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Does using coupons make you poorer?

Focus on deals could lead to overspending, especially if you buy products you don't use just because they're on sale.

By Teresa Mears Apr 15, 2010 2:21PM

We read a provocative post over at Frugal Dad: Not only does clipping coupons not save you money, it makes you poorer.


Guest blogger Neil Frankle of Wealth Pilgrim writes:

In fact, for many people, browsing for coupons is part of an overspending ritual. This may not describe you, but I’ll guarantee that people who spend lots of time looking for coupons spend much more time thinking about spending than they spend time thinking about saving and investing.

What do you think? Does looking for savings actually lead you to spend more in the long run than you would otherwise? Would your grocery and sundries spending actually be less if you ignored coupons and merely bought what you needed when you needed it?


Whether clipping coupons is worth the time is a long-debated topic in the personal-finance world. You hear stories about shoppers who got $100 worth of groceries for $1.95. You end up with two loaves of cheap bread you don’t really like and discover the yogurt coupon you wanted to use has expired and end up paying full price for yogurt -- which goes on sale the next week.


Brett Arends at The Wall Street Journal wrote a story saying clipping coupons was worth $100 an hour, based on a report by the coupon-processing firm Inmar that the average coupon is worth $1.44. Each coupon takes one minute to clip and therefore you can make $86.40 per hour, tax-free, equivalent to regular income of $108, if you’re in the 20% tax bracket. We found this reasoning fatally flawed since it failed to take into account the amount of time you’d have to spend looking for coupons to find $100 worth you’d actually use.

Abby, writing a guest post at Bargain Babe, is a believer. She shares a scenario in which she used store sales and coupons to get $71.79 worth of stuff -- goods she likes and will use, she emphasizes -- for $30.98


“I’m the Coupon Queen,” she wrote. "It’s a terrifying, exciting spectacle to behold. And I’m here to say that if you shop regularly at Kroger, and you don’t use coupons, you’re being crazy with your money.” Kroger doubles coupons up to 50 cents, by the way.


Nicole at Rainy-Day Saver is skeptical of “extreme couponing” and she shares some comments about shoppers featured in a Wall Street Journal story on avid couponers, which included an interview with a man who got 1,142 boxes of Jell-O for free. (A commenter at her blog noted that he donated the Jell-O to charity.)

“I’m all for getting free stuff,” Nicole wrote. “Things like toilet paper and paper towels don’t spoil, unlike food. But sometimes, I think it’s better to just buy what you need. The furthest I’ll go to get a deal is to buy four boxes of cereal, telling Mr. Saver not to open them all at once, because I know they’ll go stale.”


Jell-O is just the sort of product we don’t want, even if it’s free: empty calories, no nutrition.


Which brings us to another common argument against grocery coupons: Many of them are for processed foods that aren’t good for you. Kris at Cheap Healthy Good wrote a useful post about how to sift the good coupons from the junk (food coupons), noting that she finds many of her best coupons for healthy food online.


Predictably, the commenters at Frugal Dad were divided on whether coupon consciousness leads to overspending.


Sarah said no, that if you use your coupons right, you definitely save.

I am a couponer. I can feed our family of five for under $50 a week. I don’t use coupons on things I normally wouldn’t buy (except if it’s crazy cheap and I can donate it to someone that can use it). I can get cereal for less than 40 cents per box. Pasta for less than 25 cents. These make for some very inexpensive meals. I never pay ANYTHING for toothpaste, toothbrushes, contact solution, and other various toiletries due to coupons.

But Sherry didn’t find using coupons worth the trouble:

Initially, I got caught up in the “coupon craze.” Using coupons, I bought several items which gave me “overage” (money) to defray the cost of other food items. But some of these items were never used, took up space on my pantry shelf and were ultimately pitched. I now clip coupons for only the items/food I will use. I have found the best use of coupons for our family is for non-food items (sundries, detergent, cleaning products, personal items) which can drive up your grocery store bills. I now only clip coupons for those items we are going to use. I know there are numerous women who have perfected this art and I commend them. Because I work outside of the home, I do not have the time to run to five different stores to save a few dollars. Being a good steward also involves choosing how to spend your time; I just don’t have the time to devote to this area of saving.

Whether clipping coupons is worth the time for you definitely depends on how many people you’re feeding and what they like to eat. We can see how injudicious use of coupons could leave you with an empty wallet and stacks of “bargains” you end up throwing away.


The really savvy coupon users say the key is to have a strategy, whether it is to casually page through the circulars at breakfast and clip a few coupons you’ll use, as Trent Hamm at The Simple Dollar does, or whether it is to save all your coupons for at least a month and then match them up with sales.


What do you think? Are coupons making you richer or poorer, or have you deemed them more trouble than they’re worth? What's your best advice on using coupons (or not)?


Related reading:

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