It’s Tempting, but Is It Ethical?

by Diana Drake

Greek philosopher Socrates is credited with having said, “The more men value money-making, the less they value virtue.” Combine that old-world sentiment with today’s bling-encrusted “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” craze, and it’s difficult to feel hopeful for the future of moral financial behavior. Throw in a Saturday night with HBO’s The Wizard of Lies about the life and fall of Bernie Madoff, who orchestrated the largest financial fraud in history, and you realize that the younger generation is bombarded with questionable messages about money and ethics.

Reports of unethical financial behavior dominating the headlines may have you wondering how to navigate the pathway to building wealth and taking ethical steps to get there. How do you know if you’re making the right choices when it comes to managing money, especially if you see others modeling poor financial behavior? Possibly if Madoff had considered some of these issues while he was a student and swimmer at Far Rockaway High School in New York, his financial story would have turned out differently.

In an article she wrote a few years back in Forbes magazine, personal finance author Neale Godfrey said, “The underpinning of any financial interaction should be based upon ethical behavior and mutual respect.” She then recalled a scenario in which a college student had run up a huge credit card bill and then insisted that it wasn’t his fault because the credit card company had given him the card. When she asked the audience to weigh in, a teen responded, “If you racked up debt when you knew you couldn’t pay for it… it’s stealing. It’s not any different if I came into the store and stole stuff.”

Godfrey was impressed by that answer. In fact, the minute that college student knew he was living well beyond what he could afford to pay back, he had a moral obligation to stop charging. In the end, we need to be responsible for our own financial decisions, and not leave it up to a bank or large institution to determine our financial fate.

Learning to manage money responsibly and ethically isn’t always easy. Building basic budgeting and savings skills and discussing financial values with parents and educators will help you deal with ethical dilemmas. Until then, here are a few more scenarios to get you thinking about the power of money, ethical choices, and sound financial decision-making. What would you do?

Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be

Notoriously poor earners, high school students often find themselves strapped for cash. Have you recently turned to relatives and friends to borrow money? Before asking for a loan, it’s important to determine why you think you need it, or whether you can get the money another way. You may think you will pay it back right away, but what if that doesn’t happen?

“Borrowing or loaning money can put considerable strain on relationships. Before borrowing money, ask yourself if you absolutely need it,” says Jennifer McDermott, the consumer advocate for “Spending outside of your means is a dangerous and tough habit to break, so the more you can practice good money habits now, the better off you are down the track.”

Teens also shouldn’t feel pressured to loan money to a friend. “If you are often on the loaning side, have an open and honest conversation with your friend and let them know it puts you in a difficult position,” McDermott says. “A true friend will understand. Keeping money out of friendships is one of the key ways you will ensure they remain strong.”

What’s in Your Wallet?

Who hasn’t dreamed of discovering that bulging bag of money in the corner of the attic, a relic of some past homeowner? It’s not uncommon to find coins or even dollar bills on the ground, and you can probably keep small amounts of cash without feeling guilty. But if you found a wallet full of money, would you just pocket the cash and never look back?

“Stumbling across any sum of money can make you feel like lady luck is on your side! However, despite the ethical questions of pocketing money misplaced by someone, there may also be legal ramifications of not returning the cash,” says McDermott. “Every state has laws requiring the return of money to the rightful owner if it is possible to identify them. So, money found in a dropped wallet or an addressed envelope should be easy enough to return to their rightful (and likely very grateful) owner. As for money that is found ‘floating,’ most states still require you to turn it into local police to give the owner the opportunity to claim it.”

And beyond the legalities, was that wad of cash really ever yours to keep?

Money Under the Table

Some employers try to get away with paying workers without reporting payments to the government. They usually engage in this practice because they don’t want to keep records of the payments or owe payroll taxes. Some teens may be lured into agreeing to such an arrangement because they get to keep more of their paychecks.

“Many teens don’t realize that the decisions they make as teens can hinder the outcome of their future,” says Lacey Manning of LTG Financial in Ocala, Fla. “Making money under the table for an employer for an extenuating period of time can negatively impact your Social Security and Medicare benefit quarters. Not paying into the system is not only unethical, but can be a poor financial decision.”

