Coupons are a Waste?

I recently ran across an interesting letter to the editor in Time Magazine, and thought it would make good fodder for discussion. For background, this letter was written in response to an article by Joel Stein titled “The Week of Living Cheaply.”

Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

“Coupons are the worst kind of junk mail and a terrible waste of paper in our green economy — never mind the time waster they are in the saving, sorting, filing and waiting at the checkout counter. Think of the p.r. coup for the company that announces, “No more coupons!” I, for one, would buy that product on principle.”

To be fair (to Stein), he’s not quite so militant about things in his article. He also makes a good point near the end of his article about the value of haggling or, as he puts it, mumbling “Can you do a little better?” Nonetheless, he clearly places himself squarely in the “no coupon” camp.

So… What do you think? I’ve gone on record in the past saying that we’re not big into coupons. Sure, we’ll use ’em if we have ’em, but we don’t go out of our way to track them down. What about you?

47 Responses to “Coupons are a Waste?”

  1. Anonymous

    I find coupons for organic foods and produce all the time. I think some people aren’t interested in learning how to save with coupons. They are interested in proving to themselves that coupons don’t save money. Changing a mindset like that is going to take a lot more convincing than I am willing to do.
    I am so glad that I woke up and realized that I could save tons of money on items that were not in our diet because I felt they were too expensive.

  2. Anonymous

    Yes, because we all know that every time we go to the grocery store our shopping is all inclusive and should include full and complete balanced meals.

    Talk about judging and making excuses. I’ve been on shopping trips where the only thing I bought was 20 boxes of apple jacks (all were free with coupons of course) and of course, that’s ALL I feed my family.

  3. Anonymous

    I was once in line behind a family that had a massive stack of printed coupons. That didn’t bother me, I patiently waited for them to finish.

    What I was able to realize as I put my fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and eggs on the belt was that the people in front of me had a cart loaded to the top with mac and cheese, frozen dinners, frozen pizza, ice cream, sugar laden cereals, juices and other ‘junk’. Not a fresh piece of meat, fruit, or veg in sight.

    When the cashier gave them their whopping total of $20 or so, the husband and wife looked so proud.

    I think it’s great to save money wherever possible, but if I was saving bunches of money at the detriment of my family’s health, forget it.

  4. Anonymous

    Coupons are nothing more than “junk mail”? WOW! I’ve been couponing since July 2009 (5 months)and have saved over $900. And it’s cost me about 1 hour of my time a week (and I do it while watching TV so I’m multitasking…go figure lol! So now, let’s do the math shall we? 1 hour a week (while I watch TV) x4 weeks a month =20 hours…hummm, 20 hours a month to save $900 and watch TV! = Well, that’s like getting paid $45 for each of those hours I “worked” (and watched TV) to get those coupons…So, I guess for some that $900 is “junk” too?

    Most people who have these kinds of ideas don’t have the first idea on how to actually do couponing effectively to begin with.

    A very good place to start would be a website called – You’ll be amazed at just how much you can save by using what some ignorant people call “junk”.

  5. Anonymous

    Thanks Amber and Christina for sticking up for serious couponers!

    I used to be a huge disbeliever, until I found myself with a college degree and no real job prospects. A friend of mine (probably the most frugal person I know) was big into coupons, and I decided to give them a try. I, too, went through the buying too much phase. I spent way too much money on things I didn’t need just to save a few bucks of the list price. I didn’t stop there, though.

    What most people fail to realize is that couponing is a skill. And like any skill, it requires practice. You can’t expect to get 90% savings off your order on the first shopping trip, which is what people see me doing now. It took me months to get that talented. I learned, for example, that it isn’t really the coupon that saves you the most money, it’s the special. I learned the best blogs to read, the ones that price match. I learned to wait until certain grocery stores double or triple coupons and just live off my stockpile the rest of the time. And like a skill, it gets easier with time. What took me 5 plus hours a week (clipping, sorting, planning) now takes me more less than 1.

    A common argument against couponing is that there are never any coupons for the items people need. While that is occasionally true (especially for things like fruit and milk), I don’t think a lot of people even realize what is out there. If you have a Harris Teeter in your area, a brand of high-quality whole grain bread is buy one get one, making it $1.74 each. A couple of weeks back, the Sunday paper ran a coupon for $.75 off. Harris Teeter doubles coupons under $.99, which means later this week I am walking away with a healthy loaf of bread (who doesn’t need that?) for $.24.

