When frugal becomes just plain cheap

Frugal Ethics

by Tawra Kellam


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Frugal vs. Ethical

There are times when it's tempting to lie, steal or break one of the other 10 Commandments to get a good deal, but in living frugally, we all need to stick to being honest. This is not always easy to do, but I want to give some examples that may help you stay honest. Here are some common tactics that some people use that are unethical and sometimes illegal:

  • You need some pens because you are running short so you take a handful from a store that is giving them out. This is stealing. If you take one, that's fine. Unless they tell you to take them all, it is tacky to take a large number of them. They're offering them simply as a courtesy.

  • You buy an item and you use it a few times and then return it because you're done with it. Stealing and lying. You probably won't tell the sales clerk that you just needed to use it for a few times, and even if you do, that's only OK if it is a rental store. If an item breaks, doesn't work or is not the right color, it is fine to return it. If you just needed it "for a few times" (like a dress for a special occasion) and know you won't use it again, you're stealing if you return it.

  • If you eat a food item with a guarantee on the box and it tastes nasty, return it. That's why they offer a guarantee. If you eat the entire contents of the box first and return the mostly-empty box, it probably wasn't actually nasty.

  • If you try to pass off your 14-year-old child as a 12-year-old so that you only have to pay for a child's meal, you are lying and teaching your child that lying is good when it benefits you.

  • If you find a "great deal" that you can't live without but you don't have the money in your checking account, don't write a check. Let it be the "one that got away." If you knowingly write a bad check, you are stealing and lying.

  • If you find a "great deal," buy it and then hide it from your husband, you're lying (unless it's his birthday present). If you have to hide it, you know you're doing something wrong.

  • If you charge up your credit cards with frivolous things like shopping and eating out and then declare bankruptcy, you are stealing from the credit card company and from everyone who does business with that company. Bankruptcy is intended to help people who end up financially strapped because of reasons beyond their control, like catastrophic medical expenses or the death of a spouse. It is unethical to declare bankruptcy because you went on a shopping spree, because you bought something you couldn't afford when you bought it, or because you decided to change careers and no longer want to pay the student loans for your old career. You signed that piece of paper when you purchased the item saying you would pay them back and you didn't. It's up to you to pay them back any (legal) way you can, even if it does mean feeling "deprived" for a time.

  • Also, it is unethical to incur lots of debt "keeping up with the Joneses" and then go bankrupt because the debt is so large. Many people look at others and say to themselves, "Those people are the same age as me. I work hard. I deserve that too." Or they say, "Our house is too small." Or "Our car is a real clunker so we need to buy a brand new one to 'save' on repair costs" (a huge myth, by the way!). If you can afford these things, by all means, buy them. If you can't afford those things, find a way to make more money or learn to be happy with what you have.

Frugal living is about making good financial decisions. There are so many things you can do to spend your money more wisely, so when you think you can get a "good deal," but it requires doing something that hurts someone else, pass it up.

Whenever you're in doubt about whether something is ethical, ask yourself if it would be OK with you if the situation were reversed and you were the person potentially coming up short. Be honest. We've all heard "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." If you would object to others doing it to you, you better look for a better way to save.


Tawra Kellam is the editor of LivingOnADime.com. Tawra and her husband paid off $20,000 debt in 5 years on $22,000 a year income.

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