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If you’re here, you like to save money, but how far will you go with your frugality? We previously asked that question in a post on the craziest ways to save a buck.
But those real-life examples mostly stayed away from any ethical lines. After all, it doesn’t hurt anyone else if you reuse your dental floss or wash your clothes in the shower.
On the other hand, what about this money-saving advice found in a Reddit forum thread on unethical life hacks: “If you’re hungry and it’s between 6am – 8am you can get free continental breakfast from pretty much any hotel you walk into.”
That’s clearly theft.
But between actual crimes and personal-if-questionable frugal strategies, like peeing behind the house to save money, there are a lot of penny-pinching activities for which we might disagree on exactly where the ethical line is.
So as you read through the following examples, you’ll have to answer for yourself the question: “Is that unethical or just frugal?”
1. Sneaking Food Into a Theater
Movie theaters just don’t have healthy snacks, like the sunflower seeds and carrots I sneak in for my wife and I. That’s a nice excuse, and true, but I also refuse to pay $7 for popcorn.
I am violating the theater’s rule against outside food, but I like a snack with a movie, and they still make a little bit from the tickets. Since we never go when the theater is full we don’t take the seat of a popcorn-eating customer, so I figure the owner is better off than if we don’t go at all.
Hey, at least I don’t dig empty soda cups and popcorn containers out of the theater garbage just to get free refills, like one extreme cheapskate. That would actually cost the theater money, unlike my sneaking in carrots from my own fridge.
So, there, you’ve heard my case. What’s your verdict? Unethical or just frugal?
Do you feel okay sneaking food into a movie theater?
2. Lying to the Cable Company
Over the years I routinely called my cable company to cancel my cable TV or internet service. Almost every time they have offered me something to keep the service. Typically the offer has been something like a $10-per-month discount for six months, making the phone call worth $60.
I explained this process in a post on profitable complaining. I usually was ready to cancel the service (in fact, we no longer have cable TV). But sometimes I may have just wanted a discount, which means I basically lied to get it.
Since cable companies get unfair monopolies, I figure I don’t have to play fair. Is that unethical or just frugal?
Would you lie about wanting to cancel your cable just to get a discount?
3. Pigging Out at a Buffet
A friend, who shall remained unnamed, has repeatedly snuck food home in her purse when eating at restaurant buffets. That’s theft.
Of course the owner of an all-you-can-eat buffet also loses money if you just happen to eat whole lot, especially if you eat the expensive stuff. I used to eat enough blue cheese crumbles to eliminate the profit on my buffet meals.
So is it unethical to eat so much at a buffet that you know the owner loses money on you every time? And, if so, does it become ethical when you at least go with a friend or spouse who has a smaller appetite?
Are you okay with really pigging out at an all-you-can-eat buffet?
4. Taking Extras at a Fast Food Restaurant
My guess is that almost everyone sometimes takes more condiment packets or napkins than needed at a fast food restaurant. That can happen just because you make a mistake estimating what you need.
But what about knowingly taking extras so you can use them later? For example, taking extra ketchup packets is a practice that shows up in many frugal forums.
Here’s another example: When traveling it’s nice to have extra napkins in the car, so I take one or two when buying fast food. I figure the restaurant owner wants his customer happy and won’t lose money on my meal just because of a couple napkins. Unethical or just frugal?
How many extras do you feel comfortable taking when eating at a fast food restaurant?
5. Avoiding a Trash Collection Bill
I used to share a garbage bin with my next door neighbor, and we split the cost. As far as I know there are no rules against this, and we didn’t overfill the bin, so no ethical lines were crossed.
But what about throwing out your garbage in other places just to avoid paying for trash pickup? You could, for example, bring small bags of your trash in the car to dispose of at work or in trash bins in parks and other public places.
By the way, according to authorities in Pennsylvania it’s illegal to throw out your fast food trash at a gas station. But even if that’s true, enforcement seems unlikely.
Using other trash bins and dumpsters… unethical or just frugal?
Where do you draw the line when saving money disposing of your garbage?
6. Using Deception in Negotiation
My wife and I have bought and sold many homes over the years, and we’ve seen deception used in many negotiations.
