Coupons and me: an update

I’ve blogged before about my love/hate relationship with coupons. (OK, I confess, in the past it has been mostly hate.) I go in cycles. Every now and then I get all hyped about the idea, and try them out for a month or two or three. Then I tire of the hassle, lose interest, and take a 2 or 3 year hiatus where I ‘forever’ swear off all but the most casual of couponing. Except then people start talking about coupons again and there are a few obviously good deals and I feel like maybe I am missing out on some savings and I give it a try again.

Most recently it was my eldest daughter who lured me in again.  She’s been showing up for dinner on Sunday evenings with news of the latest greatest coupon deals.  She talks me through the details of how many times you have to go through the line with which items to maximize the savings. Sometimes she even hand me her extra coupons.  OK — with that kind of coaching I can maybe do this.  So I get out my scissors and I start clipping.

This most recent foray into couponing has been better than some past experiences.  I’m all stocked up on cereal, for which I paid 75 cent a box or less.  I have pasta in every color, enough to last at least til fall– some was free and some was 50 cents a box.  I’ve got deodorant and toothpaste and mustard and soy sauce and vinegar and various other items stashed away– all things that I legitimately, regularly use.  I even found spaghetti sauce for $0.68 a can– good, because our home-canned tomatoes are going to run out before harvest time this year.

So am I a convert?  Not completely.   I’d call myself a cautious, conditional user.  There are savings to be had.  But to truly save the most, you’ve got to stay focused on the big picture and keep a lot of info at the forefront of your brain. Your true savings is not always as great as the face value of each coupon. For example, I was all ready to use a mustard coupon the other day when I realized the generic item right next to it was STILL 20 cents cheaper.  Bye-bye coupon.

Recently I had a salad dressing coupon for a buck or so.  It brought the Wal-Mart price of a brand name dressing down to $1.25.  Now maybe there was a better price elsewhere that would have brought the dressing down below a buck.  But since I usually make my own dressing, I didn’t have it price-booked and wasn’t sure.  I used the coupon anyway– Wal-Mart often is pretty competitive price wise and I knew my family would like the dressing.  I figured I wasn’t going too far wrong.

A week or so later I was at Paul’s (a small local chain) and they were discontinuing a variety of salad dressing flavors for 75 cents a bottle.  For convenience sake, I grabbed a few bottles for my pantry stash– even without coupons they were a better price than what I’d bought with the coupon at Wal-Mart.  But– here’s the real kicker– my homemade dressings cost $0.30-$0.50 to make and take me 5 minutes. So that meant my $1 off Wal-Mart coupon actually COST me 75 cents or so over the cost of my homemade.  And even the clearance dressing at Paul’s cost me a quarter a bottle.  I realize that those costs are small, and convenience IS worth something.  But this story is just an example of how coupons can talk you— ok, ME–  into buying things I don’t really need.

In my mind the items that are truly freebies are a little less complicated.  For example, at the moment you can get a 2-liter bottle of lemonaid free at Wal-Mart with any watermelon purchase.  I was going to buy the watermelon anyway, and my kids were delighted with the sweet drink that I don’t usually buy.  Their teeth, on the other hand, probably did NOT appreciate the bonus sugar.  Ah well.

To make the most of coupons I think you need to keep a few do’s and don’ts in mind:

–Do use coupons when items are on sale, and at the store where items are already cheapest.

–Do combine coupons with a price-book to make sure you know where prices are best.

–Do compare coupon items with generics, and be willing to ditch the coupon if the generic wins.

–Do expect it to take a little more time to get through the grocery store with coupons.

–Do remember that homemade items often cost less and are healtheir than highly processed foods often featured in coupons.

–Don’t buy junk that you don’t usually buy just because you have a coupon.  Even almost-free junk is still junk.

–Don’t feel guilty if you choose NOT to coupon or if you coupon only in a limited way.  It is not the be-all, end-all way to save money.

If you’ve got the time free to invest in learning the system and you’re willing to keep your brain engaged for your entire shopping trip, couponing can be done wisely. (If you’d like to learn more, Money Saving Mom is one starting point.)  During weeks with freebies or really awesome deals like Albertson’s double coupons, I’m right there in the aisles with a wad coupons and a thoughtful look on my face.  But it does take a lot of time and energy and there are lots of other ways to save money too.  Check out my book Family Feasts for $75 a Week if you’re in need of inspiration in non-coupon grocery saving. Most of the time I prefer to rack up the savings by spending a bit of time in my own comfy kitchen.

In the end it comes down to thinking carefully about the time constraints and needs of your life, choosing ways to save that fit where you are right now, and letting go of guilt over the thing you don’t have time to do.  With a little thought and planning, everyone can save money at the store.  Whether coupons are a large or a small part of that equation is up to you.


