The truth about coupons

Couponing hype is often more 'urban legend' than reality

CALGARY, AB, Jun 17, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Mega-corporations throw a daily cartload of kitchen coupons in our direction. We find them in our mailboxes, online, and in our newspapers. But do grocery coupons really save us money?

I have always been a skeptic when it comes to couponing dogma. But I am clearly in the minority. Over 80 per cent of Canadians use coupons to save cash at the till. According the Canadian Deals and Coupons Association’s October 2013 News Release, redemption rates of coupons by North American consumers grew by 12.3 per cent during 2012-2013.

So, let me explain my lukewarm attitude to couponing.

You could say that I am a ‘nominal’ coupon user. If I find a coupon for an item I already have on my grocery list, I clip or print it, and throw it in my wallet. But, for all my good intentions, nine times out of 10, that coupon winds up crumpled in the trash.

Why? Because, when I get to the grocery store, I usually wind up finding another product that promises me significantly better nutritional content or has the same ingredients at a lower price.

That’s because generic brands, or better yet unprocessed fruits, vegetables and grains, are often cheaper and more nutritious than the brands major manufacturers print coupons for.

Worse yet, couponing hype is often more ‘urban legend’ than reality.

The truth about coupons:

1)    Clipping coupons in Canada will not allow you to walk away from the till with a bag full of free groceries.

The ‘get something for nothing’ practice of coupon stacking – use more than one coupon to pay for the same item – portrayed on American television networks is almost universally banned by Canadian retailers. While you can use a coupon to lower the price of an item that is already on sale, I know of no Canadian retailer, except London Drugs, which allows you to stack coupons.

2)    Over-reliance on coupons may cut corners on your health.

Couponing is not the most effective way to save money if you want to go home with the most nutritious food basket you can afford. That’s because most manufacturers offer coupons for value-added items they want to create a market for. These value-added products tend to be high in sugar, small portioned, pre-packaged in plastic, and highly advertised.

Worse yet, pre-packaged items (tiny packages of sugar, salt, spice, and oatmeal, for example) are exorbitantly priced compared to the staple ingredients that would allow you to make healthier, better tasting version of these foods.

3)    No family needs 300 rolls of toilet paper or 100 bottles of shampoo in their garage.

Couponing is only an effective cost cutting tool if it saves money on items you already have on your shopping list. If you use them to hoard items that you store for months or years, you are probably misdirecting your resources away from unpaid bills or your emergency fund.

4)    Coupon fraud is no deal for honest consumers.

Sadly, crime has entered the coupon world. Fraudulent practices, such as cutting off expiry dates on old coupons and manufacturing fake coupons, now threaten the bottom line of many retailers.

That’s bad news for you as a consumer, even if you never use coupons. Why? Consumers pay the cost of coupon theft when retailers raise prices to recoup stolen profit.

These losses may explain why some retailers downplay coupon culture. For example, Wal-Mart Canada not only accepts coupons, it prints them in the glossy ads featured in the chain’s Live Better Magazine. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, the event manuals provided to product demonstrators at Walmart Canada instruct them not to mention coupons – even those printed in Walmart’s flag-ship Live Better magazine – and to refer customers looking for coupons to the store’s ‘everyday low prices’ as well as the Rollback program.

The coupon cutting world is a strange one, indeed. So, when it comes to cutting coupons, keep a clear head, and don’t forget to look for a better deal on the bottom shelf.

Jane Harris-Zsovan offers her readers practical money advice for the real world.

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