To distinguish the difference between being cheap and being frugal, on the surface, can be a difficult task. But, if one is to research what the two words mean, the distinction becomes a little easier. All definitions referenced are from the American Heritage Dictionary (2nd College Edition).
For the word “cheap,” one must get to the seventh definition to get to a distinction. This particular definition states that cheap is, “…stingy, miserly…” This helps when one is trying to make a difference. When one thinks of someone as being “miserly,” one thinks of someone who will do anything (s)he can to pay as little as possible. Perhaps even being willing to forfeit quality. This is not necessarily so, when defining frugal.
The same source defines “frugal” as, “…avoiding unnecessary expenditure of money; thrifty…” If one is to analyze this definition, one realizes that when one is being frugal, one is actually trying to avoid waste. The frugal person may purchase something of high quality, but is trying to find the best bargain possible.
Perhaps that’s the biggest distinction. Being frugal is being smart with money. The frugal person is seeking a high quality product, but is willing to take the time to shop around, spend some time, and seek out the best price. Frugality requires patience, a willingness to wait and smart shopping sense. (S)he might be willing to look in more than one place for the same, exact item, in order to find the best price possible. The frugal person would be a good person to go with when deciding what to buy, when one is searching for a particular item.
On the other hand, a person who is considered “cheap’ is not necessarily concerned with quality. (S)he may want to find a bargain-basement deal, and not worry about the product being purchased. In fact, the cheap person may try anything (s)he can to not pay anything at all. (S)he is more concerned with holding on to money, rather than saving money and looking for a bargain. The cheap person is not necessarily a good person to take along when shopping for quality items.
When making a distinction between a person who is frugal and a person who is cheap, one need look at the way they choose to save money. The cheap person wants to avoid spending at all costs. The frugal person wants the best value for his/her money. It’s a qualitative, rather than quantitative, issue.