Telltale Signs You’re Not Just Frugal, but a Cheap Thief Instead

Hey, you, over there with a death grip on your purse strings: Could it be time to let the moths out of your wallet? No one will ever fault you from pinching pennies here and there. But sometimes the way we go about trying to save a dollar at a yard sale or during our daily travels can become, well, tacky.

There’s a difference between being frugal and being cheap. Frugality is often a wise and conservative financial strategy. But take it too far, and you’ll end up on the extreme side of cheap no one likes. And once you’ve succumbed to the dark side, the corners you cut could be considered stealing.

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line? If you find yourself doing any of the following things, you’ve probably already crossed it.

1. You mooch Wi-Fi service

woman cheering at laptop

Frugal people still pay for their own Wi-Fi. | iStock.com/AntonioGuillem

Connecting to a nearby Wi-Fi signal that’s not yours is a surefire sign you’ve become too cheap. No, we’re not talking about heading over to Starbucks or Panera for a work session. But stealing the neighbors’ Wi-Fi connection because you’re too cheap to pay for your own service is wrong in so many ways. It might be tempting to “borrow” a strong public signal to save a few bucks a month, but you’re breaking the law and most definitely crossing over into theft.

Next: How to become one of the most hated people in America

2. You eat like a king then skimp on a tip

friends eating in restaurant

Cheap people skimp on the tip. | iStock.com/bowdenimages

It’s perfectly reasonable to order less expensive meals while dining out or to plan date nights around the nearest happy hour specials to help trim the fat on your food bill. However, a cheap thief is someone who orders freely during dinner then skimps on a 15% to 20% service tip. And you become one of the most hated people in America when you decide it’s acceptable not to tip at all. It helps to remember we’re all out here trying to earn a dollar, so a standard tip — or more if the service warrants — is the right thing to do.

Also, don’t be that person who goes out with friends, orders only water, then picks off of everyone else’s meal. That’s a good way to lose friends and end up at home alone on a Friday night.

Next: The difference between cheap and frugal with free subscriptions

3. Signing up for multiple free subscriptions

dating website

We’re only entitled to one free trial. | Delightful.com

Many companies offer free trials for their services before requiring a paid subscription fee to continue further. It’s an effective “try before you buy” marketing plan, but it lends itself to customers who trick the system by using different contact information to land another free trial.

If you find yourself digging back into archives to find an old email address from your dial-up days, you’ve entered into stealing territory. Plus, if you’re willing to go through all that trouble just to gain longer access to a dating site or streaming account, it’s probably worth spending real money to actually use the service fully.

Next: Avoid being cheap at the gym.

4. You skirt the rules at the gym

man working out

Stop sneaking into the gym to save a buck. | iStock.com

It’s certainly a wise decision to invest in your health. But gym memberships can get costly. Frugal is shopping around for the best deal or avoiding the gym completely and running outside instead. But once you start hopping from gym to gym, cashing in on every available free membership trial, you become overly cheap. Even worst, attempting to sneak in to avoid paying a guest fee is both gutsy and immoral.

Next: We all hate people who re-gift.

5. You re-gift

Product photo of Godiva Gold Gift Box of Assorted Chocolate

Be careful to whom you re-gift Aunt Sally’s chocolate box. | Godiva

We get it: The holidays are rough for even the savviest savers. Add in various money-stealing, made-up holidays designed to take your money, and you can quickly find yourself in a financial bind.

It’s actually wise to save a buck creating homemade gifts. A thoughtful gift goes much further than a meaningless “thing.” However, re-gifting a random item to avoid spending any of your money is rude and disingenuous. It’s even worse if your carelessness accidentally re-gifts something back to the original giver. But if you absolutely must re-gift, at least consider who in your circle would most enjoy said gift, and spend some time and effort on wrapping.

Next: Have you crossed the line by sneaking food into venues?

6. You smuggle food and alcohol

movie theater seats with food

There are better ways to save money than smuggling food into venues. | Thinkstock

Ask any twenty-something, and they’ll educate you on how to sneak alcohol into a music venue or sporting event. But you’ve gone just a bit too far when you use fake lipstick containers or iPhone flasks to smuggle food and drinks past a security checkpoint. For one, you’ve actively violated a law.

Will you go to jail for it? Probably not. Will you come across as a cheap thief? Most definitely. Save money on inflated food and drink prices by having an early tailgate or eating a meal elsewhere before heading to the movie theater instead.

Next: The complainers

7. You concoct a fake complaint or accusation

passenger complaining to airport staff

We all hate complainers. | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

There’s no better way to announce your cheapness to the world than to complain, loudly, about the price of everything. And there’s a special name for those who craft a fake accusation about a cashier or retail employee just to get something for free. By all means, inquire about a small discount if the shirt you like has a minor tear in it, but don’t become a fraud.

