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How to Save Money Without Worrying About Coupons

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The retail industry has everyone fooled. While millions of people spend their time scouring for deals, clipping coupons from the newspaper if they’re old-fashioned, plugging into the latest mobile deal applications if they are somewhat more technologically inclined, sharing their finds on Facebook to recruit friends for group deals, the companies on the other side of the transaction are generating higher profits.

Can anyone really complain? Consumers are saving more money than ever and yet retailers are raking in more revenue. Even as we’re still trying to recover from the employment effects of the recession and economists say the middle class doesn’t have enough to spend to stimulate the economy on their own, the industry is thriving. It’s a couple weeks early, but I bet the National Retail Federation, when the organization releases its holiday predictions, will expect double-digit growth over last year. The NRF tends to be very optimistic heading into the holiday season, but they haven’t misplaced their trust in the capacity of consumers to spend.

CouponsIt seems like this should be impossible: how can consumers be saving more while retailers bring in more revenue? Well, there are two important assumptions to overcome.

1. Saving more is not the same thing as spending less. Retailers will continue offering sales, deals, and coupons because they simply encourage consumers to spend more. A perceived deal can help convince a spender to open his wallet or swipe her credit card when they might not have otherwise. This isn’t the result only on the large scale, it’s proven behavioral finance that holds true on an individual basis.

A recent study found that digital coupon users spend 23 percent more per shopping trip than those without coupons. If you use coupons, you spend more, not less. You are not saving money. It’s true you’re getting more for the money you are spending — but research clearly shows that you wouldn’t be spending that money in the first place without the coupons.

The only way to save money is to spend less, and the use of coupons is not the path towards spending less.

2. It’s a zero-sum game. Economists talk about the growth of wealth not being zero-sum; this is, a group of individuals who experience wealth growth — say “the 1 percent” — doesn’t require an offset group of individuals whose wealth decreases — say “the 99 percent.” The economy can grow and, in theory, lift everyone who plays a part in it.

Another way of illustrating the lack of the zero-sum game in the economy is by talking about wealth re-distribution upwards. Consumerism is how money from the middle class and lower goes through a process that benefits the corporate class — the executives in large corporations, private equity firms, and preferred shareholders. If the transaction is reduced to its basic components, it looks like money is simply moving from consumers to producers, building more wealth for one group of society while keeping a larger group financially dependent.

Economists agree the process is more complex than this, and as producers show their relevance to society, they create enough economic substance, adding to the full “pie” to match or exceed the wealth that flows in their direction.

But on an individual level, the macroeconomic reality isn’t relevant. When you spend money, you have less. What you spend as a consumer doesn’t come back to you in the form of greater potential for building wealth. Every purchase eats into your wealth. The more you spend on movies and concerts, the less you’ll have available for food and rent.

With the understanding of the above, you’re better poised to make decisions that help you actually spend less rather than just “saving money.”

1. Shop less often. I could buy some new items every time I go shopping for clothing. A few weeks ago, I found myself at an outlet center near the New Jersey shore, and it’s hard to resist some of the nice clothes I can find on sale. (I like Van Heusen’s styles — looks great, fits well, and not as expensive as the premium brands.) I’m tempted to buy something every time I’m shopping, which is completely unnecessary. If I just don’t go, I wouldn’t buy anything.

Even necessities like food — change your shopping schedule and you’ll find your purchases are more efficient.

2. Conserve what you have. A corollary to the above is that you can make what you already own last longer. In terms of clothing, I still had a lot of my clothing from college — and even some tee-shirts from high school. I was probably thirty-five years old when I finally went through and eliminated some of the stuff I didn’t want to or could no longer wear. But because for many years I had no extra money to spend, I simply made do with what I had. It wasn’t until I had some extra income that I decided it was time to upgrade my wardrobe — although it helped that I wasn’t going into an office every day.

3. Buy in bulk. From a behavioral finance perspective, there is one trick that does work to spend less money over the long term, and that’s buying in bulk. There’s a trade-off. You need to store what you buy, and having more stuff takes up extra space, requiring a larger living space than you might otherwise need. And there’s an up-front cost. You’re spending more money today than you normally would, and it’s reducing your cost in the future. A lot of people living paycheck-to-paycheck can’t necessarily handle larger up-front expenses.

4. Reconsider your needs and wants. Many times we’re spending more than we need to spend because we haven’t given a lot of thought to whether a purchase is necessary. There are certainly instances when it’s acceptable to spend money to satisfy a desire rather than a necessity, but it shouldn’t be an automatic behavior. Take some time. Add a delay into the process. Wait twenty-four hours if you find yourself with the urge to make an impulsive decision. This provides an opportunity to consider your other options or how that money could be otherwise utilized.

