Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sale Ads and Coupons: Financial Burden or Blessing?

Coffee Talk Thursday
I would love to interview Caroline Ingalls (of Little House on the Prairie) about the way she shopped. Whenever I watch episodes of Little House, I see her stretching what she has on hand, and only buying the bare necessities—the staples if you will—from Olsen’s mercantile (granted she grew most of their food and Mr. Ingalls hunted for the meat). I can’t see her getting sucked into any clever specials: buy 5 pounds of sugar, get one pound free. Maybe she would take advantage of the deal if she needed the item and had the money to buy it, but maybe she would say she only needed one pound of sugar and that was that.

Several months ago, I started wondering if I spend more in the long run by paying close attention to the sale ads (and coupons available online) and shopping by them when I see things at great values. Sure I save lots of money, but would I save more if I paid little attention to the ads and coupons and just bought only what I absolutely need at the time and paid the going price for it (or buying it, and only it, when it’s on sale)? The grocery stores are brilliant at devising clever marketing schemes that get you in the door for a loss-leader item that you often have to purchase several of (or mix and match) to get the savings. These smart campaigns get you to pay more upfront under the guise of saving. You are saving, but you are also spending more than you would have originally.

For example, the Smiths (Kroger) mega deals where you have to buy a combination of 10 items always suck me in. Buy 10, save 50-cents more off the price. Combine that price with a coupon, and you save even more. I can buy Nature Valley Granola bars and cereal for about .50/box. The other day I bought canned tomatoes for .50 each, and evaporated milk for .24 cents a can, which I know were great deals. But I also bought 10 cans of tomatoes, 6 cans of evaporated milk and 4 other participating items to get the deal. I will use, but did not need at the time, 10 cans of tomatoes, 6 cans of milk and the other items—so essentially I spent more than I would have if I was only shopping based on current need.

Another example—Safeway had pineapple on sale for 1.99. I had three .75 off- coupons, which Safeway will double up to $1. So I was able to buy three pineapples for .99 each. A great deal on pineapple, right? But I still spent $3 (plus more on other “great values” in the store that we will use), when I could have passed it all up and spent $0.

To weigh in on this, I asked Brandy of The Prudent Homemaker to lend her thoughts and experience. For those of you not familiar with her story, she has gone months without going to the grocery store—and in case you’re wondering what her family eats, take a look at her menus: they’re quite gourmet!

Here's Brandy!
When I stopped looking at the ads and stopped going to the store completely, it didn't matter if there were good deals out there. I didn't have the money to spend. It's not a good deal if you have to put your groceries on a credit card--and then can't pay the credit card, either. Our income stopped completely, and the savings that we had ran out. I used what savings we did have to pay the mortgage, electric, water, gas, etc. By not buying food, that money went further. When that was gone, that was gone, and then there was nothing left for the utility bills or the mortgage, let alone for groceries.

When you come to that point, it's not a matter of saving money; it's a matter of not spending.

Now, we lived out of our pantry and from our garden for almost 2 years. After 8 months of no income, my husband [in real estate] starting having sales again, but they were far and few between, and our income came in a little at a time. Gradually, it became more regular, but since house prices dropped, my husband's commissions dropped, too. His salary was half what it had been before. We continued living on what we had, what we grew, what others gave us (see my story about Living on our food storage ). Sometimes I could spare $20. I didn't know how long that would last us, so I bought the most I could with it, which usually meant buying potatoes…

I need to make the money I do have to spend go as far as possible. So, how do I do that?

I need to buy things when they are at rock-bottom prices. When you're first building up a stockpile, you may not be able to get as many as you would like, because you need to spend some of your money on other food for the week/month. Buy as many as you can. My goal is to never spend more than the lowest price for things. By doing this, I can buy more food.

Now, your question:

“Smith's has diced tomatoes on their mega sale this week for .50/can. But while I'm there, I'm sure I will pick up a "few other things" that are also on "such a great sale" with my coupons too. But do I really need tomatoes? No. So would it be better to ignore this advertised deal and stay home? That would mean when I do need tomatoes again, I will have to buy them at their full price (perhaps), which means spending more later even though I am saving money now by not going to the store.”
If I were you, and I needed tomatoes, AND I coupons for them too, then I would get them…Maybe you can only get 5 cans. So, get those 5. It's a start, and a good stewardship of your money.

