Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Myth of Couponing

I stumbled into my life of frugality somewhat on accident.  I'd grown up in a fairly minimalist household, but I spent most of my college life without thinking about money.  I had plenty of financial aid, and I spent all of the money I got from my part-time job on movies, candy, ice cream, DVDs, video games, or whatever else struck my fancy.

It wasn't until grad school that I started to suffer financially.  I was living by myself for the first time, and cost of living was high.  I also had a hard time finding work and ended up as a part-time stocker for Petsmart, a job which was neither glamorous nor the path to riches.  For a few months, I was basically living off of credit cards and falling slowly into debt as I tried to figure out how to feed myself for a month on $70.

And that's when I started reading about frugality.

I learned "on the job" and started picking up skills pretty fast.  I baked my first loaf of bread, then tried my first bagels.  I figured out just how useful eggs are and discovered the amazing utility of soup.  After a couple of years, I managed to perfect the art of eating pretty damn well on a low budget.

How low?  Well, let's put it this way:  My boyfriend and I eat for about $200 a month.  For clarification, that's $167 less than we would get allotted to us by SNAP.  If I'm trying to keep us on a very, very tight budget, I can pare that down to about $150.

And the part that often shocks people when I tell them this?  I do all of this without using any coupons.

Why I Don't Use Coupons

I tried the couponing thing.  I read books about couponers and how much money people were saving by using them.  I diligently bought copies of the Sunday paper and clipped and sorted coupons.  I brought my sorted coupons to the store -- and found, time and time again, that I saved more money by not using the coupons.

Don't get me wrong.  Some people can absolutely save money with coupons.  But when you're eating for $50 a week, it's pretty likely that the items you can buy with coupons are not going to be the same items as you're already buying.

Why?  Because coupons are always for brand name, pre-packaged items.  You'll find a ton of coupons for Pillsbury crescent rolls, Kelloggs cereal and Dannon yogurt.  But you're not going to find coupons for the staples of a healthy, cheap diet:  bulk beans and grains, fresh produce, meat, store-brand dairy.

And let me tell you a secret.  Whoever is telling you that you can't save money by eating a whole-food diet most likely has an agenda that they're trying to push on you.  Because pound for pound, fresh whole foods will always be cheaper than brand-name processed items.

There is one caveat to this:  Organic.  You will pay more for organic produce.  I'll go into the explanation of all that later, but that is something to keep in mind.  If you're going into your quest wanting to eat better, cheaper, and you can't afford the organic -- fine.  Of course organic vegetables and free-range, grass-fed beef is better.  But if you can't make that step yet, if you can't afford the extra cost of the higher-quality stuff, buy the regular store-brand produce instead.  That's still miles better than subsisting on frozen pizza and boxed pasta mixes.  

Coupons: Advertisements Preying on Frugal Shoppers

Here's the reason you'll never see coupons for simple whole foods:  They're an advertising strategy.

As far as advertising strategies go, it's one of the more insidious ones.  It really makes you feel like you're doing the right thing.  It reaches out and pats you on the back for saving money, even as it quietly picks your pocket.  By making you feel like you're getting a good deal, you get conned into getting things you probably wouldn't normally buy, and you're tempted to buy even more things because you "saved so much money."

Even if you do everything right -- made a list, only used coupons for items you're planning to buy, doubling coupons up with sales -- you're still buying right into the hands of the advertisers.  You're still telling yourself, "I need these items.  These items are necessary for me to have a happy, healthy, cheap kitchen."

Here's how coupons work, in case you don't know:

The manufacturer prints up a bunch of coupons and distributes them through whatever distribution channel it uses.  Some of these end up online, in the paper, printed on the back of receipts, etc.  You then obtain these coupons and hand them over with your cash at the register.  The person at the register most likely puts the coupons somewhere specific -- a certain drawer or box by the register.  At Petsmart it was a box underneath the register.

At the end of the night, the manager collects and counts all of the cash, and sorts all of the coupons.  These coupons then get mailed back to the manufacturer, who reimburses the store for the difference.

Yes, that's right.  The store doesn't lose money when you use coupons.  The manufacturer loses money, but makes it up immediately with the sheer bulk of people buying a product they wouldn't normally have bought, and they're hoping to convert you to their brand after you try their product.  So of course the grocery store wants you to use coupons.  Of course the manufacturer wants you to use coupons.  Nobody is doing you a favor by giving you these discounts.  They're using you.  The only person getting hurt is the poor shmuck who spends more money on groceries than she needs to because she thinks she's saving money. 

If there's a brand that you really like for whatever reason and you subscribe to their coupons, fine.  I won't judge you.  But just know: Your coupons aren't doing you any favors.  I promise -- if you change your eating habits and start eating more whole foods and less processed crap, you'll get more for your buck and you don't have to worry about clipping all those damn coupons.

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