We were standing in line at the Walmart checkout when my daughter saw it – one of those push-button toys that light up and spin around. I knew what was coming next.

“Mommy, can I have this?” she asked me in her sweetest voice. I could hear the doubt in her voice; she knew what was coming next, too.

“Hmmm, let me see how much it costs,” I answered, stooping down to check the price tag on the shelf. $0.97 – not bad! “Sure,” I told her, handing the toy back to her. I looked at her brother, sitting patiently in the cart and staring at the spinning lights with curiosity. I bent back down, grabbed another toy, and handed it to him. “Here honey, you can have one too,” I said.

But when the bagger scanned the toys, they rang up as $2.97. “Do you still want them?” the woman asked. I hemmed and hawed. Normally I’d have said no – but then I looked at my children’s faces… and I caved.

My Daughter’s Reaction

It wasn’t my decision to buy the now-overpriced toys that shocked me, but my daughter’s reaction to my decision.

“Mommy!” she gasped when she heard my discussion with the checkout clerk, “You never buy anything if it isn’t on sale.” Did I tell you that my daughter is only four? “Don’t you have a coupon you could use?”

When we got out to the car – my children still holding their new toys gleefully in their hands – I thought about what my daughter had said. Was I really so thrifty, so – gulp – cheap, that I only bought things on sale or with coupons? I decided to find out.

My Purchase History

I began my non-empirical research by pulling out all my receipts from the last three months. Yes, I’m the type of person who saves receipts; I have a fear of being audited (maybe that comes from years of watching my father do tax returns as a CPA), what can I say? Anyway, as I looked at the receipts, I started to see a few patterns:

  • I only shopped at the “high-end” grocery store in town when I had coupons, or when the items I was buying were eligible for a discount via my store loyalty card. On average, I saved 50 to 60 percent over retail on my grocery purchases by using coupons or taking advantage of loyalty discounts.
  • If I didn’t have a coupon for a grocery item, I only bought it at the low-cost/discount grocery store on the other side of town. In other words, I never paid full price for groceries.
  • I bought virtually all our household paper products from Costco, ensuring that I paid discount prices for them. I also filled my gas tank at the Costco station, giving me a discount of a few cents for every gallon I purchased.
  • I’d bought all my kids’ clothes at consignment sales – usually during the half-price session on Saturday mornings.
  • When I’d had the oil changed in my SUV, I’d used a $10 coupon I found online.
  • The only reason I got my hair cut last month was because I got a Groupon for the salon, giving me 55% off the usual price for a shampoo, cut, and style.
  • I used discount codes found online to purchase gifts for a few family members who have birthdays next month. For one such relative, I bought a gift card to his favorite home improvement store, using a discount gift card website to get it for 14% off face value.
  • We’d only gone out to dinner at restaurants where I had a coupon.

It was painfully apparent – my penchant for getting a good deal had become a habit… maybe an obsessive habit. My daughter’s innocent analysis of my shopping habits was dead on; I did only buy things if I could get them for less. There were virtually no exceptions to my buy-for-less ways. During that three month period, I’d used coupons, discount codes, in-store promotions, shopped clearance or sale items, or made my purchases at a discount retailer on a full 93 percent of my transactions.

What It Says About Me

I’d like to argue that my penchant for buying things on sale says a lot of positive things about me: things like, “I’m frugal,” or, “I relentlessly search for good deals.” And maybe it does… but I fear it says a lot of negative things about me, too. Refusing to pay full price for something can also limit my spontaneity, which can sometimes limit my joy as well. Just look at how excited my kids were by my decision to pay full price for a simple toy; how many times had I given up that exuberance because I couldn’t save an extra ten percent?

This doesn’t mean I’m going to start paying retail for everything that crosses my path. Rather, I’m going to learn that in certain situations – albeit few and far between – an item in question is worth more than its price tag; in some cases, an item – or my loved one’s reaction to it – can be priceless.

Reader, do you insist on buying things on sale all the time? How often do you use discount codes or coupons to save money? All the time? Some of the time? Rarely?

Libby Balke

Libby Balke