Busting the myths: Why coupons are a valuable part of your financial arsenal

I was a deal seeker long before I ever became a mom. Why? Well, it began as a fun hobby. Scoring designer clothing at 90% off retail was just plain satisfying, and finding freebies in the mailbox always brightened my day.

But that all changed in 2002 when I found myself jobless and 7-1/2 months pregnant with my first child. My husband was a first year pipefitters’ apprentice earning about $9 an hour, and my high-paying job was our bread and butter. We managed for a few months on my severance and unemployment, but when we found out I was pregnant again only three months after our first boy was born, we knew that finding a job was not in the cards and that drastic measures were called for.

This was when I discovered the Grocery Game. I wish I could say it immediately transformed our finances, but I made every rookie mistake in the book. I didn’t truly understand how to use coupons, and I wound up purchasing only the cheapest items from the stores I shopped at. I was every coupon myth/misconception/excuse embodied in one. Perhaps you’re under many of the same false impressions:

Myth: Using coupons screams to the world that I’m broke.

Reality: At first I was a little embarrassed to hand over that huge stack of coupons at the checkout, but I quickly leaned there’s no reason to be ashamed of using coupons! On the contrary, coupon users are savvy shoppers looking to stretch their budgets. In fact, here’s an interesting fact: Consumers in the under-$25,000-per-year income bracket are the least likely to use coupons. The average coupon user is between the ages of 25-34 and earns between $25,000 and $100,000 per year.

Myth: I can’t find coupons for the items I purchase.

Reality: Unless you never need to purchase deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, coffee, frozen veggies, yogurt, and on and on, I assure you that you can find a coupon for your purchase. And if you think finding these coupons is difficult, you’re wrong. I challenge you to flip through any Sunday newspaper coupon insert or do a quick printable coupon search and tell me that you don’t find at least a few coupons for products that you use regularly.

Myth: You can’t be brand loyal and save money.

Reality: I am very brand loyal in some cases. It’s true that throwing brand loyalty out the window may garner you bigger savings in the long run, but you can remain brand loyal and still save significantly. The key is to learn how to stockpile your favorite brands. When you can pair a coupon with a rock bottom price, buy enough to last you until the next big deals rolls around. This is when buying multiple Sunday papers really pays off, but if you need additional coupons, you might also consider purchasing them from a coupon clipping service.

J.D.’s note: I’m a recent convert to stockpiling, though I only do it for select items that I really really love. I haven’t managed to combine coupons with stockpiling yet, though.

Myth: Coupons cause you to buy things you might not purchase otherwise.

Reality: This was the biggest mistake I made starting out, but I quickly learned to be very deliberate in my purchases. That’s not to say that I never make purchases that I might not have otherwise, but that doesn’t directly translate into spending more money overall. Coupons are a fantastic way to try new products or brands at ultra low prices. They’re also a useful tool for helping others in need. Often you can purchase toiletries for free or even better than free by pairing a coupon with a loyalty program. Perhaps you don’t need these items yourself, but you could consider donating them to a church or shelter to bless those in need.

Myth: Buying generic is always cheaper.

Reality: If you have an immediate need for a product, store brands can certainly be cheaper. However, one of the key principles of saving with coupons is based on not only buying products when you need them, but on purchasing them when you can get them at the lowest price by pairing a coupon and sale. Name brands are almost always cheaper than their generic counterparts at some point, so by using the “buy ahead” principle, you can stock up on your favorite brands for much less than generic products.

Myth: I can save more shopping at warehouse clubs.

Reality: Shopping warehouse clubs definitely plays a role in my grocery budget, but I utilize our warehouse trips to stock up on meats, baking products, and occasionally produce. Buying these items in bulk saves our family money; however, many of the other prepackaged items can be found for much less per unit by using the buy ahead principle I mentioned previously. Plus warehouse clubs are inherently set up to entice consumers into picking up items on the spur of the moment, so unless you shop very carefully according to a list, chances are you may walk out having spent significantly more than you intended.

Myth: Clipping and organizing coupons is time consuming and not worth the effort.

Reality: It’s true that the amount saved with coupons may directly correlate with the amount of preparation done before a shopping trip; however, the time-to-savings ratio just might surprise you. Chances are there’s a blog that covers the coupon matchups for your favorite store out there, so all you have to do is prep your coupons and list. Clipping, filing, and preparing a shopping list may take you about an hour a week, but that hour of your time could net you a 50, 60, even 70% or more savings on your grocery bill. That’s like giving yourself an instant raise each week! And when you consider that it’s a task you could easily do while watching your favorite TV show, well, I’d say it’s time well spent.

Though it took a little effort, over the years I learned how to maximize my coupon usage. We’ve been through even tougher times since 2002, but through it all, coupons have remained a key tool in reducing our monthly budget. Do we need to use coupons these days? Perhaps not — there’s enough wiggle room in our finances that it’s not a must.

So why do we still use them? Simply because it frees up extra cash for things that we want. We now have no consumer debt outside of our mortgage, and we’ve increased the amount in our onlne savings account and have built a healthy emergency fund. We can take family vacations. We can pay cash for a new car. While I can’t attribute all of this solely to coupons — financial discipline and careful budgeting are obviously important factors as well — they definitely have a place in our money-saving arsenal.

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