Welcome to the 3rd Smart Money Debate at ReadyForZero! To see the other side of this debate, read Sean’s post: Why You Should Use Coupons for Grocery Shopping. And then let us know which argument was more convincing!
This post was written by Paula Pant, creator of AffordAnything.com, a personal finance blog dedicated to helping you live the life you want. You can also find her on Twitter @AffordAnything.
I have vivid memories of my mom sitting at the dining table every Sunday, scissors in hand, perusing page after page of advertising copy as she clipped out coupons.
She’d organize the coupons in neat little stacks on the dining table, classified by store. She’d cross-reference the items on her grocery list against the coupons she’d clipped, listing which purchases should come from which stores. This week, milk, eggs and bread come from Kroger; yogurt and cereal come from Bigg’s; bananas, oranges and juice come from Jungle Jims; and chicken and rice come from Aldi.
The whole process took about one to two hours; then she spent the better part of an afternoon driving from store to store. (Gas was cheap back then).
Coupons Lead to More Spending, Not Less
These days coupon-clipping isn’t quite as time-consuming as it was when I was a kid, thanks to the beauty of the internet. We can go to Kroger.com, click on the coupon we want ($1 off a package of Hillshire Farms!), and download it directly to our shopper’s card.
If that’s the extent of our couponing – five minutes of clicking ONLY on the items we buy normally, and ONLY at the most convenient store – I’ll give coupon use a conditional nod of approval. In other words, I’m fine with couponing if it doesn’t inhabit more than a few minutes of your time and a teeny, tiny iota of mental energy.
But couponing can be a slippery slope. If you’re going to venture into this territory, proceed with caution.
One moment you may be buying items from Kroger that are on your normal weekly shopping list. The next moment you might expand the list to include an item you normally don’t buy, just because it’s a great deal. “VitaminWater is only 50 cents a bottle! What a steal!”
Soon you may notice that you’re buying more brand-name items. (Have you noticed that there are rarely coupons for generic/store brands? And with the coupon, the premium brand costs only 20 cents more than the generic one, not 80 cents more like it normally does ….)
Couponing Should Not Be Your Job
The next red flag? You might notice you’re stockpiling items.
It starts innocently enough: Palmolive is on sale, so why not pick up two bottles instead of one? Soon you’ll have a closet full of pasta sauce, toilet paper, canned beans and shampoo. Your spouse will suggest that you downsize to an apartment – “honey, we don’t have to clean gutters if we live in a condo!” — but you say no: you need the storage. (In fact, you suggest installing some more shelves, maybe in the garage … or perhaps you could put a tool shed in the back … )
Before you know it, you’re spending more than 30 minutes combing through online ads to find manufacturer’s coupons that you can stack on top of store coupons. This is when you’ve officially crossed into the territory of time-that-could-be-better-spent-elsewhere.
“But I save $20 from an hour of couponing! I only earn $18 an hour when I work! Isn’t couponing effectively a ‘side job?’”
Doubtful. Couponing doesn’t help you build transferrable skills. It doesn’t help you develop industry relationships. It doesn’t open to door to new opportunities. Couponing is a dead-end job.
Worse yet, it’s a “job” that may spur you to buy more brand-name items, stockpile more products, and generally spend more money than you would have if you shopped sale-blind.
I flipped through Kroger.com while I was doing research for this article. I couldn’t find a single item that I normally buy that was available as a digital coupon.
I could save 75 cents on Minute Maid, but I don’t drink fruit juice. I could save $1 on Cottonelle, which I don’t think I’ve ever bought.
Oh wait, what’s this? I could save 50 cents on Ben and Jerry’s … and I DO eat Ben and Jerry’s on occasion … hmm, maybe I should buy a pint, now that it’s on sale? I normally buy a pint every now and again, so maybe now is a good time to get one …
See what’s happening? I’m devoting mental resources to this task. I’m sinking time and energy into it. And in the end, I might end up buying something I wouldn’t have purchased if I walked into the store without seeing the coupon.
A coupon is an ad. Proceed with caution.
So… do you agree or disagree?
P.S. If you have debt, try out our free tool for managing and paying off debt. You’ll like it!
Update: We’re going to link to blog posts responding to this debate (if you post one, let us know).