When Is Frugality Stealing?

In response to my post,

When Is Frugality Too Much Frugality?, the following comment was left:

Trent, I’d say you missed the whole point of people’s posts regarding the copying of part of a book from a bookstore and using a coffee shop as an office without buying anything from the owner. The debate was not whether you were being “too cheap”; rather, it was whether you were, in fact, “stealing” and calling it “being frugal”. Simple as that…

I am disappointed that you didn’t address the real concern. We’ve been waiting to read your thoughts. Hiding it in between holes in your socks and washing Ziploc bags shows you a) were unwilling to address the legitimate concern or b) missed the whole point. Oh well.

Honestly, I didn’t really feel that it was worth addressing, given the other comments in the thread, but apparently some readers want to hear my views on the topic, so here goes.

Many businesses offer free things simply to entice you to come in the door and also to bring other customers with you, and I consider those things completely appropriate to use whenever I wish.

Take the coffee shop, for example. Most coffee shops offer a free or inexpensive water as a beverage option to non-coffee drinkers. Why? It gets the non-coffee drinkers into the shop. Almost always, non-coffee drinkers are only going to be at a coffee shop in a group with other coffee drinkers. Since the cost of the water is negligible to the shop, and not having water and forcing coffee upon the people in the shop would probably make the group as a whole not be patrons, the coffee shop makes money by serving water. Thus, I see nothing wrong with going to a coffee shop and ordering water.

Alternately, look at the book store. They offer seats for people to sit in the store and read the books that they’re selling, because they encourage people to dabble. It increases the likelihood of a sale greatly, but it doesn’t guarantee a sale. But there’s another bonus – the bookstore that happily lets customers browse and read is going to generate a lot of positive good will and repeat business. And it works – if I go into a shop, read a snippet of a book, remember it, and go home with it, I’m going to remember that bookstore as a very good customer-oriented resource and I will go there again. I’ve been a patron of that store for years, and I intend to always support it. In other words, the book store makes money by letting me browse and take notes from the books on their shelves.

What about the larger argument of stealing from the author of the book? If you think that reading a book without buying it is stealing, then you’re likely also opposed to the public library system, as well as services like PaperBackSwap. For me, I see them both as ways to keep me interested as a reader – without them, reading would become a very expensive hobby quite quickly and I might instead move more heavily into internet reading or to reading the free daily newspapers – and away from the book industry.

The point is that any service business worth their salt will offer such perks for their customers. It gets people in the door and creates a good reputation for the business, building word of mouth. These are businesses that cater to frugal people, and it makes them money.

Here’s another example of the same philosophy, left as a comment on my post about the McDonald’s Double Cheeseburger:

I personally enjoy the 99 cent Texas Double Cheeseburger from Wendy’s. It comes with mustard, but if you say, “No mustard, add mayo and ketchup…” it is just like the more expensive Wendy’s Double. And it is light years ahead of McDonald’s with lettuce, tomato, and onion already on it. For me, its hard to beat from a price point and a taste point.

Pretty much any Wendy’s restaurant you go to would gladly do this for you, and it’s something that would basically be expected. They’d be happy to whip you up a Texas Double Cheeseburger, not put mustard on it, and instead add mayonnaise and ketchup – it’s good customer service. And what would a store manager say if they heard about it? If they had any semblance of customer service, they’d smile and say, “That’s a pretty nifty way to give a better deal to our regular patrons that would know about it.”

Stealing is taking something from anyone – a business, a person, even a pet – an item that they’re not freely giving or selling. If I walk out of the door of the bookstore with a book in my arm, that’s stealing – the store is not giving me the book. However, if I walk out of the door with knowledge in my head, that’s something they’re fine with, because a piece of that knowledge in my head is tied to that store, almost like an ad into my mind.

When a business is giving something away for free – like a comfortable seat to read a book, or water to patrons who don’t drink coffee – they’re getting something else in return – a customer who values the store, or another customer who does drink coffee. As a customer of that business, they’re giving you this for “free” with a smile – you’d be a fool not to take it if it’s something of value to you.

Since frugality is all about finding the best value in something, if you deem that exchange to be of value to you, then you should of course take it. That’s why I’m happy to order water if I go to a coffee shop with friends (alternately, I could demand to not go to that coffee shop, not giving the coffee shop any business) and I have no objection to reading pieces of books at the bookstore and not buying them (because the store’s wonderful service has made me a loyal customer and evangelist) – I don’t feel bad about it in the least, and I don’t feel bad about taking advantage of other deals like the Wendy’s one mentioned above.

Trent Hamm
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.

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