Kicking the Coupon Habit

I must admit, I'm somewhat intrigued by the extreme couponing subculture that seems to be blossoming these days. I was over at Money Saving Mom, reading a post called "Couponing: An Investment in Our Family" when I noticed that many of the comments were from irked people pointing out that the Sunday papers were all gone by the time they checked the news stands. Anything that would have been a really good deal was off the shelf immediately, thanks to extreme couponers stocking up. Stores may be getting wiser to this behavior, tightening expiration dates, creating no-rain check policies, and rethinking double coupon offers.

I've been thinking about couponing more than I should because, having just finished the draft of a book about money, I'm making sure I know all the different personal finance blogs out there. Many devote a lot of space to coupons. In All The Money In The World, however, I note that I made a decision in the past few years to simply stop dealing with coupons and, to a degree, sales. This has been difficult for me, as I was definitely into coupons and sales at other points in my life.

Why the change? The facetious answer is that I have more money now, though that doesn't really account for all of it. According to statistics from Nielsen, heavy coupon users are more likely to be from households earning over $100k per year than under $30k per year. There are a few other reasons I think are more important:

1. I am learning to "sweat the big stuff." We're looking at refinancing our house, thanks to plunging interest rates. While there is a fee to do so, interest rates have fallen so low that we could recoup the fee in a few months, and then be paying several hundred dollars less per month for the 15-year life of the loan. That goes in the category of big, ongoing wins for minimal time. Negotiating down the price of my car, and buying a $150 Garmin rather than a $3000 navigation package also counts as big stuff. So does moving from NYC to PA, saving us a cool 6-7% of income in reduced taxes. It was a pain in the neck to move, but now we'll reap the financial benefits for a while. Coupons involve ongoing labor to save smaller numbers of dollars.

2. Human beings have limited will power. As I've been researching the advantages to being a morning person, one finding keeps coming up: self-discipline is a muscle that can be trained, but is also easily exhausted. People forced to persist at a boring task are more likely to reach for the cookies later on. If you're keeping your temper dealing with tedious co-workers all day, it's really hard to come home and exercise. I tend to think of myself as a disciplined, long-term focused person, but one reason I can do things like train for races and work extra hours instead of watching TV is that I really like my job. It requires little will power. For most people, strategically, it's critical to do important-but-not-urgent tasks that rely on intrinsic motivation early, because otherwise, you probably won't do them. Your will power will be used up.

So what does that have to do with coupons? Well, do you really want to be using up your limited will power at the supermarket? The stakes are small. Tilt too much toward what's on sale rather than what you want to eat, and soon you're ordering pizza. It takes a lot of coupons to atone for a $15 order at Dominos! (Not to mention that limited will power is probably best deployed toward something like losing weight, or getting a better job).

Given that my will power is focused on running, writing, and being a patient mother, I've been learning to view the supermarket as a place to splurge. It is definitely cheaper than going out. This is my husband's philosophy (incidentally, another reason to stop using coupons -- I'm not the only one in my family who shops for groceries, and he would never go for an elaborate system of matching store sales with manufacturer's coupons I printed off the internet. Why not? Well....)

3. Coupons buy into an anti-feminist mindset. Stay with me here. A year ago, I interviewed Nell Merlino, who started the whole Take Our Daughters to Work Day phenomenon, and now heads an organization called Count Me In which works with women business owners. One of their big programs is called Make Mine a Million $ Business, in which entrepreneurs compete to get coaching and PR and other such services with the goal of taking revenue over $1 million. Only a very small percentage of women-owned firms ever hit that. Anyway, she told me that of the first co-hort of women in her program who did succeed in crossing that mark, they all had something in common: getting their groceries delivered! They were incredibly aware of the value of their time, and wanted to focus it on what they did best: nurturing their businesses, nurturing their families, and nurturing themselves. Why spend time in the grocery store that you could spend chasing that next $50,000 client? Or playing with your kids?

