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In Catalan there is an expression "ser la xocolata del lloro" that can be translated as "saving by not giving chocolate to the parrot is futile", conveying the meaning that when a household wants to save money, there are ways by which not much saving is going to be made. As an example, if you stop giving little bits of chocolate to the parrot to enjoy, although it looks like a saving measure, it's more posturing than real savings, so that doesn't make much difference: you actually won't end up saving much, because the amount of chocolate is very small.

Is there any equivalent expression in the English language for the same kind of saving efforts that won't make a difference?

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Stopping that habit won't save much chocolate, but it might save the parrot. –  Potatoswatter Apr 1 '12 at 2:08
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In case anyone's interested, the phrase is "ser la xocolata del lloro". –  ash Apr 1 '12 at 3:03
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@Potatoswatter: it's just resting –  nico Apr 1 '12 at 10:33
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The practice referred to verges on the foolish attempt to recover sunk costs. –  Hexagon Tiling Apr 8 '12 at 21:48

9 Answers 9

up vote 30 down vote accepted

The term penny-wise refers to being "careful in dealing with small sums of money or small matters". It's commonly found in the phrase penny wise, pound foolish, meaning "Someone who is penny wise, pound foolish can be very careful or mean with small amounts of money, yet wasteful and extravagant with large sums."

You may also find the term bikeshedding of interest:

The word ... implies technical disputes over minor, marginal issues conducted while more serious ones are being overlooked. The implied image is of people arguing over what color to paint the bicycle shed while the house is not finished.

The term cheeseparing economy refers to "a useless economy." According to ngrams for cheeseparing economy it is occasionally but not frequently used. The phrase "strain at a gnat and swallow a camel", from Matthew 23:23, means "to fuss about trifles while ignoring more serious matters" (per reference.com) or "to criticize other people for minor offenses while ignoring major offenses" (per thefreedictionary.com). For related phrases, also see questions #41508 and #39726.

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If you want examples of fussing at trifles while ignoring crises, there are also the phrases "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" and "fiddling while Rome burns." I guess I thought the OP wanted things related to personal finances. –  JLG Mar 31 '12 at 22:38
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bikeshedding is a term confined to a small community of BSD Unix developers. "Arguing over what color to paint the bicycle shed" is not an idiom that is widely used in any sizeable English-speaking culture and so it is of little relevance. –  Kaz Mar 31 '12 at 23:34
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@jwpat7 You forgot to put bikeshedding in quotes. That reduces Google's figure to 29,000. Without the quotes, it looks for "bikeshed" and "bike shed". With the quotes, most of the hits are computer geek blogs and discussions. And of course, reams of scraped pages (automatically generated scraped content) that is typical of Google results these days. –  Kaz Apr 1 '12 at 0:08
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People have probably quibbled over irrelevant details and matters since the dawn of humanity; so this bikeshedding term does not name anything that is even remotely new. I doubt it will catch on. For one thing, it is not colorful enough. Unlike something like, say, wrangle for an ass's shadow. And that failed to catch on. pettifog doesn't appear to be in wide use either. I suspect that "nitpicking" will continue to be the "go to" word for this area of meaning. –  Kaz Apr 1 '12 at 0:17
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I find it humorous that we started quibbling about bikeshedding. Good example of bikeshedding. :^) I say we paint it blue. –  J.R. Apr 1 '12 at 1:17

Slightly vulgar, but pissing in the ocean is a metaphor for an action that won't make much of a difference. This may specifically be an Australianism.

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One of Neil Gaiman's books has a character saying, " 'Every little helps', as the old woman said, pissing in the sea. " It's described as being an old English saying, although I hadn't heard of it before reading the book. –  Mark Bannister Apr 1 '12 at 7:43
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@MarkBannister that odd phrasing of it ("every little helps" as opposed to "every little bit helps") is a supermarket slogan. Tesco's I think. –  Kate Gregory May 1 '12 at 12:34
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@KateGregory: If I could remember which book it was in, I would go and look up the exact phrase. books.google.com/ngrams/… appears to show much wider use for "every little helps" than the equivalent search for "every little bit helps". –  Mark Bannister May 1 '12 at 14:03

Apart from the obvious false economy have you considered robbing Peter to pay Paul?

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I don't know how widespread it is, but in my experience the phrase "counting paper clips" is something like this.

It refers to trying to bring a company's finances under control by accounting for every bit of stationery: this is usually both time-consuming and ineffective.

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This is a nice answer. I like that it only obliquely implies the company might be wasteful in the larger scheme of things. Combine this with @Jim's answer and we get "bean counters"! :) –  John Y Apr 2 '12 at 14:06
    
This is very much the same in a company's finances than the parrot's chocolate is to household finances. Good one! –  130490868091234 Apr 9 '12 at 9:06

Not in exactly the same vein but "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" also speaks to worrying about detail that won't make a difference to the looming disaster.

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There is an expression

won't amount to a hill of beans

(sometimes also phrased as won't add up to a hill of beans)

Since beans are so inexpensive, even a hill of them won't be worth much.

As an example:

All our efforts won't amount to a hill of beans if we can't get that valve closed.

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As RegDwight says, drop in the bucket (American), and drop in the ocean (British) are commonly used, but they both often carry the implication that some minor "positive" contribution will have no detectable effect on the overall situation.

It's declined a bit from its heyday around WW2, but don't spoil the ship for a hap'orth of tar is a well-established adage more specifically focussed on the downside of excessive scrimping.

A hap'orth there is a half-penny's worth, and the tar is used in the final caulking process to make the hull completely waterproof before the newly-built vessel is lowered from dry dock into water. Making a small saving there would indeed be a mistake if your boat sank on its maiden voyage!

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I've heard it as being penny-wise and pound-foolish. It means being thrifty with small sums and foolish with large sums. We use it in the U.S., even though we use dollars.

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One idiomatic way to refer to a measure that doesn't make much difference would be a drop in the bucket or a drop in the ocean.

drop in the bucket

(idiomatic) An effort or action having very little overall influence, especially as compared to a huge problem.

A $100 donation from an individual is generous, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the $100,000 fundraising goal.

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This answer is much closer to the literal meaning of the translation of the parrot phrase than "penny wise, pound foolish". There is nothing whatsoever in the question to indicate that the household is wasting money, only that one particular money-saving measure is not terribly effective. Maybe the Catalan expression was meant to convey pound foolishness, but its literal English translation certainly doesn't. –  John Y Apr 2 '12 at 13:54

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