Updated on 08.19.10

The Challenge of Couponing

Trent Hamm

Inside the coupon binderI’ve long been an advocate of using coupons at the grocery store. I often clip coupons for toiletries and household products and, when there are opportunities, for some food items like organic milk (I had a great coupon for this a while back). I’ve also used coupons for bigger purchases as well in the past.

Because of this, I hear almost every day from people who have great coupons or great coupon-offering websites. “You should try this!” they’ll say, or they’ll suggest that I feature the site on The Simple Dollar. A very recent example of this is Groupon; other examples include Coupon Sherpa and Woot – and I won’t even touch on the plethora of “coupon blogs” out there.

I don’t link to these things. In fact, I usually don’t visit them beyond simply adding them as a bookmark to a “coupon” folder in my browser.

Some of you are probably surprised by that (others might already know why). After all, on a site interested in saving money, why wouldn’t I hunt down coupons?

Here’s the truth: visiting coupon sites for the sole purpose of “saving money” will cost you money.

Let’s walk through the reasons for this. Almost every coupon you see requires you to spend some money in order to bring home the “savings.” Any time you spend money on something you don’t need, you’re taking money away from something that’s actually important to you.

If you go to a site that lists nothing but a bunch of coupons (or look at a coupon flyer), you’re not looking at coupons – you’re looking at lists of stuff to buy.

For me, successful coupon use takes a very different approach. Rather than simply looking through lists of coupons and identifying ways to “save” on items I don’t really need, I start with lists of the things I do need or truly want independent of the coupons.

In other words, I do use coupon flyers and coupon sites, but I don’t bother to look through them unless I’m looking for something specific.

So, for example, I’ll look through coupon flyers once I have my grocery list together. I’ll look at coupon sites once I’ve come up with a gift idea or two for a friend or family member or when I’m considering a specific purchase.

Another example: I have a special email address that I use to sign up for coupons from retailers I regularly visit. When I’m considering a purchase, I visit that email account and search through the emails (Gmail makes this kind of searching very easy) for ones that match the item I’m thinking of or the retailer I’m thinking of visiting. Almost always, I’ve got a coupon right there.

Aside from that, the coupon flyers remain unopened and the coupon sites remain untouched. Looking at lists of stuff to buy – even with a nice discount on it – is just spending time thinking of spending my money on stuff I don’t really need and don’t really want.

Let what you actually need lead the way. That way, you’ll never find yourself spending your hard-earned money on stuff that you really don’t want – and you can conserve that money for stuff that you really do need or want.

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  1. Dash says:

    I can’t even think of a time when I would disagree but this would have to be the 1st. I do agree that for most things what you say is true but when it comes to things like toothpaste, shampoo, deoderant and the like if you wait until you need them you will miss out on the ability to get the for FREE. I have detailed all of this in my blog, and there are probably countless other blogs that discuss it. I recently took the ‘Point, Click, and Save’ book out of the library after seeing a review of it here, and I must say most of the strategies I already use so it’s nice to know others agree and did learn some new things – yet to finish the book.

  2. RC says:

    I have to agree with this article. I tried using coupons and my grocery bill ended up increasing quite a bit because I was buying things just because I had a coupon for them. I’m still planing on using coupons but only after my list is made up.

    I’ve seen that there are communities out there of people who play the grocery game and buy 30 yogurts for a nickel by combining all the best deals. However, if I spent the time doing that the financial return would not be great as if I sold my extra junk on ebay or worked overtime at work.

  3. Q says:

    I would agree for the most part, but we’ve made a practice of using Groupon to check out restaurants. We enjoy eating out a few times a month, and using Groupon allows us to usually pay no more than 50%. Even if we end up spending a little more before the discount, it’s worth it to us.

    Overall we are pretty good at sticking to our monthly restaurant budget–the Groupon site just lets us stretch it. Not to mention, we’ve noticed that a few restaurants tend to put up a coupon every few months. When we see the coupon go up, we try to stock up on them.

  4. Nina says:

    Trent, your blog is one of many that I read daily, including couponing blogs. They help me organize and notify me of when my coupons will get me the best value, sometimes, free product. Coupons work for those who are willing to put in the time and effort. But I understand that for some, it’s a little too much, with not enough pay-back. For me, it’s fun and I especially love stocking up on free product that I would usually have to purchase, or donating free product to others. Thanks for allowing me to put in my 2-cents!

  5. Johanna says:

    This post reminds me of Liz Weston’s latest article. The upshot seems the same: Don’t browse in stores or on shopping websites because it turns you into a stuff-you-don’t-want-buying zombie. And maybe it does for some people. But not for everybody.

    I subscribe to the daily email from Groupon, and I think it’s great. Most of the offers are useless to me – goods or services that I don’t use and would never use, or quantities far too large for me to use by myself. Those emails, I delete. But every once in a while, an offer comes along for a place (a restaurant, a concert venue, etc.) that I’ve thought about trying but I’ve been put off by the cost. With the coupon, I get a new experience, I’m probably not spending any more than I would have spent on whatever other restaurant or venue I would have gone to instead, and I’m certainly not spending more than I can afford. This works for me.

  6. Laura Webber says:

    I believe that a shopper needs to practice self control when shopping!

