Do You Throw Your Ethics Away To Save Money?

Ethical dilemmas aren’t fun for anyone.

You want to do the right thing, but you’re not sure if your actions are crossing the line or not.

These dilemmas get even more complicated for some people when you throw money in the mix.

Is it really ethically wrong to save a few bucks when a huge corporation is making millions from people just like you?

Let’s explore some common situations below and I’ll let you decide in the comments below!

Related: 123 Money Savings Tips

Movie Theater Drinks and Snacks

I think most people will admit, at some point in their lives, to sneaking in a drink or some sort of snack into a movie theater. After all, the prices at the concession stands are absolutely ridiculous and you know the movie theaters are making a killing!

The real question is, are you stealing when you sneak drinks or snacks into the movie theater?

In this situation you’re paying to see the movie, but you just aren’t buying any snacks from the theater. If you say you wouldn’t have bought anything from the concession stand, does that make a difference?

Some say yes, while others say no.

Here’s an even bigger dilemma for this scenario. What if the movie theater is a local mom and pop run movie theater with only one location? Would this change how you feel about sneaking in snacks or drinks?

In the end, it really comes down to the rules of the theater. If they post signs that say no outside food and beverages allowed, you’re technically breaking the rules. The question is, do you care?

Are movie theater rules on a different level than the laws of the state or country you live in? That’s for you to decide.

The Naive Garage Sale Person

Garage sales are a great place to pick up some cheap deals. In most cases, the person hosting the garage sale knows they’re selling their stuff cheaply so they can free up some space in their house.

But what happens when the person hosting the sale puts a valuable item up for sale for mere pennies on the dollar of its true value? An ethical dilemma, that’s what!

Let’s say the person hosting the garage sale is selling some old toys that they think are worthless and put them in a box for $0.25 each. You, a vintage toy aficionado, realize these toys are worth $100 a piece, not just a quarter!

You have two options available to you. First, you can buy all the toys for a quarter each and make a killing. Second, you can tell the garage sale holder that these toys are much more valuable than they think. What is the right thing to do?

How can you do the ethically right thing in this situation and still make a profit? One solution is to tell the person that the toys are worth more than a quarter a piece and offer them more money, but not the full value.

This way the garage sale holder still makes a decent amount of money off of the valuable toys and you still have room to make profit by reselling them. Of course, what you ultimately do is up to you and how you perceive the ethical dilemma in this situation.

Finding A Misplaced Wallet Or Purse

You’re walking through a public park and you notice that someone has left their wallet or purse on a bench. You head over and take a look and find $200 cash and no identifying information.

What do you do? Do you keep the wallet and the money? This ethical dilemma is pretty tough because there isn’t really a way to figure out who the money belongs to.

You could try turning the wallet in to the nearest business with hopes that the owner comes looking for it, but you know it is a long shot and the business might end up pocketing the money. If that’s the case, why not just keep it yourself?

I had a similar situation happen once. I was walking down the road and found a $20 bill blowing in the wind. I naturally picked it up and immediately wondered what I should do with it.

I looked around, but there was no one looking for the money. I figured there was no way to find the rightful owner so I decided to keep the money.

This situation would be very different if you found the wallet and it had some sort of identifying information such as a license or a credit card.

In that case, you should definitely try to get in touch with the owner and return the wallet and all of it’s contents, including the $200.

Some people would say finders keepers, losers weepers, but I don’t think you’d want someone else to do the same to you. Aren’t ethics fun when you combine them with money?

So, what would you do in each of these ethical dilemmas? I’d love to hear your thoughts on all three in the comments? Have you ever run across these situations in real life? Were your real life actions different from what you think you’d do in theory?

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About Lance Cothern

Lance Cothern, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) licensed in the Commonwealth of Virginia, is the founder of Money Manifesto. You can read more about him here or connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Pinterest.


  1. I haven’t been to a movie theater in years so I don’t have that problem. I refuse to pay money which goes to people who’s politics or lifestyle is not what I support. I don’t go to garage sales either but I probably wouldn’t say anything since the item could easily be a reproduction that is not valuable. Now finding a wallet is something I can relate to since mine was stolen once. If the owner could be identified, I would definitely try to locate them or turn it in to the police. If there was no identification, I would keep it.

  2. When it comes to movie theater food, I would say that if you’re someone who is diabetic, bringing in your own food/snacks is understandable as most movie theater food is either high carb (popcorn) or high sugar (candy). Honestly, I go so rarely to the movie theater that I’ll buy popcorn while there. But as a club soda fan, I generally would bring my own as they never have flavored seltzer water there.

    There were some teenagers here in the north east who found $40,000 in cash in a couch they bought from the Salvation Army. They actually tracked down the original owner of the couch and gave back all of the cash, which I thought was surprising. I don’t think they got a reward, but it was a good deed for sure!

  3. If you find stuff at a garage sale that’s really cheap, I see nothing wrong with buying it at what they’re selling it for. The strategy you propose could backfire, once they hear about it being worth more they might take it off and not sell it to you at all, in which case you’re left with nothing.

  4. You are only what you are. At the end, they will either say “you were a great person’, or Good Riddance. Saving, or stealing is not the same, but you want to make sure you are doing the ‘right’ thing.

  5. Holly@ClubThrifty says:

    I don’t think it’s unethical to bring my own drinks and snacks into the theater. I think it’s unethical to charge $5 for a coke and $7 for a small popcorn!

  6. Sue @ When Did It Get So Complicated says:

    It is one thing when we are talking about junk food or someone who has too much ‘stuff’, but what about the ethics of the supply chain of our consumption? Most people buy the cheapest stuff they can find. The reason why these items are cheap is because many manufacturing items are made by people who aren’t being paid a livable wage and in unhealthy working conditions. Not to mention additional externalities of environmental destruction. I always say, buy less, pay more… i.e. buy less stuff in general and pay a fair price for organic, fair trade, recycled content, non-toxic, etc… Just beware of greenwashing!

    This post elaborates further…

  7. The big dilemma I’ve been facing is turning down Walmart. You know, Wally world saves people a lot of money, but the method in which they create the savings is pretty horrendous to employees, suppliers, and the environment. Slowly, I’ve been learning that I can save at my local co-op, eat healthily, and support a more ethical establishment.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post,

    • That is interesting, but if you worry about Wal-mart, there are lots of other things to worry about too. Your iPads, computers, car parts and many other things are made in countries that work their people at very low rates.

  8. Donna Bodony says:

    What do you think about going to see more than one movie on one ticket? I know someone who will by one ticket and then spend the day at the theater seeing 2 or 3 movies. When we go together we’ll see the first one together and then I’ll walk around the mall for a few hours waiting for that person to come out of the theater so we can go to dinner. I just can’t bring myself to sneak into another movie because I feel like that’s stealing but my friend says the high price justifies it.

    • If you bought an all day pass, I could see going to see multiple movies. However, you buy a ticket to a particular showing, not multiple showings, so I think your friend is clearly in the wrong.

  9. I don’t think the garage sale situation is an ethical dilemma at all. You would have no idea if the garage seller intentionally, consciously, knowingly, and willingly put the toys up for a quarter because it would have been worth it to them to free up the space. However, the movie theater one and the misplaced wallet is tricky. I would not try to sneak in snacks (these are unhealthy anyway) and would eat before I watch a movie. For the wallet, because I know the pain of losing a wallet (along with a $100 going-away gift bill that your manager gave you at the end of your internship) I would return the wallet without a question and try to track down the person who lost it!

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