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The most common things people steal

When do you cross the line from being frugal to being a thief?

By MSN Money producer Nov 13, 2009 2:25PM

This guest post comes from Kevin at The Red Stapler Chronicles.

Do you consider yourself to be an honest person that would never steal? I am sure that most of us would like to believe that this is indeed the case.

We look at those who steal as evil criminals that need to be punished. However, although we all know that stealing a car is wrong, we tend to justify taking smaller items and do not consider it to be stealing. In fact, sometimes avoiding paying for small things is actually celebrated as being frugal. Indeed, during these tough economic times, the line between being extremely frugal and stealing is slowly being erased.

Below, I have identified six common scenarios in which normal, everyday, taxpaying citizens often resort to a debatable form of stealing. 

Before I go any further, I would like to say that this is not any kind of morality post: I am not here to judge anyone, and I would be the first to admit that I have committed more than one of the following "offenses". Instead, I thought it would be fun to laugh at how some of us (including me) have allowed ourselves to justify doing something that we would normally consider to be wrong.

I have included some actual quotes that I received from my co-workers, friends and family when I discussed this topic with them.

Taking an extra newspaper from a vending machine.

Common reasons this is done: 1. You need an extra set of coupons. 2. A family member or you are featured in the newspaper. 3. You plan to sell the extra copies (I picture the scene from the movie "With Honors" in which Joe Pesci's homeless character takes the entire pile of newspapers and sells them by shouting fake headlines).

Justifications: "Just too easy not too." "The newspaper companies make loads of profit." "This is payback for all the times I have been ripped off by those snack machines in which the candy bar or chips get stuck and they never fall."

Reality of Situation: You are not hurting the newspaper companies (they are in enough trouble without you stealing their product). Instead, you are just stealing from the poor machine vendor.

Helping yourself to a towel or two from a hotel.

Common reasons this is done: Guests get lost in a "feeding frenzy" of taking all the shampoo, soap, tissues, pens, hand lotion, extra rolls of toilet paper and shower caps they can get and get a little carried away. Also, if the towel has the name of the hotel on it, the towel becomes an instant souvenir.

Justifications: "The price of the room is jacked up assuming I will take a towel," and "They will eventually throw the towels away once they are used too many times."

Reality of Situation: It is OK to take the shampoo and other toiletries. Taking towels, bathrobes, linens, light bulbs and batteries from remote is just pure stealing.

Getting those last gulps/sips of your favorite soft drink or coffee at the convenience store before you put on the lid and pay for it.

Common reasons this is done: You are extremely thirsty/tired and want to get your money's worth.

Justifications: "I am paying $1.89 for a 20-ounce cup when I can often get a 12-pack of cans for about the same price, so I am going to take a couple of liberties."

Reality of Situation: Fountain soda (and coffee is not that far behind) is often the most profitable item on a restaurant's menu -- even with free refills. On this topic, I say that it is not really stealing unless you sit there and refill several times.

Taking a handful (or more) of Splenda, ketchup packets, napkins and salt packets whenever and where ever they are available.

Common reasons this is done: Why pay for something that you can get for free? "I always take extra napkins just in case I spill something."

Justifications: "The availability of these items is included in the markup of the price of the food/drink." "If they really cared how much you take, they would not leave them unattended."

Reality of Situation: Guess how these restaurants/stores justify marking up their prices? I guess I would draw the line with the Rule of Five (which I just made up). Taking more than five more of an item than you intend to use with the product you bought is where, in my mind, being a little frugal becomes being a little criminal.

Making it a "double feature" by sneaking into a second movie.

Common reasons this is done: You notice as you are leaving the movie theater that another movie that you really want to see is just about to start and you have nothing better to do on a rainy Saturday.

Justifications: I just spend $8 on a soda and another $6 for a popcorn. I need to get my money's worth!" "The theater is half empty anyway; it's not like they are losing money by me taking up some space."

Reality of Situation: Does the director, producer or boom mic operator care if you paid to see a competitor's movie and now want to see the movie that they worked on for weeks for free? Nope. For the record, I believe that sneaking beverages/snacks into movies is not wrong, even when theaters have posted signs prohibiting this practice.

Taking home copy paper (and other office supplies) from work for nonwork use.

Common reasons this is done: 1. Children need school supplies. 2. You ran out of paper for your personal computer.

Justifications: 1. Employee disgruntled with their job.  2. Office supplies viewed as a fringe benefit. 3. The company wastes so much paper anyway with their pointless cover sheets for the TPS reports, they obviously don't care about their use of paper. 4. "Since the company probably gets a big discount for ordering in bulk, its really not a big deal."

Reality of Situation: Unless you are stealing a red stapler, it is wrong to take supplies for non-work reasons.

3 more modern-day scruples to consider

1. Is it OK to recharge your cell phone every day at work, so you never waste electricity at home?

2. Would you return a dress/shoes/tie that you only had to wear once for a funeral or wedding?

3. Do you download music without paying for it?

Since they say confession is good for the soul, why not share your stories of crime. Where do you draw the line in what you bring home from a hotel? Are there items on this list that you do not consider stealing?

Related reading:

Nov 8, 2010 5:31PM

The amount of electricity used in recharging a cell phone is way too little to be concerned about, even if everyone at work did it. It's also so miniscule that it would be stupid to go to the trouble of bringing that charger into the office just for that purpose. Having a charger in the car for to/from work would make more sense if you need an intraday charge.


Accidentally leaving your computer on overnight at the office, just one time, would probably be more electricity used than a whole year of cell phone charging.

Nov 7, 2010 11:40AM
I take extra napkins for the times that I dont get them with my order. I dont return clothes that I have worn, even once, because I always remove the tags and I would feel too guilty. I dont take supplies home from work, but my husband does, and he has no guilt about it while I will run to the office supply store. I do download tons of music, BUT at least half of that is music I already own and am too lazy pull out the CD and put it on for one song. I, too, have lost a towel to a hotel! I never thought about sneaking into a second movie- great idea! But I definitely do bring my own candy as well as purchase snacks at the theater, just depends on the mood I am in.  I charge cell phone at work because work keeps texting me.  My soul is all confessed.
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