Is couponing ethical?

A few posts below one reader was worried because a family member had criticized or raised concern about couponing and getting things for free. Suggesting that it might not be ethical. I am not trying to single you out Susan, you have a reason to be concerned especially if someone is suggesting you are doing something wrong and personally I would be worried about their opinion of me. But, the facts are COUPONING IS COMPLETELY ETHICAL AND LEGAL, if you do not take advantage of it.

A few months ago I wrote a post about the life cycle of a coupons. I have been searching for hours for the post to give you a link. It was apparently lost in one of my moves, I can't find it anywhere, I must have mislabeled it! I spelled out what happened from the time you cut the coupon out and used it until the store was fully reimbursed for it by the manufacturer. Citing sources and statistics about the benefit to the stores and the manufacturers when you use a coupon. Not only are you going to the store and shopping there, more importantly you are moving their merchandise, which as my CVS manager explained to me, is more beneficial to them that they give you it your free and get reimbursed than it just sitting there.

Now, there are ways in which couponing is unethical and just the same as stealing. This is were I jump on a soapbox. When I teach a coupon class unfortunately I have to spend quite a bit of time on explaining the "right" way to use coupons. When people use coupons the "wrong" way they ruin it for the rest of us.

What to NEVER do with a coupon.

NEVER use coupons for products they are not intended for. If a coupon says you must buy 2, you must buy 2. Even if the coupon does not beep when they scan it. If you try and slip these through it is coupon fraud, this costs the stores and the manufacturers money. It is stealing.

NEVER use expired coupons. There is the possibility they will not get reimbursed for them. Stores usually have 3 months to send in their coupons after they expire, but that is not for us to decide. If you are trying to slip these through, that is also stealing.

NEVER EVER copy coupons. I have heard that printable coupons have a unique code in the barcode that is linked to your ip address. If you copy them the code is all the same they can track it to you, it is coupon fraud to copy ANY coupon.

NEVER Decode the Barcode. I am not even going to start explaining what this is. I heard it being discussed at one point and just walked away. It was clearly taking advantage of the "system" and coupon fraud at the best.

NEVER alter coupons. I am going to throw in, or use pdf's sent to you by friends. MANY pdf coupons in files are fraudulent. They have been altered by people and then spammed around the internet. Honest Friends send theses around, but many times they are not valid. Be VERY cautious, esp. if they are high value, anything over $2.

NEVER buy something with a coupon, intending to return it for full value. This blows my mind. You might as well just steal it from the store and not bother with the coupon in the first place. Also, stores will "tag" you and keep track of anything that you do in their store, with good reason. My CVS will tell me stories about people like this, they know exactly who they are. They have refused to sell them anything with a coupon.

Fortunately, most people don't do these things. I have to admit that I have mistakenly used an expired coupon and not realized it, only to have the cashier catch it. I am really embarrassed and apologize.  I have also later when I have gotten home and was typing out scenarios here, realized I used a coupon that was intended for 2 products on 1. Obviously, I had to not use that deal. But it wasn't intentional. So, we might make a few mistakes, but, knowingly taking advantage is completely another story.

The future of couponing and finding great deals depends a lot on the people using coupons. If people are stealing and manipulating coupons, manufactures will stop using them to entice us into buying their products. They are hoping that we like their products and tell our friends. They want us to buy that product in the future even if we do not have a coupon.

Off my soap box now... what do you think? How do you feel about coupons?



Jen said...

Very good post. I agree with you 100%. When someone oversteps boundaries it makes things harder for everyone else.

Susan said...

Thanks for all the info. I tried to email you privately but you called me Sarah and my name is Susan. I just didn't want people confused if they were trying to follow along. It doesn't bother me at all though. Thanks so much for all the info. I won't worry about negative feedback anymore and everything you said made perfect sense.

Can you answer a few questions for me? I bought 5 papers today for 1.50 a paper and I went through the coupons and I wondered if I would really save enough to make it worth purchasing almost $30 dollars worth of papers...

Also now that I have the coupons do I start using them or do I want to hold onto them until I might get a better deal or something...

Thanks so much for all the help from you and you're readers.

Emily Heizer said...

@Susan: If you bought 5 papers at $1.50 each, that would only be $7.50 total, not $30. Where did you get that $30 from??

@ Tiff, totally agree with you, it hadn't even occured to me personally that any of those "scams" were even possible to do. I would never do that. I am not into doing things that get me in trouble.

QUESTION: I totally spaced and got wrapped up with Sunday dinner and never went out and bought papers today!!! :( :( :( It is 12:06am my time... any idea where it' possible to still get a Sunday paper somewhere tomorrow? What happens to the unsold ones? Where do they go? Any ideas? This waqs such a big insert week! I am soo bummed. I'm not sure I can brave the 24 hour WalMart at this hour when I am already in bed in my pj' on the offchance they might still have one left... :( Ideas?

