Picking Up Free Items in Public, Hoarding Ketchup: Thievery or Frugality?

by Stacey Doyle on 2011-09-2611

I’d like to talk about an interesting habit that some people have. Pilferers can’t resist the lure of grabbing a few extra sugar packets or plastic forks from fast food restaurants. I have a relative with this habit. Once, she even brought a tote bag on vacation to take home shampoo and towels from her hotel. Embarrassed family members who’ve heard about this story now refuse to travel with her. But she insists that this kind of thing isn’t wrong. So when does frugality turn into thievery?

So let’s ask the question: what is truly free and what isn’t? I believe that it boils down to a bit of common sense. If the item is meant for use by others (and not just yourself), then it’s something that you should leave alone. If it’s meant to be consumed and is part of a service that’s extended to you, then it’s a freebie (to a point). Let’s investigate a few areas where you may be tempted to pick up a freebie or two.

What’s Free at a Restaurant?

Have you ever been with someone who pocketed the silverware or flute glasses after a meal at a fine restaurant? It’s an unfortunate situation, but the grabber is sure to believe they are right. There are also people who fill their bags or pockets with condiments from fast food restaurants. Are they stealing? What about those who secretly stuff doggy bags with tidbits from the all you can eat buffet?

Clearly, the silverware and glasses are meant for everyone to use. Unless a restaurant gives out plastic utensils and forks, their dishes and utensils are theirs as “equipment”. These items are clearly not meant to be given away, so taking them would constitute theft. Bottles of condiments are also meant to be left on the table. To avoid a public tiff with the owner, don’t attempt anything funny.

Ketchup Art

But what about those tempting packets of Sweet and Low, or ketchup? The rule of thumb is that you can keep extras if they were given to you with your order. Take a reasonable number of sachets for you to enjoy your meal. However, loading up on dozens of these little packets borders on thievery. Besides, there’s the risk that a few will open on the way home and could ruin your clothing or car seat. After weighing the cost of dry cleaning, you’ll find these “freebies” to be a lot less tempting. As for doggy bagging loads of food — it’s tasteless (pun intended) and I just….wouldn’t.

What’s Free at a Hotel or Resort?

Plush towels and 1,000 thread count sheets at a posh hotel or resort are easy pickings, if you think about it. After all, will the hotel really notice one less towel in the pile?

Of course they will. Hotels expect the repeated use of their sheets, towels, light bulbs and other portable items. They are not complimentary unless a sign encourages you to take them home after your stay. I’ve never stayed at a hotel or resort that included the towels or the Holy Bible as items you could keep.

However, many hotels distribute complimentary shampoo, conditioner, soap and even evening mints. Since these items are provided to guests for their comfort, they’re meant to be taken. But take note of the possibility that they may leak in your luggage and wind up costing you more than they’re worth. If you think about it, leaving them behind can be a treat for the maid who cleans your room.

Continental breakfast is meant for people who stay at the hotel or resort. I knew a person who toured local hotels to score a free breakfast, which seemed to be more work than it was worth! The rolls and donuts are meant to be eaten at the hotel and not tucked away for consumption later.

What’s Free at Work?

Do you “steal” office supplies? “Supply-Jackers” in the workplace are more common than you think. In May 2010, Kelton Research conducted the OfficeMax Workplace Undercover Survey, which exposed the fact that Americans do pilfer office supplies from their co-workers and employers.

In fact, 56% of employed Americans admit to taking office supplies from their employer for personal use at home. Of these people, 30% say that they were simply “borrowing” these items, while 25% didn’t think their boss would miss the supplies. Others borrowed supplies from co-workers without returning them. Seems like we have an epidemic here!

Ketchup Art

The cost of running a business is steep enough without theft (however minor it seems to be). As unemployment and layoffs continue, it seems unwise to cost your employer more money. In the long run, it could cost everyone a portion of their raise. Either way, taking office supplies (without express permission) for personal use is unethical behavior, but a fairly common occurrence.

Consider too, the kind of consequences some intolerant companies impose on workers that they catch in the act. I once knew a woman who lost her job because she stole a roll of toilet paper. Seems extreme, but the company probably wanted to send out a message.

The Consequences of Pilfering

Being frugal doesn’t mean running off with whatever you can get away with. The cost of travel is steep enough without hotels and resorts making up for stolen towels, pillows and other amenities by passing the cost of these losses to their customers.

When you steal petty items, it ultimately drives costs up and makes entertainment less accessible for everyone. Lifting office supplies is also a poor choice when you consider the possible consequences of losing your job and settling for unemployment.

