Using the Idiom Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish Correctly

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Penny-wise and pound-foolish is an idiom signifying the foolishness of saving small amounts of money while wasting much larger amounts at the same time. It’s like saying save a penny, lose a pound.

Idioms such as penny-wise and pound-foolish are expressions or phrases that convey meanings beyond the literal interpretation of their individual words. These figurative expressions often carry cultural or contextual significance. They are commonly used in the English language to add depth, nuance, and vividness to communication.

In my quick but detailed article, I’ll break down details about the idiom’s origin, meaning, usage, and variations, giving you insights into how a phrase like this can add so much character to your conversations and writing. Plus, you can quiz yourself at the end!

Using the Idiom Penny Wise and Pound Foolish Correctly

What Does the Idiom Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish Mean?

The idiom penny-wise and pound-foolish refers to a person who is careful and economical with small amounts of money (pennies) but is wasteful and imprudent with larger amounts (pounds).

Merriam-Webster defines the idiom “as careful about small amounts of money but not about large amounts.”Similarly, the Collins Dictionary defines it as “careful or thrifty in small matters but careless or wasteful in major ones.”

It’s a fairly old-fashioned expression that refers to being careful with trivial amounts of money but careless with larger sums. We all know that’s a recipe for financial disaster. It’s often used to criticize decisions where someone’s focus on small economies leads to larger financial losses, ultimately proving counterproductive.

I’m the type of person who chooses the hamburger meat that’s forty-seven cents cheaper than the first package I picked up, but I’ll also blow three hundred dollars on an online book haul on the same day. My husband despises my money management style, and I don’t blame him.

But I can’t help but think of my grandmother, who would clip coupons from various flyers and drive around to different stores to save a few dollars. She refused to listen to reason about the gas money she wasted.

Literal Meaning vs. Figurative Meaning

The literal meaning of penny-wise and pound-foolish is about someone diligently saving pennies while carelessly letting pounds slip away.

Figuratively, it doesn’t stray too far from the literal intent and speaks to a broader concept of misplaced frugality—being economical in small matters but wasteful with significant ones.

One thing to remember when using this idiom in your writing is to hyphenate both parts—penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Variations of the Idiom

The expression isn’t as common as it once was, but there are still a few slight variations to be found around the world.

  • Save a penny, lose a pound
  • Penny-wise, dollar-foolish
  • Penny wise and pound foolish (missing hyphenation)
  • Save a penny, lose a dollar

With different countries using varying forms of currency, it’s not surprising that these variations of the idiom exist.

How Is Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish Commonly Used in Context?

This idiomatic expression is pretty relevant in financial discussions, whether in personal budgeting, business strategies, or economic policies. Basically, it’s a reminder of the importance of considering the bigger financial picture. 

In the following sections, we delve into the versatile applications of this idiom across various scenarios, shedding light on the consequences of short-sighted financial decision-making.

What Are the Different Ways to Use Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish?

  • In financial advising: When discussing investment strategies or budgeting plans. “We can no longer be penny-wise and pound-foolish with our budget.”
  • Personal finance: In situations where someone might be skimping on necessary expenses to save money, which could lead to higher costs down the line. “Octavia, you can’t be penny-wise with fixing your car now because it’ll force you to be pound-foolish later when these cheap fixes wear out.”
  • Business decisions: Highlighting instances where cutting corners in small areas might result in significant long-term losses. “Being penny-wise and pound-foolish with our marketing plan will bring us to a standstill, and the product will fizzle out.”

What Are Some Tips for Using Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish Effectively?

  • Try to use it as a caution against false economy.
  • It’s fairly effective in contexts emphasizing the need for holistic financial planning.
  • Avoid using it in situations where small savings are actually beneficial and strategic.
  • Never use it to make others feel bad about the small amounts of money they can spend or save.

Where Can You Find Examples of Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish?

You can sometimes find it used in financial advice columns, economic textbooks, and business-related media. It’s also used in literature and films, particularly in contexts highlighting flawed financial decisions.

Nowadays, it’s mostly worked in news and media, like these examples I found:

“I just think that’s penny wise and pound foolish if we don’t invest in having a detailed analysis done.” (The River Falls Journal)

Nicholas Bala, an authority on family and children’s law at Queen’s University, describes the ministry as being “penny wise and pound foolish.” (The Toronto Star)

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish?

Penny wise and pound foolish Ngram
Penny-wise and pound-foolish usage trend.

The idiom penny-wise and pound-foolish originated from the old British currency system, where a pound was far more valuable than a penny. This old phrase was used to highlight the irony of being cautious with less significant sums while being extravagant with greater amounts.

Some sources say Robert Burton coined it in his work The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621. Burton was a scholar at Oxford University, primarily in the field of mathematics. He wrote the book as therapy for his own chronic depression.

However, its earliest documented usage is found in Francis Meres’ work, Luis de Granada’s Sinners Guyde, which he translated and structured in English in 1598. The quote reads, “Least he (as it is wont to be sayd) be penny wise and pound foolish, least he I say, gather ashes, and cast away flower.”

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

Eventually, penny-wise and pound-foolish fell off the radar as a popular expression, but it still holds the same meaning today.

What Are Some Related Terms to Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish?

Idioms are great for adding depth and emotion to our words, but synonyms and antonyms create diversity in what we say.

Using the Idiom Penny Wise and Pound Foolish Correctly 1


  • False economy
  • Economical with the trivial, extravagant with the essential
  • Short-sighted thrift
  • Parsimonious yet lavish


  • Cost-effective
  • Economically savvy
  • Prudent spender

Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish: Test Your Knowledge!

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What Have We Learned about Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish?

To be penny-wise and pound-foolish means to focus on minor details while missing the larger picture, but the phrase is usually finance-specific. Remember, it’s originally a British expression and should be properly hyphenated, but you’ll likely come across non-hyphenated variations.

I covered everything about its true meaning and where it originated from, shared some variations and alternatives, and even quizzed you at the end. Do you feel more confident in using this idiom now?

I’ve got hundreds of idiomatic guides just like this one on our site, so be sure to have a look and add even more fun expressions to your vocabulary!