Updated on 08.22.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Coupon Clipping

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Michelle said, “COUPONS!!!! you know.. like the ‘coupon queens’. Does it really save you? And is what you are buying really healthy for you? compared to raw foods, whole foods with no chemicals? I’m not knocking it, only saying really? to those that worship it– it’s an obsession for many people as opposed to being a money saver. I tried it for a while. I was spending more money while I was couponing, because most of the coupons for the best deals… well, it just doesn’t make sense…. logically.”

This topic has really been pushed to the forefront lately with the advent of the TLC “reality” series Extreme Couponing, which focuses on the ‘coupon queens’ that Michelle refers to above. These individuals use a wealth of tactics to demonstrate tremendous reductions in their overall grocery receipts.

From my perspective, as someone who has both obsessively couponed and not couponed at all, I think there is a varying degree of value in couponing depending on a lot of other factors in your life. Let’s walk through them.

First, how much do you value the nutritional content of what you eat? It is much harder to gain ground with coupons if many of your meals revolve around fresh ingredients. You typically don’t find coupons for a fresh head of broccoli, fresh fish, or things like that. On the other hand, if your meals frequently consist of things like Hamburger Helper or a Stouffer’s frozen lasagna, there is a tremendous amount of savings to be had from couponing for food purposes. After having children and becoming concerned about watching their diet, we tend to buy many more raw ingredients than we once did, which reduces the usefulness and value we get from digging through coupons for food items.

Second, do any stores in your area offer double coupon programs? I find that doubling the face value of a coupon is often essential in really making it worthwhile to use. Many coupons have a face value of far less than a dollar, which is a pretty small amount compared to the cost of many items on the shelf at your typical grocery or department store these days. $0.40 off of an item costing $4? $1 off an item costing $8? It’s not as high impact as it once was, especially when you consider the next factor.

Third, do you really need the name brand item over the generic item? Quite often, the generic version of the item is functionally identical to the name brand. This is true so often that I always try out the generic before deciding if there is a genuine product quality reason that I should stay with the name brand version.

Finally, are you willing to wait for store sales? A system that pairs coupons up with corresponding store sales requires organization, patience, and time, but can definitely reap some benefits. There are significant savings to be had here, but it’s hard to consistently quantify and it requires a significant time investment. If you do have some significant time, a coupon saving strategy can pay off. This is particularly true if you burn an hour watching television each night, as such coupon planning can easily be done on the couch.

In testing these theories, I took a coupon flyer from the Sunday newspaper to the grocery store late last week to do some price comparisons. I only included items I could find in my local Super Target (so chosen because they have both an extensive household product section and extensive groceries).

What I found was that I would save $21.40 if I used every single coupon in the booklet that had a matching item on the shelf. If the store offered double couponing, that would have been $42.80.

However, if I excluded all of the items that I can’t see myself ever realistically buying, the total went down to $8.40. Again, with double couponing, that total goes up to $16.80.

If I then compared the items in that $8.40 to their generic equivalents and bought the generics (or on-sale name brands of another type) when they were less expensive even after the coupon on the name brand item and only counted the savings over generic on the items I would have purchased, my savings went down to $0.73. With double couponing, that total is $7.11.

In other words, every single factor I mentioned – the presence of double couponing, your actual food purchasing habits, your willingness to use generics and competing items, pairing coupons with store sales – can have a huge effect on the usefulness of your couponing. At $42.80, couponing is well worth the time. At $0.73, not so much.

Couponing works well in some situations – people with sufficient time who value reducing their meal costs above all else and are in areas where double couponing is offered – and not as well in others – time-strapped people who value the nutritional contents of their meal more than the cost (to at least some degree) and don’t have double couponing available.

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  1. lurker carl says:

    There are almost no coupons for the food I buy and double coupons were phased out years ago. Toiletries and cleaning supplies are a different story but those purchases are insignificant when compared to the food budget.

  2. Baley says:

    Another factor to take into consideration is the amount of space for storing multiples of the items. A lot of the value in couponing comes from buying several items at once. As someone with no extra storage for extras, couponing loses some value for me. I’m also one that has no extra time to look for coupons.

