Most of us who like to save money will, at some point, find ourselves faced with a chance to save money that is ethically questionable. Especially in a down economy when people are trying to save on everything, it is easy to fall into frugal ideas that stretch the bounds of legality. I see this more and more these days and I wonder where the ethical line is. Some examples to think about:
Sneaking food/drink into the movies when it’s expressly prohibited: Yes, it’s a way to save money, but it is against the rules. Are you stealing from the movie theater, or are you just making a statement against their outrageous prices?
Borrowing a CD or DVD from a friend and ripping a copy for yourself: Is it stealing to make a copy of some music when you only intend to use it for yourself and not to sell it? You just want to save some money by not buying the disc. The RIAA would say yes, but most of us think (especially those of us raised in the era when making mix tapes and giving them to friends was okay), “Come on. It’s not stealing to copy it for personal use.” Is this a money saving tactic, or outright theft?
Ordering water at a restaurant and then flavoring it with your own drink mix: If you’re making your own tea at the table, is that stealing from the restaurant because you didn’t order their tea, or is it a perfectly fine way to cut the cost of a meal?
Coupon abuse: In BJ’s the other day I saw a woman using coupons at the self-check. Rather than put the coupons in the slot when requested, she was putting in blank pieces of paper and keeping the coupons for use another time. Is this stealing from the store, or just a way to maximize her dollar?
Cup abuse: Sitting in Taco Bell one day, I saw a man come in with the jumbo plastic cup, go to the drink machine, fill up, and leave the store without paying for the drink. I know he didn’t buy the cup on that visit because the cup did not have the current pattern/promotion on it. It was an old cup that he was reusing. Is he stealing from Taco Bell, or is he just making the most of the “unlimited refill” offer?
Freebie abuse: Recently a certain very expensive, never discounted magazine was offering free subscriptions to people who work in certain occupations. Someone I know (who has nothing to do with any of the qualified occupations) was bragging about how he scored a free subscription to this magazine by saying he was part of the promotional group. Was that stealing, or just making the most of an opportunity to get something for free? If they’re giving it away, do you really have to belong to the targeted group?
Ticket abuse: I’ve seen many people this summer lying about the age of their kids or themselves in order to get free/discounted tickets to things. (These are people I know, so I know how old they are and I’m sure if people I know are doing it, a lot more people are also doing it.) They claim the nine year old is really eight so he can pay the child’s price. They claim the two year old is still one so she can get in for free. They claim to be sixty-five not sixty-four so they can pay the senior price. Is this stealing, or is it just sort of bending the truth a bit to save a little money?
Lying about birthdays/anniversaries: I see this a lot at restaurants and at theme parks. People say it’s their birthday, honeymoon, or anniversary to get preferential treatment and free food. But their birthday is months away, the honeymoon was two years ago, and their anniversary was three months ago. Is this wrong or, since you have a birthday and anniversary every year, does it not really matter when you “celebrate” or if you “celebrate” five times per year?
Laying claim to discounts that you’re not entitled to: I know someone who routinely books rooms at Disney World and claims that he is an annual pass holder (and he is not) in order to get the discount. He knows that he most likely will not be asked for proof at check in, so he gets the discount without being entitled to it. Is this stealing, or is it acceptable to think “Hey, if they can’t be bothered to check, it must not mean that much to them and they don’t care if I get the discount.”
I’m sure you’ve seen other examples of questionable money saving practices. Where is the line when trying to save money? Is it, “If you can get away with it or no one says anything, it’s fine,” or should you always keep to the letter of the law, even if there are loopholes or lax attendants that you could take advantage of? Or is it somewhere in between?
I suppose each person has to make their own peace with what is ethical and what is not, but think about this: Most of these questionable money saving practices will end up costing you (and all of us) more in the long run. The restaurants will start charging for water. Those with self-serve drink machines will take them away and give you one soda per visit, no refills allowed. Companies will stop offering freebies because they can’t afford the abuse. Companies will stop honoring or producing coupons because of too much fraud. Restaurants will stop giving away birthday freebies. Amusement parks and museums will start charging the same price for everyone to stop people from taking advantage of discounts. In the end, the little you save today could end up costing you a lot more in the future. You have to ask yourself if it’s worth it, not only monetarily, but for the toll it takes on your conscience and the model you’re setting for others.