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.