About a week ago, my parents came to visit us for a few days. During the visit, my mother gave Sarah and I an envelope full of coupons she had clipped for products she thought that we bought but that she herself didn't use.
As Sarah leafed through the coupons, I began to realize something interesting. Although we were very avid users of coupons a few years ago, we essentially don't use them now.
Today, we don't use any of those things. Coupons are a much rarer thing in our lives. It is worth noting that our coupon use isn't quite zero, however. My estimate is that we haven't actually clipped coupons out of a newspaper in at least a year. We've printed off a few and used a few from our smartphones in the last several months, but even those moves have been relatively scarce.
What changed? Why don't we use coupons any more? I can identify five specific reasons.
We Buy a Lot of Generic Items
For many of our household needs, we simply buy generic or store-brand versions of those items. They tend to serve us well.
We'll buy generic condiments and generic paper products. We'll buy generic baking ingredients and generic cleaning supplies. The store brand is always cheap and it's often still cheaper than the price of a name brand, even with a coupon.
Naturally, there is some trial and error with this method. There are some generic items that just don't work well for us, like garbage bags (they rip out too often to make the savings worthwhile). Still, a major part of our regular grocery list is made up of items that we buy in generic or store-brand form.
The point is that our shopping car winds up being full of a lot of store brands and generics and those don't have matching coupons.
We Buy a Lot of Fresh Foods, Too
As I've discussed before on The Simple Dollar, our family's meal planning centers around identifying discounted fresh foods from grocery flyers. Add on top of that the fact that we're members of a CSA (community supported agriculture, where you pay for a "share" at the start of the year and receive a weekly basket of fresh produce), have our own garden, and also regularly visit farmers markets, it's not surprising that a lot of our food consumption is in the form of fresh foods.
The problem is that there aren't many coupons for fresh foods. That's not to say that such coupons don't exist - you can occasionally find them - but a coupon has no impact at the farmers market or the CSA or your own garden or the fresh item that's on sale in your grocery store's flyer.
If your food consumption centers around fresh foods - and ours does, especially during the summer months - coupons aren't going to help out.
We Shop at Aldi and Sam's Club, Which Do Not Use Coupons
We shop at four grocery stores, depending on the situation - Aldi, Sam's Club, Fareway, and Hy-Vee. Two of those grocery stores - Aldi and Sam's Club - essentially have a "no coupon" policy, so it's a waste of time to dig up coupons on the items that we would buy there.
Why shop at places that don't take coupons? It's because, even without coupons, they offer really competitive prices on the stuff we would want to buy. In the case of Sam's Club, they offer bulk prices on some items that can't be beat, while in the case of Aldis, they offer prices on many store-brand items that just blow away what we can find elsewhere.
We do use coupons at the other two grocery stores, which we shop at for different reasons (Fareway for convenience and pleasantly low prices; Hy-Vee for pure selection on more esoteric items).
It Takes Time to Coupon
Let's say we have an hour to devote to frugal tasks around our home. There are far more cost-effective and cost-saving frugal tasks that we can devote that hour to than clipping coupons. Clipping coupons might become cost-effective if we took care of the 50 other things we might be doing, but, honestly, there's not enough time in our typical week or our typical month to reach that point.
From our calculations, we get far more value out of an hour spent in our vegetable garden clearing weeds, tending the soil, and treating any sicknesses than we do out of couponing for an hour. We get more value out of doing home maintenance and auto maintenance, like changing air filters and changing the oil in our cars. We get more value out of making meals at home, particularly when we're making them in advance and socking them away for the future. Those are just a sampling of the more cost-effective strategies that we fill our time with.
Part of this is aided by the fact that, as we noted in the first three reasons, we have a relatively small set of items that we buy that coupons even work for. Thus, finding coupons that work well for that small item set takes more work and even if we manage to find coupons for all of those items, we're still not saving a mint.
We Minimize Our Prepackaged Food Purchases
A final major factor in terms of our lack of coupon use is that we simply don't buy many prepackaged foods, and prepackaged foods make up most of the coupons in a coupon flyer.
We basically do not buy frozen meals. We don't buy meal kits for our pantry. We don't buy microwaveable meals. We scarcely even buy things like pasta sauces. Most of the contents of our pantry and our freezer consists of raw ingredients, like flour and dry beans and dry rice and spices, or meals we've made ourselves, like a pan of our homemade lasagna.
Why do we do this? For one, we have control over what goes into our meals, which is useful from both a health and a flavor standpoint. For another, it's less expensive this way. Although it does take more time, as you become an experienced cook it becomes much less of a time crunch.
Taking it all together, we simply don't have much reason or much opportunity to coupon at this point. Our normal grocery list for household supplies and foods is mostly made up of stuff that doesn't have coupons and isn't sold at stores that use coupons, because we save far more over the long haul by using that type of list. Because of that, it's just not cost-effective to devote a lot of time to find just coupons for the few items that aren't already excluded from couponing.
So, is couponing still a good strategy for some people? I think it certainly can be a good strategy in some situations. The usefulness of coupons depends on a lot of factors, from the amount of cupboard and freezer space you have (which dictates how much you can buy in bulk and how many meals you can make in advance), how much kitchen space you have (which dictates how much you can cook at home), your relative skill at food preparation, your family arrangement, and your willingness and interest at taking on other frugal tasks at home.
Let's compare our situation to another family that Sarah and I know. This family lives in a very small apartment with a tiny kitchen and only an over-the-refrigerator freezer for food storage. This family also has a stay-at-home mother who is staying at home with two kids and seeking out home economic strategies to reduce the family's budget.
Given that they live in an apartment (which cuts back on other frugal projects such as gardening and home improvement), have very limited space for home food preparation and storage, and have a relative abundance of time for practices like seeking out coupons, this family likely can take advantage of couponing more than our family.
In my eyes, the relative value of couponing as a frugal strategy has a lot more to do with the varying situations that we're all living in. Couponing can be a big help for people in some situations and not so useful for people living in other situations.