paying for a missing item

creme brulee
A few days ago, Bubelah and I went out to lunch sans kids, thanks to their Grandmother and Grandfather.
We went to a downtown Irish pub, nothing out of the ordinary – semi-fancy food on a set price lunch menu – $15 for an appetizer and an entree.  We had the food, a few teas and seltzericons, and then we decided to split a dessert.  The check came, and we were charged properly for everything – except the dessert.  I hesitated for a few seconds before deciding not to bring it to the attention of the server.  I tipped 20% – a normal tip – and then we left.

So an ethical question – should I have said something? We paid a solid tip (the service was substandard, to be honest) and I’m sure that the markup on my seltzericon was substantial.  I feel somewhat guilty – but not that much.  Should I?

Any transgression from the straight and narrow path feels like a betrayal of an honest life, but many of us do it, and often. I cross against the light, or fail to report a missed charge, and so on.  Is it a moral failing?  Is it a reason to be ashamed?  I don’t think so.  Most of us fall short of moral perfection – and by most, I mean “all”.  Yet the measure of a good life can be said to be “I did as much good as I could most of the time” – couldn’t it? It sounds false as I say it, but I hope it’s true.

So I’m sorry I skipped out without paying for my dessert, even though I enjoyed splitting it with Bubelah and would have paid for it if I had been charged. When you’re presented with split-second financial decisions it is amazing how quickly most of us will turn to our own self-interest and ditch ethics – or at least I will.

photo credit: jsc.

38 comments

  • I would have said something, were I in your place. I would certainly point out any error n the restaurant's favor and would feel guilty about not pointing out an error in my favor. I set a high standard for myself in terms of personal integrity, and quite honestly, I don't always measure up. My motivation may be partly selfish because I feel good about me when I do the right thing. I don't want to be guilty of situational ethics (integrity at my convenience).

    • @BJ: I think a good measure of how I feel about it might be that I'm still thinking about it and worrying about it – so maybe I did the wrong thing for me, too.

  • For many years I was the guy that always pointed out errors regardless of whether it was good or bad for my wallet.

    No longer.

    I finally realized that our economy is an adversarial system. When you start paying attention you'll notice that “mistakes” that favor businesses are very regular. Prices posted on the shelves scan higher at the register. Grocery stores are terrible about this. Prices charged at restaurants are often higher than menu prices (particularly on drinks).

    I've come to the conclusion that all these pricing “mistakes” aren't mistakes after all. So when I am dealing with corporate retail, I assume that it is their job to hire and train their employees to do their jobs — checking me out correctly and charging me the right prices for what I have purchased. If they don't care enough to hire and train people that can do the job, why is it my responsibility to do it for them? Particularly in the face of what I see as systemic cheating on their part.

    That said, when dealing with companies or individuals who I know from experience to be honest, I always return that honesty and point out errors even when it costs me more.

  • Ashley @ Wide Open Wallet

    I wouldn't have said anything either. It's easy for those things to go unnoticed so who is to say you saw it. It was their error. You didn't steal it… they gave it to you.

  • You were wrong. And I don't say that out of any sense of moral authority, but the mere fact that you wrote a post about your thoughts on this.

    When we do the right thing, we do it and move on, and don't look back at it (not even to think about how right we are).

    That all being said…. so?

  • Check out the book “Secrets of the Millionaire Mind” and note that the #1 character trait of wealthy people is integrity. After noting that and your goals, it's hard to skip out on these types of things.

  • I don't think you have anything to worry about. You gave a very generous tip for the meal and service and it was their responsibility. I can understand the ethics, but to be honest don't think that is bad ethics at all. It's not like you saw the waiter drop money on the ground and then took off with it. I think what you did is fine, and just about everyone will agree.

  • If the restaurant had only charged you for the dessert but did not charge you the $30 for lunch, would you have pointed out the mistake? If so, then maybe the title of your post should be, what is the price tag of your integrity?

    Not that I'm judging…Its just something to ponder.

    • @Amy: No, that's a fair comment, and it's really the heart of what I'm getting at – was I OK with it because it wasn't much? Am I OK with stealing “a little bit”? When I write it like that it sounds awful, and I'm embarrassed to say it. I am – believe it or not – a person deeply and to some extent overly concerned with my integrity, which is probably why I'm blogging about this situation in the first place – and as plonkee said below, I'm berating myself about it.

  • I suspect that I would do the same as you. Not question the bill, and then berate myself later. I agree with Deepali – we're wrong to do this. If it feels unethical to me, then it basically is unethical to me, and so I shouldn't do it.

  • I'll agree that if not paying for the desert is bothering you, then lesson learned.

    I don't think that there was anything inherently unethical about the situation. If you had failed to pay the bill that they presented, that would have been unethical. It is not your responsibility to prepare and present a bill for goods or services to yourself. That is the responsibility of the the seller. If they can't manage their business well, it isn't your ethical responsibility to manage it for them.

  • To be totally ethical you should point out the error. Generally if you have to ask if something is ethical or not then it isn't. That is my basic rule of thumb. When in doubt I'd lean towards following your gut and its clear your gut is saying you didn't do the right thing.

