Are You Frugal, Cheap, Or A Thief?

It’s been over one year since I published Frugality And Ethics – Are You Being Cheap, Frugal, or Stealing? This was a post I thoroughly enjoyed writing. Since last year, I have thought of several more situations that some may categorize as frugal living, whereas others may think it’s flat out stealing. Due to this, I thought right now…

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Last Updated: May 25, 2023

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Are You Frugal, Cheap, Or A Thief - Frugal LivingIt’s been over one year since I published Frugality And Ethics – Are You Being Cheap, Frugal, or Stealing?

This was a post I thoroughly enjoyed writing.

Since last year, I have thought of several more situations that some may categorize as frugal living, whereas others may think it’s flat out stealing. Due to this, I thought right now would be a great time for Part 3 of this series.

I don’t believe there is anything wrong with saving money (this is a personal finance blog after all), but I do wonder how far people will go to save money – whether it be $1, $2 or $100.

No one is perfect and I definitely am not.

However, when does frugal living or cheapness cross the line and turn into stealing? I would love to hear your opinion on each of the situations below.

 

Dumpster diving for goods.

I’ve never gone dumpster diving but I do know of a few people who have tried it.

Some believe that dumpster diving is stealing because the goods were meant for the trash. Others believe it’s just frugal living.

While I don’t think I could ever dumpster dive, I don’t think this is stealing. Someone actually making use of the item instead of it sitting in a landfill sounds like a much better use to me.

Related article: How To Live On One Income

 

Taking the coupons out of someone’s newspaper.

For a few months when I was trying out couponing (I was not very good at it), I received one newspaper each week so that I could get the coupons. However, the coupons were rarely ever in there. I did some research and apparently it is somewhat common for thieves to go around and steal the coupons out of newspapers.

Many of these thieves claim they do it because most people don’t use their coupons. However, how do you know if someone does or doesn’t?

To me, taking the coupons out of someone’s newspaper is clearly stealing and not frugal living at all. You should ask for permission before you go around taking coupons.

 

Not telling wedding vendors that you’re having a wedding.

I didn’t do this with my wedding, but whenever I read wedding budget posts almost every article would say not to tell wedding vendors that you were having a wedding.

Instead, some of these writers would recommend to tell the vendors that you were just having a party. Once you mention the word “wedding,” prices can significantly increase so saying that you are having a “party” might save you some money.

I think this is a difficult one. I’m not sure if this is stealing, as saying that it’s just a “party” is technically not a lie. However, you are purposely leaving information out.

I do think that if you leave out that your party is actually a wedding that you may miss out on some important aspects of your wedding. Usually a higher price is charged for a wedding because extra work needs to be put in, such as with a photographer, DJ, event planner, etc.

What do you think when it comes to this situation?

Related article: DIY Wedding Ideas – Worth It Or A Waste Of Money?

 

Reading books and magazines but not paying for them.

I still remember one occasion where I had to get a book for research and went to a bookstore near my home. The book was obviously read by someone previously as there were big fold marks on the outside as well as on the inside (it looked like someone folded the book in half), and there were even stains on and in the book. That is just sad!

I see nothing wrong with quickly glancing at a book or magazine to determine if it’s for you. However, if you are reading a majority of the book while not paying for it, I do think that this crosses the line into stealing.

If you enjoyed a book so much to read almost the whole thing (or even the whole thing), then you should either buy the book from the bookstore or just go to your local library and borrow it from there.

 

Credit card churning to earn sign-up bonuses.

In Part 2 of my Frugal and Ethics series, I was asked by a few readers to include this in Part 3. Some believe that signing up for credit cards purely to earn high sign-up bonuses is stealing, whereas others do not.

To me, I do not see this as stealing.

I’m fairly positive that credit card companies know that many people sign up just for their bonuses. They are probably hoping to find some life-long credit card holders by offering these bonuses. I see credit card churning as a frugal living win!

Have you ever done any of the above? Are the above situations just frugal living or are some actually theft? What other examples can you think of? 