When working out the terms of employment, teens should make sure they fill out the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Form W-4, which allows employers to withhold the correct federal income tax from their pay.

“One of the things that students are eventually going to have to deal with is filing their taxes,” says Jayson Mullin, the owner and founder of Top Tax Defenders in Houston. “When it’s time to no longer be claimed as a dependent, they’ll face the complicated tax code and the onus of filing with the IRS yearly. While it can be tempting to fudge taxes (or even not pay them), getting audited by the IRS is not something anyone wants to experience.”

$4.2 Trillion Down the Drain

Choosing to sell pirated works or counterfeit goods is unethical and illegal; it also could result in fines or imprisonment.

Counterfeit goods such as handbags, jewelry or clothing are imitations that are sold under a brand’s name without permission. Counterfeiting is different from selling knockoffs, which just look like products made by popular brands.

Piracy involves illegally reproducing and/or sharing original content such as downloaded music and movies, which violates copyright laws. Even filming your favorite band at a live concert without permission can be illegal.

Despite the potential penalties, counterfeiting and piracy are big business. Counterfeiting and piracy are projected to drain $4.2 trillion from the global economy and put 5.4 million legitimate jobs at risk by 2022, according to the International Chamber of Commerce.

“Teens are easily influenced, and this leads to poor decision making, which could include illegal money-earning activities. But they don’t always realize that the consequences can cause greater problems in the future, especially regarding career opportunities,” says Manning.

Purchasing fake and pirated items infringes on the owners’ intellectual property rights and can contribute to workers losing jobs. You’re also helping criminal enterprises succeed. So the next time you’re tempted to send a copy of a song you bought online to a friend, burn copies of a DVD to give as gifts, or purchase fake designer goods from street vendors, you may want to consider the true cost of your decision.

“When you have limited access to funds, whether part-time work or an allowance, cheaper always seems better. However, often a lot of cheap goods come at a larger ethical price,” warns McDermott. “By purchasing items without understanding their origin, you could be supporting industries that promote underpaid labor, terrible working conditions and questionable supply chains. In order to shop ethically, you need to become educated in where the things you buy come from.”

Money wields power for both good and evil. Adjusting your lens as you think about decisions involving money can help you navigate this sometimes slippery slope. When making ethical decisions related to money and other areas, Charles Read, CEO of GetPayroll, a financial services business in Texas, offers the following advice: “Truly ethical behavior can be expressed as Rotary International does in a test. (1) Is it the truth? (2) Is it fair to all concerned? (3) Will it build good and better relationships? (4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned? If students ask themselves these four questions each time they are about to make a financial decision, they will make an ethical decision.”

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Conversation Starters

Have you ever been confronted with any of the financial dilemmas featured in this article? Possibly others that are not cited? Share your story in the Comments section of this article or in the Facebook article thread at

Adults often think that TV shows like “Real Housewives” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” negatively impact young people’s financial expectations and ethics. Do you agree or disagree with this? Do you feel entitled to a life of wealth? Why or why not?

What do you feel has the greatest influence on your financial values? What shapes your decision-making when it comes to money?

22 comments on “It’s Tempting, but Is It Ethical?

  1. My financial values have always been firmly in place from what I learned from my parents and other family members. Being careful with money was always emphasized because money is easy to spend and when the economy crashed in 2008 my family really had to budget their money. When I want something I typically ask if I really need it and if I can afford to buy it twice. Being realistic with my use of the item is key because if I’ll get my money’s worth it’s worth it but if it’s not then I would not buy it. The test of being able to buy whatever it is twice gives me insight on whether it truly fits my budget or not. If I would not be able to buy it twice I don’t buy it but if I can without breaking my budget, I’ll spend my money. Being responsible with my money is something I pride myself in because I’m extremely picky with what I spend my money on.

