Saving Money, Shopping

Do My Frugal Ways Harm Workers?

Recently, two different family members from the big city visited us here in suburbia. Both commented that the prices at the stores and restaurants were too low. Cheapskate that I am, I found the idea absurd. How could a price be too low?

My husband’s brother, a bachelor with expensive taste who believes that city living is far superior to country living, seems to believe that lower prices mean lower quality (even for grocery store items of the same brand he buys!) I didn’t have any trouble dismissing his views on low prices.

However, when my sister commented on too-low prices, she had a stronger argument – if the prices are as low as they are, how can the store afford to pay its bills, including a decent wage for the staff? After she returned home, I thought more about the subject: are my frugal habits denying others their living expenses?

Perhaps I am justifying my own tight-fistedness, but I don’t believe that my spending habits do harm others. Here’s why:

First, our blue-collar area has a lower cost of living than the cities where my big-spending relatives live. The average salaries are lower here, and so are typical prices. Compared to both my sister’s and my brother-in-law’s households, our family supports at least twice as many people on less than half the income. The cost of eating at a chain restaurant, for example, is much lower here, but it is a larger proportion of our income. The staff at the restaurant probably does make less than staff at similar restaurants in cities, but the money they make can also buy more.

Second, wise business owners have done cost analyses and know their areas. They know that if they charge too little, they will not be able to pay their bills, and they will go out of business. Likewise, they know that if they charge too much, they will lose business to their competitors (or to family savings accounts). I know that our family, for one, would eat out far less often if we had to pay the prices that my sister and brother-in-law pay at restaurants in their cities.

From the perspective of the staff, yes, I’m sure many employees of these businesses would like to make more, and many probably deserve more. However, the employees at the businesses I frequent are not forced to work there. Those who are able to find higher-paying jobs can leave, and those who are unable to find higher-paying jobs are at least able to earn something, which is better than being unemployed.

I had similar concerns about my spending habits resulting in others being underpaid when I considered the minuscule wages paid to laborers overseas who produce goods that are sold at dollar stores here in the United States. Certainly, I would be willing to pay a higher price if I knew that the money would go to those laborers, but I have very little confidence that it would. Even the makers of high-priced items are often underpaid. (Here in the U.S., my mother-in-law earned just above minimum wage to make clothes sold for more than what I would be willing to pay.) And the employees of the stores where I shop will only make more when I spend more if they are working on commission. Realistically, I can’t research the wages paid to the people who produce and sell every item I buy or every service I enjoy, so I choose to buy according to what is best for my family, which means getting the most value for my money.

Having considered the idea of too-low prices, I still believe that (except under rare circumstances) prices cannot be too low for a particular item. Businesses would not sell me their goods and services at a low price if they did not profit in some way. I can do much more to help those who are living in poverty by saving money and donating some of it to non-profit organizations that provide food, housing, and education than by spending more for expensive items when I’m not certain that the higher price will benefit the workers with the lowest wages.

12 thoughts on “Do My Frugal Ways Harm Workers?

  1. I think there are some areas where it does matter. I choose to shop at Costco rather than Sams club because they do treat their employees so much better. I would shop there even if Sams prices were a bit less expensive.

  2. I do wish there were a good way to determine whether the workers who make the stuff we buy are treated well. While inexpensive is great, it isn’t if someone is living their life in misery because of it.

  3. If people can’t see it, they don’t care. It’s like meat. If you had to actually watch the cows being killed, I think there would be a lot more vegetarians in the word.

  4. I am a small business owner with myself as the only employee, and I’ve learned pricing is a very subjective and personal subject.

    The purchase of handmade goods is a surefire way to know your effect of buying (go to for a huge handmade internet marketplace). The growth of the local produce points to another way folks are making their buying power heard (we personally grow alot of our own).

  5. I suspect that many overseas workers getting wages that sound minuscule to us are actually getting perfectly fine wages for their area and can more easily live on those wages than we could, the same way that rural folks can live on lower wages than urban folk. (Others are locked up in factories or otherwise treated poorly.)

    I’m afraid you ARE rationalizing, at least about some of the underpaid employees. Most poor people would rather have a decent job than to receive charity. And if people refused to buy from companies that paid indecent wages, those companies would go out of business.

    Even though I know this, I also still buy low-priced things. The frugal side of me and the nice side of me are constantly battling. I hate that companies do everything in their power to make sure we don’t know how products magically appear in stores for us. And they do that because mostly we don’t want to know. I hate that I get used to certain things, and then later find out that I have contributed to hurting people. No one should have let me get used to evil habits!

    Oh it was a sad, sad day when I learned about chocolate. Most chocolate is a product of raping the earth and the workers. But I love it! I want it!

    So I go back and forth. Sometimes I pay extra for a free-trade item ( (always for chocolate–when I remember–chocolate is in so many lovely things!) and sometimes I go to Walmart.

    I like to tell myself that buying things used also is mostly harmless, although by doing so I may help make a market for people who have bought things with sad histories.

    (Thanks, pretty cheap jewelry, for your other ideas. It seems like shopping at farmer’s markets and other markets would also be a good idea.)

  6. Why should you care about the workers if they don’t care about themselves? Back at the turn of the 20th century, workers formed unions to advance their rights. If workers aren’t being paid enough, or worse, are being exploited in order to pass on low prices to the consumer, they can take matters into their own hands. Yes, there are the Walmarts of the world who prohibit unions just for this reason, but if enough Walmart employees around the globe wanted to unionize, Walmarts would be union shops just like other companies that have resisted unions over the years.

  7. “Most poor people would rather have a decent job than to receive charity”

    Don’t know many poor people, do ya Debbie?

  8. “Certainly, I would be willing to pay a higher price if I knew that the money would go to those laborers, but I have very little confidence that it would. Even the makers of high-priced items are often underpaid.”

    My thoughts exactly. I used to work in a card shop where I made $5.35 an hour. It was an upscale card shop in an upscale part of town, so I was surprised that I was paid so little. All a customer had to do was waltz in and buy two cards and my wages for the hour were paid. So just because an item costs more doesn’t mean the employee will ever see any of it, and wages are not necessarily higher in the city.

    Maybe you (and many other people, including myself) are rationalizing somewhat, but frankly, I find that being a martyr for causes is time consuming, expensive, and annoying. If stores provide me with an alternative product that actually results in workers getting treated better and paid better in exchange for the higher prices I pay, I’ll gladly pay them. But if I have to go out of my way to do it and have no idea if my extra money will ever find its way to workers in Guatemala, then I’m going to keep shopping at Target. I’d rather take the extra money and donate it to a good cause I trust.

    Etsy is fantastic, by the way.

  9. Don’t forget rent & other costs that affect a business’s margin.
    Payroll isn’t the only place small-town shops might be saving.

  10. I like the way the brother-in-law thinks. I would have to agree that you get what you pay for though. Qulity isn’t cheap.

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