Women are far heavier users of coupons than men. When we elevate coupon clipping as something that a "good wife" does, we are basically saying that her role in the household is to be a careful steward of the money her husband brings in. But why shouldn't the upper-income, highly-educated women who make up the most avid users of coupons focus on expanding their income-earning potential as well? There is a vast difference in power between scrimping pennies, and earning dollars. I'm learning to focus on the latter. Whenever I feel like I should be doing more to help my family financially, I should go pitch another story. The payoff is much better.

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18 Responses to Kicking the Coupon Habit


  1. denise g says:

    I sooo needed to read this today. I have swung from one end to the other on the coupon/grocery shopping pendelum in the last few months…However, I am wrapping up your 168 hrs book and just finished Time Power & Switch (I think we read some of the same material) and I think I’m seeing your point in a new light. I need to find a happy medium…for me. Can’t have the groceries delivered but I don’t have the strength, desire, or time to do the extreme plus run my own business and kids and husband. Thanks for a great post! I’m definitely a new fan! 🙂

    • Laura says:

      @Denise: Thanks! Finding a happy medium is a good idea. I’m not suggesting anyone light dollar bills on fire. But time is absolutely limited, whereas money is not. None of us can make more than 168 hours a week. We could potentially make more money. So in my mind one needs to be a slightly more careful steward of the former than the latter.

  2. Emily says:

    Interesting outlook on the whole thing Laura. I discovered “not-so-extreme” couponing about 2 years ago when we found ourselves in a new state and new (more expensive) home and me post-PhD but not yet starting my postdoc because of funding. Hence, I found myself a stay-at-home mom for about 6 months after we moved and our expenses had gone up. I figured out a way for us to live on my husband’s income at the time through the use of coupon match ups and playing the drugstore game to get many of our household items (including diapers, health and beauty items and cleaning supplies) very discounted and sometimes free. By the way, Money Saving Mom had a pivotal part in my learning to do all that and I still am an avid reader of her blog. I went back to work in Fall 2009, and at first, still tried to keep up with the couponing because I couldn’t bear to actually have to pay for something that I new I had previously gotten free or almost free. However, I soon realized just how much time it takes and, although I still get a Sunday paper delivered to my home and still do use coupons occasionally for things I know my family will use (like the yogurt my kids love, etc), I have cut way back and have allowed myself to do a little splurging at the grocery store too. And I don’t get upset if I buy something that I know I have a coupon for at home. My time is way more precious now that I’m working and not home all day, and I don’t let missing out on a few dollars worth of savings get to me. I figure, if my family ever finds ourselves in a temporary one income situation again, I have the tools to severly slash my grocery and household budget and I can always go back to serious couponing. Also, on a side note, our daycare tuition just recently went down due to my daughter now being in school fullday. I’m taking part of that money and using it to outsource both cleaning my house and ironing my husband’s shirts. Thanks to your book, I realized I spent way too much time on those 2 tasks that I don’t really like to do (well, I actually came to loathe the ironing!!). Thanks Laura. I’ve recommended your book to several working moms I know.

    • Laura says:

      @Emily – thanks so much for your comment! I’m glad you liked the book, and I’m thrilled to hear that you’re using some found money to make your life easier! Money Saving Mom has written some about how she doesn’t do the drug store game so much any more. Three kids and a growing business will do that to you. Human beings have limited time and attention. At work, no one expects you to spend massive amounts of time and energy pondering ways to save money on pens and paper. You have another job you’re supposed to be doing. Likewise at home, your time should be devoted to other things that you do best.

  3. Twin Mom says:

    I think your perspective is very realistic for someone with a good chance to improve her income by working more. I just got my first contract with a local business last month (previous work was all with people in Korea) and when this is possible, expanding my business is WAY better than clipping coupons.

    For me, grocery shopping is now “leisure.” When I’m at home, my husband expects me to deal with kid squabbles, cleaning up the kitchen, and (most) dirty diapers. When I’m gone grocery shopping, it forces him to deal with kid stuff, though I still came home to a messy kitchen. (He cooked dinner, put 3 kids to bed and put out the trash before a 12+ hour day today at work.)