    I stockpile the essentials for my family, but skip over junk food coupons as well as coupons for products that we just don’t use/need. I feel like I save MORE by stockpiling 1-5 dirt cheap products weekly, than just purchasing what we need on a weekly basis!

    To the average deal hunter, though, you are absolutely dead-on! Doling out little bits of cash for stuff you don’t need certainly does add up and clutter your life!

    Very interesting read!

  7. asithi says:

    I have to disagree. You only need to subcribe to 2-3 couponing blogs. They match up the deals for you with links to coupons, so I do not have to do any searching. When it is something I am interested in, I print out the coupons. Sometimes I print out the coupons for stables in my household so that I do not need to look for it when the time comes for purchasing the item.

    I get a lot of toothpaste and toothbrushes for free or for about $1. Sometimes I stockpile when the deals are really good. For a example, recently Rite Aid ran a deal where you spend $50 in Olay products, you get back $30 in giftcards. And Olay has a rebate for $20 back and Proctor and Gamble has a $12 rebate back. So I got all my money back plus $12. If I wasn’t following couponing blogs, I would have miss out on the deal.

  8. Larabara says:

    I find that much of the food I usually buy, such as fresh produce and meat, is not discounted by coupons. I just wait for them to go on sale at the grocery store. Things like a box of instant mashed potatoes might need a coupon, but fresh potatoes would be featured in a weekly sale. I’ve never seen a coupon for grocery items that are not some kind of processed food.

    But I do use coupons for non-food items like soap, toilet paper, shampoo, etc. But I still compare the prices and ingredients against other brands. Sometimes a big-name shampoo still costs more with a coupon than a lesser-named shampoo with the same ingredients.

  9. Rachel says:

    I disagree mostly with this post. I use coupons very carefully:

    1. I only use coupons for products I would normally buy.
    2. I match manufacturer and store coupons for mostly free (and often times, FREE!) products. Target produces bakery, meat and produce coupons.
    3. I put the money I save with coupons in my savings account.

    I have the self control to not buy something just because I have a coupon. Unless the coupon makes something mostly free, or a really good deal, I won’t buy it (and that’s only on things I need.) I get most toiletries for free through using coupons.

  10. Of course you do realize that this method does not allow you to take advantage of unadvertised specials? In other words, you haven’t learnd, or don’t want to shop via the pantry method for your home. I do not shop for what I need each week. I look at the sale flyers, see what is on deep discount and only by those items this week.(other than produce and milk). Moe imporatnly, I shop this way for everything,including Christmas. Since you picked on Groupon today, Groupon had fifty dollar Gap gift cards on sale for 25.00. Since I know in fact that all four of my nieces and nephews, as well as my thirty year old daughter like things from the gap, I’ll now get fifty dollars forth of gifts (probably one thing for each) for 25.00 and that includes sale items. By the same token, I dont need any games. But when toys r us has a fifty percent off sale, where they give a gift card and a refund on top of it, then i have gotten totally free things to give to the shelter. And I probably live on less than most here…….but get more for my dollar in the long run.

  11. Rachel says:

    I have to disagree on this post too. And not because I’m an avid coupon user myself (I live in Canada where coupons are less abundant) but from reading Jeffery’s blog at grocerycouponguide.com. He’s currently doing a webseries on lazy couponing which actually turns this post completely on end. During his $1/day challenge for 100 days, instead of looking for coupons on things he wanted to buy, he found coupons for products that were moneymakers and used the overage to buy meat/produce/bread etc. A lot of those items were things he didn’t need, which were then donate to the foodbank. It’s incredible what he’s been able to do so far.

  12. Sara says:

    Great post! I actually do the same thing – only use coupons on stuff I already buy or specifically needed. Often I’ve even found that those coupon books you get in the mail or in the paper are trying to sell you the most expensive brand of a product such as ketchup that you could easily buy the generic of or get it in bulk and save MORE than the coupon price! Once I realized that, I stopped clipping anything that isn’t what I already buy.

  13. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Most of you who are “disagreeing” with me are reiterating what I’m saying in the post. You’re going to the couponing site with a specific goal in mind: I need coupons for toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and garbage bags and nothing else. That’s when coupons actually work – you’re going there with a purpose, which is exactly what I’m saying to do. Don’t bother with coupons unless you have a specific purpose in doing so.

    As for angling for free stuff, I view that as more of a game than anything else. I attempted to do this for a long while and found that the time investment in finding the deals, printing the coupons, and making extra stops did not provide nearly enough reward in the end for the “free” (meaning free minus the cost of the paper, the ink, the gas, the car maintenance, etc.) item I got that I didn’t really need or want.

  14. chuck says:

    “you’re not looking at coupons – you’re looking at lists of stuff to buy”

    that is a great way of putting it!

  15. You’re exactly right — this is the same way I do my couponing. Unless I can pair a coupon with a sale item and get it for free (and have a use for it, to boot), I only look for coupons for things we need to buy. Otherwise, you’re just buying unnecessary items, all because you have that coupon.

  16. Mary says:

    Trent, what a timely post! I just cleaned out my coupon notebook. I am with you, I have to be ruthless about matching the coupons to my grocery list, or I buy things I didn’t intend to. For me, the giveaway is the emotional language around the coupon – it “feels like” I’m throwing away money. But I’m not. I’m throwing away a marketing flyer with a denomination on it.

