I got an email from Linda yesterday and I want to share it here, because I know some of you might be able to relate to how she’s feeling. Here’s an excerpt (with her permission, of course):
I see on Facebook or even when you watch extreme couponer, toilet paper, paper towels, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, cans of soup, frozen food items, etc., etc., etc.,
People show on Facebook a picture that they just went shopping and look at the deals they just got. I look at it and my first reaction is that is great then I look closer and I am like where did they do this? Where did they get those coupons, because I don’t have them, what am I missing in coupons? I get the Sunday paper plus sometimes in the mail on Wednesday you get smart source. I get papers at dollar tree and I have a friend that gives me theirs too.
I have my whole binder very organized and I feel that when I can only get great deals on laundry detergent what am I missing? People getting single paper towels for .25 how? Packages of toilet paper for a dollar? No less they are name brands! Tooth paste free!
I don’t get it.
Linda, I think there is a combination of things happening here, so let me separate them out.
Inaccurate and/or Misleading Information
Shows such as Extreme Couponing have sparked the curiosity of people who had no idea savings rates on groceries like that were possible. You definitely get a shock factor as coupon mavens leave a store with a haul worth hundreds having only paid pennies. However, these shows rarely explain exactly what is going on. This is a disservice for the people would benefit most by learning how couponing really works.
- The big savings rate may be the result of a handful of deals repeated over and over versus realistic weekly shopping trips.
- Coupons may have been obtained via unethical practices, such as online clipping sites and auctions.
- Some of the practices depicted have been shown to have been fraudulent.
I actually wrote a post not too long ago called “I Can’t Do it Like Extreme Couponing,” and I highly recommend you pop over there for additional thoughts I had on this very topic.
Blogs and websites (including this one!) also sometimes highlight an exceptional shopping trip to demonstrate the power of combining shopping and sales. But this should never be taken to mean that these are the kind of trips all couponers do all of the time. For most of us, that sort of crazed deal shopping is unrealistic and unsustainable. This is why I’ve made an effort to share some of my more realistic shopping trips as well as my best ones. Consider someone who loves fishing. They don’t take pictures of all the small fish they catch (or worse, the days they catch nothing). No, they proudly photograph themselves with the “big one” they caught. I truly think that’s what happens in the couponing world a fair amount of the time.
The Reality of Couponing
There is an elephant in the room that I don’t see many coupon bloggers addressing outright, but I’ll do so and get it out there.
It would appear that over the past few years some of the awesome sales, coupons, and offerings have declined. There could be a number of factors why this is the case (for instance, rising grocery costs, coupon fraud, etc.), but it definitely seems to be true. For instance, this year I failed to see a strong Quaker oatmeal sale in January as I have in years past. I’ve also noticed some coupons have been appearing less and less frequently in the inserts and online (Huggies coupons, anyone?). And more and more coupons are now adding stuff in the fine print that wasn’t there before (such as P&G’s “limit 4 like coupons” remark on their coupons). I also had a very candid conversation with a major food manufacturer last year who indicated to me that they have reduced offering coupons in direct response to their being misused.
I don’t say this to discourage you, but I feel it necessary to be honest that the coupon climate seems to have cooled off a bit over the last year or so and it’s good to go into this with a realistic expectation of how much you can save. If you’re working to eat more whole foods and produce or you have some other specialty diet, you probably need to lower that expectation even a bit more.
How you can improve your couponing
Given that, let me share some tips for improving your results with couponing (and doing so ethically and sensibly!):
- Pay attention to drugstores like Rite Aid and Walgreens. Generally speaking, there are freebies nearly every week! If you’re not sure where to start, check out my blog each Friday night. We post coupon matchups here for both of those stores, showing you exactly where those freebies are. (And yes, we have shared FREE name-brand toothpaste many, many times on those posts.)
- Find out who in your area doubles (if anyone). If you live in Western Washington, Albertsons is just about it. You can find freebies nearly every time Albertsons offers twice the value coupons.
- Start following a few coupon blogs. You can follow them on Facebook, subscribe to them, or as I like to do – follow them in Google Reader! This way you can quickly search for deals that matter to you. I wrote a post once on how to find frugal blogs for your area or preferences.
- Learn how store sales cycles work. I save more from following store sales versus using coupons.
- Attend a coupon class. If you’re local – I have one May 30th! Any good coupon instructor should be able to walk you through the process of saving, step by step. It may be helpful to hear someone in person.
- Start tracking your savings. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. For this reason, I encourage you to track your spending and savings for one month – see what coupons and store sales are actually saving you. You might be pleasantly surprised!
I want to stress here that coupons are only part of the savings equation. This is why I spend a lot of time talking about topics like gardening, buying food in bulk, making your own items from scratch, and meal planning. I also believe in a realistic, sensible approach to using coupons. My family of four spends $400/month now on groceries through the combination of strategies mentioned above.
Finally, I want you to know that there are a number of ways people approach couponing, and that’s OK! Many of my readers ONLY use coupons for health, beauty, and household items so they can free up their budgets for buying grass fed beef and organic produce. Others will do the crazy sales (such as Albertsons twice the value promotions) for their stock-up items and then fill in the rest the best they can. Others plan their meals around coupon deals, while others still will only use coupons in a blue moon instead opting to save money in other ways.
I would love for my coupon buds out there to offer some additional thoughts, encouragement, or advice for Linda. Do you feel that shows like Extreme Couponing (or even blogs) misrepresent how much coupons can really save you? How have you worked to improve your couponing?