    At your income level and potential for higher income, couponing doesn’t make sense. For those of us with 5 digit incomes and paid-for houses, it can. I’ll get my oil changed and save $10 using the coupon from the mailer. I used coupons that I printed for feta cheese, stir fry sauce and Canadian bacon last night to save $6.50 on things we eat regularly. For those of us whose incomes are fixed, who are tied to houses and whose employment stability is marginal, it’s a way to save $50/month to afford swimming lessons.

    Compared to working a minimum wage job at a 45% marginal tax rate, couponing still looks pretty good.

    • Laura says:

      @Twin Mom – totally get the concept of grocery shopping being leisure! I had my two little ones with me last night at the store, “helping” to push the cart around and it is kind of a will power exhauster, if you get my drift. Sneaking away on the weekend to shop, solo, rocks. But here’s the question: what proportion of people do you think have no ability to earn more? In our networked, flexible economy, working no longer means being in one place where someone pays you for 40 hours at a W-2 job. I don’t think everyone has that ability, but I think many of us do. And as you pointed out, in your situation, getting extra work when that is an option definitely beats couponing.

      • Twin Mom says:

        I think the problem is KNOWING people who will hire you in a networked, flexible economy. Part of the reason those of us in rural areas are getting poorer is because employers want at least some face time. I know several people who have kept working remotely after a spouse’s job change, but for those of us who were laid off, I don’t know anyone who was HIRED remotely. If you have thoughts on this, I think it would be great for a future blog post.

        In the knowledge economy, if you don’t know someone, you’re kind of locked out!

  4. Abby says:

    After reading 168 Hours, one of the things that I dropped was couponing. Not completely – like Emily, I learned the craft when I was between jobs and home with a small child, and it has been hard to adjust to actually paying for things.

    But this conversation reminds me of one of Gretchen Rubin’s commandments in The Happiness Project: Spend Out. I would be so determined to pay rock-bottom prices that I wouldn’t always have what we needed to get through the rest of the week without drama. It wasn’t just that my time was going towards couponing – my time was going towards organizing our home to function without, say, paper towels, because we were almost out and there wasn’t a good enough sale anywhere. I’m happier now that we have what we need on hand, and I’m not torturing myself if I don’t get it at a rock bottom price.

    BTW, I also scored a big fat promotion just weeks after reading 168 hours. I’d been putting in the work to get it for months in advance, of course, but it was reading your book that made me realize I could juggle my life to actually make it all work.

    • Laura says:

      Abby – congrats on the promotion! I’m thrilled to have been able to play any role in that, albeit a very, teensy tiny one compared to the work you’d already put in… 🙂 I have wondered if this is one of the hazards of the “price book” concept that many extreme coupon types preach. You know what the lowest price around is for something and so you won’t pay more than that. But again, doing without requires will power, and if will power is easily exhausted, perhaps it’s better to ignore your price book when you need paper towels or contact lens solution, and devote that will power to other things. Yes, I know, people stock pile in order to avoid this situation, though that can spawn its own weirdness (like in the pilot episode of Extreme Couponing, when a woman takes out a $35,000 insurance policy on her stockpile).

  5. Cara says:

    I like this!
    Grocery delivery also eliminates a lot of impulse buying… and can be great for your waistline!
    Now I go through my list and take off chocolate or anything that can be qualified as an impulse, not necessary. I pay about $7 for grocery delivery b/c I have the $ direct deposited, and your article about women business owners is one of the reasons I do this. I also agree with your comment about coupons being a great way to get your husband NOT to do this important task. Grocery shopping is something my husband actually likes so I also let him do it.

    One thing about refinancing — not so easy for the self-employed b/c what we get back from declaring the salary to quality for modern banking’s idea of a refinance (banks have become ridiculous about this) we pay and pay in taxes! I actually tried to refinance our 15-year loan (15-years saves a lot more than you could on couponing) but it was so time consuming and the bank was so difficult I actually decided that wasn’t worth my time either… You can get the same result without dealing with the bank by just making additional payments against the mortgage…. then again with the tax writeoff that a mortgage is it might be better to reinvest in education or your business etc.
    I love the early morning idea but am still having trouble being raring to go at 6 a.m. given that my six-month-old is breastfeeding and not sleeping through the night yet 5 out of 7 nights a week. I do agree with the principal that the most important things first then the rest, and also think this can be a good management tool — I’m trying to do 10 cold calls on national accounts and 50 localish cold calls a day first after exercise in a.m. then the rest of the adminstrative things that come up during the day running a business. I also am trying to get all the folks under me to do the same and this kind of focus can help you as you learn to manage people as well…

