Why You Should NOT Use Coupons for Grocery Shopping

Smart Money Debate - Why You Should Not Use Coupons for Grocery ShoppingWelcome 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

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

Stockpiling groceries because of coupons

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.

In Conclusion…

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!

Image 1 by sdc2027; Image 2 by Mike Miley

Update: We’re going to link to blog posts responding to this debate (if you post one, let us know).

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  • I think I’m middle of the road on the coupon debate. I enjoy clipping them for 10 minutes as part of my Sunday morning routine, but don’t let them guide what I buy, especially not to junk food!
    I actually wrote a post about it a couple months ago that seems to be in the middle of the road between you guys: http://www.plantingourpennies.com/2012/05/29/on-coupons/

  • one cent

    “A coupon is an ad.” That sums it up; the companies are trying to get you to buy something you ordinarily wouldn’t. Great warning!

  • Josh wants out TOO!!

    Ad for sure!!!

  • I basically agree, but I have variants due to our budget. As a past penny pincher, I do pretty good seeking coupons for our usual purchases. Our “bulk buys” are at Aldi’s Discount Foods 1-2 times a month, and then I watch for coupons and sales for our “regular buys” and we fill in the normal staples during the week. But,I spend less than an hour a week couponing, meal planning helps for us to eat better than we used to, I save money and have time for my family. Btw, we like Cottonelle, as it seems sturdier than Angel Soft, in which we bought for years. We switched after trying a free sample. Some things may simply be just a preference.

    • Sounds like you are approaching “expert-level” at saving money – great work! Also, the fact that you spend relatively little time on couponing makes it an even better decision for you.

  • Mel

    While it is possible to take things too far, that is not a reason to not coupon. I am going to the grocery store anyway, and likely to plan my meals around the sales in the flyer. I won’t buy the brand name just because it’s cheaper than usual – I only do that if I already prefer the brand name, or if it is cheaper than other options. I also stick mostly to a single grocery store (though I have several options all clustered together, so it doesn’t cost much more to get the deals at another store (which I might also do without coupons).

    As for the value of the time spent, I disagree with your arguments. First, there are transferrable skills, such as learning to budget, and knowing how to compare products (particularly when they come in different size packages – no, that bulk package is not always cheaper, particularly if you’re using coupons. When I save $50 on our groceries this week, that is $50 in my pocket. If I go to work and earn $50, that is taxable income – so I have to earn more than $50 to end up with the same amount in my pocket.

    The answer is moderation – don’t go to the extremes you see on TV – they’re not realistic, they often violate store policies, and they’re buying unnecessary products they wouldn’t otherwise buy. Limit the stockpiles to what you will use before the next great sale, and stick to your regular list, you can still save a great deal of money. For me, I find the opposite effect you found – if it’s a luxury item (like the B&J pint) I won’t buy it unless it’s on sale AND I have a coupon.

    • These are really good points – including the one about taxable income. It sounds like you use coupons in a very reasonable and effective way. In fact, if you want to write a guest post about that topic, let me know! 🙂

  • P Kho

    if the generic item supplies the consumer with the need, it’s a better buy. why pay for the trappings of an entire advertising industry when all you need is the stuff. and that is what you pay for, containerization of a basic commodity for ‘presentation’ to consumers with way too much free time to waste. precooked? prepared? prepare to pay for that which you presume will save you anything. if you aspire to be the best, spend the least for what all the rest spent the most. we have been carefully trained like pets to respond just as Pavlov described.

    • Interesting points. There is indeed a big impact on people’s buying behavior due to advertising. Thanks for your comment, Nancy.

  • Frank

    What I usually find is that most coupons offered are for products I don’t buy. I would really like to see more coupons for healthy versions of meat, fish and produce. I cut out coupons only for products I use but occasionally I’ll use a coupon to try a new product to check it out. What I don’t like is the expiration dates. Most coupons aren’t worth using because you won’t need the product before the coupon expires. I disagree with your argument regarding stockpiling. If the coupon is for a product you will use forever like toilet paper, paper towel, soap or other essentials, then I say go ahead and buy as long as you have space to store it. One last thing, how many of you cut coupons only to end up throwing them away because you didn’t get to the store before the coupon expired?

    • That is one of the frustrating things about coupons, isn’t it? Often it seems like you can never find a coupon for something you need – at least, not in the moment you need it. Good point too about the expiration dates.

  • paulrw63

    THIS may explain why my mother hoarded toilet paper, soap bars( even hotel soap bars !), and dishwasher detergent. She died 5 years ago, and I am using these up before buying any myself. These may last me my life !

    • That is a great anecdote! It’s wonderful that you are still able to save money by using those items to this day.

  • Bhamad

    I am a couponer. We have noticed our grocery bill has reduced by more than $250 each month for a family of 5. I have 5 bottles of Palmolive ( that I purchased for less than the price of one bottle), free items or close to it allow us to try other things. So I have a small stockpile and I donate most of the free items I get couponing. I know some people who have piles of “great deals” on makeup and stock or items they will never use in their lifetime, so there is two sides of the spectrum. What I am trying to say is it is a great way to stock items that you use, try new things and still reduce your monthly grocery/household items monthly bill.

    • Wow, sounds like you are achieving some great savings that way! Congrats, and thanks for sharing your experience.