    But on a sentimental note, I don’t think the only benefits of couponing seriously are saving money off your grocery bill. I’ve learned things like how price shop, how to evaluate if I need something, and how to track what I’m spending. Before I started couponing, I would walk into a grocery store and spend $50 to $100 dollars without thinking, just going up and down the aisles grabbing things I needed. I would also pay $4 for a cup of coffee. Now I flinch if my grocery trip costs me above $20. I walk in there with a detailed grocery list, and I know what each thing will cost me out of pocket before I buy it. I’ve also gotten better at evaluating things in my day-to-day life. I still might eat out, or get a cup of coffee, but now I stop and evaluate the cost/benefit ratio. Couponing has helped me realize how much control I have over my money. And when you’re living under financial constraint, that’s a very good thing.

  6. Anonymous

    I don’t use lots of coupons, but in certain cases it can make a huge difference especially if there is no attachments.

    I get deals sometimes where I have to buy something or x amount of stuff in value and then get coupons

  7. Anonymous

    I coupon and I spend probably a good hour every week doing it. I feel like when you first start couponing, there is a tendency to go way overboard and then you slowly back down to only things you can use or donate. I’m at that stage now, after a year of what was probably excess. I bought things we probably shouldn’t have eaten but did it at ridiculously low prices. Now I know when things will be on sale and about how much I should be paying for them – and it’s a hell of a lot less than I was paying before.

    Couponing also allows me to have a lot of food items I would ordinarily force myself to go without. For instance, in the past I would only buy sour cream if it was on sale. With coupons (and I only clip when I’m about to buy – using databases like, I more or less have a sale all the time. Buying non-perishables when they are dirt-cheap allows us to enjoy the things we like without spending a lot of money on them as a splurge – things like tortilla chips, refried beans, pickles, etc. Coupons in our house generally go toward foods we like but don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. In the past, we’d either go without or have to pay full price.

    Finally, coupons allow me to translate my time and money into very large donations to our local food bank. When I can buy more than I need for my “stockpile,” I’m able to donate. Normally I just cull from my stockpile every few months and send all of that to the food bank. This includes a lot of hygiene items from drug stores (all of it free or very close). I have sent at least 10 but probably more like 20 tubes of toothpaste to the food bank this year.

  8. Anonymous

    After weighty thought, I have decided I dislike coupons, personally. I have gotten good deals on them and I don’t doubt that they save some families money, but using them is a pain in the rear to me…. Did I grab the coupon? Where is it? Did I meet all the conditions? Has it expired? Also, it produces mental clutter in my brain….I have a $10 coupon for any purchase at Cabela’s… what should I get there? Do I “need” anything? When should I go? I would much prefer cheaper prices across the board on things than the rat maze I feel like I am on when I look at/ cut/ attempt to use coupons. I have the same general dislike for affinity cards, frequent flier miles (SWA being the exception), and shopper loyalty programs.

  9. Anonymous

    If coupons were trash, then why was able to buy $60.43 worth of my grocery store shopping and wind up only having to $12.28 for it all! I’d spend less than an hour a week checking for the best deal in my area from 2 main websites that compare and show the best deals and which Sunday the main coupons came out on down to which insert they were in. So essentially, I just made saved/made $48.15….not bad for an hours work and certainly worth it!

  10. Anonymous

    I miss living in our apartment complex. There was a large trashcan in the mail room where junk was deposited before going home. On a good coupon day such as Bed Bath & Beyond day I’d pull multiple coupons from the trash.

  11. Anonymous

    I wish they would have special checkouts for people who plan to use 5 or more coupons.

    As pointed out by others if one is vegetarian or does not eat too much processed foods, one doesn’t find too many coupons of value.

    While I do use an occasional coupon for toothpaste/soap/shampoo etc, I try not to stockpile either since I try to avoid overconsumption which is what excessive couponing leads to.