  17. Frugal Ella says:

    whoa! you awoke the sleeping coupon dragon. I am a reluctant couponer who thinks they have their time and place. I tend to follow what you said you do, except I clip in advance because there will be a coupon one week for an item I know I’ll eventually need, but not the week I need it.

    I think you can eat healthier and cheaper if you skip most of the products coupons are for and cook from scratch.

  18. Cristina says:

    “You’re going to the couponing site with a specific goal in mind: I need coupons for toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and garbage bags and nothing else.”

    Well, not exactly. I go to my deal blogs to see what good deals there are at my grocery store or drugstore that week. If I wait until I need to look for a toothpaste deal, I waited too long.

    As for freebies, they’re at the stores I shop at so I’m not making extra stops.

    You make this process sound so involved and time consuming when it really isn’t. I copy the list of deals from my deal blogs and I paste it into a document. Then I delete anything I’m not interested in, print or clip any coupons I need, and print the list. That’s it.

    You also seem to have this idea that couponers thumb through a coupon insert as if they plan their shopping around that. What we really plan our shopping around is the store’s circular and I’m pretty sure you do, too. If that’s also too dangerous for your tastes because we might buy things we wouldn’t normally buy, then I don’t know what to say except “practice some self control.”

  19. valleycat1 says:

    I’m going to side with Trent on this – both his original post & his comment – although I applaud those willing to use them. I keep a very limited # of coupons on hand, but don’t consider them until I’ve got my shopping list made. I will pull coupons out of the few magazines I read, & our grocery checkout process includes coupons. I don’t sign on for store-specific ‘member’ cards because they’re more a marketing tool for the stores than a service intended to benefit the customers (been there, done that, never again). I don’t see the need to stockpile a bunch of stuff, neither do we really have the storage room for it, and I don’t spend time on coupon sites & rarely even glance through coupon mailers. We just don’t buy much stuff that coupons are good for so its a waste of my time, & over the course of a year I hadn’t seen any impact on our bottom line (back in the day I did try to use coupons as much as possible) – we tended to overbuy other stuff because we’d saved $ couponing.

  20. kim says:

    I have purchased items that I did not need in order to get the items that I did need.

    Last week I purchased 10 boxes of cereal with MFG coupons for 2.50 and received a 10.00 catalina in return. Therefore I purchased some chicken and produce for 2.50. I did donate the cereal.

  21. Kathryn says:

    Essentially, nothing that i buy is coupon worthy. TP & facial tissue are about all that i’d buy from a store where i can coupon. Almost nothing else. I don’t buy toothpaste. The shampoos, & soaps i buy are from the health food store & don’t have the additives that are in the grocery or drug stores.

    I buy essentially nothing of processed food for myself & very little for my husband. Fresh food may go on sale on occasion, but there is rarely a coupon for it. I will check the flier from the health food store to see if any of the items i need are on sale, or on occasion they do have a coupon i’ll use (generally $5 off the entire order that is over $50 or $75).

    I suppose i could spend a lot of time searching for coupons, but when i look at a flier these days, my reaction generally is, “Why on earth would i want to buy that?”

  22. Rachel says:

    (this is Rachel from comment #9)

    “We just don’t buy much stuff that coupons are good for so its a waste of my time…”

    This is a common misconception. You can use coupons for the things you don’t normally buy to get the products that you actually want which don’t have coupons. Luckily, there are people out there that are willing to put together the deals and share them on the internet so the time sunk in couponing goes down significantly.

    I wish that I could take advantage of having something like a CVS card to get “Extra Bucks”. There’s just nothing like that here in Canada that even remotely compares to what you have in the US.

    If you want to know more about productive couponing, go here: http://www.grocerycouponguide.com/articles/lazy-couponing-introduction-how-to-coupon-for-the-rest-of-us/

    He does a better job of explaining it all than I ever could.

  23. Annie Jones says:

    Great post! I agree with you and some of the others in that I have to know what I’m going to buy first, then look for a coupon for it. I also agree with Kathryn above; most coupons are for things I wouldn’t even want for free, let alone having to pay for them.

  24. Sarah says:

    #12 Christina- YES!

    Trent’s attitude lately is turning me off big-time to this blog.

  25. Well, apparantly my posts are not shoing, but Ill try again. this is not true ““You’re going to the couponing site with a specific goal in mind: I need coupons for toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and garbage bags and nothing else.” I’m going to see whats available, and what I might use. I never turn down anything free, and when a product is free I may buy something I might not have.

  26. Matt Davis says:

    I actually was planning a trip to Boston this weekend, and used coupon sites to find things to do.

    It worked pretty good, and saved money too.

  27. Shawn Miles says:

    I saw the coupon book in the picture and thought that’s way to much work. I tried for years to be diligent about coupon shopping and it never worked for me.

    I sat and thought on my problem for a long time. One Saturday I spent the day gathering data from all the local stores.

    Because I eat organic only I discovered it was cheapest to join the local co-op and only buy in season veggies.

    I started buying from the local farmer for my chicken (for the rest of the family I’m a vegan). Also we live on the Puget Sound so local fish is cheap.

    We’ve learned to can and freeze the fruits and veggies.

    After I tackled my foods then I moved on to household items. I found a lot of your tips for making cleaning supplies helped but when I have to shop the chain pharmacy was super cheap compared to everywhere else. However, if I bought in bulk I was able to save even more money.

