they both came from families where everyone had to contribute if they were all going to eat and have clothes to wear.

My maternal grandfather had a skill. He was a tailor so he was able to build a business and make his living.  My paternal grandfather had a business too, making sweaters, but that all came to an end when he was killed in a fire trying to save other employees. My father was the youngest of 5 brothers and at the age of 7 he was working to help support the family by selling apples on the street corner with one of his brothers. When the Depression came, things got even worse and my father had to quit school and work full time.

Everyone suffered a shortage of money, prices were inflated, and lots of people had no job. If it weren’t for government programs and government intervention, many people like my Mom and Dad might have been out in the street. It was a scary time and it made my parents’ generation totally paranoid about money and how you manage it, and that feeling never went away.

When the Depression finally ended, we were getting involved in WWII. Actually, the war was the spark that ended the Depression. It provided jobs and brought business back to life with the producing of materials to support the war effort. By that time Mom and Dad had met, married, and had their first child. Dad enlisted in the Navy and was away in the Pacific for 3 years while Mom was left here, supporting my sister by working for the government. Certainly it wasn’t a heck of lot of fun for anyone in those years.

The 1950’s and Beyond

So fast forward to 1949, and you guessed it, I arrive! My sister and I came into a place fortunate enough to benefit from the opportune world of the 1950’s. It was a world of prosperity, abundance, and technology…you know, TV, rock and roll, and not long afterwards the space race begins. In less than 20 years, man walks on the moon and all that stuff! For the most part everyone had a job and a house in the suburbs. Of course my parents had more money than they ever dreamed they would have and were consumers in a consumer-oriented world. They even bought a house in the suburbs in 1952 for $9,800. 30 years later, we celebrated the burning of the mortgage papers.

But, and here’s the big part of the story, they always operated with a fear. The fear that one day, having lived through all that bad stuff growing up, if they weren’t careful, disaster would happen again.

My parents were the ones who taught me all about being wise with money. Save it, buy what you need, and don’t waste it. Look for bargains, clip coupons, and think about what you really need not just what you really want. If you follow certain common sense rules, you will be just fine and one day you can pass that on to your children so they will be just fine, too. They were like a lot of people of their generation. They wanted to make sure that their kids had a better life and didn’t have to suffer through those difficult years like the 1930’s and 40’s.


That’s why for both my parents it was so important to leave something behind for their children when they passed on. Neither of them spent all of their retirement savings after they stopped working and if they were anything, it was frugal, not cheap. That was by design. It was like an insurance policy for their kids.

Contrast that with today when being retired is the “new 50”. The active retirement lifestyle not only means travel, creature comforts, and fine dining, but it also means you are more concerned about yourself and less concerned about teaching lessons of frugality to the next generation. At least that’s been my observation.

I learned from my parents so well that I tried to teach my kids about frugality and being wise about money in every phase. But, as I have learned, I am fighting a very hard battle. It may even be an impossible one at that.

The Development of My Money Skills

Both of my kids look at me and my generation as worriers and people who just can’t enjoy anything without being the “responsible” conservative force in the room. Ironic, isn’t it? We are the same people who gave you pot smoking, LSD, streaking, and public disobedience protesting everything from Vietnam to Cesar Chavez’s farm workers plight back in the 1960’s. The beneficiaries of prosperity, we had lots of time to protest, hang out at the beach, and listen to the greatest music ever (sorry Beyoncé fans!). We didn’t really think that we had to conserve any money, after all we were going to college and would all have great jobs and earn a ton of money, wouldn’t we? Conservatives? I don’t think so.

As I matured (as if you can consider me mature), I started to shift towards the lessons about money that my parents had taught me. The advantages of being frugal are real. If I wasn’t a practitioner, I wouldn’t be nearly as well off as I am today in my retirement and my health would be in greater jeopardy too.

But, what might I have lost along the way?

The 21st Century and My Children

But what might I have missed? I can see some of that when I look at my kids. First, they don’t spend the time worrying about money like I do whether it needs to be worried about or not. I am sure that some of the worry does actually suck the life out of enjoying things on occasion. They will tell you they take more risks because it allows them to enjoy more time rather than the time I spend reasoning and rationalizing every dollar and thus denying myself and not enjoying it like I could.

