March 9, 2010

Couponing—the newest extreme sport

Thanks to my friend Honor for sending me the link to this Wall Street Journal article—Hard Times Turn Coupon Clipping into the Newest Extreme Sport.  You know that you are an extreme couponer when you look at an article like this with a very clear subtext of couponers are freaks and think, “Yea, and your point is?”  The highlighted couponing buys were indeed extreme, a 6 foot tall stack of jello anyone?  I wish that they had shown how much you can give to your community and donate through couponing.  They acted as if the lady who donated the pet food to the animal shelter because her pet didn’t like it was wasteful.  Hey, at least she donated it rather than throwing it out. 

I realized that I fall into the extreme couponer category:

Fueling the increase isn't the general populace but heavy coupon users, people who redeem 104 or more coupons over six months, according to an August report by The Nielsen Co.

I’m reading the book  Cheap : the high cost of discount culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell who notes a study on how a frugal person’s self esteem is wrapped up in getting a bargain, to the point that sometimes there is really no bargain at all.  We’ve all heard about the folks who will drive across town to get a discount on gasoline.  I won’t say that the book has been a complete wake-up call for me, but it has definitely caused me to further analyze my spending and check my emotions and self talk while shopping.  I hope that you’ll take note of the points I’ve jotted below and use them when budgeting and shopping:

  • If it is wasteful, it isn’t a good deal.  If you throw it in the trash before using it, you have wasted.  Even if that product was free, it has a cost associated with it—energy and time spent buying it, environmental impact of its production and distribution, etc.
  • If it is harmful to the environment, it isn’t a good deal.  I struggle with this one because as we all know some products are much worse for the environment than others.  I *try* to avoid buying junk that will break or be thrown away instantly.  We rarely buy juice boxes (I can think of maybe a handful of times since our daughter was born), no matter how cheap they are because they cannot be recycled.  If you know of a brand of juice boxes that can be recycled, please let me know.
  • Rest assured that the deal will roll around again.  Stores, heck coupon bloggers, want for you to think that the deal is HOT, it is a MUST HAVE, if you don’t buy it now, it will be gone.  I can get caught up in the anxiety of not being able to pick up a deal.  I remember very distinctly about 2 years ago when I was rude to a lady who was about to get the last of the free after coupon dishwasher detergents.  Was it worth being rude to her?  How did that affect me as a person?  Her as a person?  My reputation from those who might have seen me?  What if my daughter had been with me and had witnessed me be rude?  What message would that have sent to her?  I’m glad that I caught myself and apologized to her in the store before I left but that experience stays with me.  Check your emotions, your self talk, heck, your blood pressure.  Maybe make a note on your shopping list, “The deal will come again.”  How many times have I scored free dishwasher detergent in the last 2 years since that event?  At least 3-5!
  • Don’t lose your soul for the deal.  I noticed a few weeks ago when I went back into Kroger to score a Kashi Cereal deal that someone had come in and removed all of the freebie peelies off of the boxes.  (If you bought 2 boxes of Kashi, you received a free cereal bar box with the peelie coupon).  In case you didn’t know this, THAT IS STEALING!  Trying to pass off one product for another in order to use a coupon is unethical and may be illegal in some situations.  Cutting the expiration date off of a coupon so that you can still use it with some unsuspecting cashier is coupon fraud—illegal and unethical.  Now, I’ll give you an example from my own life recently.  I was trying to get a discount for a relative on a storage unit.  I was so caught up in getting the deal that I didn’t realize how unfair I was being to the store owner.  The business was locally owned and the owners were Christians.  She was really trying to work with me on the deal, and it was more of a discount than I would have received down the street.  I pushed further…and further.  When she said that she would honor the deal and take the difference out of her pocket because it was the Christian thing to do, I was humbled.  I had become so caught up in the moment that her saying that snapped me out of my deal hungry trance.  I had almost sold my soul for the deal, or at least I almost had.  I worked the deal so that it was fair to her and to us, and it was one where we could all feel like it was equitable.  Now, you could argue that it was a negotiating strategy that she was using.  After years of being a social worker, I’m pretty good at knowing when someone is lying and when they aren’t.  She was telling me the truth.  I tell you this story because I pride myself on being an ethical person, one with integrity, one that tries to be fair.  Yet, even I was caught up in the moment and almost made a mistake.
  • Think beyond the immediate.  When we go into the shopping trance, our brains switch to the limbic system—that part of our brain which makes fast and immediate decisions based on the fight or flight response.  We make decisions based on survival and emotions, not on logic.  (For the neurologists and psychologists in the audience, I know that this is a simplistic description of the limbic system, bear with me please).  We make the decision to buy based on what is happening in our life at that very moment.  Take a step back and think beyond the immediate moment.  If you need to take a break while shopping, do so.  Ask yourself—Will this product last?  Is it made with quality?  How often will I use this?  Is it exactly what I want or am I settling because I haven’t found a good buy today?  If it is a piece of clothing, does it look good on me?  (If it doesn’t look good and isn’t flattering, why buy it?) How will this affect my monthly budget?  What about my long term goals?  How long did I have to work to buy this product?  (If you make $10/hour and the product costs $10, is it worth an hour of your work to purchase it?)  What will happen to this product when I am done using it?  How much will it sell for in a yard sale?

After I complete the reading of this book, I’ll try to update you with more notes.  It is definitely worth the read!


  1. Thank you so much for this post. All really good points and food for thought. Though I now fall into the "extreme couponer" category, I don't think I'll ever have the stockpiles to rival these folks, and for that, I am proud. The biggest issue I'm wrestling with right now is impact on the environment, because most of the good deals are for the smaller portions of the product--and therefore more packaging in the long run. I'm looking for ways to combat this: get the deal in bulk. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that in a future post. And I think I'll check out that book too!

  2. Yep, the smaller size often is the better deal with the coupon. I have found that as I've been couponing for a longer time, I do not pick up trial sized containers anymore. There was a time when I would get a thrill out of going to the travel section at Target and stocking up, most of the time for our food pantry at church. Yet, how much does a few uses of deodorant of shampoo really help someone? Because there are so often freebies with coupons for larger sizes of the same product, I focus on those instead (Suave deodorant for example).

    While I post free samples on my site, I only sign up for a small percentage of these now. Yes, they are free, but there is only one use and the packaging and shipping impact is too high. I make a judgment call based on whether or not I truly want to try the product for the first time or if I can use it to fill a need. (If I really could benefit from a trial size of shampoo for a trip that I'm planning, then I might get it, for instance).

    I do stockpile, and I have a pretty significant one. Yet, I do not hoard--there is a big difference. I buy a lot of bulk items where there is virtually no packaging. Late last year I stocked up on organic popcorn at Three Rivers Market and brought in my mason jars. I weighed the mason jars empty, and then I filled them with popcorn and weighed them again when I paid. I didn't have to use a twist tie or a plastic baggie. I didn't have to decant it when I arrived home. I just put it in the cupboard. Often, I'll split purchases with friends to save money and reduce packaging. I do a bulk buy of coconut oil each year, and we split 5 gallons of coconut oil into half gallon and quart sized containers for each person.

    I also recycle--everything I can.

    Gardening and preserving foods in the growing season is another good way to reduce your environmental impact.