Does Cutting Coupons Really Save You? One Mom Does the Math

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My Big, Fat Coupon ExperimentMy mother-in-law was extreme couponing before there was a cable show about it (actually, before there was even cable). When I married my husband, I was determined to be the coupon ninja-in-training to her frugal sensei.

But two years into couponing and I was exhausted. I worked a full-time job and often spent my evenings doing freelance writing.

Couponing? Well that was becoming another 20-hour-per-week job.

I mean, sure. I got free stuff and saved money. But more often than not, saving money was cutting into the act of actually making money. And all those good deals? Well, they languished in our pantry because, really, what do you do with ten cans of butter beans?


So my husband and I decided to sit down and actually figure out … was all this couponing worth it?

The Math

In 2007, after two years of couponing, we sat down and did some calculating. Here’s what we found:

  • My total coupon savings for our family of two (this was pre-kids): Between $50-$70 a week
  • Time it took me to hunt down the coupons: 8-12 hours a week
  • Approximate hourly rate at my full-time job: $20

It wasn’t adding up: Even when I had a great savings week and spent the fewest number of hours hunting coupons, my savings only came out to about $8.75 per hour. At the time, I worked a full-time job and freelanced, was an active runner, was taking graduate classes and volunteered at a local women’s shelter. Consequently, coupon cutting was snipping into time I needed to actually make money. The only time I had left over to hunt down coupons was at random times during the work day or late at night. I was exhausted and broke. While writing doesn’t exactly pay me a ton, turns out it did pay better than couponing.

So in 2007, I quit actively cutting coupons.

Then, this year, I reconsidered: We’d had our first daughter. As my husband and I started tightening our belts to make inroads on my college loans before we started saving for our (yet-to-be-conceived) second child, I again looked to couponing.

This time I wanted to be smart about it, though. While I no longer volunteer or take graduate classes, I’m currently working a part-time job and writing and taking care of Child No. 1 … I don’t have time to burn.

The Experiment

To figure out the best way to get back on the coupon bandwagon, my husband and I decided to run a test. Here was the set-up:

  • One week, I would buy all my groceries from Aldi, a discount store, where they keep costs low by charging you for bags (although you can bring your own), having a quarter deposit for the carts and selling only very basic items. (Think milk, eggs, pasta and meats. Want pesto? You’re out of luck.) And although Aldi does have some specialty items, they are only in stock seasonally. Also, Aldi has no coupons, and everything is off brand, so manufacturer’s coupons don’t get you anywhere.
  • The following week I would shop at Target using all the coupons I could find.
  • Both weeks, I used the same menu-planning service to print out my grocery lists and meal plans.

With the recent attention on extreme couponing and the rise of blogs and websites dedicated to couponers, I had high hopes of being able to get back on the couponing bandwagon.

The Results

Here’s what happened.

Week One:
The first week I printed out my grocery list and headed off to Aldi. I spent $95.96 there on a week’s worth of groceries for our family of three. Granted, I didn’t stick entirely to the list. If I had, I would have spent less. Non-list items that I bought included bananas (my daughter’s favorite), yogurt, lunch meat, bread and a box of periogies, because I’m Polish and I love me a periogie. Non-list items added up to $15.75. Then, I had to run over to a grocery store for the three other items that Aldi didn’t have: cilantro, pesto and basil. There, I spent $7.20, and I stuck to the list.

Total Spent: $103.16 for a week’s worth of food

Week Two:
The next week I printed my menu and began hunting. I scoured the local paper and the Sunday paper (which cost me $2 because I don’t subscribe). Then I hit the internet. Printing coupons is one of the most frustrating exercises in futility since high school dodge ball. It took me 45 minutes to get the coupon printer synced, and coupons I found via social media sites, like Facebook, didn’t print at all or required me spamming my friends by sharing the offer. (No, thank you.) Side note: Extreme couponers advise shopping for the deal rather than a meal plan. But with a small kitchen and no extra storage for ten cans of butter beans, shopping for the deal isn’t an option for me.

I finally stopped swearing when I found Target’s section of coupons and scored 17 that were for exactly what I needed. In addition to those 17, I found three coupons through the paper.

When I was done, I had spent 9.5 hours searching. (It’s worth noting that this might not be common for others. Coupon searching while watching a 13-month-old who wants “Up!” all the time is, I believe, how serial killers are made.)

