Stop Being So Cheap

When you wander the streets of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, you can’t help but get a sore neck from all the gawking.  It’s an ancient city that was a key stop on the Silk Road from China to the Middle East, and it’s steeped in amazing architecture and history that shaped the future of Asia, Persia, and the Levant.  No literally, I’m not exaggerating here… if you don’t know who Tamarlane was you should read up.

Cultural Learnings Of Finances For Make Benefit This Glorious Blog

I had been traveling through Central Asia on a crazy trip that, in addition to Uzbekistan, included Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.  It was vacation-stan, and yes, I visited Borat’s home before he was famous.

As we strolled through Samarkand, lost in the alien world, we stumbled into an open-air market.  This was a market not much different than what you’d find in most third-world countries, wild and chaotic with exotic sights and scents. But because it was near the more tourist-friendly downtown with it’s architectural wonders, it probably had more souvenirs and art than the average market.

I love nothing more than browsing hand-made art, and this market didn’t disappoint.  There was table after table of amazing handmade crafts, painstakingly made by artists who were usually sitting right behind the table selling them and making more.  These were things of beauty, with their own special eccentricities.


Central Asian Market

The Crowded Markets Of Central Asia


It’s Already On Sale

Now if you’ve never tried to buy something in a third-world market, you’re missing out.  Haggling is not only expected, it’s a full-on sport.  They take it to new levels.  Most merchants initially quote you a super-inflated price, because they expect you to play the game.  Your job is to talk them down, make a deal.

My friend Dave immediately fell in love with this hand-painted urn thingy, and started the process. To make the dialog relatable, I’ll convert the monetary amounts from Uzbekistani Soms to the approximate US dollar equivalent.  But in reality we were dealing in Soms.

Dave started the whole fiasco by looking too long at the urn, which is all it takes to get them to snap to ya…

Merchant:  5 dollars!

Dave:  Naaa.. too much.. 2 dollars

Merchant:  For you my friend, 4 dollars, good offer!!

Dave:  (not flinching) I’ll give ya two….

Merchant:  Shaking head, smiling… 3.50, good price, best price!

Dave:  (money in hand) That’s high, I saw another one over there for way less….  2.50 is the most I’ll pay

Merchant:  (probably not understanding a single word except the monetary amount) 3.50, final price!!

Dave:  Sorry….

And so Dave turns and starts walking away.  I stood there for a second a bit stunned, and then the absurdity of what I was watching got to me and I followed after him.

“Dude, are you serious? It’s a buck!  You’re arguing over a buck for the price of a beautiful handmade urn with the guy who made it.  To him that buck is important.  You make thousands of those bucks a month!  The guy is poor!”

Now before you think my friend Dave is an ass, he’s not.  He’s a good dude. He just got caught up in the game of haggling.  The end state to him was winning the bidding war, regardless of the ridiculously small amounts being haggled over.


Gur-e-Amir, The Tomb Of Tamarlane


The Slippery Slope To Cheapskate-hood

There’s a difference between being frugal and being cheap.  Many have written about it at length, but my overarching view is this:  when your frugality starts to affect others in a negative way or in a way that’s oblivious or indignant to the situation of others, then you’re probably being cheap.

Dave was being cheap.

He didn’t have the perspective to step back and see that his enthusiasm for getting the best deal was, in context of what he was trying to buy, ridiculous.  We were on the other side of the globe, experiencing adventure with all of the unknowns that come with it.  You get caught up.


The Detail Is Jaw-Dropping


The artist no doubt spent at least the better part of a day making the urn, maybe longer.  Uzbekistan may be a very depressed economy with absurdly low prices, but my friend Dave was inadvertently saying that this merchants time and skill wasn’t worth $3.50.  I had to remind him to look down…. he doesn’t even have friggin’ shoes on dude….

Uzbeki spoon

A Hand Painted Wooden Spoon From Uzbekistan


The lesson I learned that day in Samarkand is to prevent your great frugal habits from turning you into a not-so-great unappreciative cheapskate. 

For your financial well-being, save where you can, save where you must. Save ruthlessly.  But when you’re traveling to countries with economies that aren’t even closely related to the first world, be realistic.  There’s plenty of trade-space to get a good deal and still feel good about yourself.  

Be kind, be generous.  You’ll find that it comes back in spades.

Your turn to chime in readers – do you have any cool or interesting stories of buying stuff in other countries?

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38 Responses

  1. Team CF says:

    It is a slippery slope, from frugal to cheapskate. That being said, haggling and determining the “right” or “ethical” price is very difficult. Especially when you are new to the area/culture, have exchange rates to consider and don’t know the local price level. You also have to take care not to promote tourist “extortion”. I’ve struggled with this on occasion.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Great points… I’ve been to lots of countries and when you combine exotic cultures and having to calculate crazy exchange rates on the spot it can be a challenge. And I’ve seen “tourist extortion” before, but generally it was in amounts that the tourists shouldn’t have worried about too much. Not to say stealing or charging crazy-high prices is okay, but again it’s all relative.