  3. Adam P says:

    Double coupon day doesn’t exist in Toronto that I’ve ever seen or heard of (someone prove me wrong, please!).

    Like Trent says, much of the outer aisles of the grocery store where the fresh fruits, veggies, dairy, and meats are stored don’t get coupons. Instead, things just go on sale and you try to buy what’s on sale then.

    Coupons do come into play for vitamins, cleaning products, and toiletries and I use them when I can. However, the total spend on this is pretty low compared to my total grocery bill (works out to be about $10/day roughly).

  4. Telephus44 says:

    I agree that the biggest coupon savings come from the “health and beauty products” and “cleaning supplied” area. I have heavily couponed in the past, but not so much anymore. I still get mostly free (or at least heavily discounted) shampoo, toothpaste, toilet bowl cleaner, etc. but our grocery shopping and eating habits have changed so that it doesn’t make couponing a particularly effective means of reducing our grocery bill.

  5. Teresa says:

    I coupon not to be one of the coupon queens, but because on certain items, it does save us money. And if I’m saving money on toilet paper, cleaning supplies, etc., I can afford to buy other items, like fresh fruits & vegetables for my family.

  6. Cass314 says:

    Yeah, as Trent said a lot of this depends on the extent of your reliance on fresh foods and also where you shop, as the more expensive stores that carry lots of local and organic foods tend not to offer coupons either. But even if you primarily buy basics like fruits, veggies, meat, etc, there are a few things that you save quite a bit on with coupons, depending on your philosophy.

    The first is canned and frozen vegetables. I prefer frozen to canned, and I see coupons for frozen broccoli or green beans and whatnot not infrequently. Another is bagged salads, which I see a lot of coupons for–generally the coupons I’ve seen bring them to approximately the price of buying the unbagged greens, which for me is a bargain. It takes a lot less time to clip a coupon than it does to cut the roots off of spinach and wash the greens an extra time or three beyond the usual rinse to get the extra sand off.

    Another thing is frozen seafood. Since farmed shrimp from certain countries is actually quite sustainable, I eat a fair amount of farmed shrimp. And if it’s going to be farmed anyway, I might as well get the frozen stuff, which is cheaper to begin with and has the advantage of being harder to waste by letting it go bad. At my local national chain supermarket that uses coupons (which I pretty much only venture into to grab the couple things I couldn’t find at the farmer’s market, TJ’s, or Whole Foods in that order) there are five to ten different sizes of frozen, unflavored (there are more with seasonings) shrimp. On any given day I’m there, one’s on sale and there’s typically a coupon for it or one of the others. Frozen sockeye salmon is also occasionally couponable, though this is rarer (without the coupon it’s cheaper at TJ’s). Coupons for canned tuna, sardines, and other canned seafoods occasionally surface also.

    Then, of course, you probably use toothpaste, shampoo, toilet paper, etc., and I see coupons for those a lot.

  7. Melody says:

    I heavily couponed for a while – but not so much anymore. I’ve found just stocking up on sales of fresh food works just as well, and is much easier when you’re busy.

    Build you meals around the fruits, veggies, and meats that are on sale and in season that week – and stock up on basics like canned beans, frozen veggies and meat when they go on sale.

    Coupons can help with household supplies and cleaning products, though it’s rarer to find coupons for cleaning supplies with minimal crazy chemicals.

    However, it’s hard to beat a coupon deal for makeup. Even paraben free stuff seems to have plenty of coupons and sales these days.

  8. Katherine says:

    I did more extensive couponing for awhile and found that I spent more because I was trying to get the deals, and I also bought more junk food. That being said, there are two areas where we still use a lot of coupons: dry goods (cereal, pasta, canned veggies) and toiletries.

    If you have drugstores (CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid)around, you can regularly get deoderant, razors, haircare, body wash, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and lotion for free or nearly free. About the only item I haven’t been able to get for free is shaving cream for my husband. I follow a few coupon blogs that match up the deals for you, and when we’re running low on something, I watch for deals on it. I also pick up free items sometimes to add to our donate box (or lately, my college aged brother who is just learning about shopping for fun things like toilet paper and food on his own).