But am I really too cheap? I don’t think so. I ‘m careful, because I need to be. I also don’t have the need to spend for spending’s sake. Those days are behind me and I’m glad they are.

While my children haven’t mastered the money skills that I feel they do need, they are not suffering as much as I feared that they would. I think that they are someplace in the still forming stage about financial planning.  It’s similar to the methods I used with my parents. I never talked too much about my plans because they couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to be a 20 or 30-something in the world today. Yeah, right, but that’s the way it works. So I have to sit back and hope I am leading them in the right direction and they too will “get it” at some point. In the interim, I’ll keep clipping my coupons and reminding the two of them that like the scouting handbook says, “Be prepared”!

Are you cheap or frugal? What did you learn from your parents about money? Do your kids resent you trying to educate them about money? Are you getting through to them now or are they going to have to learn “the hard way”?


  1. Emily @ JohnJaneDoe

    I suspect that my daughter also thinks we’re cheap, despite having every creature comfort (though not every luxury.) We just don’t spend as much as her friends’ parents on vacations, eating out, etc, and live in a cozier (i.e. smaller) house. But she’s 6. Her world view is pretty small these days. Hopefully by the time she’s an adult she’ll have a bit more perspective.

    But it may not come all at once, and she may have to struggle a bit. I know that I had similar thoughts about my mom growing up. (not my dad, who still works at 77 in part because he didn’t save so much and in part because he can’t imagine life without work.) It’s only now that I realize how smart my mom was at saving the money for a fun early retirement and for her own care while still enjoying awesome vacations and hobbies on the cheap. She cared about enjoying life, and that meant having money put aside, but also about using money wisely.

    I think that’s where you are, Gary, and hopefully, your daughter will get it one day. Your coupons allowed you guys to enjoy a couple of drinks with dinner and covered most of the cost. Your loyalty card will help you enjoy it again. Cheap is not going out, or going out to fast food (where they don’t serve drinks.) Using coupons, Groupons and loyalty cards is just stretching your money for more enjoyment.

  2. Erik @ The Mastermind Within

    Let me tell you a story from my childhood with my grandpa to explain how cheap one can get…

    Each summer, I’d go spend a week with my grandparents in Green Bay. We loved play and watch sports and play games. There is an amateur baseball team in Green Bay who we were going to see and the first 1,000 fans got a free t-shirt. Knowing my grandpa, if he hears the word “free”, he is on it!

    Now, how many people do you think are going to attend an amateur baseball game in Green Bay? Maybe 2,000? Guess where we were in line? #4 and #5 in line…

    I’m a very cheap/frugal person naturally due to my parents and grandparents. I don’t coupon, but I’m always looking for a deal. Thanks for sharing this post 🙂

  3. We have a running joke with my parents about early bird dinners, but always thankful for a meal with and on them.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with how your view YOUR money, it seems to me its more about your daughter’s views. I’m sure in time she’s come around.

    Our children hint and say things, about other families some times, like they have a lot of money. But I remind them of all the nice things they have, and do each day. I’ve never had the feeling our kids think we’re cheap, just trying to be smart about out money.

  4. I guess I get my frugal ways from my parents. My mom was a unbelievable saver with the little retirement she received in her old age. It was amazing what she did with her money. From what I could tell she never lacked for anything and her house was always well kept up. She even left money for one of her children when she passed.

    Having a coupon is not cheap it’s smart in my books. I remember one of my daughter’s saying stuff like yours do too. In the last few years I haven’t heard much of that. She is now making sure she has a coupon!

    It’s funny how the children might say those things Gary but you will be the first person they come to when they need a loan!

  5. I think it’s interesting your daughter looks at you as a frugal generation. I feel like you are an outlier and most baby boomers are a hot mess with money. I know my parents are not role models in that area, instead I try to remember what my grandparents would’ve done. They had it much more together.

    And your daughter may be an outlier too. I’m all for using coupons. That’d be like just throwing away $10. $10! That’s madness.

