FREAK Shots: Time to Break Out the Valpak?

Not surprisingly, coupons are making a comeback recently — and some shoppers claim they’re cutting their grocery bills in half, reports National Public Radio.

But why had coupons been less popular in the first place?

For many, they weren’t worth the effort, according to one study published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies (gated), which found that 40 percent of those who used coupons didn’t end up saving enough to make up for lost gathering time.

Canadian researchers Jennifer Argo and Kelley Main suggest in their paper (gated) that others in a checkout line perceive a coupon-user as being cheap, to the point where the stigma rubs off on anyone associating with that person.

Right now, saving money likely trumps concerns about being called a cheapskate and wasting time; but another study, reported in Money magazine, says that coupons often help you spend more than you save. (Indeed, businesses promote the coupon as a valuable revenue booster.)

So the question is: when is it worth it to clip (or download)?

Blog reader Doug Orleans sends in another marketing tool masked as money-saver from a Louisville, Ky., bar:



My grandmother was a couponer. She took all of her coupon savings in cash back. All "savings" were then donated to a charity, usually the ARC. I don't recall the amount of annual coupon donation, perhaps a couple hundred.

Ben Collier

What is largely being ignored may be the spillover psychological effects of coupon clipping. Someone who begins taking the painstaking time to clip coupons often finds themselves "priming" their own minds for low cost purchasing and curtailing impulse shopping. The process also enables buyers to come in with a "buy from the list" mentality, discouraging unneeded purchases, and imposing switching costs for comparable brands.


It's very likely that a lot of the people who were clipping coupons a generation ago have switched to other means of saving money. The coupons in the paper are for name brands; many shoppers have switched to store brands that are cheaper even after the coupon. Additionally, some grocery chains offer deeper discounts on their store brands with the use of loyalty cards. We still clip some coupons, but most of the coupons in the paper go back to my husband's job so that people who need products we have no use for (such as pet food or baby items) can get the benefit of them.


Coupons are not as good a deal as they used to be. (1) As pointed out above, coupons now often involve purchasing multiple units. (2) Expiration dates used to be for at least 1 year, now they are much shorter, decreasing the expected payoff of clipping and making it harder to coordinate a coupon with a product that you want to buy anyway.

Note: where my sister lives, there is a grocery store that has its employees cut out coupons and then tape them onto products, so that anyone going through the store can access them at will. I suspect that manufactures are not impressed by that strategy.


Combining coupon use with a careful shopping list yields considerable savings. I once timed myself clipping that weeks coupons, filing them, studying the supermarket sales circulars and making a shopping list heavy with that weeks sale items. Of course, I tried to buy items on sale WITH a coupon! Total time required-48 minutes. The subsequent shopping trip yielded more than 50% savings over the usual non-sale prices, or a savings of $32 dollars

Are most people in America so highly paid that they usually earn over $40 dollars per hour TAX FREE?


I'm a born-and-bred "cherry picker", largely because we had no alternatives when I was growing up. Mom was trying to feed seven people on less than $60 a week. If you could combine a 40¢ coupon, a slight sale, and a triple coupon day to get a small tube of toothpaste for 10 cents (actual purchase), then that was much better than having no toothpaste. Once (1987) we completely filled two large grocery carts full of personal care products, cleaning supplies, and food; it was more than 80% off regular price by the time all was said and done. (We also didn't have to buy any kind of cleaning supplies for more than a year.)

We didn't buy the paper to get coupons: several neighbors dropped theirs off for us. Consequently, our cash costs were zero.

Does it take time to do this? Yes. However, it took relatively little of *Mom's* time, since anyone old enough to wield a pair of scissors could be assigned to clipping coupons, and anyone that could read could sort out expired coupons and organize the others.

Now, I get the newspaper anyway. Flipping through the coupons takes me less than one minute, and it's frequently accomplished while I'm doing something else. Cutting out the few coupons that I want and checking expiration dates takes about another minute. I have a simple filing system; using the coupons is about as much hassle as taking in canvas bags (5¢ credit each).

I'm also in a place that's never heard of "double coupon" days, much less "triple coupon" days. Furthermore, the coupons are usually for things that I wouldn't buy even if they were practically free. I pull coupons for deodorant, shampoo, paper products, and very occasionally for food (tortillas, pasta, cheese, orange juice, ice cream). But coupons for staples (flour, meat, fresh produce, non-sugar cereal) are almost non-existent. We don't usually eat "box mix" or "convenience" products, and the coupons that run in the paper don't happen to be for real food.

At this time, coupon-based shopping probably saves me less than two dollars a week. If I had to choose between "loss leader" sales and coupons, I'd definitely choose the sales.



