Why I Stopped Couponing

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.


Join the Discussion

20 Responses to “Why I Stopped Couponing”

  1. Carol Goodnight

    Good advice to focus on a bigger picture but if you are buying them anyway, why not peel the coupon. I find my stores’ loyalty programs are making it a no-brainer for me now. Kroger is mailing coupons for things I buy anyway, sometimes for free. Maybe the grocers are noticing the trend change. The Publix app even tells me what aisle my item is in to speed up my trip. No need to clip or search which I don’t do either. Also stores dislike extreme couponers. I agree that couponing is antiquated and sexist but if I’m handed a coupon I use it. Who would refuse a dollar or a free loaf of bread if it’s just handed to you ?

  2. EricaG

    Yeah, I pretty much buy everything at Target, so I use their app, and it’s not a hassle- nothing to clip, etc. it also tracks my savings. I think I’ve used it 6 months and saved $200- they often have 20% off apparel, laundry detergent, etc. Those bigger ticket items really add up. While I wouldn’t bother with clipping a 20 cent coupon, I wouldn’t scoff at $200. Just saying.

  3. janmaus

    I used coupons a lot when I had a young family and saved significant money. But with my children grown, our food purchases are so unlikely to be covered, that I rarely bother. It isn’t worth it to me to remember to purchase a Sunday paper or use precious leisure time to find online coupons just for household products. That’s not to say I won’t use one when I come across it, only that i don’t go much out of my way to discover them. My local supermarkets, for instance, often mail larger dollar coupons to loyal customers and that $10 off a $50 order is something i never pass up!

  4. Writer619

    There’s nothing wrong with using coupons! IF they are for items you already use and buy. It becomes a problem when you are using coupons to buy items you don’t need JUST because you have a coupon. Otherwise why not save a little bit? And here’s some advice. When ever you buy anything online from any company google coupon codes for them before you check out. Many companies are always offering 10-30% off and/or free shipping. Not all, but many! Again, why not save when you can? After all, they’re offering! 🙂

  5. SamFarrah

    Oh come on-why can’t men and women do both? Cut coupons and be in charge of their finances (planning, retirement, and such)? I like clipping coupons and using apps and saving quite a few dollars at checkout. I can’t use coupons on food because I mostly eat a plant-based diet, but you bet I use coupons for cleaning products, personal care items, etc. Clip the coupons, use the apps, and use the store loyalty cards. They go home and focus on your finances. I bet people feel a lot more “with it” when they know they save money where and when they can. The author makes it seem like these things are mutually exclusive and they are not.

    • Lee Graves

      Agree. Also coupons are more present day savings while investing is more mid and long term savings. Some people use the money saved by coupons for vacations, small rewards and self education for things like investing.

    • llr

      My thought exactly. I don’t spend a lot of time couponing, never have, but I do use the coupons that come my way easily. Because I’m on top of the rest of our finances, our monthly expenses are lower than they used to be – changed the cell phone bill downwards to reflect actual usage, changed the electricity bill downwards by locking in a lower rate, being at least a little careful with what we spend on groceries and gas (not driving with a lead foot!), eating out a little less, bringing my lunch to work most days. All of that adds up to lots more than the odd coupon. On top of that, I found a higher interest rate for one of our retirement savings account, and am watching our fees on some other investments. So – you can coupon AND watch your monthly expenses AND look for ways of maximizing your investment income. Win, win, and win!

    • lk1066

      I agree completely. The issue with “couponing” as it was described wasn’t the coupons—it was the extreme use and misuse of coupons, and letting coupon advertisements get you to buy something you otherwise wouldn’t miss. Between using coupons (I scan coupon sections and emails for things like cleaners, paper products,and personal items that I seldom buy without a coupon, and only take what I need at the time), loyalty cards, cash back deals on credit cards, I seldom pay full price for anything. Yes, that adds up to spending a lot less money than I would otherwise without giving up things I want. I never buy something I don’t need, and I try not to pay more than I need to. That way, I have some extra money to invest…Using coupons can be part of being frugal and doesn’t have to take over your life or dictate where and what you buy.

      Also, when I was little, I used to cut coupons and go shopping with my mother. At that time, merchants used to give you cash for the coupons you turned in. We put it in a piggy bank, and I got to have it to use to buy Christmas presents every year. I felt I’d earned it and it felt good. Actually having your kids SAVE coupon money can help them learn how saving even small amounts of money can add up. Too many people never save and too many parents don’t take the time to bother to let their kids learn the joys of saving at their level—being too focused on the “big picture” may keep some from sharing life’s lessons with their kids.

    • Lisa W.

      I was thinking the same thing. I too eat a mostly whole-foods based diet, so I mainly clip coupons for cleaning and personal items and try to wait to use them when the grocery store offers double or triple coupons. I’m a believer in the “latte” factor, where small changes add up over time. I think as long as you’re buying things you normally use, it’s a good way to save. After all, a penny saved, is a penny earned (or really it’s more than a penny earned, since it isn’t taxed).

  6. Jessica K

    So what’s the next step? How do I make the most of my stock portfolio?

  7. jb

    What a good point! I never thought of it this way before. Investing is likely to bring larger returns than saving with coupons but still take the same amount of time and effort. The problem is investing seems like a much scarier activity to master for someone who has never been exposed to or taught anything about it before. Where can we start and grow more confident?

