Couponing is costing you money!

Couponing is bad. It doesn’t save you money it makes you spend more.

I used to coupon religiously. I had an entire bodega in my basement. I did this for years thinking I’d coupon to pay off debt. Several years and stockpiles later, I realized something–couponing kept me in debt instead.

Couponing is the wrong approach.  Here’s why:

When I lived in the city (and for most teachers!) couponing was a way of life.  Stores were right there–twenty feet from my house.  I used Stephanie Nelson’s strategy to match coupons to sales. is brilliant used correctly–it matches weekly coupons to sales at your local stores. Stephanie’s original idea was to help people add on a few things to their groceries so they could donate them, and also help them save on their groceries so they could afford to give.

Done well, couponing seems to save a lot, but as I soon discovered, in the long run it costs a ton of cash, and even worse, keeps us in a mindset of poverty so we never imagine we can get out of debt. And, it makes us buy more junk.

A typical week couponing

First, I’d get the fliers. Second I’d spend some time screening the sites and cross-matching coupons to sales. Then, I’d start the organizing process.

Each list got paper clipped to the right coupons. Sometimes, there were several lists per store because of offers like “Buy two, get $4 off your next purchase.”  This is detail-oriented stuff.

Then, I’d go to the stores. Some, I had to go to multiple times if I “needed” a lot of something or if there was a low limit. During Back-to-School shopping season, cashiers left the country if they saw me coming.

I’d put Transaction Number One on the belt, pay, get the coupons. Then, I’d shuffle them for Transaction Two and so forth.

Once in a while, I’d find a kind teen who didn’t want to see me again. Then, I could blow by the limits. I got tons of stuff cheap and free. Sometimes, I even got paid to buy stuff. I was a well-oiled machine.

Soon, I had shelves full of sale and free products.  If you came to my house, you left with free stuff. “Looks like a department store,” people said.

And it did–an entire room with rotated stock and floor-to-ceiling shelves.

When I accumulated enough, I’d bring bags to our local family shelter. That made me happy.

At back to school time, I stocked up for the year using coupons and sales to buy the things schools didn’t.

I dedicated myself fully to stocking up using sales, doorbusters, and coupons.I schemed ways to buy even more supplies on sale. I loved couponing.  Giving stuff away is fun.

But then, I looked at my own checkbook. And my house. And I realized something.

Couponing cost me money.

And, I was stocking up on things I never used. I grow my own food and use a few natural products. These were products I never used but I felt like I got a deal.

Here’s what really happened:

  1. I accumulated shelves of items I’d never use–each ten-cent item was 10-cents I didn’t have to pay down my (growing!) debt.
  2. I was putting my bills off until later, and often using my paycheck to fund my job.
  3. I spent hours organizing, clipping, sorting, and matching coupons. Then, more hours (and gas!) driving around to stores collecting not-free items I couldn’t afford.

If I got a part-time, minimum-wage job with that time, I would’ve ended up miles ahead.

When I was at the height of my couponing glory, I accumulated several years worth of personal hygiene products–shampoos, deodorant, toothpaste. I was stockpiling things that weren’t benefitting me.

“But I give it away, it’s for others.” That made me feel good, but if I looked at my debt–credit cards, student loan debt, and the places I shortcut my own finances, I was putting myself deeper in a hole.

Ask yourself…

  • “Am I buying things I don’t use because they’re cheap or free?”
  • “Do I have my debt paid off?” (Credit cards, student loans, other non-routine or revolving debt)
  • “Do I have 6 months to a year of emergency fund cash?”
  • “Do I sometimes punt bills but really feel the need to spend on others through couponing?”
  • “Am I stocked (WITH PRODUCTS I USE) well past the next sale cycle?”
  • “Could I be doing something with the time I spend couponing that would put me in a financially or spiritually better place?”

How do I know if I should coupon?

I stopped couponing cold turkey when I answered those questions. In fact, I stopped spending my paycheck on my classroom altogether. And finally, I am nearing the end of my debt road. If you asked me a decade ago, I would have told you I need to coupon, and I need these things. Now, I know differently.

There are times when a coupon is a win.

If you’re going to the store, and you have the coupons (meaning: you didn’t buy them or spend time looking for them) you’d be a fool not to use them for items you’d buy anyway.

Make sure every coupon you use passes The Coupon Test.

The Coupon Test: Should I buy this?

In order to be worthwhile, couponing needs to save me money and be efficient.  It cannot cost me time, make me me obsessive, or let the marketing guy win.

  1. Do you need this coupon item now? If so, that’s coupon victory. Buy the item!
  2. Will the item expire before you use it? Overstocking sale and coupon items creates waste.  Some products have expiration dates.  Check dates and estimate what you’ll use before it expires.  Even if you have a coupon for more, don’t overbuy!  I buy a two cases of Pastene tomatoes on sale every year at Thanksgiving, because I use two cases in a year and the sale’s really big.
  3. Do I have to drive out of my way to get this sale? If it’s a big sale on thing you use or there’s a lot of things you need at one store, you’re using good coupon strategy.  If you’re saving a dollar but spending an extra half-hour of your time and gas getting a single item at another store, skip the trip!

The dirty secret of coupons…

You can shop fresh and clean without coupons: order in bulk, go to local markets, and shop ethnic markets for the ingredients you love, then learn to cook like a chef.

We often coupon out of fear. Especially teachers. Classrooms never have enough pencils. And they still won’t even if you go broke buying them on sale.

Set and commit to achieving your financial goals before you use another coupon. Then, use them only if they align with those goals. Otherwise, burn them in a fire over which you toast a giant marshmallow–that you got full-price.

What happened when I stopped couponing…

I gained time, a sense of inner peace, and the realization I didn’t need most of the things I was buying. Most things were getting me farther from my goal–financial stability and being debt free.

I discovered it was less expensive to shop wisely, full price and buy only what I needed.

The credit card thanked me, and my sanity did, too.

What about the classroom?  What do I really need to teach?

I was afraid students wouldn’t have what they needed if I didn’t get it for them. In retrospect, that was silly. My constant shopping was just enabling school to not get students what they needed.

Plus, students didn’t need me to buy them things. They just needed me to care about them. The rest… it all worked itself out.

I stopped couponing and back to school shopping six years ago. It took years to get to the bottom of my hoards. Finally, I just put the remainder on a table and gave it all away.

I was free.

I stopped creating debt shopping for my job with my paycheck. I paid my cards to zero. And, this year, I’ll pay off my student loans, too. And most important of all, I used the time I spend not couponing to learn skills that paid me far more than I could’ve saved by couponing–because teacher skills really are valuable (but that’s a topic for another post).

“But I need…”

That’s what teachers tell me. They need so many things for their classroom. So they spend “a little bit” each time.

I hear you. I used to say that, too. But that little bit adds up. If you think this way, you will never reach your own financial goals.

Next time you say “I need,” ask yourself “What if…”

What if you had to make it work without dipping into your family’s finances? What would you do then?

And (even better) what if... you were finally financially free and not worried about the next emergency?

Think about the true value of your time.

Then, look at that 25-cent coupon and ask yourself, “Is this really all I’m worth?”

You are worth so much more.