Do Coupons Really Save You Money?

Couponing? Well that was becoming another 20-hour-per-week job. I mean, sure. I got free stuff and saved money... And all those good deals? Well, they languished in our pantry because, really, what do you do with 10 cans of butter beans?

Jul 10, 2012 at 1:30pm | Leave a comment

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My mother-in-law was extreme couponing before there was a cable show about it (actually, before there even was cable). When I married my husband, I was determined to be the coupon ninja-in-training to her frugal sensei.

But two years into couponing and I was exhausted. I worked a full-time job and often spent my evenings doing freelance writing.

Couponing? Well that was becoming another 20-hour-per-week job.

I mean, sure. I got free stuff and saved money. But more often than not, saving money was cutting into the act of actually making money. And all those good deals? Well, they languished in our pantry because, really, what do you do with 10 cans of butter beans?

So my husband and I decided to sit down and actually figure out … was all this couponing worth it?

The Math

In 2007, after two years of couponing, we sat down and did some calculating. Here’s what we found:

         My total coupon savings for our family of two (this was pre-kids): Between $50-$70 a week

Time it took me to hunt down the coupons: 8-12 hours a week

Approximate hourly rate at my full-time job: $20

It wasn’t adding up. Even when I had a great savings week and spent the fewest number of hours hunting coupons, my savings only came out to about $8.75 per hour. At the time, I worked a full-time job and freelanced, was an active runner, was taking graduate classes and volunteered at a local women’s shelter. Consequently, coupon-cutting was snipping into time I needed to actually make money. The only time I had left over to hunt down coupons was at random times during the work day or late at night. I was exhausted and broke. While writing doesn’t exactly pay me a ton, turns out it did pay better than couponing.

So in 2007, I quit actively cutting coupons.

Then, this year, I reconsidered: We’d had our first daughter. As my husband and I started tightening our belts to make inroads on my college loans before we started saving for our (yet-to-be-conceived) second child, I again looked to couponing.

This time I wanted to be smart about it, though. While I no longer volunteer or take graduate classes, I’m currently working a part-time job and writing and taking care of Child No. 1 … I don’t have time to burn.

The Experiment

To figure out the best way to get back on the coupon bandwagon, my husband and I decided to run a test. Here was the set-up:

One week, I would buy all my groceries from Aldi, a discount store, where they keep costs low by charging you for bags (although you can bring your own), having a quarter deposit for the carts and selling only very basic items. (Think milk, eggs, pasta and meats. Want pesto? You’re out of luck.)

And although Aldi does have some specialty items, they are only in stock seasonally. Also, Aldi has no coupons, and everything is off brand, so manufacturer’s coupons don’t get you anywhere.

The following week I would shop at Target using all the coupons I could find.

Both weeks, I used the same menu-planning service to print out my grocery lists and meal plans.

With the recent attention on extreme couponing and the rise of blogs and websites dedicated to couponers, I had high hopes of being able to get back on the couponing bandwagon.

The Results

Here’s what happened.

Week One:
The first week I printed out my grocery list and headed off to Aldi. I spent $95.96 there on a week’s worth of groceries for our family of three. Granted, I didn’t stick entirely to the list. If I had, I would have spent less.

Non-list items that I bought included bananas (my daughter’s favorite), yogurt, lunch meat, bread and a box of periogies, because I’m Polish and I love me a periogie. Non-list items added up to $15.75. Then, I had to run over to a grocery store for the three other items that Aldi didn’t have: cilantro, pesto and basil. There, I spent $7.20, and I stuck to the list.

Total Spent: $103.16 for a week’s worth of food

Week Two:


The next week I printed my menu and began hunting. I scoured the local paper and the Sunday paper (which cost me $2 because I don’t subscribe). Then I hit the Internet. Printing coupons is one of the most frustrating exercises in futility since high-school dodge ball. It took me 45 minutes to get the coupon printer synced, and coupons I found via social media sites, like Facebook, didn’t print at all or required me spamming my friends by sharing the offer. (No, thank you.)

Side note: Extreme couponers advise shopping for the deal rather than a meal plan. But with a small kitchen and no extra storage for 10 cans of butter beans, shopping for the deal isn’t an option for me.

I finally stopped swearing when I found Target’s section of coupons and scored 17 that were for exactly what I needed. In addition to those 17, I found three coupons through the paper.

When I was done, I had spent 9.5 hours searching. (It’s worth noting that this might not be common for others. Coupon searching while watching a 13-month-old who wants “Up!” all the time is, I believe, how serial killers are made.)

At Target we found everything we needed, and we also purchased our standard off-the-list items like yogurt, lunch meat (I had a coupon!), bananas and bread. I also bought a six-pack of Coke Zero because it costs as much as that box of pierogies and mama needed (Nay, deserved!) some coke.

In the end, I was only able to use 15 of my 20 coupons (some didn’t ring up, and for others buying off-brand was cheaper than brand-name with a coupon). My mega deal was getting $6 off a bag of Starbucks coffee.

Total Spent: $123.95 for a week’s worth of food. I also have a Target card, so I swiped that for an additional savings of $6.20, bringing my total to $116.80.

The Winner

Altogether, the final totals came to: 
Aldi and HyVee=$103.16 
Target with 15 coupons=$116.80

It’s close, but if you add in the nine hours of coupon cutting at my freelance rate of about $20 an hour (yes, it did cut into my work. When you’re freelance, every minute matters!), that’s an additional $180 added onto the Target shopping. And even if I only cut coupons during my off work hours, when I’m with my daughter, that means that we can’t do things like go to story time, or the park or play in the backyard. And that time? It’s priceless.

What about the evenings? Forget it. The few hours I have are spent with my husband (don’t forget about him), or catching up on work. So all those nine hours cut directly into work time.

My verdict: Extreme couponing isn’t for me. I would much rather take that time and put it into writing another article, or landing another client.

But, I’m not giving up on coupons altogether. I am definitely searching Target’s coupon hub before every trip. This last trip I needed some cleaning solution, Ziplocs, trash bags and shampoo. Using Target’s coupons, I saved $20 all told.

So I guess I’d say -- in moderation it’s fine. But extreme couponing? It’s definitely not my schtick.

Reprinted with permission from LearnVest. Want more?

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