  9. Courtney says:

    When I took a year off to be with my newborn son, I couponed pretty extensively. It saved us a bundle on diapers and formula. However, I don’t have time now to keep track and so have dropped off on the couponing a great deal. Also, we are more into the fresh foods (not processed) and so don’t get many coupons in that arena.

    I DO still coupon for toiletries, makeup, and cleaning supplies and agree that CVS, once you learn the “rules,” is terrific for significant savings on these items.

  10. Tanya says:

    I like the breakdown between savings using coupons versus generic. I am guessing by generic you mean store brand? Safeway and Target have really good store brands that I like as well or better than some name brands.

  11. Nancy says:

    I have the same philosophy about coupons as most posters; toiletries and the like.

    Because my family lives 12 miles from a grocery store I do stock up on items that we use (flour, sugar, oatmeal; much like the grandmas in the country) and have a full freezer, but I refuse to watch either Extreme Couponing & Hoarders. Those shows make me uncomfortable…

  12. Debbie M says:

    I do look through the ads of my favorite stores in case they have coupons for anything I use. Usually I don’t find anything at my main store, I find about one thing a month at Whole Foods, a couple things month at my food coop, and of the two Costco coupon books that have come in the mail, one had nothing good, but the other had three things I wanted. Looking through these things doesn’t take long, but now that you mention it, it really does save me only a few dollars a month.

    Better are the sales where I can really stock up and just comparing prices between stores and trying to stock up on whatever’s cheapest at the store I’m at whenever I go there.

  13. Karen says:

    I tried extensive couponing for awhile. But the savings for me weren’t worth my sanity. With ADHD, a work-at-home job and two high-maintenance young children, keeping all those little pieces of paper and sale schedules organized was just too much.

  14. Jennifer says:

    On the coupon portion of my shopping list this week is (all prices are after doubled coupons):
    organic lettuce ($2.29)
    cold cereal I’ll pay $.38-88/box (I’m buying 6 boxes, 2 of each kind)
    a hair styler ($1.99)
    peanut butter ($.23)
    jelly (free–I make a lot of my own, but I supplement with store-bought)
    fig newtons ($1.49)

    Saving money in these areas allows me to buy higher quality items elsewhere and not blow up my grocery budget. So we can have hormone-free milk (sometimes organic), organic meat, free range eggs, and organic veggies for the dirty dozen items.

    All sales are not created equal either. If I wait for a great sale and have a coupon I can almost always come ahead of generics. I does take a while to know what those target prices are though. As a work-at-home mom, this is one of the additional ways I can stretch our income since I’m no longer working full-time.

  15. Rebecca says:

    I use coupons to save money on cereal, condiments, cheese, paper products, toiletries, and toilet paper. I clip as many as I can find for the products I use, or those I can donate to charity. I have a small stockpile of every day items, and this saves me money because I don’t have to run out and buy items at full price. I can get a new deodorant or tube of toothpaste from the cupboard and wait for a sale to restock.

    I don’t use coupons for processed foods as they’re just not that healthy and I’d rather buy raw meats, fruits, and vegetables, but there are very few coupons for these items. I find I get better results using my store loyalty card and purchasing fresh items that are on sale each week.

  16. Alexis says:

    I casually coupon. I also price compare from the various stores (I’m lucky enough to live in an area with 7 major grocery chains competing for my business, as well as 2 different warehouse clubs, and walmarts and targets galore (including neighborhood markets, corner stores, and superstores for walmart).
    Just have to point out that while I appreciate Trent’s attempt to test the coupon market, that is so far off base from effective couponing that it isn’t a fair representative. While Super Targets are semi-competitive in price to normal grocery retail (maybe even Walmart retail), my couponing group (again, casual, not queens) would not pay that retail price, with or without coupon. Then you really are just saving pennies.
    Plus, the coupons in the Sunday papers are 1. the tip of the coupon iceberg, most high dollar coupons are on-line or direct mail and 2. not meant to be used the week they are issued. Generally, the best matching sales are 2-4 weeks out from the date of delivery. A better test might be to compare an insert 3 weeks old with the current running sales of the store.
    Finally, as others have mentioned, couponing is NOT just for the chemical tasting junk food that a lot of coupons are issued for. I generally get the best discounts on paper goods, health and beauty products, and dry goods. (Lots of times, FREE or close to it, by combining sales and coupons). It sure helps my grocery budget stretch to be able to focus my available $$ on the better food choices, when I don’t have to pay those $$ for toilet paper, shampoo, and dry pasta.

