How would you describe someone who fritters away money on inexpensive, trivial things, like coffee, but refuses to spend money on expensive, necessary things, like a decent new laptop (buying a lousy one instead)?

Is there an expression? I want to say "penny foolish and pound wise", except that "pound wise" is inappropriate here, as skimping on the large outlay is a false economy.

  • Consider the following: 'If you look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves'. This is the flip-side of your own suggested expression, 'penny foolish and pound wise'. Nov 17, 2016 at 0:37
  • I don't think there's a phrase for this, because it's not usually considered something worth noting. Being prudent regarding large expenses is just normal thrift.
    – Barmar
    Nov 17, 2016 at 6:01
  • perhaps they just have spending prioritised skewed towards small sensual pleasures? Both of things you have expressed are value judgments, coffee is trivial, laptops are necessary. Even if the person can't buy a decent laptop because they spent all their bucks at 'bucks, unless there is something else you are trying to capture ie is there a negative consequence of the laptop quality... all you are doing is describing someone's spending pattern, with added judgement.
    – Spagirl
    Nov 17, 2016 at 17:36
  • Merely an example. Substitute cheap food for laptop. False economy is not a matter of values & judgments.
    – zadrozny
    Nov 17, 2016 at 17:44
  • You might conside that the cheap laptop might not be so lousy after all, and is in fact perfectly adequate for what the person does with it.
    – jamesqf
    Nov 17, 2016 at 18:23

2 Answers 2


How about small spender?

From The Free Dictionary:

big spender: someone who spends money freely and in great amounts, especially on nonessential things or events

By extension, a small spender is a person who spends money freely -- after all, the person is by definition a spender -- but only in small amounts on nonessential things or events (ref. the OPs "fritters away"):

small spender: a person who spends money freely but only in small amounts, especially on nonessential things or events

One would consider such a person -- who only spends in small amounts -- foolish for "skimping on large outlays" when skimping "is a false economy".

  • 2
    DIY offerings do not reflect accepted English usage. Nov 17, 2016 at 16:14
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth Neither do neologisms. Small spender makes perfect sense. It's easy to imagine using it in a sentence. I look forward to your better answer. Nov 17, 2016 at 17:36
  • I don't answer when I can't think of an appropriate one. Nov 17, 2016 at 19:17
  • @EdwinAshworth You should buy a book on creativity. Nov 18, 2016 at 5:44

It's actually "Penny wise, pound foolish" which means, according to Dictionary.com, "stingy about small expenditures and extravagant with large ones."

The phrase was coined by the 17th century English writer Robert Burton, in a long preface to his book Anatomy of Melancholy, in which he describes the various types of contradictory and hypocritical behaviour tolerated and condoned by society. The equally pithy expression "rob Peter, and pay Paul" comes from the same text.

  • Hello, Tina. Welcome to English Language and Usage. Please try to include some source or references when you write an answer on ELU. I've just edited your answer and please take a look.
    – user140086
    Nov 19, 2016 at 9:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.