Why Coupons are Dangerous

Somehow, being frugal has become synonymous with "clipping coupons".

Yet, I can't tell you the last time I've clipped a coupon. I do plenty of other weird things to save money, but coupons just aren't something I can get behind.

I actually don't like coupons. I think they're dangerous.

I'll say it to you straight: they're a marketing ploy to get you to buy things you don't need. Even if we know that consciously, there's a serious subliminal danger to them.

You might only use them to buy things you'd buy anyway, but even then, they push you to buy the bigger version, the fancier version, or the brand-name version of what you would buy otherwise.

Clip = Commitment

When you clip a coupon, you can't help but imagine yourself buying that pudding mix or sports drink before you even get to the store. To most people, the coupon isn't just a piece of paper, but it's currency, and it has value: at least inside your head. It's even printed on the front of the coupon in big numbers: SAVE 60 CENTS.

This is on purpose: companies want their coupons to feel like money.

So when you get to the store and find that the sports drink for which you have a 60-cents off coupon really costs $4, you feel badly throwing the coupon away, and still desire to use it, even if you'd never buy sports drinks at $3.40. Why is this?

The psychologist Robert Cialdini wrote about this in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. He calls it the commitment principle. Once you commit to something, even in a small way like clipping a coupon, it is difficult to change course- even if you know the choice is a bad one.

Bad Choices:

The CDC found that not only did grocery coupons influence shoppers' food purchases, but it actually influenced them towards unhealthy choices. (source)

Have you noticed how there are nearly never coupons for fresh fruits and veggies?
  • 25% of coupons available during the study were for processed snack foods, candies or desserts.
  • Approximately 12% of coupons were for beverages, more than half of which were for sodas, juices, and sports/energy drinks.
  • Only 1% of coupons were for fresh veggies. For fresh fruits? Zero, zilch, nada!

Saving $1.00 on a $5 package of frozen fries may feel good, but you can buy ten pounds of potatoes and pint of cooking oil for the same amount- the equivalent of four packages of frozen fries. If you're frugal enough to spend your Saturday morning with a scissors and a newspaper, why not be frugal enough to cut and cook your own potatoes for 4x the financial benefit?

Coupon websites increase your ad consumption.

Even coupon sites like Swagbucks, Ibotta, and Mypoints are really just an excuse to get more ads in front of your eyeballs. I have tried out both these sites in the past, and I didn't like their effect on me.

They didn't make me buy things, but they made me want things.

Ads are amazing at making us want things. It's an art form. I think it's understated how good they are at it. When I see online ads from everything from clothing to bakeware, I imagine myself having a wonderful life with those luxury products. When I see these ads over and over again, the idea of owning lots of luxury products seems like a normal thing that normal people do.

When I tried out Ibotta, I noticed that when you saved a rebate, it made you answer a seemingly stupid survey.

"When do you prefer to use {INSERT PRODUCT NAME HERE}?
A. The Morning.
B. The Afternoon
C. The Evening
D. All the time!

No matter what you answer, the worm is now in your brain. "I use this product in the afternoon." Studies have shown that you are now more likely to act consistently with this (source).

I don't believe in willful ignorance, but I am a happier, more grateful person if I limit my advertisement face-time. I don't want to spend my free time looking at ads, or taking surveys that are really ads in disguise, trying to rack up 1 or 2 dollars worth of points. That free time is better spent biking in the park or playing video games with my loved ones.

Coupons create a false sense of triumph.

Shoppers love the thrill of the hunt, and sellers want to tap into that triumphant feeling. They want you to feel like you've "scored" something.

They aren't shy about this, either: they even outright say it in their advertising!

I refuse to equate shopping with "scoring".

Once you consciously smash this notion in your own head, it's amazing how many "must have items" you're perfectly happy to live without. When you shop you are parting with your money. Saving 60 cents on cereal is not a victory, but planning and executing a careful, waste-free, overall food budget with high nutrition per dollar is. However, only one of these things feels like a "score". The other one feels like a bore.

But don't be fooled: seeing the big picture of calories-per-dollar and nutrition-per-dollar will save you more than a thousand coupons for packaged sugar water long-term.

This isn't to say I never have fun shopping. I usually have fun on my trips to the store, not because I'm hauling away a lot of products, but because it's fun to be out and about in the world. (I get a lot of joy from turning over cans and bottles, looking for brands that I own stock in.)

It's important to be honest with yourself about how much pleasure you'll really get from a purchase, and where that pleasure comes from. Does it come from the item itself? Does it come from the thrill of the hunt?

So if you like to clip coupons, are you doomed for financial ruin? Not really. If you find a coupon for something that was already on your list, it's possible that you can save a few cents. Extreme couponing is also a hobby that helps many people save money- if you are careful to avoid buying unhealthy foods.

By being aware of all the tricks sellers use to leverage coupons into more profits for them, you can better steer your choices towards ones that are in your best interests, not the food manufacturers.

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