Monday, January 23, 2012

Couponing & The Big Picture

I love getting a good deal.  It's a rush that my husband just doesn't adequately appreciate.  Thankfully, my girl friends & sisters do, so I always have someone to pat my back and congratulate me on a deal well-snagged.  I set limits & budgets on just about everything, making shopping (when I'm not pregnant, that is) a sort of treasure-hunt or obstacle course that I thoroughly enjoy.  Meal-plans, clearance, sales, off-season purchasing, second-hand stores, repurposing/reusing, coupons, DIY, gardening, buying in bulk, directly from producers or through whole-salers all are my weapons of choice.

While I do use the occasional coupon (especially when the cashier hands them to me with my receipt), I've generally found them to be fairly unhelpful-- either for brands I can't or don't buy, or for products I don't need. The times I have tried to be more aggressive about couponing, I've found that it wasn't worth the time it took for me to try and track the coupons down & print them out, much less hit multiple stores.  Something about some tactics I read about bothered me, too, though I couldn't quite put my finger on it.

The other day one of my favorite blogs (Keeper of the Home) featured this blogpost, entitled "Can Coupons Be Used Responsibly?" and I found myself saying "Yes! That's it! YES!! That's what I've been trying to think but couldn't figure out!"  I LOVE this post. It states simply & persuasively many of the questions & thoughts I’ve had swirling in my head.  I think it hits the nail on the head about our American obsession with “cheap” over quality, especially in the food area.  I encourage you to check it out for yourselves!  The author welcomes comments & is really quick about responding to them.  It does NOT condemn couponing -- it just puts it in perspective and tries to pull back & look at the big picture.

A sample (emphasis original): 
Coupons in and of themselves are not bad. In fact, they can be valuable tools. For example, combining coupons with store sales can maximize savings for the consumer and profit for both the store and manufacturer of the product, as the sharing of the consumer discount minimizes the loss to both store and manufacturer.

This is a realistic part of a free market and it used to work. Lately, though, coupons have been taken out of their proper context and used unfairly. Take, for instance, the idea of stockpiling a product that can be obtained free or next to no cost when coupons are combined with store sales. [...]

The extreme bargain-hunting mindset, which has the potential to take on a sense of entitlement, has essentially dissolved the idea of brand loyalty as consumers begin to make purchases based on the current low price instead.

Unfortunately, as brand loyalty dissipates, commitment to consumers in the form of quality and service has become a thing of the past. Many companies are learning that to stay competitive, offering the lowest price is all that matters to many shoppers today, where in the past, quality was an equally important consideration. In the race to provide the most competitive price today, the cheapest possible materials are often used.
How often do we sit back and think about the labor & ingredients that went into what we bought, and ask ourselves if it was all ethically done?  Is a made-in-India product cheaper because it used child labor?  There's all sorts of thorny issues to be considered:  slave labor, child labor, techniques (many are toxic to the land or harmful to its inhabitants), worker wages, quality of product (cheap ingredients aren't usually good for the body), number of middle men... all of those go into the final sticker price on any item we purchase.  While this tool isn't perfect (it doesn't take into account a lot of variables), it's eye-opening:  The Slavery Footprint test.  Something to think about and pray about for sure.  This website lists the 13 products most likely to be made by forced or child labor.  These are items you may want to consider buying exclusively from fair-trade or local sources.  One last resource to check out is The Story of Stuff, a short animated film that walks through where our stuff comes from & where it ends up.  Watch it!!  Think about it.  This is stuff I'm still trying to figure out.

In our family I’ve found the main way around the cheap-is-best trap without spending extravagantly is to emphasize quality over quantity. Do I really NEED 10 bath & shower products? Not really. I can either make them myself or buy a concentrate that I dilute (less packaging & water cost).  So I spend the same amount as if I’d used double/triple coupons, but I’ve skipped the waste, the harmful chemicals, and I haven’t short-changed anyone on cost. Baking powder, vinegar & essential oils are always pretty inexpensive!

Similarly with clothes: I don’t NEED 20 outfits for my 2 year old. We wash laundry 1-2 a week, so at most she needs 7 outfits + a church outfit.  I either make them myself (usually using recycled material like daddy’s old shirts) buy them consignment (my $3/item limit is final), thankfully accept hand-me-downs, or enjoy Grandma’s gifts.  We give away what we receive extras of.  I also try to only buy brands that we know will last through many children/washings, and/or that are made fairly.  Even with only one child so far, I can tell a difference between the way The Children's Place and Garanimals (the Wal-Mart brand) wear.  By contrast, the outfits my great-grandmother hand-made for my grandma are still going strong!!

The same thinking is applied to our books, toys and food– get the minimum needed, get quality, and take care of it.  I know that our food expense/person is fairly comparable to (if not lower than) most families' despite our need to buy gluten-free, soy-free, mostly organic, seasonal items.  (HAH pregnancy has thrown a wrench in this, though, and we've eaten a LOT more convenience foods the past 4 months than usual!)  There is also the question of "does cheap equal more expenses later?"-- like in health-care expenses or replacement costs. Our daughter isn't allowed to abuse her toys, and she watches them get confiscated if she doesn't take care of them.  (We try to make sure her toys are age-appropriate so that this is a reasonable expectation.) The side benefit is FAR less clean up and clutter! I also feel like having less makes us less “owned” by our possessions. We pay a fair price for what we have (“the worker is worthy of his wages”), we enjoy it, and we use it thoroughly. No extreme couponing needed. :)

What about you? How do you balance the reality of a limited budget with the needs of your family and the burden of living ethically in a global economy?  Have you found a way to make couponing work for you?  Any brands you highly recommend?  If so, why?


Ashley Sarratt said...

Couponing can be a good way to meet others' needs as well. I've used my own small "stockpiles" to donate to the food pantry at church or to some of these other organizations. Why not share with someone else what I can get for basically free? Here's a good article about ideas for giving through couponing.

Nicole Gamble said...

Don’t stop writing, you’ve given me lots of good info!