Frugality and The Five-Finger Discount

Does Your Frugality Cross the Line into Thievery

About a year ago, a newspaper headline grabbed my attention.

I read it aloud.

Man Charged for Filling McD’s Water Cup with Soda.

My children, aghast, looked around the room with wide eyes.

A criminal was in their midst. Someone they knew and loved had –  on occasion – put soda in a water cup. And I had just confirmed their suspicion that such behavior was not only nefarious, but criminal.

Reading on, it turned out the soda-stealing McDonald’s customer seriously escalated the situation by refusing to return the soda when confronted, fleeing from the restaurant and reversing into the restaurant manager with his car. So, it was not surprising that he ended up with felony charges.

But the headline about the stolen fountain drink made me wonder….

How far are people willing to go to save money? And where is the line between thrift and theft?

I’m not talking about serious shoplifting or other property crimes.

I am talking about the dubious behavior that lies in the margins of the legal or ethical landscape. Behavior that is unlikely to result in a chargeable offense, but might be embarrassing if caught on tape and uploaded to YouTube.

I’m talking about these sketchy maneuvers:

  • Using the “free” internet connection of the neighboring apartment, or sharing Netflix passwords with friends
  • Taking unopened toiletries, pens, pads, or even the towels out of your hotel room
  • Sneaking food away from a buffet or banquet in baggies
  • Sneaking food or drinks into an event where it’s prohibited (e.g.,movies, amusement parks)
  • Riding a train or bus without a ticket, or hopping a subway turn-style
  • Borrowing a wrist-band or copying a hand stamp to get into a club or event
  • Returning a used item to a store, as if it were new, for a full refund
  • Pretending you (or your children) are a different age to get a discounted admission ticket or meal

The Five-Finger Discount

Is this girl frugal or stealing for sneaking a bite

The “five-finger discount” is petty theft, or the taking of something that is small and unnoticeable. For our purposes, let’s also include intangible “free-rider” behavior: where someone else is paying for a service or event, but not the free-rider.

“What?” the free-rider says. “I’m just one more body in the crowd. What difference will I make? I’m not actually hurting anyone.”

Of course, this logic doesn’t hold. Companies lose money around the margins – missing soda, lost tickets sales, reduced fares – all have an effect on the bottom line. The losses likely result in lower wages for company employees and higher prices for everyone else.

So its’ simple then, taking the five-finger discount is always stealing. And stealing is wrong.

The Bible, your Grandma, and even your hippie college ethics professor are in agreement on that one.

And yet…who among us isn’t guilty of at least one of the five-finger infractions on the list?

guilty of using five finger discount

Possibly it was just a small scheme to keep the family trip to Disney under budget?

“Johnny, remember that you are two today, not three. Can you say TWO? And, be a good boy for Mommy and just put this granola bar in your pocket. Okay honey?”

But it’s Disney you say. It’s over-priced and the rules are unfair. You wouldn’t be able to attend the park at all if you didn’t employ some sneaky frugal tactics! Don’t your kids deserve a chance to see live Disney princesses? Well, yes, but…

If these frugal tactics are just a form of stealing (and we’ve already established that they are), then you are stealing in front of your children. Whoa. What exactly are you teaching them? Lessons in frugality? Or that the five-finger discount is okay in your book?

When Men were Men, and Frugal was Just Plain Cheap

My husband was raised by cheap parents who played things loose on the ethical front.

His father was a frozen food salesman. Every Friday, he would return home with a trunk full of frozen food “breakage,” carrying arm-loads of White Castles and Hungry Man TV-Dinners down to the basement freezer. Then, when it was back-to-school time for the kids, he would barter with an associate at a warehouse clothing outlet – conveniently coming up with more frozen food breakage to trade for generic jeans and winter coats.

His mother had nothing to barter, but she had her ways of saving money. She rarely took her kids to the doctor, relying on the ER in the event of a true emergency. Once she was settled in the ER examination room with a child, as soon as the nurse departed, she would rifle through all the drawers and cabinets. She stuffed her purse with anything she could find, especially butterfly bandages, so she might not have to return the next time a child needed stitches.

My husband learned early that if he wanted anything, it was up to him to find a way to get it. No means were off the table, but he did work his rear off as a kid. His older brother took two paper routes, giving him one, because he was too young to sign up on his own. Later, beginning at age thirteen, he worked as a short-order cook at a diner, paid in cash, under-the-table.

