Photo: Clearly Ambiguous
We’ve all seen the segments where a skilled shopper gets her entire cart of groceries for $7 thanks to the complicated matching of coupons with store sales and triple coupon days. And we’ve all felt that emotional high when we feel as if we’ve gotten a great deal or scored something for free.
Unless coupons make the difference between eating and not, then I think the costs of using them outweigh the benefits.
Ever Seen a Coupon for an Eggplant?
The most common complaint against the heavy use of coupons is that most are good for highly-processed food or new-fangled versions of products that we don’t need. In addition, the products are often more expensive than lesser-known brands, even with the discount.
Coupons Don’t Beat the System — They Are the System
Coupons make it seem as though we’re getting away with something – that’s why companies keep issuing them. Coupons are a legitimate way to get us to try a product in hopes that we will like it and buy it again in the future. But even if we have no brand loyalty, we are still playing by their rules.
Extreme couponers are able to game the system so that they get stuff completely free, but their efforts are equal to a part-time job, and they get burned-out from the constant pressure to buy what someone else wants them to buy.
Coupons Create Mental Clutter
It’s hard to do coupons just a little. In fact, expert couponers say the casual use of coupons is not worth the effort of:
- collecting and organizing
- keeping track of expiration dates
- timing shopping trips with sales
- customizing grocery lists
- bringing the right coupons to the store
- dealing with problems at the register
Unless couponing is treated like a job, it can take away from family time, home cooking, community building, and earning power.
Kids and Coupons Don’t Mix
If you’re like me, you have very limited shopping time before your kids start climbing out of the cart and tackling pyramids of cereal boxes. I realized I just didn’t have the time for:
- checking the list for detailed product specifications
- finding the right product on the shelf in the right size (the coupon never works unless I get the 8.7 oz tube of Colgate whitening gel with flouride and tartar control)
- tracking down a manager when the product is out to ask for a substitute (because by then I’m already invested), and finally,
- remembering to give the dang coupons to the cashier
But Coupons Are Kind-of Fun
Saving money with coupons, rebates, and freebies is a game. Maybe it’s just my addictive personality, but I find that games like this can quickly lead to an obsession.
I feel empowered when I spend less time shopping and thinking about shopping. The corporations that bombard me with advertisements, sales, and coupons are smart. It’s hard to fight them – but much easier if I opt out.
When I took the focus off of spending as a new mother, I threw myself into saving money through volunteering and community building. I worked to make our public school better; I participated in clothing swaps; I started a childcare co-operative.
Besides the fact that I was saving more money than I could with coupons, connecting with others and feeling like I was making a contribution made me feel better inside, and helped me in the long run too. The jobs I did fit nicely on my resumé.
7 Ways to Save on Your Grocery Bills
1. Be faithful to your supermarket.
Worrying about who has better deals on ham hocks, driving across town, and learning a new store’s layout is very time-consuming. The grocery business is competitive with a very low profit margin. Some stores have cheaper yogurt, but more expensive bread. It all probably comes out in the wash.
2. Watch out for good sales.
Shopping store sales is a good alternative to using coupons. You still feel as if you’re getting a deal, but you’re not having to jump through hoops. (Keep your eye on the cash register while your stuff is being rung up, since sale prices don’t always show up. Asking the cashier to honor the sale price can be a pain in the neck, but it’s better than feeling cheated or returning to the store with your receipt to get the discount.
3. Use lists.
Planning ahead is probably the single most important way to save money. A grocery list can keep you focused and cut down on impulse buying or extra return trips. Plan your meals based on what is on sale (from that week’s circular, online or in the paper) and watch your savings soar.
4. Pay attention to how much things cost.
You’ll know a good deal when you see it. Sometimes it’s hard to find things that are not on sale, because stores know people look for those little yellow tags. If you know that you can get grapes for $2 per pound, you won’t fall for the $2.99 sale.
5. Try not to buy produce if it’s over $2 per pound.
The cheapest fruit? Bananas. The cheapest vegetable? Cabbage. Lean toward naturally inexpensive foods and find recipes that your family loves to incorporate them. Have you tried our butter-braised cabbage recipe?
6. Buy the store brand.
I always give it a shot first. If it’s not up to my standards, I move a little up. For more on how store brands measure up favorably to name brands, and how much you can save, see Slash Your Grocery Bill with Store-Brand Products from the Get Rich Slowly blog.
7. Seek alternative sources for gourmet food.
International, organic, and healthy food can really throw off a grocery budget. Here are some ideas for finding little luxuries for less:
- Trader Joe’s
- Whole Foods’ store brand (365 Everyday Value)
- Amazon (for coffee, tea, tuna in olive oil, chocolate, etc.)
- ethnic aisle of your grocery store
- Check out the winners of the blind taste tests at Cook’s Illustrated. Sometimes ordinary products are better-tasting than pricey European brands.
- Try some of our family’s favorite recipes. We never buy gourmet pasta sauces or pizza, for example, because we can make it faster and better at home.
p.s. I’m not totally against coupons. Of course, we all love the ease of online coupon codes, and in this post, I talk about a another kind of coupon and why it’s worth it.