Why I Don’t Worry About Grocery Coupons

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:

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.

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  • Amanda Matheny November 7, 2014, 11:52 am

    These are some great suggestions. I used to clip coupons over ten years ago but now I don’t bother. Sometimes store brands are just as good, if not better, than national ones, but sometimes they’re awful. You just have to try them and see. Also, sometimes a name brand will only be a dime more than the store brand, so if I know I like the name brand, it’s actually worth spending the dime on. However, I went to H-E-B once and bought their brand of Fig Newtons for half the price of the original ones. They didn’t taste quite the same, but for half the price they were pretty darned good. Great suggestions!

    • Amy November 7, 2014, 12:37 pm

      Hi Amanda,

      I agree that it’s worth the relatively small risk to try generic brands first. You never know if you will like them the same, or more, as you say!

      Take care and thank you for writing,

  • Charlene Ross March 15, 2013, 12:11 pm

    I love this post and agree with you 100%. Every time I look through coupons I see a bunch of food I would never feed my family. On the off chance that I do find something -usually for shampoo or deodorant- I usually clip the coupon and forget about it until long after it expires. Sigh… I always feel like I’ve wasted my time looking through them. Ugh.

    It probably doesn’t help that I do 95% of my shopping at Trader Joe’s and Costco and they don’t take coupons. I do however take advantage of the $5 off $25 Fresh and Easy Coupons that come in the mail. (Although, truth be told, I let those expire too.) I say we buy real food and save couponing for the awesome 20% off Bed Bath & Beyond Coupons we all get. Now those I like (and they NEVER expire even though they say they do!)

    And BTW – that buttered cabbage recipe looks FAB. Can’t wait to try it.

  • Lisa June 3, 2012, 2:22 pm

    There is no one right way. It depends on each family’s location and needs. There is no delivery service where I am. There are 3 grocery store within a 2/10 of a mile of each other. I can shop without children. I use a price book that is now in head after all these years. My son is headed back to Afghanistan and he needs very specific things. So I am stocking up now for his late July or early August deployment. Last night I got bumble bee tuna in the flat packs 5oz for .99each and then used a .55/2 coupon. The regularly priced 2.79 tuna ends up $0.72each. I will use gift cards from credit card purchases to get hand and foot warmers along with baby wipes from Amazon. I charge every thing but have a strick budget so I don’t over spend.

    • Amy June 4, 2012, 2:54 pm

      Hi Lisa,

      You are right: there is no one right way. Instead of feeling guilty about not using coupons, I prefer to save in other ways that work better for my lifestyle.

      I appreciate your sharing your tips about how you stock up for your family. I’m wishing your son a speedy and safe return,


  • Rachel K May 31, 2012, 4:46 pm

    I just discovered this blog through Washington Post, and as a frugal mama, I think I’m going to become a regular reader! :)

    As a couponer, I’d like to say a few things in defense of coupons. I definitely agree that they’re not as useful as they could be (store brands are almost always cheaper than name brands with coupons, for instance), but there are times when they’re invaluable:

    1) You (or your kids) have one or two name-brand indulgence products that you’re going to buy anyway. I’ve never found a store brand of coffee that I like, so every time I see a coupon for my favorite brand of coffee, I’m clipping that sucker, because I’m going to buy the name brand anyway. (On a similar note, my 20-month old went through a phase where I had to clip every Gerber tub meal coupon I saw because he wouldn’t eat anything but Gerber Chicken Mac & Cheese.)

    2) Very similar to the above: you have a product where you’re willing to pay a -little- more for the name brand’s taste, convenience or nutrition, but not a -lot- more. My husband and I use Weight Watchers, and there’s a brand of double-fiber bread that’s 0 points per slice. (For people who don’t use WW and don’t have the sense of scale, making our sandwiches with that bread instead of normal whole-wheat bread buys us a half-cup of ice cream for dessert, or a granola bar for a snack, or milk instead of water with dinner.) I’m not willing to pay a buck more for it than for the 1-point-per-slice store brand, but with a good coupon, I’m fine paying 50 cents more.

    3) My very favorite: store coupons. Target and Wal-Mart have coupons FOR THEIR STORE BRANDS. You can score some amazing deals that way. What’s more, I’ve even gotten occasional Target coupons for $1 off a fresh grocery purchase of $5 or more.

    That said, I’ve found the way to keep coupons from taking over your life is to take along coupons based on your shopping list rather than building your shopping list around your coupons (or, heaven forbid, bringing all your coupons with you and making impulse buys based on which coupons you have.) Avoid even looking at your coupon collection until right before you go to the store, and then taking along only A) coupons for things that are on your shopping list, or B) really good, about-to-expire coupons for nonperishable things that you don’t already have a good stockpile of. Otherwise, you’re too tempted to use that about-to-expire coupon for something you don’t really need.