 


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Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Author: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Hey! I’m Michelle Schroeder-Gardner and I am the founder of Making Sense of Cents. I’m passionate about all things personal finance, side hustles, making extra money, and online businesses. I have been featured in major publications such as Forbes, CNBC, Time, and Business Insider. Learn more here.

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  1. Petrish @ Debt Free Martini

    For people who are really, really, cheap there is a fine line between being a their and actually being cheap. I consider myself to be frugal for I will go out of my way to save a dime, but never at other peoples expense.

    1. Yes, I agree. Some believe that if it’s a mom and pop shop that it’s stealing but that if it’s a big corporation that it’s not stealing. Doesn’t make sense.

  2. I am most of the time frugal. One tactic I used because I am really enjoying novels, I download it online. I don’t buy it anymore in bookstore. Thanks to tablet or smart phone, simply put, to technology. I can it for free.

  3. Not mentioning your wedding is a good idea! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. You should be able to bargain for a good price. If spilling all the details hurts your chances, then I would just keep it to myself.

    1. I wonder how much of a price difference it really is.

  4. Kathy

    I buy a ton of books but have recently started buying them used from Amazon. You can save a ton of money and the book sellers sometimes sell them for 99cents plush shipping…even for a hard back. Just look for the description of its’ condition. I look for like new or very good and haven’t been disappointed yet.

    Also thought of an example of stealing…piggybacking on your neighbor’s Wi-Fi or cable signal. Definitely not cool.

    1. Yup, that is definitely stealing, I agree.

    2. Nancy

      Yes, using your neighbor’s wi-fi is stealing. However, what about arranging with the neighbor to pay a share for the use of the wi-fi. This would be a cost-sharing arrangement that could be beneficial to both parties. Or would that be stealing from the service provider (e.g. cable company) who would like to have two full-price paying customers instead of one? Would this be different from renting your chainsaw to a neighbor, for instance?

  5. Taking coupons is definitely stealing. As far as the wedding one, be careful, because when they figure it out (and they will), they could end up delivering poor service out of spite, which could ruin or place stress on a very important day.

    1. Yes, that’s why I don’t think lying about your wedding would be a good idea. If you can’t afford the service then you can’t afford it.

  6. I haven’t done any of the above, but I think if you’re organized enough churning credit cards is a smart way to earn rewards!

  7. Melane @ Good Job Mom

    I agree with you Michelle on all of your conclusions! Our daughter got married late last December, and we did see the advice to drop the word “wedding”, but we didn’t. We did DIY most of it, but the venue/caterer knew the event was a wedding. The time of year worked in our favor, most vendors wanted the business and were willing to work with our budget.

  8. Christopher

    The wedding thing is iffy claiming it is a party. When I got married, we did the court wedding (50.00 in Annapolis), rent-a-tux (50.00 w/ military discount) , and my wife purchased her wedding outfit on clearance (plus a city school teacher’s discount costing around 120.00). The reception was at a all-you-can-eat buffet that was planning to close down in the following year. We manage to negotiate the cost around 450.00 with guests planning events with the place throughout the year. Some guests asked us what we wanted for the wedding and we managed to get a wedding cake (friend of the family made a three layer ube flavored cake (purple cake)), a host (my aunt from NY), a photographer (wife’s co-worker) and a few wedding essentials that would have cost us a lot more. Anyway, our total cost for the wedding was around 1200.00. In comparison to my cousin’s dream wedding that cost 30,000 in Baltimore and a friend of family’s daughter (not including airfare back and forth from Seattle Washington) had hers costing 25,000.00 in North Carolina (not including air fare for distant relatives). This involved an expensive restaurant (50 dollars a plate per a person), limited guests, professional photographer and a few other things.
    I guess in certain areas of our marriage I have been less frugal especially with the baby’s food. Of course, second hand clothing from my wife’s coworkers and relatives is helpful. And the coupons for the Similac is essential (subscribed).

  9. I definitely don’t think anything on this list qualifies as stealing, except the obviously clear example of stealing coupons. Not sure why anyone would have a problem with the rest.

