Friday, May 5, 2006

The Science (Fiction) of Coupons

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,


My apologies to those of you reading who swear by coupons, for I am about to shatter your budget-minded world.

I don’t believe in coupons.

Rather, I acknowledge that coupons exist (much like groundhogs, oak trees, and faeries exist), but I don’t believe that using them religiously is a good way to save money.

Let’s look at the example of Faye Prosser, a woman from North Carolina who would beat me in the street with her purse if she ever saw me. Faye uses coupons like money and claims that doing so has saved her family of three more than $4,000 a year.

“At this particular store, they were tripling coupons and my subtotal was $63.84,” Prosser said holding up a receipt. “And they paid me $8.29 to take (the groceries) home!”

You might even say that Faye wrote the book on saving money with coupons, but what secrets could she be keeping from us that make coupon-clipping such a lucrative pasttime? I don’t need a coupon to tell me that I can save $13 by not buying her book, but Faye was kind enough to share her four-step approach to better living through coupons.

1. Acquire Coupons

Genius! How else are you going to save money using coupons if you don’t acquire them first? Other than grabbing the coupons out of the Sunday paper, Faye also recommends picking some up cheaply online from sites like I took a tour of the website and found that it charges a modest handling fee (usually a nickel or a dime) to send you each coupon that you choose to order. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a single coupon for items we already use, and I was able to determine that it would cost us more to switch to most of the products listed–even if we used the coupons!

2. Develop A Price Book

This is a great idea, but one that you don’t need to use a single coupon to execute. By keeping written records of the best prices you see for products, you’ll know when you’re seeing a good deal in the future. But if you look through the typical price book, you’ll see an interesting trend: the store-brand or generic version of an item is usually so much cheaper than any brand-name version that no coupons (even doubled ones) can bring down the price of brand-name items enough to beat their store-brand counterparts.

Of course, if you’re not a lover of generic brands like we are, then you’ll definitely want to use coupons to save you some money. But if that’s the case for you, then using coupons is really just the second-best money-saving option.

3. Prepare Your Grocery List And Meal Menu

Confession time. You may remember a few months back when I said we were going to plan out the week’s dinners in advance. Well, we managed to pull it off for about six weeks, but then I realized that planning meals in advance wasn’t saving us much money. All too often we’d plan a meal that required ingredients we didn’t have, and when we went to the store to buy them, we’d find no version of that item on sale. Bam! We’d have to pay full retail price to keep our carefully-laid plans from falling apart.

It seems that Faye Prosser does something very similar…

Prosser said if you go into a store without knowing what’s on sale, you’re going to spend more money. She makes her grocery list according to what’s on sale, and according to her meal menu. Prosser prepares a seven-day menu including breakfast, lunch and dinner, which tells her exactly what to buy.

…but at least she takes the sales flyers into account when doing her meal planning. But sales flyers aren’t coupons!

4. Shop, Save

If an item is not on sale, or if she doesn’t have a coupon for it, Prosser doesn’t buy it.

Something is very wrong with that statement. Can you spot the problem? It’s the “or if she doesn’t have a coupon for it” part. By Prosser’s logic, having a coupon for an item seems to automatically make it worth buying. A much better version of this statement would be…

After applying sale prices and coupons, if an item you need is at the lowest price, then you buy it.

So why, if people like Faye Prosser using them can save thousands of dollars a year, don’t we use coupons? Our reasons for living a relatively coupon-free life are simple:

  1. Coupons would make us buy things we don’t need. “Hey, I have a coupon for that” should not be the first words out of your mouth when you spot an item on the store shelf. While you might feel accomplished using a small piece of paper to knock 50 cents off a four-dollar box of cereal, matching a coupon in your possession to an item in a store should not be an automatic license to buy that item!
  2. Coupons are rarely the best option for saving money. If you don’t mind trying store-brand products, you’ll find that the money you save buying them instead of brand-name items more than makes up for your coupon-free way of life.
  3. Coupon-clipping is not worth our time. If I spent three hours each week searching for coupons online, clipping coupons from the Sunday paper, and putting together a shopping list based on the coupons in my possession, I sure hope I’m not going to spend a dime on groceries that week. On average, we spend about $40 a week on groceries, and that’s without using a single coupon. I’m not willing to give up even 60 minutes of my free time each week if it means I might trim an extra few bucks off my grocery bill.

All that said, I’ve never been one to turn down a challenge. This weekend, I’ll be picking up a copy of the newspaper for another of my grand experiments. If I can turn 30 minutes of my time into a genuine savings of ten dollars on our grocery bill over the next 30 days, I’ll reconsider my stance on coupons. I’ll report my results right here this time next month.

And if I don’t save ten dollars or more, all you coupon clippers have to buy me a pony.

Update (May 31, 2006): Welcome, visitors! Be sure to read my latest Grand Coupon Experiment status which includes responses to some of your comments.

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