  2. At the heart of financial success lies responsibility, self discipline, and respect for one’s own self and the society they live in. See, money is a tool which connects all hard-working individuals into a woven unit of progress. And that tool can be harnessed for the better, or unfortunately, for the worse of society. I currently work as an intern over the summer, making $11 an hour. I know I have responsibilities to pay like car insurance, gas, and meals I eat on-the-go. Because of my situation, I’ve become more self-aware and responsible than ever before; and not just with money, but with myself as a person.

    Here’s the thing – as teenagers, our brains aren’t fully developed yet; we’re just older kids, at the end of the day. Whenever we get a paycheck, or $20 from our parents, or find a lost $5 bill lying on the floor, our minds are naturally wired to go crazy and spend it on whatever we possibly can. I’ll admit, I suffered from this myself when I got my first credit card. Spending $10 and $15 here and there (which seemed like no big deal) would slowly creep up on me; when I got my first bill at the end of the month, I realized my mistake. But as I worked more and more, putting more hours into my summer job, that paycheck I earned with my own work ethic felt so amazing. I knew I had earned 100% of that money; but this time, I truly felt something different: pride and accomplishment. That money I earned could be used for whatever I wished. And, as this article states (which I couldn’t agree more with), there’s always an impact being made when you use that money – whether you donate it to charity, invest it in the stock market, or even spend it on buying McDonalds for you and your friends!

    So each time I take a swipe at that precious, gold-plated credit card of mine, I remember my financial duty and ethical responsibility as a person who wants to make a difference in today’s society: Whether that comes from $1, $10, or $100.

  3. Clearly, there are many factors that can lead a consumer to the tipping point decision of whether or not to pirate that new music album or to purchase it with their own money. However, I believe it is not as black and white as this scenario. Sellers also play a very large role. I think that in all circumstances it is up to the seller to determine a fair and ethical price for their product or service. This idea can apply to a student who cannot afford to go to the college of their dreams as well as to an adult who simply cannot afford proper health care.

    When it comes to health care, many private health care insurance companies artificially drive up the costs in order to create a greater profit for themselves. This can be to the dismay of many Americans as they can’t afford their medication. One example of an artificial hike in price is for the drug Daraprim. Daraprim is a medication that people suffering with HIV/AIDS or cancer are required to take. After the exclusive rights to Daraprim was bought by Turing Pharmaceuticals AG many people were unable to gain access to this necessary medicine as they raised the price by 5,000%. This process was perfectly legal, but due to the state of American health care we were at the mercy of this company. Medicare, one of the largest US health care programs for people who are 65 or older or who suffer from disabilities is legally not allowed to negotiate the cost of medication either, meaning that Medicare has to pay full price and the individuals in turn have to pay a much larger fee. I find this completely unethical that corporations can have complete control over its consumers is borderline communism and goes against the American culture.

    Another large problem with America today involves for-profit/private colleges. Many colleges might be tempted to overprice tuition to maximize profitability. As a result, this can cause students to take out loans which they may never pay off. This is a huge problem in the America as going to college is more desirable now than ever. College is seen as a required part of the education process and not attending will most likely leave you with a much worse salary and/or job. Some private colleges have owners and investors whose goal is to make as much money as possible. There are alternatives such as going to a state funded or online college. However, they may not be seen as prestigious as private colleges, which may lead to lesser jobs once a student graduates. Due to America’s current attitude toward education, these prestigious, for-profit colleges have an imbalance of power which creates an odd supply and demand scenario.

    These are just two examples where suppliers can weild greater power than the consumer. This can occur anywhere, throughout the world in many industries. We need to be aware that the burden of ethics lies not only on the shoulders of the consumer but with all players involved in the transaction. An unstable balance of power can lead to a problematic economic ecosystem, and we need to be aware of the ethical challenges that can present themselves, and realize that not everything is as black and white as it may appear.

    • Oh great… Not the Martin Shkreli topic. He has clearly denounced being an unethical person. He didn’t raise the price of Daraprim to make profits. He used that money to break even on Turing and even invest in other new pharma products. It’s disgraceful how the media portrayed him after the incident. Now, what Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer do for profit is disturbing and Shkreli even denounced them. To roughly quote, he said something like “They don’t care about the dying children” implying they are not motivated for positive medical practices such as discovering new cures but rather solely focused on profits. I agree with your main point that sellers should have a moral responsibility for fair pricing and in the long term will likely even be rewarded with a surplus of customers. However, the Shekreli example doesn’t fit cause he is being accused of doing LITERALLY the things he has denounced. One more thing, the same number of Daraprim were sold after the price increase implying that the high prices didn’t disable people with HIV from getting the product.