    My life is to busy for coupons or bargain shopping. I will tell you this I do belive you can buy every thing cheaper somewhere else. You just have to find that somewhere else.

    I think the “cards” all the stores have are useful and I use them because we get cheaper gas, so that is my one coupon.

    Good read.

  28. Lynn says:

    I’m totally with Trent on this one. About 4-5 months ago I decided to try to cut costs with our grocery shopping by using coupons. I signed up for all the major coupon sites, deal blogs, etc. I have yet to save more than $2-3 during a weekly grocery shopping trip and that’s if I try really, REALLY hard to surf the web for coupons.

    We don’t eat processed foods in our house and its been my experience that 80-90% of the coupons out there are for processed junk. Trying to find coupons for organic or all natural products is very difficult. So instead of spending all that time searching for coupons just to save $2-3, we’ve simply decreased the amount of meat we eat – and we opt for seasonal produce. We’ve saved significantly more at the store that way.

    (PS – Household cleaning products don’t apply for us. We make our own, including laundry detergent. SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper than what any coupon can save me.)

  29. DivaJean says:

    When I hear about couponers “gaming it”, thoughts about my sister and her friends come to mind.

    They are really into gaming it. To the point that they frequent several stores multiple times a week. That being said, they do get a ton of free stuff- but as others have mentioned, it might not be anything you actually need. My sister’s one friend had so many “free” glucose meters from “gaming” a certain pharmacy, she gave everyone in her family a meter for Xmas. And they weren’t all diabetics. Yeah. No sense there. And even more appalling to me is that there might be someone out there in need of a meter to manage their diabetes in these difficult times- but here are gamers wasting them. Don’t get me started on all the sports drinks that my sister and her friends end up with- and no one in the crowd actually likes to drink them.

    My sister stockpiles tons of the stuff and has a garage sale of it once or twice a year. I would be too afraid something would be recalled that I wouldn’t know about and I would get in trouble some how for the resaling. Yeah, she “makes money” at the sale- but I really wonder if it in anyway makes up for the incessant trips to the stores. It really can become a compulsion on the edge to obsession for some of these people. I once went with her on one of her pharmacy runs (must be done first thing on a Sunday above all else) and saw quite a few other gamers. And the sick thing of it was, they all knew what each other was doing, but there is no helping each other to keep one up on each other. Definately not the way I want to live or any example I want to show my kids.

    I think my partner is far more healthy in managing coupons. She juggles them well and gets deals on food & stuff we actually use. Sometimes, with the right coupon, it makes sense to get the national brand versus generic. You just have to remember to not get hooked into brand “loyalty” and come next time around, maybe get generic if it works out best.

    I am not so happy about the trend towards membership “value cards” at stores. I don’t really think its fair to have to give up all the data about all your purchases. But sadly, in this day and age, most stores no longer let you get their deals without using them.

  30. Mary E S says:

    I make my list then go to afullcup.com and input the name of the product I want and see if there is a coupon I can use.This is the extent of my coupon use. I played the coupon game for a while but most of the sites want you to have 5 or 6 of each coupon and at 3$ each for the sunday paper there was no way I could break even.We pay cash or by check for everything so I cannot buy coupon’s on line for the “deals” they post.I buy most thing’s in bulk at Sams Club and have found this to be the best way for my family to save money.I totally understand what Trent is saying.

  31. Mule Skinner says:

    I wish the supermarkets had a “non-coupon” lane so I could get through there faster.

  32. Belinda says:

    I hear so many people say they don’t use coupons because they eat healthy, and there are no coupons for healthy food (ie, fresh produce, meat, etc.) That is true as far as food goes. But even then, unless you grow your own rice, make fresh pasta, etc, you do in fact purchase SOME food items for which you can find coupons. This week, I’m getting 5 boxes of Barilla whole grain pasta for free at Meijer because I’m combined their sale with coupons I clipped.

    And I’ve learned how to clip coupons for toiletries (toilet paper, toothpaste, etc.) to combine them with sales and get them for free.

    I get all my coupons online for free at coupons.com and a couple of others. It literally takes me 5 minutes to scan those websites once a week and see if there’s anything there I need.

    I’m sure there are people who see the coupon for Oreos and buy Oreos as a result. This post is for those people, not those of us who have learned how to constructively use coupons to lower our grocery bill on things we already buy.

  33. Mary E S says:

    If you want to know more about Trent’s families coupon strategy go to the June13,08 post How we organize our coupons and execute our coupon strategy.This post will tell you every thing you want to know.Read this post then tell him what you think.

  34. Nick says:

    I also disagree (but not completely) with a lot in this post. The most effective way I’ve seen to effective grocery couponing is this:

    1. Plan meals for the week based on your grocery store circular and sales;
    2. Then do a few searches for coupons;
    3. Then shop.

    This results in using grocery coupons for what you “need.”

    For non-meal items, I follow three coupon blogs. I look at the stores near me and the “weekly deals.” The coupon blogs spell out exactly what I need to do often with links to the coupons. This is how I get toothpaste, TP, deoderant, shampoo and other similar things for next to nothing (I got 2 full size deoderants for $1.80 two days ago (I live in an expensive part of the country – they would have been only 29 cents in other parts)).

    It takes very little time – and the meal planning actually saves grocery shopping time – because we have a plan.

