I’m a big fan of saving money on necessary spending. Grocery shopping is expensive, and food and household staples present an excellent opportunity to find coupons and save money with every visit. The savings can be substantial if you’re willing to put in the time to find the right coupons, dumpster-dive to collect other people’s circulars, and annoy anyone in line behind you at the cashier as you buy in excessive bulk and wait for all the coupons to be processed.
A recent article on CNN Money describes a coupon addict who, inspired by a television reality show, saved $300 this month on groceries through diligent or obsessive coupon-collecting. She’s a student, and apparently has the free time to scour print and the internet to come up with methods of overbuying that will result in saving money. The grocery bill dropped from $400 to $100, and that’s a great feeling. Getting a 75% discount is a major score for anyone who has to spend money.
Saying she saved $300 is bad math, though, because in order to save $300, she had to spend much more than she would have if she bought only products she needed. The test is whether all the products she purchased — and they are enough to fill up a spare bedroom in the house — are consumed by the family or thrown away because they are not needed until they spoil. Additionally, to buy products on sale, most likely, she compromised on products they would normally buy. The food she purchased might not have been as healthy or as fresh as the food on which she couldn’t have saved as much.
Welcome to America’s new coupon craze. It began nearly three years ago as a sensible response to an economic catastrophe but has since morphed into something more complex — a national fixation with refusing to pay retail that has turned otherwise normal families into coupon-clipping, Dumpster-diving (for circulars), cashier-pestering stockpilers who march through grocery stores with bulging binders of coupons and fill shopping carts with more free jars of mustard and cat food than they could ever use in a lifetime.
There’s no baby in the house, but Lauren couldn’t resist buying 30 containers of infant formula on sale for $3.78 each. Because she had collected piles of $5-off coupons, she earned a $1.22 store credit on each sale — the holy grail to serious couponers. (She used her credit to buy ribs for a Memorial Day feast and donated the formula to tornado victims in nearby Joplin.) As couponing became an obsession, her mom started to worry. “Your eyes light up like a slot machine whenever you see a deal,” Joyce told her. “Admit it, you’re an addict!”
Even if $300 per month is the actual, repeatable savings after taking spoilage and over-purchasing into account, I have to wonder how many hours she spends finding coupons. While some websites make this an easier chore, the act of extreme couponing can consume one’s life. While $300 per month on groceries is a good savings, if she takes the time she spends couponing and gets a job, even after taxes, she could earn more than $300 a month.
If she ceases couponing, the family would have a spare bedroom free because it wouldn’t be full of groceries for storage. If they so desired, they could earn $300 per month or more by renting the room to a tenant.
While extreme couponers are not hoarders, they often share are trait in common. Both hoarders and some extreme couponers acquire and don’t discard possessions that have limited value. If there’s a possibility of a product being used some time in the future, a couponer would not want to let that purchase go to waste. Spending less money per item to get more is a core couponing concept, but it results in over-purchasing and spoilage. Throwing unneeded food or products out would be a waste of money.
The article shouldn’t have claimed that this family’s extreme couponing results in a $300 savings each month. This math compares the over-purchasing price pre-coupon against post-coupon. If the student were not couponing, the family would be purchasing much less. If all this work results in just a $300 benefit to the checking account, if she wanted to contribute financially to her family sporting a six-figure income, she could be better off with a part-time job. The “hunt” and the “score” are so psychologically appealing, though, that the brain can easily rationalize extreme couponing despite better uses of money, time, and space.
I can’t wait for this craze to be over.
Updated July 24, 2011 and originally published July 18, 2011.