Rethinking Coupons

Don't mess with coupons. That's what I learned from last week's Shop To It post where I mused about not understanding the lure of those little pieces of paper that give you discounts. Some of you found it bizarre that a shopping blogger would turn up her nose at coupons. Because of your comments I have vowed to give them another try. For a whole month I won't make a single purchase without using a coupon. If I'm grocery shopping, I'll vow to use at least five coupons on things that I normally buy. If I'm buying clothes for my kids or shoes for myself, I'll whip out a coupon like nobody's business. I'll let you know how I did and maybe I'll become a coupon addict.

But I'm asking for some help here. I think it's only fair that I tell you my three biggest beefs against coupons:

--I'm brand-loyal. You gotta be kinda flexible when it comes to using coupons. Especially for the coupons users that walk out of a grocery store with $100 worth of items for just 57 cents. These shoppers are not brand-loyal. They'll buy whatever toothpaste is the cheapest with their coupon. But what about the rest of us who like certain brands over others? Are coupons just not for us?

--I don't like coupons that make me buy more than one item. There are a good amount of coupons out there that make you buy three or four items to get the deal. What if I only want one? I don't exactly want my pantry turning into a mini 7-11.

--Using coupons is all about being organized. It has nothing to do with laziness as some of you wrote. Avid coupon users have to admit that they spent time getting used to using coupons and figuring out a good system for how they would remember to use them and on what. Getting $30 worth of groceries for free as sshopper did or saving nearly $500 on groceries so far this year by using coupons as poppysue85 has done didn't happen overnight.

What I've learned is there are two kinds of coupon users: the ones that can get a cartload of groceries for pennies and the kind that use coupons on things they normally buy and save some bucks here and there.

But no matter what kind of coupon user you are, it's all about forming a habit. It's a habit you get into like recycling and flossing your teeth every night. It takes time to develop the habit but once you do, you can't remember what life was like before. And there's no question that these days it's a habit that's worth picking up.

So... what kind of coupon user are you? What is your routine for using coupons? Have you found a good way to store them?

By Tania Anderson |  March 24, 2009; 12:00 AM ET General Interest , Grocery Deals
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I occasionally use coupons but generally only when it's already something that I would have purchased or tried. I'm not going to let coupons dictate my life. They do take time to clip and organize, and my time has value.
And then there's the store loyalty cards (CVS, Giant, Safeway...). Wouldn't it be nice if, in return for allowing the store to collect all this information on our buying habits (that they then resell), if once a year they offered us patrons a copy of our annual purchases? It might be incredibly enlightening to see an annual aggregation of all your purchases. (ie, Did I really spend $3,000 on bottled water?)
I have a particular beef with department store coupons. I think that they ought to reward holders of their store-specific credit cards, by giving them the maximum discount without making them clip the coupons. Otherwise, why should I use a department store card...I can get more usable points by charging with my AmEx AND that's one less card that could be stolen or lost.

Posted by: chass | March 24, 2009 7:41 AM

My problem with coupons is that my family really doesn't buy the kind of processed foods that have coupons. We mostly buy fresh food and there are no coupons for vegetables. We buy other stuff in bulk - like toothpaste or toilet paper and we buy toys and clothes and such on consignment. Am I missing something with the coupon thing?

Posted by: VaLGaL | March 24, 2009 8:06 AM

"For a whole month I won't make a single purchase without using a coupon. If I'm grocery shopping, I'll vow to use at least five coupons on things that I normally buy. If I'm buying clothes for my kids or shoes for myself, I'll whip out a coupon like nobody's business." Honestly, I think this attitude is idiotic, and can only guess that you are being sarcastic? You're not being a thoughtful or thrifty shopper if you think whipping out a coupon is a good way to shop. I've used coupons for years, clipping them from magazines and the newspaper,now occasionally getting some from reputable internet sources, and I use them on products I already buy, or to try something new that I think I might like. I have occasionally left the grocery with a savings of $20+ on maybe a $50 purchase, and am happy with that, but have no problem with someone who saved $49 on $50, or .50 with a .25 coupon doubled.

Posted by: ratperson | March 24, 2009 8:14 AM

No coupons! Coupon programs cost the grocery stores and the product producers money to operate, much more than you would like to think.

I'd rather the programs be eliminated and the prices for products be dropped accordingly. THAT makes more sense sense than having desperate consumers spending their precious free time sorting coupons.

To put this in perspective, if we spent the same amount of time at an hourly job that we spend on coupons, we'd make more than we save using the coupons.

