By Jen Rouse
The Short Years
When something becomes its own verb, you know it’s a big deal. Couponing. It’s a whole new world out there.
I’m sure you’ve heard of this. Using coupons is not just about flipping through the newspaper and clipping out a few little bargains anymore. It’s practically a movement of own, with a name of its own: couponing. There are couponing websites, couponing classes, even. Seems like everytime you turn around there’s some woman on TV talking about how she goes to the grocery store and the checkers just automatically fill her cart with food and then hand HER a fistful of money, because she has perfected the art of couponing and now she’s going to retire as a millionaire!
For a long time, I’ve thought that this coupon-clipping was not worth the hype, but with all these people talking about how they cut their grocery bills in half, I decided to give it a go this week.
On Sunday, I went through every page of the fliers in the Sunday paper, pulling out coupons and writing down prices of items on sale. Then I went to a couponing website and sorted through various menus and categories, trying to find more deals. I ended up with a page worth of hand-written notes, a stack of coupons, and a list of four different stores to potentially hit up.
But first–before I drove around to every store in town–I did my normal grocery shopping routine: I went to WinCo, and I looked for the prices on generic, store-brand products. And when I did that, guess what?
Store-brand items were cheaper 87 percent of the time, even if you considered the coupon deals.
Del Monte canned fruit, Chicken of the Sea tuna, Head & Shoulders Shampoo, Eggland’s Best eggs–all were on sale in the coupon circulars, all were something I thought I might purchase, but when I actually compared, even when factoring in the coupon prices I had written down, store-brand products were still cheaper.
What’s more, some of the prices listed on the coupon website I visited were just wrong. They listed a ton of good deals at Safeway, enough so that I specifically didn’t buy certain items at WinCo, planning to go to Safeway next and get the good deals. But then when I got to my local Safeway, the deals that I’d seen listed online simply didn’t exist. Whether the website creators got their dates wrong, or their geographic area wrong, or they were just making stuff up for fun to mess with poor ignorant consumers, I don’t know. But at that point I wasn’t going back to WinCo to get the slightly-cheaper items, so I just sucked it up and bought them anyway.
I ended up spending my entire morning and driving to three different stores, even though I bought the vast majority of my groceries at WinCo and was driving to those other stores in pursuit of just a few specific items. By the end of the day, the kids and I were both exhausted and my 2-year-old was saying, “Why are we at ANOTHER store?” when I pulled into the third grocery store parking lot.
String cheese. The only other food item that I actually used a coupon for, out of the almost $300 I spent on groceries.
I think that some of the people who are saving so much on their groceries are simply buying different items than I do. If you read this blog post about couponing from TIME.com, and watch the little video in which a coupon guru shows off the deals she got, I would say at least fifty percent of what she bought are things I never purchase. Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, Cheetos, Coke, Easy Mac? Not things that I buy. How about a coupon for carrots or apples or whole wheat bread–things I go through by the truckload? Now, I’m not getting all food-snob on you here. I certainly do buy hot dogs for my children, and I could go through a box of Wheat Thins all by myself. But, overall, I’ve been making a conscious effort to cut down on the amount of highly-processed foods that I purchase, and that’s what the majority of the items shown in that grocery video are.
So, to sum up, here’s why I’ve decided my couponing experiment was a fail:
1. A lot of the coupons in the paper were for items I don’t buy anyway.
2. The ones that were worthwhile to me were usually STILL more expensive than just buying the store-brand item.
3. Going through every page of the paper, searching through websites, and driving from store to store took me at least two hours longer than my normal grocery shopping routine.
4. In the end, I saved very little money. The only coupons I used were the manufacturer coupons, which would have been good no matter what store I went to. My grand total of savings: $1 off string cheese, $1 off Wheat Thins, $2 off razor blades.
Four bucks. I saved four bucks.
That, my friends, is not worth it.