Coupons — Are They Worth The Trouble?

by Katy on October 29, 2009 · 40 comments

coupons

When my friend Glenn sent me a link to a Good Morning America/ Huffington Post piece about a woman who feeds her family of six on $4 per week. My first thought was:

Wow, that’s a lot of lentils!

But no, the women is one of those coupon fanatics who’s able to combine sales, coupons and double coupons into enviable savings.

I have written before about my love/hate relationship with coupons, and am comfortable with with my somewhat erratic coupon usage. I gave The Coupon Game a try and found that the incredible deals were rarely anything I would buy, and cancelled my trial subscription.

Right now, my coupon usage is sporadic except for a once a month Safeway coupon that takes $10 off a $50 purchase. I do keep a small coupon folder in my purse, but it’s nothing compared to the coupon organization system of the true Couponistas.

I really only clip coupons for the products I would normally buy.

The Huffington Post woman is shown buying an entire grocery cart of foodstuffs and paying just a single penny, but they don’t do a rundown of what she actually bought. What do they do show is her buying seafood, (something I would buy) and Totino’s frozen pizzas, (something I would not buy.)

The woman’s pantry is then shown, and as far as I can tell, it’s full of packaged foods that I would never buy, (and I am far from a health nut.) In her defense, she does mention that she donates excess to food banks, which I’ve heard is common practice with the coupon ladies, (and c’mon people, I have yet to hear of any men who practice the art of couponing.)

I decided that it was time to check and see how much I spent on groceries for my family of four last month. Unlike Kristin of The Frugal Girl, I don’t budget a certain amount for groceries, instead buying simple ingredients that can be used to make a variety of meals. Also, I am not the only food buyer, as my husband has a tendency to purchase strange and random foodstuffs on the days that I work, ($52. 57 at Uwijimaya?, $54.27 at Trader Joe’s?) which would blow any budget I might try and keep.

So I looked through our bank records and saw that we spent $540.59 on food last month, which breaks down to $18.02 per day or $4.50 per person per day. This includes a single dinner out.

However, although we buy some of our groceries at Fred Meyer and Costco, we also buy non-food items there as well, such as underwear, cat litter, photo processing, socks and school supplies. Not to mention the occasional cash back-age.

I estimated that we spent $75 on non-food items, which brought our monthly food bill down to $465.59, which is $15.51 per day or just $3.88 per person per day.

My husband and I both work outside the home and bring lunches, as do the kids, so $3.88 per person per day is actually not bad at all.

Is it an impressive number that will get me on national TV?

Hardly.

But we’re buying real food like beans, flour, butter, meat, fruit, vegetables, cold cuts, cheese, eggs and spices. Food that rarely benefits from couponing. (Although . . . Fred Meyer had two pound blocks of Tillamook cheese on sale last week for $3.99/ limit two with an in-store coupon — I went three times!)

We could certainly be spending less on groceries if my husband were hot glue gunned to the couch on days that I work. But he is pretty nice and does have positive qualities that balance his somewhat impulsive grocery shopping habits.

Are you a Couponista? Do you have couponing practices to share with The Non-Consumer Advocate community? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Bad Hippie October 30, 2009 at 2:26 am

I only use coupons on stuff I regularly buy, too. I can find more coupons for health and beauty items than I can find for food items, especially since (like you) I tend to buy staples and cook from scratch. And as much as I dislike Wal-mart, they have cheap prices on stuff that I like to stock up on – peanut butter, granola bars (for the 15-year old), pasta, juice (especially juice!), and olive oil.

One thing I just learned – stores will take coupons for the brand, not necessarily the item. So if you have a coupon for a certain kind of Jif peanut butter (say, the new omega 3 kind), you can just buy regular Jif PB and the store will take the coupon.

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Kristen@TheFrugalGirl October 30, 2009 at 2:36 am

I’m working on a blog post about coupons to publish sometime in the next month. But yeah, I agree about the $4 lady…I’ve couponed before, and I KNOW that you cannot buy lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and meat for $4/week even with coupons. The only coupons that come out for that sort of thing are the wine bottle coupons (they’re attached to wine bottles and will be for $1 off of fruit, or something like that). You can get them by trading for them on internet coupon groups, but to come up with enough to properly feed a family of 6 would be nigh into impossible.

I spend $96 more per week than she does, but I’d much rather do that than subsist on a diet composed of packaged foods.

