In Dutch, there is an idiom iemand een sigaar uit eigen doos geven, which literally means to give someone a cigar from [their] own box. The idiom is used when you offer someone something, but it's really them who are paying for it. The idiom has a negative connotation.

For example, it may be used in politics. Suppose that the government introduces major cuts to some service, then restores a fraction of it and presents it as a gift/improvement. Or suppose an employer increases some particular non-salary benefit to employees, but finances it entirely by reducing employee salaries. Critics may then refer to this as a sigaar uit eigen doos.

Is there a corresponding idiom in English? One online dictionary translates it as something out of one's own pocket, but searching the latter phrase in context does not yield examples where it is used with a meaning similar to the sigaar uit eigen doos.

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    There's a saying in my native language that has a nice ring to it when said in my language but not so much when translated to English.It roughly translates to "Elephant sized assurances, ant sized actions" when referring to the countless (false) promises that politicians make to get voted to power! Many colloquial proverbs lose their charm when we don't find an appropriate equivalent and have no choice but to try and translate it to English.
    – BiscuitBoy
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 14:44
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    Interesting and useful expression ... and with a few diligent tries below and wracking my own brain, I don't see anything that quite matches the situation.
    – jimm101
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 16:05
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    I think the commonest example of this in my life is hearing the assurance from a recording that my business is important (but not important enough to answer the phone) while I sit waiting for the next available operator. If time is money then I'm the one paying to give them my business. English could use an idiom for this.
    – Al Maki
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 17:16
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    There is the definition of a consultant: "Someone who borrows your watch to tell you what time it is" Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 19:17
  • @BiscuitBoy I think the equivalent English proverb is "All Hat, No Cattle"
    – emory
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 22:00

7 Answers 7


There should be a comparable English idiom, but there isn't.

If it were me, I see nothing wrong with following the example of (a mere) twelve instances in Google in which a (probably Dutch) author used the English translation of the idiom in an English context.

The idiom, translated as a cigar from one's own box, is self-explanatory enough in my opinion that I would feel comfortable using it without scare quotes or any other apology.

From this link:

It is an impressive amount of technology, but it seems completely operator-driven. To a certain extent, it is a complicated way to serve the users a cigar from their own box!

  • I realize that some of those twelve instances are duplicates, but I find a few more by searching cigar from his own box
    – Daniel
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 16:33
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    By now this question is #1 on Google ☺
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 18:18
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    Agreed. This phrase works just fine the way it is. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 19:25
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    Also, since it's not an idiom in English, it sounds like a clever turn of phrase. New idioms are pleasing. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 23:40

I think that "give with one hand, (only to) take away with the other" is an expression you can use to refer to the examples you are making:

From : Uncle Sam's Shame: Inside Our Broken Veterans Administration

  • At her best she did give with one hand, only to take back with the other, doing one thing then undoing what she did, and so ultimately offering a little, but only what was an approximation of that which was originally ...

From: Interpretation of Statuses

  • ... not so construe the provision as to attribute an intention to the legislature to give with one hand and take away with another.
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    I think this is the best shot as far as English idioms.
    – Daniel
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 16:40
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    While I do agree this is probably the closest it's not close at all. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 5:22
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    Except something was taken first, then given back. This answer is about giving first, then removing later. Perhaps that difference is distinct enough that it's not the correct answer for the OP. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 13:32

In the business world, you often hear that the definition of a consultant is "someone who borrows your watch to tell you what time it is".

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    Although quite amusing, it doesn't cover the content.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 19:26
  • A consultant you are paying is offering you something (here, the time) from the watch you have also paid for. I think it's a reasonable approximation. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 19:39
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    But consultants are a degree worse, then: in the Dutch proverb, at least they are giving you a cigar from your own box. The consultant you describe is selling you a cigar from your own box ;-)
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 19:52

Not a 100% match, but perhaps a close enough alternative is "rob Peter to pay Paul"?

From the link:

To use resources that legitimately belong to or are needed by one party in order to satisfy a legitimate need of another party, especially within the same organization or group; to solve a problem in a way that makes another problem worse, producing no net gain

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    No, because the gain and loss are to different people. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 5:23
  • Maybe "Robbing Peter to pay Peter?"
    – jkdev
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 3:00

Perhaps, "There is no such thing as a free lunch."

The basic idea is that something presented as "free" is actually paid for by the recipient in other ways. For example, a bar may advertise a free lunch with the purchase of a beer, but the cost of the beer will be raised slightly and the saltiness of the food will be increased to induce subsequent beverage purchases.

Example Usages:

The Free Lunch is Over by Herb Sutter [Dr. Dobb's Journal, 30(3), March 2005]

Government Spending Is No Free Lunch by Robert J. Barro [The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 22, 2009]

R&D Subsidies and Climate Policy: Is There a “Free Lunch”? by David Popp [Climatic Change, 2006, Volume 77, Number 3-4, Page 311]

  • I've always understood "There's no such thing as a free lunch" to mean that even if somebody is paying (it costs me no currency, ergo it is free), they want something from it, whether it be my advice, a favour at a later date, a date. (It costs me in another way, ergo it is not free) Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 12:56
  • .. with "lunch" acting as a metaphor for practically anything else Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 12:57
  • @James - Yes... That would seem to match what the OP is asking for: the government offers a service as if it were a "free lunch", but the cost is cuts to another, more important, service. Same with the employer benefit... the cost to the recipient is meant to be hidden. The purpose of the "free lunch" is ultimately to extract more from the recipient without him/her perceiving it.
    – JDB
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 13:40
  • The standard rendering of this expression is "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." Ironically, it is not Standard English. It is sometimes abbreviated TANSTAAFL.
    – Jasper
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 16:04
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    Or, to put it more succinctly, the "free" part of the "free lunch" is intentionally designed to obfuscate the cost to the recipient. One could say that a "free lunch" is outright deception or fraud, but usually the circumstances don't warrant such an extreme interpretation. The phrase "no such thing as a free lunch" can be used to admonish the recipient to examine the true costs involved.
    – JDB
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 16:06

"To bribe someone with his own money."

EDIT: Here are some examples.

  1. The government uses tax revenues to fund social programs (post-retirement payments, health care, college tuition, etc.) that give money or similar benefits to the people who pay taxes.

  2. Employers often provide "fringe benefits" such as health insurance, cafeteria meals, and gym memberships. These benefits aren't free, however. Employee salaries must be reduced accordingly.

In these situations you're receiving the benefits, and funding the benefits, at the same time.

  • This is spot-on for the case of politicians asked about in the question. Adding context and explanation to demonstrate how it is a fitting phrase would make this a much better answer post though. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 19:26
  • OK. I've added an explanation with some examples for context.
    – jkdev
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 2:56

This is known as a Dutch treat. The term is used particularly when someone is invited to a show or restaurant but then is expected to pay for their own ticket or meal.

  • Beyond "Dutch" I'm not really seeing a connection.
    – Casey
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 15:14
  • @Casey: My answer was directed to the title of the question: "Phrase when you offer someone something but it's really them who are paying for it". Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 19:05

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