What are the differences between the words prodigal and spendthrift? They seem to mean the same.

When does one choose to use one over the other?

  • Have you looked them up? The dictionaries provide a distinction. Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 2:05
  • 3
    They're a lot closer in meaning than I had imagined. My sense is that the word prodigal is so closely connected with the Biblical parable of the prodigal son that it carries a sense of dereliction in one's duties along with the monetary wastefulness (or recklessness) that the prodigal has in common with the garden-variety spendthrift.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 2:29
  • Horrendous vs horrid. Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 8:26
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    Why is this closed? The guy has already said "they seem to mean the same" so looking in a dictionary is obviously not going to help. Commented Oct 17, 2013 at 4:43

2 Answers 2


Dictionary definitions show that the words are very similar. Especially in the sense that they are using each other to define themselves:

prodigal — adjective

  • wastefully or recklessly extravagant: prodigal expenditure.
  • giving or yielding profusely; lavish (usually followed by of or with ): prodigal of smiles; prodigal with money.
  • lavishly abundant; profuse: nature's prodigal resources.

prodigal — noun

  • a person who spends, or has spent, his or her money or substance with wasteful extravagance; spendthrift.

spendthrift — noun

  • a person who spends possessions or money extravagantly or wastefully; prodigal.

spendthrift — adjective

  • wastefully extravagant; prodigal.

The only real difference I notice is that "prodigal" can mean having or giving abundance instead of merely spending in abundance. The examples of "prodigal with smiles" and "nature's prodigal resources" wouldn't quite fit properly if you used "spendthrift":

? spendthrift with smiles

? nature's spendthrift resources


Words rarely have the same meaning, because if that occurs one or other drops out of use.

Prodigal connotes wayward or reckless, not being sensible, and with a suggestion of reform (as in the prodigal son) but spendthrift connotes moral worthlessness. Somebody spending (too) lavishly on impressing friends or clients would be prodigal. Somebody blowing the family fortune in a casino would be a spendthrift.

  • To be fair, I often consider spendthrift to mean wayward or reckless and consider prodigal to mean false humility or false achievement; if simply because the only context I've heard it in (on TV, not personally) is a sarcastic "The prodigal son returns!". Which makes me wonder if an increasingly secular society will adjust the meaning of the word towards its sarcastic or colloquial implications over time. Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 8:07

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