If you need tomatoes again, then you buy them only when they're really low. Refuse to pay more than the lowest price. Eat another meal that doesn't require tomatoes, if need be. Try Walmart for the next-lowest price if you really need some.

However, if it's going to cost you more in gas, then it might not be worth going this time. I don't think it's worth spending $2 in gas to save $1.. I try to make as few trips as possible, and I live close to the stores!

When Smith's has case-lot sales, that's where I spend the bulk of my money for the month. I buy shelf-stable items and we eat from those, and from what we already have...You can spend your month's food budget in one shopping trip at one store in one day, come home with a car FULL of food, and not need to go to the store for the rest of the month.

As far as picking up a few other "good deals" when you're there--that's a matter of self-discipline. Can your budget afford it? Can you afford 2 loaves of bread while you're there, or do you need to make homemade bread this week because the money you're spending on tomatoes is the last of your budget for the month/week? Don't spend more than you have. Find a way to make it work within your budget.

Maybe you want to do the Welch's grape juice deal at Smith's [$2.49 plus $1/off coupon], but, your budget is too tight for that. You COULD go, and use coupons, and spend $1.49 for the juice, but maybe you need to spend that $1.49 on something else. You could drink water (because juice really is NOT a need, but a luxury) and wait to spend that $1.49 on 15 pounds of potatoes this month. The potatoes could feed your family for 3 meals. Which is a better use of your money? Obviously, the potatoes.

If you really feel that you have more than you need, then consider taking a month off of shopping, and eat from your pantry. Put the money you would have used towards debt, in savings, to buy something your family has been needing, or take the whole thing and give it to a charity that can help feed others. You can also use it to purchase some bulk food (say, wheat and a wheat grinder, for example).

Thanks Brandy! Another excellent point about stocking up at rock-bottom prices and then using what’s in your pantry is, as Brandy says, “I can make some well-balanced meals from what I have without going to the store if we can't. We'll have food to eat, and a roof over our heads…And [depending on where you live] I wouldn't have to worry about being stuck inside during storms, or needing to go to the store for milk when there's snow that hasn't been cleared, or when there's an ice storm, etc.”

Tomorrow I’ll share more of my online conversation with Brandy. She has some great advice on how to stock up at rock-bottom prices during this holiday season.

So since it’s Coffee Talk Thursday, let’s have a cup and talk about what you think is the most prudent way to approach grocery shopping. Go by the ads (and coupons too if you coupon)? Or cut costs by cooking from scratch, buying frugal ingredients, and sticking to the bare minimum at the store--avoiding all those advertising lures, unless they’re a deal that’s too great to pass up?

Visit Frugal Fridays for more frugal ideas and inspiration!


  1. Interesting post. I tried to do the couponing thing for a while, but found that I rarely bought the items I could find coupons for and, if I did buy them, to correlate them with one of the "big sales' like you mention above, it meant that I ended up buying other items we don't normally eat nor need. I'd end up with six boxes of $1/box pasta for eight months, because we don't eat pasta that much. It was annoying. I also tried to do the CVS thing but seemed like I was always spending more than if I bought when I actually needed it.


    I've found, now, that I tend to shop the outskirts of the store, the produce, dairy and meat sections. I make most of our own baked goods and that's about it. I rarely, rarely find coupons for what we buy and eat so I've simply stopped focusing on it (and, in turn, our budgets have gone down! :) If I do use coupons, it tends to be for non-food items like shampoo or dish soap.

    I'm not of the mindset that a really reduced grocery budget is ideal, in fact, I'd rather reduce other areas and spend more on nutritious food for my family as I feel that the more nutritious food we eat the lower our medical bills will be over time, but it is important not to overspend and to focus on staying within one's own budget.

    Great post and very thought provoking!


    PS - I'm hosting my (first ever! :) blog carnival next week on slow cooker recipes . . . sure to be some frugal recipes and I'd love for you to join u!

  2. Great post!!! I think most people are trying to lower there grocery bills today.

    If we all start stockpiling now we can be ready if something goes wrong. A lot of times we don't even get notice that something is coming.

