The Case Against Coupons

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I don’t consider myself a person who stirs up trouble but, well, this may be an exception. So here’s a little controversy for you: coupons do not save you money! I know you’re shaking your head, but hang on, let me explain.

I am speaking here about using coupons at the grocery store. If you have a BOGO (that’s coupon jargon for buy one get one) for a meal at your favorite restaurant, that is a no brainer, use that coupon and save money!

I was one of those extreme couponers once upon a time. I talk about it a little here. I was hardcore, with not one but two notebooks. I had at least 6 coupons of every coupon out there, usually more. I often walked away with free merchandise. As a matter of fact all the products in these pictures, I got for “free”.




I have since been educated on hazards of artificial sweeteners so don’t judge me by these old pictures. But that does bring up a very important point. The majority (not all) of coupons out there are for unhealthy items. There are coupons for healthy products but they are not the norm and you have to really be vigilant to find them, which takes time and energy.

So let’s run some “numbers”. No, no, not hardcore math, you know me better than that by now, I hope. But let’s just see what all these free things really cost. Before I go on, I am assuming that you value your time. Even if you don’t work outside the home, you could still be doing things to save your family money, which in a roundabout way is actually making money.

Ok, so let’s just say you clip coupons out of the Sunday newspaper. You don’t have to clip them all but I always found myself clipping all of them. After all, you never know what’s going to be on sale (that’s the idea for you non-couponers – use the coupon in conjunction with a sale and walk away with a product that is free or close to free) and heck, you’re already cutting and going through the paper, right? Well, in my case that was 6 papers; in the coupon world, it’s recommended you have one Sunday paper for everyone in your house.

I only have 5 in my family but because Wal-Mart sells a bundle of two papers at a discount, I would get 3 bundles (or 6 papers), and sometimes more if I thought there were good deals to be had. So my average was about 8 papers. My local Sunday paper runs about 5 bucks for a two pack so that’s $20.00 a week. Yes, there are ways to get your coupons for free but it’s not the norm, you have to have a connection or dumpster dive.

I tried for years to get a good connection and I also tried dumpster diving. Dumpster diving is not all it’s cracked up to be, yeah, there is the dumpster *trash* aspect but again, I hope you know me better than that by now. The fact is people just don’t read the Sunday paper like they used to and the people who do hold onto their coupons so dumpster diving does not pay off for the average couponer. There are exceptions to every rule but for the average person obtaining coupons is not free.

Now, let’s look at the time it takes to organize coupons, search for deals, and go to 3 different stores. Grocery sales are usually weekly, most start on Tuesday and run to the next Tuesday. Again there are exceptions and those cause additional organization and trips to the store.

If you want to get the hot deals, Sunday morning is usually the best time to go to the store; most regular shoppers (a.k.a. non-power couponers) actually wait until their Sunday paper is delivered to clip coupons. But for the hard-core people like me, the Sunday paper usually comes out on Saturday at around 11 am, so if you are on the ball you can have your coupons bought, clipped, and organized by 8 pm on Saturday night. That’s about 8 hours right there, on a Saturday, the busiest family day of the week.

But that’s not all the time you need to spend when you coupon. Now, you actually have to plan your attack: which store to hit first, what products do I get and then what to do if the ad is wrong (wrong product, wrong size, or something else doesn’t fit the coupon). Most of the time you have to know more than the cashier because the deals are complex and most cashiers (at least in my area) are kids who just care about working for a little gas money –  they don’t understand that you have to not scan a BOGO until last because you have to write the amount on the coupon and then take it off the final tally.

Forget about keeping this tight of a work schedule if you are at the beginning of your couponing career, it is a pretty steep learning curve (it’s not hard, just a lot of information). A lot of this thinking is done on the fly, it’s stressful and draining. Usually, I would try and hit all three or four stores in one day. So that’s another 8 hours of my time. We’re up to 16 hours in a perfect week.

But wait, there’s more time needed for organization when you come home from the grocery store. All the coupons that were pulled need to go back into the binder – my binders were way too big to lug around, and even if yours is not that big, I bet you didn’t get out of the store with it as organized as it needs to be for the next shopping trip. Now, we’re up to around 20 hours if nothing goes wrong, and you know what they say about that! If you are a perfect couponer you can spend about $80 a month and 20 hours a week to get those things for “free”. That’s just from the newspaper. If you want to add online coupons there is more time and more expense. That paper and ink in your printer are not free.

So now let’s talk about the value of those products you just got for free. Well, they were not really free, we have already proven that those items you obtained through couponing. There are very few “healthy” products available through couponing, and the ones that are healthy can be homemade with the fraction of the effort used to obtain them through couponing.

Oh, I know what you are saying, you can coupon for toiletries and cleaners and not have to worry about healthy food. Well, maybe, but being preparedness minded I have learned to make my own cleaners and save time and money. And being health conscious, I have started looking into commercial soaps and toiletries. Turns out they are not so good for your skin, the environment or your health.

The ingredients to make food is a lot cheaper (in both money and time) than obtaining a coupon to buy a ready-made product, plus you get the knowledge of actually knowing how to make the product. So you come away knowing how to cook, knowing how to make soap, or knowing how to use natural ingredients to clean.

The only real benefit to using coupons is that you can get a few cents off of paper products once in a while. If you have access to a membership club you can get really close to the cheapest price (with coupon) in town. FYI: I’ve never found toilet paper for free and I think I found paper towels free once, but with only 8 coupons, that was limiting.

Oh speaking of the cheapest deal in town that leads me to the other myth that floats around money saving blogs, and that is that little black price book. Yup, I tried using a price book too. Items I care about getting a deal on like paper products are packaged differently at different stores. After wading through to get the price per unit and writing the lowest price down, well, I discovered prices change.

The prices especially change at the store you had down as your rock bottom price. Companies know how to manipulate their prices. Which makes the price in your book worthless, because that rock bottom price does not exist anymore. I’m not saying to not pay attention to prices. I’m saying it’s a ballpark, not a fixed price, and that you need to keep track. The little black book is optional, but not recommended. You might try your phone, less erasing.  Also, you have to consider your time and effort, which for a mom with 3 boys tagging along, is considerable.

You are far better off financially, emotionally, and physically (healthier) if you cooking from scratch, make your own cleaners and make your own (or use basic) toiletries. One of the oldest tricks to saving money is to stay out of the store! This means plan your meals, plan your trips to be no more than once a week, and make a list. It’s really, really old school but, it works.