This hard-scrabble upbringing, rooted in extreme frugality and the five-finger discount, left an imprint on my husband’s relationship with money. While he is certainly a far cry from his parents’ level of cheapness, I would consider him thrifty, with a small streak of “moral flexibility” thrown in for good measure.

When the Five-Finger Discount is a Way of Life

Several years ago, we lived on the island of Pohnpei, a tiny dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in an area known as Micronesia. At the time, the island was a United States’ protectorate and it had little commerce other than the money the US pumped-in through the Pohnpeian government.bad buffet etiquette or stealing

The Pohnpeian government would often throw parties for its employees and their immediate families. The parties always revolved around a pig roast and included substantial amounts of food. After the party guests had finished filling their own plates to enjoy that evening, they hastened back to the buffet with large aluminum trays. These, they heaped with food, covered with foil and set aside.

Good grief, who has the nerve to grab vast amounts of food from their employer’s smorgasbord? Virtually all Pohnpeians apparently. In fact, it was the accepted custom. No shame whatsoever.

What’s the Point?

Frankly I’m not sure. Do these familial or cultural five-finger behaviors destroy the ethical fiber of society? Or do they simply grease the skids of life as we know it, making it possible for everyone to stretch a dollar as they see fit?

I’ve seen a few other bloggers address this topic (and heck, even Dave Ramsey weighed in on it). They address it because readers often write-in about it, suggesting crafty five-finger methods for achieving frugality.  The readers proudly demonstrate their frugal bona fides by suggesting, for instance, that a family of four can order one refillable soda cup to share at a fast food restaurant. They all get soda for $1.69!

Gasp. You can envision the thrifty experts wrinkling their noses as they conclude that five-finger frugality is totally unacceptable. It is a bridge too far in the quest for frugal living. At the very least, it is unethical and sets a terrible example. At the worst, it is criminal.

And yet….the five-finger behavior persists, lurking in the underbelly of the frugality movement.

What do you think? What behavior is acceptable in the quest for frugal living? And where do you draw the line?

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53 thoughts on “Frugality and The Five-Finger Discount

  1. Each must find his own line in the sand. Personally, I feel that my line should be adjusted as I have more money. I pay for things now that younger me would have simply taken.

    1. Agreed. My line has changed as I have become more wealthy and had a kid…

      Still saving $1.69 on soda still is not saving considering the downstream costs of obesity and diabetes…just saying.

    2. I agree. Sometimes your life situation necessitates taking advantage of a gray area in the short term in order to not do long term damage. In this case, it’s “lesser of two evils.”

      1. Sometimes it seems that a lot life is lived in the gray areas and I’m often looking for the lesser of two evils…keeps things interesting I guess. I am interested in your website name, a great sounding contradiction – “frugally reckless” – I’m going to check it out!

  2. Oops! I’ll confess, whenever there are complimentary tampons in a restroom, I’ll grab a couple to keep in my purse for future needs. I feel like certain things companies plan for (and almost expect). For Netflix, it’s such a widely known thing that people share passwords they could easily block it but I don’t think they care to crack down. Cable companies have terrible reputations, I bet Neflix wants to stay on the customers’ ‘good sides’ and not be super strict about it.

    1. Ha ha, good points! I bet you’re right, that some companies look the other direction as a gesture to build goodwill. I suppose if Costco let’s people return anything, in any condition, they count on people returning only 5% of their purchases, while making a good profit off the other 95%.

      1. Ya’ll are awesome! I told my husband about my post, and then told him that the second comment was about tampons. Priceless 🙂

  3. Great post! I had to laugh a bit when you said your husband’s parents were a bit loose on the ethical front hahaha. Who am I to judge? We would often buy cheap candy and pop at Walmart and sneak them into the movie theater. We did pay for popcorn though! Take care!

    1. Glad you got a kick out the story. My husband’s tales of his youth always crack me up, and certainly gave me inspiration for this post! 🙂

  4. OMG I am a thief!!! Whenever I take my kids to the movies (not as often as they get older), we always stop at the Dollar store first to buy snacks. There is no way I am paying $4 for a chocolate bar, it is just pure robbery (haha, who is the thief now?). Oh and I am also a hotel thief, I always take the toiletries but never towels or anything like that (I guess I know where to draw the line:)). One of my friend and I have been boxing that stuff around Christmas to drop off at women’s shelter, so I am like a modern Robin Hood!