Posted by: IslandLady | March 24, 2009 8:17 AM

I agree 100% with ratperson - there's no need to go crazy on coupons just because we suggested using them once in a while. Perhaps you can get some tips from the Baltimore Sun's shopping blog; they link to useful coupons:

Posted by: subwayguy | March 24, 2009 8:28 AM

I realize you were taken to task about dissing coupons, but there's a middle way here. Don't set an unachievable goal and then be disappointed when coupons fail you. Personally, I just try to save a little bit more than the cost of my Sunday Post every week.

Posted by: crunchyfrog | March 24, 2009 8:42 AM

I went thru the coupon phase when my son was in grade school -- we'd go to the grocery store with the coupon file (yup, filed by type of product) and a calculator, and we'd figure out which product had the lowest unit cost and buy that one. 9 times out of 10 it turned out NOT to be the coupon'd product.

Now I just don't bother clipping, but I still use the calculator to figure out the lowest unit price.

Posted by: johnsondeb | March 24, 2009 8:57 AM

Personnally can't stand coupons. I am a brand loyalst too. I HAVE tried getting the generic brand on things I really could care less about (Raisen Bran for instance) but you couldn't get me to buy anything else made out of pureed tomatoes if it doesn't have the name "Hunts" on it....

Posted by: changingfaces | March 24, 2009 8:58 AM

I'm with VaLGaL. I'll go through the coupon fliers from time to time, but I rarely find a coupon for anything that I would actually buy. I buy meat, fish and vegetables from a local butcher, fishmonger and farmers' market whenever possible, and coupons just don't come into play. I'd rather spend the extra money and support my local businesses and know that my family isn't eating junk.

Also, I'm alergic to a lot of detergents and fragrances, so I tend to buy whatever won't make me break out in a rash. That's just my personal preference, but it makes it less likely for me to find coupons for toiletries and cleaning products that I can actually use.

Posted by: paulje | March 24, 2009 9:12 AM

I almost always use coupons when grocery shopping and it has never seemed like a big hassle. It takes 15 minutes to go through the ads and cut out the coupons. Don't cut out ones for things you wouldn't buy and you won't have to spend a lot of time organizing them.

My guess is that those of you who find this very difficult probably don't use or stick to shopping lists. If you have a good list, you can just pull out the coupons for those items before you head to the store.

In total, I would say that I spend, at most, 25 extra minutes a week to save $5-$10 in groceries. It's worth it for me, but I guess that's a trade-off you have to decide for yourself.

Posted by: eiryie | March 24, 2009 9:28 AM

I think it's a good experiment to see if you might like using coupons. Consider these possibilities:

-Brand loyalty is (often) irrational. You're a victim of some company's marketing. You are paying more - NOT for quality, but to cover the costs of their marketing that suckered you. Usually, they are essentially identical to less costly versions. Same ingredients; radically different price. Using coupons will help you try other brands - once you do, you may realize there is little difference.

- Having a pantry stocked with multiples of staple items means you have to worry less about replenishing them when they're low. Good for people who do not love organizing shopping lists - just buy plenty up front.

- Don't bother organizing coupons beyond keeping them tucked somewhere together in your car console. Clip only the ones you think you might use (i.e., don't clip a Spam coupon if you never eat Spam.) Right before you shop, flip through and grab the ones you intend to use that day. Every two months, throw everything away and start fresh - if you haven't used one by then, you probably won't and it probably expired anyway.

Finally, think of the other ways you can spend or invest the savings!

Posted by: rooibos | March 24, 2009 9:34 AM

I have used coupons since I was in college (a tradition handed down from mom). Always have a portable folder that sorts by category so you can find them easily - I find even I get frustrated and give up if I'm looking through dozens of unsorted coupons. I also sort by date or type of product so I can easily expunge expired coupons. I easily save more than the cost of my weekly Post subscription per trip, often many dollars more just with due diligence.

Brand loyalty is (as others have noted) often irrational. Look at the ingredients list. More often than not, identical. Of course if you have something relatively unique that you really like (V8 Splash Diet Berry for me), don't give it up, but why buy brand-name cranberry juice when I can get store brand a dollar cheaper?

