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The difference between being cheap and frugal

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“The difference between envy and jealousy Anwar is that there is no malice attached to envy,” my mentor and friend Mark told me in a recent meeting. “When someone is jealous of you, you have something that they want which upsets them and they will go to great lengths to make sure you don’t have it anymore or don’t even get it in the first place. They may even go as far as to cause you harm. Envy is simply when someone wishes they had what you have with no malice attached. Envy and jealousy are two different words that most people confuse.”

Mark and I frequently have discussions like this spanning numerous areas/topics. This one reminded me of another confusion of words; the definitions of cheap and frugal, two very important concepts in the worlds of financial literacy and intelligence, and thus the basis of this article.

“Hell yeah I’m cheap and proud of it too. I want to save every single penny that I can,” a coworker named Hardy said smiling during a random conversation at work a couple of years ago. “I don’t mind getting perfectly good stuff for free either. My wife’s family frequently gets rid of really good stuff, and I willingly take it.”

“You’re proud of being cheap?” was my question to Hardy after hearing him revel in his self-diagnosis. Cheap was not a flattering word in my vernacular. The word had recently been pinned on me by a girlfriend leaving me feeling snake bitten and sickened by just hearing someone say it. This conversation with Hardy gave me a new perspective on the matter and actually made me laugh at the word.

Another word that was assigned to me years ago by another female during graduate school was frugal, which is actually an important attribute to have when you are in school but also later in life. It wasn’t exactly clear to me at that point what that word meant as my behavior was simply the recapitulation of the spending habits of my mother and father who themselves were frugal.

During Hispanic Heritage Month almost a year after my discussion with Hardy, entrepreneur Deborah Aguiar-Vélez, owner and founder of the company Escuchame visited my job and gave a really good seminar on wealth building. Much of her talk discussed sound financial decision making, living within one’s means and saving money which sound like common sense ideas but for many people are not. Interestingly a couple of her slides described the differences between being frugal and being cheap.

Mrs. Vélez eloquently described being frugal as:

• Living within your means
• Careful management of anything valuable which expends nothing unnecessarily, and applies what is used to a profitable purpose
• Finding ways to save money
• A conscious decision and you are therefore in control of your actions towards a goal

That slide was followed up with a description of what frugal is not:

Cheapness
• Meanness
• Bizarre behavior
• Suffering
• Difficult

Her talk helped me to see that there is in fact nothing wrong with being frugal, and re-enforced why it’s a good idea to be this way versus the alternatives; impulsive, frivolous and wasteful. My discussions with Hardy described above and Mrs. Vélez’s seminar also reminded me that labels and titles that we assign to each other are often subject to one’s point of view.

Though this article was written partially in a humorous way, these are important and serious lessons for everyone, especially in our society which actively promotes consumerism to all economic classes poor and rich, and attaches self-worth to material objects and luxuries of all kinds.

A special thank you goes out to Mrs. Deborah Aguiar-Vélez of Escuchame for allowing me to cite her and her materials in this piece.

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