    1. The Robin Hood angle is a nice twist! And I think sneaking candy into movies is one of the most common and justifiable five-finger frugal maneuvers around. When the company is taking advantage of a captive audience it feels like sneaky frugal tactics are just fighting fire with fire.

      1. I like your style on asking for permission. There’s probably a few things that assumed to be against the rules that really aren’t. Like toiletries and promotional items. Thanks for the comment Rae.

  5. I am always looking for a deal. Sometimes I can drift into the gray when it comes to being financially ethical. I am a capitalist. I am in competition with the world to get the most value for my money.

  6. I disagree that the pens and shampoo are not free for the taking. You paid for those and they want you to take the pens which act as free advertising for the hotel. Towels are different, that is stealing. I am pretty sure I haven’t done any of the other things on the list. But that one doesn’t belong because if an item is specified as complimentary, like a free bottle of water in your room, then it belongs to you.

    1. I do agree that if inexpensive items are imprinted with a company brand, they are being offered more as marketing materials and free for the taking.

  7. I think most of these are downright tacky at best and dishonest at worst! When one encourages one’s children to lie to get a discount or free meal/admission, what in the world are these children being taught?

    1. I do not disagree with you Lizzy. That’s not saying that I’m not tacky sometimes. Just not “Walmartian” level tacky (I hope).

  8. I love this, it brings up some things I’ve definitely done. The hotel stuff isn’t a big deal for 99% of hotel owners. They WANT you to take the toiletries and things with their names on them; it’s advertising, and they just throw them out anyway.

    Towels is a totally different story, as are a lot of other things you point out.

    I will admit though we just went to Target and bought snacks to bring into the movie because the prices on snacks at movie theaters is crazy – I’m with Caroline on this one.

    1. I’m glad you liked it! Intended to be entertaining and thought-provoking, pointing out the mixed bag of behaviors we bring into our family finances. And bringing your own candy into a movie is about as American as apple pie (based on my powers of observation at Star Wars the Last Jedi!)

  9. I think it comes down the intent of the original owner. Sometimes that’s much more laid out than others though (like the soda at McD example). To me that is stealing in front of kids. My parents didn’t do that either, so that’s probably why I have strong opinions on it.

    When my work has catered lunch, you better believe I’m lining up to take home leftovers though. Those will just be thrown out if no one eats them. For anything that’s on it’s way out if I DONT take it, that’s my hazy line in the sand that I’d cross, even if it meant breaking some rules.

  10. I was 8 years old for years at amusement parks all over the country. The ruse was even more laughable since I was over 5′ by the time I was 10. My dad had no shame and my mom finally had to put her foot down.
    As for some of the examples you listed, some are more tacky than criminal. The one refillable soda for 4 family members is actually pretty smart. My family used to buy two refillable sodas at the movies and share them amongst 5 people. No rules against sharing, so why not? I’m also the queen of tupperware. If I got to an event with a free buffet and there is food leftover at the end of the night, I’m taking some to go. It’s just going to go in the garbage anyways. Uncouth? Absolutely! Stealing? Nah. The food was purchased for guests to eat…no rules on where and when the guests eat the food.

    I like to save money wherever I can, but I like life free from guilt and ADAs so I stick to not breaking the law. Social taboos though, are fair game.

  11. I don’t find that the example of bringing your own food and beverages into a movie theatre is the same as the other examples of ‘stealing’. Their prices are unreasonable and the selection isn’t always acceptable so people should be able to decide whether they want to pay the inflated prices for the available items or bring their own (or not). It’s like telling people they can’t bring an item into a shopping mall that is sold by the shopping mall, e.g. food, wallet, hat. Not the same thing as taking, ingesting and/or otherwise using items not paid for. I do think that people bringing in their own food and beverages should take their containers, wrappers, etc. with them when they leave though.

    1. I tend to agree with you (and a few others who have commented) that the gross over-charging of a captive audience makes it more acceptable to bring in outside food/drinks (in violation of the rules). Although…I worked at movie concession stand in my teens and we were allowed to admit family & friends freely into the movies, but not to give away any of the concessions. The theater managers said they made their money (profits) on concession sales, not on the ticket sales.