Related links:

How to fight rising produce prices

Five easy ways to keep $20 in your wallet

Why blowing your budget is sometimes a good idea






  1. Wonderful post. I, too, am not a coupon-user but I go through phases where the hype makes me try it again. I just recently tried and didn’t do so well. I would say I am a casual coupon user. If I find a coupon for an item I normally buy, I jump at the chance to use it and save some money. But I struggle with searching regularly for them so I probably miss a lot of good buys. A friend of mine tells me that couponing is a complete change in shopping mentality with a clear learning curve. I think the people that can do it are amazing and I am always awestruck, but I agree that it is not for everyone, and you shouldn’t feel bad if it doesn’t work for you.

  2. Have generally found that coupons are for the name brands and with the exception of ketchup and mayonaise I buy all the store brands for most products. And our store NEVER has double coupons so for the little bit saved, not worth all the time invested at home and in my location finding coupons is next to impossible.
    Also have seen women in the grocery with their ‘bible’ of coupons and they look so harassed–not for me.
    When I saw the title–went ‘oh no, don’t tell me she is an extreme couponer’. Watched that show once and was so frustrated at the amount of money and space these people are using and wasting wanted to scream. To think of the groceries and supplies filling up an entire double garage for a smaller family and the couple that had a whole room of toilet paper, my goodness what a waste of space, time and money in the longrun.
    Unless I am going to use sale item in two weeks, I don’t bother. Space too precious for me. When eggs were 79cents a dozen, bought twelve dozen, premade ranch dip 25 cents large container so bought twelve, lunch meat 49 cents package so bought 25 packages and froze for making subs, and recently hot dogs were on sale for 15 cents a package so asked my grocer if I could have whatever he had left in the back when the day the sale was over–I have 250 packages in freezer–grandkids love on pizzas and I love to grill them.

  3. My mom and my sister are avid couponers. Me, not so much? It takes so much organization and planning. It was worth my time when stores would take expired coupons, but now they don’t. I do look in the Sunday coupons for things that I might be buying that week, but I find myself buying things I don’t need.

    • I have to add–with the exception of CVS. About a year ago we got a CVS and it is my new favorite saving money place. Once they even paid me to buy 2 ltr bottles of pop–they were on sale for 89 cents, with a coupon at the store for $1 off. Now that’s a deal. Today I had coupons for $10 and $5 off of my purchase. There is something I have wanted that was $30 and I wouldn’t buy it at that price–but for $15 off–that’s a great deal!

  4. I look at it a little differently, I guess. I was doing absolutely fine feeding my family of 4 on $75-$80 per week. My son, however, has an extreme speech delay and needs intensive therapy. With our high deductible health plan (after a LONG battle to even get insurance to cover it!), it is still a ton of money out of pocket for us. So, I needed to make cuts. I can’t say I had an extreme learning curve – it seemed faily intuitive to me, plus I remember my mom couponing a lot when she was raising us.

    Now, I feed my family of 4 on $40-$50 per week easily. I just made a slight change in the way I shopped – instead of making a meal plan and then figuring out/buying what I need to make it happen, I figure out what I already have in the freezer pantry, then figure out what’s on sale, then make a meal plan based on those things. I buy items I KNOW I will use, but don’t always need that particular week, and save them if they’re on sale and I have a coupon for them.

    I don’t freak out over it. I only worry about the coupons from my local Sunday paper (and it’s a small town we’re talking here, I’m in a rural area). I don’t buy coupons on ebay. I don’t trade them. I don’t worry about internet printables. I cut what I get, organize, scan the sale ads, make my plan, and shop for the week. Everything but shopping probably takes me an hour total, if that, and shopping maybe another hour (for a couple of different stores). 2 hours is easily worth it to me to save an easy $20-$40 per week.

    We do not eat processed food. I cook from scratch, buy most of my items from the outer edges of the grocery store, and rarely head down more than 2 of the inner aisles. But I have been happy at how fairly simple it’s been for me to make that small change and save 1/3 to 1/2 of my grocery bill every week. It’s enabled us to pay for my son’s therapy without quite as much stress in other areas of the budget. Sure, it takes a bit of time and effort and math (price comparisons themselves…sale price – coupon price greater than, equal to, or less than generic), but I’ve found a happy medium I’m okay with, that doesn’t take too much time away from my family or other areas of my life, and that still lets me in and out of the store fairly quickly.

  5. Rebecca S. says:

    Would you mind sharing more about your price book? I started one in the past, but it quickly got out of hand. I’d love to hear how you use one, what it looks like and some tips to make it work best for our families. I know this is a valuable resource as a wife and mother and I’d really like to begin using one again.

  6. Excellent post. I’m glad your daughter drew you back in — the stockpile of pasta, cereal and pasta sauce is fabulous (I’ve got those stockpiled too.) And I agree with you about watching the prices — sometimes a deal isn’t really a deal.