I generally will not even clip out the 2-for-1 unless it is a staple item I use often or that doesn't expire quickly. Think detergent, soap, toothpaste and brushes, canned foods (if you go for them), broths and stocks, pastas, frozen veggies. I'm happy for those of you with the time and money to shop at butchers/fishmongers/farmers market - many of us don't have that option, so we live and eat by the weekly card sales at Giant/Safeway and plan our shopping lists accordingly. The best is if you can combine a coupon with a card sale - rare, but mucho savings. Giant just upped their double coupons to 99c and below - cha ching for me!

And if you shop at a Giant with the new hand-held scanners - use them! They offer special discounts every week just for using the scanners and it really does save you time!

Posted by: clodilla | March 24, 2009 10:09 AM

I'm fairly brand-loyal, and on Sunday, I saved $45 on my $87 grocery bill. Only $10 of that was just the bonus card alone. Coupons can work and you can still get the stuff you want. I've been shopping this way for about two years, and I've definitely gotten into more of a routine, but not doing it now would just feel like flushing money down the toilet.

Posted by: whatrocks9 | March 24, 2009 10:29 AM

"Every two months, throw everything away and start fresh - if you haven't used one by then, you probably won't and it probably expired anyway."

Not true - Most stores I shop at take expired coupons.

Biggest surprise for me was how many stores did take coupons. Not just Giant and Safeway but CVS, Wal-Mart and Target.

Keeping them organized and being disciplined to use them is key. Other part of the equation is not buying something just because you have a coupon (or because it is on sale).

Posted by: Dadat39 | March 24, 2009 10:37 AM

You guys are still clipping coupons? Forget waiting for the Sunday paper (which would cost me $1.25 or something which would negate the savings of the 1 or 2 coupons I would use).

Get coupons ONLINE. I make a grocery list, then search for my brand name products online. It takes much less time and I hate to waste the entire newspaper to get the 20 pages of advertisements/coupons.

Also, coupon codes are usually more substantial than 35 cent coupons for oatmeal. Saving 20% at a clothing store like Macy's will save me much more money than toothpaste coupons.

Posted by: jaylin4dc | March 24, 2009 10:48 AM

Just in case this helps anybody: The farmers markets around town will be accepting food stamps this year.

Posted by: jaylin4dc | March 24, 2009 10:51 AM

Tania - This is a very timely post on a subject that I have been trying to connect with you on.

Recently some of the Giant Food stores in DC, Virginia and Baltimore (Falls Church, Springfield, Arlington, Annandale, McLean, Silver Spring, Baltimore, Columbia, Brills, Pikesville, Germantown, Wheaton, Elkridge and Bowie – among others) - have added a new self-service shopping system that could revolutionize how people shop and save money.

Called Scan-It!, the system allows shoppers to scan and bag their own groceries as they shop, and also delivers relevant coupons in the store aisle.

Besides saving time, the major advantage of Scan It!, are the coupons that are delivered to the scanner as the customer shops.

The system uses information from the customer’s loyalty card that reflects past purchases, as well as wireless technology, to deliver the appropriate coupons at the right time. For example, the shopper might be approaching the soda aisle, when a coupon for money off a major soda brand will be delivered. Or, if in the past the shopper has purchased a certain brand of ice cream, they may get a coupon delivered that offers money off if they buy two of that brand.

Scan It! is simple to use and results in greater savings for the consumer, a major benefit during these difficult economic times.

To use the system, the shopper simply scans their loyalty card and then selects a handheld scanner. The shopper then scans each item they purchase as they shop. This saves significant time in the checkout process as well.

A viable alternative to traditional coupon use that keeps consumers with their brand and stops the clipping !

Posted by: kwiltse | March 24, 2009 11:02 AM

I also agree with VaLGaL and with paulje. I just don't buy the items to which most coupons apply anymore. I used to be a coupon clipper, but I found myself buying food we shouldn't eat, and too many paper products. Now I shop pretty much like paulje, and I also have a sensitivity to fragrances and additives to soap/laundry products. I've also been losing weight (slowly but surely) without trying since we changed to fresh food and dropped the junk/processed/frozen products.

Posted by: TwoEvils | March 24, 2009 12:07 PM

I only save grocery coupons for brands/items that I use regularly. Coupons for diapers were extremely helpful because they're usually at least $1 off.

For home goods/clothing, I have one email account where I receive those annoying promotional emails from online retailers like Lands End or Barnes & Noble so if I need something, I can usually find a promo code for a discount.

Posted by: mediajunky | March 24, 2009 12:35 PM

I use coupons faithfully and I've saved hundreds of dollars. It does take time - and for those that say time is valuable - I suggest clipping while watching tv/listening to music. It is well worth it. I just bought over $300 worth of groceries and spent $160.00.