  6. Jax

    My mom and her parents’ background is remarkably similar to you and your parents. My grandmother was the youngest of 12 and grew up dirt poor in Alabama. The first time she got a doll was when she got hit by a car-the woman driving felt so bad and brought one to the hospital with her. My grandmother quit high school because she didn’t have any shoes and the kids made fun of her (she later got her GED in her 50s and you would not believe how proud was.) Two of her brothers and her father shared a pair of shoes-they each worked a different shift and traded on the way in/out.

    Definitely my mom was influenced by her parents who lived through the depression and passed a lot of it to me. I still keep every plastic bag, try to reduce our electric use (though I remember complaining how we never used the heat growing up. I get it now, Mom!) and try to take advantage of deals on things we need.

    I think the difference between cheap and frugal is that cheap means taking advantage of someone or passing the financial cost off to someone else. For example, cheating waitstaff out of a tip; allowing someone else to pay for you without ever reciprocating; complaining about your meal just to get a free one, things like that. But using a coupon to lower the cost of something you were already going to buy? That’s being a good steward of your money. Plus, parents are supposed to embarrass their kids, right? Your daughter should be happy if this is the most embarrassing thing you do 😉

    1. Thanks, Jax. That’s a very good definition of the difference between cheap and frugal. The story about your grandmother is quite inspiring and their generation had to overcome so many hurdles, but it all turned out to make them such great people. If that lesson gets passed down from grandparent to parent to us, then it makes it even better. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Lindsay @ Notorious D.E.B.T.

    My parents never had a lot of money, but somehow we always found a way to buy lots of crap we didn’t need. Shopping was a recreational hobby for us.
    It wasn’t till I got out on my own that I changed. Now, I don’t go shopping unless I’m absolutely sure I need something, and I know we can fit it in our budget.

    1. My parents always set a good example for me, so I never had a period of time when I felt that money shouldn’t be carefully guarded. Of course, I had to fight off many urges to just throw caution to the wind, so I understand how that happens to a lot of people. I’m glad you’re comfortable with being a frugal advocate. Thanks, Lindsay.

  8. Psh I don’t think you’re cheap for using a coupon to go out to lunch–why would you spend more than you had to????
    I’m sorry to hear about your grandfather—that story is heart wrenching.
    Something else happened in between there: the expansion of credit. You grew up with people who understood money was a finite resource and the consequences of that fact. Today, a lot of money problems suck, but if we have access to credit, it FEELS like we have a way out of it. I saw this when I grew up which is part of the reason I was weird for my age and dodged credit as much as I could in easy adulthood. The trappings of wealth might make me feel okay, but I knew they’d cost me my net worth.

    1. Great point about the access and availability of credit today. Although I’ve had at least one credit card since I was in my 20’s, it wasn’t as easy as to obtain them as it was during the 80’s and 90’s. I remember when my daughter was in high school, had no job, and was not even looking for a credit card when she would get mail solicitations for pre-approved accounts. That’s pretty scary. Thanks so much for your comments, FF.

  9. I nearly skipped to the bottom to shout: no no, you’re not cheap for having a coupon! Why not save money if you can? It makes no sense to me to choose to spend more than you have to. Because that’s money that sticks around to be spent on what I DO want to spend on. Like tipping! Sure, I’ll tip a little more than expected if I want to reward good service. I can afford to do that because I saved a few bucks on medications, or another few bucks on our online orders thanks to cashback. We can afford to travel a lot more because we are careful with our money all the time.

    My parents didn’t show this sort of caution or talk to us about their spending so I didn’t understand why they were making the choices that they did. I wish they had, we could have discussed whether there were better ways to get what we needed or wanted. Mom had grown up poor but Dad didn’t, and between the differences in their experiences and being an immigrant/refugee to the country, it was much harder for her to exercise the kinds of frugality she was accustomed to. The kind of dirtscrabble survival tactics she practiced in the rural country didn’t translate well to suburban America, so it fell to me to learn very early how to find and negotiate deals here.

    We’re going to be very open with JuggerBaby about our spending choices and saving priorities. We spend on what truly matters, and even then we will look out for ways to save money, so that we have more choices than just yes or no to a limited set of options. I have no idea whether it will sink in or not, especially since we live where it’s so incredibly expensive and the average parents spend much more than we do here.