      Thanks for stopping by Cheesy!

  2. That’s a great story and pinpoints the vast difference really well. I think you’re right. Dave was just caught up in the moment and didn’t see the bigger picture.

  3. Kate says:

    It’s always difficult to find the right price on goods in other countries. I remember my first time haggling in my early 20’s only because we were told on the tourist bus that it is expected. It was fun, but I was happy to pay probably a little extra for a hand crafted marble chess set than I would’ve otherwise, because I knew this was their bread and butter. Definitely a good reminder to take a step back before travel and reformulate one’s own choices before walking into these situations.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      I bought a marble chess set in Peru! But just sold it on craigslist… I used to buy too many souvenirs in foreign countries and they started piling up in my house. Memories are sometimes best kept on photographs and in the brain.

      Thanks for the comment Kate!

  4. There is definitely a fine line between frugal and cheap. I think years and decades of being frugal can turn someone into becoming cheap, but it is always important to have perspective. Those situations can also be difficult because it enters emotion into the financial equation. I have found that the second emotion enters the finance equation, your principles begin to fly out the door 1 by 1.

    Thanks for sharing, and thanks for taking such amazing pictures!

  5. We faced a tradeoff like that traveling with our Tai Chi group in China. People on our trip were from all over the world because the trip was organized around all who study from the Master we took seminars from. The people who were on our tour from Madagascar had the least money. The tour organizers encouraged the rest of us to let them start the bidding because the vendors typically “adjust” their prices according to what part of the world the tour bus was from. If Americans started the bidding, then the folks from Madagascar couldn’t buy anything. But at the same time, we would feel guilty haggling over pennies with people from China who had so little.

    I agree that it is important to be generous. Good reminder. Frugality is best when you are making yourself do without. Not others.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      That’s called “dynamic pricing”… 🙂

      I think I’ve seen similar things. I know for sure if they suspect you’re from America in many places they’ll obviously just charge more. I’m okay with it as long as I feel the value of the product is worth the price.

      Thanks Susan!

  6. I really liked how you used a real personal experience to show how privileged we are in our 1st world bubble. To me that is more important than anything else. We are actually rich beyond our dreams and just need to look down to see that we have shoes on our feet.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Yeah, and I ice-climb in $500 mountaineering “shoes”. It’s absurd if you think about it. I’m very lucky.

      Thanks for the compliment Chris!

  7. I spent 6.5 months studying abroad/living in Turkey (plus an additional two weeklong trips back to Istanbul) so that was my introduction to haggling. It’s so overwhelming, especially in huge tourist trap markets! I was never very good at it and always felt like someone else could’ve gotten a better deal than I did. But in the end, you’re absolutely right: I was haggling over $5 for me and a whole lot more money for them. I could afford to not pay the absolute lowest price possible.

    As an art history nerd, I gotta say mosques are some of my favorite works of art. Some of them are absolutely stunning, and bonus, they’re functional art!

    • Accidental Fire says:

      What an amazing experience that must’ve been. You’re probably a better haggler than you think, that’s lots of practice. I’ve been pretty much everywhere in Europe but sadly never Turkey. I wanna go!

      Those mosques and temples in Uzbekistan and all through Central Asia were spectacular. I have thousands of pics like the ones in this post and I still enjoy looking at them.

      Thanks for the comment Erin!

  8. While I’ve never haggled in foreign countries before (my international travels have been limited) I do think you bring up a good point.

    While many financial blogs hammer the point that unnecessary small expenditures can add up and thus should be eliminated, I think this is an exception to the rule.

    When you can purchase something like that which carries a cultural significance for so cheap, I think that can be well worth the value. Not to mention greatly helping out that individual person!

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Yes, when you go to a 3rd world country, it’s my opinion that you should turn off your “frugal mode” and be realistic. Of course you don’t want to be ripped off, but in my experience that’s not common. It’s more common to see Westerners being a bit too tight with their money.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  9. DocG says:

    A great reminder. Frugality is only ao Rewarding.

  10. MrFiGuy says:

    I’m currently on a work trip in Nigeria and I totally get what you are saying. Sometimes you have to come out of the tunnel vision of ‘accomplishing FI goals’ and realize that it’s such a privilege to even pursue FI! Many many people don’t even have that kind of opportunity.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      I’m sure the markets in Nigeria are just as or even more crazy! Tunnel vision is a great description of what could happen.

      Enjoy your travels and thanks for the comment!

  11. Lindsay says:

    “Be kind. Be generous.”

