Sunday, July 10, 2011

7 Reasons You Should Rethink Coupons

How do you feel about coupons? I'm watching snippets of TLC's Extreme Couponing show. I can't help but feel exhausted after watching these families coupon. It's a job, no doubt.

It seems the people they interview are highly organized and keep their stockpiles tidy. However, some of the stockpiles are massive. While I know many of the families donate a lot of their couponed items to charity, I can't help but think some of them could just as easily turn up on an episode of Hoarders. For instance, who needs 1,000 tubes of toothpaste?

I've tried very hard to get into the couponing craze. I have a good friend that is an avid couponer. She enjoys it and feels it's the best way to get the most for her money.

For me, it ended up being another time-consuming thing that generated clutter in my house. I have mostly given it up, save for the occasional glance through the coupon circulars, where I usually clip a few coupons that I forget to use. If you're on the fence about couponing, you may want to check out this list of reasons to just say no.

1. Can you really save money on quality food? - If you're couponing to save money on healthy food, you may want to research what makes up a healthy diet. You're not going to get a consistently healthy diet through couponing. I've often complained to my couponing friend and others that coupons are for mostly processed food and junk foods, but I never had any evidence to back it up. It was just my general impression. Today, I took the time to go through the two coupon circulars in the Sunday paper. There were a total of 62 coupons. 26 of them were for food. 19 of those were processed, unhealthy foods. (I'm counting soy milk, dry cereal and yogurt in here, in addition to all the obvious junk. They're all processed and questionably healthy. You can get healthy yogurt, but it's not the Trix or artificially-flavored and sweetened Yoplait that were in today's paper.) That leaves a total of 7 coupons for real food (3 coffee, 1 milk, 1 egg, 1 peanut butter and 1 butter). And, without reading the labels, I don't know if the Smart Balance peanut butter and butter are healthy choices.

I'm not nixing all food coupons. If I see something for a product my family eats, I'll use it. But, most of the time, I don't see coupons for things we eat. I cook mostly from scratch and there's not a lot of coupons that support that lifestyle.

2. Do you really want to use chemical cleaning products? - Today's paper had 7 coupons for cleaning products. While I do use coupons for things like laundry detergent (when our brand offers a coupon), I'm not a fan of buying harsh chemicals for household cleaners. Do you know that a gallon of white vinegar costs around $2.00? You can clean for months with a bottle of vinegar and it will tackle many of the tough cleaning jobs the chemical cleaners claim to. Why spend the money on a chemical cleaner that's likely toxic and may have long-term health implications? Even if it's free, you're paying a steep price.

3. Do you have the time to use coupons effectively? Extreme Couponing may make it look worthwhile, but do you really have the time to put into couponing? One woman in the preview clip I linked above said she spent over 30 hours a week couponing. If you love it and it's worth it to you, that's great. Most of us don't have that kind of time. When I was trying to coupon earnestly, I was spending a couple of hours a week clipping coupons, scouring the Internet and scanning through circulars to match coupons with sales. It was a lot of work that I didn't enjoy, and I only managed to save $10-$20 a week.

4. Are you organized enough to maintain a couponing lifestyle? Serious couponing takes organization. For me, it ended up being a source of clutter. I never got good enough to stockpile much, but the coupons themselves were taking over my kitchen counter. Even with my organized coupon book, I found I had piles of coupons and circulars on the counter. For people that buy extra papers, the clutter potential is even greater. If you're a stockpiler and able to be organized, then great. But, if you're not organized, your stockpile may be a source of stress for your family. As Peter Walsh says in It's All Too Much (Free Press, 2007), "Clutter robs us of real value." If living with the extra clutter involved in couponing causes you stress, then it's not really adding any value to your life.

5. Couponing may trick you into buying things you don't need. In today's paper there were 3 coupons for air fresheners. One of the Extreme Couponing clips showed a woman who had a stock pile of air fresheners that she had purchased for one-cent each. Sure, she said she's use them. But, will she? Maybe. Would you otherwise buy plug-in and spray air fresheners? I know there's a market for them, but I tend to think this is one of those things the air-freshener companies make us think we need. If you truly need an air freshener, maybe you really need to open a window, declutter or clean your fridge. You can only mask odors for so long. Besides, are those air-freshening chemicals healthy? The best way to save money is to not buy this stuff in the first place.