    1. Although if the housekeeper didn’t restock your room adequately…. just kidding, I agree with your take on this one.

  12. Great post, lots of gray area. My wife and I will split a fountain pop with free refills at a place like Chipotle. That’s probably stealing but we’ve done it since college and continue to do it.

    Another one is sharing passwords to watch TV. If a relative has access to HBO and ESPN I’ll usually use it to login and watch TV for free. In return they get access to my Netflix account 🙂

    1. I like it! Sharing sure sounds better than stealing! Ha, ha, yes, it’s all gray areas and an interesting peek into human nature. This was a fun post to write, and I’m enjoying the variety of reactions. Thanks for weighing in!

  13. Hey Kat. Great post. And I must admit that I’m guilty as charged. I do buy my peanut M&Ms and Coke before I enter a movie theater and I don’t claim any cash income on my taxes. I suppose I could argue that movie theaters and government are getting their comeuppance but that I’m afraid would be a gross rationalization. Damn, morality is hard.

    1. Thanks for the complement Mr. Groovy! I’ve read plenty of your entertaining posts, which may have even inspired me to mine the rich material of my husband’s Long Island family for this effort. Nothing like New York for some good material! 🙂

  14. once at a conference we were told that it was great publicity when hotel items were taken. Always served as promotion for them. Don’t know if it is actually true but it does sound true

  15. I used to do the soda-in-water-cup thing at fast food restaurants when I was a teen.

    I think the morality of a few of these depends on who you’re “stealing” from. For instance, Netflix doesn’t mind you sharing your password (they even created profiles for people who do) and hotels don’t mind you taking their soap. Buffets generally don’t like you taking extra food away without asking or paying for it, though.

  16. Excellent, thought-provoking post! We should endeavor to play by the rules with maybe a few exceptions for gray areas. Once someone has graduated to the 10-finger, 2-pocket discount, though, there’s no more gray area! 🙂

  17. I only grab what I “deemed” that I paid for, toiletries in a hotel etc. Sometimes it’s hard to draw a line when things are priced so differently at a different setting. One thing that I don’t know how to draw a line is when the price come out lower than display tag in groceries shopping. If it was overcharge, I would have cancel the item but when it’s under, am I obligated to ask why?

    1. One time, my husband and I returned from overseas and had to outfit and entire apartment in NYC. We spent over $1400 in one evening at Bed, Bath & Beyond. We were sitting having dinner later when my husband pulled out our receipt and noticed that we weren’t charged for a knife set that was over $100. But we were exhausted and just did nothing about it. I think if I was standing at the register and had only a handful of items and the amount came out noticeably low, I would have said something to the cashier. Sometimes it seems like the circumstances dictate our behaviors, for better or worse. Thanks for your comment.

  18. Oh boy. I think I’m guilty of either having thought about or done nearly every one of those questionable acts. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone when it comes to the ‘frugal-to-the-extreme’ mindset. At the same time, it makes me question the lengths that I’ve gone to in the past to save a few dollars. I have to admit, I’ve crossed a few lines. But I’ll definitely be more conscious of what I’m thinking and doing in the future 🙂

    1. I wrote this post because I think these are such common behaviors. So you are definitely not alone! Another poster commented that his line in the sand has shifted as he’s aged and increased his wealth, and I think that is relatively common too. The things you would do as a starving college student may not be the same things you would do today. 🙂

  19. I think there is a line drawn in the sand, the soda pop thing is clearly stealing, but the Disney World one is questionable. If Disney cared so much, they should just have the employees check for ID.

    I’ve always taken food into the movie theatre, but mostly because I like to eat a fast food meal with my movie from childhood habits — I don’t like popcorn or nachos.

  20. Great post. We take the little soaps, shampoos, and conditioners from a hotel room, but leave pretty much everything else. The pad of paper that’s there usually has all of five sheets of paper on it anyway.

    One time I went to Domino’s with someone and he took about 30-40 paper napkins, telling me “they’re free.” While I don’t think that’s theft (he did buy a pizza after all) it definitely crosses the line into tacky. What gets me is that this stuff that’s taken in the name of frugality is often just worth pennies.

