More on Couponing

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Thanks to the commenter who posted the link to the coupon website where someone ate for a $1 a day using coupons.

Fascinating!

So it turns out I was missing some key pieces of information. First, if you get the right combination of things (e.g., store discount card, manufacturer’s coupons, store coupons) you can actually purchase items that have a discount that is greater than the cost of the item, meaning that you make money every time you buy it. Second, you can often get things at cost or nearly at cost using a combination of special offers and coupons, and doing so will allow you to use discounts that apply to your entire purchase, bringing down the cost of the things you buy that don’t have coupons or other discounts attached to them.

At first I thought this seemed like bad design on the part of the stores and food producers but on further reflection, it occurs to me that they might actually  like it. Just like casinos need people to occasionally win money in order to give everyone hope and keep them coming back, stores might need people to succeed using coupons to keep other people who aren’t as committed (or savvy or skilled or whatever it is you need to make this work) participating in the system.

Or maybe they just didn’t think this through all the way. Who knows.

So the big money maker in the beginning of the project was Philadelphia cream cheese minis, which had $5.00 off special offer when purchased in multiples of five, making them $0.49 each and which had an in-store coupon for $0.55 off, with an unlimited number of coupons available. So this meant that the person doing the project made $0.30 for every five cream cheeses he bought.

And of course I had to spend half the day today reading the whole thing to see how it turned out instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing. And to save the rest of you from that fate, here’s my report.

From what I could tell, he didn’t generally use manufacturer’s coupons to buy the things he actually ate. He bought whatever he had the most coupons for that would generate the most additional coupons (in the form of “catalinas” — the $1 off or $3 off coupons that come out with your receipt) and that would allow his total to get to the level that would make additional coupons usable. For instance, if he needed $20 in order to use a coupon, he would buy stuff that he had coupons for that cost little to nothing — or, in the case of the Philadelphia cream cheese, actually generated income — that would get the total where it needed to be.

So on Day One, where he purchased things at CVS, he really only needed the rice ($2.49), peanut butter ($1.67), and pork and beans ($1.00), which comes to $5.16, and he had a $4 off coupon, so that would be $1.16 but in order to use the coupon he needed to spend $20. So he bought 8 boxes of Wheat Thins that were on special for $1.00 (I think to people with a CVS Bonus card? not entirely clear on that) and for which he also had eight $1 off coupons from Facebook, making the Wheat Thins free. He also had two coupons for free bags of Ghiradelli chocolates that he had from before the contest started. So he got the $5.16 worth of items he wanted plus $8 worth of Wheat Thins plus $8.58 worth of chocolate, bringing the total to $21.76 ($16.58 of which was free) and allowing him to use the $4 off coupon, making his total spent $1.16.

Now, he notes that his sister made him give up the chocolates since he had the coupons from before the project started, but she allowed the purchase to stand. I am more of a stickler, and would have been inclined to make him re-do the entire purchase and get it to work without the previously saved Ghiradelli coupons.

But that’s just me.

This same money-making strategy came into play later in the project, with different things.

He was able to get some great combination of discounts on Kellogg’s cereal, buying 28 boxes with 7 trips through the checkout line in order to get bananas, ground beef, tomatoes, broccoli, wheat bread, and pasta sauce. He got deals on the pasta sauce — coupons for Classico, plus a Safeway coupon where you get two free Safeway brand when you buy two Classico, so I think that was $1 or $2 for four jars of pasta sauce — but it seemed like most of the rest of the food he purchased to eat wasn’t actually discounted.

This was just what I needed to see in terms of how it all works.

Overall, he had some killer good prices on food (avocados for $0.33! I’m so jealous!), but was limited by the fact that he doesn’t normally cook and fully admitted that he was lacking in kitchen skills.

Some commenters noted that they thought his food looked awful but I thought it looked okay. I think I would have gotten regular mayonnaise instead of Miracle Whip, but he definitely made the right call in returning the relish and getting Miracle Whip in the first place. And clearly the problem was not the amount of money he had available, but the choices he made in terms of what he bought. And that was a function of past cooking experience, not his budget. So I think he succeeded quite well and definitely met both the spirit and the letter of the challenge.

It looks like he’s continuing the experiment but I really need to get some work done so I’m going to pretend I didn’t see that.

In general, I have to say that I admire people who can figure out how to make the whole coupon thing work, but there’s something just so … weird about it.

In order to make this strategy work, you start by getting loads of stuff you don’t want or need (e.g., bodywash, deodorant, 28 boxes of corn flakes, etc.). Obviously you can give it away — he makes regular donations to food banks — but it still seems so … I don’t know, wrongly excessive … for it to be cheaper to get a whole bunch of crap than to just get what you need. Especially the $0.06 income on cream cheese. So the first two days, he would just go get as many cream cheeses as he could, making $0.06 on each one, and use that to pay for cheap things like bananas and eggs. So he bought ten cream cheeses plus $0.62 worth of bananas for a net cost $0.02 and then twenty cream cheeses and a dozen eggs for $1.99 giving him a net cost of $0.79. That’s so bizarre!!