At Target we found everything we needed, and we also purchased our standard off-the-list items like yogurt, lunch meat (I had a coupon!), bananas and bread. I also bought a six-pack of Coke Zero because it costs as much as that box of pierogies and mama needed (Nay, deserved!) some coke. In the end, I was only able to use 15 of my 20 coupons (some didn’t ring up, and for others buying off-brand was cheaper than brand-name with a coupon). My mega deal was getting $6 off a bag of Starbucks coffee.

Total Spent: $123.95 for a week’s worth of food. I also have a Target card, so I swiped that for an additional savings of $6.20, bringing my total to $116.80.

The Winner

Altogether, the final totals came to:
Aldi and HyVee=$103.16
Target with 15 coupons=$116.80

It’s close, but if you add in the nine hours of coupon cutting at my freelance rate of about $20 an hour (yes, it did cut into my work. When you’re freelance, every minute matters!), that’s an additional $180 added onto the Target shopping. And even if I only cut coupons during my off work hours, when I’m with my daughter, that means that we can’t do things like go to story time, or the park or play in the backyard. And that time? It’s priceless.

What about the evenings? Forget it. The few hours I have are spent with my husband (don’t forget about him), or catching up on work. So all those nine hours cut directly into work time.

My verdict: Extreme couponing isn’t for me. I would much rather take that time and put it into writing another article, or landing another client.

But, I’m not giving up on coupons altogether. I am definitely searching Target’s coupon hub before every trip. This last trip I needed some cleaning solution, Ziplocs, trash bags and shampoo. Using Target’s coupons, I saved $20 all told.

So I guess I’d say—in moderation it’s fine. But extreme couponing? It’s definitely not my schtick.

  • http://twitter.com/SenseofCents Michelle

    For me, right now it is not worth it because I don’t have time. Once  I’m done with night classes and just working, I think I’ll start up again.

  • Sara

    I found that couponing wasn’t worth it either. I would just spend More on products I didn’t need and that weren’t that healthy. We don’t have stores here that allow you to get store bucks or whatever they are called to apply toward future purchases. I totally get it about the 13 month old! I’m in that same situation right now and am one exhausted mommy!

    • lyzl

      I wanted to cry when I was trying to search for coupons and keep her occupied. And THEN we had to go to the grocery store. It’s enough to make a lady homicidal.

    • couponsdoworkdotcom

      actually when I coupon, I only look for deals that are healthy and my stockpile, a mini one that is.. is 98% healthy things. The non healthy items are my chocolates.. that I get once every six months lol. We eat a lot of healthy things! And I only spend an hour a week couponing!

  • Annette

    Ink cartridges are not cheap either. I have found almost no value. I use the coupons I get for free when I can, saving a little here and there. I mainly watch sales, buy basics at WalMart, and plan my meals so I’m efficient with what I purchase.

    • lyzl

      I agree, meal planning is essential. And ink cartridges often cost more than a new printer. It’s the razor/razor blade conundrum. 

  • Sjdemo

    I’m an aldi shopper, too, and i love how much we save there! even at the bigger stores we never buy the name brands, and we don’t buy boxed, frozen, or other prepared foods which it seems so many of coupons are for. cooking from scratch may take time and planning, but it saves us a small fortune. the only coupons i use are mailed to me by a local grocery store. we use the coupons for free things and if it isn’t something we’d normally want donate it to the local food bank.

    • lyzl

      Aldi is the greatest! And I agree, coupons are for the least healthy items on our list (except yogurt) and we mostly buy fresh produce. Just once, I’d like to see a coupon for leeks.

      • http://mischievouskitty.blogspot.com/ Stephanie

        The past few weeks, my grocery store has actually been printing coupons for *real* food with receipts!  Like, $1 off a $5 produce purchase, etc.  It’s not spectacular savings, but at least it’s something I can use!  When I use coupons, it’s usually for cleaning supplies, toiletries, etc., the only food coupons that are any good for me are dairy products and frozen veggies. :-P  

      • Ruth

        It depends on what part of the country that you live in, but where I live, I regularly find and use fresh produce coupons. I shop mostly at Meijer’s and they offer a digital coupon and rewards program. They have lots of produce coupons and usually new ones coming out each week. I also subscribe to Earthbound Organic Farms Email list and get new coupons from them regularly.

  • Hayle

    Where are you from?  I saw that you shopped at Hy-Vee! No one ever knows what Hy-Vee is whenever i go anywhere outside of Iowa!