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Carolee October 30, 2009 at 4:06 am

I love combining coupons and sales. Sometimes you can even get things for free by doing that! Some of my favorite scores have been free toothpaste (on sale for $1 and I had coupons for $1 off). I still have 8 tubes in my closet.

But free or almost-free food usually is not healthy food items. Usually those coupons are for processed, packaged food and snacks.

There are coupons for “healthy” things – but not for the kind of savings that make it free. There are coupons for 50 cents off a bag of flour, or $1 off a big bag of milk. (I once had coupons for $1 off pork, put out as a marketing campaign by the Pork Producers.) Sometimes I get lucky, and a company sends me a coupon for a FREE item. I love those!

But even small savings add up in the long run. So if I have the time to organize my coupons and bring them with me, I might save $5 – $10 per grocery trip (and significantly more than that if something is on sale and I have a stack of coupons to use on it).

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Linda October 30, 2009 at 5:19 am

I find that the stores that have the rock bottom prices do not take coupons. I save so much money by shopping at the discount food stores (Pricerite, Aldi’s, Walmart) that my food bill is pretty low. We spend about $65 each week for 4 people. I make alot of meals and snacks from scratch. I buy bags of seasonal fruits. Family packs of meat…only when they are on sale.

Also, I take my flyers to Walmart and they match any prices on the flyers. This cuts down on my shopping trips. Every time I see coupons they are never for the things I buy, so I pass on them.

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Cyndi October 30, 2009 at 6:17 am

The thing I find most interesting about discussions of couponing is what people give as example of “real food” or “staples.” Katy and the other posters have listed things I would consider highly processed or treats, but for them seem normal and necessary. Another chance to think about the consumer choices we all make 🙂

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Erin October 30, 2009 at 6:19 am

Hi, I love your blog but have what I hope is not a stupid question – what do you do with all that cheese? Do you have success freezing it? If so, how do you freeze it? We love cheese but would be hard pressed to eat 12 pounds before it would go bad in the fridge (nor would it be very healthy to do so!) – thanks,
Erin

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Meg October 30, 2009 at 6:26 am

Not much of a couponer here. I also don’t find a lot of coupons for stuff I buy. For example, I hear people talking a lot about buying stuff like razors with coupons, but I use an electric instead because I hate the idea of tossing out all those razors. And yeah, there aren’t a lot of coupons for no-name, whole, fresh foods or the stuff I get out of the bulk bins (like quinoa or nuts).

If I were truly in need, I’d consider coupons for packaged stuff. You gotta do what you gotta do, and I don’t fault anyone for that. But since I can afford better (though it means cutting back in other areas), I just can’t justify eating a lot of nasty, over-packaged processed stuff just to save money. My health and values are worth more than that!

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Jinger October 30, 2009 at 6:29 am

I rarely use coupons either…my grocery list includes no pre packaged or processed foods, only staples and basics and I can never seem to find coupons for the items I buy. Also, I don’t get the newspaper, so can’t clip coupons and printing them from online is very time consuming. I shop mainly at WalMart for the low prices.

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Meredith October 30, 2009 at 7:01 am

I’ve never been able to make coupons useful for us either. The ones we get are almost always, as you observed, for packaged foods that we never buy anyway. Luckily, our local discount grocery store has some good regular sales, so I just opt for keeping an eye out and stocking up on basics when they are on sale. A case in point: Last month 10 lb bags of onions and potatoes were on sale for $1.89 (Cdn) each. Two bags are now keeping each other company in my cold storage room, and will probably last us until December.
I do, sometimes, find coupons useful for non-food items that we purchase at the grocery store like shampoo, soap, toothpaste toilet paper.

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Ronzoni Healthy Harvest October 30, 2009 at 7:02 am

Hi,
Well, if you are into coupons I just wanted to let you know that Ronzoni Healthy Harvest is having a contest for fans to win a Year of Free Groceries!! How great would that be? It’s super easy to apply to win! Check out the Sweepstake page on their webpage here: http://bit.ly/1IsY3q

There are also a bunch of coupons on the site.

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WilliamB October 30, 2009 at 7:03 am

I coupon some. I clip from inserts, sometimes go to a different store if there’s a great deal on something I can stock up on, and am considerning getting fancy (CVS rewards) with non-food items.

I shop at the military commissary so many of the usual tricks don’t apply (no doubling, yes sales but no circulars distributed so can’t plan meals around sales) (not that I have a meal plan anyway). OTOH the basic prices are so low I’m still better off. Often the name supermarket’ double coupon + sale still isn’t as cheap.

