7 Ways Coupons Cost You Money

They’re not always designed to save

Hand putting a folded dollar bill into a wallet.
Hand putting a folded dollar bill into a wallet.
Photo by towfiqu999 — licensed via Freepik

There’s no time like the present to talk about saving money. If there’s anything 2020 has taught us about our finances, it’s that we need to stop spending foolishly and ensure everything we buy holds value. By value, I mean not only items we need but also those built to provide long-term support or entertainment.

Retailers, large and small, are in constant competition for our dollars. They vie for center stage in newspapers, mailings, digital ads, and email newsletters. Sales, coupons, rebates — these are key trigger words that get us chomping at the bit.

I’m all about saving money. In two years, I’ve gotten more than $1,000 in kickbacks from Rakuten and Ibotta. Couple this with digital coupons from oft-visited stores and my household has fared pretty well when it comes to savings.

But when do coupons and the like not actually save you money? If you’re anything like the average consumer, more often than you think.

Here are seven questions to consider before knee-jerking in favor of a discounted purchase:

1. Would you buy the item at full price?

If you wouldn’t purchase it at the average regular price, you’re not saving money using a coupon. Instead, you’re spending money outside your planned purchases.

Let’s say you don’t typically buy Oreos, which may cost $3.99. You see a coupon for 50-cents off. Buying them doesn’t save you 50-cents. It costs you $3.49.

2. Does using the coupon put you over budget?

Perhaps the item has been on your wish list, which makes the coupon even more attractive. But if the purchase will shoot you over a current budget, you’re not saving any money. In actuality, you’re borrowing money earmarked for other things.

3. Is the discount a loss leader?

One of retail’s many tricks of the trade is loss leaders — products priced at or below cost to lure customers into the store. Then additional products are primely placed to encourage higher purchase totals. It’s good for business as it generates more revenue. But if you’re easily swayed to buy more than what you planned, you might want to forego the deal.

4. Does redemption cost more money than the discounted amount?

We often get so excited about saving money we don’t consider what it costs to save. How much gas will be used to visit the store? How much do you have to purchase to reach any threshold requirements? These need to be considered.

If you’re a freelancer or business owner, consider the time it takes you to shop, either in person or online. Because time is money, too.

You’d be hard-pressed to convince me saving $2 on a dozen bagels is a great deal if the shop is 10 miles away. That’s easily 45 minutes out of my day.

5. Is it for the exact item you want or a lower-valued product?

This is important when it comes to considering the overall value of the purchase. Not all products are built the same, so if you’ve had your sights on a specific brand, you could be disappointed.

Consider all the AndroidOS tablets on the market. If you find a coupon for one of the lower-end options, you’re not necessarily saving money. The discounted unit may not be as durable. It may come with the minimum amount of memory, requiring you to upgrade sooner than you’d like. So, yeah, getting a tablet for $50 isn’t a steal when it’s void of out-of-the-box value.

Another example is toilet paper. One of the few arguments I’ve won against my husband was about the warehouse purchase of Scott tissue over the BJs brand. I claimed buying Scott was a better value. He disagreed and came home with the off-brand, which cost 40% less. But, the rolls were half the size, and the paper was thinner. In this case, it actually costs more money to use the cheaper brand.

6. Is the product’s selling price the same as it was before the coupon was offered?

Sometimes prices increase when a coupon is introduced. This offsets the amount of savings.

A ceiling fan that usually sells for $79 might carry a price tag of $89 when a $10 coupon is published. In this case, you’d wind up paying the same amount. Sometimes price changes reduce savings a bit, and other times you wind up paying more than if you bought the item at its usual price.

7. Are you getting the same ‘everything’?

Pay attention to any changes in return policies, warranties, and accessories. Some stores and service providers impose restrictions on coupons, including changes to traditional offerings. Don’t forget to read the fine print on the voucher and in the store’s policies.

Saving money is a beautiful thing, except when it’s not saving at all. A best practice is to focus on finding deals on things you already intend to buy, instead of letting coupons guide your decisions. Unless you’re an experienced extreme couponer, chances are the time and money you’d save buying things solely because you have a coupon wouldn’t amount to much.

I’m an avid writer, marketer and business consultant. I spend what’s necessary, and try to avoid deals designed to get me to spend more. Let’s connect on Twitter.

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Avid writer, marketer & business consultant. // Reward yourself a little every day. 🆆🅾🆁🅺 + 🅻🅸🅵🅴 🅱🅰🅻🅰🅽🅲🅴

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