    • lyzl

      I am from Iowa! Hello, friend! But can we discuss how HyVee is often more pricey than Target? Yeowch.

  • http://bloomingbythebay.com/ Misono

    Thanks for sharing your findings! I have a friend who is a stay at home mom, and is very into extreme couponing. I considered getting into couponing, as money is a bit tight since I recently quit my full-time job as a web designer and am now freelancing from home in the evenings while I watch my 14 month old daughter in the daytime. It would probably take me a very long time as well to find coupons (probably longer than it took you!), and I just see the time better spent on my freelance work. My friend doesn’t work at all and has the time to look for coupons, but that’s just not the case for me.  I agree with Sara above that the foods you save on aren’t exactly the healthiest choices, either, so it’s not really worth it.

    • lyzl

      I agree! The coupons aren’t for fresh produce, which is the bulk of what we buy. And yes, I think if you are FT mom, extreme couponing might be more feasible. 

      • Rockstar_chick87

        Actually there are some… A company that sells berries called Driskill, they have coupons all the time. But you just gotta buy what’s in season and on sale to save the most money. If it’s not in season, don’t get it.

        • lyzl

          Well, right. I don’t buy out of season and I do buy what is on sale. I’m not a shopping newbie. It’s still expensive. I also don’t like Driskills as I usually try to buy local produce when I can.

  • Rockstar_chick87

    Ya’ll just need to know how to coupon correctly. You can’t just go into a store with a bunch of coupons, and buy what you have a coupon for. There’s more to it than that. In the Tampa area, there’s a really good site for couponing called TrueCouponing.com. All you need to do is buy a 2-6 copies of the Sunday newspaper. And then they give you a list of what’s on sale, and what’s a good deal, and all you have to do is go back and clip the ones you need, and then print the online ones. It doesn’t take anymore than 1-3 hours. And Target is not the place to do coupon shopping for starters. Going to a store that has buy one, get one frees, that’s the store you need to go to. You can easily save %75 that way, and of course, ONLY buy what you use, unless you get it for free.

    • lyzl

      That’s not how I couponed. I planned my meals and searched online for coupons for the things I needed. If you read the article, you’ll see that I don’t have the pantry space to just buy whatever I have a coupon for. And actually, Target has FABULOUS coupons. I completely disagree. It is the place to use coupons. They let me double up on coupons.

  • Susanay2626

    I started to get into couponing recently as well and some days it does seem very time consuming.    But there is this great site, couponmom.com, that will list the weekly grocery (and drugstore) circulars by state and it will also tell you if there was a coupon in the paper or if there is a printable coupon, so that has probably saved me some time.   And the majority of coupons are for processed foods, although Whole Foods does have coupons and if you sign up for some of the newsletters of organic companies like Horizon they will have coupons.  I also read this article from a former extreme couponer who gave some good hints about saving on groceries without making couponing your part time job.  One of the things she said is that most grocery stores have sales cycles, so some things will go on sale every 6 weeks and some go on sale every eight to twelve weeks, and then there are the seasonal sales.  I know you said that you didn’t have a ton of extra storage space, but stocking up a little on those items that go on sale every six weeks would help.  Also, she agrees that menu planning is great, but plan your menus around what’s on sale.  

    • MelindaNC

       Couponmom.com was the first couponing website that I looked. She has been really helpful. I have been couponing with couponmom.com for about 6-8 weeks and I am starting to see the cycles in sales. I have now set prices from what I will pay for a particular product like peanut butter must be less than $2/jar and really great when I can stack and get it for  $1/jar.

      I have convinced my in-laws to let me buy some of their groceries like detergent and dishwasher tabs. I compare what they pay at Sam’s and if I can do it cheaper with stacking and couponing then I buy their brand. So far, they haven’t had to buy these two items for awhile.

      I sent my husband and daughter (she’s 19) to the store with a list (I print out the item, size, sale price, coupon, if it doubles, and ZVR from Harris Teeter to look for) and an idea of how much they should have to spend. They were so excited about saving that I think they will be doing the shopping again.

