When Does Frugality Turn Into Theft?

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.

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32 Responses to When Does Frugality Turn Into Theft?

  1. sewingirl says:

    Most of these things I would not do, but I have stretched the line a couple times. I have taken candy and drinks into the theatre, I would not have bought the stuff there anyway (overpriced). I have copied music, for my own use, I wouldn’t have spent the money to buy it either way. And I have fudged on the anniversary date, but it was pretty close, and we don’t go to this place more than a couple of times a year anyway. I would not feel comfortable with anything that was an outright lie. OK, I just fessed to the anniversary thing didn’t I.

  2. frugalapolis says:

    Do unto others as you want them to do unto you. If what you do doesn’t harm others then its harmless – bringing in food to a movie when you wouldn’t have bought their high priced food regardless. I agree the outright lying about things is not ethical. Of course you could always use the old WWJD? None of these behaviors would fly.

  3. henrik says:

    Movies: When you buy the tickets you agree to their rules. If you don’t like the rules don’t buy the ticket, go rent a movie instead and enjoy it at home

    Ripping DVD/CD: Yes it is stealing

    Coupon abuse: Again stealing, should be reported to the shop owner.

    Ticket abuse: Again abuse, and should be reported

    Cup abuse: Again stealing

    I don’t really see the moral dilemma in many of these. Most of these are outright stealing or abuse, anyone saying otherwise is simply trying to justify their illegal activities.

  4. Monkey Mama says:

    The first few were kind of eh. Lying and stealing is simply lying and stealing though. Sneaking in a snack to a movie theater is hardly a big deal in my opinion.

    I have a strong feeling about ticket abuse. I would never lie about my childrens’ age to get a discount (because what kind of example does that set for the child????). BUT I do remember using my student discount for movies a couple of years after I graduated college. In fact, until most movie theaters stopped taking them. I was a business major in college and understood the strategy between student and senior pricing. Let me put it this way, if we couldn’t get the discount price, we would never go. So I felt justified. I am sure many would see this as wrong. But I felt it was a business decision and the movie theater rather have our business than none. I only felt justified in this because I would never go to the movies full price. If I would go to the movies otherwise, it becomes a different animal. But if the theater is making tons more off me with the discount, what does it really matter?

    I am sure people can justify any of these decisions, in that regard. Maybe I just have something against movie theaters.

    On the flip side, though I know soda is a HUGE ripoff, I would never just go in and STEAL soda. I don’t even see that situation as grey.

  5. Aryn says:

    The coupons one is definitely stealing. The store gets reimbursed for coupons, but I would imagine they have to submit those coupons, or hold them for audit or something. By not providing the coupon to the store, this woman is stealing from them a few cents at a time. Would she let her child walk out the door with a candy bar that wasn’t paid for?

  6. Princessperky says:

    I refuse to lie to save a buck. I will not reduce myself to that level for any amount of money.

    I am constatly amazed at the number of folk I know who will lie in front of their children to get cheaper rates, and then complain when their children lie to them. I don’t lie to my children, I wont lie to others, and I wont let them lie

    But I will take food into a movie theater, until they start selling fresh fruit and other healthy items I find nothing wrong with taking it in. I don’t want their sugary crap nor the pop. And being hypoglycemic, I can’t make it through the whole movie plus previews without eating something.

    PS paper for coupons is fraud, plain and simple should be reported as such.

  7. inneedofhelp says:

    Some things (like using fake coupons), would definitely be theft. Bringing in your own soda or food, while against the rules, isn’t theft.

    My bigger question would be if some people are spending too much energy in contemplating the actions of others?

    Sure, some times I see people do things that are a bit…tacky. But we never really know the situation the person is in. So, while some of us may be quick to judge someone who takes too much sugar, or uses too much cream in their coffee, we really don’t know if they do or do not have the means to purchase these items on their own.

    Some people make comments on things they would “Never” do. But, as the old adage says, until you have walked a mile in their shoes, you really don’t know.

    Some people say they will never eat fast food…yet, they may have never been in a situation where that is their primary option.

    Rather than spend time judging others, why not focus on other things?

    Better yet, why not boycott the ridiculously overpriced concession stand, or the excess price for movies and cds? Why not focus more on what is the underlying problem, rather than commenting upon the actions of strangers who do things for reasons you either don’t know, or have never experienced.

  8. inneedofhelp says:

    I also wonder how it is that 1 person is seeing multiple examples of some of the items discussed in this….article.

    I haven’t seen anyone lie about getting a free meal on their birthday–usually because the restaurants require some form of id. How does this person know who is lying and who isn’t? How do they know the age of a complete stranger?

    Something about this seems a bit overly judgemental.

    During these economic times, I do find that people are getting a lot less empathetic, and far more apathetic towards others.

