Coupons – Friend or Foe?

This was originally posted on my old blog, Middle Class Poor.

Let’s start with a biggie. If you’re like me and have read a lot of frugal living books, you normally come across two distinct schools of thought.

School 1: Coupons are useless. You’ll never remember to use them or have them with you. They’ll make you spend money on products you wouldn’t normally buy, products which tend to be expensive and highly processed. They’re just a waste of time.

School 2: Using coupons is a necessity. Get every coupon you can find, from newspapers or the internet or store displays. Never buy anything unless you use a coupon for it. Take advantage of every sale plus coupon opportunity you can, and if you can’t use it or have too much of it, give your extra purchases to charity.

So which is right? Both of them. And both of them are wrong.

If you are too disorganized to keep your coupons clipped and sorted, and to remember to take them with you shopping, then any time you spend on them is a waste. Coupons won’t save you a dime if they are at home or if you can’t find the coupon you need in the crumpled wad in your purse or wallet.

But the idea that the only coupons around are ones for processed foods is dead wrong. We’ve all heard the mantra, haven’t we? “I’m not feeding my family that. You’d get more nutrition from the box.” That mindset ignores the dozens of coupons I have in my organizer for cleaners, household necessities like toilet paper, medicines, and toiletries. It also ignores the food items like condiments, rice and pasta mixes, cooking staples like sugar, flour, eggs, milk and spices, and sandwich meats. Coupons can be used for far more than the latest pricey frozen entree.

Coupons really can save you a lot of money, but only if used the right way. A lot of the advice you find for using coupons treats them as a hobby, especially when combined with sending in for refunds and rebates. Most of those tips are just far too time-consuming for most people.

So how do I use coupons? I collect and organize every coupon that I think I have a reasonable chance of using. Most couponers will tell you to grab everything because you never know when you might run across a great sale. But what are the odds I’ll want to use my limited dollars on some oddball product I’ve never used before, even at a great price? A sale is nice, if you have the extra money to indulge. But when my budget is on a razor’s edge, I’d rather spend my energy trying to save money on what I truly need to buy.

Next up, coupons versus store brands.

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