I am not loyal to brands - as other readers suggest brand loyalty really doesn't do anything but make you a slave to their pricing and that's not what bargain shopping is about. I have my favorites, but I'm also open to trying new things. As others I don't like a lot of processed foods, but don't believe that you can't get good items with coupons. I buy alot of frozen vegetables, frozen/vacuumed sealed fish, etc. Yogurts, cheeses, breads, crackers, stewed tomatoes and other canned items such as kidney beans, etc - all have coupons. Even eggs and soymilk! The trick to saving the most is getting out the sale paper - I go online - and looking up that week's sales. Match up your coupons before you go and you're set. For instance, if Harris Teeter has Lysol cleaners 2/$5.00, I buy two different (one for bathroom, one for the kitchen) and then I might have a .75 off two and then Harris Teeter doubles the coupons. Sometimes they have "triple coupon" shopping days.

I use a small checkbook organizer and organize by: cleaning products, toiletries, frozen, refrigerated, canned, other food, desserts/snacks, and beverages.

Easier to sort and find quickly.

There are also sites online that can help you and do some legwork for you such as thegrocerygame.

Good luck!!

Posted by: aznhoney | March 24, 2009 1:27 PM

kwitse, you sound like an advertising copywriter.

I agree with those who only clip coupons for stuff they already buy. Once in a while I'll clip one for a new brand, just to give it a try, but I usually stick with the tried-and-true. What good is a coupon if nobody will eat/use what you bought?

Posted by: lorenw507 | March 24, 2009 1:35 PM

I disagree with you on the issue of buying more than one item. I love the coupons that require more than one item and then I wait for those items to go on sale and my savings are even greater. This works particularly well for food staples (peanut butter, pasta sauce, etc) that I buy all the time anyway. I might as well get the best price on it and not have to remember to buy it every week.

I find coupons to be rewarding; I recently saved $12 on one order using coupons at the supermarket. That's a movie ticket or a few trips to Starbucks!

Happy clipping!

Posted by: oc713 | March 24, 2009 2:42 PM

You can also use google to find coupon codes if you're shopping on big websites like Land's End. I learned this trick from my boyfriend who always looks for a coupon code before buying something online. It might only take 5% off your total price but it's better than not saving 5%.

I work near a Bed Bath and Beyond and carry their 20% off coupons that I get in the mail as well as CVS coupons in my purse, in case I need to buy something during the week. You don't have to be obsessed about coupons but it's a good habit to have.

Posted by: ElDee | March 24, 2009 3:10 PM

I save quite a bit by buying store brands and watching the weekly sales at the store. Using the bonus / frequent shopper cards helps too. I use coupons now and then for name brand items I already use, but if I can go generic, I find that the savings are better overall.

Posted by: jaradel | March 24, 2009 3:13 PM

I started using coupons regularly when I started getting my local paper for free about a year ago. I would estimate that I've saved a couple of hundred dollars. Doesn't take a lot of time, maybe 15 minutes to go through the coupons Saturday morning while I drink my coffee and watch the Today Show and maybe another 10-15 minutes to organize my coupons when I check the grocery store sale ad and make my shopping list. I also use online coupons and sign up for email alerts for certain products, such as dog food. As someone said on NPR's Talk of the Nation yesterday, I have more time than money.

Posted by: milesdy | March 24, 2009 3:17 PM

It's interesting that the URL for this blog post ends with "defending coupon hate".

Posted by: subwayguy | March 24, 2009 3:51 PM

Coupouns have but a limited usage in my life!

I only use them if I intend to buy something in the first place. After all, you have to keep in mind that coupons are just another instrument that those marketing geniuses have invented to make you buy more of things that you know you don't REALLY need!

I agree with the author that an organized coupon campaign can save you a couple of bucks here and there, just that I believe for the majority of us, it isn't worth the effort!

Posted by: KING007 | March 24, 2009 9:27 PM

I'm a single male in his mid-30s. I find that coupons are often more hassle than they're worth for me. That doesn't mean I never use them, of course, but 90% of the time, the coupons in the Sunday paper are for things I wouldn't buy, so what good are they? Of course, if I happen to see a useful one (say, laundry detergent), I'll save it and hope I remember to take it with me to the store.