  12. Anonymous

    Some folks’ speculation to the contrary, I never eat junk food, and I don’t eat processed food if I can possibly avoid it, which is about 99.8% of the time. Not because I’m some sort of organic saint, but because I don’t care for the flavor of highly processed, oversalted pretend food.

    Several times, I’ve tried couponing. The two issues I’ve found are that it’s very time-consuming, taking away from time I could use to earn or at least to market my services; and it does seem that few coupons cover real food. Almost all the coupons are for processed, packaged quasi-food or for junk food snacks. As for shampoo, deodorants, etc.: Very nice, but how often do you buy that stuff? For a single person like me, one bottle of Pantene from Costco lasts months; daily bathing seems to pre-empt the need for chemical deodorants most of the time, so a package of that gunk also lasts months. Ditto hand cream, toothpaste, cleaning products, and most household goods, which are very cheap at big box stores.

    At midweek, the Safeway here puts meat on sale for ultra-low prices: recently chuck roast was going for 99 cents a pound. Have that ground into hamburger for a much better product than the stuff that’s sitting on the counter and selling for three bucks a pound, and you’re probably saving about as much as a canny couponer can save.

    You can do pretty well by shopping in the right stores at the right times, by stockpiling food when it’s on sale, and by using shopping lists religiously. Though I suspect an accomplished couponer saves more than I do, by the same token I’m not spending my time at a tedious daily or weekly chore, being herded into buying products I otherwise wouldn’t buy, or wasting other shoppers’ time shuffling pieces of paper at the checkout counter.

  13. Anonymous

    Glad it works for you, Christina, but you don’t “know for a fact” anything about how I eat.

    Coupons for meat are irrelevant, as I am vegetarian. We don’t eat processed snacks at home ever (unless we are hosting a party). I don’t eat cereal; my husband eats Cheerios. I rarely eat/use eggs.

    There are a few things that we will occasionally find coupons for, but we’re not going to cut our grocery bill in half (or even by a quarter) by clipping coupons. If I see a coupon we might use, I’ll clip it, but generally it’s not worth pouring over coupons for an hour a week to save $3.oo. We’ll shop sales and stock up on non-perishables if they’re on sale, but that’s all that we’ve found to be worth the time spent.

  14. Anonymous

    Not a huge use of cupons, but they can be worthwhile if you are buying the items already. As for the green question- all that is really needed is the barcode. A smart phone could certainly display that for the grocery scanner- no paper needed!

    -Rick Francis

  15. Anonymous

    “I’ve tried doing the coupon thing, but they don’t typically have coupons for most of the foods my husband and I eat. If you eat a lot of processed and/or pre-packaged food, then coupons are great. We make most of our own meals and rarely see coupons for produce and even more rarely for organic.”

    You know, I hear this a lot and yet, it’s not true. I’ve saved lots of money on organic eggs, organic snacks and cereals, produce, meat and baking products (yeasts, flours, etc). We love Fiber One, Kashi and Cascadian Farms products to supplement our “from scratch” cooking.

    Everything I purchase is based upon a price point per serving. I don’t care how cheap a pre-made lasagna is, if the per serving price isn’t at a specific price point for me, I don’t buy it. Yes, we will buy processed stuff, cause I know for a fact that NO ONE eats all organic/healthy all the time. We don’t ever eat or drink out of our house unless it’s free, so for meals that we just don’t want to cook, we’ll eat something processed (which is a heck of a lot better for you than your local Del Taco or Panda Express).

    I also know that I’m PAID to shop when I buy processed stuff on specific sales/events – so I’ll buy bunches of it and donate it to the food bank and I’ll use the “cash on your next purchase” certificates I receive to buy my fruits, veggies, dairy and meat.

  16. Anonymous

    I’ll use coupons if they are in the store, displayed right next to the item I was going to buy anyway. If the item is on sale, I will buy extras. If not, I take a few extra coupons for the next time I need the item.

    I find the BEST way to save money is to make a list of what you need and stick to it.

    Too many coupon shoppers fool themselves into thinking they are saving money. The truth is that they didn’t have the intention of buying the item in the first place, but they can’t overlook the “savings”. If you pay only 50 cents for a $5.00 item you don’t need, you have still paid 50 cents too much.

    My uncle is like this. I see weird items in his bathroom storage closet, in multiples, neatly stacked – which he never uses. Must have been a great sale. LOL.

