The Art of Coupons

Margaret Atkins MunroLet's Talk About MoneyLeave a Comment

A recent visit to my parents’ home in Massachusetts marked a major turning point in our family history; after fifty-odd years of sitting around the table, devouring the door-stopping Boston Sunday Globe along with breakfast, I was alarmed to discover that my parents had discontinued their subscription. No more news, sports and entertainment mixed in with bagels and lox. And especially, no more coupon-filled circulars.

The coupon-clipping tradition in my family extends back as far as my memory serves. We learned from a young age that it was never okay to pay full price for anything; coupons were a way to buy items that might not be on sale, and that we might not otherwise buy. If the store doubled, or even tripled, the face value of a coupon, so much the better.

The lessons learned at the Sunday breakfast table are, apparently, deeply embedded in my psyche. I took a temporary hiatus during a period when money seemed more plentiful than time, but the recent economic downturn has returned me to the coupon-clipping fold. Once again, I’m back hunting for coupons, both in print and on Internet sites like and, and I’ve taken to collecting loyalty key-tags and frequent purchase cards instead of souvenir spoons. Coupons have evolved far beyond what we used to find in newspapers, and now include a wide variety of devices that entitle you to a customer-specific discount.

I am clearly not the only returnee. Coupons are being rediscovered by millions of people whose incomes are not rising as they once did, but whose expenses continue to mushroom. A coupon is like cash in your wallet, enabling you to buy more with your available dollars or spend fewer of them, but it’s only usable on a particular product, or in a certain store. There is a certain joy associated with money-off coupons; even my husband, who has recently taken over most of the weekly shopping , has become a convert—every trip to the grocery store is now accompanied by a description not of what he bought, but of how much he saved. In our house, it’s a game, but one that someone else is paying you to play. And the financial rewards are significant; we regularly shave between $20-$40 from our weekly grocery bill, plus the 10¢ or 20¢ we save on each gallon of gasoline.

These may not be your grandmother’s coupons, but as a marketing tool, they are still hard to beat. Coupons are a time-proven method of getting consumers into a particular store or trying new products. From the perspective of the merchant, once you enter their emporium, they now have the opportunity to lure you into buying something else; from the purchaser’s vantage point, the coupon enables the acquisition of a desired item for a lower cost.

The push/pull between merchant and consumer is a constant, and does not always work in the consumer’s favor. The casual coupon user must beware of buying unnecessary items solely because they represent bargains, or of using a coupon to reduce an inflated price to its fair market value. For the unaware, coupon shopping can actually cost you more. Ten cents off gas at a station where gas is priced fifteen cents higher than the norm is still a bad deal, and a coupon, even doubled, may not drop the price of a name-brand item below that of a comparable house brand. Any time a merchant wants you to pay to enroll in their loyalty program, watch out. I have to buy a lot of books at Barnes & Noble to warrant paying $25/year to join their 10% discount club. In my case, it’s worth it, since my family reads voraciously. But I won’t pay that same loyalty fee to a clothing store, where I’m not as likely to spend as much money, as that ties me into buying their merchandise all the time.

Without question, effectively using coupons can save significant amounts of money in a family’s budget. Whether it’s at the grocery store, the bookstore, the furniture store, or even the gas station, there’s money off to be had, if you only know how. It’s not a perfect science; you must practice, and be both creative and organized. You have to plan your purchases ahead, know what’s sitting in your cupboards, or what you may need next month, but not next week. Carry a small calculator with you to see if what you’re buying is really a bargain, and be willing to change your shopping list in mid-aisle because an opportunity presents itself. Because coupons are usually time-sensitive, you have to use them while they are valid; an expired coupon is worthless.

The Sunday morning ritual of hunting for coupons may be fading into history, but the search for ways to lower costs remains as strong as ever. True, coupon shopping requires an investment of time and effort on your part. But merchants and companies continue to give these dollars away; why not use them to squeeze out all the extra buying power you can.