Grocery Coupons and Sales: Are You Really Saving Money?

Shopping sales and using coupons are a great ways to save money, but only if you’re using them the right way. If you’re not, they can actually end up costing you a lot more. This is especially true if you are just learning to shop for one person.

The tips here are focuses on grocery shopping, but they can also apply anywhere you shop.

Just because you have coupons for something doesn’t mean you should buy it.

Many people, including myself, are guilty of doing this. I get a coupon for a dollar off a bottle of salad dressing, so I pick up a bottle next time I’m out. Great, I’ve saved a dollar! Except, I didn’t need salad dressing. I don’t eat salads often, and I already had a bottle in the cupboard. So, I didn’t actually save any money—I spent an extra $2.50 to get something unnecessary. This is the whole reason stores give out coupons. They make money by convincing shoppers to buy extra items because they think they’re getting a good deal. Take-home lesson: Buying something you would not have bought just because you found a deal is not actually saving money.

Weigh the benefits of the deal.

Don’t take that first tip to mean that if you’re at the store and you see a great deal, you should ignore it because the item wasn’t on your list when you walked in. It just means that you should take a minute to consider whether taking advantage of this sale would actually benefit you. Ask yourself some questions. Is this something I would have bought anyway? If so, great! Can I substitute this for something else of my list? If you already had a list of meals planned for the week, but you see a great deal on frozen pizzas, consider switching one of your planned meals for pizza. Am I using this sale as an excuse to buy something expensive, unhealthy, or unnecessary? Put down the 5 for $5 bags of potato chips and move on to something you actually need! Take-home lesson: Surprise deals can be great, but you have to be smart about them.

Don’t over-buy because of deals.

One very common sale tactic is to get you to buy more items than you actually need. Beware of this trick! My very first time grocery shopping for myself, I found a great deal on Hot Pockets (or so I thought). I left the store that day with ten boxes of the things for the low, low price of $9.99! “What could be wrong with this?” I thought. “I love Hot Pockets!” Well, after the sixth day of Hot Pockets for lunch, I did NOT love them anymore, and I still had four boxes left. The same problem arises with things like produce or deli products. Unless you really think you can eat three whole containers of mushrooms in a week, don’t bother with the “buy 2, get 1 free” deal. Take-home lesson: Carefully consider any deal that requires you to buy extra products.

Pro tip: Many stores don’t actually require that you buy extra products in order to get the item at a discounted rate. My local store often advertises 5 for $5 deals, but these really just mean they’re selling the product for a dollar apiece! Check with your store’s staff to find out their policy.

Check expiration dates before buying.

Also, be aware that if you see something randomly on sale in the store, there’s a chance that the store is trying to move that product quickly for a reason (like, the item is going to expire soon). This isn’t always the case, but is definitely a possibility you should be aware of. My local grocery store got me with this one the other day. I found a great deal on produce, only to discover two days later that half of it had already gone bad. I was not happy. Take-home lesson: Make sure to check best-before dates on meat and dairy products, and test the ripeness of any produce before you buy it.

Best kind of coupons to look for.

There are coupons that truly will save you money, especially if you can combine a store special with a manufacturer’s coupon. These prime coupons are for grocery staples that you have to buy anyway. Think paper towels, toilet paper, any canned goods you use regularly (beans, tomatoes, stock, etc.), and cleaning products. These types of items do not go bad before you use them and it’s nice to be able to make a meal out of your pantry every now and then. Take-home lesson: Only stock up on any bulky items if you know where you will store them.

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Taylor LaSon is a recent Hamilton College graduate who is currently living in Memphis while seeking her Master’s Degree in Speech Language Pathology. She and her cat prefer a quiet, introverted lifestyle full of Netflix binges and arts and crafts, but when she does go out, she enjoys rock climbing and making silly faces at small children.

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