5. Don’t join rewards or loyalty programs. Van Heusen, the clothing brand I mentioned above, offers rewards. In fact, I just received a $20 discount on my next purchase via email. But I have to make that purchase before a certain date or that money disappears. I can get a decent shirt for $20. It’s worth it. But if I shop, I’ll probably spend more than $20. In fact, just going to the store increases the chances of spending more money that’s not necessary.

I also use the rewards program at Staples. I’ve spent quite a lot of money at that store over the years, and I don’t think I’ve ever received any cash back rewards. I could save money on each purchase by shopping for supplies elsewhere. Loyalty programs incentive shoppers for changing the way they make purchasing decisions, and taking some important factors, like price, out of the equation, it can have an erosive effect on long-term wealth building.

It’s tempting for any particular person to believe that they are better than the average: Overall, people who use coupons end up spending more money, but I’m the exception. Well, that’s always a possibility, just as it’s possible that you’re an above-average driver, but it’s not likely, just as studies show that more than half of the population believes they’re better drivers than average. This is the illusory superiority cognitive bias.

Ditch the coupons and stop wasting your time on efforts that don’t actually save money. Consider your choices and make decisions about your shopping behavior while keeping in mind the tools and techniques that do improve your financial situation over the long term.

Photo: Flickr/StockMonkeys.com

Updated October 2, 2013 and originally published September 23, 2013. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar jim

“research clearly shows that you wouldn’t be spending that money in the first place without the coupons.”

You and/or that study are drawing an incorrect conclusion.

Coupons don’t force you to spend more money nor does using coupons mean that you aren’t buying things you wouldn’t otherwise.. A lot of people use coupons effectively to save money. yes there may be other alternatives that are cheaper but that doesn’t mean the coupon itself is somehow making me spend more money.

Lets say I love Oreo cookies and I buy a package of them every month. If I happen to find and use a $1 coupon for Oreos then how is this not saving me $1?? How am I spending more by use of this coupon? I’d have bought Oreos anyway with or without the $1 off. So the $1 coupon is clearly saving me $1.

You could argue that I should instead be buying a cheaper cookie to save money instead of the more expensive name brand Oreos. Thats not the same thing as arguing that a $1 coupon costs me money. Its a choice in products. I’m not gonna buy some second rate crappy cookie when I want Oreos.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,500 (Platinum)

That’s only part of the story. A coupon for cookies inspires purchasing of cookies when, without it, there may have been no purchasing of cookies. Not in all cases, but enough so that it plays out on a larger scale. In fact, for the most part, people (and studies) agree with you regarding the Oreo preference and furthermore will, given the “need” to buy cookies, will choose Oreos (the popular, heavily advertised brand name) with or without a coupon. (As a kid I preferred Hydrox.)

But the other piece of behavior is the whole premise behind things like Groupon — it’s an invitation to spend money on something you might not have even considered previously… putting ideas in the consumer’s head.

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avatar jim

Yes coupons can spur more purchases.

But that is not the same as a general conclusion that we wouldn’t be spending money in the first place if it wasn’t for the coupon.

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avatar MizLoo

The reality is that a) most coupons for pricey items require you to spend more than the coupon is worth, And b) most coupons for food items are not for necessities.

That said, if you are brand-loyal to a certain food, a coupon saves money. Most other coupons do not.

Groupons are only worth it if something you have already tried (and were planning to go back to) is on offer. And looking for Groupons that pass that test is a time sink.

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avatar Ceecee ♦53 (Newbie)

I’ve gone through phases of using lots of coupons and using very few. I tend to agree—coupons spur you to buy things you might not otherwise buy. However, if you are going to buy it anyway, they can be a real plus. In the end, it takes discipline to use the coupons wisely. I’m not sure I agree when it comes to store loyalty cards. I live one block from a Rite Aid and my card gets me 20% off on every purchase, all year long. My credit card rewards program gives me cash, and I still only use it for things I’m going to buy anyway. There are times when I get 20% off at Rite Aid and five points on the dollar in credit card rewards—–seems like a win/win.