  3. Sarah,

    I shop the outskirts of the stores, too. By watching the loss leaders on meat, produce, and eggs, you can save a lot.

    Like you, I use coupons for tolietries (and baby supplies, like Desitin). I buy most other things (pasta, oats, flour, beans, oil, etc.) in bulk.

  4. Hi Sarah, YES!! Your experience about spending more in the long run rather than just sticking to the basics is exactly what I think I am finding too! Even though we would probably pay full price for the staples we need, our bills will come down in the long run because we are not buying other "advertised values."
    I wrote another similar post here about grocery budgets in general:
    I will be sure to stop by your festival! What day is it going to be?

    Brooklyn--great point. Not only do we save money by stockpiling at rock-bottom prices, we would have items on hand to eat for a time if need be.

  5. I needed to read this today, thanks for sharing. I am trying to change my mindset about grocery shopping. I have limited myself to $50 a week and am stretching it as far as I can - which means passing up all but the best sales and only stocking up a little, not a lot. It is taking some getting used to and this post is encouraging, thanks!

  6. Hi Jennifer! Thanks for sharing your reflections! I think I, too, am coming to the realization that I will save more if I also pass up all but the best sales. You're right--getting to that point (and then adjusting to how strange it feels to ignore sale prices!) does take a lot of getting used to. Glad you were encouraged! :)

  7. I find that I do often get caught up in the great deal/must stockpile mentality, when I find that I save the most by only buying what I actually need for meals for the current timeframe for which I'm shopping. Thanks for such a great post!

  8. I have often wondered this very thing. I do use coupons and I especially like to take advantage of triple coupon and super coupon sales. I think if I stopped using coupons completely, I would still spend more money in the long run, because there are many items - even staples - that I only buy when they're on sale and I have a coupon, and if I had to pay full price all the time, I'd waste a lot of money.

    Having said that, if I focused strictly on couponing and loss-leader shopping, I would end up spending money on stuff I 1.) don't really want and 2. ) definitely don't need. Even if it's only $0.50, it's still money. This is something I'm really trying to work on: buying only the deals for food that I really want my family to eat.

    Which brings me to another dilemma, which is that I also want my family to eat healthy, nourishing food. A lot of what is super cheap is highly processed packaged and frozen food. In the long run, I think it's cheaper and so much healthier to make everything from scratch. That sort of stuff (for example, salad dressing), I only buy when I can get it practically free.

    I think the most successful grocery budgeting comes when you combine multiple strategies:

    1. buying only what you need and will actually use
    2. finding deals apart from coupons and sales (i.e., bulk warehouse stores, food outlets, etc.)
    3. researching your area and determining who has the best price on what, so when you can't get it on sale, you're still paying the lowest price.
    4. make as much as you can from scratch
    5. grow your own food (wish I could do this, but I live in an apartment)
    6. doing without anything that is not essential
    7. stockpile wisely

    1. Do you have a patio? My Nana and Aunt have used planter boxes and large flower pots to plant lettuce onions, carrots, radishes, peas and beans. Im sure you could also do squash in a large pot. Just a thought :) and potatoes. If you grow butter lettuce you can cut it and it will just keep growing.

  9. I love this article as well. I always have a love/hate relationship with coupons. I mostly hate them. I try now to just buy staple items in bulk and make as manyt hings as I can from scratch. For instance today my husband wanted hamburgers. We had maburger in the freezer but no buns. Well, I had flour and everything else to make buns so I just whipped up the dough in my breadmaker. I would much rather "shop" this way than to buy a bunch of stuff because it is on sale and I have a coupon. This is just my preference. I know couponing works for many people but it drives me crazy!

  10. Gretchen, that's funny what you said about coupons :)
    Good idea about the hamburger buns! I was thinking of making sloppy joes this week but don't have buns. I, too, should just try to make up the dough in my bread machine. It can't be that hard, right?! Plus, it probably won't take much longer than a trip to the store with three little boys just for a package of buns!

  11. Just jumping in here about the hamburger buns: I save my bread heels in the freezer and then use those for sloppy joes. I don't think my family would tolerate them for hamburgers, but they will for sloppy joes and creamed chicken and other meals like that. Great subject, btw!

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