Frugal NationFrugal Nation

When a store's deal isn't a good deal

The right coupons can mean great deals. Just make sure they're not creating a 'need' where none exists.

By Donna_Freedman Feb 29, 2012 1:44PM
Last month Seattle had its biennial winter storm, which stretched over several days. A nearby Qdoba restaurant sent me a "snow day" coupon: an entrée and drink for $5.

And I fell for it.

I started thinking about a Fajita Ranchera Burrito. Ultimately, I ignored the leftovers in my fridge and hiked on over.

It's not that the $5 expenditure made my rent check bounce. Nor do I begrudge a bit of fun. In fact, I budget for it and suggest that you do the same, lest a lack of amusement knock you off the frugal wagon. (If things are supertight, check out the ideas in "Fun things for when you're broke.")

No, what bothered me (later) was that I'd been so easily swayed. The coupon made it cheaper than many lunches out, but I hadn't planned on eating out that day.
Spontaneity can be a good thing. But this wasn't spontaneous. It was a consumer tropism: Shown a coupon, I automatically moved toward it.

For some people, the same issue exists around daily deal sites and social-buying companies such as Groupon: Things seem so cheap they feel they're losing out if they don't buy.

I love a deal, but . . .

Properly used, coupons can slash your costs considerably. For example, I never pay full price for toiletries or over-the-counter medications; quite a few are free.

Daily deals can also prop up a budget, both for essentials (an eye exam, teeth cleaning) and extras (golf, dinner out). One woman I interviewed bought an auto-detailing Groupon for her boyfriend on Valentine’s Day. (Back me up here, dudes: Way better than a teddy bear holding an "I Wuv You" balloon, right?)

Thus I'm a fan of coupons and deals in general. We just need to be specific about applying them. If you don't need it or can't find room for it in your budget, you're not being frugal.

That said, walking to Qdoba on snowy, nearly deserted Seattle streets was amusing. The burrito was tasty, too. So I'm not saying I shouldn't have allowed myself a treat. I'm just vowing to think a little harder the next time a deal -- any deal -- comes over the transom.

Readers: Are deals of the day, coupons and Groupons budget boosters or dollar destroyers? Have any tips on using them intentionally?

More on MSN Money:
Feb 29, 2012 5:38PM
I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this new column. A daily dose of Donna Freedman is just what the doctor ordered-no just what my wallet ordered!!
Mar 1, 2012 12:00PM

Gonna disagree. True some coupons may be viewed as....."traps" your coupon for Qdoba which was a great deal IMHO based on their retail prices...that place is expensive. But now you'll be tempted to stop in as you had a good experience...without a coupon....YIKES!

 I have had limited success with Groupon. The most recent example 26 weeks of the Saturday and Sunday delivery of our local paper for.....$10....Sunday paper alone retails for $2 plus tax.. With $4 gas on the horizon this is an excellent way to get the paper and it's coupons brought to your door. True some may consider this frivolous as you can get your news on the internet for free...but at less than 40 cents per week....just call me reckless. In addition, in another paper I subscribe to, there is the "deal of the day" where as businesses offer their products for free with coupon. Each week I am treated to a free beverage at Dunkin Donuts and 7/11. I stop in on my way to business appointments to pick up these treats that would run about $2 plus tax if I didn't have the coupon. "If it's free it's for me"....

Feb 29, 2012 9:08PM
I've never done a daily deal.  They just seemed like not a bargain to me.  I don't do most of the things they offer, so not a deal for me.
Feb 29, 2012 11:02PM
Daily deals are good if you live in a tourist area.  In the off season, you get good deals and no crowds.
Mar 24, 2012 3:18PM
@Donna_Freedman:  I agree 100% with this column. However, if you have the control to not buy things you don't need because you have a coupon, save your unused and even expired coupons rather than shredding them. Search "Coups for Troops" and find out where to send your unused AND expired coupons to military bases overseas.   They can use most coupons for up to six months part their expiration date at military exchanges.  This is a good way to support the military and their families overseas.  You can even "adopt" a particular base to send your coupons to. Please check it out and spread the word.
Mar 1, 2012 8:16AM
the local ace hardware--big beautiful store--doesn't take manf. coupons on housewares etc.  But they do put out their own coupon mag. every month with great deals/gift cert. points etc. Unfortunately, since any excuse is a good excuse to go to my favorite store in the neighborhood, I end up buying things by their timing rather than mine.  Oh, and since I have a thing for paint, and they always offer BOGO on 1/2 pint "samples" ....well, it's easy to drop an extra $5 because I saw two colors i didn't already have! 

And in 13 years, I have never, ever, ever gone in and out with only the coupon'd thing.  
I think this was written for me. As a macy's cardholder, I get coupons all the time for 20 off of 50, and more recently, 10 off of 30 (I recently got a full-length black wool coat for $34 on clearance and with coupon). The problem is, I HAVE to use that coupon. If it's in my purse, I have to go to macy's. And they know it. I don't need any more clothes or bedding or shoes, but it feels like wasted money to me if I don't use that darn coupon! I just needed someone else to remind me that I'm being silly. Thanks!
Feb 29, 2012 10:11PM

To tell the truth, I rarely open emails from Groupon and Social Living, and am thinking of unsubscribing to the sites.  I've never purchased anything, but I keep waiting for something to pop up that I would have bought anyway.


Major congratulations on your new gig.  Love your columns!

Mar 24, 2012 4:37PM
@Doublegee: Thanks for the reminder.
Mar 7, 2012 11:34PM

@Melissa Stanislaus: It's obvious you can see the problem and it's also obvious you don't like spending more money on things you don't need. But can you see a solution?

Leaving the coupons home might not be enough, since you could always go home and get them. Can you develop the habit of shredding those coupons as soon as they arrive?

Good luck, and thanks for reading Frugal Cool.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.