Every Wednesday and Sunday — if you subscribe to a paper — you generally receive a healthy dose of coupons. Everything from soups to toilet paper to deli meats are frequently included in the pile. With open arms, many clippers sift through the mass to find a couple deals.
Some people collect them, place them in binders, and combine coupons with store deals. Websites and shows like The Krazy Coupon Lady and TLC’s Extreme Couponing examine, research, and find incredible coupon-based deals. Everyone seems to love coupons!
You should be concerned.
Coupons are developed by vast marketing and advertising teams for corporations. The advertising industry as a whole is estimated to be in the hundreds of billions, and a significant portion is outlined for couponing. But subtly, clipping those weekly coupons affects the psychological decision making in the supermarket. Here are 4 ways that coupons manipulate your spending habits.
1. Clip, cause cognitive dissonance
Every time you clip a coupon, your mind buys a product. Even though you haven’t gone out and purchased the item, to clip a coupon, it’s a commitment of time and action. This has a direct effect on your wallet.
A powerful psychological effect that can occur when you clip a coupon: cognitive dissonance. If, for instance, you decide to clip a coupon and then later question whether you really need the product, this may lead to dissonance. Essentially, this is a distress associated with spending the effort to clip a coupon that you now might not use. For many people, they’ll use a coupon just because they clipped it — regardless if it’s the cheapest option once they get to the store.
2. Exposure predicts spending
Exposure is the key to purchasing a product. What a simple conclusion, right? Well, stores know that the more face time you have with a product, the more likely you are to buy it. If the exposure begins prior to entering the store, you’re effectively being primed for the future purchase.
With coupons, your eyeball sees the product at home. If you clip it out, you are further intensifying the duration of the exposure. More time in front of you equals more money for the grocer and advertiser. How easy!
3. Is that really any cheaper?
One of the most important reasons that people clip coupons is to save money. Ironically, this may not actually lower your shopping bill. Coupons are not usually offered for generic, store-brand merchandise or fresh produce. Instead, they’re frequently marketing name brand items that already have a built-in premium. This added cost often voids any discount associated with using a coupon.
It’s very important to pay careful attention to the coupon you’ve clipped out. At a store, you need to look for generic items, and then compare them to the name brand item for the coupon. All of this takes a level of vigilance and time that many don’t have or care to have at the grocery store. For both time and money, just buying generic items is normally the best bet.
4. Coupons are getting smarter
Smartphones, apps, and online coupon sites are increasingly digging into your spending habits. Your rewards credit card, frequent shopper card, and web browsing history may be leeching your data to third-party companies. These organizations then will compile and predict what you want. They’re so accurate that Target can tell when you’re pregnant, about to have a child, and/or the ages of your children (read Brandwashed for more on this tactic).
By using these predictive tactics, companies can practically read your mind. If they know all your purchases and habits, coupons can be created that make you look at new, similar products. These choices may cost more over time, but offer a great deal at first. If you like the newer product more, the system has worked and you’re hooked. Now, the money is theirs to reap.
It’s not that coupons are always bad or more expensive than generic brands, but they can sometimes change your spending habits for the worse. Moreover, think about all the time that’s necessary to clip those coupons and find the special savings — this adds up. If you spend your time making more money and buying generic, this could actually be smarter in the long run!
It always seems to me that coupons just reduce the name-brand prices to that of generics. I suppose that’s to get you hooked on the expensive product.
I ad match at Walmart like a boss but coupons don’t do me much good as the products with coupons usually would make silly purchases even on sale. No, I don’t need a 3-pound, ready in 3-minutes burrito tray. Thank you, though.
Interesting facts. I try to be as smart as possible with coupons. I only clip what I know I need, and I still compare prices just in case.
Yeah, it can cause issues.I tried to coupon and definitely got overwhelmed, but I think I stayed away from purchasing too much just because I had a coupon. I would try to only clip coupons for stuff I might reasonably buy. For example, I didn’t know if I would specifically buy Dawn, but I knew we’d run out of dish soap and Dawn might be on sale.
I think the most dangerous coupons for prodding you to buy are junk food and snack coupons. Because they’re the easiest to rationalize when you’re already in the store. Add a coupon, and there’s really no hope for leaving the store without chocolate or the like.
I’ve actually never seen the show you posted before the post. I like using coupons for things I need to buy. I’m not sure about buying things just because you can buy them for next to nothing. Or what the lady said “for the thrill.”
Spending habit is still a spending habit but at least it isn’t breaking her wallet. Coupon wisely, I say.
Al | Saving the Crumbs says
Well said, Sam! Another point I might add is that for “extreme couponing” (as opposed to the responsible couponing advocated by some of the previous commenters here) to really pay off requires stockpiling stuff, often junk we don’t need. That’s another way the marketing machine manipulates consumers’ spending habits…we get programmed to expect our car to be loaded to the gills at each shopping excursion.
“While we’re at it, better get a bigger gas-guzzling SUV so we can stock up even more junk we don’t need with coupons each week!”
Sam Lustgarten says
You’ve read my mind, sir. That’s exactly the problem. Nothing is free when couponing. Think about the gas costs, time, and waste that’s associated with the extreme couponing and stockpiling. No, there’s an easier way and it generally starts with generics.
Thanks for your comment!
Not hating on you here but, please, fix the grammatical errors in your last sentence. It should read, “Now the money is theirs to reap”.
Sam Lustgarten says
Good catch! My apologies about those two errors. Not sure what came over me at the end. Ouch!
Thanks for the tip,
I completely agree with all the points you make, but I also think that a smart couponer can avoid or overcome them. Match coupons with sales to get the best deal possible, bring a list and stick to it, and try new products only if they truly fulfill a need and the price is right. A little savvy and self-control go a long way when couponing!
Debs @ debtdebs.com says
Couponing seems so fussy to me. I think when I have more time I will probably do this (when I retire!) When I have done it I have bought things I normally wouldn’t just because I had the dang coupon! 😉
Millennial Cents (@MillennialCents) says
From someone in the advertising world, those coupons are typically issued to encourage a user to “trade up”- basically buy a more expensive brand or product line at a higher price point. Another purpose is to encourage trial- i.e a new product just launched. As long as you are smart about couponing and don’t buy what you don’t need- it can work out. Amy above says it best “A little savvy and self-control can go a long way when couponing!”
Bart Misiewicz says
I have to disagree with the claim that generic products can be compared to name brand products.
Some items might be similar, but for the most part, you’re paying for quality ingredients. Sometimes you can get the name-brand, organic, all-natural, high quality product for less than the store-brand cheap alternative. That’s when it’s worth it
Your post seems more based on grocery shopping, I went to Lane Bryant to use my coupon they mailed me it was $15 off of any $15 or greater purchase. I love their earrings sure enough the earrings were $14.95, EVERY SINGLE PAIR. I had my heart set on them so I bought some socks to bring up my total. I did at least need socks. I noticed coupons you get from stores such as clothing stores as well as the “super cash and bounce back bucks” tend to be less of a deal than if you hit a really good sale some other time. I used to work at JC Penney and sometimes customers would think they were getting a great deal and I so wanted to tell them the price likely would be better in a week or 2, had they asked me if it was a good deal I would have told them to wait but since they seemed so excited I didn’t want to be a Kill-Joy. Like they’d have these pillow sales buy 1 get 1 for a Penny. But those pillows often would be cheaper if you bought 2 during a different sale where you only had to buy 1 to get a great deal.