Deals are definitely better on processed and packaged food. Yesterday at a conference I saw a Boston donut for $.75 and a piece of fruit for $1. Ouch! I wonder what those prices would be if the Big Three (wheat, corn, sugar) weren’t heavily subsidized?

The best way I’ve found to get inexpensve produce is to go to a farmer’s market at the end of the day. The sellers want to sell their food rather than jaul it away, so if you want to buy large volumes you can bargain.

I eat processed and packaged food: keeping frozen meals and canned soup at work, but particularly snack food, such as chocolate from Trader Joe’s and granola bars.[1] I also pay for beverages.[2] In a few years I expect my work schedule will quiet down and I can cook more again.

I am uneasy at the amount of highly processed food in many of the $40/week/6 people photos. If all you have is $40 than I salute you – that’s a hell of an achievement. In many of the other cases, though, I can’t help feeling that they’re sacrificing health to achieve other goals.

I do note that there are people who manage it by buying in huge bulk, having a huge truck garden and doing a mountain of work to process and preserve. This strikes me as a different critter than couponing + highly processed food = $20/week.

[1] I need something that can stay in the pantry for awhile, waiting an indefinite period of time till I need to grab one on the run, so homemade isn’t a good option. I am pleased to see new options available, ones that are made of ingredients I recognize.
[2] “Hi everybody. My name is WilliamB and I’m a sodaholic.”

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Julia-Color Me Green October 30, 2009 at 7:26 am

i don’t do coupons because they don’t seem to exist products at the places i shop…farmers market, co-op grocery store, whole foods, trader joe’s. if anyone knows of coupons accepted at these stores and how i can get them let me know!

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Tami October 30, 2009 at 7:38 am

How do you get the $10 off $50 Safeway coupon? Safeway is my local grocery, and I’m on their e-mail list and get promotional stuff in the mail. I don’t use many coupons for the same reasons that you don’t, but that one would definitely work for me.

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Bad Hippie October 30, 2009 at 7:53 am

Cyndi – my son is a wrestler, and during wrestling season the boys live on PB and J – because they can maintain their weight and still get protein. And during soccer season, granola bars are a quick pick me up (for both of us) while running to games or ref assignments.

Otherwise, I pass on frozen dinners and packaged cookies. We make our own pizza dough, bread, mac and cheese, hummus, soup, granola, cookies, muffins, and crock pot meals. I guess I don’t feel too guilty for buying chips or pretzels since we stick (in large part) to unprocessed stuff.

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Bellen October 30, 2009 at 8:11 am

Years ago, about 20-25, I did a lot of couponing when coupons were more for staples like Gold Medal flour and Domino sugar. These days I mainly rely on BOGO deals on meat at WinnDixie and 8 o’clock coffee at Publix. Foodwise I use coupons for granola bars that we take with us when going out for the day, crackers that we use as snacks and non-food like detergent, toothpaste etc. Otherwise our cart is filled with fresh fruit & veggies that we can’t grow, meat and some dairy like cheese and yoghurt and yes, 1/2 & 1/2 for the coffee.

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WilliamB October 30, 2009 at 9:29 am

Whole Foods accepts coupons, and has its own coupon book every … month? fortnight?

I’m pretty sure TJ’s accepts coupons. They have a circular but I’ve never seen coupons.

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Melissa October 30, 2009 at 9:46 am

I don’t know where you live, but the Chinook Book has lots of coupons on food sold at TJs or Whole Foods, plus if there’s a particular brand you like, their website might offer coupons.

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glenn October 30, 2009 at 9:48 am

A while back, Ashley (my wife) found a really useful page full of coupon info for whole and organic foods on this blog called the Toby Show:
http://thetobyshow.typepad.com/the_toby_show/2008/06/organic-on-a-bu.html#at

It has saved us a bit. If there is a particular brand of something that you buy often, the manufacturers often have coupon codes on their websites.

A friend taught me a really cool trick as well, which applies to virtually anything… Enter the word “coupon” and the name of whatever product you would like a discount on in a google search. It is surprising how many things this works for, from groceries to boots (for those of us who buy new shoes;)

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Karen October 30, 2009 at 11:54 am

I use coupons…lots of coupons.
I cut them from the paper, print them online and swap them with people in other parts of country, then pair them with sales and do really well.

Unless something is basically free, I don’t buy things that my family won’t eat/use. Things I do buy, I donate to a local shelter. I have bags and bags of toiletries that were free, ready to donate.
Rite Aid is really really good for this. Last month alone, when the rebates arrive, I think they will have paid ME about $60 to take $600 worth of stuff out of their store.

