This article is part of a package on coupons. Read the other article on Coupon Investing: How to Make $100,000 in a Decade.
I've been writing about money for nearly 10 years, and I've found that coupon advocates, in general, are a very protective bunch. I was recently critical of extreme couponing - Ã la the new TLC show with the same name - and, as expected, I got some unhappy feedback from readers.
My position was (and is) that if you're buying, say, 18 boxes of laundry detergent because you have a coupon, you've gone overboard. You may be buying more than what you need - which, in the end, is not smart spending. All things in moderation, right? Janet, a coupon devotee, responded via email and strongly disagreed. "You're wrong," she told me. "The fact that I have a stockpile of goods means more family vacations, healthy happy kids, and a mortgage that's paid off early."
But like it or not, there are some undeniable costs to coupons, especially when they're hunted down and used excessively.
Here's what research shows:
1. Most food-related coupons are unhealthy.
Couponers saved more than $3.7 billion in 2010 thanks to 50 cents off here and $1 off there. But most of those coupons went towards unhealthy products. We rarely see clip-and-save options for fruit, meat or organic foods. Instead, most coupons in the food category are for processed foods and snacks - otherwise known as "junk" food. The top 5 coupon categories compiled by CouponsInc.com in 2010 were:
- Ready-to-Eat Cereal
- Refrigerated Dough (e.g. cookie dough and biscuits)
- Portable Snacks (e.g. pudding cups, cookies and chips)
It's nice to see vegetables finally making the list. In the past they were nowhere to be found.
Why most food tied to coupons is unhealthy is a case of unfortunate economics. "Coupons are usually issued by big companies with deep pockets, because the setup of a coupon business is quite expensive," says Hemi Weingarten, founder and CEO of Fooducate, an iphone app for scanning and choosing healthy groceries. Businesses, in fact, spent more than $45 billion on promotional marketing in 2009, including coupons, according to VSS Communications. "Many of the healthy food brands are too small and cannot afford it. And since most produce is not branded, there is not enough of an incentive along the supply chain to provide coupons," says Weingarten.
Cheap, processed and unhealthy products have some of the highest margins in the grocery industry, too. "They're very cheap to manufacture, and the brands still make a fortune even after the coupon discount," he says. "But when you think of your cost to manage diabetes after 20 years of drinking soft drinks, it starts to seem expensive."
Last year, more than a quarter of all coupons for consumer packaged goods - items like cleaning supplies, toiletries and pet food - required us to buy two or more items to get the discount, according to marketing services firm Valassis. These deals entice us to spend more than we should. Let's say all I need is one box of ice cream. A coupon says if I buy two, I'll get one free. So what happens? A lover of ice cream, I come home with three boxes, spending twice as much as I had anticipated. The added calories won't do me any favors, either.
These kinds of coupons take advantage of our cognitive biases. I recently wrote about pricing psychology and the different ways retailers trick us into thinking we're getting a deal. Behavioral experts have discovered that when we see "free" on a coupon - even if it says "Buy Three Get One Free" - we immediately tend to think the deal has no downside.
Many manufacturers and retailers create coupons for new products that they want to introduce to the market. There's nothing wrong with trying new products, but buying something just because we have a coupon can be a frivolous way to spend. According to a 2009 survey by The Food Marketing Institute, 75% of people said coupons had at least some influence on their decision to buy a new product. I recently hopped on Coupons.com to find coupons for beverages. My choices included:
- $1 off a six-pack of So Delicious Coconut Milk
- $1 off a six-pack of Snapple
- $3 off a multi-pack of Boost Kid Essentials Nutritionally Complete Drink
- 50 cents off any RelaxZen product
Okay, I've heard of Snapple, but I had to look up what the rest of these products were. RelaxZen, I discovered, is a flavored drink "designed to help calm and relax your mind, elevate your mood and feelings of emotional well-being." I think I'll pass. Not to my surprise, I didn't find any coupons for regular milk or orange juice.
If you don't want to take my word that these products are frivolous - I admit that I'm not a typical household - take it from 45-year-old Adelina Banks, aka "MoneyMagicMom" on Twitter and an avid mom blogger. She's a single mom of two boys ages 17 and 11 and agrees coupons can entice us to buy unfamiliar products that don't really have a place in our pantries and shouldn't have one in our diets. "In the past when I've had a coupon I've actually felt pressure to purchase the item, to find a way to 'work' it into my shopping list," she tells me. "Coupons are useful but I would never buy around them. I look through the fliers to see what's on special, flip through my favorite cookbooks for recipes, 'shop' my cupboard and freezer to see what ingredients I already have, and then hit the store with a list. I collect coupons for items I normally buy - but if another brand, especially a store brand, is at a better price I go with that."
A popular - though, debatable - claim among some coupon advocates is that money saved with coupons is potentially equal to or greater than money they could earn working. A Wall Street Journal reporter did some math last year and figured couponing is equal to making $86.40 an hour - a conclusion that sparked many a high-five in the couponing community.
Others disagreed with the Journal's calculations, however. And if couponers are opting out of the workforce because they think coupon-cutting is a more productive use of their time - well, that's a pretty narrow-minded way of looking at life, says Dr. Ted Klontz, financial behavioral consultant and author of Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders That Threaten Our Financial Health. He's found that people who are obsessed with couponing trust that as long as they have a stack of coupons - or are in pursuit of more - their financial life is safe. But they are misled, says Dr. Klontz: "If they actually spent that time and energy on their jobs or getting a job, it would be a significantly better overall outcome for them ... they would probably be better financially."
At best, coupons can help us save money on healthy foods and household products we would buy normally. At worst, the pursuit can affect our mental health. "There's a line between being prudent and having the activity take control of you, instead of you controlling it â€" whether its couponing, exercising, eating, whatever," says Dr. Klontz. He says the obsession with saving money can take over people's lives, destroying marriages and other relationships. "There's a point to which couponing makes sense, and then there are people who step over the line. They fall into the category of what we would call financial hoarding disorder," he says. If coupon hunting is beginning to occupy more and more of your time - to where you're neglecting other, more important things, like our well-being, family and job - or if your loved ones are complaining that you're spending too much time on the web or circulars surfing for coupons, you may have a problem.
Farnoosh Torabi is a personal finance journalist and commentator. She is the author of the new book Psych Yourself Rich, Get the Mindset and Discipline You Need to Build Your Financial Life. Follow her at www.farnoosh.tv, and on Twitter.
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