    1. It’s a really good thing to think of your frugality as a way to prioritize your spending so that you can make sure that you always have money available for the really important things. Even if your parents were not discussing with you or teaching you about that, you obviously made some good observations and learned what you’re now practicing. Being proactive with your own child is definitely going to be a big aid when ze’s in a position to make decisions about zir own finances. I appreciate your comments, Revanche.

  10. Amanda @ centsiblyrich

    No, you’re not cheap. If you are, so am I, but I like to think of it as spending intentionally. I don’t use grocery coupons (unless they magically appear), but I do use restaurant coupons – we saved $10 over the weekend with a restaurant coupon. That’s 1/3 of a tank of gas!

    I learned about frugality from my parents – and though I didn’t lead an ultra frugal life throughout my 20s, it could have been much worse. In my 30s, I really started to take control. And I’m not sure I would have done it if I didn’t have those lessons when I was younger. So, I say, keep being a good example and one day, they may catch on and/or ask for help.

    It’s interesting – my 2 kids have entirely different money personalities. My 14 y.o. daughter (a saver) just said the other day, “Mom, I’m going to need your help with my money later – for investing and stuff.” YES! But my 16 y.o. son, well, he spends. I still try to drop little tips for him here and there. And when he talks about his next purchase, I remind him of the implications of that spending. Maybe I’m getting through, maybe I’m not, but I do think he’s going to have to learn some of those lessons on his own.

    1. I appreciate your encouragement, Amanda. How awesome is it that your daughter wants your help with her money at such a young age! You must be doing something right. When your son comes around, which I’m sure he will at some point, that should give you a sense of satisfaction. It also took me awhile to realize how much control I needed to have over my money and I too have to thank my parents for not giving up on being good role models. Thank you for your comments.

  11. Jack @ Enwealthen

    I can see similarities with my grandparents who grew up in the Depression. It took me years to understand the forces that shaped them, and years of my own pain to value the lessons they tried in vain to teach me.

    Fortunately, it wasn’t too late, and I was able to actively solicit advice from them, and my own parents, in forming my own relationship with money.

    I’m sure your kids will come around and understand and value everything you can teach them about money in time. The hard part is letting them make their own mistakes, and figuring out how to help them in spite of it. I’m looking forward to walking that tight rope with my boys in the coming years.

    1. I’ve always had the hope that when my children make mistakes, that they’re able to recover and learn from them. That goes for money and anything else in life. I think parents in general are always trying to protect their kids and that certainly is our responsibility. I appreciate you sharing your experience and one day your children will thank you for your help. Sooner rather than later, I hope.

  12. Love this! My wife has finally learned to appreciate my frugalness… our daughter (21) is still a work in progress. 🙂


    “The active retirement lifestyle not only means travel, creature comforts, and fine dining, but it also means you are more concerned about yourself and less concerned about teaching lessons of frugality to the next generation.”

    Is the exact topic we covered in last night’s Legacy Journey class that my wife and I are leading. I hadn’t really spent any time thinking about it before but it’s an interesting point to consider. Definitely food for thought for my wife and me.

    1. Thanks so much, Brad, for your comments. My observation is that so many retirees have taken a path that is very different from previous generations. There are probably some very good reasons for that, but it definitely means that “counting on your parents to pass on their wealth” is not a good idea.

  13. Daniel Palmer

    As a millennial, I definitely feel that I’m in the minority by being frugal. I know I’m one of the few of my peers that has more than $1000 in my bank account. I know I’m one of the few that budgets. I don’t know why that is. But you’ve definitely touched on a huge trend!

    1. Before I started blogging, I had a skewed belief that younger people (millennials) didn’t take their finances seriously. I have definitely seen over the past several years that there are a lot more young people making a real effort to control their finances, avoid or get out of debt, and even retire early. That knowledge has come from my interactions through this blog and the people I have met along the way. So I’m encouraged. I’m glad to hear that you also are one of those people who’s making that kind of effort that is putting you in a good position for the future. Thanks for sharing your comments.

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