Next: When frugality becomes theft

8. You frequently dispute items on credit cards

man on phone

Disputing credit card charges just for cash is theft. | NBC

You can legally dispute fraudulent purchases, billing errors, and charges for damaged goods paid for with a credit card. If the charge is minor, some companies might automatically refund the charge because it’s not worth their time to investigate further.

No one would ever fault you for monitoring your spending history. It’s actually wise to do so. But to repeatedly, or falsely, dispute charges just because you know you’ll get money back is straight-up stealing. It’s probably best to find another way to earn extra income before the company catches on to your wicked ways.

Next: Water versus soda

9. You ask for water and get something else

soda bottles

Paying for water but getting something else is stealing. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Water: It’s the healthiest option for hydration, and it’s usually free. So make no mistake, you are a cheap thief when you “pay” for water and then proceed to sneakily pour soda into your cup instead. You absolutely just saved $1.89, but you also stole from the establishment, which is kind of tacky.

Next: Cheap people take advantage of their friends.

10. You take advantage of your friends’ professional services

couple talking to financial planner at home

Cheap people expect their friends to work for free. | iStock.com/Edward Bock

Your friend might be a respected contractor, but it’s unfair to casually ask them to check your floor joists for free. The same goes for any similar specializations, such as accountants, writers, photographers, and mechanics. Friends are probably eager to lend a hand, but undermining their professional abilities can be hurtful.

Lily Zhang writes in a blog post on The Muse, “It’s a bizarre experience when someone asks you to work for free. It’s flattering at first to be recognized for your expertise, but it doesn’t take long to grasp that they don’t appreciate it enough to actually want to pay you what it’s worth. In the end, it feels pretty awful.” Don’t be that “awful” friend just by trying to save a dollar.

Next: Lying about your age

11. You lie about you (or your children’s) age

senior cuts coupons

Stop lying about your age just to get a discount. | iStock.com/ConnieTBallash

It feels great when your kid turns 13. But then you realize kids 12 and under eat for free on Tuesdays at your neighborhood pub. Before you consider testing the boundaries, know breaking the rules to score a free meal definitely crosses the line between frugal and thief.

Similarly, claiming to be 65 and therefore eligible for certain senior discounts at the gym, store, or restaurant is just as ill-mannered. Inquiring about applicable discounts is mindful. Lying is just uncouth.

Next: See how returning items could be considered cheap, not frugal.

12. You return things you’ve already used

woman shopping

People who return items after they’ve been used aren’t just frugal, they’re cheap. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There are plenty of people who buy clothes, jewelry, or appliances and return them after they’ve already been used. Why pay good money for a dress you’ll only wear once? If you find yourself tip-toeing on the sidewalk to avoid scuffing up new shoes so you can return them tomorrow, you need to re-evaluate your priorities.

It’s acceptable to have a frugal mindset when it comes to clothes, but implement it the right way. Hunt for designer deals at secondhand stores, or join rental programs that allow you to rotate items, such as Le Tote or Rent The Runway, to avoid paying out of pocket for items you’ll only wear once or twice.

Next: What about those mini shampoos?

13. You steal hotel products

Businessman at arrival in room

Taking anything beyond shampoos and soaps is borderline stealing. | iStock.com/kzenon

Yes, it’s OK to snag the extra shampoos, soaps, and mouthwashes from your hotel room. You’ve probably already shelled out a good portion of your mortgage just to fund a nightly stay anyway. Hotel managers will be the first to tell you they expect this to happen and account for it accordingly.

However, you hover near theft by stealing other items that eat into a hotel’s profits, such as TV remotes, alarm clocks, hair dryers, and coffee makers. These things are intended for the next guests and are not for the taking. Oh, and raiding the abandoned maid’s cart for handfuls of mini soaps? That’s just gluttonous.

Next: Are you a hoarder?

14. You hoard

Debra Messing is smiling while sitting on a couch.

Do you really need four blenders just in case? | Twentieth Century Fox

If you can’t bear to part with half-broken appliances because they might be useful one day, you’re overly cheap. There’s value in investing hard-earned money on certain products that are worth the expense. But hoarding old items “just in case” is pretty irresponsible. And anyone who’s watched the cringe-worthy reality shows pertaining to this very topic can attest that there’s little benefit to this type of frugality.

Next: Stealing from yourself is just as bad

15. You steal from yourself

Sad teenage girl looking out the window

Being too cheap to have a social life gets lonely. | iStock.com/max-kegfire

Finally, there’s no better sign you’re cheap than an utter lack of a social life. When you say no to an outdoor concert because you “can’t afford it” you really mean you just don’t want to spend the money to enjoy it. Not spending your allocated “fun money” on social outings or investing in memorable experiences will ultimately lead to a boring and unfulfilled life.

Conversely, spending all that extra time and energy to save a penny here and there could cost you in the long run. When you become so consumed with pinching pennies, you forget to enjoy even the smallest things, such as experiences with your family and friends.

Follow Lauren on Twitter @la_hamer.

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