  4. My grandparents and my parents are business people, and so one of their goals in raising my brother and I is teaching us the importance of handling money and using it wisely, and that has been the greatest influence in my financial views. Ever since I was little, my grandma would give me and my brother money and teach us how to save up and not spend it on the first thing I see, because as a kid, if you’re given a dollar, the first instinct you have is getting candy or some toy; but it isn’t the wisest decision one can make with money; and so she would give us 5 dollars and see what we did with it by the end of the week, and give us another 5 and so on. She would check and see if we made any investments or anything different with the money, or if we just spent the money and were broke by the end of the week. My brother and I eventually learned to save up and start our own mini business. So what I did was I bought a product called “Rainbow Loom” (which was maybe about $15 plus rubber bands) and make bracelets out of rubber bands. I would wear them to class, and the other kids would see them and ask where I got them from, so I would sell them at my Tae Kwon Do academy for $1 each depending on the complexity of the bracelet and if it was exclusive colors, like glow-in-the-dark. At the end of the week I had $30 dollars and my brother wouldn’t have anything but candy wrappers, eventually he would catch up. I ended up making a profit of $500 by the end of the school year. But the point of this little story was to explain that you have to be wise with money. You could spend it on the first thing you see, but what if you save up and invest the money into something worth while, and then make wiser decisions when making a purchase. So, if I am going to spend money, I make sure that I actually need the item I am purchasing, and if it’s worth my money, then I’ll consider it, but if not, why buy it?

  5. This article pointed out and addressed some important factors and points, such as working under the table for businesses, purchasing and selling pirated or knock off items, loaning money or asking for loan, and returning lost money that is found. I was aware of all these situations that occur but I was unaware of the long term effects it could have on my financial future as well the government’s financial future. WIth this newly learned information I am now educated and will be sure to avoid any of these situations at all costs if possible.

    • I agree with you all the way. I didn’t know about the long term effects of us and the governments in the future from all of these things. I know that all these things happen on a regular basis, but for it to effect the government in the long run is terrible. Like you said I will make sure that I will avoid these things as well so that it doesn’t affect anyone in the future badly.

  6. Q:Have you ever been confronted with any of the financial dilemmas featured in this article? Possibly others that are not cited?
    A:When I was younger, I used to get music illegally. My brother confronted me about it later in life, saying that a lot of people are doing it and the composers lose money from this. This made me feel bad inside, and I asked myself, “If I really like these composers and if I support them, then I should support them more and take action.”

    Q:Adults often think that TV shows like “Real Housewives” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” negatively impact young people’s financial expectations and ethics. Do you agree or disagree with this? Do you feel entitled to a life of wealth? Why or why not?
    A: I disagree, I believe they impact young peoples financial expectations and ethics great. The Kardashians first off are recorded on the daily. They can’t be doing anything illegal, because they have a camera following them nonstop. All they do on the show is because they are being recorded, and people believe that they want to be like the people on T.V.. If the Kardashians would find a wallet on the floor and return it, many people would be in the same situation and say, “If the Kardashians did it, then I should too. Also, when they go on a shopping spree or show their closets and houses, I believe it makes people want what they have, such as designer clothes. This is good for the owners of the clothes, as it allows for them to make money instead of people buying counterfeit products. I believe everyone is entitled to a lifestyle of life, they just have to work for it.

    Q:What do you feel has the greatest influence on your financial values? What shapes your decision-making when it comes to money?
    A: The greatest influence on my financial values is ethnicity, asking myself, “is this right.: I feel as others also influence me, such as I see what other people are doing and I tag-a-long if they do it well or gain money and it is ethical. What shapes my decision-making when it comes to money, is I personally separate my needs from my wants, and ask myself whats best for me.

