Social shopping and coupons, are they really a good deal?

Are you social shopping?

“Social shopping” is gaining in popularity right now. Through web sites like Living Social and Groupon, it is possible to get discounts on different products and services in your local area. Social deal web sites send you tips about which deals are available, and then you can go spend money, getting up to half off — or more — on different items.

One of the questions you have to ask yourself as you sign up for these deal sites is this: Am I really saving money? Or are you just looking for a reason to spend it?

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Image source: Taffy’s Pizza

Spending Money is Still Spending Money

When you are spending money, no matter what sort of “deal” you are getting, you are still, in fact, spending money. While you can find some good bargains with social deal sites, it’s not as if you are putting that money into a high yield savings account or investing for the future. You are spending it. And, quite probably, on something you don’t need.

Just like the people that use payday loans in order to have a night on the town rather than pay bills, this category of people often use coupons unnecessarily. Before you get excited about saving getting £10 worth of ice cream for £5, stop and ask yourself: Do you even want ice cream? And how much ice cream are you going to get anyway? Going to a sweet shop to get a couple of scoops of ice cream can be expensive. That £10 gift card (that you only paid £5 for) might only be enough for two dishes. You might be able to go to the store and get a half gallon of ice cream for £5 — and it would provide more than two people with a delicious dessert.

Another issue you need to address is whether or not you would be spending money on that particular product or service if a deal wasn’t being offered. If you wouldn’t go buy that new pair of shoes anyway, the truth is that your social deal is providing you with an excuse to spend money that perhaps you should be using for something else.

What If You Use Your Social Deals?

Matt Farage, from the lending site Simple Payday, has first-hand experience in social deals and coupon websites.

“Social deals can be useful in some cases. My wife and I do a lot of shopping on Amazon. This includes buying our pasta, and a few other grocery items, in bulk. When a £20 Amazon promo balance was offered for £10, I signed up for a deal site just to get it. It saved us on the pasta order we made shortly thereafter. However, I have not used a social deal since then. The spa deal was tempting, but I’m not planning to get a spa treatment anytime soon — and even with the discount offered, the spa in question still cost more than the services I get at my local salon.”

The key to making the most of social deals comes down, like so many things in personal finance, to honestly evaluating your needs and disciplining your spending. Like coupons for new products and services that you wouldn’t even think about getting under normal circumstances, social deals might not be the best option for you. Be choosey about which deals you spend money on, and make sure that your spending is part of your overall financial plan.

How to be a hardcore couponer

We all know those stories about people who walk into a grocery store with a fist full of coupons and walk out with a cart full of food, paying about £1.56 for about £156.00 worth of food? I’m not one of those people. It’s not because I have anything against hardcore couponers, I think they deserve a lot of respect for their organization, creativity and discipline, it’s just that I don’t have the time it takes to do hardcore couponing well. That and when I look at the coupon inserts, I see a lot of products I normally wouldn’t buy on a daily basis (a lot of prepared foods, microwavable meals and the like).

So how do they do it? Well, back when every site under the sun had a coupon section, I read all of it to figure out how these hardcore couponers did it. Basically, they keep the coupons they collect filed in a very well-organised way; then they scour the local circulars to see where the coupons could be applied towards sales for the most benefit. Knowing which stores doubled or tripled (or more!) coupons made it possible for a savvy consumer, which all hardcore couponers are, to get products for absolutely nothing. Then, they would strike.

To get more than the typical consumer’s share of coupons, hardcore couponers resort to other means such as trading in online forums, joining coupon clubs, and dumpster diving. Dumpster diving isn’t as disgusting as you would think if you consider that if you live in an area with recycling, the inserts are going to be with other paper (not typical waste) products. You might even find a magazine you want to read.

I love a good deal.

For years, I’ve seen all the grocery store coupon sites out there listing wonderful combo deals, how you can get free this and free that, but I never did it because I didn’t want to spend the time it takes to clip, sort, and manage coupons. I didn’t want to try to match them up with the sales circulars and double/triple coupon promotions to get the best deal possible.

I have nothing against people who do this, in fact I’m very envious of their organizational ability. I know that’s what it took to be a coupon ninja, I’d probably last a week or two, then it would fall by the wayside the first chance it could. That’s just how I am (I don’t bother with new year’s resolutions either!).

However, there’s a much easier way to be a coupon ninja and it involves the power of the internet.

Basics of Couponing

The key to the game and the most important idea to remember when being a coupon ninja is that you’re trying to minimise per unit costs and maximising the effectiveness of a coupon. You do this by researching when sales and coupon promotions (where they double or triple manufacturer’s coupons) match.

Forget brand loyalty. It’s irrelevant. If you want to be an effective coupon ninja, you look for the best matches for the types of products you use.

Forget whether or not you “need” something, you’ll want to stock up on non-perishable products when they’re cheap, even if you don’t need them.

It’s not one size fits all

Coupons come in two major types – online printable coupons and offline coupons included in circulars. When you see people talk about buying three copies of the Sunday newspaper, it’s because they want three copies of the coupons that come with those newspapers.

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There are three coupon “packages” that might come with your paper – Red Plum, P&G Brand Saver, and Smart Source. You might also hear of some places referring to “Catalinas,” those are the coupons that are printed at the register when you checkout, the company running it is Catalina Category Marketing.

How to Become a Coupon Ninja

This is how I do it:

  • Take the coupon circulars out of the newspaper and write the date on it with a Sharpie.
  • I take all the circulars and sort them by date and just leave them in a stack.
  • Go to a coupon site and see what packages together for a good deal.
  • Each one of the sites will have a slightly different interface but once you get used to the acronyms, it’s very quick to pop in each week to see if there are any good deals.

I don’t cut coupons, I don’t sort them, I just put them in a stack so I can reference them when I see a good deal. You’ll also start seeing some trends if you do this for a while. For example, coupons are most effective a few weeks after they’ve been sent out. The coupon will match in-store promotions and, if you get doubling or tripling, you can get things for very low cost.

What are ECBs?

If you watch enough of these sites, you’ll see them start referring to ECBs. ECB stands for Extra Care Bucks and it’s part of a program at CVS. Extra Care Bucks is their loyalty card program and they often give these “instant rebates” on products you buy. ECBs accrue on your account and are applied during your next purchase.

So, you may buy toothpaste that’s for sale for £2.49 with £1.99 in ECBs. You may have a 50 cent off coupon that you can use to make the toothpaste “free.” The £1.99 in ECBs can be used the next time you shop (or the next week, I forget the exact rules). So “Free after ECB” refers to that little game.

Just the beginning…

I’m only willing to devote a small amount of time to couponing but if you’re willing to do more, you can save a bundle on the things you buy. As you can see, my little system only takes a few minutes to do each week. You aren’t signing up for a huge endeavour, this is simple stuff.

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