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True Luxury: Pitfalls of Coupon Clipping


When cents-off doesn't make sense.

So I'm writing a column about how to save money. I should be clipping coupons and showing you how to get stuff for free, right? All sorts of money-saving columns out there offer tips or discuss the topic at length. Heck, coupon-clipping can even be found on economic and investment websites.

Mike Shedlock, another Minyanville professor, has several posts on his blog on the topic of food prices and coupons as they relate to deflation. One post in particular caught my eye about a month ago. In it, Professor Shedlock posted this picture of items a reader got for nearly free, thanks to coupons.

It's an impressive stash. I really should be all over this as a way to save money.

So why isn't my family clipping coupons until our fingers are covered with paper cuts? It's just a small problem, really. We don't want, need, or eat most of the stuff you can get with coupons. Oops.

In fact, out of what's displayed in the picture, we buy just four items normally: the tuna fish, blueberries, batteries, and aluminum foil. Of those items, we already try to minimize our use of both aluminum foil and disposable batteries. We go through maybe one roll of aluminum foil a year. We also try to eat seasonally. We'd only look for fresh blueberries in late summer, when they'd be on sale anyway. The canned tuna is really the only item we'd buy enough to warrant coupon clipping.

We don't eat most of the dairy products shown because my family has food sensitivities. The rest of the food is a nutritional wasteland. We don't stink bad enough to go through that much deodorant in three years. (Or at least I don't think we do!)

In other words, we've built a lifestyle around high-quality food and household products that doesn't lend itself to supporting ConAgra Foods' (CAG) Peter Pan or the Keebler (K) Elves. (Sorry, guys.)

Coupons actually offer Corporate America an effective way to change and reinforce buying habits.

Give 'em a few coupons every once in a while and customers are buying Aunt Jemima pancakes every week. Campaigns are very closely monitored to make sure they're having the desired effect. As long as PepsiCo Inc. (PEP) (owner of Quaker Oats, maker of Aunt Jemima) nets profits through coupons, it will continue to issue them.

To be clear, many people can and do take the bait of coupons without becoming hooked. However, for the "average" busy family like us, occasional coupon-clipping generally leads to the buying habits General Mills (GIS) would like to see.

And bad buying habits aside, tracking down the right coupons can consume a great deal of time. Couponing also involves some cost as it requires either buying Sunday papers or using a printer for the online variety.

Many money-saving activities do take time and, occasionally, a little upfront money. It's important to be comfortable with those ideas if you're just learning frugal habits. However, it's also critical to pick your battles. Couponing isn't a frugal activity our family chooses to tackle, especially given our diet.

Next week I plan to devote an article to the nitty gritty of how we lower our food bills. The executive summary is that we've learned to cook simple, high-quality foods that sometimes go on sale but generally don't offer coupons. (Now you don't even need to read it!) Anyway, we've found overall that we eat better for less money with less work using our strategy.

And that's what I call True Luxury -- no coupon necessary.
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