    1. With the book thing, I was upset because it was the only book left and it was left in disgusting condition.

  10. The wedding one is something I’ll definitely struggle with. You ARE leaving out info on purpose. But vendors DO gouge you just because you mention wedding, whether extra work is needed or not. I think what I might do is say ‘event’ or ‘party’, get a basic quote, then say wedding. If it goes up thousands, I’ll take my business elsewhere – they’ll clearly be unscrupulous on a lot of other issues too if they’re willing to price gouge.

    1. Yes, it’s definitely a hard one. If the work is the exact same then the price should be the same.

  11. I’ve heard of the wedding tip before, but think it would be pretty obvious to vendors that you’re planning wedding. As you noted, there are special arrangements for weddings. The DJ needs to play the first-dance song. You need to discuss serving the cutting and serving the cake with the caterer.

    My mom’s side of the family is notorious for taking advantage of “freebies,” including grabbing things that they find on the curb. They love to show off their finds (often pretty impressive). While I suspect that they engage in some sketchier activities, they don’t tell me about it. I think a good ethical guide is whether you would brag about your “frugality” to others.

    1. I feel that items left on the curb are usually free so hopefully she is truly taking freebies ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. I’ve signed up for credit cards simply for the sign on bonus and I don’t consider it stealing or unethical. I spent a decent amount of money on those cards and paid it all off so the extra points were just a plus. I also a little torn on the wedding vendor dilemma as well. Weddings are expensive, but when I get married I will most likely go with a venue that offers wedding packages so it will be no secret then ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I agree, I don’t think credit card bonuses are stealing either.

  13. Brian

    As long as the dumpster is in a place that is easy to get to (IE no climbing fences) then I don’t see a problem with it.

    As far as the wedding thing? We just shopped around and took some chances. It was our photographer’s second wedding (she did portrait work before), we got married on a Friday (2/29 baby!) and that saved a ton. I guess I don’t see it as stealing, but it is a little dishonest, but then again, so is charging more because it is a wedding.

    1. I agree with everything you said Brian. Good job on saving money on your wedding!

  14. Jackie Rose

    This is a very good post. I had not given much thought to the matter, but after reading this post I believe I agree with everything said. Except perhaps the wedding vendor. I think that, while it may not be “stealing”, it is at least wrong, and therefore I would stand against taking such actions.

    1. Then you agree with me ๐Ÿ™‚ I also said I wouldn’t do it.

  15. Kim

    I sure don’t think credit card churning is stealing but I do think some of the more creative ways to manufacture spending are pretty close to crossing the line. We generally just sign up for one card at a time so we don’t have to “invent” ways to spend money.

    I have on occasion told people that I work as an online writer rather than saying I’m an optometrist. People assume optometrists make lots of money, and I do think in some cases, you get charged more for that. No one assumes writers make any money. It’s a good thing they don’t read your blog!

    1. Haha yes! That’s interesting to think about. I never thought about that.

  16. I love these questions!! We discussed this on my podcast and it’s funny to think about these scenarios. I have definitely signed up for credit cards just for the points, but I don’t really feel like that’s cheap because the credit card companies definitely make money off of me swiping the card when I use it. I don’t personally do the magazine thing, but I know for a fact that my mom does. She goes food shopping and picks the longest checkout line so that she can read the magazines while she waits.

    1. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with churning cards. It’s not like you’re hiding anything, credit card companies know the game!

  17. I can’t say I’ve done any of the above but I agree with your take on all accounts. If you don’t want to purchase a book or magazine, that’s what libraries are for! No one wants to pay those kind of prices for a ‘used’ book. I also hate it when our paper doesn’t have all of the coupons. That’s downright stealing without doubt. As for credit card churning, credit card companies know the risk and if they don’t have certain requirements then fair game! I wrote a post and included an offer for a free No Soliciting sign for those who subscribe. I knew full well that some would un-subscribe as soon as they received their sign but that’s a risk I was willing to take!

    1. Wow that’s awesome you offered that!

  18. I’ve never done any of those. Taking coupons out of peoples newspapers is definitely stealing.

  19. These are really good (and difficult) hypothetical situations. I don’t like how people are price gouged for having a wedding. That’s crappy. But, I don’t think I could avoid mentioning the wedding when booking the venue…ahem.I also didn’t know that some people considered dumpster diving stealing. That’s news to me ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Haha yeah I agree with everything you said!