    • mkmjjmmom says:

      You make some great points. I would challenge what you say about the tax write-off however. If you paid off your mortgage, you would be saving more in interest than what you would be getting back in taxes by keeping the mortgage. (See Dave Ramsey for a better explanation). But I agree with everything else you said…and I hear you about the nursing baby! I have 6 children and my youngest (3 mos) is still nursing as well…makes it really tough to hit that treadmill at 5 or 6am! Guess I just need to build it into the time log…LOL

  6. Denise R says:

    If you buying the healthiest foods for your family, there are rarely coupons for them, though I used to go to different stores to get the best prices on food staples, later realizing that if the meat was cheaper, something else was a bit higher, evening everything out.

    Thanks to 168 Hours I shop online and have my groceries delivered. I still get a good price, but save even more, including my sanity, b/c my kids aren’t tossing stuff in the cart and asking me how much we have left to get.
    I order every 3 weeks or so spending 15 minutes placing the order and 15 minutes putting it away. I make a quick weekly stop at the local produce market for fruits/veggies. That saves me about 2-3 hours a week, if I include travel time and making the list and searching the sale circular. (saving big, rather than little)

    Oddly, when I would come home from the supermarket nobody would run to help me with the bags, but when the food in delivered everyone wants to carry a bag to the kitchen, saving me even more time.

  7. mkmjjmmom says:

    Thank you for this wonderful blog post. It is so nice to feel “liberated” from the coupon movement…LOL! With all the focus on saving money and on the “economy” and all these couponing shows, I was starting to feel like a “bad” steward for not couponing more. If I have a coupon, I’ll use it, but it was so nice to hear someone else say “It’s not worth the time!”

    I am currently listening to your audiobook and I love it. I cannot wait to see how I can put your suggestions into action. As a military wife of a deployed Soldier and a mother of 6, I often feel overwhelmed because of the obligations involved in the Family Readiness Group (my husband commands around 400 Soldiers, so part of my “job” is to help support the Families.) But I often use my kids as an excuse why I cannot get things done. Your book has debunked a lot of my excuses, and made me take a sharp look at my habits and time management (or lack thereof). Thank you again…I look forward to reading more!

    • Laura says:

      @MKMjjMMom: Glad you are enjoying the audio book (and sorry it took so long to approve your comment – I’ve been on the road!) Sounds like you have your hands full. I doubt cutting coupons is the most productive use of your time 🙂

  8. Maegan says:

    Laura, I just finished the second chapter of 168 hours and finished my time log and am writing down my 100 dreams. I have always felt a little guilty about not couponing more, but I love (and will adopt) your perspective on it. My time is worth more! @Denise, I agree, most of the coupons I do find are not for the foods I want to buy (could they have coupons for apples, grapes, bananas, carrots and ground turkey? I buy these things every week – and it would be great to have coupons for them!) for my family and honestly store brands are often cheaper anyway. I do check the add papers for my local grocery stores and try to see if what’s on sale is what we’ll eat, but I spend at most, 5 minutes doing that. Can’t wait to read more of your book! 🙂

    • Laura says:

      @Maegan: Glad you are liking the book and that you are doing the exercises! I think it’s fun to brainstorm what we’d like to do with our time, as opposed to what we have to do. Hopefully you’ve got some good stuff on that List of 100 Dreams…

  9. dmz says:

    with regard to sweating the big stuff and giving up on coupons: remember anything you buy at the grocery store will cost less than eating out– even the salad bar at Whole Foods. Anything you make from base ingredients will be healthier than eating out or convenience foods at grocery ..

    • Laura says:

      @DMZ- Yes, this is what I’m telling myself. If I ate my lunch out every day, I’d be blowing through $50/week. So why not do a little better than PB&J sandwiches from my groceries?

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