You’ve seen them on Extreme Couponing, with their mega-hauls of toilet paper and stockpiles fit to ride out the apocalypse. They have binders full of coupons, carts full of canned goods, and fat bank accounts. These couponing fanatics seem to have this whole consumerism thing figured out. They’re buying tons of stuff, but not spending a cent. It’s enough to make you grab your scissors and start clipping away.
Not so fast, say personal finance experts. While it’s true that some people save big money by using coupons, for many, couponing isn’t all it’s cracked to be.
The truth about couponing
Virtually all Americans use coupons at least occasionally, according to a RetailMeNot survey from 2014. Paper coupons — the kind you might clip from the Sunday paper — are still the most popular, with 2.4 billion redemptions in 2015, according to Marketplace. But people are also printing coupons online, entering coupon codes during an online checkout, and using mobile offers and apps to save.
Unfortunately, they might not be saving as much as they think. When used wisely, coupons can be a way to save money on things you’d buy anyway. But for many shoppers, they’re an excuse to spend.
Sixty-three percent of shoppers surveyed by Consumer Reports admit to buying things they don’t need because of a coupon or a sale. And a European study found that when people bought an item that was being promoted with a coupon they spent more overall during their shopping trip.
A 2003 study conducted by researchers at NYU offered more evidence that couponing is not always a great deal. In three studies, they found that “coupons for premium-priced products can actually make consumers spend more money than they would have spent in the absence of coupons.” In one of the studies, about 25% of coupon users ended up spending more money than they normally would have without a coupon.
Couponing comes with other costs as well. Jill of Living on a Dime confessed in a blog post that extreme couponing was causing her stress at the store and hours of her time. “It was like an addiction,” she wrote.
“Extreme couponing can lead to waste,” wrote reformed couponer Michelle Singletary in the Washington Post, noting that when you have a stockpile of items on hand, you might be more inclined to use more. “And even if it doesn’t, how much time are you wasting trying to save 20 cents. What if you just reduced your grocery bill in general? What if you took your focus off shopping and spent more time managing your spending. As I like to say, you never save when you spend. You’re just spending less.”
Should you give up on coupons?
Couponing has pitfalls, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should give up on it entirely. If you can save a few bucks on something you already planned to purchase by finding an online coupon code, then by all means, do so. (Or use an app like Honey to find a discount code automatically.) But if you’re loading up your cart with extras you don’t really want to get free shipping or impulsively shopping because an email advertising a 50% off deal landed in your inbox, you might have fallen into the trap of spending money to save money.
The same goes for grocery coupons. Using a coupon to save money on the cereal you were already going to buy for your kids is smart. But buying a box of the cereal your family hates and will refuse to eat just because you had a $1 coupon is the opposite of frugal.
In the end, saving money with coupons is all about being a disciplined consumer. If you have the time and inclination, you can save. But if you’re frustrated with all the fine print and don’t want to deal with the hassle of finding and keeping track of deals, you might find that there are better ways to save. Switching to a store like Aldi, which offers low prices but doesn’t take coupons, buying in bulk at Costco or Sam’s Club, and cutting down on expensive name-brand packaged foods, and simply shopping less could lead to greater savings than a coupon ever would.
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