Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Coupon Experiment

Tightwads seem to be deeply divided over the issue of coupons. Many, if not most, money-saving guides mention coupons as a key strategy for saving money on groceries. My Tip Hero newsletter recently ran two stories on "couponing," one on the basics of coupon use and one on the more hardcore practice of "extreme couponing." Both articles include videos showing coupon veterans ringing up whole cartloads of groceries for a trivial sum.

It's hard to argue with results like that, and yet the comments on the stories are mixed. While some readers say they coupons have helped them take control of their finances, others complain that they are all but useless. The arguments against them include:
  1. Coupons are only available for name-brand products. In most cases, the store brand will be cheaper, even with the coupon savings factored in. (You can get around this problem by combining coupons with sales, but that only works if you happen to have a coupon available for a sale item.)
  2. Coupons do not offer significant savings unless they are doubled (or tripled), and many stores do not do this.
  3. Most coupons are either for non-food products or for unhealthful, highly processed foods. There are few or no coupons available for fresh produce and other whole foods (the stuff Michael Pollan says we should be eating).
At least one noted tightwad, the redoubtable Amy Dacyczyn of the Tightwad Gazette, considers coupons to be of limited use. In her article "The Scoop on Coupons," she compares the regular price on several products with their price after double coupons, and then goes on to show how each product could be acquired for even less using a different strategy (e.g, buy the store brand, cook from scratch, or substitute a reusable product for a disposable one). She also notes that since most coupons are for convenience foods, using them could result in "acquiring a taste for these more expensive and less healthful items," leading to higher grocery bills down the line. And she also makes the ecofrugal point that since most of these highly processed foods are also overpackaged, they are inherently wasteful even when they cost nothing.

In the past, I've generally come down on the side of the coupon skeptics. I don't subscribe to a newspaper (reading the news online, which is free and results in less paper waste, appeared to be the more ecofrugal choice), so I haven't had access to the Sunday coupon inserts that sites like About.com Frugal Living and Couponing 101 say are the best source of coupons. However, I do get some coupons free each week in the "Smart Source" insert that comes with my local store circulars, and I diligently click through each week's offerings on Coupons.com. In each case, I seldom find more than two or three coupons that I think I might be able to use. The rest are for products I would never use, either because I don't like them, because they're not healthful, or because I can make them so much cheaper from scratch. And of those I do clip, most end up in the recycling bin because they never happened to stack up with a sale on that particular brand good enough to make it cheaper than a store brand.

Still, when I see videos like the ones shown on Tip Hero, I can't deny that there are obviously some folks out there who are significantly cutting their grocery bills with coupons—in some cases, cutting them down to nothing, or very nearly. So I find myself wondering: why does this work for them and not for me? Am I just looking for my coupons in the wrong place? Would it actually be worth subscribing to a Sunday newspaper just to get the coupons?

I've generally assumed the answer to this question would be no, simply because I've had so little luck with coupons from other sources that I can't see how the savings from coupons could possibly be enough to offset the cost of the paper. Yet many articles insist that the savings from coupons should easily be enough to pay for the cost of the paper and then some. Trent of The Simple Dollar claims that "We usually find about two to three coupons per paper worth clipping, and the savings is usually enough to pay for the paper and a bit more."

So I finally decided it was time for an experiment. I would buy one Sunday paper at the newsstand price, extract all the usable coupons, see how many I ended up using, and then calculate my net savings. Based on the results, I could determine whether or not a Sunday newspaper subscription would be a worthwhile investment.

My ecofrugal instincts recoiled as I shelled out $2.00 for yesterday's issue of the Sunday Star-Ledger (Middlesex Edition)—and then recoiled a second time as I pulled out the coupon insert and dumped the rest into the recycling bin after only a brief glance. My first discovery was that most of the coupons in the Sunday paper are the same ones I already get for free in the "Smart Source" packet. I did find a few coupons that I hadn't already seen, but as with the free coupons and the online coupons, most of them didn't look usable. I even tried expanding my definition of a useful coupon, asking myself, "Would I take this item if it were free?" For the majority of the coupons, the answer was no. (I'm holding on to the coupon packet just in case, as I've heard that if you wait a month, you'll often find your coupons matching up with sales. Perhaps these items will start to look better to me if they're actually free. But I'm not counting on that.)

In the end, I clipped only two coupons (barring a couple of duplicates that I'd already extracted from the Smart Source flier): one for $1 off two boxes of Chex cereals and one for $1 off two boxes of Cheerios cereals. Since these are $1 off coupons, our local store will not double them—so I will have to use them both just to make back the money I spent on the paper. So I can't possibly do better than break even. Also, in order to make it worth while using those coupons, I would have to combine them with a sale that reduced the cereals in question from their usual price of around $4 a box to no more than $2 a box, and sales like that, while not unheard of, are extremely rare. It seems highly doubtful that one will pop up in the five weeks before the coupons expire.

Thus, the preliminary results of my coupon experiment appear to be that (1) coupons will not pay for the cost of a Sunday paper, and (2) coupons of any kind, paid or free, will not save me significant amounts on my grocery bill. So I guess the bad news is that I'll never be able to reduce our grocery bill to pennies on the dollar like those "coupon queens" in the videos—but the good news is that I can just stick with the relatively simple strategies I'm using now (buying store brands, cooking from scratch, and looking for sales), rather than spending several hours a week on couponing.
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