Editorial Policy

Is Couponing Worth the Effort?

Allie Johnson

March 14, 2013

When my husband and I first started trying to get out of debt, I decided to try couponing. At the time, it seemed like an easy way to save a few bucks.

I signed up to get deal alerts from several websites, such as Couponaholic and The Krazy Coupon Lady, and starting clipping and printing coupons.

But I quickly realized couponing wasn’t paying off for me. Sure, I saved $7 to $15 or soon each trip to the grocery store, but I was spending several hours a week reading blogs and looking for coupons. That meant I was getting a return of maybe $3 or $4 an hour. Sometimes, online coupons would fail to print, so I’d invest time for nothing.

Many personal finance bloggers have come to similar conclusions about the downside of couponing. Here are some things to consider:

  • Couponing makes less sense for healthy eaters. As Trent at The Simple Dollar points out, manufacturers tend to offer coupons for highly processed foods, not fresh fruits and veggies. Often these packaged foods also are crazy expensive for what you get. For example, a few months ago, I was seeing a lot of coupons for Smuckers Uncrustables, which are basically very expensive pre-made PB&J sandwiches. Compare that to the cost of taking a few minutes to make your own.
  • The generic item might be cheaper. Another great point by The Simple Dollar: Generic items often are even cheaper than the brand-name item purchased with a coupon. If you’re open to generic — and, really, it’s often just as good — you can save more without the hassle or time suck of finding coupons.
  • You might end up spending more. As this post at Wise Bread  points out, manufacturers offer coupons to get you hooked on their products. Also, you might buy a product you otherwise wouldn’t have purchased because you have a coupon for it. This can leave you thinking you saved money when really you spent more than you would have without the coupon.

However, there are times when I still do use coupons. Usually this is when I can get a big return for a small-time investment. For example:

  • Online shopping. I shop online quite a bit because it saves me time and gas money. When I do, I always Google “coupon code” followed by the name of the retailer. Often, I find a coupon code for free shipping or 10 percent to 20 percent off, which ends up saving me $10, $20 or even more for a time investment of just a minute or two.
  • Large purchases. I’ve signed up at places like OfficeMax and Bed, Bath & Beyond to get coupons sent to me in the mail. I get coupons for maybe 20 percent off or $10 off a $50 purchase. For no effort, I get substantial discounts on things I’d buy anyway. When I’m making a really large purchase, such as an appliance, I search online for the best deal and then look for coupon codes. Some retailers will allow you to purchase online and pick up your item at the store. It makes more sense to put in 15 minutes on something that will save you $20 than it does on something that will save you $1.
  • Stocking up. Even though we eat lots of fresh produce and not a lot of stuff that comes in packages, there are a few expensive packaged products we use regularly and go through quickly. These include LaCroix flavored water, Silk almond milk, Celestial Seasonings teas and Starbucks whole bean coffee. I usually watch for buy-one-get-one-free sales on these items at my local grocery store, then I stock up for substantial savings. For example, buying 10 bags of Starbucks coffee when they’re on sale for $3 off saves me $30. Before I head to the store, I do a quick search to see if I can find printable coupons for any of these items to save even more.

All in all, I think anyone who uses coupons should keep track of how much time they spend and how much they save to decide whether it’s worth the effort. In many cases, it might make more sense to spend that time making extra money by working overtime or starting a side business.