  9. chrissy says:

    1) sneaking food/drink to movies: I take water with me everywhere. I know they provide a drinking fountain, but I’m not going to get out of my seat every time I want a sip, nor do I care to pay the outrageous prices. I don’t see bringing food into the movie theatres as stealing. If I’m not going to buy their candy either way, what’s the difference? I’m still paying for the ticket.
    2)borrowing a CD: depends. If someone wants to share a new band with me that I wouldn’t have bought, yes, I will copy the music and listen to it. If I like it, I’ll go to the concerts, buy their albums, become a fan. If I am already familiar with some music, I like to support the artist by buying their music. I would rather someone make a copy of a cd and listen to it than hang on to mine, because I never seem to get them back.
    3) sometimes people have dietary requirements, or want an herbal tea the restaurant doesn’t serve. they can tell their server “i’m having my xxx tea, I would love it if you carried this type, but for now would you mind bringing me a hot water?”, and tip for the service.
    4/5/6/7. coupon/cup/freebie/ticket abuse: ruining it for everyone else.
    8. lying about birthday/anniversary: gray area. Say my birthday/anniversary is on a tuesday, and I have to work the next day, so we celebrate on a Saturday night instead. It’s not a lie to say you’re “Celebrating my birthday/anniversary”. But when people just try and go somewhere and pretend they’re on their honeymoon for a freebie, or fake a birthday that is months away, that’s lying, and gonna ruin it for everyone else.

  10. Emily says:

    I work in an office where my manager routinely runs her personal bills paying envelopes and birthday cards through the company’s postage machine… stealing – no doubt about it!

  11. sharmanl says:

    Great article and examples. I brought a bootleg DVD movie once, and I’m still feeling guilty over it. I much rather do things the honest way. I sleep better at night.

  12. kenyantykoon says:

    i am all for saving money but not to the expense of others . its examples and many others are in the extreme and they are theft plain and simple

  13. yoder178 says:

    I frequently take my own single serving drink mix to restaurants–at 2.50/drink I feel justified, it doesn’t cost the restaurant half of what they charge for the sodas or even 1/3. I always pay 20% tip to the waiter/waitress even when using coupons I figure it at the cost without the coupon. If they would charge $1/drink then I would just buy the drink. If I don’t bring my own I don’t buy a drink normally. The rest of the items I agree with “is stealing” and ethically wrong.

  14. steven says:

    And then there are the chain bookstores with the coffee bars.

    I watched people take books and magazines into the coffee areas and read them for hours. And then not even put them back when their done.

    I’ve also watched young people, probably students, writing notes from these unpurchased books.

    Book stores are not libraries. And that is stealing.

  15. wandaa says:

    Another good one. Gonna touch a few nerves. Thanks

  16. Tracie says:

    Personally I feel we must not bring loss to any body as it would indirectly affect us in our future dealings.We must enjoy our wealth but not at the stake of others.

  17. Jennifer, that is a nice, detailed self-analysis honesty test for a lot of people. Probably everyone is guilty of at least some of those questionable activities. I think I know how you feel, that every one of them is an act of stealing, and I agree. Keep writing, you’re good at it. I’d like it if you visit my blog too.

    John DeFlumeri Jr, in Clearwater, Fla.

  18. Nagel says:

    To #14 – steven:
    I have been guilty for several years of reading entire books, never mind the magazines at chains bookstores. However, when I sit in their cafe area, I respect the sign that basically asks to purchase beverages. Either way, I give them some of my business. Besides, I think that bookstores have set themselves up for this kind of behavior from masses of consumers and yet they stay in business.

  19. mp says:

    a lot of good points made. does make you think about all our judgment calls

  20. kf says:

    I have taken a water bottle into the movie theater, and used expired coupons. I probably shouldn’t.

  21. stinger says:

    Thanks for the tips! From now on, I’ll use my expired grocery coupons in the self checkout.

  22. Cindy M says:

    I routinely bring my own can of pop into a Taco Bell or Wendy’s and have no qualms about it whatsoever. I always order something to eat when I go to either of these. The Taco Bell employee even hands me a cup of ice. These places seem happy with the business they do get. I never go to movie theaters but when I did, again, I had no qualms about bringing my own cup of coffee and candy with me. Last I checked you couldn’t get a cup of coffee at a theater anyway. I don’t hide the fact I bring my own drink, either, by the way, and nobody has ever said anything to me. (If anybody ever did, I’d tell them to stick it and walk out). I never have copied movies or music, there’s so much decent free visual and auditory stuff on the airways, why pay for that kind of entertainment?

  23. Chelsea says:

    I work at AMC, and the only food or beverage from outside that’s prohibited is alcohol. I don’t know how it is in other regions, but that’s how it is at all the AMC Theatres in the Tampa Bay area. If you bring in huge bags of chips and 2-liter bottles of soda (my friends and I have done this), nobody is going to stop you. (Just please don’t leave your trash behind for us to clean up. It’s rude.)

    On the other hand, I think Regal Cinemas is the company that stops you at the door and watches you finish your food or throw it away so you don’t just go hide it in your purse and then come back.

  24. justmytwocents says:

    I don’t think that most of these examples have anything to do with frugality (except for the bringing food to a movie theater).

    Using fake coupons, taking soda when you are not a customer, etc., are just out and out stealing.

    I think that frugality is something very different than what is being discussed here, and I do feel in a way that the article appears to be linking frugality with stealing—which isn’t so cool, imo.

