Thrifty or Shifty? When Being Frugal Conflicts With Your Ethics

frugal living
Nattapol Sritongcom under Creative Commons

I sneak sunflower seeds and carrots into movies. Sure, I prefer healthier snacks, but mostly I just refuse to pay $6 for a small bag of greasy popcorn.

I enjoy the movie and my secret violation of the theater’s rule against outside food. And they make something (the ticket price) off an otherwise empty seat. Isn’t that better for the theater than if I didn’t go at all?

On the other hand, I would never be that guy who digs popcorn cartons from the trash to get free refills. That’s theft. But when no harm is done, I’m OK with violating a rule to save money.

What about you? How cheap are you, and where do you draw the ethical line when it comes to saving money?

Unethical Life Hacks or Smart Frugality?

In a forum thread titled, “Unethical Life Hacks,” Reddit users advocate many clearly criminal ways to save money.

But some suggested actions are probably acceptable, borderline ethical or at least come with justifications.

Here are some of these potential ethical challenges.

Violate a Copyright

One user says she photocopies new college textbooks for 2 cents per page and then returns them for a full refund, saving as much as $100.

She also suggests finding the PDF versions online. Another member responded, “This is at least as ethical as publishing a new edition every semester to force students into purchasing.”

Would you violate authors’ copyrights to save on textbooks?

Sit in the Wrong Seat

To sit in a better seat than the one you paid for at a sporting event, a Redditor suggests logging into StubHub to locate expensive tickets that are unlikely to sell. He said it’s likely “you can sit there all game without any issue.”

Would you sneak your way into a better seat at a sporting event?

Cheat When Buying Movie Tickets

A woman admits she buys children’s movie tickets for herself using the automated kiosk. She says the guy taking the tickets never looks, and she has done this a dozen times.

A movie theater owner responded by saying he didn’t care, as long as the customer pays for some kind of ticket.

Would you pay the child price if you could get away with it?

Lie to Event Vendors

One Reddit user advises, “Never tell vendors you’re hiring them for a wedding.”

Call it a reunion or event, because you’ll be charged much less. The vendors still get paid for the work they promised, regardless of what the event is called.

Would you lie to your wedding vendors?

Give the Wrong Hotel Name

On travel, one user says to give vendors the name of the cheapest hotel in town. The theory is they’ll offer lower prices, but it’s also not a bad security move — staying at an expensive hotel can make you more of a target for thieves.

Would you lie about where you’re staying to get a better price?

More Dilemmas for the Ethical Penny Pincher

Here are some more cost-cutting measures that might make you stop and think.

Threaten to Cancel Your Cable

My post on profitable complaining explained how I regularly called the cable company to say I considered canceling. To keep my business, the rep usually offered a $10 monthly discount for six months.

I was considering canceling (and finally did last year), so these were honest calls. But would it be so bad to fudge the truth to get a discount?

Would you lie to the cable company to save money?

Gorge Yourself at a Buffet

All-you-can eat buffets allow you to eat all you want while you’re there. Is it stealing when you take food home in your purse, as my (unnamed) friend has confessed to doing?

On the other hand, if you eat six plates of food at one sitting, you’re still following the rules — but are you also taking unfair advantage of the restaurant?

Are you OK with a restaurant owner losing money on your meal?

Take Fast Food Extras

Plenty of people take condiment packets from fast food restaurants for later use. But is it OK?

A restaurant owner wants customers to be happy, and can still profit from your meal even after you take a sugar packet or a few napkins, so is it a question of numbers?

How many unpaid-for extras can you justify taking from fast food restaurants?

Negotiate for Things You Don’t Want

Experts suggest asking for things you don’t want, so you get a lower price when you “give back” these items.

For example, when buying a home, you might ask for furniture you have no use for, just so you can ask for a lower price when you don’t get it.

Are you willing to use deception as part of negotiation?

Take Advantage of Free Samples

When my wife and I go to the grocery store to eat free samples, we often buy something we’ve tried.

That’s not a big surprise; samples are not charity, after all, but meant to promote products and services. But what if you have no interest in buying the product or service being promoted?

Do you take free samples of things you know you’ll never buy?

Your Turn: Do you ever face ethical dilemmas when trying to save money? How far will you go to save a buck?

Steve Gillman is the author of “101 Weird Ways to Make Money” and creator of He’s been a repo-man, walking stick carver, search engine evaluator, house flipper, tram driver, process server, mock juror and roulette croupier. But of the more than 100 ways he has made money, writing is his favorite (so far).