  8. Rachel Bowman

    I love that Chaunie brought up the larger issue. I don’t necessarily agree with every single thing she said in the post – but I am definitely on board with the idea that women can (and likely should) be in charge of larger financial investments and their contributions shouldn’t be limited to saving money grocery shopping.

  9. AnnieLaurie Burke

    Amongst all the many good reasons I don’t use coupons is that I don’t buy anything for which there are coupons.The most important investment you can make is the investment in your health. Don’t buy the mass-produced junk food, toxic cleaning products, etc. for which most coupons are issued. That will bring you even more important returns than your stock portfolio, and the good health to enjoy them.

  10. Suzi Q 38

    I used to be an “expert” at coupons about 10-15 years ago. The coupons were really good, and a lot of the stores were giving out great coupons as well. The grocery stores doubled the coupons, and once they tripled the coupons. CVS would give us rebates that we could use on future purchases. I used the rebates on markdown items with a coupon.
    For example, Rite aid would give us store credit if we bought Ecotrin. The credit was $3.00 a box. There were coupons for the Ecotrin that we could buy for 10 cents each that we could redeem for $3.00 a box. Hence, Rite Aid would pay me to buy their Ecotrin. The grocery stores wanted to lure us back in after a state wide grocery store strike here in California. They would give us $10.00 off of $25.00 in purchases of anything in the store. I even found some coupons that said “$3.00 off of meat, no minimum purchase necessary.” I saw that it was in a wine promotion newsletter, so I took about 25 copies of the newsletter. I got a lot of free fresh and canned meat that summer.

    I was ably to buy a lot of free stuff, but all of that free stuff came with a price: Time. I lost a lot of precious time clipping the coupons rather than watching the stock market or working and earning money for our retirement. Also, I gained a lot of weight eating free stuff.

    In time the stores got “wise” and put a stop to it all. This was especially after a few shows showed how we did it. I knew that once this was disclosed, it was “the beginning of the end.”

    I was so relieved, as I was tired of doing it anyway.

  11. Kimberly Garcia

    Clipping coupons is time consuming and can become a part time job in itself. The problem with couponing stems from people that watch extreme couponing shows and think that’s what you save everytime and then they clip their 10 coupons and wonder why they didn’t save $100.00 bucks. New couponers also feel like they have to go to every store and look at every ad and clip every coupon. It’s nothing like that. It’s only as hard as you make it and some people make it really hard.

    When I’m couponing I limit myself to a handful of stores and that’s only if they have something on a “good” sale. Some weeks I may hit up all 5 of my stores; Cvs, Rite Aid, Target, Ralphs and Albertsons. ..other weeks I may go to 1 store. Smart couponers don’t buy products because they have a coupon. ..you buy products with coupons because when combined with store coupons, sales and manufacturer coupons the item is free or almost free. That is a successful couponer.

    As a couponer I have gotten my family out of debt. I’ve saved money. I’ve been able to help others in my family as well as donate to shelters. All because of couponing. Because of my stock piles I haven’t had to shop for anything other then toothpaste in the last 6 months. I still have enough dish soap, tooth brushes, floss, shampoo and conditioner, hand soap, wipes, paper towels, school supplies, razors, body wash, bath soap, and laundry soap to last a year at least…that doesn’t even begin to account for the cereal, rice, pasta, snacks, juice, soda, coffee, baggies, etc etc etc .

    Investing is great but when times are tough and your barely making ends meat then how do you invest? Couponing is what helped my family.

  12. hangout4900

    In the 1980’s you could save some money with coupons but now its a waste of time.One of the reasons I stopped was alot of coupons now in 0rder to get 50 cents ,a dollar off or more you have to buy 2 or more of the same thing not like years ago you only had to one of something to get cash back .Also if you don’t normaly buy the product it makes no sense to buy it just get money back.

  13. Centsai

    Coupons are a marketing trap, it most often makes consumers spend more money (especially in the future) than save money! However, not all coupons are bad and some can help you save a few bucks here and there. It is just important to only buy things you would buy anyway, and look to see if there is a better deal than the coupon!

  14. MANOJ

    It is a time consuming effort like you said. We can save more by setting financial goals and preparing budgets for our tasks. I was using coupons for a couple of online activities like domain purchase and renewal. But now it too a time wasting process without any results.

  15. DrRGP

    I think I’m sorry that you’re not my wife. You would be hard to beat!

  16. Christina W

    Well from my stand point you are missing the bigger picture. I spend an hour a week organizing and clipping coupons and going through ads.. Our family of 4 can eat on a budget of $400 a month no boxed items fresh food, fruits and vegetables. Some families struggle daily and by couponing we can make what money we have go further. No there are no run deals. You mention buying a certain amount of items. Kingsoopers sales are buy 5 save 5 if a financial wizard can’t keep track of that well?? Not everyone has expendable funds to invest or get started in investing. When I coupon I am investing in my family so if there is a month where we have to replace 2 tires we won’t go hungry. So although your article was nice, I am not sure your target audience was reached. Many Americans like myself do not have investment money and barely scrap by each month. So coupons help us survive and by couponing we can help others.