It seems like coupons aren't worth the effort due to the time spent gathering them. But what if they're online coupons? Surely, the amount of time to get coupons goes down when done online?

Speaking of which, I've been using to find discounts on Amazon myself.

Sherry SW FL

Remember the "double coupon" days of the early 80's. If there is one thing that can be done to cheer up our sad, depressed society BRING BACK THE DOUBLE COUPON DAYS!!! It was an art. It was a science. It was a rush...and I loved it. I started with a little coupon file, then graduated to a plastic file made for canceled checks and eventually graduated to 2. I clipped, I plotted, I planned and then went on the attack. What a adrenaline rush to find an item on sale or clearance then get double coupons and get the item for next to nothing. Sometimes I actually made money and they paid me back. It was work, it took organization but the thrill was worth it. Hey McCain, Hey want my vote....PROMISE US YOU WILL BRING BACK THE DOUBLE COUPON DAYS!!!


I use coupons and discounts any time I can. They're not much of a hassle, in my opinion.

Fortunately, the food co-op I frequent has a regular coupon book. That keeps me focused on products I'm most likely to buy and, thus, less wasteful of my time.

If I only had access to the coupons in the newspaper I would rarely use them, as they are primarily for products I don't consume or use.


Joe #13, most coupons have expiration dates. I'll bet most coupons that follow that marketing trend expire before the prices are lowered.

steve pesce #12, I agree completely.

Fred Gomberg

I like to get coupons, but I like getting a free sample better. How about getting a coupon with a free sample attached. This way I can try the product and if I like it I can buy my first one at a discount. Who would not like that situation. This takes all of the risk out of buying a new flavor of a product.

Posted by Fred G.


i've found that at Kroger i can "use" the coupons they give you when you check out without actually buying the products... the cashiers dont seem to mind...

Wendy, Columbia, MD

Coupons worked when they were for the brands and food I was buying. Now they only tempt me to buy things that I wouldn't otherwise. The time and effort in recycling the rest of the Sunday paper (I get my news online) isn't worth what I was saving from the coupons.

In the end it's about if the amount of money you save exceeds the value of the time/effort you spent to save it-- for me there just isn't.


I have to agree with the coupon "nay-sayers", for the most part. Most of the coupons I see in the Sunday paper are for products that are expensive - and may not taste better, either. (Some product coupons make sense.)

I would disagree with #1 commenter Nancy, though. You don't have a moral leg up just because you buy "Amish milk", etc. And for most people, buying just what you will cook in the next couple of days just isn't practical.


... wonders where he can buy a gallon of beer for

Kyle S

When our daughter was born, somehow we got on a mailing list from Simulac, who sent us baby formula coupons of not insignificant dollar amount. We were able to sell these on eBay for a fairly high percentage of the coupon face value (e.g. a 8 dollar off coupon might get six bucks on eBay). It was like waking up and finding a (small) check in your mailbox every couple days.

If you search eBay for coupons, you'll quickly find out there's quite a market for them.


Consumerist had a story a while back on optimal coupon strategy. Turns out coupons are typically deployed in coordination with a marketing roll-out for a product. Prices for many items actually go up with the release of a coupon, then back down 30 to 60 days later. Best strategy is clip 'em and save 'em a month or two.


#2/DJH -- If people started riding horse and buggy again, we'd talk about the "comeback" of the horse and buggy, regardless of the fact that the Amish have continued to use them all along.

I have to go with #4. Coupons aren't worth the hassle. $.50 to look for it, cut it out, and then buy something I probably wouldn't have really bought anyway (and which is probably at a higher price in the first place). I'll pass.

Then again, if they have the books at the front of the store, I'll at least flip through to see if there is something I was going to buy anyway.

jeff b.

I have mixed feelings about coupons. Last year after our baby was born, I decided I was going to be mr. frugal and be a coupon freak. After a short time, I decided it was not worth it for a number of reasons:

1. I wasted $1.50 on the sunday paper just to get coupons (I get my news from the internet) which often led to our small place being even messier.

2. I wasted time on clipping and organizing coupons for stuff I might or might not want (we had so many I would forget to use or lose and sometimes the product that I had a coupon wasn't even in my grocery store)

3. The deals were often not that great or required to buy excessive amounts of a product (and we live in a small place)

In the end, I decided I would save more money by not buying stuff we didn't really need because of a coupon. I feel about coupon clipping the way I feel about sam's club - it's good if you have a house full of teenagers you need to feed, and it's not that important what it is. I still occasionally use coupons that come in the mail or on the receipt of our store and I find the preferred card savings at our grocery store is often a great deal.


steve pesce

Coupons are the grocery store's way of making you buy more. It's a known fact that coupons raise the amounts purchased. They're a sales ploy.