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We can probably agree we shouldn’t steal or do other unethical things just to save a buck. But many frugal strategies can leave us wondering, “Is that unethical or just frugal?”
That exact question was asked of a dozen money-saving strategies in my article on frugal hacks some people might consider unethical. In it I confessed to sneaking food into theaters, and telling the cable company I’m canceling service, just so they would offer me a discount.
For some readers those strategies may cross the line, while, for others, they’re just fine. It’s not always an easy call, and there are many more “gray area” frugal hacks that didn’t make it into that first article.
That’s what you’ll find here; more than a dozen money-saving strategies for which you’ll have to ponder the ethicalness. I start with one that also raises the question: Is it okay to push ethical boundaries a little bit when it’s a matter of survival?
1. Walking Away From a Mortgage
When we borrow money we have a moral obligation to repay it. Or do we?
After years of falling property values, The Fiscal Times reported that more and more people were doing “strategic defaults,” which means they walked away from mortgages they could afford to pay.
One example involves a woman who borrowed for a $98,000 condo that was later worth just $30,000.
Walking away from an upside-down mortgage may seem questionable, but what other financial move can save you tens of thousands of dollars? The report noted that about a third of Americans polled thought a strategic default was okay. What do you think?
For example, what if you owe $200,000 on a home worth $120,000 and you can’t afford the payments without draining your retirement accounts and your kids college funds? Is it unethical to preserve your money for your family and walk away from what you owe?
2. Taking Hotel Extras
Those bars of soap and little bottles of shampoo are meant for your convenience while staying at in a hotel room. On the other hand, you are allowed to use them up entirely while there, so is it also okay to take them home if you don’t use them?
I figure they’re included in the price. More than that, since many other people take the extras home, and the cost is passed on in the form of higher room prices, I feel like a sucker to be one of the few guests who don’t take them.
I’ve never stolen a towel or anything like that, but extra coffee packets? They’re going home with me. Am I wrong? Do you take the extras when you leave the hotel?
3. Snagging the Best Fruits and Vegetables
Of course you pick out the better fruits and veggies when you shop. But how far should you go? Is it okay to dig through the all of the $3-for-$1 cucumbers to get the 3 largest ones in the store, leaving behind smaller ones for other shoppers?
And if it is okay, why do I feel a bit uncomfortable doing it while the produce manager is standing there watching me?
4. Keeping Cashier Mistakes That Are in Your Favor
True story: I once got $168.00 too much in change when buying some things at a coin store, which I realized after I left. I went back and gave the owner the money (he was very happy).
True stories: Several times over the over I’ve received a dollar or so too much in change, or I wasn’t charged for a small item, and I never considered returning the money.
The difference is clear in my mind. First, most stores where this happened to me have made errors in their favor previously, totaling more than any errors in my favor.
Second, resolving a small error takes my time and theirs, and time is money. It isn’t worth it to them or me to spend ten minutes figuring out a one-dollar mistake.
What about you? When do you keep cashier mistakes that are in your favor, and when do you feel ethically obligated to return them?
5. Sharing Netflix Accounts
Sharing Netflix passwords is now a federal crime, but it seems that Netflix doesn’t worry about it too much. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings even says that people who use another person’s account often sign up for their own account, making this a win-win situation.
Of course, it does cost Netflix revenue if you piggyback on a friend’s account for years and you would otherwise pay for your own account. Then there is that matter of it being a federal crime. So where do you draw the line ethically?
6. Going to Free Meal Seminars Just for the Meal
I’ve written before about going to free seminars just to get free meals and door prizes (my wife and I have received tablets, books, etc.).
In theory I might buy whatever they’re selling (and they’re always selling something expensive) if I thought I would benefit, so I’ve never felt I’m being unfair taking advantage of their freebies.
On the other hand, after more than a dozen seminars, I’ve never been sold a thing, and don’t expect to ever buy anything at these events.
I’ve also never once found one that wasn’t deceptive in some ways and even fraudulent, which makes me feel a sense of justice when taking advantage of their free meals and other goodies.
