I've been reading a handful of personal finance blogs for the last six months or so and seeing the same advice over and over - clip the damned coupons. In particular, The Simple Dollar (favorite grocery/coupon posts: 1 2 3) and Get Rich Slowly (favorite grocery/coupon posts: 1 2) hit the grocery strategies with some frequency. I decided to pick up the Sunday paper today and find out if the coupons inside would actually save someone like me any money. There are a few factors I considered in this exercise:
- The value of my time. There are a lot of factors that go into a valuation of my time, and that's perhaps appropriate for another post. I'm going to be very conservative for the purpose of this evaluation and say that my hourly rate is $25. If I don't save more as a result of the circulars than my hourly rate, I am calling it a fail.
- The decisions I am trying to make about the food we (Sam and myself) eat. We've been making a concerted effort to eat less processed "junk". A great deal on Little Debbie Snack cakes - even one that makes them free - is of no benefit for me. There are places that we still often eat processed food (as opposed to making from fresh ingredients): salad dressing, broth, dips, spreads, cured meats, canned tomato products (when we run out of garden tomatoes), and occasionally soda. If we wouldn't have considered eating something without the coupon discount, I am not considering the coupon as something to clip.
- The decisions I am trying to make about the home and hygiene products we consume. Sam and I are long-time LUSH fans - one of our biggest indulgence is their soap and solid shampoos - but we buy them for (green!) reasons that go beyond just enjoying them. Same with our house-cleaning products: I'm trying to back away from mysterious chemicals (Industrial All-Purpose Cleaner X) and excessive disposable products (wipes), and get back to basics (vinegar, baking soda, and essential oils). Just as with food, if we wouldn't have considered bringing a home and hygeine product into our home without the coupon discount, I am not considering the coupon as something to clip.
So what kinds of coupons did I clip? I clipped coupons for:
- products I already use and planned to buy (bonus!),
- products of a similar type to something I use and planned to buy (off-brand),
- non-expiring products I use but had not planned to buy for some time (stocking up is fine).
The coupons I wound up with:
- $1.00 off Ken's dressing
- $1.00 off Ken's marinade
- $1.00 off Ken's dressing spray*
- $0.50 off Roberts Dairy, any gallon milk
- $0.35 off Roberts Dairy, sour cream or French Onion dip
- $0.35 off Eggland's Best eggs (any size)
- $1.00 off two packages Farmland smoked sausage
- $1.00 off one package Farmland ham or turkey
- $0.35 off one jar Smucker's natural peanut butter
- $0.35 off one jar Smucker's low sugar or sugar free fruit spread*
- $1.29 discount price, 60oz. Clorox bleach (normally $1.99, for sanitizing garden tools)
- $0.99 discount price, 3 pack Ivory bar soap (normally $1.39, for in-between LUSH orders)
- $0.99 discount price, Carmex (normally $1.29, stocking up)
- $1.00 discount price, 2 liter diet Pepsi (normal price estimated $1.29 - guilty pleasure)
Coupons for laundry soap, dish soap, paper towels and toilet paper were rejected even though they fall under "stocking up" - we're already stocked up on these, and the coupons aren't as good as the deal we get at Costco for these items.
Outside the coupons (in the ads), I found out Staples is offering a $40 "easy rebate" (you can submit them online instead of mailing) on a paper shredder, which we're looking to acquire.
So, what's the total score? The coupons are worth a total of $8.59. It took me about an hour and twenty minutes to go through the circulars. Why so long?
- Inexperience. I haven't clipped coupons since I helped my mom when I was... oh, nine?
- Thoroughness. Since I was trying to be semi-scientific, I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing coupons
- Junk. There's a lot in the circulars that isn't coupons, and the Omaha World-Herald glossies are substantial. Also, the coupons I did find were almost all for highly-processed junk food that I wouldn't eat for free, or home and hygiene products that conjure World War II imagery for me.
In any case, to break even with an hour and twenty minutes of my time and $1.50 for the paper itself, I needed to find $34.83 in coupons I would definitely use. In order for the $8.59 worth of coupons to have broken even with the time and paper cost, I would have to be able to get through the coupons in less than 19 minutes 27 seconds. (This is what you get when you have a science nerd analyze these things.)
Was it worth it? I'm a little torn. I wouldn't have known about the deal on the shredder if I hadn't bought the paper. However, that isn't a coupon, and I was planning on visiting Staples to look at their selection anyway. My inclination is to say that the venture wasn't worth the cost (in money and time). It's a sunk cost, now, so I'll happily use the coupons I've clipped, but I don't think I'll be scouring the Sunday paper for coupons again, at least not until I can try some of the more sophisticated strategies from the posts I linked up top. In any case, $8.59 may not be worth an hour of my time, but the value of knowing that for sure leaves me feeling like my time was not wasted. It's science, baby.
My advice: see for yourself. If you eat a lot of processed or pre-packaged foods and use a lot of specialized commercial cleaners, I suspect clipping coupons makes much more sense. There may also be places and/or papers that have a more extensive selection of coupons for fresh produce, meat, and dairy. If either of these is true, you could save quite a bit of money on your grocery bill each week.