Those Coupons are Actually Clipping You

For Money magazine.

magazine_money_logo_coverIf you think coupons are every savvy and frugal shopper’s best friend, time to think again.

Your mom isn’t the only person who clips supermarket coupons. According to a recent survey by Visa, 72% of Americans who earn more than $125,000 use them, compared with 65% of the population at large.

Problem is, it’s not such a great idea. Research suggests that coupons actually cost shoppers money. Tests of a new supermarket scanning gizmo in Syracuse, N.Y. last fall showed that people who used coupons spent 8% more than folks who didn’t. This follows a 2002 study co-sponsored by Washington University in St. Louis that found that shoppers spent an extra $8 on unplanned and luxury items for every $1 coupon they used.

“Steak, flowers, candy — people were treating themselves because they felt so good after using coupons, and of course they spent a lot more on the treats than they saved on the coupons,” says marketing professor Ambar Rao, one of the 2002 study’s authors. Coupons can save you money on some things you buy a lot (see below) but proceed with caution.

THE BEST OF AN IFFY LOT

Not all coupons are created equal. But used carefully on stuff you buy frequently, the good ones can truly help you cut your shopping bills.

*Contact lenses: If you order lenses by mail, you can find substantial savings by going online. Check Couponcabin.com. Acuvue, by the way, has more coupon offers than other lens makers do.

*Cereals: The average home chews through three or four boxes a week. Kellogg’s and General Mills coupons are the best deals. Check Sunday papers or in-store dispensers.

*Printer toner: Staples and other chains offer $20 off on $100 purchases. Some combine discounts with free shipping. Among major brands, Hewlett-Packard currently offers the best breaks.

-Etelka Lehoczky, 2005

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