1 : a person who does not like to spend money; a stingy person
Perhaps the most touted
cheapskate in all fictional history is Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer
Scrooge, whose last name is synonymous with cheapskate, miser,
penny-pincher, and tightwad. As a result, many of us have come to
associate the word with his typecast personality: old, grouchy,
solitary, likely kicks dogs when no one is looking (or maybe even when
There are many varieties of
cheapskates beyond the narrow character in A Christmas Story,
and we’ll get into those, but how does one get to be a cheapskate?
One has to consider early childhood influences to understand the
cheapskate better. You might be tempted to assume that a child who
grows up to be a cheapskate might have had cheapskate parents. This is
partly the case, as studies show that what we observe and learn from
our parents have a high likelihood of being repeated as we get older.
Attitude Toward Money
Parents who are always anxious about money definitely can pass this
worry on to their children. Kids watch and listen as parents fight over
which bills to pay, which to let slide, what activities the kids
are/aren’t allowed to participate in due to money restrictions, having
to shop at Walmart instead of the boutiques, digging through the Sunday
papers to coupon clip . . . it all adds up to a household consumed with
the almighty dollar—and the lack of it.
However, income doesn’t actually
play that large of a role in whether a child becomes a cheapskate.
Scrooge was just as stingy as he was wealthy. A doctor making $650,000
a year could easily be as much of a tightwad as teacher making $37,000
Gender, Education, and
You also have to consider gender, education, and religion as three
other determining factors. According to a study by Scott Rick, Cynthia
Cryder, and George Loewenstein and reported in the Journal of Consumer
Research, males are three times more likely to be cheapskates than
females. Those who attend college and major in the humanities or social
sciences have a greater chance to be tightfisted with their money (and
as an aside, those who majored in engineering and the natural sciences
were more likely to be openhanded). Those raised with the moralistic
ideals of giving to others in need, as espoused in most religions,
might be more inclined to part with their money for what they think is
a good cause than those who were not regularly exposed to religious
Cheapskates bear a close resemblance to the hoarding symptom of OCD in
that their fear of spending money is very similar to the hoarder’s fear
of throwing something out they might need someday. Tightwads want to
make sure they have money saved up in case something happens in the
future. The big difference is that people with OCD are aware of their
abnormalities, while cheapskates don’t see anything wrong with theirs.
Often, they will boast at what they save or what cheap finds they
scored while shopping.
Swinging to the Other
How families choose to manage what money they do have will often be
passed along to their children, but just as with any aspect of
parenting, a child could determine to do the exact opposite. Parents
all over the world have heard their children say, “When I have a kid,
I’m not going to do _____ to them like you did to me!” Same thing
applies to money habits, and this might lead to a child growing up to
be a spendthrift who indulges his or her children regardless of the
strain on finances.
So how can understanding these
human tendencies concerning money spending or frugality spice up your
fiction? Instead of breaking down the stereotypical cheapskates (which
I believe are summarily described in fiction by Scrooge, give or take
some age differences), let’s look at some creative ways to characterize
our fictional cheapskates.
Pastors are supposed to be stalwarts of the community and, in
particular, their congregation. They should lead by example. But what
if you have a pastor who feels pain when donating or tithing money to a
good cause? Loewenstein determined in 2007 that tightwads actually do
feel a “pain of paying”—whether in their gut, head, or somewhere else.
The conflict writes itself in a scenario like this.
In real humans, we are often a mix of several ideologies and
philosophies. The contrarian conservationist is a mix of the
environmentalist (LINK here) and the cheapskate. Piggybacking on
eco-friendly excuses is a great way to brighten up a dull tightwad.
Making his own soaps and cleaners is usually the start, and then it
will typically progress into more and more life-altering frugalities.
The contrarian conservationist should be gifted by her author with
children/friends who are the antithesis of environmentalism or are
die-hard spendthrifts to move the story along.
The Secretive Squanderer
Even the most prolific cheapskates have their exceptions to the rule.
They can make purchases when the spender can justify some functional
aspect to the product, like food (people have to eat) or technology
(the poor man pays twice). It’s called the functional alibi phenomenon,
discovered by researchers Anat Keinen of Harvard and Ran Kivetz and
Oded Netzer of Columbia. So put a twist on this and give the notorious
cheapskate such a habit of overindulging in certain areas that he or
she needs to keep it a secret in order to save face.