A Better Way to Get Freebies

The good news is that there are countless ways to get freebies the legitimate way. You just have to know where to look. For instance, Walmart offers a new freebie on their website on a daily basis. A simple online search reveals a wealth of freebie opportunities at websites such as Volition.com, Freecycle.org and AllYou.com. There are guilt-free ways to try new products and save a few cents off on shampoo, toothpaste and other small essentials. Often, you can also get money saving coupons with these freebies, making it a double score.

Frugality involves a sense of responsibility. Trying to fit thievery into the parameters of saving money simply doesn’t work. It feels good to receive freebies without fear or worry about getting caught or meeting with humiliation once your transgression is discovered. Instead of worrying about how to swipe something without being noticed, put your efforts towards finding guilt-free freebies — they’re everywhere these days!

Created August 26, 2007. Updated September 26, 2011. Copyright © 2011 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

MONEY BLUE BOOK August 26, 2007 at 2:20 pm

I tried hoarding ketchup, soy sauce, and Popeye’s hot sauce packets for a while too. Eventually I just ended up with a drawer full of it for no reason at all. There’s a reason why I had so much of it stored up…I don’t use those type of condiments! 🙂

Money Blue Book

Kris August 26, 2007 at 3:36 pm

In regard to the ketchup debate, I had a friend in high school whose goal was, over the course of a summer, to fill his car trunk with Taco Bell packets. He succeeded. There were thousands of those things, and I never found out what he did with ’em. If you ever spot a mountain of hot sauce somewhere …

Eric August 29, 2007 at 6:03 am

That is a classic picture. I used to eat ketchup by the pack and while it was great for a quick college fix, I think it also gave me some massive heartburn.

Darcy September 27, 2011 at 11:10 am

Well I feel a little guilty about making lunch out of what I found in the garnish/condiment area of the University Bar. In my defense that was all that stood between me and starvation in the University Student days.

Good article people tend to ignore thier common sense at times.

catherine turley September 27, 2011 at 12:26 pm

i think it’s obvious that everything at an establishment is meant to be used on their premises. Plus, you could save much more money just by using coupons.

krantcents September 27, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Are you a thief if you take something very small? Are you a thief if you use the company facilities for personal use. You know, personal phone calls, copier or supplies. It appears we have a rolling sense of integrity. It has become acceptable to steal!

Bryan at Pinch that Penny! September 28, 2011 at 9:43 am

My best friend’s parents, when he was little, were the night managers of a little motel in the area. I’m not sure if they think this, but he seemed pretty firm in the conviction that taking shampoo and conditioner bottles from the room were stealing (if they hadn’t been used partially during the stay). I think it’s fine to take the little bottles, but there are some folks who sincerely disagree.

Susan Shaw September 28, 2011 at 11:01 am

Great stories here. I am actually surprised that it’s considered wrong to take those bottles of shampoo and conditioner. Aren’t they complimentary? I usually take the ones that were already used. I don’t really much care about taking a lot of the other “convenience packets” they leave behind simply because they add to the luggage clutter we have. But I’ve always assumed anything they leave for your hotel stay is part of what you pay for when you use the room. You shouldn’t be taking off with the glasses, ice bucket or whatever else you eye in a typical motel room, but those replaceable consumer items (shampoo, body wash, lotion, sewing kit)… Aren’t those folded into your room charges?

Silicon Valley Blogger September 28, 2011 at 11:15 am

My parents are thinking of setting up a little inn as a business. Now what should I be worried about?

That said, I remember how much I loved to collect pens and notebooks from places I worked at. I had tons of notes in those notepads, so I can justify taking a number of them. I felt I was more productive that way. Is that a reasonable excuse?

Gerard September 28, 2011 at 5:36 pm

I stay at more and more hotels, especially in Europe, where instead of little bottles of shampoo and stuff they have big dispenser containers attached to the walls of the shower stall. I kinda prefer it — you never run out, and there’s less waste.

PKamp September 29, 2011 at 6:48 am

Without trying, I often end up with ridiculous amounts of napkins from various places. I know that napkins are free and meant to be taken, but for whatever reason I can’t properly estimate the messiness of the food items I purchase. Sometimes, my wife will say, “are we out of napkins?” and I’ll respond, almost sheepishly, “no, there’s a pile from Chipotle on the counter”.

Condiments, on the other hand, I never take enough and end up supplementing my own food stocks.

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