  35. T. Doyle says:

    I use coupons sites/emails/blogs as well and here’s why: all my spending is based on a budget. I’m not going to end up spending more by browsing because in order to take an offer, it has to fit into my budget. I have allowances for clothing, travel, entertainment, gifts etc. and these coupon sites allow me to get more for my money.

    I guess that kind of fits in to “Let what you actually need lead the way,” except that I don’t let specific products lead the way, but simply categories from my budget.

  36. Maureen says:

    I will use coupons for items I do not immediately need if I can reasonably predict a future need. For example, I know that I will need more deodorant, Tide, toilet paper etc.. Why not buy these non-perishables for less?

  37. To me, the toughest part of couponing is resisting the temptation to buy stuff I don’t need, even though its at a good price.

    I always do resist, but in order for couponing to be effective and worth it, you have to have this restraint, in my opinion

  38. EmilyP says:

    A great post, and very true – manufacturers don’t print coupons so that consumers can save money, they do it so consumers will spend money.

    I think know what you mean, Trent, but I find it contradictory that here you say you write out a grocery list then go check for coupons, yet other times you’ve talked about going straight to your grocery flyers and using the sales you see to plan a menu and write a grocery list. Is that just the way you’ve phrased your split-approach, or do you genuinely make a big distinction between a “sale” and a “coupon”?

  39. Kathy P. says:

    Excellent post. I simply gave up on coupons a long time ago. Coupons are about spending money, not saving it, and nearly all of them are for processed foods and other mystery ingestibles that I have no interest in buying anyway. The few coupons I might have use for would save me so little that I just don’t bother. I’m trying to live much more simply and sustainably anyway, so I avoid shopping as much as possible. I save far more money with this attitude than I would combing the flyers for BOGO coupons. And I agree with #17 Diva Jean about the membership cards and other gimmicks. Very annoying to have to dig out the stupid card for every little purchase. It certainly doesn’t leave me with a favorable impression of any retailer that insists on them.

  40. Tracy says:

    I agree with most of this, with the exception of your mentioning Groupon and Woot – the ‘once a day’ type deals simply can’t be handled the way you talk about in this article at all, it doesn’t even make any sense.

    And those sites ARE great – but you have to know yourself, really know what you’ll actually use and what will just gather dust – and know that you’re able to resist the latter even if it’s something cool or a ‘great’ deal.

  41. Sara says:

    I have a system that works well: 2 hours of clipping and meal planning, 1 trip to 1 grocery store, average $35 spent (for all meals, toilitries and paper towels, etc) per week, and i am a “from-scratch” cook who eats plenty of meat and veggies. So there are ways to use coupons in a reasonable way to save lots of money. I consider it to be a 2 hour a week job that earns at least $100 a week. So there you go, we’re not all crazies who have gobs of time on our hands- there are totally ways to make it work. Also, the perception is that all coupons are for processed foods, but I really have lots for fresh produce, fresh meat, eggs, flour, etc. You’d be surprised!

  42. JJ says:

    My problem with coupons is that they’re almost always for “name brand” products. Even with the coupon, the store brands are often still cheaper. So my main use for coupons are for things I regularly buy where there is no store brand equivalents (Morningstar Farms stuff, for example).

    I’ll admit to being a big fan of Groupon and Woot! (esp. Wine.Woot!), but it’s true that you do have to exercise self-control. If it’s something I wouldn’t have bought without the coupon/discount, then I don’t get it.

    For example, I saved several hundred on a TV recently thanks to Woot!. I was in the market for one anyway (that’s key), and I knew that Woot! offered the brand/model I wanted sometimes. Then I just played the waiting game until it came up in a Woot-Off. Another instance where “waiting” = “saving”. :-)


  43. Michelle says:

    I definitely agree with this. My parents have cut coupons their whole lives and they have a closet full of stuff they don’t need or use. Great tips!

  44. Mary says:

    I disagree also. If you can’t control yourself, well you’ll buy a lot of junk, true. But when I look for coupons in my local paper & through e-mail blogs, if I wasn’t planning to buy it, I don’t clip the coupon. If it’s a dry goods item I don’t need yet, I’ll buy it early with a decent coupon-why not? Also, people who are fantastically busy like you might find it not worth the time-I must admit that in the better working years for us I didn’t bother-but now things have slowed WAY down & I have time to go after these coupons. But believe me, if I don’t plan to buy an item anyway, I”m not using the coupon. I’ll clip a coupon for a different name brand & if, when I get to the store, a different brand or store brand is cheaper even with the coupon, I don’t use it. I’ll leave the coupon by the product in case someone else wants it. “Visiting coupon sites for the sole purpose of saving money will cost you money.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. Unless you have no self-control. It’s a fantastic way for the food/product manufacturers to advertise & make money-a coupon for .50 cents or 1.00 or even free, & a person that never bought your product does now because of the coupon-& they’re hooked for “life” on your brand now-ingenious! But I don’t fall for that. I’m just cynical enough lol.

  45. Debbie M says:

    This is interesting. It seems like the way some people can be good with credit cards and some can’t, some can be good with coupons and some can’t. It might not even be the same people—I’m better with credit cards than with coupons.

    I do look through coupons that come to me to see if there are any for my usual staples or good substitutes. Mostly I find looking through coupons to be boring or even depressing, though. I feel like the marketers are just cruising for suckers.

