Thursday, June 8, 2006

Punny Poll #4: To Coupon or Not to Coupon?

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

That is the question being asked by this week’s Punny Poll!
[Read more…]

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Punny Money’s Grand Coupon Experiment, Part 3

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

behold the instrument of my cutting wit

I’m sure everyone’s eager for an update on the Grand Coupon Experiment since the last one was almost two weeks ago. I’ll skip the product-by-product breakdown and jump right to the big statistics.

Grand Coupon Experiment Net Savings: +$5.29, -50 minutes

That savings total reflects the use of coupons from three weeks of Sunday newspaper inserts as well as some from our local Safeway’s weekly circular. It also takes into account the cost of the newspapers themselves. The time total went mostly toward the act of clipping, though some of it reflects the additional time it takes to find and compare product prices with and without coupons.

So over three weeks and after nearly an hour of time, I’ve saved a little over five bucks clipping coupons. Am I happy about my progress so far? Not particularly. At the current rate, I’ll only end up saving $90 over the course of a year. Some may think that’s a pretty decent chunk of change, but when you factor in the estimated 14 hours it will take me to clip and use those coupons, that $90 doesn’t look like much. In fact, I recently calculated that $90 is the going rate for just one hour of my personal time. Using that figure, and assuming I spend 14 hours on couponing each year, that means I’ll actually lose the time equivalent of $1,260 a year!

Of course, that’s just my take on it, and perhaps I’m overcomplicating things with calculations of money and time. And again, maybe there’s more I can do to maximize my coupon savings while minimizing the amount of time spent chasing those savings.

So why is it that I’m not one of the many people saving thousands of dollars a year by using coupons? The simple answer is that my highly frugal nature has transcended the need for coupons, but allow me to elaborate.

Why Coupons Don’t Work For Some People (Like Us)

  • Time vs. money; winner is time. As someone who highly values his free time, the amount of money I save using coupons is small compared to the amount of time it takes to find and clip those coupons in the first place. I might be able to cut down on the time requirement by using a deal website like The Coupon Mom to let me know when I should cut the coupons, but even that doesn’t look like it would translate into enough time savings to justify the meager money savings.
  • Store brands. We are almost always happy with the quality of a store brand of product compared to the more expensive name brand version. Sure, coupons might make it worth buying a box of Kellogg’s Froot Loops over a bag of Store’s Fruit Circles… but what if the Fruit Circles go on sale? Ninety-nine percent of the time, a store brand’s sale price beats even an on-sale, couponed name brand item. And for non-food items like toothpaste and shampoo, the savings between store and name brand can be even more pronounced.
  • Food habits. We love our fruits and veggies, and they can easily account for a third of our total grocery bill. You probably won’t find coupons for fresh produce in your coupon booklets. The same goes for things like meat, milk, eggs, and other staples. Coupons don’t apply to about half our grocery purchases simply because they’re not items for which coupons are made.
  • It’s just the two of us. One day, when my wife gives me the nine children I’d like to have, coupons may play a bigger role in our lives. But for now, there’s only so much we need to eat and use, and that helps keep our grocery bills down even without coupons.

Now if you’ve been following the responses to the Punny Money article that started this experiment, you’d know that coupons work wonders for plenty of people. Does that mean they’re doing something right that I’m completely missing? Not really. It just means we’re in different situations.

Why Coupons Work Great For Some People

  • Discipline. It takes a certain mindset to become a hardcore coupon saver. This could involve buying stacks of newspapers for a particularly attractive offer, ordering coupons online, and designating entire rooms at home for cataloging and storing coupons. I could never be more than a casual coupon clipper, but plenty of folks take a pair of scissors to their Sunday paper inserts like a surgeon removing an appendix made of gold.
  • Big families. When you have a family of four, five, or twenty-three to feed, clothe, and bathe, coupons can help you stock up on supplies at great prices. Whereas it may not be practical for a two-person household to load a pantry full of 50-cent toothpaste, it’s a logical decision for Mommy, Daddy, Timmy, Katie, Billy, Amanda, Big Joe, Grandma Patty, and Spot to buy just about everything in bulk and use coupons to maximize savings.
  • Food habits and brand names. Coupons are also great for filling the pantries and fridge with processed foods and name brand items. While we rarely see a coupon of use to us, some people may go through a Sunday coupon circular and use 80% of the contents.
  • Time vs. money; winner is money. After years of experience tearing through thousands of pages of coupons, a few people may get that time-to-money ratio down to something much more worthwhile. If you can walk away with $20 in coupon savings with just ten minutes of work, then you’ve reached a level of coupon mastery that will probably elude me forever.

