The Ethics of Frugality

by Kelly · 21 comments

in Thoughts On Frugality

euro_notesNot having a lot of money means that there’s not a lot of money to spend. But here’s the thing though. I still need to buy stuff. Food, of course. The occasional item of clothing, or maybe toys. Other stuff from time to time. Just like you, I imagine.

And often times, the decision of what to buy, at least when I’m buying something new, depends totally on how much it costs. If I can buy a can of tomatoes for €.33 a can, and they are just as or nearly as good as a can that costs €.85, why should I buy the €.85 can?

Being frugal doesn’t always mean buying the cheapest option, of course. There are many other factors that come into play. Can I find it new or used, and do I want to buy it new or used? How much money do I want to spend, can I spend? Do I want to go for quality, or can it just fulfill a temporary need?

But when I do choose to buy something at a very low price, what does that price really mean?

For example, when I went back to the United States last year, I went to Walmart with my uncle. It was the first time I had ever visited a Walmart, and it is likely to be the last. I bought a tee-shirt there, for $3.00, a price which I had never before seen for a new adult tee-shirt.

$3.00 is a good price, a very good price. Is it the best price however? Should I really be paying only $3.00 for a tee-shirt? What does that low of a price really mean? To start, it means that there is less profit for the manufacturer. Less margin of profit, less margin for error, on the entire production. Possibly fewer jobs, and certainly fewer jobs in the United States (or France for that matter). Almost certainly my tee-shirt was produced by somebody earning pennies to do so.

Is $3.00 a good price, a fair price? Should I, or we, or anybody, be continuing to buy things based on how little they cost? What if we paid just a bit more? Although I bought the tee-shirt, and continue to buy other things based solely on price, I’m still bothered by this issue.

What do you think? Is it ethical to buy cheap things, or is there no other choice? What if we bought less, but paid more? Do you buy on price alone?


1 Beth February 2, 2009

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, too, since I've been reading the "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" book by Kingsolver. I think it comes down to priorities–do you have to pay the lowest price because that's all you can afford, or is it possible to spend a bit more to feel good about who you're buying it from?

I saw an article in the Guardian yesterday about a deal Bruce Springsteen made with Wal-Mart for them to exclusively sell his new cd, and he has been getting a lot of heat over it because of how anti-union Wal-Mart is and how poorly they pay their employees. I think those kind of buying choices definitely have implications.

2 Emily@remodelingthis February 2, 2009

I think about this a lot and anyone who really knows me knows how much I do not like Walmart and refuse to give them a dime. I can get $3 shirts at the gap outlet on the clearance rack and am happy to do so. For me, it comes down to that I am not willing to support business I don't believe in just to save a few bucks for myself. On a not frugal note, I also won't buy anything Nike – and that has more to do with their practices and less to do with cost. I am certain that there are business that I buy from that I wouldn't necessarily agree with if I knew all that they do behind the scenes to make a buck. I believe in capitalism but I don't believe in it wholeheartedly. I think it's possible for a business to have a conscience and still make money and I try to support those businesses as best I can while still holding onto as many of my pennies as I can.

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3 Nancy February 2, 2009

I guess I would have to say it depends on the item I’m buying. For example, your $3 t-shirt….if it was an item that was for a one-time use and I didn’t care if it only lasted through that one use then I’d buy it. If it’s an item that needs to last for a longer period of time or something that can be passed on to others when I’m done with it, then I’ll spend more (i.e., buying a winter coat for our oldest daughter knowing it could be passed down to the younger one at some point).

Until about 5 years ago, I wasguilty of not thinking about where a product came from before I bought it.

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4 David February 2, 2009

Great post. Nobody stops to think about how stores can sell a $3 tshirt and still make money. Its very disappointing that we are so in need of a cheap “whatever” that it takes precedence for us over human labor laws or rights. I also refuse to give Walmart a dime of my money.

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5 rachella February 2, 2009

I'm very budget conscious, but I never buy anything based on price alone. Instead, I consider the "real" cost. How long will it last? How good does it taste? How much does it cost society in terms of pollution and human suffering? Does buying a particular product or from a particular shop contribute to the local economy?