    But lately I’ve been adding some new strategies that have increased my coupon use. 1) I’ve signed up for Mambo Sprouts, which has coupons for organic and recycled products. 2) I’ve signed up for programs at my favorite stores that have them (such as Thrift Town, the local food coop, Half Price Books, La Madeleine, some craft stores). 3) I’ve checked out websites for my favorite (nongeneric!) companies. 4) When I’m about to buy something online, I make a quick Google search for coupons.

  46. Scott says:

    It’s all a matter of self-control – or even self-control with a little help.

    My wife started getting the groupon daily emails, after one day when both of us found out about a great deal on a local museum membership on there. We both know that she can have a tendency to want to buy things “just because it’s a deal” and fall into what you are saying here, SO if she finds one that interests her, she will ask me about it before buying. I tend to be the skeptical one with buying decisions, so it has to pass through both of us before it gets purchased.

    We’ve had several conversations where we’ve both come close to taking an offer, but after talking about it a few minutes together we’ve both realized it isn’t a great deal, or maybe not something we should really spend at the moment. More often than not we don’t take the deal.

    What’s great about this is these moments have helped when a bigger or more desired buying decision faces the two of us. Since those are more serious (at least for the one of us that wants it), the conversations tend to be a little more heated. These groupon spur-of-the-moment conversations are also helping us learn how each other works, and helps us to trust each other’s strengths and judgement in almost a kind of “practice” way.

    We didn’t sign up to groupon for that reason, but it has inadvertently helped our purchasing decision communication quite a bit.

    Your article may be assuming too much of an impulse-buy-only attitude here as a reason to avoid it completely. Know your strengths and weaknesses, and if possible, have someone else you can run your buying thoughts through first. Not everyone has that opportunity I understand, and as always YMMV, but I’ve been surprised how well it’s worked in our case.

  47. Suzanne says:

    Great post! While I agree self-control is vital to not spending when you shouldn’t, I’ve found that stopping all catalogs, e-commerce newsletters, Groupon memberships, etc. makes me think about buying stuff a LOT less often. So, for those of us who maybe don’t have perfect self-control (yet!), avoidance is a great strategy … in my experience.

  48. Dash says:

    To add to my earlier post – the key to not spending much time on coupons is to have a good organization system. For the sunday newspaper ads which is where most of the good coupons are if you get a crate from Walmart for $5 and put 12 hanging folders in there (another $5 for 25 hanging folders). Label each one with the month: Jan-Dec. (x2) Then as you get the circulars place a label on them (once again for $2 you can get 200 Neon labels at walmart – 4 colors) which reads what the circular is and the date (i.e. 8-1 PG or 8-1 RP etc…) I tend to use each color for 1st week so the month, 2nd week etc… then just stick the whole coupon insert into the appropriate hanging folder. Once you set up the folders once (1 hour tops) to actually file the inserts out of each Sunday paper takes me all of 5 mins a week. There are a sleugh of coupon blogs but I have to sweat by CouponMom.com (more info on my blog) – not only does she have nice tutorial videos but they create list for you for each store: CVS is my favorite. Each week you just pick a day to look at the CVS page and you can sort on what is FREE that week – it tells you specifically the item AND the coupon 8-1 PG for example so then all you do is find the insert in your crate and cut out the specific coupon. The amount of time to look up the FREE or close to FREE items each week is 5 mins, to cut out the coupons add another 10 so 15 mins a week to never have to worry about buying deoderant, toothpaste, shampoo, body wash and the list goes on. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years and I’d day it’s very much worth the time investment.

  49. Jan says:

    I totally agree with you, IF you succumb to the marketing strategy. Like everything else in the frugal world, coupons do not really save you money until you can think smarter. By the time you are at stage 3 of couponing the light goes on in your head. Marketing advertises “how much you are saving”, this is totally against the frugal tenants. What you should be looking at is how much you are SPENDING-every time. For example, Toothpaste 3.99 use a $1 coupon, spending 2.99 not a good deal. Look for a better deal, or let the coupon expire. Toothpaste $1, use $1 coupon spending ZERO. Stock up for yourself and donate to others. I cannot emphasize enough do not get caught in the “how much you save” trap, concentrate on the “how much you spend”

  50. Debbie M says:

    A whole crate of coupons? Yikes. I just have two envelopes in my purse – one for grocery store stuff and one for other stuff like restaurant coupons. These are sorted by expiration date.

  51. Annie says:

    I don’t use coupons anymore. I used to but then realized I was buying things that I would normally NOT buy and spending more time hunting down “good deals” on stuff I would not have bought anyway.

    I save more money by just not buying stuff than I ever did by clipping coupons.

    On occasion I will use a pizza coupon or something from the flyers in my mailbox, or a coupon for something that I actually buy and use, but only if I stumble upon the coupon and have a plan to buy that product anyway. I learned the hard way that it is wasteful of time, energy and materials to coupon for a bunch of stuff you end up not using.

