Coupons look like free money, but using them to get real savings can be tricky

Markets Associated Press

Coupons are everywhere. Everyone loves a good deal, and it's easy to start looking around the web or a newspaper or circular and see visions of giant savings dance in front of your eyes. It's like free money, right?

Continue Reading Below

Well, not exactly. Yes, there are tons of ways to save. No, it's not so easy to wade through all the options or pick a plan and stick to it.

First, you've got to realize why coupons were created: to get you to spend.

"We've always said that coupons often encourage people to spend more than they have to and buy more than they want to," says Tod Marks, a senior project editor for Consumer Reports. In recent years, a big coupon trend has been offering savings that only kick in if you buy, say, two or three cans of soup instead of just one.

Coupons steer your shopping behavior in other ways. Companies use coupons to get you to shop at a particular store, buy a particular item, try a new product, or encourage you to spend more than you otherwise would.

But there's another reason. Companies use coupons to offer discounts to bargain-hunting shoppers while maintaining a higher price for customers less motivated by savings. Imagine a supermarket that sells a can of soup for $2. Some shoppers will buy the soup, but others will decide it's too expensive. The store could cut the price to $1 per can to get all of the customers to buy it, but that would slash its profits.

Continue Reading Below

A coupon can give the store the best of both worlds. Dedicated deal-hunters will buy and save money, while everyone else accepts the higher price. And if you're excited about a good deal, you're more likely to buy without thinking.

"People do actually spend more when they think they're getting a good deal," says consumer psychology expert Dr. Kit Yarrow. "There's more focus on ingenuity and shopping prowess than on the item."

Yarrow, a professor emerita at Golden Gate University, says shoppers today expect discounts and don't trust retailers. But coupons let them feel they're making smart choices and leveling the playing field. That feeling is so powerful, they're actually willing to spend more money to get it.

"Retailers know that consumers are a little bit bargain-crazy right now and they're extra susceptible to people who feel like they're smart shoppers and they're getting one over on the system," she says.

The Web is full of coupon strategies and offers, but a few ideas stay pretty constant:

— You need to carefully and honestly evaluate your eating habits. If you clip coupons and use them to buy a lot of food you won't eat, you're wasting money.

— Do your research. Coupons on many foods come and go in cycles, so you may want to learn the patterns at your local supermarket.

— Read the fine print on coupons and be conscious of expiration dates.

All that planning can be a challenge. It's real work. But with some care and focus on a few items, Marks says, you can certainly save money.

If coupons aren't for you, he recommends shopping at warehouse clubs like Costco, which have annual membership fees and regular low prices instead of constant sales. He also suggests buying store brands, which can be much cheaper than better-known national brands.

"There's no reason to pay full price on name brand staples that you buy week in and week out. If you pay attention to the store's flyer, the trends and the sales cycles become eminently clearer," he says.