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Musings

The Hidden Cost of Coupons

by Nick

Many years ago, when Betsy and I had just started living together, I went through a phase where I tried to collect and use coupons at the grocery store to save some money.

I tried it for a few months, spending my Sunday mornings sifting through newspapers and websites printing and categorizing coupons.  Then I would take my binder to the store and RAKE IN THE SAVINGS!

Not quite.

In actually, I didn’t really save much money.

These days I still use coupons occasionally, but I only use them for a very focused group of products which I’ll talk about later.

In general, I think coupons are way more costly than most people realize.

Since extreme couponing seems to be all the craze these days, I thought I would spend some time writing about why I think coupons suck for consumers and why you probably shouldn’t use them.

Obviously, I’m anticipating that people will disagree with me.  So if you want to skip straight to the comments and tell me why I’m wrong, feel free!

A Coupon Story

Here’s a story that happens to me frequently minus the dialogue.

I’m in line at the grocery store ready to check out. There’s someone behind me with a huge stack of coupons or if they are organized they have them in a fancy binder.

I have mostly produce, dairy, and fresh stuff in my cart plus maybe some beer and doritos (nobody is perfect).  My total comes to $65.87.

Shopper Behind Me: Holy Green Backs!  You spend a lot of money on groceries. You should stick around and watch my magic.

Me: Umm… okay.

The shopper runs through the checkout which goes much faster than mine because all their stuff is in boxes and the checkout clerk doesn’t have to look up the code for turnips or whatever.  The shopper then runs through a brick of coupons.

Total cost: $2.15

Shopper: BOOOM!  I’m a magician of grocery shopping. Look at that total!!!

Me: Meh. Whatever. I wouldn’t pay $2.15 for all that stuff. In fact, even if you gave it to me, I wouldn’t take most of the stuff in your cart.

Shopper: But it’s FREE!

Me: No it’s not.

Shopper: Ok. It’s basically free!

Me: No. It’s not.

We go our separate ways both feeling somehow superior to the other.

When I say that the cost of the shopper’s cart isn’t as free as it looks, it’s because there are costs that just plain aren’t included in the total.  I’ll break down what I think the hidden costs of coupons are in three parts and then talk about some of the ways that I actually use coupons.

Coupons Cost TIME

This is pretty transparent, but coupons cost you time.  In the extreme coupon world, there are people who spend hours a week snipping, printing, and categorizing coupons.

It’s hard to put a price on this time lost. You could use it to start a business, play with your kids, clean your house, or just relax.

However you slice it though, you are literally trading your TIME for some amount of SAVINGS.  Hopefully, that money saved is worth the time you spend on it.

To be honest, I think that people who are good couponers probably have a pretty solid hourly rate. They get good at it quickly.

My point is that the savings you are making by using coupons is never free.

If you cut your grocery bill from $60 to $20, but it takes you four hours of work then you are just paying yourself $10/hour to clip coupons.  Maybe that’s worth it to you and maybe it’s not, but it certainly isn’t FREE.

Coupons Can Cost You HEALTH

Most coupons are for processed products that are basically some mix of salt and sugar.  A lot of the “food” that you can get with coupons is stuff that I wouldn’t recommend eating regularly even if you could get it for FREE.

It’s just not food that’s good for you.

The stuff that’s good for you (fresh produce, meats, whole grains, etc.) is rarely on sale.

The nutritious stuff isn’t normally on sale because it costs money to grow or produce!  Processed foods, meanwhile, cost the manufacturer cents on the dollar to make.

In fact, I’ll go a step further. If you want to make sure you are eating healthy, just buy stuff for which there is little or no discount available. 

When you eat a lot of products that you are getting at a steep discount even if they aren’t good for you, you will eventually see an impact in your health.

Maybe the worst case is that you develop something like heart disease, high cholesterol, or diabetes.  Maybe you just gain a few pounds.

No matter what, if you eat unhealthy, processed foods regularly because they are cheap, it will impact your health.  This translates to a cost that you (or society) will have to eventually pay.

Coupons Cost you MONEY

Guess what? Manufacturers don’t produce billions of coupons every year to lose money. They do it for a variety of complicated reasons that ultimately cost you money.

Their goal might be to get you to buy something on impulse that you wouldn’t normally buy.

Their goal might be to get you to NOT notice an increase in price or a decrease in packaging volume.

Their goal might be to get you to start regularly using that item on sale and then keep using it when you can’t find it on sale.

Some how, some way, these companies are using these coupons to make more money than they would without them. They wouldn’t do it otherwise. That extra money is most likely coming from you!

The Costs of FOOD

I really believe that most people should probably spend more money on groceries than they do. People in the United States spend less on food (as a percentage of income) than they ever have (Source: Wallstreetpit.com).

This could be because we are buying less food and more products.

Food costs money. If you’re eating food, you should be spending money.

The Way I Use Coupons

I actually do use coupons occasionally, but it is for a very specific list of things. I throw away all the coupons I get that don’t fall into this list.

Rare, but awesome Produce Coupons. Very occasionally, my grocery store will mail me coupons for $5 off produce if I spend $20.  I always save and use these.

Healthy Foods that I buy anyway. I take discounts for things that are healthy. If I see a coupon for orange juice, or frozen fruit, I’ll snag it. These are pretty rare though.

I don’t search for coupons. My grocery stores mail me coupons that they think I would like. I use those occasionally. I don’t spend more than 5 minutes a week going through coupons.

Personal Products. I don’t mind using coupons for stuff like paper towels, toilet paper, etc.

What I try to NOT DO, which may surprise people, is use every coupon I see for unhealthy food that I occasionally eat.  So if there’s a coupon for ice cream, I don’t use it even though I love ice cream.  This might sound silly to some people, but I know that the coupon is there to influence my decision making.

If I bought ice cream every time I had a coupon for ice cream, I would buy ice cream every day.

Instead, ice cream is a bit more expensive for me which makes it a treat.

How Do You Use Coupons?

Given that there are billions of coupons redeemed every year, I’m pretty certain that I’m an outlier when it comes to coupons.

What are your thoughts on coupons? Do you use them for everything, just for some things, or not at all? Why do you think manufacturers make so many of them?!

Photos by misscrabette.