    **Ohhh, and to adress the “coupon queens” from TV, several stores have admitted to demolishing all coupon rules for that particular customer because of the publicity they get from being on TV. They don’t let everyone (or anyone??) else break these rules for normal grocery shopping. Don’t try to hold yourself to that standard. You are not a failure if you don’t save $928 on a $930 shopping trip. I consider it a success if I can save more than I have before on a specific item.

  17. Jules says:

    While I’m not a couponer (mostly because coupons don’t exist where I live) I do shop almost exclusively at the sales, and almost every week, some grocery store will have something that we need/want on sale. It’s a rare shopping trip (usually one with my boyfriend, who has no price-sense) where I don’t knock at least 20% off my grocery bill, and typically it’s closer to 30% saved.

    The thing I don’t understand about extreme couponers is their emotional attachment to their stockpiles. I mean, I like having a nice big stash of coffee and cat food and fruit juice (which I buy on sale), but it doesn’t kill me when they get used up. I will confess that it bugs me when sales on things like coffee don’t happen for a week or two after we’ve used them up…but yeah, some of those people are scary-attached to their supplies.

  18. deRuiter says:

    Does the extreme couponing show make anyone else feel queasy? I look at those metal shelves bulging with so many items that the family of three, four, five or whatever will never use, the things that will sit until they spoil. Really, who uses 27 jars of Heinz green hot dog relish in a short time? Hoarding is one sign of Schizophrenia and I wonder if these couponers suffer from that. Some of the women (and they seem to be all women) appear to be overly attached to or dependant upon having so much stuff which they will never use. I use the occasional coupon if it is something I would buy anyway, particularly for paper goods, shampoo, cleaning supplies. It’s nicer, in season, to walk into the garden and pick fresh stuff and eat raw or cook with it, or to take a jar of home canned vegetables, jam, jelly, pickles or fruit off the shelf. Healthier too.

  19. Brian Carr says:

    I definitely save a lot of money with coupons, but as others have said before, there aren’t coupons for a lot of the food that I buy.

    My wife and I are very much into eating meals we make and cook ourselves, so we buy a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen a non-store coupon for these items, and even store coupons are few and far between.

    Since these purchase make up a large chunk of our grocery spending, I’m not able to slash my bill in half using coupons the way a lot of people who eat pre-packaged meals are. That being said, I still save, at minimum, $15 per week by using coupons.

  20. Laura in ATL says:

    The thing I hate about the extreme couponers is that they are bragging about providing for their family but are actually just playing a game. They say they are supplying their family with food, but many times the items they are getting are not for their family. I saw a woman get over $100 of dog food treats for free. She didnt even have a dog. But she played the game to get the dog food for free so that her RECEIPT showed that amount in her total. I visited a website where people take photos of their receipts and post them. And the TOTAL is the always the bragging point, not the items bought. Many people play to the extreme for the GAME aspect of it, the competition.

    Many people claim to do this for their family, but in reality they are doing it to get a receipt to win a game it seems to me.

    Dog food when they dont have dogs. Diapers and baby forumula when they don’t have kids.

    300 jars of Pasta sauce? At that point you arent ‘buying’ for your family . . . you are ‘buying’ to play the game.

