Ethical Frugality Week: Hidden Replacements

Over the upcoming week, I’ll be posting a series of articles on the ethics of frugality. How far can you take things without crossing an ethical line or diving into seriously socially unacceptable waters? I’ll be recounting some of my own stories – and some stories from readers – along the way.

“Jane” (we must protect the innocent here, right?) writes in:

My husband has always used this expensive Aveda shampoo for his hair. He says it needs to look good for work. I’ve always used Suave or Pert and it’s worked fine. Lately, I noticed that his shampoo looks almost identical to mine, so when his bottle was empty, I washed it out and filled it with my shampoo. I thought the only way he might notice is because of the difference in smell, but he hasn’t noticed it at all. In fact, I’ve refilled it twice with my cheap stuff. But now I feel kind of guilty about it. Should I tell him? Was this the right thing to do?

There are always two sides to every story. So let’s look at them.

It was fine, Jane. Your husband refused to even try a frugal alternative, so you essentially gave him a trial run at it. If he had noticed and it would have actually made a difference to him, no problem – it would be easy for him to pick up his Aveda and continue with the expensive stuff that actually works with his hair. Instead, you found out that his expensive shampoo may just be a “placebo effect” for him – the idea that he’s using an expensive shampoo means that, in his mind, he looks just a little bit sharper and thus a little bit more confident at work.

It was not fine, Jane. You basically lied to your husband. You told (or at least insinuated to) him that you picked up his brand of shampoo, but what was actually in the bottle was not his shampoo. That’s dishonesty, no matter what, and honesty is the foundation of any good marriage.

Which side is right? For me, it depends on how directly the husband avoided even trying the less-expensive shampoo. If Jane barely brought it up to him, this was the wrong move. If he just refused to try it without a rational reason, I’m much more sympathetic to Jane’s position – although it was not the most honest move, it may have been done in response to utter irrationality. I don’t think I would have ever done this, but I can at least understand it in the face of irrationality.

What do you think? Was Jane’s switcheroo ethical or not? It saved her family money, but it misrepresented the actual product to her husband. Of course, he didn’t even notice… but does that matter?

Of course, now that the die is cast, should Jane fess up? Obviously, the honest thing to do is to confess the switcheroo. Her husband might be pretty upset (after all, it is dishonesty), but he might also realize that, in fact, the shampoos are more or less interchangeable and be agreeable with sticking to the cheaper shampoo.

Not confessing the switcheroo is also an option, though. Jane could just continue refilling the bottle with the less expensive shampoo and sticking it in the shower without a word. If her husband is happy, she’s happy, and it’s saving the family real money over time.

Now that the damage is already done, I think Jane should ‘fess up. Telling her husband the truth might cause a short-term conflict, but it gets the relationship back on an honest bearing. Plus, the husband might realize that the cheap shampoo actually works pretty good and also be willing to try other low-cost options, which can really save the family some serious money.

What’s your take? Should Jane now ‘fess up? Or should she keep perpetuating the expensive shampoo mystique?

In a broader sense, do you think such secret substitutions are ethical? I don’t think they are, although I can at least sympathize with them in the face of a person who is irrational about at least trying generic products. What’s your take?

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