  52. Dash says:

    The drawback to having just envelopes is that not only do you have to look through the circulars to cut out the coupons where as if you have a ‘filing system’ for coupons it dramatically reduces down the amount of time it takes to ‘file’ the inserts and more importantly find just the coupons you need. (thanks to couponmom)

    I should mention that I started off on my ‘couponing’ with cutting out the coupons and sorting them into envelopes, then when I wanted a coupon I would have to search through the correspinding envelope…this took hours… so based on my own experience I favor the filing system. Once again this would make no sense if it was not for couponmom.com and their store lists. They also have a grocery coupon database page which basically works as such. If you file your circulars then when you put together a shopping list to go to any store just look up each item you are about to buy in their coupon database and it will tell you in which circulars to find the coupons for that item. I personally do this every time that I go to a store that is not one of the stores that couponmom currently has a deals page for (i.e. BJ’s)

  53. Romeo Clayton says:

    HaHa. Great post and great timing. I was about to write on this very topic this weekend. I’ve seen facebook pictures of people excited about their savings, which are great, but it doesn’t account for the lost time looking for the coupons, the money spent by purchasing the things that are not really needed, and the money lost when the bulk purchased items expire after their shelf life.

  54. OldGoatBob says:

    I get coupons from the Sunday paper, occasionally from magazines and the store register for things that we actually use. Match them up with supermarket specials on the same products. Often the store’s “courtesy” card is required for these. Bottom line, I only use the coupons when the item is on sale. Between that, coupon doubling, the “courtesy” card, and buying last-sale-date markdowns we save + $1K annually (we is 2 of us). That ends up being spent on frivolous things when we travel. ;-)

  55. Tom Denver, CO says:

    Um….There’s a link to Groupon’s subscription page just above the very post that says you don’t link to Groupon. I’d hoped it was just a picture and not a link. Did I miss something in the post or the comments?

  56. Belinda says:

    My organization system: I bought an index card-sized accordian folder with insertable plastic tabs, which I labeled for each category (dairy, pasta, cleaning, etc.) It’s small enough to fit in my purse. I have never had a problem with coupons building up because I use the ones I clip!

  57. Romeo Clayton says:

    After reading through most of these post, there seems to be an entire host of “strategic coupon users.” If someone is a stay-at-home parent of not-so-rambunctious children, then I guess there is plenty of time to ‘shop’ for coupons. Because I don’t do it and don’t know the amount of time it takes to save “big” money, I can’t measure for certain the opportunity costs. But, if one spends more than twenty hours a week searching for “deals” he or she would probably save more money having a part-time job :)

  58. Kevin says:

    Not all coupon blogs/sites are created equal. Groupon for example features a time sensitive offer every day or two (that can be emailed to you). Yes, you may have a dedicated coupon email account, but unless you check it within the 24-36 hour time frame, you miss out on that deal. Of course you can’t always predict when you will need something, but given the 1 year time-frame to capitalize on any groupon, there’s definite leeway to make it work.

    However, I would argue that Groupon is the exception to the rule and stand by the principal of your post and follow-up comment.

  59. Lise says:

    In general I agree that coupons can easily trick us into buying stuff we don’t need. There’s actually quite of bit of research out there on how we fall for these lures, and spend more money than we would if we didn’t have a coupon.

    That said, I subscribe to Groupon, and I’m happy I do. One of my goals is to see more of the notable places within my state, and Groupon frequently has deals on things like these. So, for example, I got discounted tickets to the Stone Zoo, or Old Sturbridge Village, two attractions here in MA that I haven’t visited. I also wanted to try new restaurants in my area, so I bought a few Groupons for restaurants in places I frequently visit.

    I guess my point is that sites like these can be useful if you can match the deals up with your goals and values – not necessarily a single item, like toothpaste.

  60. Jane says:

    I personally think it is wrong to sell things at a garage sale that you received free with coupons. Walgreens specifically puts stickers on free Register Rewards items forbidding resale. And I find the people who chase deals and clear out the shelves to be rather greedy. It sounds like a compulsion. Often they use the excuse that they will donate the glucose meters or whatever, but it’s still a compulsion.

  61. Lisa says:

    Seems to me those stickers on Walgreens items are not always on the products and when they are, only on some of the products. And they say something like “to be sold only at Walgreens” or something similar. I don’t remember them saying anything about resale.

    It is a job to chase down the deals as it takes time and computer skills to be able to do this stuff. Many people don’t have time to do the deals or know how to find stuff online.

    There are free items at Walmart and Target and CVS all the time also, I never see any stickers on their stuff. Even my grocery store that doubles coupons has free stuff pretty often. Recently they paid us 1 cent to take cereal out of the store.

  62. Cathy Moran says:

    It isn’t a bargain if you don’t need it. I look at the coupon sites, crowing about having bought some nutritionally worthless product for little or nothing, and conclude that the writer has lost sight of what’s important. Coupons have become a game, not a tool.

  63. Barb says:

    I cannot believe you are still unaware of Jeffrey at grocerycouponguide.com and his “Eating Well on $1 A Day” challenge. Result after 100 days = Money Spent: $76.11 / Retail Value of Everything Purchased: $1473.94, with photos of all receipts. Doesn’t seem possible does it?

    Most of the excess was donated to his local food bank. It is not hard work, he is now writing a very detailed guide on how to duplicate his results titled “Lazy Couponing”. Since he is about to be interviewed by CNN a lot of this will likely change in the near future as more people do it. Still, he points up a lot of mistakes in how people use coupons. Well worth the read.

  64. Danielle says:

    A few people have mentioned only checking a couple of couponing blogs. I’m just curious which blogs are frequented. I think I’d like to look and see for myself.

