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.