The amount of processed stuff that people buy when they feed their families for $4 scares me. I would never buy “Hamburger Helper” or the like.
I do buy convenience foods, but when I buy macaroni and cheese for my kids, I opt for the big box of Annie’s at Costco, instead of the cheaper variety.

I generally spend about 25% -40% of what my total bill would be without coupons. That’s because I max out what the store allows for each product. Coupon, double coupon and then often $x off $XX. Doing this, I am able to essentially pay for a lot of my produce and keep the total down. Some stores apply any overage to the order, but I’m noticing that others will adjust the register to the cost of the item.

Lots of organic and natural products are coming on board with coupons. Recently, my husband scored big on Kashi at Fred Meyer. They had a sale this week, 40% off Kashi products. I sent him with the weekly coupon, plus all my manufacturers ranging from $1-$3 off. I think all of his cereal was free using, the $3 off/box. He got bars, cookies and crackers for work.
I did a similar thing recently, with Seventh Generation products.

Once it’s set up, it’s really pretty easy to maintain. It takes some time, but it’s totally worth it.
It’s a million times easier now with wonderful blogs and Facebook. I get updates for printable coupons and deals in my news feed. I print whatever is interesting to me and tuck them away.

I think it’s fun, otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. I find great joy in being able to save money and use it for other things. I don’t coupon because I HAVE to, I do it because I WANT to. I like the satisfaction of knowing that I can get things for cheap or free.

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Janet Texas October 30, 2009 at 5:05 pm

I find that the more sustainably you try to live the less use you have for coupons. Most coupons are for processed, canned or frozen foods which I don’t use, or disposable products that I don’t use. I do use coupons for purchasing cat food.

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thenonconsumeradvocate October 30, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Tami,

The Portland, Oregon newspaper runs a full page Safeway ad on the first Tuesday of the month that includes the $10 off $50 coupon. I make sure to stock up on pantry basics with this trip.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
The Non-Consumer Advocate

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Gail October 30, 2009 at 9:58 pm

My primary food source is an organic farmshare with a local CSA farm, but that only gives me fresh produce for half the year. I do most of my cooking and baking from scratch and buy most staples at Aldi. But I also shop at Tops (our local grocery chain) Walgreens, Target, and on occasion other stores and at all of them I combine sales with coupons. It is amazing how inexpensively I can get toiletries, household items, organic foods, and pantry staples that I really need using coupons. I get a lot of things for free.

In 2008 my family of four spent $85 per week, but that did not include just our food. That included all our toiletries and cleaning products too. Plus we have frequent houseguests and we feed them from that budget as well. Our meals include a lot of organics and other healthy foods. That’s a little over $12 per day for the whole household.

It is a total myth that avid coupon users must be eating unhealthy processed foods. That is just not the case.

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Heidi October 31, 2009 at 2:46 am

I agree with Gail that it’s a myth that coupon users must be eating unhealthy processed foods. It’s not true. I use a fair amount of coupons every month, and I do not buy processed foods. I cook from scratch and I am very mindful of healthy eating for my family. I buy plenty of fresh fruits and veggies.

For example –

This month there is an on-line printable coupon for 50 cents off Gold Medal Flour (coupons.com maybe, I can’t remember where I saw it, just google it) and next week, my local grocery store is having a sale on Gold Medal Flour, 1.49 for 5 lbs. If they double the coupon, I’ll get it for 50 cents for a 5 lb bag. Can’t beat that. (I’d prefer King Arthur’s, but I’m not going to pass up the sale.)

A few weeks ago, my store had a sale on Eggland Best Eggs (are they the best? I dont know), 1.29/dozen. I had a 35 cent coupon which doubled, final price was 60 cents for a dozen eggs. Another great deal.

Mostly I use coupons for non-perishables like toothpaste and toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, sometimes OTC cold meds. If I hit a really good sale combined with a coupon, I stock up big time, and then I can go for months without buying any paper products… which is bliss.

There are a ton of coupons for pillsbury products, frozen pizzas, boxed mac and cheese, etc, none of which I ever buy. I cook from scratch 99% of the time and we eat out only a few times a year. My breadmaker and crockpot get the most miles in my kitchen.

I admit that I am addicted to the yummy flavored coffee creamers, that is one processed food I do buy. But only when it’s on sale, combined with a coupon, so I keep that cost as low as possible.

