About a year ago, a newspaper headline grabbed my attention.
I read it aloud.
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
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?
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.
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?