  20. I definitely agree with you on the credit card churning. I also think that waiving the annual fee for the first year is good as well as it let’s the consumer decide if the credit card works for them before they pay a fee for it. For example, I never would have gotten the Barclaycard or the Chase Sapphire preferred without the fee being waived in the first year. I found that the Barclaycard was worth the fee to me, but the Chase one wasn’t.

    1. I love when the annual fee is waived! ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. Ugh the couponing thing can get a bit intense, though I now can think back to a situation where I questioned whether I crossed a line. I was at a coffee shop a while back reading a newspaper someone left. The coupon inserts were still there and I took them. I didn’t feel bad about it at the time or think twice. After all, the person was clearly done with the newspaper and left it there for others to read/consume. If I didn’t take them someone else would have or they would have ended up in the recycling (or trash). Anyway there are other areas that are more black and white, such as someone stealing your newspaper at your apartment (I used to have to get up early on Sundays and grab it as soon as it got there…)

    1. I don’t think you crossed the line at all!

  22. Yeah charging more for the exact same product doesn’t make sense. I once read somewhere that a bride just wanted a basic white cake, and once she mentioned “wedding,” the price more than doubled even though it was similar to a basic birthday cake.

  23. I think that the determining factor is whether or not you are taking something that isn’t actually yours. Most of these things are simply people taking advantage of the systems that are already put in place. Working the system to your advantage is not stealing. When you actually take something, like the coupon example, is when it crosses the line.

    1. I agree! Taking coupons out of newspapers is clearly stealing.

  24. I’m definitely on board with not telling wedding vendors you’re having a wedding- they’re the thieves in that industry ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I would just feel so bad when they found out the truth though!

  25. Wow, I didn’t know people actually stole coupons out of other people’s newspaper..that’s low. I agree that credit card churning is not stealing – these companies have already studied the behavior of their target clients and have already made computations comparing all the bonuses they’re giving away against what they’re getting in return. They EXPECT people to keep signing up and know that among those 100, they’ll get at least 1 that’s enough to cover the costs.

    1. With the coupon thing, I remember a local news channel in my city covered it once. Apparently it happened a lot!

  26. Amy @ DebtGal

    I only subscribe to the newspaper for the coupons, so I would be very unhappy if someone stole them!

    Before we had kids, my husband and I would go to the local bookstore, and read magazines in the cafรฉ. I always felt a little dirty doing this, but justified it with our coffee purchases. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I think most bookstores realize that people do this. However, I just have a problem with people ruining the book and destroying it.

  27. The Asian Pear

    My thoughts:

    Dumpster Diving – Cheap, but not stealing. It’s garbage. You left it out there, expect it to be taken. The only exception is if people went through garbage to get information on you for identity theft.

    Taking Coupons – Yes, definitely stealing.

    Not telling Vendors that you’re having a wedding – Depends. If you don’t say it’s a wedding but still give them ALL the information they need, then it’s being frugal. But if you don’t tell your DJ that you expect them to MC as part of their job, that’s stealing.

    Reading books & magazines – Stealing. A browse like you said is fine but not majority of it.

    Credit Card bonuses – Frugal bordering on cheap but not stealing.

    1. Agree with everything you said!

  28. People really think dumpster diving is stealing? Weird. My mom dives, but only into recycled paper bins (for books) or recycling sometimes (for bottle caps for MyCoke Rewards).

    I think taking coupons out of someone’s paper is unquestionably stealing.

    I have read the majority of a book for free, but only because it was a comic shop and we were in between rounds during Magic tournament. I wouldn’t have bought it anyway, but that’s a feeble excuse. The fact was, I was bored and it was there. Definitely not a shining moment, and probably something I’d try to avoid in the future.

    I don’t think the wedding thing is stealing. Parties have DJs and food and drinks too. A photographer is rarer but not unheard of. And frankly, marking something up just because the word “wedding” is used seems unfair to me. If someone wants to mark up costs by 20% or more, I’d say that omitting the word “wedding” is just savvy shopping.

