Psst, I make money on some of the links in this post at no cost to you. It keeps the lights on around here.
You might be shocked to see a post on here about couponing at all. “Mrs. Picky Pincher, what are you doing? Your blog is all about buying less stuff! Doesn’t couponing fly in the face of all your teachings?”
You’re sort of right, young Padawan.
I don’t agree with people who claim to be “frugal” but who are actually couponers taking advantage of the system. I think it’s bad for the environment and encourages over-consumption–and the Picky Pinchers’ definition of frugality is to consume less, after all.
So why focus on couponing at all when the goal is to consume less and live frugally? It’s because coupons are often the gateway drug to frugality. Once people see that there are ways to save money by making small changes, they’re more susceptible to picking up on frugal cues. I got into frugal living by easing myself into couponing. If I can help someone see how to save a lot of money by not buying a lot of stuff in the first place, and use coupons and sales for the things they do buy, then my work is done.
How Mrs. Picky Pincher Fell Into Couponing and Was Very Bad At It
I’ve been couponing in some form for at least four years. After college, I barely raked in enough cash at my hourly desk job to cover bills. Grocery costs stressed me out. After paying on my car, rent, phone, and utility bill, there was barely enough money to cover groceries. And forget about savings or a 401k.
For my birthday that year I asked for HEB gift cards so I could get groceries. I didn’t get any, because people told me that was a weird thing to ask for.
Although I felt like my situation was bleak, I still led a blessed and fortunate life, with more wants than needs. But I still needed to find a way to get cheaper food.
I was brainstorming ways to save money when I noticed I was getting free coupons in the mail from Red Plum. After flipping through it and finding coupons for items I bought regularly, I clicked my heels in glee and trotted off to the grocery store.
But there was a problem.
Even after using $5 in coupons, my grocery bill for the week was $60. That was a lot of money for one person.
Fast forward to 2015, and Mr. Picky Pincher and I were newly married. We figured coupons were a great way to decrease our $1,000 grocery bill. But we encountered the same problem: we saved $5 with coupons, but still spent $150.
Why Coupons Fail
What was going on? Coupons are supposed to save money, and yet there we were spending just as much money if not more! I like to think of coupons as a tool. If you don’t use them wisely, they can fail.
This is because:
1. Coupons tempt you to buy things you don’t need.
I’ve fallen for this trap countless times and have the grocery bills to prove it. I saw a coupon for Ritz crackers in Red Plum. Normally I don’t eat Ritz crackers and have very little reason to buy them.
In fact, I kind of hate Ritz crackers.
But the coupon called to me. It said, “Mrs. Picky Pincher! Buy Ritz crackers! You don’t want to waste a perfectly good coupon! You’ll save seventy-five cents!” My brain focused so much on saving seventy-five cents that I overlooked the extra $2 I spent to get the “savings.”
2. The coupon isn’t a good deal.
But you buy that bag of chips anyway, because hey, we have a coupon for fifty cents off! In my experience, these “small fry” coupons don’t put a dent in your grocery bill. It’s especially damaging if you’re buying a product you don’t need in the first place.
3. The product price isn’t a good deal.
Stores sometimes offer a coupon for an item while simultaneously raising its cost. This gets more people to buy the product, thinking it’s a good deal, while the store rakes in more cash.
3. You’re using the coupon by itself.
Let’s say you have a coupon for $2 off Gillette disposable razors.
A. Buy the razors with the $2 off coupon
B. Wait until the razor is on sale, and then use the coupon
C. Not buy disposable razors, because they’re terrible for your pocket and the planet
Hint: B is correct. C is also correct, but that’s a soapbox for another day
How to Actually Save Money with Coupons
I was one of the many people who had given up on coupons. They were a pain to collect, and they didn’t save me any extra money. We stopped couponing for six months, and our grocery bills remained roughly the same.
One day I saw an ad for an extreme couponing workshop. I had a morbid curiosity with the crazed extreme couponers I had seen on TLC, and signed up for the entertainment factor. Plus, I was hoping they could teach me something.
I learned more in that hour about coupons than I ever cared to learn about coupons.
I’m now a reformed coupon believer. While everyone’s style and practices differ, I’ve found the below approaches work best.
1. Know fair prices
Sure, there might be a coupon for fifty cents off a bag of chips priced at $2.50. But did you realize that the store normally sells those chips for $2 anyway? What you thought was a good deal was actually a clever marketing ploy by the store to get more of your hard-earned cash.