  17. Anonymous

    I’ve tried doing the coupon thing, but they don’t typically have coupons for most of the foods my husband and I eat. If you eat a lot of processed and/or pre-packaged food, then coupons are great. We make most of our own meals and rarely see coupons for produce and even more rarely for organic.

  18. Anonymous

    I have said often that “I can’t afford not to use coupons”. I have gone from spending over $800 a month on groceries a few years ago to spending only $400 a month (and sometimes less). And also using them with Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid sales & rebates, the free stuff is abundant. I can’t remember the last time I paid for toothtaste, shampoo, lotion, deoderant.
    It has become so fun now to see just how little I can spend 🙂

  19. Anonymous

    He’s got a point about paper coupons. I guess it depends on how into them you are. I won’t clip coupons from stuff that comes in the mail but I will google for coupon codes online. I think as time goes on the paper ones will phase out (at least the direct mail ones) and more vendors will move into online coupons

  20. Anonymous

    Dear Mr. Stein … can I have your coupons then?

    I’ve gotten into coupon shopping .. my pantry is now stocked with name-brand items that cost me less than the store-brand. I personally think the nay-sayers just don’t want to be bothered and feel guilty about it 😉

  21. Anonymous

    I keep an eye out for coupons to restaurants we really like but don’t collect product coupons–limits my buying choices too much. What the heck is a “General Mills family?” Learn something new every day.

  22. Anonymous

    #22 cemccon – just go to my website (click my name for the link) – I post deals I get right on there and how I got them.

    Additionally, there are free sites that teach you such as

  23. Anonymous

    You can also call the companies who send you the mailers (their information is available on the stuff) and tell them you don’t want them anymore and they will stop sending them to your address. I used to do that.

    Now that my wife hasn’t been working we’ve gone through the mailers and papers looking for coupons and there are a lot of coupons for stuff that we already buy in there.

    Also, since our family is a General Mills family, we know the importance of buying name brand vs. store brand so it works out for us.

    We also have a huge stack of FREE coupons. We’re going to go to the store on the busiest day and buy only stuff from the FREE coupon stack to walk out paying $0 for a cart load of food just to see how the people behind us react 🙂

  24. Anonymous

    Coupons are great when they are for items you regularly buy. The purpose of coupons are to pursuede consumers to shop at a one store over another, or to buy a certain product. As long as you aren’t buying items just because they are on sale then you are ok.

    There is no point in saving $0.50 on a $4.00 bottle of salad dressing, when the one you normally purchase is $2.39.

  25. Anonymous

    We do not let coupons drive our grocery list but they are a part of our money-saving strategy. We pick our spots. For example, my parents have a bowl of FiberOne cereal for breakfast every morning. Boxes of FiberOne can run up to $4. A few months back Target put them on sale and also offered a store coupon that brought them down to $2.50 a box. In addition to that they gave you a $5 gift card if you bought 5 boxes which brought them down to $1.50 a box. We also had some manufacturer’s coupons which got us down to $1.25 a box. We checked the boxes to see when the expiration date was, and stocked up for the next nine months buying over 30 boxes and saving over $100. We buy very few brand named items but the ones we do consume we keep an eye open for opportunities like this.

  26. Anonymous

    I’ve never been able to duplicate the outcomes of those folks who say they save thousands, hundreds, or even just tens of dollars using coupons. Then, all I see are pay-based sites where one of them offers to ‘help’ you in that regard. So, for all of you coupon jockeis; please post some REAL-LIFE examples (I.E., the name of the store(s) at which you shop, the city/town/village (or region) you shop, and the items in your cart that you saved on with coupons).

  27. Anonymous

    I don’t really use coupons. I’m single and my grocery bill is small so it’s just not worth it to me. I love dining coupons. My fave mexican joint often has $8 off coupons and they also have a discounted menu on Mon and Tues so a meal for 2 ends up being $10-15.