I've done pretty well this year with my Harris Teeter VIC card, though, but it's not because I intentionally set out in advance to buy certain products. Rather, I go to the store knowing what I need, and if something I'm going to buy is discounted, or is on a two-for-one or whatever, then I'll buy extras (assuming, of course, whatever it is is wouldn't spoil if kept for a longer time). I like the idea of e-coupons you can link to your card, assuming you have some control over what coupons you get (e.g., can you go online somewhere, look through them, and link them to your card? That makes some sense since then you need not remember to take them to the store. Saves paper, too.).

As for brand loyalty, I think that's a bit of a split thing for me. For some things like root beer and toilet paper, buying the brand I prefer (for reasons of taste and comfort, respectively) is the more important consideration. For other things like orange juice--I go through two containers of that per week--I'll buy whichever brand is on special that week (as long as, for the orange juice, they have no-pulp available). It seems a bit silly to me for people to claim either extreme, either that you should always be brand-conscious or that you should never be brand-conscious. For aluminium foil, say, who cares whether you buy the store brand? For something like soda where you may have a serious taste preference, that's a whole different question.

As for the Bed Bath & Beyond 20% things....if there is any store where you should never pay full price, that store is the one! (Even if you just stop in to use the coupon to buy AA batteries or something. My mom says she uses those coupons to buy the heads for her electric toothbrush if the coupons are about to expire.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | March 24, 2009 11:05 PM

I've been on both sides of this debate.... I used to clip coupons so religiously that I would walk out of the grocery store with a complete cart full of groceries at least once a month, having paid less than $10 for the lot of it. I spend a LOT of time clipping, organizing, and planning in order to make this happen. My time is valuable, and I decided it would be better spent doing ANYTHING else....

My new method now involves shopping the sale ads when they come out in my local paper (I look at the sale ads for the local stores, plan menus based on what I have in my pantry and what is on sale, and plan my shopping list accordingly), and will save ONLY the coupons that I know that I will probably use. With this method, I have saved nearly $750 off the regular price on groceries so far this year, and have not really had to deal with the coupons at all (these have probably saved me slightly over $100 since the beginning of January). And my husband calls me "name-brand queen", as I am not really keen on the bargain brands available.

I am on track to spend about as much this year with my new system (shopping the sales, and buying only exactly what I need when I need it) as I spent when I was an avid coupon clipper (when I seemed to get quite a lot of more unhealthy, processed food cluttering up my pantry). And my husband and I are both losing weight and becoming healthier as a result.

Posted by: bestflightattendant | March 25, 2009 12:45 AM

Coupons are a godsend, especially when used to stretch the family food budget.

And instead of going from store to store to redeem them, merchants like Super Fresh are now honoring all competitors coupons.

So instead of running to Magruder's today to redeem their coupon to buy a gallon of milk for $1 or $10 off a $50 dollar order at Harris Teeter, you can just visit your local Super Fresh and they will gladly redeem them. That's an even greater way to save time and money.

Posted by: ziggyzippy | March 25, 2009 7:46 AM

I agree with you that coupon clipping can be a hassle. I often put them aside, forget to bring them with me and end up throwing them out well after they've expired.

Coupons and codes for online shopping is another matter entirely: I will scour the internet for hours to find a good coupon! I use coupon sites like to find promo codes and coupon codes to save 10-20%--sometime more!

While saving 20 cents off a can of soup isn't going to thrill me, getting free shipping on my online purchase definitely will!

Posted by: stellalouise | March 25, 2009 9:19 PM

There is no doubt a simple search for online coupons for retails stores or websites is absolutely worth the time. For a 30-second search, you can save $5, $10, $20, or more along with free shipping.

As to grocery coupons, I believe there are two types of coupon people - people who enjoy coupons and people who simply don't. I discuss this matter with my coworkers/friends and no matter how much I discuss this matter with them, they don't get into grocery coupons. Granted, I am a zealous coupon clipper but if I ask someone "Would you take a 50% cut in the cost of your groceries?" - the answer would be yes. However, there are rules and procedures to maxamize your savings that people just don't want to implement.

It is that simple. You don't have to be a coupon person, you just have to be comfortable with realizing you are paying more for something that could be less with the addition of two traits - patience and determination.

Posted by: simplyfierce | March 27, 2009 11:58 PM

Using coupon codes definitely pays off (literally!) I have also saved hundreds of dollars simply by using a coupon code or promo code for online purchases. The site I use most is Dealio. I always find current codes for my favorite stores like Macy's, Kohl's, and Target. I also like their Daily Deal on their shopping blog. Here's a link if you want to check their site out.

Posted by: sammiekat | March 28, 2009 7:27 PM

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