The lowdown on couponing

By Mir
August 18, 2006

Usually when I get a question from a reader, I pop it into the advice queue, and I get to it when I get to it. But this came in this morning and I thought it deserved a quick few words, so here we are.

Hi Mir,

Because you are so pretty and smart I know you’ll have a good answer for me! What’s your take on coupons? I’ve been reading around the blogosphere lately about extreme couponing, where people save gazillions of dollars on their grocery bill. Now, my take is that not many coupons are offered for stuff I actually buy, as I tend to stick to whole foods (bought on special!), and I wouldn’t be saving enough money to make it worth my effort. Thoughts? What do *you* do with coupons?

Thanks so much!

Having just recently addressed this very issue without delving into some caveats, I felt like Groovecatmom had a point that’s in need of addressing.

Here’s the thing: It is possible—and some would say, easy—to find/use coupons for items that come in boxes. Processed foods. Household items. Health and beauty care stuff. I keep reading about people getting a year’s supply of toothpaste for free, and such, and to them I say: Good for you! That’s all well and lovely.

I have seen coupons for meat, although rarely. Usually it’s a money-off coupon for a brand that tends to be more expensive, anyway. The exceptions to the rarity rule can be found by intersecting with the Processed Food rule, and that is to say that things like hotdogs and bacon (which are technically meat, but… yeah) will tend to have coupons. If you want ground sirloin or boneless chicken breasts or a nice salmon steak? There aren’t going to be coupons for those, for the most part.

The only coupons I’ve ever seen for produce are things like “buy two bottles of salad dressing and get a bag of salad free.” If you buy a lot of fresh fruits and veggies, it’s the same as meat; there aren’t going to be coupons for the most part.

So. Back to getting your $200 of groceries for $1. Is it worth it? Yes and no. Yes, it’s worth it, if you’re willing to spend the time and energy, and you’re buying things you’ll definitely use. No, it’s not worth it, if it’s going to cause you to buy more processed foods than you normally would. That is what most coupons are good for—food in a box or a can. I have no problem with either, by the way. But can you make a healthy diet of that stuff, exclusively? I don’t think so.

Bottom line? I think that if you decide to go the way of the hardcore couponer, there is money to be saved. But I would hope that most folks will still buy a reasonable proportion of fresh, local foods for which there won’t be any coupons. Stores run specials, and the grocery store I patronize will slap “Manager’s Special” dollars-off coupons on meat if they have an excess or an expiration date is approaching, so there are still savings to be had. But if I were to vow only to buy with coupons, I think I’d find myself with a very full pantry and a fairly empty fridge and fruit bowl.

The only way to figure out if it’s worth the effort, I guess, is to try it. And keep in mind the end goal—buying what your family needs. It’s great that you can get 100 boxes of Hamburger Helper (yuck) for free, if that’s what your family likes. But it’s not much good without the actual hamburger, you know?


  1. My mother-in-law calls the meat that is marked down near the end of expiration “used meat.” She stocks up and uses it to cook big Sunday family dinners.

  2. Oh! That was very apropos. I was also wondering the same thing because I, too, buy locally and healthfully. Nobody seems to want to give me a $1 quinoa flour coupon. *sigh*

    The best thing I’ve found so far as discounts for my type of stuff at the grocery store is that Hy-Vee (midwest only, I think) does an occasional (I have yet to find out if they are scheduled or not – if they are, yippee!) “Fill this bag and get 20% off on everything inside” deal in their Health Market section.

  3. Both Krogers and Randalls (Tom Thumb’s too) have an online tool that allows you to make a grocery list from their sale ads. This way you catch those great sales on meat/vegetables/fruit.

    Also, I ALWAYS hit the marked down meat bin. You can’t let it sit in your fridge all week, but it makes for a cheap meal. The best time to find those deals is on Monday morning at my local stores. It is usually the excess that did not sell over the weekend. I save anywhere from 20-50% off on my meat products. And it always freezes.

    One other thing – most grocery stores with deli’s sell the “Ends and Odds” at a cheap price. You get a bag of mixed odds and ends from either the cheese or the meats and it is generally like $.99 or $1.99 a pound. Just ask the deli person if they sell any of their ends, errors, or slices that no one picked up. It is a great way to build some yummy sandwiches.