  7. ” TV shows like “Real Housewives” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” negatively impact young people’s financial expectations and ethics”. I completely agree with this statement because I have personally experienced the impact. These guilty pleasure TV shows entertain the audience and is very popularized in the society. Huge investment for these types of TV shows creates so much popularity and drama. These TV shows negatively impact the viewers by digressing from the real world scenarios and set a negative attitude and a different fashion trends. I feel that I should earn my wealth by own hard work and ethics rather than feeling entitled and waiting for luck to turn the tale.

  8. The first thing that right away got my attention was the title of the article, “It’s Tempting, but is it Ethical?”. All my life, whenever I had money, I just wanted to spend, spend, spend. As it says in the article, we high school students really are strapped for cash. We don’t make much money at all, and most make none. This makes our habits of spending whenever we have it sky rocket and that could seriously affect us in the future. “Many teens don’t realize that the decisions they make as teens can hinder the outcome of their future.” I truly am one of those teens. Even though I do understand what I tend to do now could hurt me later when I need to change my habits, I still can not break the habit. This article has shown me that I need to start working on that asap.

  9. In consideration of the ethical situations proposed, the scenarios they do illustrate come to a point where obvious ethics may be displayed to either good or immoral ethics. For example, with the wallet, the obvious consideration of the scenario leads to either making a moral decision of returning the wallet to the police or the owner or trying profit from securing the money. However, in my belief, this does not represent the full view of ethics even to the basis of Socrates for the scenario views the context that Socrates and other people’s ethics rely to a one hold value. However, while I myself view this as a value, I see others who are living in troubling times subject their views to finding money in a wallet as a benefit to them for they themselves could value having responsibility to keep in check your belongings. As they spot these belongings being dropped, they would then view the owner as irresponsibly and just deserved of proper punishment of losing his money. Even though I myself do not believe these standards, ethics have long stood against the ideals of culture, religion, and your everyday living situation, which I feel like the article could have took into more consideration. Despite this, I do feel like many of the articles warnings of improper financial decisions like working under the table, pirating illegal materials, and overcharging your credit card are unjust acts as I in my childhood have learned proper security of money is moral.

  10. I personally have never faced these ethical dilemmas mentioned in the article. However, using the wallet as an example, if I were to ever find a wallet full of cash or other items of value, such as a credit card or drivers licence, I would not keep it but rather deliver it to the authorities. If I did take the wallet I would have to live my whole life with the guilt of knowing that I am carrying around someone else’s valuables.

    Watching shows such as the “keeping up with the Kardashians” definitely affect the viewer, especially teens and children, negatively in their ethics and financial skills. These shows portray life in a very glamorous way. In the show, they don’t ever have any kind of money problems or anything relating to positive use of money.
    I feel extremely blesses and privileged to live a life of wealth, not at all entitled. So many people around the world have to each day worry about if they can provide their children or even their selves food and shelter. People that don’t have to worry about matters such as this, should feel very privileged.

    The greatest influence to my financial values definitely comes from my parents. The ways in which they spend their money and handle finances shapes my decision making when it comes to money. I am fortunate to have parent that are very educated in their way of spending money, which has made me a careful and responsible money “spender.”

  11. Sorry, pls ignore my other comment, it was meant for another article.

    The truth is that people in reality are not ethical all the time and under all circumstances.

    When a person is in any kind of “ethical dilemma” he asks himself 2 questions, and he or she takes actions based on them:
    1. What is the value (monetary or otherwise) of the proposition for me?
    2. What are the chances of me being caught or found out?

    If there is enough value to the proposition, only then does the person move to question 2. Else there is no dilemma and the person does the right thing.

    If the value of the proposition is enticing enough and the chances of getting caught are not too high, the person will go ahead and take the unethical option. Therefore, the resultant action may or may not end up being “ethical” and the same individual can be ethical sometimes and not so ethical in other situations.

    For example, if an average man on the street finds $50,000 in a bus, the value for him is enough to change his life and it is a sizeable amount for him. Also, the chances of him getting caught are negligible. Consequently, this person will in all likelihood keep the money, even if otherwise he may be a very fair and ethical person. “Every man has a price”.

