Coupons: Money Makers or Cash Costers?

Lots of folks use coupons. They save you money, right? Sometimes. Manufacturers of retail items, with the exception of the U.S. auto industry, have typically been pretty smart. So they are not giving away the store. The idea behind coupons is to lure you to their products, or to create demand for new ones.

Photo: U-Haul Trucking Rental

I seldom use coupons because they are usually for stuff I don’t need, stuff that’s overpriced to begin with, or “foods” that are bad for me.

The Consumer Gal and I enjoy tea. My wife especially likes herbal teas. I recently came across a one-dollar coupon in the Sunday newspaper for Celestial Seasonings tea. When I saw that my supermarket “club” card price gave a dollar discount, I piled on my coupon and got the $2.99 box of tea for one buck.

On the other hand, I have a one-dollar coupon for “WhoNu?” cookies. It’s a new line of cookies from Suncore Products. They‘re marketed as a nutrition-rich treat, containing fiber, protein, nutrients, yada, yada, yada. My Consumer Guy curiosity (and my sweet tooth) has gotten the best of me. So I will take that tooth to the market and check it out. But here is the caveat. I’ll check the after-coupon price. If I’m not going to save a buck compared to my normal gamut of after-dinner, low-fat goodies, I ain’t buying. And I’m not sure that WhoNus are low in fat.

The primary source of food in our home is Trader Joe’s. Excellent prices and a great array of healthful, vegetarian items are why. TJ sells a huge percentage of stuff bearing its own brand, which allows it to keep prices down. As for name brands, TJ accepts coupons.

We rarely buy foodstuffs we wouldn’t ordinarily buy just because we have coupons. If you don’t stick to that commitment, you could be in for a world of financial hurt. (Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration.)

If I can buy a can of beans at TJ or Safeway that bears the stores’ labels and pay 89 cents for them, but I can get 25 cents off a can of S&W beans with a coupon, which way should I go? That depends. If the S&W beans cost a dollar with the coupon, you know which way I’m going. But if you simply like the taste of the S&W’s better, enjoy yourself! Of course, coupons don’t only apply to grocery items. I collect coupons for restaurants from the Sunday paper. On occasion I buy a Groupon. But I make it a point never to do so for a restaurant or other establishment where I would not otherwise be spending my money (unless I’m interested in trying a new place.

I have about 150 old LP and cassette music albums (for the youngsters out there, they are ancient forms of recorded albums from the days before CDs came along). Kohl’s was selling a device that allows listeners to play their LPs and cassettes and to record them onto CDs. It cost almost $170, a very good sale price. But for each $50 spent, Kohl’s issued the consumer $10 in Kohl’s Cash, which is essentially a coupon. So, with my $30in Kohl’s Cash I bought a $25 plush bathrobe and a $12 pair of slippers – both on sale (of course). They came to about 40 bucks, including sales tax. I ended up forking over only $10 out of pocket for stuff I needed. By the way, man, I’m really diggin’ listenin’ to my old vinyls and trippin’ back to the days when most of rock was real music.

That’s the upside of coupons. Here are some downers:

  • They induce us to buy junk foods and beverages like potato chips, candy, soda and juice drinks;
  • They induce us to buy additional stuff we don’t need or really want;
  • And, according to financial journalist Faroosh Torabi (www.farnoosh.tv) using coupons often seduces us into spending the money we saved, and more, on other stuff. In the September 1, 2011 issue of Bottom Line Personal¸ she refers a Harvard Business School study that show online shoppers who use a $10 coupon tend to spend $1.59 more than those who don’t use the coupon.
  • Bed Bath and Beyond offers 20 percent off coupons which are frequently a great deal. But you need to compare the pre-coupon price of what you’re buying. While some stuff at BBB is priced well, I have also seen items there for two or three times the price I have seen at Target or Costco.

Here’s something else to watch out for – coupon web sites. I find that frequently they offer coupons good at vendor web sites, which are nothing more than the same offer already available from the vendors. I just ordered a ladder from the Home Depot site that was selling for $168. I checked with several coupon sites. They offered me free-shipping coupons for Home Depot on products that cost at least $45. That’s the exact same deal that Home Depot was offering with no coupon requirement. The best way to get the best price on a particular item is to use one of the discount price comparison sites like Buy.com, ebates.com, or one of the many others. I bought the special- order ladder from Home Depot’s web site because there is a Home Depot store near my home and I can return it there if it doesn’t meet my expectations. Plus, they deliver it right to my house.

In summary, a coupon is only a bargain if it’s for something you already want and you can’t get another, equivalent item for less.

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