Move aside, Arthur Miller; I’ve got a real American tragedy for you, a story that simply must be told. It’s a tale that includes neglect, loss, and – the epitome of any tragedy – death. Namely, it’s the rise and fall of my coupon binder.

My Birther Story

It was April 2010, and my husband and I were just beginning to formulate our plan to make me a stay-at-home mom. The major goal of our plan was to increase our emergency fund to hold 12 months’ worth of expenses. To get there, we employed every possible tactic:

  • We shopped around for lower insurance rates on everything from our homeowners insurance to our auto insurance, sometimes agreeing to higher deductibles in order to secure lower premiums.
  • I contacted all of our telecom providers in hopes of getting them to give me discounts or knock me down to promotional rates. In some cases, I was successful; in other cases, I had to make good on my threat to cancel my services.
  • I cancelled my husband’s gym membership; he’d only gone twice in a two month period, hardly a track record for success.

In addition to these, I also started couponing. My goal was never to become an extreme couponer, although as an anniversary gift that spring, my husband did buy me a coupon binder, which at the time I called, “The best gift he’d ever given me.” (I was being serious; it showed that he was as committed to making my stay-at-home mom arrangement work as much as I was.)

Expanding My Collection

For the next two years, I immersed myself in couponing culture. I watched shows on TLC devoted to couponing; I subscribed to couponing blogs; I attended classes designed to help me improve my couponing skills. I also went to extremes to help build up my coupon binder’s stockpile:

  • I always stopped by the gas station on the way to church to buy the Sunday paper; I could have subscribed, but then I’d have had to pay the delivery boy… and that would have cost money.
  • I had friends and neighbors save their unused coupon inserts from their Sunday papers; this was especially helpful when my mom started sending me her circulars from out of state, which tended to have higher dollar value coupons.
  • I enlisted my husband to sort through the Sunday papers at his work (he was a detention officer at the time) and bring home the coupon inserts; the inmates at the county jail had no use for the coupons, in my opinion.

I never resorted to dumpster diving, as I’ve seen some extreme couponers do, nor did I ever take out a dozen subscriptions to our local Sunday paper, as a friend of mine did in order to secure multiple copies of the same coupon. What I did do to supplement the coupons from my Sunday paper was to log on to coupon websites like Coupons.com, RedPlum, and SmartSource; from there, I could print out online coupons at my leisure. Sometimes, when I’d reached my IP address’s limit, I’d call friends or family members to print out more coupons from their home computer on my behalf.

Couponing = Savings

As I compiled my monthly budget, I quickly saw how far couponing could take me. I made it my goal to use coupons to save at least 33% on every trip to the grocery store; when I factored in in-store coupons and promotions, I frequently found myself saving 80% or more on a single order. I kept track of the savings I could directly attribute to couponing between August 2010 and July 2011 – here’s a sample:

  • August 2010 (5 weekly shopping trips): $73.25 saved
  • September 2010 (3 weekly shopping trips, plus grocery shopping on vacation): $38.00 saved
  • January 2011 (5 weekly shopping trips): $89.50 saved
  • May 2011 (4 weekly shopping trips; my son was born on the 3rd of this month, and we bought more prepared foods than normal): $60.50 saved

As my son got older and started eating solid foods, his dietary demands became a factor in our budget; at the same time, I found it more difficult to keep track of my savings, although it didn’t stop me from avidly couponing.

So What Happened?

I continued hoarding coupons for my coupon binder through May of this year… until my family got sidelined by sickness. It seemed like we got sick every weekend for the entire month of June. This kept us from going to the store to buy the Sunday paper; it also forced my husband to call in sick to work, preventing him from scooping up coupons at work.

The next month, my husband got transferred to patrol duty, which meant no more free coupons at the jail. I’d gotten out of the habit of buying the Sunday paper for coupons during our “sick month”, and had a hard time remembering once everyone was feeling better; it didn’t help that we switched churches and no longer drove past a gas station on the way to mass. One of my friends who’d always been great about giving me her coupon inserts moved away, and my mother cancelled her newspaper subscription and switched to a digital version instead.

I found myself with just online resources to nab coupons, which was fine by me… until the middle of July, when we ran out of colored ink in our printer. That usually would have been fine, since I print coupons with black ink anyway, but the printer we’d purchased a few months earlier didn’t let you print in black if the color ink was out (it’s beyond annoying). With color ink costing $25 for our printer, we just let it slide… and with it went the couponing.

When I checked my coupon binder on a recent shopping trip, I had just a handful of random coupons for products I rarely buy anyway. It was official: my coupon binder had met an untimely death due to neglect.

But I’m OK, Really

Here’s the thing: I’m ok with it. In hindsight, I realize that I was spending several hours a week on my coupon binder, but – over the year I actually tracked my spending – had averaged just $60 a month in savings. As a freelance writer, time is literally money – I realized that I could have earned that $60 in far less time by doing paid work instead of finding, clipping, and sorting coupons.

Last week, I made it official and tossed out the old coupon binder. I realized I simply didn’t have the time or determination for it anymore. I accepted the fact that my time was more valuable than $60 a month. I pledged to stop buying things my family didn’t need – let alone want – simply because I had a coupon for them.

I used to say that my coupon binder made me a smarter shopper, a more savvy shopper; I’ve heard other couponers say the same thing. But now that my couponing days are behind me, I can clearly see that my binder simply made me more likely to spend, using coupons as an excuse.

Reader, what’s your couponing philosophy? Do you avidly clip? Why or why not?