Four questions to consider when shopping with coupons

Hannah Hunsinger | The Collegian While using coupons can be a way to save money it's important to do it carfeully to avoid over buying.

I watched this show about extreme couponing one time, and the lady in the show was proudly showing off the basement full of stuff she had bought for free or nearly so by using coupons. However, what really struck me about it was how wasteful she was. Sure, she had a large family, but she had literally hundreds of bottles of barbecue sauce. There’s just no way they could possibly go through that much barbecue sauce before it expires, unless they’re drinking it as a daily tonic.

This got me wondering about coupons, and how they always seem to make me buy something I didn’t really want or need. Coupons are a form of advertising; more specifically, a type of promotion. Kusum L. Ailawadi and Paul W. Farris point out in a July 21, 2013 Wall Street Journal article that there is “an important psychological component” involved with coupons, mail-in rebates and other promotions that involve work on the part of the consumer.

The effort involved makes deal-prone consumers feel like smart shoppers — and smart shoppers are happy shoppers,” the article noted.

Of course, the real goal is to get people to buy stuff, and coupons do exactly that, whether you needed the item it promotes or not. To be a truly “smart shopper,” one must carefully consider the options with coupons.

1. Is it really saving you money?
If you have a coupon for a brand-name can of tuna, does the coupon make it the same price or less than the store brand? I’ve found that, quite often, the store brand is still a better deal, and I end up leaving the coupon behind for somebody else who might wish to use it.

2. Do you really need the item?
While you’re taking the store brand tuna off the shelf and putting it into your cart, stop for a minute and ask yourself: “Am I buying tuna because I need it, or just because I have a coupon for it?” Even while you’re patting yourself on the back for finding a better deal, you still might be buying something you didn’t need and are therefore spending unnecessary money.

3. Am I spending too much time in the store?
Maybe while you’re contemplating the canned tuna, you notice something else nearby that looks good and put it in the cart. This is another reason why I hate coupons; it slows me down. I spend so much time looking for the specific item and shuffling through the coupons in hand that I end up buying stuff I never even went to the store for. This is a normal, natural reaction. According to the book “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” by Paco Underhill, there is a direct correlation between the amount of time we spend in the store and the amount of money we end up spending.

But even while I hate coupons, I have to admit I like them, too. They are a great way to try out new products that I’m on the fence about and am hesitant to pay full price for. Sometimes coupons can have amazing deals, like buy one get one free on something I genuinely need. And there’s no better feeling in the world than going to the store with a coupon in hand, discovering the item is already on sale, and getting a doubly good deal as a result. Yes, it does feel good to be a smart shopper.

So, how do we combat the problem of wasteful spending with coupons? A good start is to ask yourself the three questions above when you are considering using one. Don’t just buy stuff on autopilot; really think about what you are buying and why. Additionally, try to set a limit for yourself with this question:

4. Is this item on my shopping list?
If you’re not making a shopping list of things you need, you’re not really thinking about what you’re buying, and that makes you more likely to buy stuff you don’t need. Then you end up with a fridge full of odds and ends that don’t really make up a complete meal. Planning your meals ahead of time and making a list will save your a lot of time and money in the end.

Make a list, then see if any of the coupons you have go along with what you need. While you’re at the store, stick to your list. Try really hard not to deviate from it and fall into the old, bad habit of impulse shopping. If you see a good deal that you just can’t pass up, stop and think about it. Why do I want this? Do I need it, or am I just excited because it’s on sale?

That’s how you become a smart coupon shopper.

Karen Sarita Ingram is a senior in English. Please send comments to