Are Coupons a Lie?

One of the common themes I see on Personal Finance websites has to do with coupons. Using coupons is a common strategy for people to get more for their money. Websites advertise the gigantic savings you can get by taking advantage of coupons, bloggers remind their readers to always search online for a coupon before they go through a checkout, and there are even books dedicated to helping thrifty people make the most of their money through the use of these disposable discounts. Couponing is so big that it has become a verb, and it has spawned a couple of reality TV shows that dedicate themselves to finding and following “extreme couponers” – people who scour the right newspapers, double up on savings, and end up walking out of the store with hundreds of identical items for a single dollar. The problem is, coupons are a lie.

couponsBesides the fact that the majority of this information comes from America, and coupon rules are very different in Canada, the main problem with coupons is that they’re a promotional strategy. People trying to run a successful business don’t think to themselves, “You know what, I think I make enough money. I should reward people that have never frequented my business before by giving them my products for less than I would normally sell them”. No – businesses use coupons as a way of advertising their services or getting rid of excess stock. Even if you think you are smart by taking advantage of coupons, you probably are not, and here’s why.

You Weren’t Planning on Buying It

One of the main reasons businesses provide coupons is because they want you to purchase a particular product. Whether that is to get rid of a partial item (Buy One Get One Meat Product usually means it is about to expire), or promote a particular item, if you weren’t planning on buying it before you saw the coupon, chances are good you really aren’t saving money. You’re simply spending slightly less money than if you were sucked in by the packaging in the store, as opposed to the advertisement on the coupon. Unless you already had that item on your grocery list for the week, you shouldn’t be using a coupon to buy additional things.

The Cost of Time

Do you have any idea how much your time is worth? If not, educate yourself by doing a few mental exercises. Take your yearly salary, add any additional income, divide it into your waking hours, and figure out your true hourly wage. Chances are it is only a few dollars, but every hour that you are awake is an hour you are either getting paid to be doing something, or are paying for in order to be doing nothing. Taking an hour out of your day in order to scan this week’s flyers, find a coupon or two that applies to what you need to purchase this week, and then carefully removing that coupon from the paper, bringing it to the store, the additional time paying at the till… chances are good it will hardly be worth the effort. Unless you come across a coupon, I wouldn’t spend time looking around for one.

The Internet has Evolved

Once upon a time you could use Google to find a special code in order to trick a website into giving you free shipping or 25% off your order. This was because websites thought they were releasing a link to a select few, not realizing that the link would be shared, show up on search results, and spread far wider than they ever intended. Over time, companies have learned that any discount they wish to offer online, has to be available to everyone. Not only that, but they have introduced limited time codes, single use codes, and other restrictions in order to control exactly who gets which promotion. The wild west of the mid 2000s is over, and smart technology is besting those that search out for coupons. I have yet to find a coupon online that actually worked to reduce the cost of my order, and spending the effort to scour six month old forums posts for the potential of seven dollars off just isn’t worth the trade off.

So I think coupons are a lie – what do you think?

Written by Alan Schram

Alan Schram writes about personal finance and his encounters with it in his everyday life. Alan is recently married and is looking to save money on expenses and reduce his debts.

11 Responses to Are Coupons a Lie?

  1. Here here, well said. I think there’s a real difference between a coupon site and a Personal Finance blog, those who muddy the waters make it bad for eveyone else!

  2. niterainbow says:

    My person expirience with the cuopons that they are tricky. If you d o know what you want, how much it costs and a cuopon – you have got yourself a deal.

    While I am entirely agree with the time spend on the couponing most people will struggle to monetize the additional time into money.

    This is very strange phenomena – you paid at work, sometimes better than others but try to work extra time and ask money for it…Unless you can earn money doing something else.

    In a supermarket we actually got specific coupons with our club card – they analyse how we spend our money and send out coupons for the products we bought in the past.

  3. Coupons are there to lure you to purchase some items because it’s a good deal even when you have no plan in buying it at all. That’s a part of a company’s marketing campaign. But that’s the problem. You have no self-control that’s why you were tempted in the first place. If you really want to save, look for coupons only when you need to buy something because they can really give you huge discounts if you find a good one.

  4. Coupons are not part of my life. Most are for chemical cleaners and processed foods and we do not use those.

    Bread is cheaper at Costco even when it is not on sale. Toilet paper and detergent are cheaper there and I just watch for the sales to really save.

    Those extreme coupon people look like they could turn in to hoarders in the future.

  5. I have always said coupons aren’t worth my time. The time that is involved is crazy. Some coupons are great, but I wouldn’t try digging around just to find them.

  6. Emporium Trading says:

    If you ask me it has 2 ways: there are good promotions that are worth to take into consideration, but then again some of them are just dust in the eye of the average shoppers who would buy anything at a discount rate :)

  7. I use online coupons for nearly every online purchase I make. Sometimes you have a to try a few before finding one that works, but you certainly don’t need to be scouring through forums to find them. If you do a Google search for “[store name] coupon codes” you’ll find several sites that list all active coupons, along with their success rate. I think you should give online coupons another try.

  8. Bargainmoose says:

    Completely disagree with your last point Alan… you’re not looking in the right places. As GenY says above, a targetted google search should find you exactly what you need within a couple of minutes.

    I’ve got to the point where I would rarely make an online order without using a coupon code any more – I just don’t feel I’m getting the best bargain unless I see a coupon code stripping a few bucks off the purchase price.

  9. Colin Starratt says:

    Being a technoloogical Luddite, I rarely buy anything on line (I don’t trust the internet to protect my credit card info). In the real world, Canadian coupons are next to useless for the most part, since even with the savings, the product usually costs more than the generic version. If I do use something, I wait until it goes on a loss-leader sale and then stock up at a price the exceeds the best coupon saving, taking due note of expiry dates if applicable. I have a freezer, and am not afraid to use it! And remember, if you save just three or four dollars a week through careful shopping, by the end of the year you will have enough for a free week’s groceries.

  10. Like many of the other commenters here, I too feel that coupons are sort of a waste of my time. My wife and I did used to spend quite a bit of time clipping them all out, and gathering what we could online. We were even very diligent about going to said store, buying said product, and leaving with ONLY that. We entered those items into our budget and made sure we always had enough to cover it, and that we only bought what we would have otherwise, even without the coupon. The problem? We wasted SO MUCH TIME!!! We loved the savings we got and didn’t want to give those up, but really, it began to feel like another job. Our solution? Still spend a bit of time searching through the flyers to see who has the best deals. Then those that do, set them aside. Once you have your stack (and your grocery list,) take them all to Wal-Mart and hand them in to customer service. They price match.

  11. Elena says:

    Getting started with coupons is time consuming and overwhelming, however, in my experience, sticking with it has been very worthwhile. When I work out my time, I probably spend about 15-20 minutes a day planning, cutting and organizing coupons and save about 10k a year using them.

    Then again, I really enjoy organizing, planning and research, so it is a fun hobby for me!

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