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6 Saver Queen February 2, 2009

Wow – GREAT point – I never even thought of it like that before.

But then again, you can pay A LOT for a designer brand and know that the clothes are made in a sweatshop.

Emily, it's interesting the corporations you point out as being notoriously guilty when it comes to poor practices. I did a lot of research on the issue for an MA paper a couple years ago. There are so many businesses with the same, or worse practices that have not been in the spotlight. I think Nike has actually made more of an effort than others that have gotten away with it with no publicity. The biggest problem is that all these big businesses is that they rely on long supply chains which are sourced out many times over in different countries and it's difficult to monitor extensively.

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7 Carol February 2, 2009

Excellent post! I see many small, high-quality retail stores of all sorts closing these days because customers insist upon paying the cheapest price possible. They can usually get that from the big national and international companies who can afford to discount more because they buy in much greater quantity. The result is that our neighborhood shopping areas have lost a lot of their character, and, of course, it’s put people out of work.

I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book, too, and I agree with its sentiment. But I really think the “think local” mentality applies to more than just food items. I think there continues to be a value in retaining smaller shops run by people who know their local customers and provide service.

8 livingmyrichlife February 2, 2009

I refuse to shop at Walmart. There are many ethical and environmental reasons why I choose to shop elsewhere ( I have a blog post on it). For me a low price is not all there is to it and I make all purchasing decisions by weighing up financial, ethical and environmental aspects.

livingmyrichlife´s last blog post..Food Waste Reduction Challenge

9 Lucie @ Unconventional Origins February 2, 2009

I love this post Kelly. It’s something I think about a lot. While Wal-Mart is the face of this problem (justified, I’d say) most stores aren’t too different. An example is Nike, who charges a lot for their product but pays people pennies.

I try to buy quality from places I know something about. Maybe I will spend more buying five tees from American Apparel than 15 tees for the same amount from Wal-mart. Sure, I can’t do this all the time, but when I can I do. And I think that counts as frugal even though I am spending more!

10 The Passive Dad February 2, 2009

I always find myself having to think twice, if not three times about the “buy 2 get 2 free” or “buy 1 get one free” sales tactics at grocery stores. Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy a competitor or store brand that offers a better value. I recently found some fruit snacks for the kids that were 3 for $1, but the item was actually not really on sale at all. Made me laugh and scratch my head. Stores are just trying to make us think we are receiving a great deal.

The Passive Dad´s last blog post..California Tax Refund Could Be Paid Via IOU

11 Craig February 2, 2009

It should more be about the quality of purchase than anything. I spent money 3 yrs ago on a new ipod and still use it and plan to on a regular basis. For me that is worth it because I am getting my money's worth. Just because something is a low price item doesn't mean it is a good deal.

12 Kika February 2, 2009

Overall I want to know we are receiving quality in our food and clothing rather than just the cheapest price. Living in a small town I’ve felt the impact of Walmart too – as smaller shops have closed down. I do much of my shopping in the city (because I don’t have much choice) but where I can, I’ll shop locally to support local business and farms. I love pottery and choose to buy from the local talent rather than shopping in chain stores. You brought up such an important idea – one that I hope to keep working through to come up with the best solutions for my family.

13 JessTrev February 3, 2009

I definitely will pay more for something if I can send a message through my purchase that accords with my beliefs (ie, helping create a market for a safer, healthier, more sustainable product) but I totally agree with the above commenter who noted that you can pay top dollar for a designer product that is still made in a sweatshop. I try not to pay more gratuitously. That’s why I like independent certifications (although that, too, is tricky, since I like to support farmers at the farmer’s market, many of whom don’t have official labels…but that’s in a case where there’s an actual relationship). Anyways, I won’t pay more for something from, say, Whole Foods, unless it’s actually organic or whole grain and not just part of their line of slick marketing. I liked the Omnivore’s Dilemma because it pointed out how much of a middleman the grocery stores all are. I source all of my meat directly from a farm now. And back to cost? I will pay top dollar for something I cannot find used, like, for instance, children’s pajamas without flame retardants. That’s a message I’d love to help send the market. BPA free sippy cups, metal reusable bottles, that sort of thing. Of course, anything I *can* get secondhand, I’m all over it!

