A coupon can make you insane…

Done wrong, a coupon will turn anyone into an extreme raving lunatic, with shelves full of nonsense they wouldn’t buy in a million years. You’ll know every price in town and travel far and wide to get a sale.

That was me.

I had shelves upon shelves of shampoo, toothpaste, toilet paper, and cans. Let me put this in context for you. A bar of soap and tube of toothpaste can last me well over a year, and my own personal shampoo, if not thrown down the toilet by a kid or drank by someone (I strongly suspect that’s what they do with theirs)–that lasts forever, too. The bottle says “use pea sized” and unless you grow your peas in Chernobyl, that’s a recipe for product longevity.

The point here is this. If I use one bottle of shampoo every six months or year, I need–exactly one bottle a year. Those other seventy-two I got for pennies are taking up space on my shelves where the mouse plays. Also, they aren’t brands I use, so when the year is up, I’ll go down there, look at them, and go to the store and buy myself a new bottle.

Someone in the household will take a bottle, bar, or tube from the shelf, and God knows you can never have enough toilet paper–except when you have too much toilet paper and no room for anything else. That’s when the friendly neighborhood mouse returns and builds a nest.

You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing

Overdone, couponing creates waste. Most things have an expiration date, and even the things that don’t–paper products–take up room.

If you’re the type of couponer who actually gets a victory rush from a good sale, this is especially dangerous. Buying things you don’t use has a big cost. Even if it’s five or ten cents here and there, that, multiplied over time, will keep you broke–and buried under mountains of things.

How to coupon correctly–if you must at all.

Buy only what you need, when you need it.

It makes sense to keep a couple things in stock so you can go to your pantry and rotate through it. I call this “the restaurant method.”

I waitressed. When one thing ran out, I ran to the stock room and took another. There were a few “others” in stock for high-use items like condiments, for example. So, ask yourself, “Do I need one of these or twenty of these?” Really notice how much you use.

Here’s an example: I got a couple bottles of ketchup last summer. Apparently, we don’t use as much ketchup as we thought. When I swapped out the bottles, I didn’t buy more. I don’t even need to keep one bottle ahead on this. Mayo, though, is something I use. I get a couple jars to stockpile in season knowing that if I run out I can make more.

Only save a coupon for brands you love

There are good generics and bad generics. Don’t buy the “yucky” ones. In my house this is cereal. I don’t eat much cereal, but if I do, generic flakes, krisps, or puffs–they’re all the same to me. My son can pick out a grocery-store Rice Krispy a mile away. I’ve even saved an old box so it looks like I took the cheap stuff out of the real box. He wasn’t fooled.

Watch for coupons and sales for your favorite brands, and skip the alternatives that you won’t use–even if they’re cheap or free.

Don’t buy extra newspapers to get a coupon

At the height of my coupon disorder, I was buying two or three coupons if I knew the sale was coming around. Don’t do this. The paper goes to waste and there just isn’t that much good news in the world.

These days, I set my coupon use to this: If it comes in the mail already, I’ll use it. If it crosses my path and is an easy print (we have a local store I visit at the holidays that has good email coupons) I’ll use it. If it’s on an app I can easily use, I’ll also use it.

So, if I go to the craft store, they can scan the email or app 20% coupon. I’ll do that if I’m buying something anyway. But, I tend not to use the Target app as much so far, because it requires me scanning every item and using their app to make a list–that slows me down and just tries to get me to buy more. Nope!

Set a limit for coupon and sale peeking

Tons of stores have in-store coupons. Limit your search. I look through a couple of store fliers for the best sales and in-store coupons, but I go to one or two stores on my path, that’s it. In my heyday, I went to every store, more than once a week to get the on-sale-with-coupon. That takes up time, gas, and energy–all of which have a real cash value in my life.

If I’m chasing down a five-cent deal instead of doing something that could benefit me, my job, or my family, that’s not a good deal.

Keep a rotating grocery list

I keep a rotating grocery list so I know if I’m getting low on something. I never go to the store because I ran out–I keep ahead of the game, and buy at a low price at the times products are most likely to be on sale. If I go to the store for one thing–even with a coupon–I’m in danger of seeing something more.

Know your prices and sale cycles

Condiments go on sale during picnic seasons–that’s Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Fourth of July. For some reason, March is “frozen food month,” and the cans of tomatoes I use–if I haven’t canned enough that season… they’re a buck around Thanksgiving and a few other times during the year.


If you do go to the store for one thing–say it’s something you’ll use, you have a coupon, it’s on sale, and you really didn’t go out of your way to go to that store.

Let’s just say you’ve got CVS bucks that need to be used and something you’re low on is also on sale in a brand you’ll use and you have a manufacturer’s coupon from that weekday junk mail collection you get so this sucker’s going to be free or nearly free.

Go for it. But use discipline. That means this: You went in for that item, you’re organized and ready with your bucks, coupons, slips, and papers, and you leave with that item only.

If you’ve done this, you’re a champ. You have used the coupon correctly, to save money and add to your life. You’ve scored an item you’ll use, when you need it, without hoarding, and you’ve kept your money in your wallet.

But if you looked around and added three things to your basket you would not have bought (even if you say you needed them), you lost money. That coupon did its job–for the store. It got you in there, buying more than

Think about that–marketing people get paid a lot of money to shape what we buy. Coupons are a big part of it. Done well, you can save, but done poorly… the house always wins. Since we know that, for most of us, it’s best to stay out of the casino altogether and save in other ways.  

But if you play your cards right–buy what you need, when you need it, without wasting your own time–your coupons could be a winning hand.