    1. Thanks John! And, yes, it seems pretty ticky-tack to remove a wad of paper napkins from Domino’s, hardly worth the effort. But I suppose that’s his line and he feels its justified. I guess that’s why so many fast food restaurants have moved ketchup, sauces, etc… behind the counter, ha!

  21. I loved this post and congrats on your RSF picture. I was one who grew up with parents that had loose ethical boundaries. I always had to lie about my age and there were always “extras” from the restaurant. This was an interesting experienced and I’ve evolved over time.

    Hotel Soap? Absolutely. I was so disappointing a few months ago when I actually had to pay for soap since my travels had slowed down. I view that as something I paid for with a $120+ room night.. A few extra napkins from Chick Fil A? Sure. Split a small beverage with free refills? Probably. I’ll even take some food into a movie theater, except now its things like almonds and apricots that they don’t sell and I can justify it keep me from getting cranky. In all those situations I’m exchanging my money for value and as long as I don’t abuse it, I don’t feel bad.

    Where is the line for me now? I don’t watch pirated movies or pirate MP3s, which was a big deal 18 years ago in college! I would also never do anything that threatens my relationship with my employer. Ethics and trust there are paramount in my position. I feel bad for taking/using a $0.50 chap stick from the marketing material.

    1. Thanks Mr. Shirts! You are right about the old days of pirated music and movies…remember Napster? Ha! Oh well, now I just pay my Spotify and Netflix subscriptions, etc.. and don’t even think about it!

  22. Great post Kat! I think it is a topic we all can relate to and have been guilty of. Heck, just last week I brought a bottle of water with me to the movie theater. Sure I bought popcorn, but I wanted to bring my own water since I knew I was going to be thirsty with or without the water.

    I think each person has their own moral compass and will figure out what they consider criminal, cheap, or frugal. Typically, I won’t do things like this. I laughed at the McDonalds article because last week I faced the same dilemma. I asked for a cup for water and thought about filling it up with Sprite for a few seconds. However, since I didn’t pay, I felt bad and opted for the water. I’ve seen some earlier comments about downloading free music and other ventures. Now, I don’t bother with that. If I want a song, I’ll buy it for $.99 or go to the library and receive the CD. Its not worth lying and stealing anymore (except for a water at the movies – lets be real, $7 for a bottle of water is ridiculous) just to get a good deal. I follow this 95% of the time so I still leave myself room for error 🙂

    Thanks again for the great read.


  23. Great post! My family moved from China and we definitely took advantages of this ethical gray area when I was growing up. I do think cultural upbringing and shame (or lack of shame) had a lot to do with that.

    Though I grew up in the US, I feel my experience in China showed me that most people there happily take advantage of loopholes and it’s shame on you to not have built in defenses against it. For example, even while standing in a line in China, someone will cut you in line shamelessly if there’s ANY gap between you and the person in front of you. I think we’re highly privileged in the US that even with the growing wealth gap, it hasn’t gotten to the point that everyone has begun adopting an “every person for themselves” mentality.

    I seriously considered it completely normal to buy 1 soda with unlimited refills for sharing among family or taking leftover food from an event. Not until I read a pf blog post about a year ago calling this morally abhorrent that I even realized others found this not only questionable, but disgusting behavior.

    1. I really appreciate your cultural comparison Jing. And I get your point too, that some of these behaviors play into an “every person for themselves” environment that is not necessarily the society that we strive for. Thanks for your input and all the best in the New Year!

  24. My parents are actually super sticklers for rules like this – we never once got to pretend we were younger than we were even if it was JUST our birthday. On the flip side – I got barred from hanging out in the teen area on a cruise once because I turned 18 the week before and thus didn’t get to hang with my younger siblings (but wasn’t old enough to go into the 21+ lounge either). Sigh.

    Even with that upbringing, I read through your post and realized I’ve definitely fudged on some of these. They seem like “no big deal,” but if I wouldn’t want to talk about it proudly, I probably shouldn’t do it.

  25. We were actually detained at Universal when I bought a child’s admission ticket for my daughter. She was 11. Apparently anyone over the age of 10 is considered an adult. 10???? I didn’t realize the policy when I purchased the ticket. We were stopped at the entrance and asked how old she was. I answered honestly and then was escorted to customer service where I stood in line to pay the extra $4 for the adult ticket. Meanwhile, my husband and 3 other kids (I mean, adults) were waiting at the entrance.

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