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How Frugal Is Too Frugal?

By David Bakke

frgual or cheapI have been living what you would call a “frugal” lifestyle for a little over a year now. I try to save wherever I can, whenever I can. But at some point in time you will have to draw a line. That is, a line that marks where frugality ends and where unethical behavior begins. You probably know what I’m talking about. You come across ways that could save you money, but may not necessarily be ethical or even legal. So where do you draw the line? Let’s define the line that I have drawn for myself. Because when it comes down to it, if you have no morals or ethics, you could probably save a lot more money than you are right now.

Anything Even Slightly Illegal

For example, if you are into saving money through mail-in rebates and you have a large enough family where you often buy multiples of a specific item, you can significantly improve your overall savings by submitting multiple rebates for those items even though often these rebates often explicitly state “1 per household.” Let’s say you’re buying 2 of something; just buy it twice and submit a second rebate by changing your name and/or address by just a few characters for the second rebate. A no brainer, right? Wrong. This is against the law. Believe it or not, it can be considered mail fraud. Is it worth going to jail for a couple dollars in savings? This is just one example, and there are many other ways to save money that are borderline illegal or straight up illegal. You need to avoid the temptation of saving a little extra money.

Defining Unethical

Setting aside the illegal stuff, how about behavior that is unethical or immoral?

First, you have to define the two terms. What I try to do is to fall back on The Golden Rule. I have worked in a retail environment before so a lot of the temptations that I come across regarding savings are things that could have happened to me at my job. I try not to do anything to anybody else that I wouldn’t want done to me. If a cashier at any store makes a mistake ringing up an item or giving you change and the error is in your favor, do you mention it? I think you have to, because I wouldn’t want this happening to me.

If you’re at a store and you have a coupon for something that is already on sale, and the cashier says you can’t use the coupon, do you fight and scream and get the manager involved until you get your little discount? I’ve heard of people that advocate this type of response. I could never see myself doing it. I am out to save, not to embarrass myself publicly. Actually, I did do this once. I left the store feeling a little “grimy.” I never did it again. You have to decide for yourself the things you will and won’t do. I’m pretty tight where I draw the line on things being unethical. I may lose out on some savings, but I sure do sleep well at night.

Some Crazy People Out There

Ever thought of using these ideas to save a buck?

  • Cutting dryer sheets in half.
  • Cutting Post it notes in half.
  • Got a run in your pantyhose? Wait until you get a run in another set. Cut each in half and use the two good “legs”.
  • Splitting two-ply toilet paper.

If you’ve ever thought of doing stuff like that to save money, you need to take a chill pill when it comes to frugality. Being frugal is all about making wise financial decisions, not living like you’re an early primate. When it comes to drawing the line on frugality, you have to make your own decisions. I would never do anything illegal, and I set my bar on unethical/immoral activity pretty high. You want to save as much as you can, but you still have to live with yourself and you still have to sleep well at night.

Do you have a story of frugality that you think is just insane? Share it with our readers below.

(photo credit: yarhargoat)

David Bakke
David started his own personal finance blog, YourFinances101, in June of 2009 and published his first book on ways to save more and spend less called "Don't Be A Mule..." Since then he has been a regular contributor for Money Crashers. He lives just outside Atlanta, GA and most all of his free time is taken up by his amazing three year old son, Nicholas.

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  • Karmella

    I completely agree that each person needs to draw his/her own line(s). I respectfully suggest that this post might read a bit more judgmental than you intend.

    • david

      Karmella

      Reading thru it again, I can see how it may be taken as judgmental.

      That was not my intent at all.

      I sincerely appreciate your honest feedback

  • http://knsfinancial.com Khaleef @ KNS Financial

    Good post. There is a fine line between frugality and insanity or even unethical behavior. For me, I try to make sure that everything I do will honor God, and so that has to include how I deal with others (like the cashier in your example above).

    Sometimes we can see frugal living as some sort of competition where we try to beat our personal best in frugality. Like cutting ketchup with water or splitting 2-ply tp for instance. I think in these cases it can (but doesn’t have to) become the focus of our existence and we lose sight on what our financial goals were in the first place!

    • david

      Khaleef–you are right on point.

      Sometimes, the ability to save and scrimp can overtake us.

      It is important to keep a good perspective.

  • http://change-is-possible.net H Lee D

    Truly frugal people wouldn’t cut dryer sheets in half because they would line-dry all their clothes, right?

    We rarely use the dryer, but we use the sheets multiple times (instead of cutting them). Why is saving $2-3 on dryer sheets crazy but saving 50 cents with a coupon not crazy?