Become a regular shopper. Have staples that you buy every week at the store. Know how much these staples cost, and be wary of extraneous purchases. I buy flour every two weeks or so, and I keep my eye on the price of flour to know if I’m getting a good deal. If it’s overpriced, I don’t buy it. If we decide to splurge on cookies, for example, we make sure that the price is fair. You can compare prices between different products by calculating their unit price. If Keebler cookies are one dollar an ounce, but Oreos are seventy-five cents an ounce, the Oreos are the better deal for our sugar craving.
2. Always, always, always pair a coupon with a sale
You can carefully select coupons, only buy items you need, and still not see any big results in your grocery bill. This is because stores are very smart. They want you to think you have a good deal while they rake in the profits.
The best, and only way, to save big with coupons is to use them when there’s a sale. Don’t cave in to pressure to use coupons that are about to expire. That’s how you waste money. Remember this formula: Sales + Coupons = Actual savings
That sounds all well and good, but pairing coupons with a sale can be tricky. It’s important to pay attention to both the coupons you have and the store sales. For example, we get the HEB weekly sales flyer in the mail. When the flyer comes in, I sit down and flip through my coupons. You won’t usually find a giant set of deals this way, but if you pay attention you can find sales that will work for you.
If you don’t like the idea of searching for sales yourself, look for coupon databases online. I use www.texassmartbuys.com, which works for the central and south Texas region.
Thanks to sales and coupon databases, Mr. Picky Pincher and I bought four bottles of Pantene shampoo and conditioner for fifty cents apiece. We did this by finding a sale on Pantene products at HEB and using four manufacturer’s coupons for $1 off. The policies vary by store and coupon, but you can usually use one coupon per item you buy. So since we bought four separate Pantene products, we could use four identical coupons, one for each product. Boom, actual savings!
3. Consider different coupon sources
You might wonder how we got four identical coupons for our sweet Pantene deal. At the extreme couponing workshop, I learned that you need several copies of coupon books to rake in big savings.
At first, our go-to coupon source was the free Red Plum that arrived in the mail every week. I soon realized that they were just sending us the leftover inserts from the previous Sunday. We needed at least two more copies of the coupon books every week to make couponing work for us. So I signed up for our weekly Sunday newspaper, complete with several sets of coupon books. We got Red Plum, Smart Source, and the once-a-month Procter & Gamble insert as well. This made us able to achieve bigger deals on the things that we do buy.
However, there are a lot of ways to get coupons. I also use HEB’s digital coupons, which I load to my phone for instant in-store discounts. Coupons.com is also a great resource where you can download and print coupons.
I have a few words of caution if you use digital coupons. I’ve noticed that the digital coupons sometimes aren’t as good of a deal as the printed coupons you find in the Sunday paper. Keep your eyes peeled for the best deal you can possibly find. Some retailers won’t even accept digital coupons because of coupon fraud. The next time you’re in the grocery store, ask your cashier if they accept digital coupons.
4. Follow Sales Cycles and Seasons
Sales usually go in a three to four month cycle. Every time there’s a big fire sale, the key is to only buy enough product to get you through that next sale cycle. If you use two bottles of body wash in three months, only buy two bottles of body wash and you’ll be stocked up for the next three months.
This means when you see there’s a big sale on Oreos, you whip out your four coupon books and use the Oreo coupon from each book. This does mean you’ll have more Oreos than you can eat for a little while. But stocking up in smaller quantities like this is more frugal and makes more sense for storage reasons.
The Bottom Line
A lot of people try coupons. Sometimes they work out, and sometimes they don’t. If you’ve tried coupons and it didn’t work out, or if you want to coupon, but don’t know where to start, try these suggestions and see what happens. To read more about this method of couponing, I recommend Kathy Spencer’s and Samantha Rose’s book, How to Shop For Free. While I don’t agree with their pro-consumerism philosophy, the book offers a great overview of applying extreme couponing principles in your everyday life.
I believe that we shouldn’t be consuming in excess. When we do buy the things we need, we need to be educated about them. Coupons are a great way to start saving money on your journey to get out of debt. While coupons aren’t a magic cure-all for your money woes, combined with other frugal strategies they can be quite powerful. Think twice before you throw away that HEB sale paper and Red Plum–it could save you a lot of cash.