Where is the line here? If, for example, you have no intention of starting an online business, would you feel okay going to a free seminar on “Getting Rich Online” that included a free dinner, and a door prize?
7. Ignoring Limits on Sale Merchandise
If your favorite soup is on sale at Safeway but the limit is four cans, is it okay to go back to the store the next day and buy four more? What about going to a different Safeway store to get more? Does it make a difference if you’re rich or poor?
8. Not Tipping
I forgot to tip a waitress once, and I felt terrible. But what about purposely refusing to tip when the service is bad? Is that ethical?
Many people argue that tipping isn’t optional, because it’s the primary pay for many employees. In fact, the federal minimum wage for tipped employees is just $2.13 per hour. Even if a server isn’t great he or she deserves to be paid more than that, right?
And what about tipping less just to save money? What if it’s the only way you can afford to eat out, and you go to a half-empty restaurant so you’re not taking the place of a full-tip customer? In that case you might argue that your tiny tip is better than nothing. What do you think?
9. Using Wifi Without Permission
Sitting in the coffee shop all afternoon using their wifi might be okay if you at least bought a $2 cup of coffee, but what about if you’re in your car with your laptop, tapping into their internet service for free? Does that cross the line?
True story: My friend was a small step above homeless, in a cheap cold apartment, and he used the wifi from a restaurant next door. He argued that using it didn’t cost them anything, and he couldn’t afford to get online any other way, so it was okay. What do you think?
10. Going Around a “Paywall” Online
I click over to stories on the New York Times website, often without even realizing that’s where I’m going. After my fifth click each month I get a screen that says, “0 articles remaining this month,” and I’m invited to subscribe.
Many websites have a similar paywall, but there is often a way around it. In the case of the Times I discovered that if I open any other browser (Firefox, MS Edge) I can access another five free articles. But is doing so ethical?
Some might think I’m cheating the Times of revenue by going around their paywall, but they lose nothing because I would never pay the $9.99 per month for unlimited access. There are plenty of decent and free news sources, after all.
Furthermore, the Times has advertising on the site. They sell those ads based on the number of visitors, so they clearly benefit from me going around the paywall versus going elsewhere for news.
That brings up an interesting question: Is it sometimes ethically acceptable to violate the terms of service of a company if doing so benefits that company?
11. Being Un-Green to Save Money
We should protect our environment, but how far does that obligation go on a personal level? And, how do we balance it against other values?
For example, reusable grocery bags are good for the environment, but they’re also an extra expense as long as plastic bags are given to us for free at the grocery store. So is it ethical to save your money and just take the free plastic bags?
What about driving an old beater that pollutes a lot because it’s much cheaper than buying an electric car? And, when balancing savings versus protecting the environment, does the ethical line move according to your income?
12. Reading Too Much in a Bookstore
Some bookstores let you sit and read books and magazines as long as you like. I’ve learned a lot for free (even profitable strategies) while hanging out in bookstores. It saves money versus buying those materials, but at what point does it become too abusive?
There are several potential ethical standards here. For example, you could say it’s okay if you sometimes spend money there and you never stay too long (I almost always hit the coffee shop in the bookstore).
You could also argue that no matter how long you hang out it’s fine, as long as you’re reading things you might actually buy.
Or you could argue that no harm is done reading an entire book if you were never going to buy it anyhow. This is the weakest argument, because you may damage the book, and you’ll need a bathroom break, which will further use the store’s resources.
How long of a stay is ethical, and under what circumstances?
13. Going to a Dentist Just for the New Patient Special
My next dentist visit will cost me $69 for an exam, x-rays, and cleaning, a savings of hundreds of dollars. These “new patient specials” are common, and are meant to attract clients who will presumably return at regular rates.
The first time I took advantage of a special like this ($39 in that case) I was told I needed $6,000 in dental work right away. That was five years and four dentists ago, and I learned from another dentist that better flossing was sufficient for my issues.
I feel okay changing dentists every year just to get the special price, because most of those who make these offers are just trying to sell expensive and unneeded services. Is my strategy just frugal, or is it unethical?
If you have your own ethical-gray-area frugal strategies, tell us about them… and keep on frugaling!