When You’re Overcharged or Undercharged

While doing my weekly shopping trip (incidentally, this was also when I prepared for the breakfast burrito post), I headed to the checkout with a bunch of produce in my cart. I knew how much the produce was marked for in the aisle, but I often find that produce pricing results in a lot of errors at the checkout, so I often make a mental note of produce prices (and sometimes, I even jot them down for my own records).

This shopping trip was no exception. Two of the produce items rang up with a per-item price that was different than what was listed in the aisle. One of the incorrect prices was lower than what was listed in the aisle, while the other one was higher.

Without thinking too much about it, I pointed out both prices. When the price change benefited me, the cashier called over a manager, pointed out the error, and corrected it. When I pointed out the error that benefited the store, the cashier just rolled her eyes, said “I won’t tell if you won’t,” and kept ringing up the groceries.

As I walked out of the store, going through my usual routine of reviewing my receipt, I came across those two produce items – and I couldn’t help but wonder what the right thing to do was.

If the store is overcharging me, I don’t doubt that it is my obligation to call them on it. As a customer, I deserve to pay what is marked for the item in the aisle – that price should not change suddenly at the checkout.

When the store undercharges me at the checkout, though, I’m not entirely sure what the best ethical route is. Let’s look at the two arguments.

I shouldn’t say anything because I am simply receiving a price that the store deems as fair. The store is charging me that price – why should I question it just because they have some other number marked in the aisle?

I should say something because it’s the truly honest thing to do. Most likely, this is a simple human error, and I am taking inappropriate advantage of this mistake.

Another question I kept asking myself is whether there should be two different courses of action depending on whether the aisle price is lower or the checkout price is lower. Shouldn’t I act exactly the same regardless of where the error occurs?

I kept debating this question over the last few days, and I finally came around to what I think is the appropriate conclusion. I should mention any incorrect price to the cashier. If the cashier chooses not to take any action on the price, then I won’t push it further.

Doing things this way makes me be honest about the things that I notice. However, most of the time, it will result in me getting the lowest price of the two no matter what the situation.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.