I also go to BJ’s warehouse club, where I can get a gallon of skim milk for $1.97, and ten bagels for $3.50.

My average weekly spending for my family of 4 in the northeast is about $70. I’m hoping to get that lower in 2010. It’s a fun challenge.

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Diana October 31, 2009 at 3:11 am

I gave up trying to coupon years ago. As a kid, I helped my mom cut coupons from the newspaper and keep them organized.

As an adult, I have found, like others, that the coupons are generaly for items that I don’t use. For the few coupons I do cut out, I usually find a cheaper store brand once I get to the store.

Winco does not accept coupons printed from home and I find it cheaper overall to shop there, than to go to a store that accepts internet coupons or issues them in there ads.

We still keep an eye on the sale flyers for Roth’s and Safeway for good deals.

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marianne October 31, 2009 at 5:14 am

my stepdad uses coupons! he reads the grocery circulars like a book and lives like it is still the depression. lol. =)

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Tara October 31, 2009 at 6:03 am

Nope, not a Couponista here. For exactly the same reasons you mentioned. Most of the coupons are for things I would never buy. Processed food and toiletries laden with chemicals.

Occasionally I’ll find a coupon, like you mentioned, for something I DO buy and then I eat it up! But it’s a rare find and not something I am going to spend hours a week perusing coupon sites, magazine inserts or newspapers for.

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Sara October 31, 2009 at 6:33 am

First off, Trader Joe’s DOES accept manufacturer’s coupons – they have great prices on less-processed cereals like Barbara’s bakery and Kashi – the other day I went and bought 4 boxes and used a bunch of coupons with no problem.
I am an avid couponer and my husband and I avoid processed food, and what we do buy (cereal, granola bars) I generally stick with Kashi and other less-processed brands. There are a TON of coupons out there even if you eat healthy. Last week I spent $50 on food for the two of us and saved $50 – half of that was coupons. I use hot coupon world to find match ups for my Harris Teeter’s sales and I won’t buy things like cookie dough and biscuits and pop tarts even if they are free. I get most of my coupons online, by emailing manufacturers, and mainly by paying for a coupon clipping service. Yesterday I bought $50 worth of coupons for $4- its mostly for whole foods – eggs, organic milk, organic greek yogurt, sugar, coffee, cheese, and some treats – ice cream, whipped cream, cereal, and chocolate – things I would buy anyway. Every week we spend about $70 on groceries and save at least $50 with sales and coupons, at least $20 a week is coupons. You can also do the whole stock up thing with healthy food – last year I bought scads of organic canned tomatoes for free with coupons and they lasted us all year. Last week I got 6 boxes of kashi cereal for about $3 with coupons. By buying coupons I can also stock up on the ones I know I buy every week – organic milk, organic soymilk, yogurt, cereal, deli meats, etc. Buying coupons also makes it much more convenient than clipping myself. I work full time but if I had the time I’d also get into the CVS/drugstore couponing – people get most of their paper items and toiletries for close to free that way.

Point is, if you have some time and like to eat healthy, buy some coupons for things you will purchase anyway- they are out there!

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Magdalenaperks November 1, 2009 at 5:44 am

Coupon distribution is sometimes regional for the clip-it type; online works for those who don’t buy a newspaper or get one without coupon inserts. I can feed the two of us on about $25 CDN a week if we don’t eat dairy or meat, I can wild-gather or glean or cadge vegetables from other people’s gardens. Even our toiletries are limited, so coupons don’t mean much to us. Now that we are in an expanded household (3 adults and toddler) I will try some of the online sources, if any apply to Canadian shoppers! It is an advantage, I’ve found, to be in Ontario or BC rather than the Maritimes or the North – fresh, cheap food is much more available, with a lot of locally grown produce.

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charlie aka oldboyscout2 November 1, 2009 at 6:51 am

I do confess to checking Fred Meyer coupons as I “cherry pick” them every couple of weeks. That said, I wonder if anyone has figured how much total time they spend getting the coupons vs. how much they save, that is , how much are you being paid an hour? Just wondering.

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Barbara Fallon November 8, 2009 at 3:44 pm

Don’t you think it is immoral to expect to get almost $300 of food for only 1c. If she is not paying for the food, then who is. The food certainly not get onto the shelves of the supermarket by Tinkerbell waving her magic wand. Someone has worked hard to produce this food and should be paid accordingly. The savings she has made are not paid for by the shareholders of the company but by people who supply the stores and their employees, who are probably paid very little anyway.

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