    That said, you could miss out on certain aspects of a wedding package. Usually, room stays are included the night before, plus a place to change. Which may or may not be the worth it to you. Worth considering though.

    1. Yeah I’m not sure why people think dumpster diving is stealing, but I have heard that some stores absolute hate it.

  29. Nancy

    I can think of only one situation when dumpster diving could be considered stealing. That is taking from containers marked for recycling. The charge to communities for waste management depends partially on what value that can be recouped from selling recyclables. Taking the high value recyclables is stealing from taxpayers and the community because it could impact the cost everyone pays for the trash-collecting service.

    1. Yes, that is very true! Thanks for mentioning this Nancy.

  30. Eckl Rose

    For all you book lovers out there – try bookbub.com
    Tons of free and cheap books for almost any device. And you can choose your genre, so that the the suggestions they send match your interests. I have a lot of free books on my ipad. One daughter has free books on her Nook. Another daughter puts free books on her mobile phone.

  31. Mollie

    I don’t do it myself, but would fully condone dumpster diving. I can think back on a LOT of times where I, and people I know, took an item to the trash because it was too cumbersome (or in too poor a shape) to send to Goodwill, and couldn’t find anyone we know who would take it. I know lots of people who will leave items on their curb IN HOPES that someone will take it so that it doesn’t have to get trashed.

    Many times the intention of the dumpster treasure’s original owner was to give their item a second life, but they couldn’t do it in time. So in these cases, dumpster diving is actually doing the owner a favor.

    And sure, you can’t confirm what the owner’s intentions actually were – but, at the very least, you’re doing the earth a small favor, and that’s nice too.

  32. Lisa

    Now that I’m in the midst of wedding planning, I have struggled with the idea of saying that we’re just throwing a “party” as opposed to a wedding. Eventually, we decided to just be truthful. One – I really, truly felt like I would be lying if we left that out. Two – although weddings make things more expensive, I do think that you pay for what you get a lot of the times. A wedding isn’t just some regular ol’ party – so you don’t necessarily want just regular ol’ service.

    1. I would feel like I was lying as well and I wouldn’t want to worry about what would happen on my wedding day if they found out.

  33. Credit card churning is definitely not stealing! It’s called making your money work for you! ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m a big fan of credit card reward bonus. It’s how I scored a $1500 flight to Europe for $115!

  34. I think the extent people go to and their intentions tell whether or not any of these is stealing. Dumpster diving is technically stealing, but is it unethical? I don’t think so. It was going to the dump anyway and the “owner” doesn’t care.

    The only tricky one is credit card churning. While I don’t think it’s technically “stealing” it has always left a sort of bad taste in my mouth, which is why I’ve never done it. We don’t use credits cards that much, so I would ONLY be opening them to get the bonuses, knowing full well I was never going to use them.

    Great post! Stumbling it right now. ๐Ÿ™‚

  35. MomofTwoPreciousGirls

    So I didn’t do the party vs. wedding thing but I wish someone would do an investigative report on whether it’s true! If it is, isn’t the vendor stealing from people by charging more dependent on whether it’s a birthday party or a wedding?
    When it comes to credit card rewards, if the company wasn’t making money they wouldn’t do it. That is why banks stopped offering the rewards on debit cards. Costs began to outweigh the profits. Credit cards create multiple sources of income. They get money in interest and fees from people carrying balances and from the vendors swipe fees, and balance transfer fees etc. So there is no shame in taking advantage of the offers.

    1. I agree, there is no shame in taking advantage of the offers.

  36. Angie

    I stumbled across this post and would love to see a part 3! You have me thinking about using different emails (personal, school and work) to sign up for a deal more than once (ex: to take advantage of a store discount for signing up with email). I’ve done this and now I’m questioning whether it’s ethically okay. I also have a hard time seeing “extreme” couponers who combine coupons to where the item is free or the store actually owes them money on the item, then clear out the shelf (no one needs 100 bottles of allergy relief!)- worse when they go on to sell it to friends rather than donate. Your post has me thinking. I also cringe when people take or use their work/office supplies or resources for personal use. Thanks for the great post!