Monday, July 12, 2010

Frugal Ethics

A recent article in the Dollar Stretcher newsletter about "Frugal Ethics" inspired me to resurrect the "Tightwad Ethics Quiz" that ran years ago in the Tightwad Gazette. Editor Amy Dacyczyn posed ten questions to her readers about the ethics of frugality and then published the results. I posted the questions in one of the the Dollar Stretcher forums, and it occurred to me that you ecofrugal readers might also find them of interest.

For each question, there were four possible answers: "Yes," "No," "Yes, but I wouldn't do it," and "No, but I would do it anyway." Amy Dacyczyn published the percentage of responses that fell into each category, along with a representative comment that typified the majority viewpoint. (She didn't say which answer she thought was right, though she noted that in most cases she agreed with the majority view.) Here are the ten questions, the response from the Tightwad Gazette readers, and my own response. (Oh, and for those who are concerned about whether my use of this copyrighted material is itself unethical, I believe it qualifies as "Fair Use.")

Is it ethical to:

1. Secretly switch your spouse's favorite, expensive name brand with a store brand to see if they would notice the difference, providing that you eventually let them in on it?

76% Yes; 14% No; 6% Yes, but I wouldn't; 4% No, but I would

Typical comment: "Yes, we both do this all the time."

My response: Yes, but I probably wouldn't do it. I'd most likely let him in on the switch from the beginning. My husband is no more brand loyal than I am and is generally happy to accept a store-brand substitute if it meets his needs.

2. Substitute another receipt to get a rebate if you lost the original receipt? The possible justification here is that you did in fact purchase the product and satisfy the manufacturer's intention.

70% Yes; 19% No; 5% Yes, but I wouldn't; 6% No, but I would

Typical comment: "Yes, I bought the item."

My response: Yes, although I've never actually done it because I am meticulous about keeping everything when sending in rebates. But as long as I actually bought the item, I'm not cheating anyone by taking the rebate.

3. Take all of the unused soap and shampoo from your hotel room?

76% Yes; 14% No; 5% Yes, but I wouldn't; 5% No, but I would

Typical comment: "Yes, but not the light bulbs and rolls of toilet paper."

My response: This one's actually complicated for me. I would have no problem taking the leftovers if I had opened the package and used part of it, because in that case I would assume that the hotel is just going to throw it out otherwise. So I'm just preventing waste. If the package is still unopened and sealed, then I would be inclined to think that if I leave it, the hotel will pass it on to the next guest, while if I take it, they'll have to substitute a new one. So even if I am legally entitled to take it, I'm still promoting waste by doing so. But if the hotel is actually going to discard the package whether it's been opened or not, then obviously it's wasteful to leave it. So I guess that if I didn't know the hotel's policy, it would be best to go ahead and take it. I stay in hotels so seldom that it's not much of an issue anyway.

4. Offer half of the asking price and show a wad of cash to encourage the sale when you are making a large purchase from a private individual? This assumes that the seller does not appear needy.

72% Yes; 15% No; 12% Yes, but I wouldn't; 1% No, but I would

Typical comment: "Yes, that's just good old Yankee trading."

My response: Sure, why not? The seller is under no obligation to take the offer, but if cash on the barrelhead is a big enough incentive to him/her, isn't that a win for both of us?

5. Buy something from a pawn shop, knowing it is likely that someone under economic duress sold the item for a fraction of its real value?

76% Yes; 8% No; 15% Yes, but I wouldn't; 1% No, but I would

Typical comment: "Yes, if the shops did not exist, those in need would have no way to raise quick cash."

My response: Yes, I agree with the above. If I refuse to patronize the pawn shop and it goes out of business, how does that help anyone? The owner is out of a job and people who need cash in a hurry will no longer have a safe and legal way to get it.

6. Return a 10-year-old coat to L.L. Bean, to take advantage of the company's unconditional satisfaction guarantee?

12% Yes; 77% No; 10% Yes, but I wouldn't; 1% No, but I would

Typical comment: "No, this violates the spirit of the guarantee. How can you be dissatisfied after 10 years?"

My response: No. Ten years is a reasonable lifetime for a coat, so I have no grounds for dissatisfaction. However, I would (and have) returned a pair of pants that wore out within one year, because I think pants should last longer than that.

7. Buy toys for a fraction of their original price from a 10-year-old at a family yard sale?

66% Yes; 24% No; 9% Yes, but I wouldn't; 1% No, but I would

Typical comment: "Yes, assume he prefers the money."

My response: Yes. I don't see why anyone would find this objectionable. If the kid is selling the toys, he/she presumably would rather have the money. And "a fraction of their original price" is what you should expect to pay at a yard sale. Unless they're collectibles, they are overpriced at more than 20 or 25 percent of their original value.

8. Take labels off thrift shop designer clothes and sew them onto new no-name clothes for your kids to wear? This assumes your kids know about it.

35% Yes; 45% No; 17% Yes, but I wouldn't; 3% No, but I would

Since this was the only question for which public opinion appeared divided, she published two typical comments: "Yes, if my kids were under extraordinary pressure, I would see this as beating a stupid system" and "No. You're teaching your kids false values."

My response: No. First of all, I think label obsession is just plain stupid, and if I had kids, I would rather try to teach them how to be smart shoppers and pick clothing based on real value. And more than that, I wouldn't want to teach them to be deceptive in their dealings with others. And finally, I think that there's a serious risk that snobbish classmates might be able to spot the sewed-on label, and then their scorn would not only increase, it would actually be justified (because the kid was not just wearing cheap clothes but also being dishonest about it).

9. Get Radio Shack's free battery card, and get a once-a-month free battery even though you never plan to buy anything from them?

63% Yes; 25% No; 11% Yes, but I wouldn't; 1% No, but I would

Typical comment: "Yes, they were trying to bait you, and there were no strings."

My response: Yes. Stores offer promotions like this to get you in the door in the hopes that you'll buy something else once you're there. They know that it won't work on everyone who accepts the offer. There's nothing morally wrong with being the fish that slips the hook. To me, this is just the same as going into a supermarket and buying up a bunch of "loss leaders" and nothing else.

10. Shop at a thrift shop if you have an average or above average income? The possible objection is that you would be buying items that poorer people need.

95% Yes; 2% No; 2% Yes, but I wouldn't; 1% No, but I would

Typical comment: "Yes, most thrift shops have too much merchandise. Profits go to a good cause."

My response: Yes, of course. By shopping there, I am supporting the store, which in turn supports a worthy cause. And I'm also helping the environment by buying stuff secondhand. This is a win-win, as far as I'm concerned.

I find it sort of reassuring that I fell in with the majority on most of these, and where I differed with them I actually came down on the more scrupulous side of the fence. I'd like to think that my frugal choices are, on the whole, making the world a better place.

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