6. Are you paying for the privilege of couponing? I know people that buy extra papers in order to get the coupons. In an Extreme Couponing clip, one family admitted to buying as many as nine Sunday papers a week. Our local Sunday paper is $2.00. That's $18.00 that could be spent on other things. Another woman said she pays $70 a week to use an on-line service that clips the coupons and sends them to her. These people all seemed smart enough to be sure they were saving more than they were spending. Still, I'd hesitate to have a hobby that cost me money in order to save money. I'd have to be very careful to not tip the balance the other way.

7. Are you using coupons to buy high-priced things at a reduced price when there's a less-expensive alternative? The problem with this line of thinking is you get used to the high-priced thing and find you buy it even when you don't have a coupon. Which is exactly what the manufacturer wants. Baby diapers comes to mind as the perfect example. Even with coupons, it was rare that I could bring the cost of brand-name disposable diapers down to the same price as the generics. The baby is going to poop and pee in it and you're going to throw it away. Who needs a Cadillac when a Yugo will do? Of course, the most frugal method of all is cloth diapering with pre-folds. I did this for about 6 months full-time with my youngest, then sporadically after that. It's extra work, but I wish I would have done it longer because it's far cheaper and better for the environment than disposables.

Are coupons a burden or are they awesome? Only you can decide if they fit your lifestyle. But, it shouldn't be assumed that couponers are the most frugal shoppers out there. If I had $50 a week to spend on groceries (and sometimes I do), the last thing I would do is clip a coupon.

Tell me what you think? Are you a couponer? Am I completely ignorant?


  1. The extreme couponers have more stuff in their homes. On the other hand they can donate products to worthwhile charities.


  2. I've never seen that show, but I don't coupon for some of the same reasons you list ... The couponers I know buy things they don't need and hoard, and I don't have the room (we don't have a pantry or any closets in our house). It also seems time-consuming (30 hours?!). The only coupons I use are actually for diapers, but that's only b/c family and friends mail them to me (sweet couponers!). :)

  3. Just wanted to say hoarding is a compulsive type of illness and couponing may be compulsion for some, but by and large, I save money by couponing conservatively. I have been known to clip a few and not use them. I'm fortunate to live in a rural area where healthy produce is readily availabe from Amish or at Farmer's markets----don't need coupons for that!

  4. Thanks Anon, Carol and Anon! We've got some great farmer's markets here, too. I love going to them!

  5. I have never taken up couponing for the same reasons you've articulated. However, I recently had to leave my job and now we are expecting a baby very soon and living on one fairly small income. My husband has taken up couponing lately, though I wouldn't call it extreme, and is saving us tons of money. The trick is to be sure to only buy things you would normally buy anyway (we don't actually buy much food with coupons but he's been able to get us great deals on some of the pantry basics we keep stocked and even found coupons for $2 off fresh produce!), not to get carried away with stockpiling (he got a good deal on the shampoo we use, so we're set for at least the next 6 months and shampoo has come off the potential shopping list for now), and to couple the coupons with store sales so that what you're purchasing is actually the better deal than the generic option (which is what we would normally buy without coupons). Also, he's found a couple of websites where they gather a whole bunch of this info for you, so it doesn't take him too much time each week. I think he sees it as a game or entertainment really. But, we have place to store it? Don't buy it? Don't regularly purchase it or even as a "treat"? Don't buy it. I would say he's a reasonable couponer instead of an extreme one and it's just working out really well for us right now.

  6. I just wanted to point out the difference between hoarding (what I was talking about) and compulsive hoarding. Buying things you don't need could lead to hoarding, independent from the psychological reasons some people hoard. People hoard for a variety of reasons (some religious!).

  7. Anjie - It sounds like your husband has a good handle on the couponing game and he enjoys it!

    Anon - I'm sure extreme couponing and hoarding can intersect, especially when people buy things they don't need (i.e. 1,000 tubes of toothpaste!).

    No one's mentioned this, but I wonder, too, if it makes a difference if you've got a local store that doubles coupons. We have not here, until a week or so ago, when one of the big chain stores announced they were going to start doubling. That's a big deal. A double coupon can make the difference between a good deal when coupled with a sale or not! So many times, I've tried it without being able to double and find the generic still cheaper.