I think it’s probably good that this does not appeal to me at all as a leisure time activity, it’s hard enough for me to get things done as it is. But all of you out there in couponland dig it, then you should go for it. Welcome to America.

6 Responses to “More on Couponing”


  1. The multiple coupon thing doesn’t always work. The grocery store near my mom’s house won’t let you use multiple coupons on the same item, even if one is a manufacturer’s coupon and one is a store coupon, so this plan might not work for everyone!

  2. Amy B Portland, ME Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve been trying to figure out how people end up paying nothing at the checkout using coupons, as touted on many TV talk shows. I read this guy’s saga, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. It seems to require a gamer’s mind set. I have never in my life seen a coupon for fresh fruit and very few for frozen vegetables, but I get that you buy those items with cash, to get the register coupons, which you use to buy items you have other coupons for…which could lead to free yogurt, or whatever…wow, but its worth it if you are very careful, I suppose.

  3. lessisenough Says:

    I know, I’m with you. It never made sense to me. But it is like a game … what can I combine to get the most off?

    I think it’s worth noting that the guy who did the project said he doesn’t cook. I feel like to do this, you have to go about it kind of backwards. When I’m thinking about food/food shopping/eating, first I think about what I feel like eating and what I have in the house and what I have time/energy for, then I think about what I’m doing later in the week (do I want leftovers? do I not want leftovers?), and how much time I have to shop and what stores I’m going to be near. Then I go get food and make whatever I’m going to make.

    With the strategy in the $1/day coupon project, it seems like first you look at what are the best deals and if you have coupons for those. Then you figure out how to use the coupons you have in a way that minimizes your cash outlay and maximizes what you get back in additional coupons. Basically you’re considering the $1 off or $3 off as part of the reserve that you have available to spend, which is especially valuable when you’re trying to eat for $1/day. And what you get to eat is sort of an afterthought based on what you were able to buy.

    He did actually get a couple coupons for produce — one a Safeway coupon for $1 off when you spent $5 and also I think there were some tortilla chips that had a coupon for produce. But from what I could tell, he was mostly using the cash dollars off (i.e., the “catalinas” that came out with his receipt) to fund the food that he ate that was most like what I would want to buy (bananas, carrots, peanut butter, apples, etc.) The rest was all processed stuff.

    I definitely will be checking in on his second month to see how things progress and will probably have more comments later. I think it’s really interesting.

  4. Bryant Says:

    Rebecca–this is mind boggling. Yes, that someone would do this, and then that you could actually figure out how he did it. Still, when I think that only 100 years ago, or some such, nothing came in a can or prepackaged in this way, I am in awe.
    So what I want to know is when did coupons first occur. Who thought it up and what were they thinking? How did it mushroom into a wy of life? I knowlots of people hav those coupon books. During my year without disposable plastic, I couldn’t buy anything that I could get with a coupon except for maybe, ironically enough, cream cheese.

  5. Amy in Maine Says:

    I am fascinated by this guy’s coupon blog. Just read a funny post where he admitted buying tampons and panty liners as part of his scheme to get coupons for food (he donated the feminine hygiene products to a charitable organization.)

    It definitely takes a different mindset to pay for your food through the convoluted series of transactions he performs. Basically, he lives completely within our consumer culture, and manages not to pay cash for the “products” of the system.”Products” is probably the best word for what he eats, you can hardly call it food. I have a brother, on the other hand, who lives outside that system, living in the country raising his own meat and vegetables. It has to be said, however, my brother also gets plenty of staples using food stamps. (He feels guilty taking food stamps, but, hey, he does qualify.) Paying cash for groceries is absolutely moot in his lifestyle.

    I seem to have settled on $30.00 a week as my normal grocery bill. That’s often coffee, milk, bread, peanut butter, jelly, eggs, pasta, tomato sauce, cheese, juice, vegetables and chicken or shrimp. It’s an ongoing project, with me, figuring out how to eat cheaply, without sacrificing my health. I am sorely tempted, especially when I get those CVS $5.00 off offers, to try my hand at gaming the system, in the footsteps of coupon guy, but I’m not sure its really, really, worth it.

  6. Kate Says:

    (very behind on blogs) As the 1st commenter noted, the success of this kind of thing depends a lot on the stores where you live. A friend of mine in Los Angeles frequently uses store double coupons which are never offered in Northern CA. I use coupons when possible, but I tend to buy so many store/generic brands that are often even cheaper than the name brand with a coupon.


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