  28. Anonymous

    We are a coupon family. I save about $80/month. I takes me about 5 hours a month to keep up with them all. We shop at the commissary (at an army post), there is no store brand option there. If I can get food for almost free then I’ll jump on it! After a while you know if you are getting a good deal, for instance, I get a lot of coupons for “Apple and Eve” juice. With a coupon it is still more expensive then “Motts”. Once you know and you are careful with how you use your coupons I don’t know why you wouldn’t use them, especially for things like cereal that we buy in bulk because we have 5 children. I agree that many of the couponed items are packaged/processed but lately I’ve found some for produce, milk, yogurt, etc. If you are going to purchase the item regardless why not use a coupon!!

  29. Anonymous

    I use coupons some. I don’t use them a lot for groceries. I haven’t taken the time and made the effort to collect the coupons I’d use and really figure it out making it worth more than 25¢ here and there. I do however use higher value coupons like those for restaurants $5 off breakfast or 50% off a dinner entree.

  30. Anonymous

    I feel the sunday coupons target a particular demographic (SAHM) so the products are not always relevant for me. Also, the majority of the products are packaged/processed foods which we dont usually eat in our house. However, I do quickly go through them and usually clip 1 or 2.

  31. Anonymous

    Bed Bath & Beyond coupons.. I tend to stockpile those. I’ve been able to use them for sale, clearance, and open-box items. Lately, I have been allowed to use them for items that are less than the minimum amount specified by the coupon, and a coupon per item in one visit!
    Since it’s stuff I needed anyways, knocking off another 20% of items that have already been marked down is pretty awesome.

  32. Anonymous

    Kevin – funny you should mention that – I did just what you said and it’s now on my site.

    Also, you brought up coupons for other things as well – you are so right!! We’ve signed up for so many things: Red Robin birthday burgers, movie tickets, etc. We get some incredible deals just because I watch for everything – we’ve gotten free movies, free alarm clocks, free food in the mail (samples and tons of them), etc.

    I’m also big on clutter free so if I get free things and we don’t need them, they either become gifts for friends who do need that particular item or them become donations to the food bank or local thrift store.

  33. Anonymous

    If you were reading the paper and a $1 bill was taped to the editorial section would you grab it and spend it? What if 5 different sections of the paper had $1 bills taped in them – would you spend them? Of course you would…that’s what all those coupons are – money in my pocket for a few minutes of my time.

  34. Anonymous

    I see what the reporter is saying. Every week we get one of those copuon mailers, and every week it has a copuon to two massage places, and a few dentists, among other things. How often do I need a massage or need to get my teeth cleaned. Those just get thrown out. Even if we were to use one of them we wouldn’t use them every week. Coupons are nice but they do use a lot of paper that just gets thrown out, either by the consumer not using them or after they’re redemed. If there’s something specific I’m after I’ll look for a coupon but I don’t go through coupons to decide what to buy.

  35. Anonymous

    Ah, but Costco offers coupons – we buy things we love from Costco when there are coupons for it.

    Also, I usually get our milk, eggs and produce FREE because of couponing.

    In fact, I’m going into Fred Meyer today because I have $12 in “cash” after spending $6.00 on $94 of bread, pasta, sauces, etc. last week. That $12 in “cash” will (with coupons) allow me to purchase ~$45 worth of fresh food.

    In other words, I was given $6 for coming into their store last week and taking things off the shelves and taking it home.

  36. Anonymous

    Christina–you should write a full post with what you’ve written above. It’s very good.

    We use coupons and save 7-10% on our grocery bills. One of the stores here does double off on coupons, which is another plus.

    Most of this thread has focused on coupons for grocery shopping, but we’ve come across some even more generous ones for dining out, entertainment and car repairs. On the car repair side, a lot of merchants are honoring competitors coupons in order to keep your business. $50 or 10% off a car repair bill is most definately worth searching through newspapers and junk mail.

  37. Anonymous

    I spend about 5 minutes a week paging through the Sunday coupons and typically find 2 or 3 coupons to use for the week. Not much savings, but worth a quick look each week. I definitely fall into the camp of only using coupons for things you were going to buy anyway.

    We don’t buy a lot of packaged/processed foods from the grocery store, and it seems that most coupons are for those types of products rather than fresh vegetables, milk and meats. Also, I usually get our bulk paper goods from Costco where coupons aren’t taken.

    Coupons are always a lively discussion topic!

  38. Anonymous

    Coupons are the single best way to reduce your grocery bill to nearly zero – on a consistent basis.

