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I am looking for an idiom.

You put too much effort, but there is so little gain that it would not be worth the effort.

Update: More specifically, some guy wants to save money and gas, thus he skips toll highway and take the free road. But the free road is longer, or congested that he ends up using more gas.

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That is the idiom: "It's not worth the effort." If you want something different, we'll need to know what your context is and why this expression is unsatisfactory. What kind of difference are you looking for? –  StoneyB Feb 16 '13 at 15:48
    
Context would help because there are many idiomic phrases will subtle nuances in meaning. –  Kristina Lopez Feb 16 '13 at 15:55
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OK I edited with an example, I hope it is clear now. –  Emmet B Feb 16 '13 at 15:59
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11 Answers 11

up vote 19 down vote accepted

"Penny wise, pound foolish" works because to save a small amount of toll money, they'd waste much more time which also has a monetary value.

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Kristina's answer is good. Another phrase that can apply is a false economy. From the Wikipedia definition:

A false economy is an action that saves money at the beginning but which, over a longer period of time, results in more money being spent or wasted than being saved.

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The game is not worth the candle,

although this idiom has been losing currency since the invention of electric lights. See Ngram.

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As a side comment, this is originally a French idiom, as its first appearance in English in Google books appears to be in 1742, but it is easy to find occurences of "le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle" before 1700. See Google Ngram. –  Peter Shor Sep 4 at 14:55

Another take: Pyrrhic victory

Google defines Pyrrhic victory as:

A victory with such a devastating cost that it is tantamount to defeat.

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You could talk about diminishing returns.

This two-word phrase has two related meanings. One is a more formal economic meaning, where further investment in an enterprise is unlikely to produce proportional dividends.

In a more informal sense, the expression simply refers to what you mentioned in your question: there's too little to gain from the effort, to the point where it's not worth the effort.

The M-W dictionary alludes to both of those meanings with these definitions, even using the word effort in its definition:

diminishing returns
1 : a rate of yield that beyond a certain point fails to increase in proportion to additional investments of labor or capital
2 : benefits that beyond a certain point fail to increase in proportion to extended efforts

Wiktionary mentions that the phrase is idiomatic, while the Phrase Finder gives this note:

In common usage, the "point of diminishing returns" is a supposed point at which additional effort or investment in a given endeavor will not yield correspondingly increasing results. So, when you have reached that point, it's better to give up the endeavor.

Collins lists this example sentence, showing the phrase being used by a Glasgow newspaper in its more informal sense:

By becoming a pop diva again, she has revitalised a career that, in the mid-1990s, was an exercise in diminishing returns.

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The juice is not worth the squeeze.

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One possibly related idiom is "using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut".

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This makes me think of something like "[you're] spinning [your] wheels," referring to expending energy that does not give the desired result, but it's something you'd spend energy on, nonetheless. I understand that you are looking for an idiom describing wasting one's time and efforts in a nul sum kind of way at best, so perhaps a phrase starting with, "Despite all [good] intentions, [the agent was not rewarded for these diligent efforts]."

or "In spite of all [good] intents and purposes...."

"Robbing Peter to pay Paul" came to mind for some reason, but don't get that meaning from what you've described.

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You could use quite a literal phrase, it costs more than it's worth.

Eg.

We could spend the money to upgrade these servers, and we'll get an improvement of performance, but really, I think it's going to cost more than it's worth.

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By skipping the toll highway to save money, your guy's object was to save money, but because of the adverse effects of the free road, he ended up spending more money than he would have saved. By taking the free road he was defeating the object.

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Here in my area, my group of friends uses the term "you're doin too much" and variations as an idiom to say exactly what you're asking. Literally what you asked provides the exact definition of the term my friends and I use constantly that I've wanted so long but haven't been able to describe what we mean to my parents, as we're teens in college (started using the term years ago though). The term is frequently used to generalize a person in the now, so a lot of times it's used in present tense regardless of when the act that defined someone as "doing too much" happened, but only in the context of already having stated what this act was. The idiom in general is specifically used as a way to express that, in your opinion, it's not worth doing something so trivial. As a result it's commonly used to lightly make fun of someone by putting down an act they did, even if the act was justifiable from his/her perspective (i.e. "you walked 2 miles all the way to the store and back just for some milk? You're doing the max."). From that person's perspective, the act my have been justifiable for them to do it, even if they agree the act is dumb, because they may have been forced to do it (their parents may have made them get milk and they didn't have a car so they had to walk) so it's not generally used specifically as a way to put someone down. However, even if the term is used to put down an act committed, even in the same context as the example, it doesn't have to make fun of the person being spoken to if the person speaking acknowledges that what he/she was doing was justified from their point of view (i.e. "your parents made you walk all the way to the store, 2 miles, in the rain for some milk? They're doing wayyyyy too much", targetting the parents, or "your parents made you? That's doing the maxxxx", targeting the act itself and used in an agreeing, sympathetic context).

As time progressed the term "doing too much" has evolved to also work with variations with synonyms to provide variety in what we say and display individual difference from others so we don't all seem the same by saying the same thing all the time (because we use it so much from it fitting so many situations so well). For instance: "Doin the most" - not used as much by us nowadays, but has been seen in pop culture so it may be used by others in other areas. "Doing way too much" - nowadays this is usually what we say instead of "doin too much" if we're going to use it because it better states the reason of saying it, unless it ends the sentence (i.e. "...blablabla, that's doin too much." Works better in that situation than inserting "way") "Doin a LITTLE bit too much" - used with extra emphasis sarcastically to mean the same thing as "way too much" "Doin a little bit TOO much" - similar to the last one but the extra emphasis on "too" instead of "little" changes the meaning a bit. Usually starts with the common starter for this idiom "That might be..." "Doin the max" - by far used the most nowadays, prob the best variation.

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