Is the coupon culture all it’s cracked up to be?
Spotting the bright yellow sticker curling from the corner, I eagerly pounced on the box of tampons I had just placed on the conveyor belt. “Save $1 Now!” the coupon proclaimed. I peeled it off as if it were going to self-destruct at any moment, and triumphantly handed it over to the cashier, who hadn’t even noticed the drama unfolding over my stash of feminine products.
There’s no doubt about it — few can resist the lure of a good coupon. But is the coupon culture all it’s cracked up to be?
If you’ve ever made a serious effort to coupon, you know how time-consuming it can be: Downloading apps, clipping digital coupons, buying papers, physically cutting paper coupons, watching for sales, organizing the coupons, matching prices, bundling deals, memorizing grocery store stock days, signing up for rewards clubs, even taking couponing classes. Couponing can be a full-time job.
During my years as a financially strapped mom of four young kids who worked only part-time as a nurse, I made a serious effort to become a professional couponer. I took a class, dutifully clipped and organized my coupons in a special binder, and matched sales and deals in the circulation ads.
But time after time, I failed. I would forget my coupons at home or in the car, buy the wrong number of requisite items, or choose the wrong brand. I would end up feeling defeated, like I was somehow less of a woman for failing on the coupon front.
While coupons made me feel like a failure, when I look back on those times, I realize I was making a lot of smart financial moves: I was dragging my husband to see a financial planner at age 22, buying a house at 23, and paying off all of our student loans by 28. Despite my lackluster couponing results, I was learning the ins and outs of our retirement portfolio, and building up my own business. I found that I much preferred looking at the big picture of our financial life to clipping coupons.
If you think about it, the coupon culture began by targeting women, the historical keepers of the kitchen, by making them feel like their most important contributions came from small-time savings. The practice dates back to World War II when the government encouraged women to “do their part” by managing the coupons they turned in for rationed food. Being a responsible woman meant pinching pennies at all costs, getting creative, and stretching a dollar as far as possible. Couponing, for women, became the patriotic duty of the responsible domestic housewife.
Although it may not be our patriotic duty as women to coupon today, the “extreme couponing” craze started primarily as a way to help women ease the financial burdens of the male provider. So, coupons continue to target women, who are overwhelmingly responsible for the majority of all purchases. And more importantly, couponing continues to be construed as something savvy women do.
But the truth is, focusing on coupons might make us more of a sucker than savvy.
While women are quickly overtaking men as the family breadwinner, they still mostly do not feel empowered to make important investment decisions. For example, millennial women are more concerned about budgeting than men their age, and they are much less likely to monitor their investment returns than their male colleagues.
Women of all ages report that they lack the confidence to talk about money and investments, even among people they are close to. Yet, when women do invest, they get better results while taking on less risk than men, according to a Fidelity Investments study.
What if women took all of that time they devote to couponing and other extreme thrifting activities and focused instead on how to invest? Once I asked myself this question, I decided to break up with coupons for good — and I’m not the only one.
Jordan Page, a popular financial blogger who paid off $10,000 of debt in 6 months on a $30,000 salary, built up a wildly successful business, and now lives in an 8,000-plus square foot dream home with her five kids, also swears that women can break up with coupons and discover that their time is much more valuable when focused elsewhere.
“If you were to step back and analyze all financial aspects of your life (debt, impulse buys, eating out, conveniences, gifts, how you manage your money), you could probably save even more by getting organized and setting reasonable budgets than you ever could by clipping coupons,” she points out on her blog.
I agree. I want to live in a world where my time is spent looking at the larger financial picture, instead of feeling pressured to save literal pennies. So I’m saying goodbye to a cultural practice that lures women in with the rush of saving money. Instead, I’m focusing on the rush of actually understanding my stock portfolio.
It feels so much better than saving a dollar on box of tampons.