Honestly Frugal: the Ethics of Saving Money

Frugal Ball and Chain Image by Madoline Hatter

A few days ago, I came across a thread on a forum where a member wrote about something dishonest she had done in order to save money. This individual was cleaning out her kitchen pantry and came across some jars of pasta sauce that she had gotten in a Buy One Get One Free sale some time ago and forgotten to use. She had exactly ½ the number of jars left as she originally came home with, so technically these could be regarded as the free jars she had gotten in the BOGO sale.

She saw that these jars of sauce were coming up on the expiration date (a week away) and since she didn’t have time to use them by the printed date and didn’t want them to “go to waste”, took them back to the store to return them. She told the cashier that she had lost the receipt and ended up receiving a $10.00 store credit for these items that she had gotten for free in the first place. She knew that what she had done was dishonest but said that she thought it had been worth it.

Now, I am all for frugality (which is defined as “prudence in avoiding waste,” see Language Lesson: Frugality is a Virtue) and saving money, but there has to come a point where one draws a moral line and takes responsibility for one’s own mistakes. This person had herself neglected to use a product she had received for free and taken it back to the store under false pretenses and made a financial gain.

Besides, as my sister Madoline often says, the bacteria in that carton of milk (or package of food) doesn’t look at the expiration date and think, “I’d better go bad now.” It is most likely that those jars of sauce would still have been usable for a little while. If “avoiding waste” was her sole concern, she could have had pasta for the next few days, made a lasagne, calzone, ravioli, or even donated them to a food bank or charity. She could also have put the sauce in a bag or container and frozen it to use over time at her leisure.

Instead she took them back to the store where they most certainly would have been wasted. The likelihood of the store being able to re-sell those jars of sauce so close to the expiration date is slim, and they most likely would have to throw these close-to-expired products away if operating under business and food services policies.

I have heard people reason and rationalize about taking advantage of businesses saying, “Well, they can afford the loss.” It may be true, but it doesn’t make it right. It is true that the wholesale cost of a jar of pasta sauce might be small, but the retail price the store charges the consumer takes into account other costs associated with selling that jar of sauce – lease, tax, business fees, storage space and equipment, employee wages (to organize and clean the store and products, run the cash register, bag the items), and all other expenses of making that jar of sauce available to you. Of course the business makes a profit, for that is the primary and accepted purpose of a business.

So, in actuality, one could say that this dishonest customer really cost this business $20.00 – $10.00 for initially getting the products free of charge, and then $10.00 of store credit she received for returning them later. In my opinion, taking advantage of a businesses’ desire to provide good customer service in this way is no less than stealing.

Yes, it was only $20.00, but it was still $20.00 dishonestly earned. $20.00 is 3 hours of work for some minimum wage workers. $20.00 is capital for a business to turn into a much higher profit. If $20.00 is worth stealing, it’s worth keeping to the rightful owner.

Money is a wonderful thing. It may not be able to literally buy happiness, but it can buy a lot of things that contribute to happiness. However, as someone once said, “The love of money is the root of all evil,” and a high percentage of crimes is committed in the name of money.

I know there are many levels of wrongdoings and everyone has their own standards in their moral code, but there has to come a time when one draws a line between what is right and what is wrong in order to save, or make, money.

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8 thoughts on “Honestly Frugal: the Ethics of Saving Money”

  1. Being frugal does not mean being dishonest and she was dishonest. In my mind, taking that money is stealing and I would not do it or allow my children to do it. What she did is not the definition of being frugal.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    BTW, the grocery store really can’t afford to throw away the soon-to-be-outdated jars of sauce. The grocery business has a notoriously tight profit margin. Besides, even if someone can AFFORD to be ripped off, is that an excuse to rip them off?

  3. It’s dishonest. Worse still most business, especially small local stores can’t “afford the loss”. It amazes me how many people forget that a business is probably owned by someone just like them who too is trying to just make an honest living.

    So in the end the loss either comes out of the owners pocket, or gets added to the cost that the rest of us honest shoppers pay.

  4. I used to work for customer service in a grocery store, and you would not believe the dishonesty. One woman brought back $50 worth of perishable salads, dips, and deli items after New Year’s because she didn’t use them for her party. One man brought one grape and a seed with a receipt, and demanded his money back because he said he found this seed in the “seedless” grapes. People would regularly do a BOGO and bring one back just days later with no recipt. We had to return their money, or give them a gift card if it was over $10.

    I always used to pray to God that these people would one day be poor and hungry, and come to regret their actions. I know that’s not nice, but it made me so angry.

    Greed and selfishness like this are what has brought this country to the state it’s in.

  5. Or they could have been “technically” regarded as the paid jars and she had already “technically” used the ones she paid for.

    Each person has to make their own choices. I would not have made the same choice she did, but you know what, it was her choice and not mine.

  6. Thanks so much for making this point! I’m very careful to err on the side of spending more money rather than act fraudulently… I think maybe that’s the line between “thrifty” and “stingy” lol. No wonder register clerks are sometimes less than enthusiastic about coupons etc, if there are people regularly and blatantly trying to rip the stores off…

    Pity that we honest Thrifties get lumped in with the bad guys!

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