Call me frugal, not cheap

Natalie P. McNealNatalie P. McNeal shops at off-price stores, drives a used car, scrutinizes her credit-card bills for errors, and sometimes regifts. She's even credited with coining the term frugalista. Whatever you do, don't call her cheap.

"I do not use the 'C' word," McNeal says. "Frugal is fabulous."

There is a difference between being frugal and being cheap, as McNeal, the author of The Frugalista Files: How one woman got out of debt without giving up the fabulous life, can attest.

"Frugals focus on finding the best value for their money," she says. "We love good-quality goods that make sense for our lifestyle. We take the long-term view of money. We don't spend; we invest. Cheapies are concerned with the lowest price, which is often a short-term philosophy."

Take that used Honda Accord she bought in 2005. She had a history report done on it and carefully checked for internal damage. It was just two years old when she bought it, and she's since paid it off.

"If I were cheap, I could have bought a lower-cost or quality car that may have had a spotty maintenance record or shorter-life span," she explains.

For the record

Here's how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary distinguishes the two. Frugal is defined as "characterized by or reflecting economy in the use of resources". Cheap, meanwhile, is "stingy".

So while someone who's cheap could be described as miserly or as a tightwad--think Ebenezer Scrooge--a frugal type is thrifty and resourceful.

A few of McNeal's frugal tips

Download a money-saving app. Apps like Shop Savvy allow you to scan a product's barcode, then it searches for the best deals for the same item in stores and online. There are also all sorts of coupon apps.

Shop at off-price stores. "Recently I bought a Michael Kors wrap dress for $50 at an off-price store. Retail, the dress is worth $130," McNeal says, noting she's worn it on prime-time news shows. "I always get compliments on it. I consider it the perfect Frugalista find. Did I mention that it's washable? No cleaning bill. I'm going to wear the dress for years, and I'm not shopping to replace it anytime soon."

Regift responsibly. "I'm OK with regifting as long as the item is not used and not expired," McNeal says. "Make sure that it's not a gift that's been given in your social circle and that it's of decent quality. Dust off the gift if it's been on the shelf a while and be sure that it doesn't have any storage odours. I regifted a bottle of Prada perfume to my friend, and I disclosed that it was regift. Trust me: she was thrilled to have it."

Pore over your bills. "As a frugalista, I pay much more attention to the little details," McNeal says. "I recently checked my credit card statement and found that a hotel wrongly charged me for a stay. If I weren't a Frugalista, I probably wouldn't have noticed that I was wrongly charged $300. I promptly called the hotel and got the charged removed."

Cook meals using ingredients you have on hand. Check out sites like Supercook.com, which lets you enter the items you have in your fridge and cupboards. From there, it spits out recipes based on those ingredients, meaning you won't waste food or money.

Have fun for free. McNeal suggests attending community events such as a free museum night or a talk at a local college. Then there are art openings, sporting events, concerts, and more. Do it once and you'll see just how much is out there.

Reap the frugal rewards."I don't live a cheap lifestyle," McNeal says. "The greatest reward of being a frugalista is that it empowers you. I found that learning to master my money made me more confident in my career and life. I take more risks because I know what my finances will allow. Frugal living is empowering. If you master your money, you master your life."

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