Are Coupon Books Worth the Price? It Depends on How (and If) You Use Them

Coupon books are almost an afterthought at this point: Low-tech, bulky, burdened with an up-front cost.

But as consumers have learned after years of flash deals, Groupon, LivingSocial, and other discounting experiments, discounts are only worthwhile if they’re worth something to the consumer.

More than a decade ago, TSD founder Trent Hamm quickly reached the conclusion that coupon books like the “Entertainment book” are worth the cost if you use them correctly. If you buy one as a fundraising tool for a school or charity you enjoy, it’s a great way to support those interests. If you skip ahead and separate the coupons you need from the coupons that are just trying to get you to try something new – Trent had a weakness for 2-for-1 coffee at the time – you’ll be able to use the book more wisely.

Both of those points remain true. If it’s a fundraiser, you could pay for it, set it under a stack of logs as kindling, light it ablaze, and still accomplish your primary goal. Granted, that’s a $20 to $35 firestarter you just bought, but it means no less to the group you bought it from than it would have if you used it on half-price golf lessons or free fro-yo.

However, I’ll respectfully point out that even without curating a coupon book to your spending pattern, you can still get a fairly decent deal. Roughly 11 years later, the Entertainment book has gone from a $20 collection of coupons to a $35 tome that also comes with a digital membership, allowing you to access coupons from any device or computer. (You can still get it for $20 in digital-only form.)

Is that still a deal? Well, I took a look at the offerings in my corner of the world and immediately saw coupons for a bunch of businesses that my wife and I use regularly. Local restaurants like Juan Colorado and Don Pedro offer deals that cut into the price of their meals, while our local bowling alley – Four Seasons Bowling Center – uses Entertainment coupons to knock down the price of games. We order pizza from both Pizza Schmizza (we know) and Papa Murphy’s enough to put those coupons to use, while a coupon for JoAnn Fabrics would go right toward the cost of framing: A rather frivolous expense that we nonetheless seem to incur every year.

However, I was dismayed to see just how many national chains were included in the book. At least in our area, the chains and franchises far outnumbered the independents. It’s a nearly 4-to-1 margin in favor of national chains for businesses around my house, with very few being particularly useful: Maybe Budget truck rental if we have to move furniture, Sherwin-Williams for paint, and Valvoline or Jiffy Lube for the occasional oil change.

There are other options, though. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Chinook Book does an excellent job of rounding up local businesses and packing their book with local offerings. It’s $20 for the print edition and $15 for the online version. Even after vetting this book for my local shopping preferences, however, it starts to pay for itself quickly.

We use Miller Paint for all our house paints, so a buy-one/get-one coupon for their products would pay for the book on its own. However, the Chinook Book also covers businesses throughout Portland and much of our corner of Oregon. While $5 off a cut at our nearby barber shop helps, we’re far more likely to grab 2-for-1 tickets to second-run films at the Academy Theater ($4 in savings), 20 percent off used records at my record store (roughly $3 to $4 per record), 20 percent off any book in the store at Broadway Books ($4 to $5 off a new release), $10 off a purchase of $50 or more at the local market or even 30 percent off pet adoption at the county shelter where we got our cat, Combo.

It’s a matter of simple math: If a year’s worth of discounts from shopping with a coupon book adds up to more than the cost of the book itself, you’re making out on the deal. If you’re doing so and helping both local causes and local businesses in the process, that’s even better.

I’m a big fan of that simple math, mostly because it makes for some fun browsing. If my local bike shop cuts $20 off a $100 purchase or gives me a free tube ($7.50) with tire installation, it’s a coupon I know I’m going to use — and it gives me a base to start from. If I know I’m going to get 50 percent off of four Lyft rides (capped at $5 a ride), I know it’s going to pay for a $20 coupon book pretty quickly. Even $5 off at a pizza place, $10 off at a dinner spot, 2-for-1 meals at a brewpub, or 2-for-1 cones at the ice cream place with the line out the door add up quickly.

But if you find yourself struggling to recoup the cost of the book or to even get a significant amount above the purchase price, that’s when it’s more sensible to step away. If you’re not invested in a coupon book for a fundraiser and are just trying to save money, you won’t help your quest for frugality by using coupons at places you ordinarily wouldn’t go.

Remember: Even getting 50 percent off on something you don’t really need and wouldn’t have purchased otherwise isn’t saving money. It’s only a discount if it reduces the price you would have paid for something without the coupon.

Companies that offer discounts in these books are doing so to help causes, but also to get you to buy or try what they’re selling. When you can get those coupons to fit into your regular routine, you’re getting the best deal of all.

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Jason Notte

Contributor for The Simple Dollar

A former personal finance reporter at TheStreet and columnist for MarketWatch, Jason Notte’s work has appeared in many other outlets, including The Newark Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S. and the layout editor for Boston Now, among other roles at various publications.