  7. Mary I adore you. Practical ideas that we can pick and choose what works for us. Long time fan, thanks again!

  8. Katherine says:

    I am with you, I keep trying it and then going back to my own way of shopping. I shop at Aldi and the prices are so good, it is a small store with off brands and not a huge selection but just enough, I get what I need and get out quick, no impulse buys. I did manage to score some free or extremely cheap soy sauce,BBQ sauce, toothpaste, mustard, ketchup, a few spices, and dishsoap by giving it a go again. Alot of the items I wanted to use coupons for were cleared out. I found it stressful and even wasted gas making a trip to the store to try one more time to get those freebies, still sold out. My husband did not like the deodorant I got him for free and I did not like the laundry detergent I got for a great price. I did bring home a few junkie things only because they were 20 cents I am ashamed to admit. I do always use coupons for diapers and cleaning supplies other than that it stresses me out. It seems the main things we can get for close to free or free are condiments and sportsdrinks and those Yakisoba noodles. Condiments are already cheap and we don’t like sportsdrinks or those noodles. I wanted to like it though, I even made a binder which is funny, me running around the store stressed with a big binder full of coupons trying to get free mustard and a migraine at the same time!

  9. I am the same way. I get all excited about coupons for a few months and then realize it’s a lot of work. I quit for a year or two and then the cycle starts again. Oh well. Could you give us a few of those salad dressing recipes?

  10. I totally have an on-again/off-again relationship with coupons as well. It’s been OFF lately as we’ve been preparing for a major move. I didn’t want to box up a stock pile. But I’ll need to rebuild a stash soon after moving, so I may try it again in the next couple of weeks. It’s just So. Much. Work. to do it right…

  11. We will be moving into our first home this month, in a total different area. That means new grocery stores!! lol. I haven’t started a price book but I will be once we are settled in.

    I recently took your book out from the library and loved it so much I bought it (still waiting for it to come in the mail).

    I agree about the food being junk. I don’t do too much couponing in the grocery store unless it’s for stuff that I usually buy. However, I’m HUGE into doing deals at CVS and Walgreens. This is where I get my non-food items.

    They have deals where you buy a certain amount of one item and get money off of your next order. Then I use that “money” the next time towards more items that will get me more money. My biggest hall was at CVS where I had a cart full and the total came to $75…I brought it down to $0.23. (If you go to and, they teach you how to do the deals).

  12. Many times there are articles put out on the internet on how to save thousands of dollars a year– but they’re all about cutting expensive vacations or selling an extra vehicle. For the average family, those cuts aren’t even possible!

    We track our spending, and after implementing some of the painless techniques in “Family Feasts for $75 a Week” we’ve gone from $250-$300 per month in groceries down to $150-$200. This book has been much more useful than any of the other articles I’ve read. The recipes in the back are kid-friendly and involve ingredients (or list substitutions) that you can find all over the country. It’s a definite must-read!

  13. I can relate to the time it takes to coupon. I have always couponed and was raised on it! Although I don’t ever think I would give it up, I do find myself wanting to re-evaluate how I grocery shop. I would recommend, though, looking at your store’s website. Meijer is wonderful about having coupons for their store brand, and as for name brand, you can combine meijer coupons with manufacturer coupons. Just a thought.

  14. Great post! I shop the same way you shop, which is how my mom taught me. I can remember being really little and her asking me in the store to figure out which package some food item was cheapest. She would ask things like, “Did you read the unit price? How many are in this package compared to that package?” I’m not a huge fan of coupons either because so many of them are for processed junk food, and now that I’m gluten-free, I can’t eat much of that even if I wanted to eat it! I do as much organic as possible, and our Costco is getting great at carrying more and more organic. I even got a 6-lb can of garbanzo beans at Costco for $3 and wrote a huge blog post about how I used it! Best deal ever!

  15. well stated! i actually enjoy grocery shopping because it is an area where few decisions have to be made. we have a rotation of meals that are mostly made from scratch ~ most meats and all dairy are organic, and we eat lots of fruits and veggies. on hand i have a bottle of shaklee cleaner for quick cleaning, but most other cleaners are made with baking soda and vinegar. i simply can’t find coupons for the things that we really eat.

    there are other areas in which i have no difficulty in saving ~ clothing! we have three children and 90% of their clothes are purchased at a twice-yearly consignment sale that i participate in. usually i can make more money than i spend. we have a great adult consignment store in an upscale area that has great stuff… banana republic, j. crew and other high dollar brands. i could go on about that, but i know you have posted about how you save on clothing also.

    i posted on facebook a while back that i had gone grocery shopping and saved $7.49 (but of course paid way more than that) which garnered a few chuckles from my couponing buddies. just got fed up with friends posting pictures of JUNK with the savings they had just received.