I’d like to welcome all the readers coming here from a Yahoo! Group which seems to have linked to the original Punny Money coupon article. The group is moderated, so I’m not sure what was said to bring everyone here, but it seems to have worked! I’ve been asked to respond to a few of your comments, so that’s just what I’ll do.

Angie says…

…when things (I use) are on sale, I buy as many as I can. In the past 2 days, I bought $524.54 worth of groceries for only $51.78. I buy meat in bulk for 1/4 of retail from a local farmer, and won’t have to step in a store for 2-3 months unless I want to. I do not own [Faye] Prosser’s book, I did my own research and figured it out.

Wow! I don’t think $500 worth of groceries would even fit in my tiny car. I’m a huge fan of farmers’ markets myself, though our local farmers lean toward produce rather than meat.

I’m also glad that you mentioned you figured out the path to coupon savings yourself. While Faye Prosser’s book sounds like a great read, you can probably find just about all the information you need to duplicate her results for free on the internet or in a public library. But at the same time…

Muriel says…

I would like to let you know that I have taken Faye Prosser’s class and absolutely loved it. She taught us how to save at least 50% or more off of our grocery bill. For that, I am very grateful to her. She is a great inspiration to those of us who know her!!!!

A good deal of the comments received in the last 48 hours have been less a defense of coupons and more a defense of Faye Prosser. It was not my intention to offend Ms. Prosser or her many fans who have benefitted from her teachings. I merely intended to pose an alternative point of view and to suggest that coupons may not be right for everyone. It sounds like she’s helped a lot of folks with their shopping finances, though I hope you’ll also consider my own arguments to see if coupons are the best option available to save you money on groceries.

Oh, and I’d like to ask a couple of you to take another look at the title of the site. It’s Punny Money. Punny means “funny,” so some of my remarks in the original article may have been satirical. I’m a little saddened that I need to point that out, but I guess there was no coupon in last Sunday’s paper for a sense of humor. (That’s another joke, by the way. Humor is free!)

Laura says…

I only shop at stores that double my coupon and then really stock up when the stores have “triple coupon days.”

After moving from Baltimore to a suburb of Washington a few months ago, we noticed that the price of food was just about the same in the two areas. We also noticed that double- and triple-coupon stores were few and far between. So while the shelf prices may be similar in both areas, coupons might make a bigger difference in one place than in another.

Heather says…

By all means, feel free to spend $100 a week on groceries. I’ll keep my coupons, thank you, and feed my family of 5 for less than $20 a week.

I’ve done all this talking about how much I saved using coupons and I never once mentioned how much I spend without them. A quick look through Quicken indicates that we average about $15 a week on all grocery items (food and non-food) for the two of us. That’s not quite up to par with 5 people for $20, but I should probably mention that I’ve been told I eat like three people.

jo says…

If the coupon is for a item you do not use and by using it, it will make the item free, why not get the item and donate it to the food bank. Just because you personally do not use it dont mean that NO ONE uses it. I feel sure that someone enjoyed the 24 cans of bush baked beans and the 48 boxes of kraft mac and cheese I donated to the food bank even though we dont eat either of them. I paid a total of 1.39TOTAL for BOTH THESE CASES food.

Very good point, jo. Coupons can do more than help you and your own family. I am curious, however, as to how long it took to clip all those coupons. Maybe I just don’t have the technique down yet, but it would take me a good long time to accumulate such a big pile. Still, that’s quite an accomplishment! (And now I’m hungry for baked beans. Wish I had a coupon…)

Angela Henley says…

I would be CURIOUS to see your shopping list for 1 week, maybe you could challenge a SEASONED couponer to get the same items you do at a lower cost USING COUPONS? that would be more fair than just taking a hand full of coupons on a one time shopping trip and then making a judgement call………

I guess it would be a little more fair if I extended this experiment a little longer. As for the challenge, I’m sure a seasoned couponer could easily match or surpass my system for grocery savings… at least before taking into consideration the cost of our time. For now, I’ll just have to be satisfied with being my own challenger. Can I find a balance between coupon savings and the time investment needed to acheive that savings? We shall see…

Brian says…

I enjoyed your turbulent comments and I think you’d like a short article I wrote called Following Punny Money’s Grand Coupon Experiment.

Thanks again, Brian, for pointing me to The Coupon Mom. Once I have a few weeks of Sunday circulars saved up, I’ll be sure to put that site to the test. I especially love one of your article’s comments: “Perhaps, if time is money, and if coupons are too, the experiment will prove that that the Sunday circulars are one commodity that college students, home makers, and non-profit organizations can trade for necessities.” Trading piece of paper for things of real value? What a crazy idea, but it just might work!