JessTrev´s last blog post..Herman’s Hermits

14 Anna O'Reilly February 3, 2009

I agree with many of the comments. I despise Wal*Mart, but shop there because at this point in my life I don’t have the extra money to spend $0.30 more per item at a local grocer or office store. For me, it is all about how little I can actually spend, simply because I don’t have enough money. Our budget is so tight, that the average I spend on my lunch or dinner is $0.75 and I skip breakfast to save money.

I am always trying to find ways to buy used. All of the furniture in our home has come from yard sales, thrift stores like Salvation Army, and other places where we are benefiting from not spending a lot of money, and the people we buy from benefit directly.

It is incredibly depressing though, to think about all of the people in third world countries who are abused by American manufacturers. Because the standards are high in America, no one here makes anything anymore because there is no monitoring in China/India/Malaysia and many other countries.

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15 Kristy @ Master Your February 3, 2009

I think it depends on the purpose of the product. For example, I'm on my feet all day long at the credit union, so I need comfortable shoes that still look professional. That's no easy feat for women. I found this brand of shoe that is made from the most comfortable material on the inside and they're really cute on the outside. The catch? They're $80 a piece. That's a lot, but I reason that these are good quality shoes that will last me a long time. In that case, the product justifies the price.

I'll admit that I shop at Wal-Mart, not as much as I used to, but occasionally I will stop in and make a purchase. Usually I'm buying small replacement stuff, or like today, I picked up a digital voice recorder for my political science class. I don't buy my clothes there, but admittedly, I'm pretty selfish in this department. I don't give a lot of thought to what the price of the item is doing for anyone but me. I spend what I can afford at the time. I should probably consider this topic a little more.

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16 Daisy February 3, 2009

I’ll be in the minority and say that for me, it’s all about price. If Walmart is willing to sell me a $3 t-shirt that is of reasonable quality, I’m buying it. I love Walmart. Lot’s of people talk bad about Walmart but yet, their prices are awesome and whenever I go to the store (in Northern NJ), it’s always packed with shoppers. I’ve heard of all the issues regarding how they treat their employees and how they can get their prices so low, but in these times, if they’re offering the best prices, I’m there.

17 Nicole February 3, 2009

So here’s my thing:

I live in a tourist community that booms in the summer and dies in the winter. We have a grocery store, a hardware store, and other local businesses that make up a downtown that stay open year round.

I could do all my shopping half an hour away and probably save 10% but to me it’s important to support the businesses that allow me to live where I live, even if I do pay more. I also come from a line of small business owners and I know how tough it is for them to make a go of it and if I can help by spending my money there, I will. Because if an extra $0.25 means that my cashier has health insurance or that I can go buy milk without driving half an hour, that’s worth it to me.

18 Lissa February 4, 2009

I hate and despise Walmart and what that company has done to hurt our country. IMO they are truly Satan’s store.

19 Jerry February 5, 2009

I have struggled with this problem for a while. The $3 T shirt from Walmart was probably horrible quality and won’t last and be worth the money because you’re have to buy another sooner than later. I’ve shopped at Walmart because I thought it was going to be insurance for our budget. I found the opposite. The quality is so bad that I had to replace things that I bought from there. It’s not worth it and the bad quality leads to more money coming out of your pocket. Not to mention the child labor most likely used to make the items…

20 Katie @ Making This Home February 6, 2009

What a great point. My husband and I talk about this all the time. I’m an American living in Berlin, and I really hate going back home to see the super cheap (and really bad quality) products and to hear people rave. I’m a big believer that we vote with our dollars (or euros!), so thank you thank you for writing this post.

Katie @ Making This Home´s last blog post..Sharing American Chocolate Chip Cookies in Germany

21 Carmen February 19, 2009

I think this point is INCREDIBLY important. Cheaper is not always better – even for the frugal minded. Their is a certain amount of responsibility one needs to take with regards to how they spend their money. Great post!

Carmen´s last blog post..Cre8 an Eco-Friendly Pre-School Birthday Party

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