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?

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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.