Pamela says…

You have provided an excellent place for all the people who have had very POSITIVE results from clipping their coupons to tell our stories.

I’m glad to be of service! When I first started seeing all these comments pour into the coupon post, I almost made a move for the “lock post” button. But I quickly remembered that comments are there for a reason, so I encourage everyone to continue to share their thoughts (whether for or against) on coupons in either this article or the original.

I wish I could reply to all of your comments, but there are so many and they keep on coming! But that’s great because I love reading them, and I’m sure Punny Money’s readers will appreciate the additional insights you have provided into the world of couponing.

Stay tuned to Punny Money in the coming weeks and months as I continue the Grand Coupon Experiment. Feel free to send me your couponing tips or comment here with them so I can be an awesome couponer, too!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Punny Money’s Grand Coupon Experiment, Part 2

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

i am full of invisible groceries

For those of you following the Grand Coupon Experiment here at Punny Money, I figured it’s time to update my status.

We took a trip to Safeway over the weekend looking mainly to pick up a couple of staples (milk, bread, waffle syrup) but also to use a few coupons to grab some items we may need in the future. We completed our regular shopping first and then went back to see if any of the coupons we had would help us cash in on a great deal.

The first item up for bids was one of our regular purchases: granola bars. I love me some granola, yes I do. This is one of the few items where the brand name product is often cheaper than the store version because the brand name version is on sale half the time. This time was no different, but instead of spending our usual $2 to pick up a box of Quaker Granola Bars, we picked up two boxes and used a $1 off coupon.

Next we decided to stock up on salad dressing since we had also made a stop at the farmers’ market that weekend and had enough salad fixin’s to last us a while. Normally the store brand of dressing would pulverize the price of its name brand competition, even if the brand names were on sale. Indeed, without coupons, that would have remained the case. Kens offered some of their higher-end dressings (you know, Creamy Lite Italian Dijon Raspberry Balsamic Walnut Vinaigrette) at $2 a bottle (regular price $3.29). The Safeway brand was a tiny bit cheaper, but once we applied a $1 off two bottles coupon to the Kens, we walked away with a better deal.

Finally, we made a trip to the… um… girly aisle, and we looked for some… er… girly products. Uh, we used a coupon and saved $1 okay bye.

Sadly, that was all the coupon savings that was in store for us on that trip. In all, coupons saved us three bucks, but we probably spent an extra five minutes working out what deals would be better with or without coupons. We also picked up a copy of the newspaper (-$1.58), but I found even fewer worthwhile coupons in it (and spent five minutes cutting them out).

Grand Coupon Experiment Net Savings: -$0.16, -30 minutes

In coming weeks, I’m going to take Brian’s advice and use The Coupon Mom‘s website to work out the best grocery/coupon savings combinations ahead of time. It should help us save some time, though I wish that website included Safeway instead of just Giant for our area.

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Punny Money’s Grand Coupon Experiment, Part 1

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

snip snip snip

On Friday, I lamented my coupon-free lifestyle but promised to give those adorable little paper clippings a fair chance. You may recall the challenge I posed for coupons:

If I can turn 30 minutes of my time into a genuine savings of ten dollars on our grocery bill over the next 30 days, I’ll reconsider my stance on coupons.

My Grand Coupon Experiment began today with a trip to the local Safeway. We also needed some milk and fruit, so the trip wasn’t an inconvenience. I was amazed to see that the middle inserts of the Washington Post were covered in a white plastic bag–probably to discourage folks from loading some extra coupon books into their copy of the paper. Including tax, the newspaper set us back $1.58.

Back at home, I had to resist scouring the advertisements for expensive computer equipment I don’t need or videogames that’ll drop in price six months from now. Instead, I extracted the three packets of coupons, grabbed some scissors, and started flipping the pages in search of great deals.

Twenty minutes later, I had about a dozen coupons clipped and ready to use. I was careful to cut out coupons only for products we already use (or could substitute for products we already use) so we don’t end up with items we don’t really need. I’ll go over the list of coupons–and our progress using them–after we make our next trip to the store.

Grand Coupon Experiment Net Savings: -$1.58, -20 minutes

Friday, May 5, 2006

The Science (Fiction) of Coupons

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,


My apologies to those of you reading who swear by coupons, for I am about to shatter your budget-minded world.

I don’t believe in coupons.

Rather, I acknowledge that coupons exist (much like groundhogs, oak trees, and faeries exist), but I don’t believe that using them religiously is a good way to save money.