    To keep it in perspective, this example is a very border line minor ethical question. I mean you aren't outright stealing or causing any real harm. And to be honest I often don't report unbilled items, but now that you bring up the topic I'm feeling a bit guilty about it.

    I think its best to report the error and in my experience when you do report the error they will usually let minor things go uncharged. Its also a good measure of the service level at a restaurant. I think the better restaurants will let it slide if you point it out.

    Jim's 2¢

    • @Jim: But it's the borderline thing that bothers me! I'm an ethical person, and I'm disturbed when I fuzz out the borders, even on small amounts. I don't think anyone loses in this situation; I paid the server a good tip, the restaurant made plenty of money off charging me for carbonated water, etc. – but I still did something wrong. I feel worse about the whole thing now than when I wrote about it – and you're probably right, they might have forgiven the error had I pointed it out, anyway! Argh! 🙂

  • I agree with the majority of the posters: it was wrong. It's possible to split hairs and say it wasn't THAT wrong, or it was THEIR responsibility to make sure they do their jobs correctly, but the bottom line is: they made a mistake; you made a conscious decision.

    Perhaps next time you'll do something differently, perhaps not!

    • I'd love to hear someone give a reason as to WHY it is wrong, besides just saying so. Can you explain your thinking?

    • @bethh: You know, bethh, I'll probably switch back to my hardcore black-and-white right-and-wrong self next time and report it. I feel worse now than I did before – I probably wrote this post because I WANTED to be called on it. I knew it was wrong and as many people have pointed out I wouldn't have brought it up if I thought it was OK. I would be understanding but resentful if the error had been made the other way, so you're right – it was a conscious decision, and I'm not sure I could defend it if I wrote another post about it today.

    • Well, today I went shopping at Target, and while waiting for my friend to be rung up, I looked over my receipt, trying to figure out why it came up as less than I'd expected. Had something been on sale?

      Nope: the $15.99 roasting pan I'd selected had instead rung up as a $6.99 cooling rack. My immediate emotion was regret that I'd looked at the receipt, because now I had knowledge that I had to do something with. Of course I thought of this thread! I brought it to her attention and we had to wait for a manager, return the “cooling rack” and ring up the roasting pan. But, I did the right thing and didn't regret it, and never seriously considered doing otherwise, though it would've been easy to do so. I would have felt sheepish/ashamed telling my friend what I'd done after we left the store.

  • I hardly ever look at the particulars of a bill. My husband does, but I almost never do. I would have paid the bill as presented, never known that I wasn't charged, and gone on my merry way. So I would have done the same as Steve, but perhaps unconsciously, unknowingly. I consider myself to be an ethical person, sometimes to a fault, but I wouldn't have mentioned this even if I had noticed it. Conversely, if I had been overcharged a small amount, I probably wouldn't have mentioned it either. My time and patience are worth more than a couple of dollars.

  • I just finished read Warren Buffett's biography (The Snowball) and here's what he would say about this and anything else you might do: Behave as if everything you do will be on the front page of the newspapers tomorrow.

    Does that change how you look at it? I think it's a great little exercise to keep you looking at things from the right perspective.

  • Had you been overcharged, would you have brought that to the attention of your server?!

  • I think what you did was wrong – but having said that, I`ve been in many similar situations and although I like to think of myself as morally correct (as you do) – the reality is that my behaviour in those similar situations was almost random. Sometimes I tell the waiter, sometimes I don`t, sometimes I felt bad about it, sometimes I felt good.

    It seems that we make sometimes make split-second decisions which are dependent on a lot of factors. How much alcohol, did you like the waiter, was the food good – was it a fun evening, did the Jets win their last game?…that sort of thing 🙂

  • I agree with those that say it was wrong, but I'm really glad you posted this. Definitely food for thought (no pun intended).

  • I agree with the previous posters who said you acted unethically. When you purchase goods, it is your responsibility to pay the seller. Period. Just because the seller made a mistake does not relieve you of your responsibility to pay for everything. It is not about what the seller does. It is about what you should do- and that is to pay the price listed on the menu (which you expected).
    I don't mean to be caustic, but when you visit retail establishments, do you only pay for things that employees witness you taking off the shelves? The way I was brought up, failing to point out an error in your favor is failing to pay for something you took. Both are stealing.

    Also, you should ask yourself: why does it matter? People think corporations don't matter because they're just faceless organizations, but the truth is that they are made up of people. If you deprive a corporation of money that rightfully belongs to it, it will hurt the corporation's employees- real, live people. Too much thieving means stores can't give raises or hire more employees, or worse, have to fire someone. Stealing also contributes somewhat to inflation, because stores will set higher prices to make up for what they lose. So, you're hurting the people in your community with that one. And in the case of waiters and waitresses, they might have the money they didn't charge the customer taken out of their pay. Also, the tip you left should have been calculated on the amount including the dessert. But it wasn't. The server worked to bring you that desert, but you didn't pay them 20% of the cost of the dessert, did you?