    The most common unethical things that I see are stealing music and sneaking food into places where it’s not allowed (for example, movie theatre).

    • KJMClark

      Of course, “stealing” music is also known as “pirating”, and it’s illegal.

      OTOH, the movie theater is already ripping you off with the price of the ticket, then attempting to rip you off a second time by prohibiting you bringing anything in but charging you 10x (20x?) their cost for concessions. So it’s ethical for them to do this, and unethical for you to bring your own food? If they post such a policy, just go somewhere else.

      Of course if you’re really frugal, you’ll borrow movies from the library and watch them at home for free – and not feel the least bit sorry that the theater is losing the revenue.

      And you do realize that using dryer sheets multiple times is *less* effective than cutting them in half, right? Sure, the line is money frugal, but time extravagant.

  • david

    H Lee

    Great point about not using the dryer at all.

    And I guess a lot of these things are a matter of personal preference.

    Thanks for commenting

  • http://www.budgetpulse.com Craig

    I think a lot of people take things way too far. It takes time and effort to be more frugal, which in the end could cost you more money. Do what works but no reason to get too crazy with it.

    • David Bakke

      Craig

      You touched on a good point. The amount of time needed to save is an important factor.

      If you have to spend an hour to save $5, is it worth it?

      Personally, my time is more vauable that that.

      Thanks for commenting

  • Anissa

    Good article. My personal pet peeve is when people take things just because they are free and then don’t even use them. You know the people who sign up for every free sample online (esp the ones that don’t expect a couple hundred people to respond) and then stock pile them or toss them. I’ve worked at the State Fair in a booth where we did give out some freebies like plastic bookmarks and frisbees and such, but people would just come up grab the stuff and not even look at the name of the booth! At least stand there long enough to find out why we are there!
    Free is great but if you take that sample it means someone else won’t get it, so think about do you really need/want it first.

  • David Bakke

    Anissa

    Another great point. Doing this just contributes to our reputation as a “consumerist” nation, and it also increases the amount of garbage in our country, when you think abut it.

    Getting free stuff for the sake of getting free stuff is insane.

    If I did that, I could fill up two houses with stuff!

    Thanks for weighing in–I appreciate your words.

  • Olivia

    To answer your question. The nylons I have. We don’t use post it notes or dryer sheets, and we buy one ply tp. I’d consider anything to allow us to live within our means that’s not sin.

  • david

    Olivia

    I think I may have come off as a litte judgmental, and that was not my intent at all. Really.

    I’m sure there are things that I consider to be normally frugal, that others would see as over the top.

    Thanks for commenting, I really appreciate it.

    • Olivia

      Thanks for being straight forward and well intentioned. That was clear from your original post. I was just answering your question, and the unasked one, where people draw the line.

      • David Bakke

        Olivia,

        Thank you for your honest feedback. It is always appreciated.

  • Erik Folgate

    I think you also need to look at it from the perspective of if your frugality is hurting others around you. If you’re too cheap or “frugal” to buy your kids the clothes they need, then that’s going over the line. If you never hang out with your friends and you cause your wife never to hang out with people because you don’t want to spend money to go out, then that’s going over the line. You don’t need to be ridiculous when you go out, but you shouldn’t eliminate your social life just to save a buck, unless it’s for a short amount of time in order to help you catch up on overdue bills or get out of debt.

    • David Bakke

      Erik

      You are right on pont. The reason that I save and and am frugal is so I can have the money to spend on my family (and friends).

      Being frugal is great, not enjoying the benefits of it is a mistake.

      Thanks for wieghing in

  • Gggg

    David, you rock! Both for replying to everyone’s comments, and for talking about ethics. I think a lot of people are afraid it will sound uncool to state what they won’t do on moral grounds. When others talk openly about ethics, it makes me (and others) feel more comfortable about doing the same. We don’t all have to draw lines in the same places, but it’s important to keep thinking — and talking — about drawing ethical lines.

    Regarding how far I’ll go for frugality:

    I already try not to take free stuff that I don’t really need, but Anissa’s comment will make me be even more careful about it.

    Like H Lee, I re-use dryer sheets. They still work fine the 2nd time. (I used to tear them in half for small loads, but they’re hard to tear.)

    My parents re-use paper napkins; I make such a mess of paper napkins that I’ve switched to cloth ones.

    If I had to wear pantyhose (thank goodness my job doesn’t require that), I could imagine cutting them in half.

    Thanks for an enjoyable article.

    • http://www.moneycrashers.com David/moneycrashers

      Gggg

      Thanks for all your kind words–I feel that if people are nice enough to take time out to comment on my article, then the least I can do is to respond to it.

      Hope to see you again some time

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