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Stop couponing! It’s costing you money!

There! I said it.  Couponing is bad.

I’m the cheapest person on earth.  I’m the master of thrift, the Chieftan of Cheap.  I was reusing, recycling,  repurposing, and bringing my own bag long before it became cool.  When extreme couponing hit the air, I was already there. And insane about savings.

But does couponing mean savings?

The answer, I discovered is no. Read on to see how this reformed couponer retired her scissors and fliers.

Couponing is the wrong approach.  Here’s why:

When I lived in the city, I used coupons.  Stores were close by–I could go a few times a week and maximize my savings.  I matched up the coupons to the sales and made lists. Buy-one-get-one free, buy this, get cash back. Use cash back on next item…

Couponing, done well, can save you money on things you already use. Who wouldn’t want to save fifty bucks at a time?

But that’s not what we do. There’s a side of couponing so sinister side no rehab can save you…

So naturally, that’s where I headed.

I became obsessed about savings. And my system was flawless–I didn’t miss a penny savings in any of the six stores on my route.

I’d make a list of the items to buy at each store where it was cheapest.

I’d attach the coupons to the list, then visit each of the major stores in my area–sometimes twice due to “Limit 5.”   I’d often cash out in multiple transactions to use offers like “Buy two, get a $4 coupon for your next purchase.”  The grumpy cashier spit out the coupon.  I’d have $4 of items and their coupons ready to get free, much to the chagrin of the line forming behind me.  Sometimes there were even more than two cashouts.  I was a well-oiled machine.

I got a lot of stuff for free.  Sometimes companies even paid me to buy things.  Who can turn that down?  Soon, I had shelves full of sale and free products.  Anyone who visited my house left with a gift basket of free toothpaste, canned beans, shampoo, soap whatever… It was fun to let people shop at my bodega.

I built shelves for it. I organized it. It looked like a real store.

When I accumulated enough, I’d bring bags of products to our local family shelter.

At back to school time it got worse. I was teaching at the time. Teachers get crazy at back to school sale time.  I’d add every department and office supply store to my coupon route–and go frequently so I could stock my class for the year.

Because of the sale limits, I’d go in the morning and afternoon. That way there’d be a new employee at the register.  If I skipped a trip, I’d obsess that I wouldn’t have the two thousand pencils I’d need to survive the year.

Coupons became my part time job.

But here’s the thing: Half of what I bought with coupons were things I don’t use. I don’t eat food in boxes, I don’t use chemical-filled products, I don’t own makeup, and I don’t serve sugar cereal. There are no coupons for onions and lettuce. Every five-cent item was five cents I was spending not savings at all.

And since I was in debt, coupons were keeping me there.

Why coupon if it doesn’t save money?

Usually, couponing isn’t about frugal housekeeping and savings… it’s about fear or gameshow-level dopamine rewards. “Seven tubes of toothpaste! Nearly FREE!”

For me, it was fear. I was deeply in debt and didn’t see a way out–except through savings. Coupons gave me something to do and control.

Eventually, I started working more. I had my day job, and began to freelance and work outside my teaching job. I moved to the forest so going to all those stores to buy the cheapest thing at each one wasn’t even an option, and as I got deeper into being a poser homesteader, I began to look for ways to do things myself–naturally.

Couponing went away.

I got free time, peace, and all those nickels and dimes I wasn’t spending on stocking a bodega I’d never use–that paid off some bills.

Ask yourself:

“Do I need seven tubes of toothpaste?”  I don’t. One tube will last me very nearly till the end of time. Buy what you need and buy the one that makes you happy, even if it costs a little bit more.

Better yet, make something on your poser homestead and use that.

When I was at the height of my couponing glory, I accumulated several years worth of personal hygiene products. I brought the last few boxes with me when we moved. It took us three years before we were down to the last bottle of shampoo.

If I add up the cost of “free” things I don’t use, I wasted  a lot of cash.

“No harm, no foul if they were free,” I said.

Not true.

Nothing’s free.

If I spent ten dollars couponing (sorting, cutting, matching, and driving The Loop), that’s ten hours I could have used to work or do something I love–for em.

If I got a minimum-wage job with that time, I’d make $100 a week ($400/month), PLUS the money I didn’t spend buying things I didn’t need (let’s say that’s $100 month but it was probably more), the newspapers I didn’t buy to get those coupons ($5/week, so $20/month). Then, add on a tank of gas at $20.

The total I could’ve been not spending and also earning–just at minimum wage…That’s between $500 and $600 a month net savings–earning and what I didn’t spend.

But here’s the thing–I don’t make minimum wage. So it’s actually a lot more.

“I can’t just go out and snap my fingers and make money.” That’s the number one response I get to this story.

And it’s true–you can’t. So take that “not couponing time,” and use it to learn a skill where you can. There are a ton of things you can do right from your own homestead–things you can make, fix, do, and consult on. Even if you do absolutely nothing but plant some crops or can a few B-grade tomatoes you get from your local farmer’s market… you’ll be preserving more than the food. You’ll preserve your sanity.

I’ve been there. I know.

How do you know if you should coupon?

If you’re going to the store that has a sale anyway, and you didn’t buy extra papers to get coupons, use them. Only if you were going to use the products anyway. Make sure every coupon you use passes The Coupon Test.

The Coupon Test: Should I buy this?

  1. Do you need this coupon item now? If so, that’s coupon victory. Buy the item!
  2. Will the item expire before you use it? Overstocking coupon items creates waste. Check expiration dates and estimate what you’ll use before it expires.  Don’t overbuy!
  3. Do I have to drive out of my way to get this sale? If it’s a big sale on thing you use or there’s a lot of things you need at one store, go for it.  If you’re saving a dollar but spending an extra half-hour of your time to get something at another store, skip the trip!

The dirty secret of coupons…

Coupons are designed by marketing companies to make you buy. It is a rare coupon that’s a gift to you–something you really want that’s a little out of your price range and will be a treat. It’s usually a bunch of junk you don’t want.

You can shop fresh and clean without coupons: order in bulk, go to local markets, and shop ethnic markets for the ingredients you love, or grow it yourself… then cook like a chef.

Don’t coupon out of fear. 

Debt and financial struggle do strange things to people.  Couponing out of fear is unhealthy and not productive. It’s another form of procrastination. If you’re a Debt Couponer, I challenge you stop couponing for a month and look for that savings. Then, use that savings to pay off that debt.

If you’re a debt-free couponer, notice the savings of not couponing and buy yourself that garden tool you’ve been wanting instead.

Time to let go!

Letting go of things and habits that no longer serve me reminds me of how little I really need to be happy.  It’s a peaceful feeling.

I have less clutter, more free time, and more money in the bank.

All because I don’t coupon.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash