There’s a new trend on the horizon in budgeting groceries. Thanks to TLC’s new show, the craze of extreme couponing has really started to pick up in popularity. Couponing is great – you can combine coupons with sale prices and some stores will double the coupons which results in steeply discounted prices and the ability to really store up a good stockpile for a rainy day.
There is another side to it, however. I’ve been following the extreme couponing movement for a few years now, and I think after watching it for this time and couponing a little myself I can say there are some drawbacks that we need to educate ourselves about if we want to start going down that route.
The Quality of Food
If you start to follow the couponing deals, you may notice something. Many (though not all) of the extreme deals where you walk out with products for free or practically nothing, are deals on foods that are really not that healthy. Toaster pastries, sugar cereals, sweetened granola bars, tubes of sugary “kids” yogurt, frozen convenience foods full of MSG & sodium, and lots of other snack type foods are pretty much the majority there. I personally am not opposed to buying these foods on occasion, but I don’t feel that they really belong in the consistent rotation of what I feed my family. When I am making my shopping list, I don’t want to throw out healthy eating for the sake of budgeting groceries and saving some money.
There are coupons available for healthy foods – flour, rice, canned vegetables, juice, even produce and dairy occasionally – but they are not as common and are not usually the steep discounted deals where you walk away with 10 bags of flour for 20¢ each.
This is only part of it, however – food is only about half of what people use coupons for. You can get some pretty steep discounts on toiletries, cleaning products and other household items, and this can be a boon if you aren’t brand specific. I personally don’t care which brand of paper towels I get, and I’m pretty flexible with my shampoo & conditioner. Many of us are on the path of making a lot of these products ourselves, but most of us are not able to “do it all,” so being able to get these items for a lot less money can really make a big difference in budgeting groceries.
The Time Spent
Couponing to an extreme level takes a significant amount of time. I’ve done a little of the extreme variety here and there and I always liked the results but the time spent is a frustration to me. Many couponers seem to really enjoy this part, and so for those of you who really do have fun finding the matchups, printing and cutting your coupons, planning out your trip, it’s no big deal. But for those of us who find it a necessary evil, it can be frustrating to spend several hours trying to get everything put together and planned for a trip.
You wouldn’t really think it takes that much time, and there are many websites out there that do a lot of the matchup work for you. You can do internet searches for sites from your local area which are always the most helpful. But depending on how in-depth you go with this, it can take a lot of time to plan it out so your trip goes smoothly. I find that when I just try to go through my pile and pull out coupons on products that I happen to need that week, it takes about 15-20 minutes. But if I try to really maximize the deals and go to an extreme level, it’s not unusual for it to take several hours to plan it all out.
The Hidden Costs
There’s also quite a few hidden costs to couponing. Sometimes this gets a little glossed over so let’s just go over a few of them. Some of these may be a barrier to you, and some may not.
- The Gas Cost. This is a bigger barrier to me, since I live out in the mountains and it’s at least a 20 minute drive into town. I can’t just pop into town and get the latest great deal on a few tubes of toothpaste, because it already costs me over $6 in gas to make the round trip. I have put together an Excel spreadsheet which may help you calculate how much gas it costs you to go to the various stores that you do, especially if they are all spread out. You can download the spreadsheet here. Essentially, you enter your current gas price, your MPG that you get, and the miles driven to and from you stores. It calculates how much it costs to go from your home to any store, or from point A to point B. I’ve also found it handy when I’m thinking about driving somewhere unusual and want to know how much it will cost in gas.
- The Newspaper Cost. Sunday papers can be pretty expensive these days. Mine costs $2.50, so if I am going to get a paper for the purpose of having coupons, I need to know if there are going to be coupons in that paper that will make the cost worthwhile, and I need to know that they are coupons that I will use before they expire regardless of if I find an “extreme deal” on them or not. If you can get a subscription, sometimes it’s cheaper – we have a local deal for multiple papers which end up costing only $1 apiece which is a great deal. Additionally, some dollar stores sell Sunday papers for $1 each, so you may luck out with that as well.
- The Printing Cost. Printing coupons is really not that expensive, but it is an expense we should consider. Particularly, if you use an inkjet printer, the cost of the ink can become a serious expense. Since I can’t get the newspaper where I live, I do print a lot of coupons and so I opted for investing in a laser printer (I also print a lot of coloring sheets for my kids). It may or may not be worthwhile for you to so, but you should take an accurate idea that each coupon printed does have a cost attached to it, however minor that cost may be. Be selective about which coupons you print – I try to print only those coupons that I will use even if I do not see a phenomenal deal, because they are products that I will use.
- The Time Cost. I know I touched on this above a little, but I wanted to reiterate that the time cost is something you need to consider. Or perhaps we should call it the “Opportunity Cost.” Extreme Couponing takes a significant amount of time that you could be spending doing other things. Consider this: How many of these items that you could potentially buy are items that are simple, healthy, and easy to make? Case in point – why spend your time and money on boxed cereals (except for a special treat) when you can make your own healthy homemade granola for less? Sometimes it’s a better and easier bargain to buy the cereal, but not always. We just need to be mindful of the time we spend couponing, and the opportunity cost – what could you be doing around your home to save money in those hours that you might be spending planning out your shopping trips? Budgeting groceries is not always about spending less money at the store.
Couponing – A Great Way To Save
Couponing all around is a great way to save on your grocery budget. I personally use it to save a little here and there on items that I would normally buy, and I usually just stick with my local Winco store. Because I don’t really like to shop, I prefer to keep my sanity by only going to the one store as opposed to making trips to three or more stores to get all the bargains, and so I end up saving about 15% on top of their already low prices. My sister, on the other hand, loves shopping and she does great with couponing – she stocks up on a lot of food and gets some phenomenal deals and lots of free stuff. So obviously, your mileage may vary.
So if you are someone who is new to couponing, my only advice to you would be to not feel like you have to take it to an extreme level. There are many ways to save a lot when budgeting groceries that don’t involve spending all day shopping.
In my next post, I’ll talk about how I saved 30% on my grocery budget by reducing my trips to the grocery store to every other week.
Bethany is a stay-home mom of two (with one on the way!) who lives in the shadow of Mt Rainier, WA. She operates a personal blog at Uncle Dutch Farms and likes to write lengthy reviews on her favorite kitchen tools at The Homesteader Kitchen. She loves to write, garden, spend time in the kitchen (except for the doing dishes part), and thinks that all little girls should be able to ride around in a tractor.