    • Amy June 1, 2012, 10:26 am

      Hi Rachel,

      I definitely see what you are saying — I just find that coupons are mainly for processed food and they work against my desire to eat healthy whole foods. I don’t buy cleaning supplies, since we clean with baking soda and vinegar, and we get our diapers cheaper online (which also keeps me out of tempting stores like Target). So rather than rooting through pages of coupons for one or two that might work for me, I choose to keep the mental clutter down and opt out.

      I know many people share your philosophy, so I appreciate your stopping by to tell me more about it.

      Thank you too for reading the Post article and coming by to say hello.


  • Supermarket Coupons March 21, 2012, 9:39 am

    It’s hard to find knowledgeable people about Coupons and especially in the UK, but you seem like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  • Amy October 12, 2010, 8:55 pm

    Hi Ann,

    I’m so glad you stopped by! I totally agree with you that time and money are valuable, and that focusing on one store can really simplify life.

    And Wegman’s — what a store! I’d heard about it before moving to Syracuse — it’s legendary, and for good reason.

    I hope to hear more from you and your thoughts on saving money.


  • Ann van Hemert October 10, 2010, 3:58 pm

    Well someone was talking about Frugal Mama today and I decided to come over and find out what it is all about. I was worried that it was all about coupons etc. and was pleasantly surprised!

    I have a paper problem here at home too and have found that coupons are more trouble than they are worth (usually….)

    I spent sixteen years as a stay-at-home mom and during those years tried every frugal thing I could think of. I did the going to several different stores to get the best deals at each store (that was before gas started costing so much!) and doing one big shopping trip for the month. For the last six years I have been an aide in Special Ed. so my time has been cut short for enjoying the money saving process and I have started to value my time more. Now I am a single mom still working and going to school so my time is really cut short. I only go to two stores, my neighborhood store which is great on meat and bread and Wegmans. Wegmans used to be thought of as the expensive store. They have some really high end gourmet food, but a few years ago they send out a video to their regulars announcing that they were going to keep prices low on their basics and it has been true. They really put a lot of effort into making sure their store brand products are high quality. I haven’t found any other store that sells double roll 12 pack cottonelle for $4.99 regularly and their store brand is just as good for the same price the rest of the time. It keeps me coming back.
    Even though money is very tight so is time and energy so I go to the one store in town that makes the process enjoyable and the one store in my neighborhood that is small so I can go in and get out fast.

    (Sorry this is so long…I don’t get to vent on grocery shopping very often :)

  • Amy March 5, 2010, 9:46 am

    Note: Grocery story circular coupons can be an exception. Why? Well, one way of saving money on food is planning your meals around what’s on sale at the grocery store. So if you are already looking over the store’s list of sale items, it doesn’t take much time to clip a coupon or two. Unlike manufacturer coupons, they’re more likely to include healthier foods, rather than gimmicky products you don’t need.

  • Kimberly January 19, 2010, 2:14 pm

    I totally understand your viewpoint on coupons! And I hate paper paper clutter with a passion (you should see my living room right now as I’m going through some old papers!). I use coupons but only the ones worth my while. I don’t want to buy something I don’t want just because it’s only a quarter if I use coupon A and B and combing with a sale, etc. I wonder if it’s the same for the Walgreen’s scenarios? Walgreen’s seems to be doing really well financially and there’s one on every corner practically. Kind of like people that think they can get money at casinos, just look at the casino and tell me who’s making the money? Do they really make that much money on their pharmacy products if they are losing money from all the people doing various money making scenarios? I think it’s wise never to think in how much you save, but in how much you spend ALWAYS. I appreciate your perspective on coupons. And love your line about never seeing a coupon for an eggplant!

    • Amy January 20, 2010, 7:59 pm

      Kimberly: Thanks so much for leaving your thoughts about coupons. We definitely all have enough of paper clutter, and most of us have enough mental clutter too.

      I see coupons as a form of advertising, and I try to steer away from advertising as much as possible.

      A friend of mine at Buttoned Up has just tried shopping for dry goods at Alice.com where she says they have uploaded all the coupons in the country so you don’t have to bother with them.

      It’s worth checking out!

  • Gertie November 25, 2009, 12:45 am

    When my children were younger, I had them clip out coupons because the Occupational Therapist wanted them practicing with scissors for fine motor development. They couldn’t read, so they cut out everything and there are some pretty strange coupons out there that I had to explain. It took forever trying to shop in the store with them so we could use some of the ones they had cut out and feel proud of. Anyway, I let them get the crappy cereal, but only if they had a coupon for it. I like to think I’m teaching something about money.

    • Amy November 25, 2009, 11:51 am

      Gertie — This is a very interesting take on coupons! I agree that children like to feel useful and be given responsibility — and your children had the added pleasure of helping your family save money.

