One of the common themes I see on Personal Finance websites has to do with coupons. Using coupons is a common strategy for people to get more for their money. Websites advertise the gigantic savings you can get by taking advantage of coupons, bloggers remind their readers to always search online for a coupon before they go through a checkout, and there are even books dedicated to helping thrifty people make the most of their money through the use of these disposable discounts. Couponing is so big that it has become a verb, and it has spawned a couple of reality TV shows that dedicate themselves to finding and following “extreme couponers” – people who scour the right newspapers, double up on savings, and end up walking out of the store with hundreds of identical items for a single dollar. The problem is, coupons are a lie.

couponsBesides the fact that the majority of this information comes from America, and coupon rules are very different in Canada, the main problem with coupons is that they're a promotional strategy. People trying to run a successful business don't think to themselves, “You know what, I think I make enough money. I should reward people that have never frequented my business before by giving them my products for less than I would normally sell them”. No – businesses use coupons as a way of advertising their services or getting rid of excess stock. Even if you think you are smart by taking advantage of coupons, you probably are not, and here's why.

You Weren't Planning on Buying It

One of the main reasons businesses provide coupons is because they want you to purchase a particular product. Whether that is to get rid of a partial item (Buy One Get One Meat Product usually means it is about to expire), or promote a particular item, if you weren't planning on buying it before you saw the coupon, chances are good you really aren't saving money. You're simply spending slightly less money than if you were sucked in by the packaging in the store, as opposed to the advertisement on the coupon. Unless you already had that item on your grocery list for the week, you shouldn't be using a coupon to buy additional things.

The Cost of Time

Do you have any idea how much your time is worth? If not, educate yourself by doing a few mental exercises. Take your yearly salary, add any additional income, divide it into your waking hours, and figure out your true hourly wage. Chances are it is only a few dollars, but every hour that you are awake is an hour you are either getting paid to be doing something, or are paying for in order to be doing nothing. Taking an hour out of your day in order to scan this week's flyers, find a coupon or two that applies to what you need to purchase this week, and then carefully removing that coupon from the paper, bringing it to the store, the additional time paying at the till… chances are good it will hardly be worth the effort. Unless you come across a coupon, I wouldn't spend time looking around for one.

The Internet has Evolved

Once upon a time you could use Google to find a special code in order to trick a website into giving you free shipping or 25% off your order. This was because websites thought they were releasing a link to a select few, not realizing that the link would be shared, show up on search results, and spread far wider than they ever intended. Over time, companies have learned that any discount they wish to offer online, has to be available to everyone. Not only that, but they have introduced limited time codes, single use codes, and other restrictions in order to control exactly who gets which promotion. The wild west of the mid 2000s is over, and smart technology is besting those that search out for coupons. I have yet to find a coupon online that actually worked to reduce the cost of my order, and spending the effort to scour six month old forums posts for the potential of seven dollars off just isn't worth the trade off.

So I think coupons are a lie – what do you think?

About Alan Schram

Alan Schram writes about personal finance and his encounters with it in his everyday life. Alan is recently married and is looking to save money on expenses and reduce his debts.