For example, renegotiating the price after an inspection is common, and every inspection turns up a few flaws. Knowing this, some investors offer full-price with no intention of paying that amount, since they can renegotiate later.
As home buyers we’ve been advised to ask for things we don’t want, just so we can use these things as “concessions” later in the negotiations. Is that unethical or just frugal?
Other examples of deception in negotiation include things like telling the boss you’ll quit if you don’t get a raise, even when you have no such intention, or telling a car seller that you “just can’t go any higher” than your current offer, when that’s not true.
Are you ethically comfortable deceiving the other party as part of negotiations?
7. Misusing Customer Loyalty Accounts
You have to sign up for a customer loyalty account to get the deals at most grocery stores, but do you have to give your real name and address? Is it okay to lie on the application to keep the real information private?
Of course, that’s about privacy, not frugality, but by giving the wrong information you can also open more than one loyalty account. That can save you some money, especially at at Kroger stores that participate in Free Friday Download program, which gives you something free every week.
Getting more freebies than you’re entitled to pretty clearly crosses a line. But what if you use your loyalty card and your wife’s card? Is that okay?
What if you use more than one account not for free stuff, but just to get past the limited-quantity restriction on sale items? And is it okay to use cards issued to others, like borrowing a friends?
How far are you willing to go when using store loyalty accounts?
8. Loading up on Free Samples
My wife and I used to regularly go to a Whole Foods store on days when they had many free food samples out. We made a meal of it. We also ended up buying things because of the samples, but what if we didn’t?
What about the time we toured new homes and took all the free refrigerator magnets, pens, and can insulators offered, even though we knew we would never buy one of those homes?
Is it unethical to take a free sample when you’re certain you have no interest in the product or service being promoted?
What if you will be buying other items in a store, but not the ones being promoted with free samples? Is it then okay to take the samples?
Where do you draw the ethical line when you’re offered free samples?
9. Sitting in the Wrong Seat
Some of the strategies suggested in that Reddit thread on unethical life hacks are not criminal, or at least you wouldn’t be prosecuted if you used them.
For example, one user found a way to get cheaper seats at sporting events and concerts. You buy the cheapest tickets and then, just before the event, check StubHub for expensive tickets that haven’t sold and are unlikely to sell. Note the seat numbers and take one of those good seats when you get there. Unethical?
Would you feel okay sneaking into a more-expensive seat at an event?
10. Violating a Copyright
Another participant in that Reddit thread said she takes her $100 textbooks and photocopies them at 2 cents per page. Then she gets a refund on the book. You could borrow the book from another student or find a PDF copy online to accomplish the same thing.
Of course this violates copyright law, but is it unethical? One respondent in the thread said, “This is at least as ethical as publishing a new edition every semester to force students into purchasing.”
The suggestion is that because it’s a rigged system, the violation is okay. Is that unethical or just frugal?
Would you copy a textbook to save $100?
11. Lying to Vendors About Your Wedding
There is more than one article on the ethics of wedding planning. That’s because lying to vendors has become almost routine for frugal brides and grooms.
Why? Apparently many vendors, from hairdressers to caterers to florists, charge more if they know their product or service is intended for a wedding.
So, for example, if you pay for catering, but don’t mention that it’s for a wedding reception (call it a party, for example), you might get quote that’s 20% lower. If you buy flowers for a “party” instead of a wedding, you won’t be steered to the most expensive ones in the store.
It seems fair that, regardless of the event, the cost should be the same when the same service or product is provided. But is using deception to accomplish this unethical or just frugal?
Would you lie to your wedding suppliers and service providers to save money?
12. Taking Freebies at the Bank
At the bank this week they had bottles of water available, as is common here in Tucson. I asked for one as I left, even though I didn’t plan to drink it right away. I just wanted a freebie. I’ll take it on my next hike.
Is that unethical or just frugal? Does it make a difference that it was Wells Fargo, which has repeatedly ripped off their customers?
What about the free coffee, cookies, and donuts offered at some banks? How much can you take before you’ve gone beyond frugality to being unfair? Does the nature of your visit or the amount of money you have in the bank make a difference?
What are your ethical rules for taking advantage of bank freebies?
If you have an opinion on these or other “borderline” ways to save money, please share it below… and keep on frugaling!