Thursday, June 30, 2011

An Adventure in Moderate Couponing

I don’t have time to watch much tv. When I do watch, I try to make it count with a quality show like Modern Family or The Good Wife.  But a couple weeks ago, I accidentally found myself immersed in an episode of Extreme Couponing on TLC.  Have you seen this show?  People with apparent OCD spend dozens of hours a week cutting coupons and scouring sales to get as many groceries as possible free, or close to it.  Part of me wanted to argue with these folks and question whether their savings on cat food and shaving gel are worth the value of the time they spent couponing, time they could have spent with their families, or searching for/doing paid work.  This same part of me noted that for all their carts full of stuff, they seemed to buy very little “real food.”  Most of their coupon-discounted loot consisted of toiletry items and processed foods, no produce or fresh meat.  And as a general rule, shopping at several different grocery stores to save a few pennies doesn’t make much sense when considering the cost of gas.

But the competitive part of me wanted to try this couponing thing for myself.

As a lawyer, the notion of the billable hour is deeply ingrained in my psyche.  I value my time and try, most days, to use that time efficiently.  Time spent with my family is priceless, but beyond that, anything --- house-cleaning, cooking, yard work, home repairs, running errands --- has economic value, at least in terms of opportunity cost.  So to the extent that a particular chore or activity is worth my implicit hourly rate, I do it; when it’s not, I either don’t do it at all, or I outsource it to a pro who can complete the job more efficiently while I focus on something else.

In short, spending 30-40 hours/week researching coupons and sales in an effort to get $200 of “free” groceries is not worth my time.

One woman’s comment on the show resonated with me, however.  She said that not using easily accessible coupons is like throwing away money.  I don’t like to throw away money. 

So I decided to dip my toe in the couponing pool.  While at the store, I noted a huge promotion on Lean Cuisine entrees.  They were 10 cents off the regular price of $1.88, plus, if you bought 10, you got to use an in-store $6 coupon.  Then, at checkout, the register printed off another coupon for $2.25 off every four Lean Cuisines purchased. I like Lean Cuisines, and on days when I’m working at home, they make a quick and portion-controlled lunch.  And these coupons and promotions were clearly a sign.  So I went home and found additional Lean Cuisine coupons online at sites like Coupon Mom.  On my next regular shopping trip, I went back to the store with my manufacturers’ coupons, stacked those on top of the register coupons, in-store coupons, and sale price, and ultimately, I scored thirty Lean Cuisines for a total of less than $3!  That’s less than 10 cents a piece, or about 95% off the normal retail price.  I was quite proud of myself.  And my extra freezer was happy to have some guests:

Part of my Lean Cuisine "stockpile"
Of course, I then spent way more than my saved $53 online at the Mini Boden Fall Preview Sale (the purple, owl-embroidered skirt was a must-have for my purple-and-owl loving pre-schooler!), although I did use a 20%-off coupon there, too.

I doubt I’ll master the art of extreme couponing.  But I am promising myself to be more vigilant about planning meals around the weekly circulars, making my shopping list in advance, spending a few minutes online collecting and organizing coupons for those items, and most importantly, remembering to give the cashier my coupons at checkout.  I figure an extra 10 minutes of planning a week could translate into significant savings.  That is time well spent.

How do you use coupons efficiently?  And do you have any tips for a novice couponer? 

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