  4. I have a similar problem. Due to gluten intolerance for part of the family, most of the stuff in a box or can is not edible. Costco and sales are where I stock up on meat. When the grocery offers 10 for $10 for anything, I stock up. I actually like chocolate out of the freezer.

    The other problem (I’m sure others are in the same situation) is that we live in a small flat. We don’t have room to store a year’s supply of toothpaste, toilet paper, paper towels, and such.

    There are a few coupons I always clip. The ones for my haircolor, which are usually $2 or $3 off a box (I use L’Oreal Natural Match), and coupons for Chuck E. Cheese. CEC is still not cheap, but it’s in the realm of affordable, and for a treat every month or so, it’s a good deal.

  5. The other problem with coupons is that the easiest way to get them is from the newspaper. Personally though, I don’t subscribe to the newspaper, and I wouldn’t. I find the news to be 1) entirely too depressing and 2) very skewed towards their particular political views and 3) the news is old, it’s already been online long ago. Plus, I have no desire whatsoever to deal with stacks of used newspapers. So that leaves online coupons (oops, can’t use that- I simplified my life ages ago by not having a printer) and buying coupons somewhere. But, since I also use “whole foods” there aren’t really coupons for, it’s pretty much all a loss- so I just go to my local Warehouse Store (BJ’s; unfortunately Costco is 45 min. away, or I’d go there) and WalMart and call it good.

  6. I’m very pro-whole foods yet still manage to save a lot…for instance there are printable Target coupons right now for $1 off grapes…hello, go get small bags that weigh a little over a pound, and voila! Free ro almost-free grapes! There are also quite a few coupons for fresh meat, vegetables, bread, etc. if you know where to look for them. I do happen to know where to look, but if I told you I’d have to kill you. (lol, no, really, search on eBay for winetags — they are plentiful.) This summer I probably scored 20 pounds of free beef with either winetags or the Safeway $2 off any beef coupons (in the store ads). And I just got 34 jars of natural peanut butter for free this week — go me!

    Anyone can do this stuff…the secret is being tapped into a community of couponers in your area, so you can alert each other to the deals.

  7. I have an excellent coupon hookup, so I love them! My grandfather always gets the paper, and he saves his coupons for me and leaves them at my mother’s house for me to pick up when I visit. I also print them off the internet while I’m at work (so the paper and ink are on their dime–shhh) and I use my lunch break, when I would normally just read a magazine or whatever, to clip coupons once every couple of weeks. Definitely worth it for me, since it takes so little effort.

    Also, if there is a product you like, e-mail the company a question and they will almost always send some kind of coupon your way. I just got a $1 off McCormick coupon from them for asking about a spice that has been discontinued in my area. I used it when they went on sale and got it for less than a buck. Yay!

  8. We do almost all our cooking and baking from scratch, so we focus on buying the basics in bulk and when on sale for good deals. I also have a menu always planned at least for the next week, one night a week we have leftovers, and whenever I cook one meal I almost always make extra for the freezer so that I get nights off without having to go out. BJ’s for bulk yeast and our homemade bread costs us less than $0.10/loaf and is much tastier and healthier than store bought. We do use coupons on items that we can’t make from scratch or for which a storebrand is not available.

  9. The only coupons I bother with are for diapers/wipes/pull-ups. My 2 yr old son is in diapers at home, pull-ups at daycare, and needs wipes at both places. I have all of my childless friends clip coupons out of the paper for those and mail them to me. I can usually score $1-$3 off a package, which adds up over time.

    Pom’s suggestion about emailing a question to score coupons is a great one. I called a customer service line with a fairly basic question about a children’s medicine and whether or not it could be taken along with another medicine. After answering my question the c/s person asked if they could send me some coupons for their various products. I wound up with tons of coupons for FREE bottles of this and that – pain killer, cold meds, band-aids – it was GREAT!

  10. I’m so glad you answered this question, Mir! I had the exact same thought as groovecatmom and never emailed you about it. Other than the occasional toothpaste or shaving cream coupon, I just don’t see enough in the paper that we actually eat to make it worth the effort. I could do better about paying attention to the circulars, though…

  11. thanks for answering this one, Mir. We cancelled the paper in an attempt to save money, and I was feeling guilty over my lack of couponing. My grandmother gets 2 papers and gets just about everything for a nickle each. But she has lots of storage space and no need for brand loyalty.

