When Does Couponing Cross the Line Into Diminishing Returns?

A few days ago, I watched an old recorded episode of Extreme Couponing. I’d caught bits and pieces of the show before and had always intended to watch a full episode of the show.

Clearly, the people shown on the program were very organized with their spending – and that organization reaped significant rewards for them. I recognized, of course, that some of these shopping trips were basically staged – no one actually completes a shopping trip to the store for well-rounded meals for their families and comes away with the carts full of items that were purchased in these examples. That didn’t take away from the fact that it’s pretty impressive how many items these people could buy for so little.

As I was watching, though, I couldn’t help but reflect on the incredible time investment that these people had to go through to get these bargains. The amount of planning, watching websites, reading grocery circulars, and cutting out coupons on a nearly endless cycle that the people on the show demonstrated was, frankly, amazing. It is a very large and very organized time investment.

Here’s the question I was left with: how much time would someone have to invest for this all to still be worth it?

This isn’t an easy question. I can’t simply translate my usual weekly shopping trip into the shopping list that extreme couponers use. It doesn’t work. They chase bargains, which may or may not have any correlation at all with buying foods for balanced meals for their family.

Also, there’s often a great deal of patience involved before lining up a useful giant bargain. You don’t line up dozens of double coupons and manufacturer’s sales on items you actually need every week. Instead, you have to be patient, and that kind of patience means investing time in watching and waiting and also clipping a lot of coupons that you never wind up using.

Of course, the strategy employed here strives to buy two or three years worth of, say, toothpaste at once. Once you actually locate a strong bargain, you hit it hard.

I’ll show you an example of what I’m talking about. A large tube of toothpaste will last Sarah and myself for a couple of months, so let’s say that buying a two-pack of Crest Complete for $8 would last us for three months. If we had the storage space, we could theoretically hold onto eight of these two packs, giving us enough toothpaste for two years, at a cost of $64.

Now, let’s say that with some careful planning, I could get these two packs for free. I’d have to clip lots of different coupons for toothpaste, watch lots of grocery store flyers, and keep doing this in a cycle for a while until the right combination of factors came together to get that kind of bargain. Let’s say I invest four hours in this over the course of several months, spread out into a few minutes here and a few minutes there.

It’s worth noting here that if you’re into couponing as an active exercise, you’re usually hunting down bargains on lots of different things at once. However, that means that each week, you’re clipping lots of coupons and examining lots of grocery store flyers and doing lots of cross-calculations. Toothpaste alone only makes up a sliver of the time for each week – a few minutes, perhaps – but that time adds up if you only strike every several months.

For that time investment of four hours that will save me $64 in toothpaste, I’m saving about $16 per hour. That’s a pretty strong return for the time spent couponing.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

For starters, I don’t buy the name brands of most items. I usually buy the cheapest toothpaste or just use the samples from the dentist office. Often, there’s some brand of toothpaste that’s already on sale for $0.99 or $1.49 a tube, so I’ll buy one or two of those.

If we hypothetically say I can always get a tube for $1.49, that adds up to sixteen tubes for $23.84, which is the same number of tubes I’d get from this kind of couponing strategy. In that case, my savings per hour of couponing drops immediately to $5.96 per hour.

Another challenge is having space to store lots of stuff. We buy some things in reasonable bulk amounts (such as toilet paper), but if we bought every single household item or nonperishable food item in extensive bulk quantities, we would need additional space in our home. That space has a cost in the form of property taxes, mortgage, heating, cooling, and insurance – it’s not free.

Bulk buying is a good strategy up to the point where it’s requiring extra space in your home.

I’m not suggesting that intense couponing is a bad strategy. Instead, I’m simply saying that the savings may not be as impressive as they initially seem when you evaluate the savings through the lenses of the time invested, the space invested, and the cheaper alternatives you can get without couponing.

I do still clip coupons sometimes, particularly for items I already buy in bulk that aren’t much cheaper at warehouse clubs than at grocery stores (trash bags come to mind here…). When I do that, though, I do it incidentally when I happen to have that item on my grocery list and I can just Google for coupons before I walk out the door. That way, a coupon might save me a dollar for a minute’s worth of internet searching, which is a much more reasonable deal for me.

A more extensive couponing strategy tends to cost me time that I could be using in more effective ways, and when you’re getting down into the $5 or $6 per hour invested range, there are a lot of more effective ways to save money. I tend to get very wary of any activity that drops below the minimum wage in terms of time invested because, if the time is spent without joy and camaraderie, I could go get a minimum wage job and earn more than that.

On the other hand, couponing might just be a hobby for you. It certainly is for a lot of people and, if it is, then it’s a far more productive and valuable hobby than how many people spend their time. If you enjoy the challenge and the chase of getting items for pennies or for free, then that hobby is translating into actual dollars in your home and that’s a very good thing, particularly if you’re getting personal enjoyment out of it.

Personal finance is personal, after all. Things that work wonderfully for some might not work so wonderfully for others.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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