What Does Penny Wise and Pound Foolish Mean?

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish Meaning

This idiom comes from Great Britain, as it alludes to their currency the British Pound. One British Pound is made up of 100 pence.

If you are said to be penny wise and pound foolish, you are extremely careful with smaller, inconsequential amounts of money, but you lose any gains you might receive from those savings on extravagant larger purchases.

In other words, you are stingy with smaller amounts, and you are wasteful with larger amounts.


The first recorded use of the phrase was in 1712 by Joseph Addison’s daily publication, The Spectator.

I think a woman who will give up herself to a man in marriage, where there is the least room for such an apprehension, and trust her person to one whom she will not rely on for the common necessities of life, may very properly be accused (in the phrase of a homely proverb) of being “penny wise and pound foolish.”

This phrase is now recognized and widely used throughout the entire English-speaking world, not just the United Kingdom where it originated.

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish Examples

In the modern day, someone might be said to be penny wise and pound-foolish if they scrimp and save on small purchases like groceries or gasoline, but they buy an expensive car or house that is way out of their price range.

For example, someone who will drive across town to save five cents a gallon on gasoline but just recently purchased a BMW that he or she cannot afford could be said to be “penny wise and pound foolish.”

More Examples

  • Lanza said that many times in the past, freeholder boards have been “penny wise and pound foolish,” opting for less expensive options that don’t last. Even with declining numbers of people playing golf, the course has netted $300,000 in positive cash flow, Lanza said. –NJ.com
  • The entire funding for the act, which includes services like training and job placement, adds up to less than $3 billion. That looks like a penny-wise, pound-foolish strategy. Sure, training is expensive. –The New York Times


The English idiom “penny wise and pound foolish” is a popular saying that warns against safeguarding pennies while risking pounds. In other words, being stingy with small sums of money while being extravagant with larger sums.