When Does Your Frugality Become Unethical?

by Hank Coleman

What’s the meaning of frugal? Can frugality become unethical? Can we take things too far? Where is the line we cross when pinching your pennies is no longer morally acceptable? Are some cases of being frugal borderline illegal too?

Potentially Unethical Frugality

  • Using your employer’s internet for personal use
  • Personal phone calls on company time
  • Personal use of the copy machine
  • Taking home ink pens, paper, and other office supplies from the office
  • Eat the free samples more than once at the grocery store instead of a real meal
  • Taking toilet paper from a restroom
  • Taking home extras like condiments from a restaurant
  • Bringing home the extra shampoo and toiletries you don’t use from a hotel – even if you’re living in a hotel


When Does Frugality Become Unethical?But, where do you draw the line? Is it unethical to use your employer’s internet connection after business hours because you choose to save money by not having internet at home?

Who Loses From Unethical Frugality At Work?

The customers lose when an employee is overly frugal at work. Let’s look at the example of using the internet after hours (but it can be anything really). The internet costs money for the business to connect to and provide.

It also costs money to run the electricity, and there can be other overhead costs of employees staying late at the office too. Those costs can translate into higher costs for goods if companies are not carefully monitoring their employees.

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Every extra penny that is spent by a business is potentially an extra cost that is typically passed on to the end consumer. Because of higher costs thanks to employee frugality, customers pay higher prices to cover an employer’s high cost to provide their goods or services.

According to CNN Money, employee theft accounts for over $42 billion in losses for American businesses every year. That equals a cost of $435 for each American family in the way of higher cost of goods that we buy.

Should You Report Unethical Frugality?

Should you report your coworker for essentially stealing the property of your employer? Is it worth your time and effort? What if you were mistaken in what you saw and they were not actually using corporate property for their personal use?

Where do you draw the line? Is using the copier for your own project or completing your income tax return unethical? Is it illegal?

Does it matter if your employer does not have a specific policy against doing so? Maybe one or two copies occasionally are okay, but that could quickly change if the number is a few hundred copies for a manuscript you are sending to potential book publishers on the side after your day job is over.

What’s the meaning of frugal? Where would you draw the line on unethical frugality? Would you turn in your coworker for making excessive copies at work?

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About Hank Coleman

Hank Coleman is the founder of Money Q&A, an Iraq combat veteran, a Dr. Pepper addict, and a self-proclaimed investing junkie. He has written extensively for many nationally known financial websites and publications. Hank holds a Master’s Degree in Finance and a graduate certificate in personal financial planning. Email him directly at Hank[at]MoneyQandA.com.


Hank Coleman has written 578 articles on Money Q&A. Learn more about Money Q&A on Twitter @MoneyQandA and @HankColeman.


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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Kurt @ Money Counselor

I certainly don’t mean to condone any of the practices you name, but I’m wondering: These days, employers expect professional employees to be connected to work 24/7/365 through smartphones. If my employer “steals” a significant portion of my out-of-the-office, personal time, why is it unethical for me to do a few personal things on what used to be called ‘company time’? The concept of personal time is rapidly becoming obsolete, and the line between work and personal life is disappearing. To me that means the old rules no longer apply as it becomes less and less clear exactly when I’m “at work” and exactly when I’m not.

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Christian L.

Hank and Kurt,
I wouldn’t be comfortable with a coworker taking home stacks of office supplies. But printing a plane ticket or tossing a pen in your briefcase or backpack seems well within reason.

Kurt, I’m with you. My superiors are great about letting me be once I’m off the clock. I’m fortunate, but I also made it known to them when I started working that I’m all business in the office. Outside of it, that’s my time.

I remember when Internet became available on airplanes and all I could think was, “Welp, every business person will be connected the entire duration of a business trip. How unfortunate.”

-Christian L. @ Smart Military Money

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Adam

Wow! eye opening article–especially with respect to the workplace theft statistics. Thanks for this.

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Edward Antrobus

While I see your point about the additional electricity, internet billing is almost never based on usage (at least when not talking about phone internet). A company is going to pay for being connected to the internet regardless of whether or not anyone is using it. So using the company internet after hours is not going to increase their internet bill.

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Shane @ Beating Broke

I’ve always drawn the line at anything that would be construed as stealing. But, it doesn’t hurt to ask, either. Sometimes, if you ask, your employer might give the go ahead to stay after hours to use the internet. Heck, they might even let you make a few personal calls. I doubt they’ll let you take home office supplies or toilet paper though.

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Kevin @ SpringCoin

I think there’s a fine line between what’s acceptable and what’s not. I don’t mind people using office supplies here and there for personal use, but at the end of the day, we want to keep our employees happy. Employee retention is key. On the other hand, if they are abusing their privilege, then I might have to sit them in time out.

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Stephanie @ Empowered Dollar

Okay sooooo…. I’ve done all of these. And only until recently did I understand why. I used to have a pretty unhealthy mentality about this kind of stuff. At some level, I was unconsciously thinking that resources and money were so scarce in my life that I had to get away with things like that. Not anymore!

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Katie

Whilst I agree with the principle of this article, I have to raise a question re: the example of taking hotel toiletries: why is this unethical?

Internet and stationery in a company are taken out of the respective “internet pot” and “stationery pot,” and when some is used, the rest remains available for everyone else/use at a later date/etc. The same applies to toilet paper from public places – someone else will come in and use the same roll as you, so taking a ‘spare’ one is directly taking from what will be consumed in the general course of things and paid for by the company.

But hotel toiletries are not like that. They are all in little individual containers for each room, and they get put out fresh each time. That’s part of the experience of staying in a hotel. Now if you don’t need to use the toiletries and you leave them, then the hotel has made a saving – well, they probably expect to only replenish a certain percentage of the toiletries anyway. But if you do need to use them (and that’s what they’re there for, afterall!), then the bit that you don’t use will be thrown away. It’s not like the same part-used bottle will be used for someone else the way that they would use the same roll of toilet paper in a public bathroom. So it’s a cost to the hotel whether you take them home or leave them to be thrown away, no? Even if you don’t ‘need’ to use it, that’s included in the cost of your room, so, whilst if you left it then the hotel is making a saving from you, if you take it, even unopened, that’s just the ordinary cost that the hotel pays as part of their service to you, isn’t it? You’re not costing them any EXTRA, which is surely the point? So I am confused how that one is considered unethical? Sorry…

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Pinny

Taking toiletries from hotels is one thing I personally don’t find unethical. As already budgeted and part of the hotels operating expenses, and as Katie said, ‘you’re not costing them any extra’. As I am bringing my own set of toiletries every time I travel, I find it a waste not to make use of the supplies I already paid for, which will only benefit the hotel owners. I’d rather give them to my less fortunate friends (unopened ones, of course). I am in no way a ‘Robin Hood’, as it is not hurting anybody. but instead it is making someone happy.

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