    Frugality may be bringing your own drink to a restaurant or movie theater in order to save money. Frugality is not out and out lying about things.

  25. Connie Walsh says:

    I bring snacks to theatres because I am intolerant to their food. I would completely agree to buy something if they had anything with no soy, no dairy, no yeast, no wheat….

    At the bigger theatres I can get NY Fries

  26. Sean says:

    Your thinly-disguised justifications are pure BS. Virtually every one of the things you described is stealing, pure and simple.

    The one that burns me up the most is the ripping a CD. There is an artist and a songwriter out there who is being stolen from every time you do it. It has never been “OK” to make mix tapes, and the whole “personal use” excuse you make is clearly a concept you don’t understand. Legally, the person who BOUGHT the CD may make copies of it for THEIR “personal use”, not allow someone else to copy it for theirs.

    People are going to do what they are going to do, but if you’re going to choose to be a thief, don’t try to justify your unethical behavior with whiney excuses. Be man/woman enough to admit you’re a thief by choice.

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  28. Gail says:

    I don’t understand the problem with reading books at the bookstore. That is why they provide the comfy seats. I may not buy books every time I go, but I do buy enough that I don’t feel guilty (nor should we) for sitting at read at the major book stores. They encourage this.

    As to taking food into a movie theatre, I don’t go any more (haven’t for years) but how can it be theft if we have already paid for what we bring? Theft is unlawful taking. The movie theatre doesn’t have any right to tell me what I can or can’t have in my purse.

    Many of your other examples are downright theft, for at least as long as I was reading. I’m the one who has to face myself in the mirror and I attempt to live an ethical, moral life, and most of these items don’t even begin to be part of our lives as we live a simple quiet life and don’t go out much but when we do we take advantage of every discount we are entitled to and we don’t try and take ones that we aren’t.

  29. bekki1820cb says:

    About the stealing soda/cup thing. I used to work at Subway. At Subway, if you buy a drink you get free refills. There was a woman that bought a bigger plastic cup and would come in every morning and fill up her cup for free. I would say once a month she would purchase a new cup because the others wold be old and worn out. It never mattered that the cup may not have been the same as the current ones. There was absolutely nothing wrong with her doing this. She paid for the cup and she took advantage of “free refills”. No, she wasn’t getting the refills the same day she bought the cup, so I can understand how people would consider it stealing. But according to Subway…it’s not stealing. And I would understand (and consider it stealing because then they didn’t pay anything at all) if some random person came in with just any old cup and not even a cup from the business.

  30. bekki1820cb says:

    To #14 Steven:

    IT IS NOT STEALING!!!!! Barnes and Noble for example, does not put out comfortable chairs and a cafe area just for the heck of it. They put out these chairs for us to sit leisurely and read a book or a magazine. Yes, they do hope that people will buy something in return. I understand about the people who never put away stuff that they have looked at and leave it for the employees. And to be honest, if you are a student and you need to take notes from books, please borrow from the library or buy the book. The bookstores in my area even puts out newspapers for us to read. I will continue to sit at these bookstore and read a book or a magazine and drink my tea. I will continue to purchase something every time. I will even sit there for hours if I want. And I will never feel ashamed or think that I am stealing.

  31. Sean says:

    Sorry Bekki, I totally agree with you on the refill thing, many places offer free refills with those large cups, knowing full well there will be people who does as your customer does, refilling daily. They know they lose money on her, but that is offset by all the people who buy them and never get a refill. Cost of doing business.

    You’re wrong on Barnes & Noble, though. They provide a comfortable environment so customers can preview books and magazines to make a purchase decision. When you read an entire book/magazine there, you are absolutely abusing the priveledge and behaving unethically. I work with a guy who reads 5 or 6 magazines per month. he’ll go into B&N and read them all, cover-to-cover, never purchasing one. He’s been banned from one B&N here, and alternates between the other 3 so they don’t figure out what he’s up to, like the manager at the last one did when he came in month after month doing the same thing.

    To me, the ultimate test of character is whether I’ll do what I believe is right, even when no one will know or care. In my younger days, my ethics, and my ability to stick to them were much better when it came to individuals, rather than big companies. I’d do things to a big company in a second that I’d never consider doing to an individual, because i felt they were faceless entities, and what’s the difference my few dollars make to a company doing millions of dollars of business per year? As I’ve matured I’ve realized that my self respect can be taken from me by no one, but easily given away by me. Whatever short term gains I made by my scams weren’t worth what it cost me in self esteem down the road.

    Right is right, and wrong is wrong. How much harm what we do to someone (or some company) etc., has no bearing on that. If you owned that bookstore, and the profits from that business were what put food in your family’s mouth, how would you feel about people who came in with no intention of buying reading the magazines and books you’d invested your money in, sometimes to the point where the books and magazines cannot be sold after their “use”??

  32. Anonymous says:

    Clearly, persons who deny multi-billion dollar corporations like Yum Brands or Sony the ability to collect your pocket change are heinous lawbreakers who exhibit the moral equivalency of Bernie Madoff or muggers. Lock them all up! Only when every last person who has refused to hand over $1.89 for a large soda is in JAIL where they belong will we be safe!

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