Saturday, November 21

Does frugal mean sneaky?

Sometimes it seems to me like most things associated with frugality are, well, sneaky. Sure, sure, there are the basic coupon combos. And, if you're diligent (and patient) you can actually make money off certain offers with the help of rebates. Which is, depending on your point of view, kind of sneaky -- but in the sense that we say such a word proudly.

It seems, though, like the really good deals -- the impressive ones -- come about not just through hard work, but also through some amount of questionable practice.

I'm not talking about huge sins. More like small gray areas. And I'm not necessarily interested in debating the ethics of a situation. There are plenty of frugal folks to voice opinions on morality of taking salt packets from McDonald's -- or how many ketchups before it's stealing.

But there is an element of sneakiness that skirts the border of ethics. Some would call it being smart, keeping your eyes open. Others would say it's just sneaky -- in the bad sense. That it's... not cheating, exactly. But not fair play either.

I think most of us skirt the rules more often than we realize. Those grocery deals that have limits, have you gone back several times to take full advantage of the sale? The circular has a limit, but most stores don't specify if it's per trip or per household. So if we ferry bags back to the car, then head right back into the store, are we being smart? Or sneaky? Or both?

I say both. It's a little sneaky. Obviously, the store would prefer if you just got the maximum number of products once per sale. But it's also smart, because we know the stores don't bother to close the loopholes. So, for some of us, that's all the permission we need.

After all, it would be an easy situation to remedy. Stores just need to add a couple of words, and then the rules are more clear. No ambiguity. Heck, they could go a step further and really avoid the problem by configuring the loyalty cards to automatically stop applying the sales price after a certain number of weekly sales items had been purchased.

They don't, though. Probably because they make enough money on the rest of the customers that they don't need to risk alienating their die-hard frugal clientele.

But the stores' nonchalance doesn't mean we're automatically acting ethically. After all, shoplifting could be stopped 100 percent. It would just require that stores hire enough employees to follow customers around and watch them like hawks.

However, that would vastly increase payroll costs, not to mention driving away customers in droves. So companies accept that some shoplifting is part of the retail business. Still, that hardly makes it ethical.

In the end, most frugal people exploit the letter of the rules, rather than the spirit. We check coupons and sales for all the fine print. Then we scour that fine print carefully, to find any loopholes we can exploit. I think most of us are big on the phrase, "But it doesn't say that I can't."

Currently, Tim is happily exploiting Game Stop's return policy. When you buy a used title, you have up to a week to return it for full store credit. Tomorrow, he'll be getting a fifth title. Three were returned for valid complaints. But he plans on returning the current title, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, getting another game for a week, then getting Ultimate Alliance again, so he can finish it up. (He checked at the store, and it's not against the rules.)

Who knows how long he'll keep this up? It seems a little morally questionable to me, but it also appeals to my crafty frugal side. It does, after all, make the most of our money. (Especially considering this is all from a credit we got selling the old Xbox 360.)

So, that brings me back to the question: Are these attitudes sneaky or smart? And do you need to be a bit sneaky to get the best frugal deals?

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Blogger Meg said...

My feelings are that if you feel like you have to be sneaky then you know it's probably wrong. Personally, I'd rather not do stuff I feel is wrong, especially to save a few bucks. If I can't afford what I want without being sneaky, then I probably shouldn't get it at all. And there are almost always alternatives even if you really need something.

November 21, 2009 at 10:37 AM

Blogger Abigail said...

I think you definitely have a point about feeling bad as an indicator.

I guess it's about connotation. I have always used it in a host of ways. Obviously, there's bad sneaky: someone who does things behind others' back or in some way cheats (like buying something for a one-time use then returning it for full credit).

But there was also another, more ambivalent and sometimes even positive use of the word. For example, up until a couple of years ago, "minimum purchases" at stores could often be satisfied by buying stamps and/or gift cards. (Most stores have closed this loophole these days.) So my mom would get free eggs or some such deal without buying more than she needed. Which is generally the store's goal with such deals. She also often said, with a somewhat ironic smirk, that she was being "sneaky" if she found such a good deal that, with coupons and rebates, she made money off a product.

That said, I can see how the word "sneaky" should perhaps be used as a moral compass. Like you said, saving a few bucks is rarely worth ethical dilemmas.

November 21, 2009 at 11:40 AM

Anonymous Beth said...

I think your husband is exploiting Game Stop's return policy and it is unethical. If the item is returned because of a valid complaint that is fine; after all, that is why the return policy was implemented. But he is essentially "renting" games at a non-rental store. Would you buy a dress for an evening out and then return it after? I wouldn't.

Also, my husband used to work at Game Stop when we were in college and he said the store may eventually "flag" your husband. I'm not sure what action, if any, they'd take but they do keep an eye on repeat return offenders.