    It is interesting to note, that if this same person found a $10 note in the bus, he would probably be eager to return it back to the rightful owner and feel good about himself and do the ethical thing. This is because he does not value the $10 at all, so there is no dilemma.

    On the other hand, if Bill Gates were to find $50,000 in a bus, he would give it back without a thought because for him the value of the money is not sizeable enough. So he won’t even go to the second question

    It’s the same criteria and logic that pertains even to relationship or personal situations and therefore we humans generally tend to be “grey”. The world is no longer “black or white”.

  12. Bernie Madoff is a high school student and swimmer at Far Rockaway High School in New York who orchestrated the largest financial fraud in history. I agree with this because doing what others are doing just to have what they have is really a lack of self awareness and respect considering you don’t know what they have possibly done to obtained the things they have now. I don’t feel entitled to a life of wealth, I just want to be able to provide for myself and family and be happy without the misconception of associating money with happiness. I feel that my life experiences and wisdom have the greatest influence on financial values. When it comes to money I think whether I can live with or without an item that I want to buy more like whether it is a need or a want.

  13. As of what I learned in this article about loans and financial. Its important to know what you do with your own money even when you borrow money from others. You should always think before getting something that’s unnecessary and borrowing money without really needing it.
    Also the article left notice that now days many young teens are doing or committing to illegal things to save money. It’s better to pay off full price because there’s always a negative affect towards the cheaper items. For ex: copyright, if you do copyright without permission you could get a fine or even end up in jail. Its always better to pay the legit price and get the real brand of the item.
    No, I have never actually been confronted by any of the financial dilemma’s above. But I do feel like TV shows do negatively impact young peoples financial expectations and ethics. I say yes because many people get addicted and now days none of these tv shows are free you must pay. And people who end up getting addicted end up paying. This is money being wasted on a unnecessary show. You can save up this money instead of wasting it.

  14. -Bernard Lawrence Madoff was an American fraudster and financier who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in history, worth about $64.8 billion.
    -I don’t think that reality TV has a negative impact on lids because as a kid I would watch shows like that and I never took the messages in them seriously because its widely known to be fake and scripted.
    -I think that the way your parents spend money has an impact on the way you spend in the future because we pick up on their good or bad habits.

  15. What I believe has the biggest influence in my financial values I believe is the economy itself as well as my wants. I believe that first everything we buy that we need like food and other things like rent play a big role in my financial values. I feel like this is what helps me think of my future spending’s and the way I wanna use it. But also wants, I want to use my money on certain things so again I want to be careful on how I use money in order to be able to spend equally on other things. I just believe since it’s your own money you could benifet from it a lot and do so much with it because you own it, but with this power you could also put yourself into problems if not used correctly or even just doing unsmart financial decisions

  16. It to see what is necessary or seems fun but that last for a long time or having multiples things that interest me so i don’t get bored at all whatever interest me

  17. Bernie Madoff was an American fraudster and financier who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in history, worth about $64.8 billion.

    There’s a chance that parents might be right, I don’t watch reality TV so I wouldn’t really know from personal experience but usually kids model what they see on TV sometimes so if they see someone like Kim Kardashian spending a lot of money on things and just buying unuseful stuff they may want to do the same thing because they feel they need to want to impress their peers or others.

    My ability to save and spend, my parents that are not rich and tell me about how getting an education will help me in the future, if I want something really bad or have a craving for it I may buy it on the spot.

  18. I remember watching reality TV shows as a kid and I would they didn’t affect my financial expectations or decisions. Not to say that it has no effect on others as some kids may idolize celebrities and want to be exactly like them and even go as far to only use products they use or sell. I would say my greatest influence for spending would have to be from my parents and my living conditions. They taught me that money is valuable and like many things it is something that others can have more of but also there are others with less. To put it another way there is always someone more fortunate and someone that is less fortunate. So overall I try my best to not “waste” money when I see we may be low on cash but If there is something I really want like maybe I’m craving fast food or a new game I might spend my money on it.

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