Please excuse my skepticism, but I'm still not sold on coupons. I realize that many of you are into coupon clubs, coupon websites, coupon blogs, and even coupon workshops all designed to help you outsmart the system. If it's working for you, great. Maybe you're better at planning ahead, maybe you have more time to spend on couponing, maybe you're more flexible about the products you're willing to use. It rarely works well for me.
A few months ago I got all excited about the latest buzz that with coupons, you could practically get your groceries for free. I discovered a coupon online for an item that seemed healthful and useful, some lean tuna in a pouch. The coupon was for a dollar off, while the actual item was on listed on the shelf for around 97 cents. When I got to the checkout line, the clerk told me in no uncertain terms that the coupon was not valid for that item because of the way the math worked out. No deal. No tuna.
A couple of different times I've tried perusing the popular coupon sites, reading about the latest and greatest deals on the home page. When I clicked on the link, usually directing me to a food company site, I was told that the coupon was no longer available. When I tried some links immediately prior to my latest shopping trip, this happened on at least two different items.
I decided to spend a half-hour online looking for coupons before my weekend trip to the grocery store. I didn't find much that matched up with items my family needed. But I printed coupons anyway for a name brand box of cereal, name brand organic milk and pudding. Because of the coupons, I came home with name brands for about the same price as the store brands. Because on these two items I find the store brand quality acceptable, I didn't really come out ahead. In fact, because I had to spend my time looking up the coupons, I feel like it was a net loss. I got a few cents off the pudding, but if I hadn't seen the coupon, I wouldn't have bought it anyway. I just ended up spending two more dollars on a small amount of ready-made pudding when I could have made pudding at home for less. The coupons were very effective at manipulating my buying behavior so that I purchased those brands. They did not save me money.
The significant amounts of savings I did find on my shopping trip were with manager's specials, noted with red stickers on meat that I got for $1.67 per pound and on canned organic tomatoes for 69 cents per dented can. I also found savings by noticing that I could buy organic store-brand peanut butter in the regular peanut butter section for around 25% less than the organic peanut butter in the organic foods section.
The most important items on my list this winter are fresh fruits and vegetables (at least until it warms up so I can grow my own and buy from local farmers), and it's a rare instance when there's a coupon for those.
Don't mistake my skepticism for giving up on living frugally. I will continue to use coupons for items that I already use anyway, that I feel are a good value. I've always stocked up like the grocery experts say to do when the item on the shelf is at its lowest price. Price matching has been useful. I rack up loyalty points at one store, which gives me cash back to use toward any grocery items I wish. I also rack up loyalty points for recycling, then I use those points toward cash off coupons on anything I choose at another grocery store.
What I won't do is spend an excessive amount of time hunting down coupons for products that I wouldn't otherwise buy. Several years ago, my husband and I regularly clipped coupons from the newspaper circulars. We noticed over time that the coupon selection grew slimmer, we grew more wary of the processed foods typically featured in the coupon ads, and we could more often buy a comparable store brand. I also find it impractical to stop at four different stores because they each have a different hot deal. Now that we have kids adding more demands to our time, I am more conscious than ever of how we need to practice conscious consumerism. For us, that means saving money everywhere we can and eating foods with the most value, even if they're not the cheapest thing on the shelf.