November 23, 2009 at 8:21 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who works in retail, I see this sneaky “behavior” from people all the time. And as the person who’s taking the coupons, etc, all I can say is that it’s extremely disheartening. I’m not saying that you do this, but people literally want to get something for nothing. They act like they’re entitled to it, which I don’t seem to understand. I feel like people take advantage of the system, and then get angry at me when they don’t get exactly what they want. They yell, and scream and call me mean names, when in reality, I have no authority over the discount process or not, I just have to uphold it. The thing is, companies want to give you the best deals, but there’s a point where the line needs to be drawn. I want a good deal as much as the next person, but I don’t think I need to have sneaky behavior in order to get it. Maybe I don’t have enough guts, or maybe I’m not strong enough to demand these discounts, but for me it’s just a matter of integrity.

November 23, 2009 at 11:17 AM

Blogger Abigail said...


I do actually agree with you. Morally, his actions make me uncomfortable. And I've told him I think it's inappropriate. But he's an adult and it's his decision to make. Though I thank you for the "flag" tidbit. Might help him knock it off.


From what you describe, I would say it's beyond disheartening. Infuriating, appalling.

There is never an excuse for people yelling, screaming or calling names. And I would never support any attitude that berates you or anyone in a similar position.

I am sorry that so many people feel "entitled" to a deal that they abuse retail staff. I was referring more to explicitly following the rules of the coupon/store policy. Once in a great while, I have to argue my case, pointing out exactly how a coupon is phrased. When I do this, I am polite. I do not raise my voice, I do not use names. I generally ask to speak to a supervisor, since they have more control over how discounts are applied. And in those situations, about half of the time, the supervisor explains why I am mistaken and is, in fact, quite correct. I apologize.

That said, I think you have a valid point/point of view that we should all keep in mind when we're out there, wielding coupons.

November 23, 2009 at 1:00 PM

Blogger ManicMagic said...

Actually, I read their return policy line by line, character by character, and no where in there is any indication of how many times you can return games in the trial week. Believe me I asked when I was done reading it, and the gamestop employee I spoke to said that basically it's the same as a return in the 1st week. Then again, I don't honestly care if it is "unethical", I'm getting to try games for "free"!! :) - Tim Perry

November 24, 2009 at 4:10 AM

Blogger ManicMagic said...

Besides, IF it really were a problem, wouldn't they just reword their return policy to reflect their displeasure @ these actions?? I mean, in stores if they didn't want their coupons to be "exploited" then they probably should be more careful about the wording on the fine print. I'm just saying.

November 24, 2009 at 4:13 AM

Blogger ManicMagic said...

Oh, and fyi, if it weren't for the fact that we're in such debt I wouldn't have to resort to "abusing" gamestop's return policy. I'd just do what I've done in the past and just use their trade-in program. But for now, I'm perfectly happy doing exactly what I'm doing.

November 24, 2009 at 4:16 AM

Blogger Meg said...


"Then again, I don't honestly care if it is "unethical", I'm getting to try games for "free"!! :)"

"Oh, and fyi, if it weren't for the fact that we're in such debt I wouldn't have to resort to "abusing" gamestop's return policy."

Yeah, woe is you. You're in debt so you have to resort to unethical behavior. Poor you!

Dude, it's not like you're stealing bread to feed your family. There are plenty of other forms of free entertainment (which I use because I am in debt, too) -- not that any of us is entitled to be entertained.

You seem to know that this is unethical, else you wouldn't admit to not caring that it is. And if you don't care that this is unethical, then what else can you justify?

And I'll tell you why this is unethical. You know the intention of their policy is not to let you borrow games for free. This isn't the library (which you should consider using instead). It's a store. The intention is to provide good customer service so people will come back and buy games. When you abuse the system, you cost the store money. You might not have much sympathy for the business, but you should for the people who work for the company and the other customers because that's who you're screwing just so that you can play your games for free.

November 24, 2009 at 5:39 AM

Anonymous R. May said...

Mmmm but what happens when people exploit generous return policies (like gamestops) is that eventually the store changes to a not very good return policy.

It's not about the store being too stupid to close the loophole, it's about the store trying to have a good customer service policy for honest customers to make returns easily.

November 24, 2009 at 9:26 AM

Anonymous Aspiring Millionaire @ said...

This is such a grey area that I struggle with. Recently, I stayed at a hotel that has the most amazing soap. I asked the housekeepers for extra soap every day. They obliged kindly and I feel like I made out, but was it ethical? Part of me says, yes, because I asked. They could have said no....or maybe this how I am justifying unethical behavior.

As a person who has recently committed to being frugal, I have a friend that I consult with (who has lived a life of frugality). I ask her for her thoughts on crossing the line from frugal to unethical.

While there is no right answer, I believe that seeking advice on a decision could help you within ethical boundaries.

November 30, 2009 at 4:30 AM

Blogger Abigail said...

Aspiring Millionaire,

I think advice is definitely a good way to help locate your own moral line.

As for the soap thing, in my experience, hotels are happy to send up extra shampoos etc. So I personally wouldn't see any problem with it, though it's obviously good not to go hog wild with it and carry home 20 of them. My guess is that the hotel is happy to provide some small extras because you now have a good association with its brand name.

November 30, 2009 at 12:49 PM


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