Let’s look at the example of Faye Prosser, a woman from North Carolina who would beat me in the street with her purse if she ever saw me. Faye uses coupons like money and claims that doing so has saved her family of three more than $4,000 a year.

“At this particular store, they were tripling coupons and my subtotal was $63.84,” Prosser said holding up a receipt. “And they paid me $8.29 to take (the groceries) home!”

You might even say that Faye wrote the book on saving money with coupons, but what secrets could she be keeping from us that make coupon-clipping such a lucrative pasttime? I don’t need a coupon to tell me that I can save $13 by not buying her book, but Faye was kind enough to share her four-step approach to better living through coupons.

1. Acquire Coupons

Genius! How else are you going to save money using coupons if you don’t acquire them first? Other than grabbing the coupons out of the Sunday paper, Faye also recommends picking some up cheaply online from sites like I took a tour of the website and found that it charges a modest handling fee (usually a nickel or a dime) to send you each coupon that you choose to order. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a single coupon for items we already use, and I was able to determine that it would cost us more to switch to most of the products listed–even if we used the coupons!

2. Develop A Price Book

This is a great idea, but one that you don’t need to use a single coupon to execute. By keeping written records of the best prices you see for products, you’ll know when you’re seeing a good deal in the future. But if you look through the typical price book, you’ll see an interesting trend: the store-brand or generic version of an item is usually so much cheaper than any brand-name version that no coupons (even doubled ones) can bring down the price of brand-name items enough to beat their store-brand counterparts.

Of course, if you’re not a lover of generic brands like we are, then you’ll definitely want to use coupons to save you some money. But if that’s the case for you, then using coupons is really just the second-best money-saving option.

3. Prepare Your Grocery List And Meal Menu

Confession time. You may remember a few months back when I said we were going to plan out the week’s dinners in advance. Well, we managed to pull it off for about six weeks, but then I realized that planning meals in advance wasn’t saving us much money. All too often we’d plan a meal that required ingredients we didn’t have, and when we went to the store to buy them, we’d find no version of that item on sale. Bam! We’d have to pay full retail price to keep our carefully-laid plans from falling apart.

It seems that Faye Prosser does something very similar…

Prosser said if you go into a store without knowing what’s on sale, you’re going to spend more money. She makes her grocery list according to what’s on sale, and according to her meal menu. Prosser prepares a seven-day menu including breakfast, lunch and dinner, which tells her exactly what to buy.

…but at least she takes the sales flyers into account when doing her meal planning. But sales flyers aren’t coupons!

4. Shop, Save

If an item is not on sale, or if she doesn’t have a coupon for it, Prosser doesn’t buy it.

Something is very wrong with that statement. Can you spot the problem? It’s the “or if she doesn’t have a coupon for it” part. By Prosser’s logic, having a coupon for an item seems to automatically make it worth buying. A much better version of this statement would be…

After applying sale prices and coupons, if an item you need is at the lowest price, then you buy it.

So why, if people like Faye Prosser using them can save thousands of dollars a year, don’t we use coupons? Our reasons for living a relatively coupon-free life are simple:

  1. Coupons would make us buy things we don’t need. “Hey, I have a coupon for that” should not be the first words out of your mouth when you spot an item on the store shelf. While you might feel accomplished using a small piece of paper to knock 50 cents off a four-dollar box of cereal, matching a coupon in your possession to an item in a store should not be an automatic license to buy that item!
  2. Coupons are rarely the best option for saving money. If you don’t mind trying store-brand products, you’ll find that the money you save buying them instead of brand-name items more than makes up for your coupon-free way of life.
  3. Coupon-clipping is not worth our time. If I spent three hours each week searching for coupons online, clipping coupons from the Sunday paper, and putting together a shopping list based on the coupons in my possession, I sure hope I’m not going to spend a dime on groceries that week. On average, we spend about $40 a week on groceries, and that’s without using a single coupon. I’m not willing to give up even 60 minutes of my free time each week if it means I might trim an extra few bucks off my grocery bill.

All that said, I’ve never been one to turn down a challenge. This weekend, I’ll be picking up a copy of the newspaper for another of my grand experiments. If I can turn 30 minutes of my time into a genuine savings of ten dollars on our grocery bill over the next 30 days, I’ll reconsider my stance on coupons. I’ll report my results right here this time next month.

And if I don’t save ten dollars or more, all you coupon clippers have to buy me a pony.

Update (May 31, 2006): Welcome, visitors! Be sure to read my latest Grand Coupon Experiment status which includes responses to some of your comments.