  • There is a fairly easy remedy, BripBlap, to deal with your obvious guilt over the check. Go back to the restaurant, find the waiter, and give him ten bucks to cover the cost of the desert and tax and tip.

    Guilt-B-Gone!

  • I once walked out of the shoe store, got in the car and went home, looked at the receipt and discovered that I was not charged for one of the pairs of shoes that I got (about $80.00). I definitely didn't go back and told them about it. Just like I've been charged twice or the wrong price in a supermarket and never look at the receipt right there and then and tell the cashier. I think we “lose” more money in this life than we “find”. So, I personally wouldn't feel too bad about it – the dessert was clearly a few days old from the fridge, anyway.

  • Steve, I have a solution for you that will make you feel a lot better about this whole thing:
    let it go. 🙂

    (I think it was great that you posted it though, since it was bothering you. I hope you found this cathartic)

  • I am living in a glass house, so I do not want to throw stones. Still this discusion is very interesting.

    I would look at this as taking advantage of someone's mistake. And since I would not want someone to do the same to me, I'll be trying my best not to do that to others.

    If I had noticed the missing item in the bill, I would have told the manager or the owner.

    But beating a red light, especially in the early hours of the morning when there is no one around, that's fine with me. In fact, very fine.

  • The other day we ran to Target and came out with a couple bags, two kids and it was pouring rain. We piled in the car soaking wet and then realized my son had picked up a $3.00 toy car that we had not paid for. My wife and I looked at each other and I agreed to take it back in the store to pay for it. Part of it was to set an example for the kids, and part of it was because it would have eaten at me for days.

    Since it inspired a blog post from you a couple days later, I imagine it is bothering you, too. If it is, you have the answer to your question. Still, I probably would have been tempted to do the same thing sans kids. Don't beat yourself up over it. Go back the restaurant and order a couple desserts and coffee and leave another generous tip.

  • I think it would be the right thing to do to bring it to their attention, and allow yourself to be charged for it. After all, you bought the dessert, and agreed to pay for it.

    Would I have brought it to their attention? I'm sure there have been similar situations where I've brought this type of thing up, and others where I just let it slide. I know we all get kind of that little bit of excitement when we find something like this, kind of like we're getting away with something. Like we're pulling one over on “the man”. Once that feeling passes, however, it is usually replaced with one of regret (at least for me).

    When in doubt, do the thing that you know would mean that people would have no cause to question your integrity.

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  • Interestingly, I was taught as a youngster that a mistake like this in my favor was a “blessing in disguise” so I happily accepted the “gift” for many years. Especially when I was living at poverty level as an adult I'd rejoice. But let them overcharge me by a dime and I'd be right there letting them know about it. Especially since most grocery stores would give you the item free as your “reward” for catching their pricing mistake. Eventually I started realizing this was not being totally honest, and started letting them know about both instances. What's really interesting is a lot of places have looked at me like I've sprouted a third head when I let them know they cheated themselves. Some clerks at customer service don't want to do the extra work (I guess) so just wave it off. Now a lot of stores have stopped giving you the item free, so I base whether I tell them about it on how much it is, and if it's worth my time to stand in line waiting. If you had told the waitress or cashier you would not feel bad about it – so next time you should. I bet they will not charge you anyway. Good post.

  • I guess what I've learned is that I should probably pay more attention to the bill. I bet in most cases I would have just looked at the bottom line total for the meal, and if by quick calculation in my head it seemed “about right,” I would have just paid the bill and not known any different. Is it still a moral dilemma if you are ignorant?

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  • You should have brought it to the waiter's attention. It is not for us to decide what is morally acceptable and what is not; you know right from wrong or you would not have these feelings of guilt and of having done something you should not have. Theft is theft, and by you taking something and not paying for it, you are, in essence, stealing. You can try to rationalize and justify it any way you choose, but it is precisely this “let's see what I can get away with” attitude (albeit on a much broader scale), so prevalent in this country, that has aided and abetted in the general breakdown of societal mores. Next time, 'fess up – you'll feel a lot better about having done the right thing.

  • I've known more than one waitress that would purposely not charge for a dessert or soft drink. Those add on items are often not as tightly controlled as something coming out of the kitchen (from a cook). They would give those freebies thinking that they would receive a better tip when the patron realized they were getting a “deal” by not having to pay for the dessert.

    This makes it kind of a two wrongs don't make a right problem! I'm not saying one way or the other how you should have dealt with it. But when I read the post it immediately reminded me of the stories I have heard from people in the food industry.

    Great post.

  • I've known more than one waitress that would purposely not charge for a dessert or soft drink. Those add on items are often not as tightly controlled as something coming out of the kitchen (from a cook). They would give those freebies thinking that they would receive a better tip when the patron realized they were getting a “deal” by not having to pay for the dessert.

    This makes it kind of a two wrongs don't make a right problem! I'm not saying one way or the other how you should have dealt with it. But when I read the post it immediately reminded me of the stories I have heard from people in the food industry.

    Great post.