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The Ethics of Saving Money

Written by Ed Avis - 5 Comments

The Ethics of Saving Money

You’re probably working through your holiday gift list about now, and you might be realizing that your budget is going to be pretty tight. How far would you go to stretch that budget?

Questions of ethics rarely enter the shopping realm. When it comes to saving money, what’s not to like? After all, in these lean times saving money is considered a virtue in and of itself.

But are there situations in which saving a few bucks is not virtuous, and in fact may be unethical? Obviously, stretching your gift budget by shoplifting that bottle of Old Spice for your dad is wrong! And grabbing the last close-out Monster High Doll out of that lady’s shopping cart when she’s not looking is equally unethical.

But there are many gray areas. What if you overhear the lady with the Monster High Doll in her cart tell another shopper that she has no daughters or granddaughters, but is grabbing the last doll on the shelf to sell it later on eBay? Furthermore, what if you’re behind her at the checkout and she realizes that she forgot her wallet at home and asks the clerk to set it aside for her. Can you pounce on it?

Before you go shopping in the remaining days before Christmas, take a few minutes to consider the following ethical situations. These are not black-and-white scenarios, and you may not have definite answers. But they may get you thinking.

First, what do you do if the clerk gives you too much change? Tell her, or pocket it? Do you try to justify keeping the extra money by saying you shop there often, so you’ve given the store plenty of profit already? Does it matter how large the amount is?

Most people would probably not even notice an error of less than $1, but what’s your threshold? $5? $20? Nothing? Does it matter what store it is? Would you feel less guilty keeping an extra dollar from a clerk at Walmart than the owner of the family grocery in your neighborhood?

Here’s a related situation: What if you’re charged too little? Let’s say a can of paint at Home Depot is marked at $25, but the scanner rings up $15. The vast majority of shoppers would simply be delighted and assume there is some sale going on that they were unaware of.

But now imagine that you’re at your neighborhood hardware store and the same thing happens. It’s more likely that the $10 difference was the result of a programming error in the scanning device than some secret sale, right? Do you say anything?

What if there is no scanner involved, and the teenage clerk just hit $15 instead of $25 on the cash register? Clearly that’s human error, and that $10 you just “saved” is coming out of the proprietor’s wallet. Do you care? Or is this simply the price the proprietor is paying for doing a poor job of training the cashier?

Let’s consider coupon situations. Are you happy, or ethically bothered, when a clerk at the grocery store accepts an expired coupon?

What if she accepts a coupon for the wrong item? Does it matter if it’s a manufacturer’s coupon or a store coupon? Chain store or small independent? A 25 cent coupon or a $5 coupon? (Stores are generally reimbursed by manufacturers for coupons, but need to document that the appropriate products were purchased.)

One more scenario: The old made-in-America issue. Just about every shopping trip we take is more affordable because we are able to buy goods made in countries that have lower labor costs than the United States. In today’s global economy, buying goods made outside the United States is simply part of the deal, right?

Why pay more for something just because of its geography? Or do you choose an American-made product because you feel your purchase may affect local employment? Or do you choose American because you believe American workers are paid a more fair wage than those in some other countries?

You may never consider any of these issues when you’re shopping, and you’d be in good company. But here’s one black-and-white issue: You should at least think through these issues one time to see where you stand.

Published on December 13th, 2011
Modified on December 20th, 2011 - 5 Comments
Filed under: Consumer

About the author: is a writer and editor in Oak Park, Illinois. He specializes in personal finance, parenting, and small business topics. He is married and has two sons.

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5 Responses to “The Ethics of Saving Money”

  1. 1
    Nate Says:

    Thanks Ed. Very good points. It’s not worth it in the big scheme of things. Honesty and integrity shouldn’t be ignored.

  2. 2
    Bryan Says:

    I’ve run into this before when I was picking up an order for dozens of donuts (I think like 60 dozen) for a non-profit event I was running. It was a bakery in a big name store, Walmart or the grocery store or something, don’t remember the exact details at the moment. Basically instead of charging me the per dozen price, the cashier was charging me the per donut price except he put it in wrong. On the order of charging somewhere around 30% of what it should have been for a large order that had been specially made for me that morning.

    I pointed out the mistake to him and he insisted he was right. I pointed it out to the bakery employee (who was right there to help me load the car) who had written up the order slip (showing the much higher price) but they didn’t understand the problem. They even had a 2nd cashier come over to take a look and I pointed it out to them, but both cashiers still insisted it was done right.

    I hate to take advantage of an innocent mistake, but when I’ve directly pointed it out to 3 of your employees and they all believed they were charging me properly, what more can I do other than accept the “discount” as a generous donation to the non-profit. I find it hard to feel guilty when I’ve offered multiple opportunities to make it right (with specific direction on what the higher price should be). Sometimes people just make it way too hard to do the right thing.

  3. 3
    The Frugallery Says:

    Ethics should not be situational and applied willy-nilly. If you notice the difference, you should say something regardless of what store you are at. Now if you say something and the cashiers disagree with you–then that is their problem. At least you can sleep well at night knowing you tried to do the right thing.

    I recently purchased $50 in gift cards and the cashier was so flustered activating them that she handed them to me & said thanks without trying to charge me! Obviously I pointed out the mistake and the embarrassed cashier charged me.

  4. 4
    dd Says:

    Always correct a mistake, often the cashier will have to pay a shortfall, and may eventually not have a job if a shortfall happens too often.

  5. 5
    Mike Says:

    I am just catching on my reading…

    I think ethics are independent of situations. Whether I receive too much change or too little or charged the wrong amount, I have always told the cashier. Ethics indicate what an individual should do, but if the cashier fails to correct the error, who am I to argue?

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