While you can save money with coupons, even something as simple as collecting and using coupons can impact your finances and health and influence our shared environment and culture. Small actions can have real consequences.
What does “sustainable use” mean? Other articles will define what sustainability is. This article will focus on how collecting and using coupons affects you and the rest of us. I break down sustainability into four components – sustainable money, sustainable environment, sustainable health, and sustainable culture. All of our actions should be weighed against how they will impact each of these four parts.
The good news is that you can save a substantial amount of money by diligently using coupons. U.S. consumers saved nearly $2 billion with coupons during the first half of 2010 and nearly $3.5 billion in 2009 (Promotion Marketing Association Coupon Council). In 2009, Americans redeemed almost 3.2 billion coupons (PMACC).
The bad news is that almost every coupon requires you to spend money in order to “save” money. This isn’t a problem is you were going to buy the item anyway. But purchasing something that isn’t what you wanted just to “save” money is actually a waste of money. It is money you don’t have available to purchase items you do want.
The savings offered by any coupon are reduced by what it costs you to obtain and use that coupon. A coupon you print yourself costs you money in paper, ink, and electricity. Making a special trip to use a coupon costs you fuel, wear and tear on your vehicle, and time (along with producing carbon dioxide and other pollutants). In fact, coupons in general can suck up an amazing amount of your time.
While time may not be money, they are related. Time spent on coupons is time you could be doing something else. Listed below are some of the ways coupons eat up time:
• Locating coupons – There are a lot of blogs and websites offering coupons. You can easily spend hours online looking for coupons and filling out profiles.
• Printing, clipping, and organizing coupons.
• Waiting in line while for some (not all) clerks to process your coupons (this is an especially painful payment of time!). In some cases you might have to talk to a manager before your coupon is accepted.
It is worth noting that generic or “house” brands usually cost less than “name” brands, even with a coupon. In many cases the quality and taste are the same or better. The “name” brands just spend a lot more money advertising.
A large part of living a sustainable lifestyle involves understanding the environmental impact your purchases have on our planet and its inhabitants. Some coupons are for very sustainable products. Characteristics to look for in every product include: 1) minimal packaging that can be reused or recycle, 2) minimal or no toxic ingredients, 3) use of renewable resources, 4) made from recycled material, 5) the product itself is biodegradable/reusable/recyclable.
Of course one of the best things you can do to be more sustainable is to reduce your overall consumption. Just because you have a coupon doesn’t mean it’s something you really need to buy. We’re all (as individuals, nations, and as a species) going to have to switch from being “consumers” to “conservers” if we want to continue to enjoy our comfortable lifestyles.
Acquiring the coupon itself also has an environmental impact. Printing a coupon uses paper (usually one sheet per coupon), ink (most likely black and color), and electricity. Fossil fuels (gasoline, oil, etc.) and other resources were consumed in the production and distribution of these products. Toxic byproducts and waste were also generated. Just make sure to recycle any paper left over from clipping the coupon!
Everyone knows the typical American diet of heavily processed foods is unhealthy. Unfortunately, the majority of coupons are for items that have almost no redeeming properties (except perhaps taste). Coupons for fruits and vegetables (local, organic, or neither) are hard to find. The same goes for minimally processed food. Before using a particular coupon, think “do I want to put this into my body just so I can save a few pennies?”
It is much easier to find coupons for environmentally friendly non-food products though. But the same thought applies. Many products contain ingredients that are toxic (or at least not good for you). It’s almost always better to pass on a coupon for an item that, while cheaper, may give you cancer in the future.
Using a particular coupon sends a message to the retailer and manufacturer that you endorse this product. You did buy it after all. Is this product worthy of your support? Was it produced in a responsible and sustainable manner? Can it be disposed of properly? “Voting with your dollar” is a powerful tool that can effect permanent change. If people stop buying unsustainable products, manufacturers will stop making them. Is it worth giving up your power to make the world a little better just to save a couple of cents?
Do you also endorse the manufacturer? Because buying a product or service from a business effectively says “I like your product and therefore I will support you by purchasing it.” You need to think about whether you really want your money to support this particular company and its activities. Some companies behave responsibly and some don’t. The best way to effect social change is by rewarding good behavior (buy their products) and punishing the bad (don’t give your money to them).
Coupons might seem like small and insignificant things. But the reality is that coupons do have an effect on our lives and our planet. You should consider the following points if you’re concerned about living a sustainable lifestyle:
• Only use coupons for items that you were going to buy anyway
• Decide whether it’s worth the time, expense, and effort to acquire the coupon
• Avoid items that are heavily processed and/or are obviously unhealthy
• Avoid items with a large environmental footprint
• Avoid companies engaged in irresponsible behavior
Does this mean that you’ll actually have to think about everything you purchase? Yes. You do. Everyone needs to. Living on autopilot is one of the reasons we’re in such a huge mess to begin with. Responsible and sustainable use of coupons is a simple way you can save some money and do a little good at the same time.
Be sure to check out my other articles on coupons.