Using Coupons and Rebates

by Jonni McCoy

Coupons can be helpful for saving money. We just need to use them wisely, and not let the coupon direct us. I have noticed that coupons usually are for a convenience food that I can make myself or do without. Rarely do you see a coupon for meat, bread, or milk. With a coupon, I am tempted to buy something that I normally would not buy-just because I have a coupon. When I am tempted by a coupon to buy an item, I ask myself three questions: 1) do I need it? 2) can I buy it cheaper in another brand? 3) can I make it cheaper?

It's important to compare prices of the namebrand item with the coupon to the price of the same item in an off-brand without a coupon. The name-brand item plus a coupon may still cost more than the off-brand item at regular price. And the off brand items are not inferior in most cases. Actually, many off-brand items are name brand items bought at a discount (surplus) and then relabeled.

A good sale matched with a coupon can be a good deal. And it could be even a greater deal if a store offers double coupons and has a sale at the same time. But, beware of this trap. Most stores offering double or triple coupons have higher prices on most of their groceries. They have to recover the cost of those extra coupons somewhere. I usually just purchase the items that I have good coupons for, and take the rest of my list somewhere else.

Take advantage of the coupon books mailed out by stores. These stores hope to draw you in with your entire week's grocery list. If you just buy the coupon items, you can save big. Remember to take the rest of your list to the cheapest store nearby. With these coupon books, I stock up on the cereals, soups, and other items. Each time I use a store's coupon book, I get $30-$40 taken off at the register.

You can maximize your savings if you use a manufacturer's coupon at the same time as you use a store coupon. It is legal to do this since one is issued by the store and the other by the food manufacturer.

Rebates can also be good, especially if matched with a sale and coupons. You have heard stories of how someone only spent $20 for $120 worth of groceries by combining coupons, sales and rebates. It can be done, but this usually is a rare event. There are avid rebate fans who spend up to 20 hours per week reading rebate newsletters, clipping, mailing, and filing grocery receipts and proof of purchase seals. I can't help but repeat myself - would I buy these things anyway? And it would be cheaper (and take less time) to shop sales and cook more from scratch.

Places to find "good" coupons are the Sunday newspapers, local library coupon exchange boxes, and local coupon clubs. If your library doesn't have an exchange box, ask if you can start one. Another good way to get coupons of high value is to write a note of appreciation (or complaint) to the manufacturer of a product you use. They usually send several valuable coupons for my trouble.

Once you have some coupons, keep them in a small portable filing system. I file by food category (snack, breakfast, side dish, vegetable, dessert, household items, baby). Some people file alphabetically or by expiration date. Whatever the method, keep them with you when you shop.

Some people are opposed to using coupons under any circumstances. Their reasons vary. The most common complaint is that coupons increase the price of food since the manufacturer must recover the costs somewhere. This is a valid concern. But boycotting coupons will not drive the prices back down again. A good example of this is a recent marketing strategy by Proctor and Gamble. Many people have written asking them to stop issuing coupons and lower their prices instead. They did stop issuing coupons, but (as of this writing) they have not lowered any prices. Many manufacturers won't drop coupons for that reason. They are concerned if they drop coupons and lower prices, the retail stores will absorb the lower cost and not pass it on to you. They feel a coupon is the only way to pass the savings directly to you.

Other reasons for avoiding coupons involve the purpose of coupons. Some think coupons are for first-time buyers only, issued to convince you to try a product. To clarify the intent and purpose of coupons, I wrote to three of the largest food manufacturers (General Mills, Kellogg's, and Nabisco) and asked their intent when coupons are issued. They said coupons are for both newcomers as well as repeat buyers. This makes sense since coupons are put inside food packages. Only a repeat buyer could use that coupon. The food manufacturers consider coupons an advertising medium. If coupons were outlawed, they would take that cost and convert it into another form of advertising.

Overall, I do not encourage an excessive emphasis on coupons. There are coupon clubs and subscriber services for coupons. I think you eventually lose with these. The real savings is following the lowest price-whether that is a sale or an off-brand. Occasionally that lowest price may be the use of a coupon plus a sale. Then it is to your advantage. But I think we have been lead to believe there is a pot of gold to be found, if we use enough coupons. Remember that they, along with several other things, are just tools to help you get to your savings goal.

To illustrate this point, let me tell you about a shopping competition that I was in. I was invited to be a guest on The Gayle King Show, a TV talk show. I was there to compare my shopping style with another "grocery expert". The other expert was the creator of the Coup-O-Dex coupon filing system (a Rolodex made for coupons that rests on the grocery cart's handle). He believed in using coupons for every thing that he could. I was assigned a family to plan and shop for, and he did the same. We both shopped and met at the checkout counter (with cameras following our every move). When he checked out, he had $46 worth of coupons taken off his bill, leaving him with a final food bill of $72.00. When I checked out, I had no coupons, but my food bill was only $49.00. The main difference was that he bought prepackaged items that were easy to make and that he had a coupon for. I stuck to my philosophy of watching unit prices and making most of my meals from scratch.

Jonni McCoy is an author, speaker and columnist. Her books include Miserly Moms - Living On One Income In A Two Income Economy, and Frugal Families - Making The Most Of Your Hard Earned Money. Visit her website at This material is copyrighted.

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