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Going Broke Saving Money: Part I

Everywhere you look, somebody wants to show you how to save money by spending it. Suze Orman wants you to buy her books. Dave Ramsey wants you to attend his seminars. Countless others want you to subscribe to their websites and newsletters, invest in their discount cards, coupon organizers, and home canning kits. I am by no means immune. There’s something about buying this stuff that makes us feel thrifty without having to follow through and actually be thrifty. It’s kind of like writers who buy books and pay for seminars on how to write a screenplay or novel in an effort to distract themselves from the fact that to be a successful writer, you have to actually write. Well, to be successful in the thrift game, you have to stop spending money needlessly. In the following weeks, I will discuss ways in which I have spent money in an effort to save and how it worked out. I’ll be the doofus, so you don’t have to be. This week, we’re talking coupons.

Crazy for Coupons

Coupons, from the French coup “to cut”, (which is why it’s properly pronounced “koo-pon” not “cue-pon”), have been around since the late 1880s when the makers of Coca-Cola distributed cards entitling the bearer to  a free sample of their new soft drink. It worked out well for them, and it was not long before others followed suit. Appearing in newspapers and magazines, coupons offer a discount on items the vendor hopes you will buy. Just cut them out, present them at check out and you are ahead of the game. Today, you can also access online coupons and even coupon apps for your smart phone. So, where’s the risk? Coupons are free, right? Well, that depends. If you really get into collecting them, and it can be addictive, you may find yourself spending as much or more than you save. One way is by subscribing to newspapers and magazines specifically to get the coupons they carry. In lieu of subscriptions to publications, you can also buy the coupons themselves. That’s right; people actually buy what companies are giving away for free. A quick search on eBay brought up over 88,000 listings of coupons for sale. (One can only speculate on how much dumpster diving is involved in becoming a purveyor of coupons.) For the truly smitten, a whole host of coupon organizers are on the market guaranteed to “help” you save money. The Coupon Magic Organizer with Case-it Binder will set you back $44.99 plus shipping. (It weighs 4 pounds, so shipping is a pretty significant addition to the cost.) Now, I’m not a big enough sucker to buy one of those. No, sir, I got the more modest, highly-rated, Couponizer  for a mere $19.95, plus $6.95 for shipping. As a system, the Couponizer worked pretty well, but frankly, there wasn’t anything included that I couldn’t have put together myself with materials I had lying around the house. The instructions and advice the manufacturers of these organizers include, sometimes in the form of an instructional DVD, are comparable to that given in free online articles. They do not have a secret plan that will save you more money. In fact, the trick to saving money with coupons is simple: only use coupons from sources you already have and for things you already buy. Finding these is time consuming and a lot of work. Of course, coupons are designed to get you to buy things you otherwise wouldn’t. The mere fact that a coupon is offered for a product should be a heads up that it’s something you don’t need or could get cheaper by buying a different brand. You can sign up for free online coupon sites like or subscribe to Groupon or Living Social  and have deals emailed to you on a regular basis, but the danger in doing this is that you will be constantly tempted buy things simply because they are a great deal. You also run the risk of being talked into upgrading the original offer, which is every one of these vendor’s evil plan. Here’s an example. My husband purchased a deal for having a family photo printed on canvas for 50% off. I chose a pony picture I had taken of my son years ago. When the proof was sent to us, however, the size of the scan specified in the deal resulted in an image that cropped the pony’s legs off half-way down. It looked weird. It cost me an additional $15 to upgrade to the larger size, and oh, by the way, wouldn’t I like to have the canvas stretched so I could hang it without having to pay for framing? I balked at the $44 extra until I considered that, if I didn’t go for it, I’d have to pay more for the framing after the fact. More likely, I would end up with the damn thing rolled up in a drawer until one of my descendants threw it away. So, I ended up paying more than double the 50% I had already “saved”.

The Bottom Line

A rip-off? Not exactly. There were disclaimers that we ignored in our eagerness to save money. Let the buyer beware. The point is, I had no desire, and certainly no need to transform my family photo into a “work of art” until the offer hit my inbox. For me, Groupon and Living Social are a little too tempting. Many of their offers lead the buyer directly down the path of upgrading the offer and spending more than they originally saved. As for the Couponizer, it slipped off the mountainous pile of unclipped coupons that had accumulated on my end table, into the wastepaper basket and got taken out with the trash. I can’t afford to buy another one.