    I still enjoy the show though. People are nuts. ;-)

    ~a casual coupon user

  21. Barb says:

    It really is a fallacy that there are no coupons for “real foods”. I just used a real coupon flyer coupon for rasperries, butter, milk, and chicken breasts. And frankly, staples are real food as well. I never pay for broth, basic canned goods, basic baking supllies for the like. while I dont cut my grocery in half, i do cut it around thirty percent. And eat real meat, fish, fruits and beggies

  22. Jennifer says:

    As a lifelong vegetarian, and someone who is committed to healthy eating, I STILL manage to find coupons that save me money. For instance, Stoneyfield organic yogurt is a staple at our house. I am able to print .50 coupons from their website on a regular basis. My grocery sells the 8 oz. cartons for $1 and because this store doubles coupons up to a $1 every day, I get FREE organic yogurt.

    I also frequently get free whole grain pasta, long grain and brown rice, and other healthy staples. Yes, waiting for the store sale and matching it with a coupon is key. And you do have to look for the healthy coupons – usually online. What comes in the Sunday paper is mostly Pillsbury / ConAgra processed food junk.

    I disagree with others who say the cleaning supply portion of their bill is miniscule compared to food. Even with eating a very healthy diet rich in whole foods, the toiletries still add up to a higher portion of my monthly grocery budget. But because I combine coupons with sales, I manage to get very cheap toothpaste, toilet paper, body wash, etc.

  23. Kevin says:

    “However, if I excluded all of the items that I can’t see myself ever realistically buying,”

    You’re missing the point, Trent. Have you ever actually WATCHED the shows you reference?

    Many of the couponers on the shows load their carts up with items they’ll never use, or could never possibly use in the quantity they’re buying. But if you paid attention, you’d see that in many cases, their cost for those items is actually negative. That is, they’re making a PROFIT on buying those items.

    For example, they have a “$1 off” coupon for Rolaids. And it’s “Double-Up” coupon day. And as it happens, Rolaids are on sale for $0.89, because they’re getting close to their expiry date. So every roll of Rolaids you buy ends up generating a credit of $0.87, that can be used to reduce your overall bill.

    So what does the person do with all those Rolaids?

    Who cares? Throw them out. Donate them to a food bank. It doesn’t matter. Not only did they cost you nothing, but they contributed to lowering your cost for milk. That’s the whole point.

  24. Kevin says:

    Whoops … the credit in my above example should, of course, be $1.11, not $0.87. But the point remains the same. You use coupons – combined with sales and promotions – to buy large quantities of items you don’t need, in order to lower your cost for items you actually DO need, but that never go on sale, like produce and dairy.

  25. EJW says:

    I do center my weekly shopping on the double coupon day at my local Rainbow. (And actually I’ve found that store beats the Super Target, Cub, and Walmart regularly for prices.) And, although I’m not extreme, I totally see it as a game. Makes the grocery shopping a little fun, and really does help keep my household expenses down. Its a tangible reward I can see on the receipt. And I’m careful to only buy what I know we’ll use. I cook almost 100 % at home and its mostly homemade, however couponing allows me to buy some ‘junk’ and convenience foods so my kids don’t feel like they’re the only ones in the world who never get real Oreos etc., and sometimes I don’t have time to make a fully homemade meal. I think preboxed meals like Hamburger Helper are loathsome, but the rest of the family doesn’t so sometimes its an easy meal for them, or the basis of one that I can doctor up. (It is possible, in fact, I once won $250 for creating a recipe that was based on Rice-a Roni) And I have a comfortable stockpile of canned goods, jarred sauces, pasta, rice, condiments and the toiletries we use. As others have pointed out, those savings make it easier to afford the fresh foods we base most of our diet on.

  26. DivaJean says:

    Some of these “stockpilers” are really reselling and not showing that part of it for the camera on “Extreme Couponing.”

    Believe it or not, some folks eBay their cheap purchases from coupons. Others make deals w/ Mom & Pop neighborhood convenience stores and sell to them.

    And there is another sub group that sell from their “stock” at garage sales. My sister does this and “made” a few thousand dollars. However, she is ALWAYS going to the stores for sales. I personally have better things to do with my time, but she considers it a hobby. Of course, the extra time, gas, and storage space required is never factored into the big “savings” the extreme couponers do.