    This reminds me of some really great life advice I gleaned from…the medical drama ER of all places. One of the main characters told his young daughter “Be generous…with your time…with your love” before he passed away from a brain tumor. The show has been off for years, but that scene and those words have always stayed with me. Sometimes the simplest words are the best ones.

    Thanks for a great story.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Ha, ER! I remember that show but didn’t watch it too much. That’s awesome that you remember that scene and that message. It’s a timeless message indeed.

      Thanks for the comment Lindsay!

  12. on the rate occasion i do to a diner any more i’ll commonly leave a 50% tip on something like a 10 dollar check. the extra 2-3 bucks up from the normal won’t impact my life, but that server is really humping it usually. fine dining i keep it more along the normal as to go from 20% to 50 could be a chunk of change.

  13. A great reminder of how good we have it sometimes in first world countries. Did anyone else spend the entire article wondering what the urn looked like?

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Ha, unfortunately I didn’t buy one myself and I never got a picture of my buddies urn. I did buy that wooden spoon though, and that’s my souvenir from Uzbekistan.

      Thanks for the comment Olivia!

  14. Mrs Groovy says:

    I might have been like Dave and Mr. Groovy wouldn’t even have haggled at all. He would have paid full price knowing that the money could make a difference to someone and not to us.

    True story my my brother-in-law told me. Don’t ever do this especially in Italy. My BiL was buying an inexpensive piece of artwork in Italy. Many artists were in the space selling similar items. After haggling a bit, he agreed on the price and the artist began wrapping up the painting. Then, my BiL, who’s a big joker, kidded with the artist and asked him “So, will this painting be worth a lot more after — you know — after, you’re gone? All hell broke loose. The artist got up all red faced to punch him and called some friends over. My BiL managed to escape,barely, with his purchased painting and his face intact. Apparently the artist thought my BiL was putting a curse on him.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Wow, that’s crazy! Sounds like an off-the-cuff comment I would make, in jest of course. But seriously, that artist might wanna lighten up a bit ya know?

      Thanks for the comment Mrs. Groovy!

  15. Ken says:

    “Thrifty, not cheap”. That’s the family mantra I grew up with.

    Really enjoying your blog as it’s relatable to the type of travel, adventure, and financial lifestyle that my wife and I enjoy. She worked in Pakistan and Afghanistan for awhile. The other ‘Stans are on the short list. We chose bike touring in Patagonia this year for a month of frugal (tent) living, but maybe next year we will head to Central Asia. Any thoughts on bike travel in the region?

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Wow, you guys are awesome! You don’t hear too many people who wish to go to Central Asia muchless bike across it so kudos. I’ve been to Afghanistan as well and hope to do a blog post in the future about it but have to relate it to finances in some way.

      Turkmenistan would probably be off-limits to bike travel since it’s a very tightly controlled country and dictatorship. We had to jump through some hoops to get in, but their old dictator died so things might be loosening up. For bike travel, I would recommend Kyrgyzstan. We found it the most friendly to westerners and the mountains are jaw-dropping. Here’s a video of a famous mountaineer who solo biked around the country and did some first ascents.

      Unfortunately, he died a few years ago on another mountain in Pakistan. He was at the elite level, always pushing it. And elite mountaineers live on the edge of death.

      Thanks so much for the kind words and for reading!

  16. Bob says:

    Wow, great article. You are so right about getting caught up in the haggle business. We have done that before in Mexico and yes it does get a little ridiculous at times. We have so much and they have so little.

  17. Great post! It reminds me a lot when I was in Southeast Asia and there was an expectation of haggling, but when you think about it, we were haggling over a $3 T-shirt! Thank you for the perspective reminder.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Exactly, $3 for a shirt is already ridiculously cheap. At what point is it almost free?

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  18. Great story to remind us to put things in perspective. I’m not fond of negotiating but understand it’s a way of life for many.

    Wow I’d love to see the detail of that building photo in person, looks amazing!

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Haggling makes me uncomfortable too. I’ll never really be comfortable with it.

      I have TONS of pics from that trip and I took so many in Samarkand it’s ridiculous. It was hard to choose what to put in the post.

      Thanks for the comment!

  19. Good one. It’s indeed a slippery slope, one that I’ve slipped on quite a few times in the heat of a haggle in Asia. But what takes the cake is when my former Boss, who is rich beyond my imagination, takes this to a new level by haggling his way to a “win” in every interaction. From five star hotels to street vendors, this guy wants the best deal, all the time! I’ve tried talking to him to tone down but he gets far too much pleasure out of the game “winning” it, and seeing the other side squirm, frown or even plead. That is being cheap in my book.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Your boss sounds like he’s permanently caught in the competitive game of winning. My friend Dave isn’t normally like that and the adventure of the Central Asia trip spurred him on. But to be like that all the time must be just stressful.

      Thanks for the comment!

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