Saturday, January 9, 2010

I Coupon Clipped Your Way Through Law School So You Could Make a Difference, Not So You Could Be Neffler the Muffler Man!*

Nearly every day I have someone ask me if I think using coupons is actually worth it, to which I respond, usually. Coupons are a fickle friend, used correctly they are as cash, used incorrectly they are as good as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

From a manufacturer’s point of view, a coupon is simply a tiny advertisement you can carry around in your purse. If Kellogs has a new product, a coupon for it is released as an incentive to buy and try it, they hope you will love it so much you’ll pay full price from now on. Some products sell better at certain times of the year, and they want to remind you that they are still here, same as always, hence the surge of coupons for Campbells Cream of Mushroom Soup and Pillsbury Crescent Rolls around holiday time. It is not the goal of the manufacturer to save you money. If Campbells had their druthers you’d use a single Cream of Mushroom Soup coupon as a newlywed, love their soup and never buy any other kind of soup for the rest of your natural life.

The reality of the grocery coupon is that the products they advertise are rarely things you actually *need*. The manufacturers want you to believe that you cannot live without what they are selling to you. Coupons for things like milk, flour, and fresh produce and meats are few and far between, and when they do show up are typically for overpriced name-brands or store coupons, good for their generic version. We’ve all seen the television shows presenting a woman who feeds her family for free using thousands of coupons she carries around in a baseball card folio, but few people ever think what must be in her pantry. If processed foods make up 90% (my estimate) of the coupons out there and she is paying for groceries with coupons, her family’s diet must be made up almost entirely of canned produce, Chef Boyardee, and Hamburger Helper. It is possible to live off of that much high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oil, fat, salt, and sugar, but it is not a healthy life.

Buying balanced is the best way to ensure you are not choking your family’s diet with processed foods, and when used correctly grocery coupons are the absolute best way to supplement your budget. Healthy food is best, but sometimes free has to trump healthy.

Here are some Furiously Frugal tips for better coupon use:

1. Never use a coupon unless the item advertised is also on sale. If your going to spend any money at all on something that is not essential, make sure you are spending as little as possible. Using a coupon just to try something new is just playing into the manufacturer’s games!

2. Be flexible! Clip coupons for types of food you like, not specific brands! There are many different brands of every kind of processed food imaginable and all of them offer coupons. Don’t be afraid to try a new kind, to mix and match them, or to use them in as an ingredient in something else. A good example is pasta sauce. I currently have coupons for Ragu, Prego, Newman’s Own, Classico and Bertolli! If I can work my coupons to get a jar of this or that for less than a dollar, I throw it in the cart. I have been known to mix them together for better flavor, add a jar to some leftover homemade to stretch it, use it as pizza, ziti, or lasagna sauce, or as a dipping sauce for homemade cheese sticks.

3. Keep on the lookout for store coupons offering discounts on actually needed items like fresh fruits and vegetables, butcher meats (not deli or processed meats), and milk. These coupled with a store sale are the holy grail of coupons, because they happen so rarely.

4. ALMOST WITHOUT EXCEPTION, STORE COUPONS AND MANUFACTURERS COUPONS CAN BE USED FOR THE SAME ITEM AT THE SAME TIME! This is because a *store* coupon is essentially the same as a sale, the management has decided to offer a discount at their own loss to the consumer. A manufacturer’s coupon, however, is a discount offered by the manufacturer (duh), and the store management will bundle all of those coupons up at the end of the month and send them back to said manufacturer, who will then REIMBURSE the store management for the discounted price AND the cost of mailing the coupons to them. The store looses no money on manufacturer’s coupons!

5. Shop at stores that multiply coupons!  This depends on where you live, and my experience is that the more expensive the market (New York, Chicago, etc.) OR the less competitive the market, the fewer stores who multiply coupons. Call the stores in your area and ask if any of them multiply coupons, it can be worth it!

Let’s get a real-life example. Two weeks ago, one of my local grocery stores offered Classico pasta sauce as a loss-leader for $1.99 a jar. This is not an item I would normally buy as I can make a mean pasta sauce myself, but if I can get a good deal on it, a jar of pasta sauce and some generic dry pasta make a super fast and dirt cheap meal for Big Daddy to “cook” if I am out of pocket one evening. I had a manufacturer’s coupon for $.35 off one jar of Classico sauce. This particular store tripled coupons up to $.39, so my paltry coupon suddenly went from $.35 to $.1.05, bringing the price down to $.94. Even better, the store was offering its own coupon for $.50 of one jar of the same sauce, bringing my net price down to $.44 before tax.

Add a box of generic dried pasta for $1 and a head of lettuce for $1, and we have a quick and easy meal for 4 that even Big Daddy can handle that cost us a whopping $2.64. Even cheaper than Taco Bell!

*And if you’re wondering about that quote, you were clearly not a Girl Scout in the 80’s and missed out the single best piece of cinematic genius ever to be written about Scouts! Shelley Long, Craig T. Nelson, Carla Gugino, Tori Spelling, Kelly Martin, Cheech and Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley) at their best after the jump. You’re welcome!

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