10 rules to play fair while shopping with coupons
Are you following the coupon ethics discussions that are popping up on multiple Facebook feeds and the coupon blogs and forums?
Here are the Monroe on a Budget 10 rules to play fair while shopping with coupons. This list is based on my 25 years of couponing, the questions I’ve had from readers, and the discussions I’ve seen across the Internet in recent weeks.
1. Do not abuse the privilege of multiple transactions at one shopping trip. That convenience is meant for those who have to pay for items from different accounts (example: FSA-eligible vs not), or who are assisting a friend or relative with their shopping errands. The cash register coupon or cash back rebate you might earn for a purchase is meant to be used on your next visit. It was not meant for other items you picked out on that same shopping trip and would like to run through on a separate transaction. Otherwise, the discount would have been “instant savings.”
2. Do not assume that an unattended newspaper means free coupons for you. Vending machine and newsstand papers are for customers who are want to pay for a complete newspaper. Do not take extra papers unless you are paying rack rate for each one, and do not take the coupons out of a racked paper you leave behind. Furthermore, coupon inserts that were in a newspaper delivered to someone else’s house are for that person to use or give away as he or she sees fit. They are not yours to take without asking. There is much discussion about this in my coupons in Sunday papers archives.
3. Correctly match the coupon to the product. You don’t have to match the specific picture because that is often just an example. But you do have to match the product and amount described. Does the coupon say “any variety” or does it specify certain flavors, sizes or varieties? Does it call for specific quantities of the product? Follow the rules as the promotion was written.
4. Be polite to supermarket employees. This is particularly challenging if you think you did the math correctly, but the clerk doesn’t ring the coupons through as you expected. Mind your manners even under those circumstances. Remember: there were noticeable changes in the Toledo supermarket coupon policies during the past few weeks. If you and the clerk do not agree on how a coupon should have rung up, politely ask to speak with a manager to get a clarification. You can also send an email or letter to the corporate office if the matter was not explained or resolved at the manager’s level. In the meantime, be open to the possibility that you made a mistake. Here is an example: I couldn’t figure out a cash register receipt math error until after I got home one day. I finally realized the problem resulted because I picked the wrong size of package for that promotion.
5. Do not try to bypass the printable coupon system restrictions. The technology that is currently used by most coupon printable services was set up to prevent people from printing unlimited numbers of coupons. You might think it’s “being smart,” as I’ve seen on one forum, to try to cheat the system. But it’s not fair to other shoppers. After you hit the posted printable limit for a particular offer, you have maxed out that deal. Move on.
6. Quickly deliver the items you “picked up for donation” to the chosen charity or needy family. A suggestion that works well for my local readers in Monroe, Mich., is to keep a box or bin in the pantry or kitchen designated for food pantry drives for donate-able items. Here is the reason: ad hoc donation drives are a common service project for local classrooms, Sunday schools, businesses, civic clubs and scout troops. If you have a box with items already sorted out from your stockpile, you can respond as soon as you hear of such a request. If you don’t hear of an appeal after a certain point (three months is a good range in my experience), then make the drive to a food pantry and clear out your donation box.
7. Don’t lie about where you live. Some printable coupons are keyed to what zip code you live in. That is the intended distribution area for that advertising campaign. Don’t lie when you type in your zip code to “get the good coupons.” Keep your focus on the monthly grocery bill, and you will realize there are lots of legitimate sources of coupons that include extra newspaper purchases, trading or swapping, digital coupons and rebate promotions. Use those instead of trying to skew a printable promotion.
8. If you get coupons from a coupon train or swap box, contribute back. Coupon trains are a method in which coupons are passed on from one couponer to the next. There often are rules for the trains as to how many coupons go in, how many go out, and what the time frame is for sending the packet to the next person. Follow the rules, or get “off the train.” Someone else is waiting for the savings. Coupon swap boxes are available in several library branches in Monroe County, Mich., and it’s certainly a do-able project in other settings. While the rules are not as strict on a swap box as to coupons in vs. coupons out, it is fair to expect that those who take coupons will contribute coupons they can’t use to the collection.
9. Limit the grocery and personal care product stockpile to what you can reasonably manage. Some families want to build up a freezer or pantry stockpile for a week’s worth of groceries, a month’s worth, three months’ worth, or whatever range. I don’t have a problem with the concept itself, and here’s why: Stockpiling is taught by many disaster preparedness experts, in addition to the chatter you may be seeing in the couponing, homemaking and frugal living circles. Grocery reserves also are quite helpful should a family be hit with a sudden drop in income. But do not let a grocery stockpile become a bigger inventory than your family can keep in usable condition. Nobody wants to open a cupboard or a closet and find a box of oatmeal that is 5 years out of date.
10. Be patient on the savings. Some of the frustrations from recent coupon discussions involve rookies who expect too much, too soon, on their savings. Depending on which money-saving tactics are practical for you to implement, and how fast you get on the learning curve, it can take anywhere from two to three months for a family’s overall grocery bill to significantly drop. Here are some of the reasons why: The coupon mix is different each week. The supermarket sales are different each week. There are many deals in which you have to buy products up front to get a rebate, gift card or coupon either at checkout, or to request online or via mail to use on a future shopping trip. Even the Angel Food Ministries program, which I teach as a “beyond coupons” trick, expects you to pay for the groceries several days to a couple of weeks before you actually get them.
No, I didn’t technically address “clearing the shelves.” The problem with that the definition of shelf clearing varies on one’s perspective. I technically cleared a shelf a few days ago buying two toothbrushes. There were only two left.
But the 10 guidelines I just spelled out, if followed, would certainly lessen the instances of shelf clearing that is annoying so many shoppers.
Update: This post is getting links in multiple directions and has also been featured on Festival of Frugality.
Update Sept. 23, 2011: This piece was a Sunday feature for The Monroe Evening News on Sept. 25. I did take the reference to Angel Food Ministries out of the print version, as that program no longer exists.
Update on Sept. 28, 2011: Hello to the #dealchat readers!