    I feed and beautify a family of 6 (4 boys) for less than $400/month. Additionally, the last 2 months we’ve been supporting 2 other families (3 ppl and 4ppl) without depleting our stockpile or increasing our expenses. Additionally, we’ve given bags upon bags of food and toiletries to our food bank (this is very much needed right now).

    I spend an average of 10 hours a month couponing, matching sales, planning the shopping and actually shopping multiple stores.

    We have our own business in which I work full-time, so it’s not like I’m a SAHM that works this into my SAHM schedule.

    Saving money has NOTHING to do with buying “generic” vs. “store brands”. It has everything to do with being flexible in the brands you do use, keeping coupons for everything, including things you’ve never used before and matching the use of store coupons/manufacturer coupons/sales/catalina’s to make the most effective use of your money.

    You must be willing to try new products – to integrate things you’ve never eaten before – to make use of what is inexpensive.

    I love challenging people who say they “save as much or more using generic” or people who say that coupons never come on the products they use (I guess they don’t take showers or baths, brush their teeth, wash their clothes, clean their homes, eat breakfasts, lunches or dinners, etc). In October alone we saved $100 off our previously “normal” budget of $675/month for our family of 6. However, the amount of food I bought for $525 was more than triple what most get for $525.

    Stockpiling is KEY – buying enough of an item when it’s at it’s lowest price to stock up until it goes to it’s lowest price again (on MOST items it’s a 3 month cycle). Also watching for unexpected low low prices (ie, anything pork related was at an insane price the past couple of months because of the “swine flu” scare so I stocked up on ~100lbs of pork roast for 89c/lb) and, watching for seasonal items at their lowest – soups are always at their lowest in Sept/Oct/Nov, etc.

    Anyway – I love that most people just are ignorant about coupons – it allows me to feed lots of people for very little money.

    I also no longer care what people waiting in line think about how long it takes me at the checkout counter. They don’t live in my house and they don’t have to feed my family – I do. If going through checkout takes an extra 5 minutes (which it always does because of the amount of coupons I use) and saves me $500+/month – I’m doing it. I refuse to spend more money just to appease someone else.

    I do love it when the person behind me sees just how much I save. When the total starts out at $150 and I end up paying $20, they notice. When the total starts out at $53 and I pay ZERO and I do TWO transactions back to back like this, they really notice. (these are real life recent examples).

    Anyway – Mr. Stein – keep up the “get rid of coupons” mantra – I’ll keep using them 😀

    $500/month is nothing to sniff at – $6,000/year – that’s a great vacation every . single . year.

  39. Anonymous

    We are probably one of those extreme families but on average we save $200-$300 a month and have so much more food than ever before. We do buy national brands but that is because the store brand can’t be as cheap. Pickles for 9 cents, many things for free, it’s amazing when you sit and look at it.

  40. Anonymous

    Coupons can save a fair amount of money (I average about $40 to $50 a month). However, the people who you read about who can shop for a family of 15 for $4 is the other extreme.

    – don’t be brand specific. Every week there are different brands doing the coupon (similar to the soda swapping that happens)
    – coupons force multiples (buy two or three for a dollar off) this forces you to recalculate the unit price.
    – doubling up of store and producer coupons.

    $480 a year saved is always my goal.

  41. Anonymous

    My wife is a big couponer, and while she does spend time clipping, sorting and useing coupons the benefits far out weigh the time invested. Sure, haggling sounds like a good idea, but let me know how successful your are that at the supermarket.

  42. Anonymous

    Coupons are good if you prefer name brand products, which is what newspaper coupons are usually for. But we usually save as much or more selecting store brands (or shopping advertised specials for name brands), with no coupon hassles.

  43. Anonymous

    I’m an avid coupon user, but I don’t like to try to convince other people to use them. One, most people’s minds are already made up on this issue, and two, the fewer people who use coupons, the better the deals will be for those who DO use them!

  44. Anonymous

    My wife and I are coupon users. We get our local Sunday paper specifically for it. My wife will also spend about 10 minutes looking for coupons on-line as well. On average, I would say it saves us any where from $30 – $40 a month. I don’t know about you, but if someone wants to give me $30, I’m not turning it down.

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