    We have food allergies & celiac disease, so need to buy certain brands. Add in sensitive skin, and eating whole foods (admittedly in part because we can’t eat processed), and there isn’t a lot to save on with coupons.

    One thing I do to keep the food budget in control is check the circulars and make my meal for the week based on the meat (most expensive item) and vegetables that are on sale. I’ve also found the least expensive store in the area (Market Basket/DeMoulas for other MA/NH people), and only go to other stores (when I need to drive that way for something else) for specific sale items.

  12. I use – don’t know if you’ve ever mentioned it here, but I find it pretty useful (not affiliated, etc.). It lets me know when there are coupons that are useful to me, and alerts me to true discounts on meats, produce and so on. Of course, it costs money to join, so I have to pay attention to make it worthwhile.

  13. This is where a price book will save you money. I’ve never used one because until I got pregnant I could tell you the lowest price I’d ever paid for this, that, or whatever, and where I found it. Now that I just can’t seem to remember anything, though, I think I’ll get one started.

    But knowing how much you pay regularly for this, that, or the other will help you recognize an unadvertised bargain when you’re out shopping. Oh, and planning meals around fruits and vegetables that are in season is not only healthier (the vegetables coming from Chile have been irradiated, are unripe, and just plain taste gross) but loads cheaper.

    Mir, have you ever or do you now use a price book?

  14. I am just NOW learning the value of the grocery circular, which I just never had paid any attention to before. And of course, if you’re trying to save money, you want to avoid processed foods for that reason, too, not just health reasons. The more processed the food, the less nutritional “bang” you’re getting for your buck. The “boxed” foods we wind up with are things like brown rice, whole-grain pasta, CHEERIOS BY THE METRIC TON, etc.

    I’m trying to stock up on everything except “incidentals” (things that must be bought just prior to use: fresh meat, produce, fruit) prior to my upcoming surgery, to make it easier on my family. The key to real savings seems to be a willingness to REALLY stock up on things you can freeze when the sale price is good. Tonight we got something like 11 pounds of “natural” (I think in this case meaning hormone and additive/preservative-free) deli meats for just over $1/lb. It went straight into the freezer. Ditto cheese, milk, fresh juice, grapes…you’d be amazed the things that can be frozen. There are always a couple gallons of milk and OJ and a bunch of hard cheeses in our freezer.

    And if you don’t mind buying them frozen, oh, my, can you ever fill a freezer with chicken breasts–and today I even saw organic options. We have enough frozen chicken in our freezer to see us through an armageddon, I think.

    As for the person talking about quinoa flour, what I would suggest is buying whole quinoa, freezing it, then grinding your own flour *as you need it*. That way, it’s not only cheaper, but it retains as many nutrients as possible.

    Anyway, back to tonight’s grocery trip. We *spent* $210 on groceries, and walked out with an additional $227 worth of groceries for FREE, just from coordinating coupons and circulars. And we did NOT come out with any Hamburger Helper (not that there’s anything wrong with that)! The most we bought of anything by volume was frozen vegetables, which are often fresher than “fresh” veggies, since they are frozen immediately upon harvesting, rather than being trucked across the country and then sitting on a shelf. We bought the store brand, because they were running a 10/$10 special on ALL varieties of veggies by the pound…AND THEN, a NEW circular came in yesterday’s paper, announcing some “shelf coupon” specials, so that the $1 apiece frozen veggies we were ALREADY planning to buy were now 45 CENTS per lb! OMG, we bought so many frozen vegetables. I did learn, however, that if I send my husband on that particular errand and instruct him to select “a variety” of vegetables, we WILL wind up with a whoooooole lot of corn.

    I was particularly proud of us tonight, because we did not buy ONE thing that was not on our list; we did not buy ONE thing that was not on sale AND/OR had a coupon, and we did not buy ONE thing that we wouldn’t have bought anyway. And we saved 51% on our total grocery bill, including tax.

    So although I am fairly new to couponing, my take on it is, WHY IN THE WORLD NOT?

  15. My problem is that none of the stores allow coupon doubling which seems to be key for savings. Stop N Shop does allow doubling but you cannot go over $1. They also have their prices so high that it’s not worth even shopping around here. I have to drive half an hour away to a place that has fair prices, good quality food but doesn’t allow coupon doubling at all.

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