  • Redcntry88

    I have been couponing for about 4 years now.  I have cut back on some of the overbuying.  The whole point of normal couponing (read: not the extreme people) is to buy at the lowest deal using coupons.  I live in TN so my site of choice is Southernsavers.com.  She does the work for me. I only shop at Publix due to the 1/2 sales w/ coupons nobody in town can beat those prices.  I look at the list every week, pick out my coupons and write my list.  It doesn’t take more than one hour per week and we save a bunch of money.  They also have coupon 101 articles so newbies can get started.  A couple of years ago we were spending  an average of $114 per week, which isn’t bad for including diapers, wipes, cleaning supplies, etc.  Now if we want something we buy it because we know that we are saving so much money during the month buying the sales items we can splurge too!

    • MelindaNC

       Yeah for Southern Savers. This is the best website and I get tons of help from the comment sections under each grocery store deals. I just tried Recycle Bank $10 off $50 purchase at Harris Teeter. Worked great. I don’t think I would have tried Recycle Bank without helpful comments from other couponers.

  • Aniko

    I lived in Ames Iowa for a year and shopped in the Aldi and the Hyvee. Good stores. Do you live there?

    • Nowyoucmdesigns

      In the comments below she did say she was from Iowa!

  • Nowyoucmdesigns

    Just read this and it is helpful. Through trial and error I have reached this same place. But I appreciate your more scientific approach to help confirm my own conclusions!

  • Bambinocaldo

    you must be ……nine hours to collect coupons….Oh, I forgot.you are Polish.

    • MelindaNC

       Yeah, took me like 9-12 hours the first time I tried doing the coupon thing, but a lot of that was reading articles and blogs. Now I coupon roughly 1-2 hours a week if you include stopping to buy the Sunday paper for the coupon inserts.

  • http://twitter.com/amandertising Amanda Polacek

    This are exactly my thoughts! I’m glad someone out there is thinking/saving like me.

  • couponsdoworkdotcom

    for me, I spend about 1 hour a week for couponing. because I have a monthly menu and I usually stick to it. I use coupons for ‘stockpile’ things i.e. things for kids lunches and so on. Is couponing worth it? yes. Is it worth spending a million of hours? no. Is it worth saving money and spending an hour? Yes! I rather have extra money in my pocket! So coupons do work! :)

  • Name

    My mother doesn’t use coupons either. Most of the items aren’t anything she buys. However she sticks to Price Rite for her grocery shopping. It’s like Aldis’ a no frill grocery store, and she saves money there.

  • Love4Tulips

    Couponing is so easy in my area. I love one of my neighborhood grocery stores because it has select items on aggressive sale prices and doubles coupons. I NEVER spend more than 2 hours per week matching sales with coupons, but I get them to match-up all the time. I always save between 70-85% off each shopping trip. I just bought 22 boxes of cereal (Cheerios, cinnamon toast crunch, etc) for .88 cents per box after the sale and coupons. Today I got 22 boxes of Hamburger Helper boxes for .29 cents each after sales and coupons. I seriously spend no more than 2 hours planning, and about an hour to shop…it is totally worth the savings to coupon! I hate Aldi….I go in there and I can’t believe how expensive generic food can be compared to couponing!

  • rdeesw

    We shop at Meijer’s, which has a variety of brand choices, including a variety of non-name brand choices. That brings costs down without coupons. The only time I have found name-brand coupons to be of value against non-name brands is when the store is also discounting the product. We have a few brand loyalties — usually for health reasons (allergies, less sugar, less salt, etc.) — but mostly we find the non-name brands to be excellent lower cost options. A big part of our grocery volume is fresh fruit and veggies. No coupons for these. We do not subscribe to the paper except for special occasions. We will peruse the coupons then, but find most of them are only enticements to buy processed foods and snacks we don’t eat, or more expensive name brand over-the-counter drugs and personal care products. Meijers has electronic couponing with their Meijer credit card. With the Meijer card, we can “load” coupons to the card and these are presented to us on the check-out screen asking if we want to apply them to today’s purchase. No paper. No cutting. No ink. Another advantage to the Meijer credit card is shopping reward discounts. Currently, we earn more reward discounts than we are able to use. The time spent “clipping” the Meijer’s coupons is 15-30 minutes each week. NOTE: We DO pay off the Meijer credit card each month.

  • abby

    I agree that couponing isn’t worth it – they only make coupons for processed crap, not for fresh produce and meats! But I did want to say that I think using Target as a comparison isn’t a fair example, because their food prices are higher than a regular grocery store! Have you ever looked at bananas there? You pay per banana, not per pound at Target! What a racket!