  • Stephanie October 30, 2009, 1:01 pm

    I totally agree with your coupon philosphy. There have been times in the past where we stock up on items because we have coupons, just to have them go bad and get tossed because we bought way to much. I like the idea you mentioned….go in with a list, and scan the sale items to see if any of your needs can be met with a sale item. And, I also agree that fresh always seems to be cheaper and yummier! I LOVED this entry!

  • Paola October 26, 2009, 10:09 am

    I have to admit that I am still addicted to coupons. I clip only the ones for items I regularly buy, especially yogurt, diapers and cleaning supplies. I keep them in a tabbed coupon pouch like the one you describe that always stays in my purse or in the car, so I always have it with me.

    • Amy October 26, 2009, 9:53 pm

      Paola, It sounds like you are clearly not obsessive-compulsive. I admire your ability to stay afloat without spiraling down into a coupon frenzy.

  • Ben October 26, 2009, 12:16 am

    You’ll be happy to know that my microeconomics professor in college had the same view of coupons.

  • M October 25, 2009, 8:53 pm

    I totally agree with you about coupons. Even if they are for something good that I use regularly like Ragu or Cascade, if I’m not careful I end up stacking them 4 deep in my cupboard because in my enthusiasm to save money, I’ve forgotten that I already have a 6 months supply. Markdowns are a better bet.

    • Amy October 25, 2009, 11:29 pm

      M: I agree. And I would forget to bring the coupons after they had cluttered up my kitchen for weeks.

  • Doug Carden October 25, 2009, 7:12 pm

    Did you know there is a Web site called CouponMom.com? It directs you to hundreds of printable coupons so a person could feed an obsession with a huge stack of coupon before leaving home.

    • Amy October 25, 2009, 11:31 pm

      Re sites like Coupon Mom: No doubt there are thousands of coupon sites out there, and I’m sure they are growing. I don’t have anything against coupons, but I just find they create too much traffic in my life.

  • Al Brown October 25, 2009, 6:08 pm

    You’re absolutely right about the processed crap that coupons sell. Who needs it? Most of those coupons are for kids cereals, but there’s almost always a store equivalent that’s far cheaper than the coupon price–even doubled or tripled! And you can make a simple, but delicious granola for far less than the store cereal–and it’s way better for the kids without being too sugary and gross for you. The time spent making your own granola is also far less than you would spend going through the whole coupon song and dance. Plus it’s a great bonding moment, letting the kids make their own granola cereal. If you make it together first, they will be more inclined to eat it and enjoy it for that critical first time. How’s that: frugal can also be fun!

    • Amy October 25, 2009, 11:35 pm

      Hi Al,

      I love your idea about making granola with the kids. I’ll have to investigate recipes.

      Frugal can definitely be fun! It often requires more time and effort, but I find that you get paid back in many ways. For example, you’d be spending time with your kids, teaching them about cooking, and you’d all be eating more healthfully — on top of saving money.

  • elizabeth stuelke October 25, 2009, 2:05 pm

    Thanks for verifying my distrust of coupons! My mom used to use them compulsively, now she opts for the “buy one, get one” in-store sales — and stocks up. My father has always done this, filling our large pantry and extra freezer with things we’d laugh at him for buying in such large quantities. I know follow this logic and go across town to the best/least expensive market in my area. I take my husband and kids, we have dinner at an inexpensive restaurant on the way, and we make it an adventure. we fill two carts of lower priced items, by sometimes half, of what we’d pay in our neighborhood. We buy enough to fill the freezer with family portion sized freezer bags of meats, and the fridge with 30+ yogurts and 6 gallons of milk. All but the milk and yogurt last us 3 weeks+. Cutting down on the times we actually go shopping, thus cutting down on the “extra” items we invariably can’t resist in the market, and we eat at home more because the fridge and freezer are full of good food that we like to eat!

    • Amy October 25, 2009, 2:41 pm

      I like hearing about your grocery process, Elizabeth. I agree that cutting down on trips can really help. I’m impressed that you make your monthly trip to your favorite store into a family outing! I know in New York City that is not an easy task.

  • Kate October 25, 2009, 11:51 am

    I love our local online grocery delivery service Fresh Direct — I do all my shopping online over the weekend and have the boxes delivered Monday morning. It forces me to plan out what I’m cooking for the week so there’s much less waste — too often I don’t get around to using something if I pick it up without a plan for it. Not to mention no wasted time shopping last-minute on the way home from work. They have good prices and often have great sales on stuff I buy frequently, like chicken raised without antibiotics. I find I cook healthier too because I’m not wandering around the aisles of a grocery store hungry, throwing things into my cart that I’ll regret having around later. The planning ahead really saves my life during a busy week.

    • Amy October 25, 2009, 11:45 pm

      Kate: I love Fresh Direct’s online grocery service too. The fact that it is strictly an online grocery store makes the process so streamlined — from the website to the packaging to the fact they are never out of anything. Ordering online from a brick-and-mortar grocery store has not been as seamless a process for me, but hopefully things will get better.