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avatar Steve

I agree 99%. The one disagreement is your recommendation to “Buy in bulk.” Bulk purchases are no more or less of a good deal than your example of buying clothes you don’t strictly need. There are a lot of caveats you have to fulfill: Are you absolutely 100% sure that you were going to buy and use the large quantity of items anyways? Can you use it all up before it expires (in the case of food, batteries, stylish clothing)? Is the bulk purchase of the same quality as individual items (sometimes bulk items are a different brand or a different mix e.g. of flavors)? And finally, the unit price is not always lower on a larger package, which can trick those who have a “large package = cheaper” rule of thumb. Furthermore, there is the possibility that having more of something around the house, will cause you to use more of it. E.g. if you buy the bulk package of your favorite treat candy, your 20% savings could be eaten away by you consuming 20% more than you did buying individually.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,500 (Platinum)

Those are important caveats, and I kind of glossed over the whole concept of buying in bulk. When done right, it saves money, but all those things have to go right — an actual discount, equivalent product, taking any membership fees into account, and a consistent level of consumption (having more at home doesn’t mean using more). Excellent points.

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avatar Kylie Ofiu

I agree with you so much. We don’t really have coupons much here in Australia, but Australians are fascinated with the coupon clipping/chasing the ppl in the USA do. It’s madness to see how much you can save but at the same time, how much people spend on junk. A lot of the items I’ve seen or heard about people buying with coupons are not items I would buy anyway.

I have used coupons when in the US. I have a list of items I am buying such as lego, clothes, make up etc over there, then I look for and print off coupons before I come over and use them. Saved me a few hundred on my last trip and considering stuff there I was buying anyway is way cheaper than here already it was awesome.

Groupon is getting a lot more popular here and yes, a lot of people spending on something they wouldn’t have otherwise.

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avatar Kathy

Kkylie, I don’t know if you get the Extreme Couponing series put out on TV by TLC network. If that is what you are thinking about when you say the people in the U.S. are chasing coupon savings, don’t be fooled. Those shows have been proven fraudulent. Several stores admitted to violating their corporate coupon policy in order to receive free exposure on the show. They allowed the use of expired coupons, photocopied coupons and allowed the shopper to exceed coupon limits. They also allowed a coupon to be used for an item not stated on the coupon….for example, Libby’s vegetables instead of Del Monte, etc. All in all, the entire series was fraudulent and I don’t think it has been renewed for another season.

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avatar Brandy

I find that for me coupon usage and bulk buying often go hand in hand. Do I need 8 bottles of Advil right now? No, obviously not. But I will need it eventually and if it’s a money maker then it’s worth the storage to me (especially since they’re small). I don’t generally buy things I wouldn’t have otherwise, I just but it in larger quantities to plan ahead.

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avatar Chrissie

A real trap that popular women’s retailers use is the ‘buy one get one 1/2 off”. Instead of spending $40 on a sweater, you’ll get 2 sweaters for $60. If you needed only 1 item, say for a gift or a special occasion, you’re actually spending 50% more than what you needed to spend. This is absolutely true when using manufacturer’s coupons in the supermarket. “Get .50 cents Off When You Buy 2″ is not a bargain at all if you only need 1. The same goes for the ’2/$1.99′ sales – in this scenario, you’re not obligated to buy two, it’s just suggested that you do. Don’t spend if you don’t have to or don’t need it. Your money will go much further with these simple decisions

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avatar Kitty

Per shopping trip is not really enough information to conclude unless we also

1. make sure the groups compared are otherwise comparable. Are larger households more likely to use coupons than smaller ones, for instance?

2. know the frequency of the shopping trip. Do the people who use coupons have a significant overlap with the people who shop less often? (I tend to believe they may have, food shopping less frequently is a well-known strategy of frugality, after all.)

So the research may clearly show it, as you say, but your readers can’t clearly see it from the way you refer to that research. And now I must admit I am curious – if you happen to have the link to the actual research lying around I’d love to see it!

Because it does make sense that unless people are smart, couponing will get the better of them. These companies are giving out the coupons because it works for them, after all, and works for them means profit margins, short-term or long-term. I am certainly not doubting that this could be the case – it easily could!

Sorry that my first comment here is such a critical one – blame it on my passion for consumer research.

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avatar Tawnya

I wonder what the ‘Extreme Couponers’ have to say about this.

Anyway, in my case, I clip coupons but not to the extreme. I only clip those that I believe I need, and I don’t fall for those that will just take a lot of space in my pantry, even if it is for free.

I also believe that you need to shop around the house first before spending money to buy something. Sometimes, what we need to use at home is just hidden somewhere. We can save a lot of money if we embrace 3Rs and shop around the house before going out. This saves gas as well. :)

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avatar Ivan Widjaya

Coupons are little bit misleading in my opinion. You are asked to buy something at a fraction of the price when you don’t even need that item in the first place. You are better off saving your money so that you can put it for things that you really need instead of those “just in case” stuff that you really don’t need.

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