  27. MARY S says:

    I agree with you (#18)
    I’ve watched Extreme Couponing and those people that stockpile have a problem. Hoarding is a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)more than it is a symptom of schizophrenia. Of the 4 or 5 shows I watched, there was only 1 person who said they donated their extra free items to a food pantry or other charity. It made me angry to see one woman clear out a whole self of mustard (30 or so jars)and left nothing for other customers.

  28. amy says:

    I coupon for toiletries mostly as sales with coupons generally negate free items. Food, not so much. The savings I see for food is so nominal, it’s not worth my time. I turn to generics most of the time with the occasional coupon if it’s an item I always buy.

  29. Golfing Girl says:

    I’m with Trent. Most items I purchase are generic or produce that would never have coupons. There are only a few items I insist on name brand quality so I only save about $10-$20 per month at the most (diapers, toilet paper, deoderant, etc.).

  30. valleycat1 says:

    I agree that the basic savings for us would be if we have or find coupons for items we would normally buy anyway. But we don’t search them out.

    Where we save $ is buying meat that’s still before the sell-by date but so close to it that the store’s discounted it, usually at least by half. Otherwise I rarely use coupons unless it’s one from the store or that comes on an item I purchased. For example, the new cat food we’re buying comes with a $2 off coupon in each bag, so we use those for the next purchase.

  31. Georgia says:

    I just watch sales at the store in our town, Walmart 25 miles away or wherever I am going for the day, and Dollar General. When there is a very good sale, I stock up.

    Example – The last 2 years Folger’s Country Roast or Custom Roast was $5 for 34.5 oz. I bought 2-3 every time I was in in stores. I eventually had about 25-26 of them. I don’t use it up fast, so I have taken several when I visit my kids in AL, donate to the Food Bank for coffee for the volunteers and take a lot to the church for dinners and luncheons. Right now that is a very frugal way to donate.

    Also, our local grocery recently had Ragu Spaghetti Sause (24 oz) for $0.99 a jar. It is now on sale for 2 for $5.00 (saver $.23). So, I bought 7-8 jars last week. I will use it for larger pasta dishes I take to church suppers and other pot luck meals.

    They also have meats, near use by dates, for a special price of $0.99 also. I buy what I can and take it home and immediately drop it in the freezer until I need it. I got $4.29 thinly sliced deli meats for $0.99. Quite a savings and no coupons necessary.

    I have a lot of dry cereal stockpiled, but if it begins to get past a good use by date, I will pass it on to large families who can use it up quickly. Works well for me – I eat well, donate a lot, and it doesn’t cost me a fortune.

  32. Danna says:

    I’ve recently started playing the drug store “game”. CVS and Walgreens. I have a small stock pile of household goods and other items.
    I think it’s fun and I love getting a good deal. Right now I have over $30 in store credit to spend next week.

    I plan on taking some personal items to my son and his girlfriend – they are college students.

    I was also able to give some cleaning supplies to a young intern at work who is getting her first apartment.

    At the end of the year I will give all the personal items to the women’s shelter for their use.

  33. Tom says:

    my savings went down to $0.73. With double couponing, that total is $7.11.


    Commenter #20 is on point. I mostly coupon cereal (and healthier varieties do go on sale!) and yogurt, but enjoy looking for deals. I have seen or used coupons for eggs, pasta, canned beans, canned/frozen vegetables and fruits. I think I’ve paid 99c total for the last 3 bottles of shampoo I’ve purchased. It is worth my time since I spend about 30 minutes a week looking at grocery flyers anyway.
    Oh here’s a good tip, if you ever see a link for a free sample item from a company, they almost always include a high value coupon for that item when they send it to you.

  34. Annie says:

    I often wondered what kind of food people are eating out there when i hear them say they use coupons to save, save, save. I never find coupouns for trader joes. I shop at BJ’s for household supplies and they send out coupons in the mail which i find useful for detergent, toilet paper, trash bags, cleaning supplies,etc…
    sometimes their prices are reasonoable for fruits and vegatables. I guess it’s all about what you eat, as many of you have stated there is hardly any coupons out there for fresh fruit,veggies, fish or meat products.

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