  65. Courtney says:

    A few people have commented that coupons for fresh, non-processed foods are not available, but this is not true. I regularly find coupons for Smart Chicken, Earthbound Farm, Organic Valley, Horizon, Driscoll berries, Del Monte fresh pineapple, Eggland’s Best Organic…just to name a few.

  66. Dash says:

    In my opinion http://www.couponmom.com is the only coupon blog one needs to look at. Instead of trying to guess what is a good deal for each person it simply tells you about everything on sale that week and which sunday paper or online coupon to use. What’s more is that it presents this information in table format (kind of like using excel) so you can sort on any one of the 7-9 columns the one I use is price and I sort such that everything that I can get for FREE shows up at the top.

  67. Christine says:

    I used to buy groceries like Trent mentioned. I made a list of things that I needed for that week.

    I came upon a website recommended by someone on a forum called http://www.couponmom.com. I read Stephanie Nelson’s Strategic Shopping free ebook. “Strategic Shopping is not about changing the way you eat, it is about changing
    the way you buy the food that you like.” I still eat the same foods as I did before but instead of buying the food when I needed it, I buy it when it’s on sale and stock up until the next sales cycle. You have to know what your family eats and how fast your family consumes things.

    These are what these coupon blogs are all about. They are letting you know when the best deals are and when to stock up. It’s not that much more work then what I did before. Before couponing, I spent about $75 per week but now with couponing, I spend about $40 per week on grocery/household/baby/laundry/pet items (the same exact items or close enough).

    Frugality is about spending less on certain items so you can spend more on the things that matter. Well, couponing helps me achieve that. It takes a little bit of work but the couponing blogs do most of the work for you.

    And for the people that don’t want to coupon or look at the coupon blogs, that’s alright with me because it means more coupons and free items for me.

  68. sipote says:

    i think Trent is talking about the exception to most of his couponers on his site…i see alot of them disagree with him…well, because they are the exception to the rule. Most people do not spend time finding, cutting, nor posting about coupons on blogs like this. The majority think the coupon gives them a right to buy that item, since, hey, they got a coupon for it! Regardless that half the time if the look to the left/right side of that item in the store, a generic brand will be much cheaper, even when he/she uses the coupon! I know, I was one of them…I do like the coupon-blogsphere; however, their intensity about the whole thing leaves me wondering if it’s worth it when the generic brand would do just fine?

  69. G. Peterson says:

    Have to agree with you and Shawn Miles. Growing, canning and freezing your own produce…making your own cleaning supplies…buying basics (and I have yet to see a coupon on a bag of potatoes or a bag of chicken leg quarters!)
    I will use a coupon for an item that I really need—for instance: Ball just had a $1.00 off coupon for canning supplies. Now that’s a decent coupon!
    I know others have become coupon queens and seem to know what they are doing….but I wonder if they are factoring in the time AND the gas to get to all the different stores that have all the special deals.

  70. Aliesha says:

    I like to make my grocery list according to whats on sale in my local grocery store’s sale flier. They are always having great deals like 50% off, buy one get one, ect. I don’t buy the stuff I don’t need like cookies, cakes, ect. but I get stuff that I can use like chicken or spegehtti. I usually find this to be cheaper especially when I get the buy one get one free offers. Usually there will be extras for the next week and then I will not have to buy meals for that week. I aslo try to look up coupons that I can match with the sale items. I really save a lot of money by doing this and becuase the sales change every week I will always have a variety of meals to make.

  71. Rachel says:

    (this is Rachel from comment #9)

    I was gone all weekend and my post got caught in the approval waiting list so here it is minus the link:

    “We just don’t buy much stuff that coupons are good for so its a waste of my time…”

    This is a common misconception. You can use coupons for the things you don’t normally buy to get the products that you actually want which don’t have coupons. Luckily, there are people out there that are willing to put together the deals and share them on the internet so the time sunk in couponing goes down significantly.

    I wish that I could take advantage of having something like a CVS card to get “Extra Bucks”. There’s just nothing like that here in Canada that even remotely compares to what you have in the US.

    If you want to know more about productive couponing, google “how to coupon for the rest of us” and you will find the link to an article that explains it better than I ever could.

  72. Dash says:

    In my opinion ‘couponmom’ is the only coupon blog one needs to look at. Instead of trying to guess what is a good deal for each person it simply tells you about everything on sale that week and which sunday paper or online coupon to use. What’s more is that it presents this information in table format (kind of like using excel) so you can sort on any one of the 7-9 columns the one I use is price and I sort such that everything that I can get for FREE shows up at the top.

  73. Lilly says:

    I can see that a lot of people making comments here do not understand the *real* way to save money with coupons (a la Couponmom.com, for example), even after explaining it to them. Cutting out coupons only for items you might need and keeping them in envelopes in your purse…..now that is truly the time-consuming way of couponing. If you’re super busy and make good money at your job, then couponing may not be for you….it does take *some* time after all. But if you’re like the rest of us who have a little free time and really need to save money, couponing is definitely worthwhile.

  74. Charla Lucibello says:

    Another disagreement reply (sorry for that). You say that people only end up buying unnecessary items, but TRUE die-hard couponers are very much the opposite…we never buy anything full price, and are so bent on saving, that we tend to not buy the extras that most people do indulge (unless completely FREE). And unless you are a homesteader and make your own soap and butcher your own meat, then yes, eventually even you will need to buy things that do have coupons.

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