Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Coupons: Am I right, or just lazy?

"The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." -Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau used this logic about cost to justify things like walking for three hours to a destination instead of taking a train. After all, the train cost more than three hours worth of wages, so it cost less time to walk. 

The problem I have with Thoreau's point of view is that 1) I don't just go to work to make money and 2) I'm going to go to work anyway, so once you subtract the hours that I'm working and the hours I spent walking instead of taking the train, I've lost quite a few hours of the day. And hours are precious, ephemeral things. Much more precious than money. 

In my mind, this is all connected to some thoughts on couponing. Over at Just West of Crunchy, there's a post on the excessive nature of the couponing seen on TLC's Extreme Couponing. She notes the greed and extremity represented by consumers who buy 12 boxes of cereal or 62 bottles of mustard to score a good deal. She also brings up that "[m]ost of the people I’ve seen on the shows say they spend between 10-20 hours per week couponing and planning shopping trips."  And even though those hours do end up saving some money, "Extreme Couponers clearly don’t need everything they buy, and I think it only really counts as a savings if the coupons save money on a necessity." 

This reminded me of my own (brief and ill-fated) attempt at couponing. 

Before my husband graduated from law school and after we bought a house, we found ourselves not quite struggling, but certainly juggling a tight budget. We're not particularly extravagant people, so there weren't that many things we could cut out to save money. So I looked at our food costs and decided to try to trim. I, being the good little researcher that I am, turned to the internet for advice. 

I found a blog called Coupon STL. This blogger does not, in my opinion, go to the extreme the way the people featured on Extreme Couponing do. Mostly, she matches up national coupons with local sales, showing people how to get several items for less. She also notes when local stores are having promotions and puts together buying guides that show how to plan and make the most of them. It's good advice, and--while I did it--we did save some money on groceries. 

But I couldn't keep up with it, and I justified it to myself without much internal struggle. See, to me, money isn't that important as long as I'm keeping body and soul together. If I can't buy groceries, it's a problem. If I'm missing bill payments, that's a problem. If I don't have enough in savings to cover a mechanic bill, that's a problem, too. But as long as the basics are covered, I don't really care about saving money just for money's sake. And to me, couponing was costing too much. Namely:

1) I hated the way couponing dictated my schedule. My days are full. At the time I was working full time, taking evening classes a few days a week, volunteering at two places, and adjuncting a class. There was not a lot of spare time. One of the best coupon deals was a local store that gives $10 off a $50 purchase on Thursdays. So we started grocery shopping on Thursdays. After we got off from work and school. When we had to get up early on Fridays. It was inconvenient. 

2)  I'm not the only one who knows there's a deal. Experience matters to me, and I rarely enjoy shopping. If it's crowded and people are rude, that experience is going to linger, putting me in a bad mood for hours. Everyone else knew it was deal Thursday, too. The store was crowded, and people were grumpy. 

3) I was buying junk. Do you know who puts out those national coupons? Companies that make the products. They are not very many coupons for fresh fruit or meat. There are sometimes, but not that often, coupons for ready-made products I use to cook like flour or spices. Most of the time, though, the coupons are for things like Hamburger Helper or frozen entrees. We just don't eat that much of this stuff. But when I had coupons for it, I would sometimes buy it, changing my menu from mostly fresh food to mostly packaged food, taking me further away from a goal I had worked hard to achieve: eating healthier. 

4) It was time and energy consuming. I hated having to plan out what stores were best on which days. I hated planning out what to buy at each place and what coupons needed to be where. I completely ignored the deals that required you to buy something in order to get a new printed coupon at the register which you could then take back in to get more things for less money. It was too much to think about and too many trips to the store. 

When it comes down to it, I recognize that it is important to be fiscally responsible, but it's also important to enjoy life. I know that it didn't cost that much time and energy to use coupons, but I also don't have much time to spare. I justified it by saying that the time I was spending was worth more spent elsewhere, but I might just be a lazy couponer. 

What about you? Do you coupon? Is there an easier way to do it or is it just worth the effort?

1 comment:

  1. Your problem was that you let the coupons suck you into their marketing scheme. You let it dictate your schedule and dictate what you bought. I coupon, but part of it being "lazy" for me is that I don't let it dictate my behavior. I only buy things I was buying before couponing, and I only concentrate on one store, the one that's most convenient for me. Although you don't find many manufacturer's coupons for fresh foods, you can find store coupons for them. This week, I have store coupons for milk, bread, and meat. Concentrating on one store simplifies shopping (I'm not going to run around to 3 stores just for one shopping trip!) and I get to know their couponing policy & sale schedule well, which simplifies the planning. The main thing, though, is that I stockpile non-perishable items. Not huge amounts: I designated one closet to be the pantry and everything in there has to be non-perishable and only bought on sale or with a coupon. This allows me to go shopping less often and I only buy when I have a good deal. I have enough food to last me until the next deal. Successful couponing for me comes down to three things: 1) stockpile non-perishables, 2) only buy what you would buy full price anyway, and 3) stack coupons (and sales) whenever possible. It doesn't really matter how you get there.