Crossing the Line From Frugal to Cheap

When I was playing professional basketball in Israel, I would go to the grocery store every Wednesday after practice. I liked going to the huge, Costco-like store. It was one of the only places in the country I could get a particular brand of dark chocolate that I loved.

The chocolate was so good, it must have had an addictive substance in it (besides caffeine and sugar). I couldn’t read the packaging, so I never confirmed this wasn’t the case; the original Coca-Cola did have cocaine in it, after all.

The point is, these chocolate bars were delicious. Unfortunately, they were also quite expensive. 

I’ve always been a frugal person. I knew I didn’t want to spend upwards of 100 bucks a month on candy bars. But, I also really wanted them.

One day I was standing in the store, hungry after a long practice, and contemplating my dilemma. So, what does any rational person do when they’re stressed and facing a tough decision? They stuff their face with chocolate.

I decided to eat one of the candy bars in the store while I pondered what to do. I thought I’d just hang on to the wrapper and include it when I checked out.

Maybe I could cut out meat and eggs, and put that money toward chocolate? Probably not the best idea for someone playing roughly four hours of basketball per day. Maybe I could sell my video game system? Nope. Too important for my social life.

Paralyzed by indecision, I ultimately gave up and did something that would have made my mother, my former teachers, and the leaders of all world religions shake their heads disapprovingly: I discarded the wrapper in the garbage can and quickly walked to a different aisle. 

For a second, I panicked. “What if that employee over there saw me? What if those wrappers had some kind of tracking mechanism? This is Israel — they invented a radar technology that can see through walls! You’re done for!”

Then I calmed down and realized I wasn’t the star of a heist film. No one saw. There were no exploding ink packs that would expose my shameful act. Everyone was going about their business. The Mossad had more important things to worry about.

My fear slowly transitioned to a strange sort of satisfaction. There might not be such a thing as a free lunch, but I’d just found a way to free chocolate — which is the best part of any lunch as far as I’m concerned.

Emboldened by my success, this theft became a part of my routine. Whenever I went to this store, I would eat a chocolate bar that I didn’t pay for.

It’s alarming how quickly I went from worried to casual. Within a week I was telling my buddies they were silly for not taking advantage of this free candy opportunity. “It’s not like I’m swiping these from some woman’s purse,” I’d say. “This company is run by some fat-cat millionaire who is kind of stealing from us by using his fancy accountants to find tax loopholes, thus increasing the tax burden on everyone else. They owe us.”

The book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson does a great job of outlining how easy it is to slide down this path of self-justification. The self-justification is rooted in cognitive dissonance. That is the term used when the mind is trying to hold two conflicting world views at the same time, which causes great stress.

“I am a good, moral person who always follows the rules,” does not jibe well with, “But you steal a lot of candy bars, dude.” The brain does not like to feel conflicted, so it acts quickly to remedy the situation.

That’s when the self-justification starts. Everyone wants to inherently believe they are good, so they will say anything they need to say to themselves to be able to sleep at night. You convince yourself it’s not a big deal. The scary part is, once you have actually convinced yourself of your own lie, it’s really hard to reverse course.

I went from being a person who didn’t steal to one who did, just like that. While I didn’t become a kleptomaniac, I do believe that my stint as candy thief was when I crossed a line from frugal to cheap.

And while I might have saved a few hundred shekels, I lost a bit of my soul. I had always been a person of strong morals. It’s hard to calculate in dollars and cents what this erosion of principles costs. It’s like when judges have to determine how much an insurance company should pay out when someone dies on the job. No matter what figure they come up with, it never feels truly representative of the loss. Some things are more important than money, and ultimately they can’t be compensated for.

This is where I differ from the self-justification purists. I think that most people who do something immoral, no matter how much they justify it to themselves, always have some nagging sense of wrongness. It might only arise once a day for a fleeting moment, but it’s there. It’s like that injury from college intramurals that you never saw a doctor about, making your ankle click when you walk. It’s not debilitating, but it’s always there until you fix it the right way. 

Then the question becomes whether or not you tolerate that clicking. I did, for a time, and I started to become cheap in other areas of my life. Under-tipping became a problem area for me. Same with telling friends I would split the cost of a cab ride, but then conveniently forgetting about it the next day.

This might save you some money in the short term, but it comes at the cost of human relationships and heightened stress as you wonder whether people notice how cheap you’re being. This kind of chronic stress can add up to real medical costs, even . 

There is also good old guilt. I believe we’ve evolved the emotion for a reason. When you feel bad in the pit of your stomach whenever you think about a behavior you often do, your body is trying to tell you something. It’s no fun to live like that.

Thankfully, this dalliance with the cheap life was short-lived on my part. I think it had a lot to do with meeting my girlfriend, who works in the service industry. Realizing how miserable undertipping made her feel was a real eye-opener. I cut out that practice right away.

Once I cleaned that up, the stealing felt even dirtier. Sure, huge corporations might be corrupt, but that didn’t make it okay for me to steal from them – that was just the self-justification talking. I could give my dollars to a local business I trust instead.

As I transitioned back into simple frugality, I had a new-found appreciation for its virtues. Frugality opens up possibilities and sets you up for a rich life. Cheapness, meanwhile, tears you apart from the inside while also hurting others. And stealing, of course, is just plain wrong.

I learned the hard way that it’s not right to take what I want just because I convinced myself no one was getting hurt. Cue the previously-mentioned parents, teachers, and religious leaders letting out a collective, “Duh.”

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