Coupons and the Big Picture

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Okay so I’ve been sporadically following the dollar a day coupon thing and I’m having trouble getting past the weirdness of it all.

American consumerism in general gives me the heebie jeebies so I just don’t think I could bring myself to spend the mental energy required to (a) spend time looking up deals on the internet and/or (b) go into CVS more than twice a year. Drugstores give me the heebie jeebies even more than grocery stores. At least with grocery stores I can stick to the outside and have it be mostly okay. But there’s no happy spot for me in a CVS or Walgreens, it’s just acres and acres of icky packaged products.

Also I’m slightly torn by the ethics of the whole thing.

On the one hand, these coupons are created by manufacturers to lure people in and to get them to use a product, and the stores and manufacturers are creating the game so it’s up to them to set the rules. If people figure out a way to make money off of it, then that’s the fault of the stores and manufacturers for setting up a flawed system. And obviously not everyone gets things to work at quite this level (i.e., buying only what is free or very cheap) because if they did, the manufacturers and stores would change the rules faster than you can say BOGO.

On the other hand, that’s not really how it’s intended to work — people aren’t supposed to go out and get as many Rolaids coupons as they can get their hands on and then buy scores of Rolaids that they don’t need in order to generate $1 for each one they buy. Especially if there is a limit printed on the coupon. If something says “limit four per customer,” is it okay to get twenty-eight of them and make seven trips through the checkout line so you don’t trigger the limit?

I remembered reading some interesting articles in The Tightwad Gazette about ethics and coupons, so I went back and looked at those and, as usual, I think Amy Dacyczyn is right on.

She talks about how ethical situations are often a gray area where lines are drawn in different places by different people but that determining what is or is not ethical is fairly straightforward. As she says: “It is wrong to save money at the expense of others.”


She goes on to say

Small, seemingly insignificant acts such as pilfering office supplies, swiping sugar packets, and steaming postage stamps, and fudging income taxes and insurance claims merely pass along your costs to other consumers. It doesn’t matter if your boss pays you too little; the restaurant, the post office, or the insurance company charges too much; or if the government doesn’t spend funds entirely on programs that you approve of. The collective impact of this raises the cost of living for everyone.

I’m not sure where buying forty packages of Philadelphia Cream Cheese Minis to generate $1.50 that you use to buy eggs and bananas falls on this continuum, but I do agree wholeheartedly with another statement she makes about using coupons:

Our family generally uses coupons to buy nonfood items, and food items that cannot be prepared from scratch. But most food coupons are for convenience foods. Often the foods are more processed. Even when these items can be purchased cheaply, it should be considered that your family is acquiring a taste for these more expensive and less healthful items. This could potentially create bigger grocery bills in the future. Many of the products have more packaging as well. So even when Jell-O Pudding Snack Paks are near free, I seriously question these purchases because of the environmental issue of the excess trash created.

I think that last sentence is especially relevant to the dollar a day example where the first purchase was of a plastic spray bottle of cleaner along with a plastic tub of spray cleaner refill, the sole purpose of which was to generate coupons, and the next few purchases involved forty individually packaged cream cheeses.

The first part of the quote, about acquiring a taste for more processed foods (which, as a totally unrelated aside, makes me think of the signs about not feeding the bears in Yellowstone) is also important. If I had eight boxes of Wheat Thins, I would eat eight boxes of Wheat Thins. The reason all of these offers for snack foods are buy one, get one is because most people are incapable of eating small quantities of these kinds of foods and the more Doritos, Wheat Thins, Crunch ‘N Munch, and Pringles you have around, the more you will eat, and the more you will buy in the future. Therefore I don’t consider free Wheat Thins to be any kind of bargain, and in fact I’d like Wheat Thins to be as expensive as possible so I ration them properly.

So overall for me, the problem is not with the ethics of it — it’s not like I would do this project if my high moral standards didn’t get in the way — the main issue is that I don’t want to participate in the consumer culture to the extent required to make this work. The reason I want to use less is not just to save money but to make my life easier and to have less of an impact on the world around me. I don’t want to get a whole bunch of processed, packaged products — even if they’re free, and even if I’m going to give them away — because my life got better when I stopped buying things like that, and I think everyone else’s life would get better too, if they relied more on basic ingredients and less on packaged products.

In addition to improving my day-to-day quality of life, I also reduced my resource consumption, which is important to me. Everything you buy — even if it’s “free” — has to be produced, packaged, shipped, stocked, and sold, and when the product is gone, the packaging has to go somewhere. In America, “somewhere” would be the landfill. Which requires additional resources to create, maintain, and keep stocked with fresh trash. The fundamental reason there is a flood of oil in the Gulf is not because BP cut corners or regulators let things slide, but because we use too much oil. Everyone, all of us. The best way to solve the problem is not picketing the local BP station, which is just silly and barely even affects BP, but to use less of everything.

A secondary issue for me is that I don’t want to buy food at CVS. I don’t want to decide what I’m going to eat based on what’s on special that I can get a coupon for. I would much rather spend the time figuring out how to get what I like for as little as possible and work from that angle rather than going at it from the other direction.

And all of this, I think, highlights the fact that there is more than one road to saving money.

You can do what I did and try to buy less, use less, stop using things, and make things yourself, or you can work within the system and get points on your credit card, use coupons, and take advantage of the deals that are out there. In general, I think there are a lot more resources available (blogs, articles, books) for the latter approach, and I think many people probably think that’s the only way to do it, which is the main reason I wanted to do my version of the dollar a day project. I know it seems un-American but it’s possible to spend less by buying less while still being happy.

But no matter what you do, you should think about the big picture and what you want your life to be like and what you want the world you live in to be like. I don’t particularly want to live in a world where there is a CVS on every corner filled with Cheese Doodles and Old Spice bodywash. I suppose it’s possible that the act of maxing out coupons to get free stuff is so subversive that it would ultimately bring down CVS and cause Old Spice to stop making bodywash but I’m not willing to take the chance on that.