Electra said...

Susan: I did a little early shopping off my new 1/3 papers today. I bought four copies at 1.75 each, for a total of 7.42 after tax. I went to Walgreens and used a BOGO Stayfree coupon that saved me 5.99, and a BOGO Reach coupon that saved 3.99. I also went to CVS and used two Nivea bodywash coupons that saved me 4.00 total on really big bottles of lovely body wash. With just those four coupons out of the hundreds I'm still sorting, I made back in savings everything I spent today on papers. It is really not hard! =)

To The Mom: Excellent article, and good tips on what to not do while couponing! I'd love to also see an article on couponing etiquette, things that may not be unethical, but are just not nice to do. I can never find any coupon books at my local drugstores because people pick up piles of them and they run out. It makes me mad to see them being auctioned on eBay later! I never got the very useful Healthy Savings Book for that reason. There are also things like what register should you use, is it better to go shopping in off hours if it'll take a long time to check out, should you stock up as much as you can if it'll clear the store's inventory on day 1, etc. I think it would be really interesting.

Money Saving Maine-iac said...

Great post! Very infornative!

Kenda said...

Love this post!! I just started couponing 3mo ago and cant believe what I have saved. I am so excited about it I have recently started my own blog. I am still learning but love it. My girlfriend works in retail and you wont believe some of the fraudulent coupons they have come across. I hope that anyone who takes time to read mommy blogs, clip coupons and scores on great deals, does it with the highest ethical standards and does not try to cheat. Like all of us couponing and writing blogs...its a process to learn but there is so many helpful sites and classes that you do not have to cheat to get great deals!!!

The Mom said...

Sorry Susan! I will change your name in the post! Are you talking about $30 a month in papers? It is worth it. Hang onto your coupons until you can combine them with a store sale or until you have to use them right before they expire. The biggest mistake newbies make is blowing all their coupons too soon on things they normally would not have bought and not on sale. You always want to try and combine coupons with some kind of store sale.

Great ideas for some more posts. I have thought about the ethical but rude things that people do. Like HIDING items in a store before a sale. I am not sure if my blood pressure and take it though :)

Catherine said...

Great points, Tiff. Whenever I run into a questionable coupon online, especially PDF's, I go to snopes.com to check it's validity.

Mary said...

Great post! Another issue that I have with it (and see a lot around here) is people using multiple cards, especially at CVS. If I don't get there at 8 am on Sunday morning I won't be able to get any deals. There are several women who shop at the same store as me who use, their card, their "husband's" card, their "mom's" card. They will have 4-5 of a "limit 1" item in their carts and nothing will be left for everyone else. It's even worse when an item has a higher limit. A few weeks ago I waited until after church to go and all of the Thermacare were gone, it was only 9:30 am! I know the deals are great but I would encourage people to let others share in the deals. The cashiers are aware of this as I've discussed it with them but are too timid to tell people they can only use one card. I would imagine these people are the same ones who are hoarding and have ridiculous stockpiles that they will never get through! It is certainly a great idea to use coupons and store programs to get what you need but it becomes an obsession to some.

Anonymous said...

So I am new to coupon shoppping and have appreciated all the help with learning the ropes of how to go about using my coupons to the best of my ability. I am unfortunately embarassed and a little ill because I was unaware that copying coupons was illegal until this post. I would print off the coupons off the internet and make a copy for my mother who does not have the time to do it herself. I thought this was the same as her doing off her own computer. The other topics that you have brought up are things i have never done because they were common sense to me. In short i wanted to say thanks for this info for beginners because my goal is to save all the money I can but in a way that I can sleep easy at night!

oliv2b said...

I totally agree that when people use coupons ethically it does not hurt the store or manufacturer. I used to buy primarily store brands to save money, and now with coupons I have begun purchasing some items that I might have never tried were it not for the coupons.

I did get really annoyed at one woman at Kroger the other day. I found her in the juice aisle and she had found some Ocean Spray 100% cranberry juice that still had the $1 off peelies. Well she literally stood their peeling off 10 to 12 bottles (all the remaining bottles with peelies). Put one bottle in her cart and walked off with a handful of peelies. I so wanted to say something...but I was just standing their with my mouth open. That ticks me off!
-Heather a.k.a. "proud to be a frugalista" :)

The Mom said...

Anon! Don't loose any sleep, now you know that you can't copy coupons. The main reason is that they have a print limit on each one. The company might only be able to reimburse up to 100,000 coupons. But if we are all copying them and they have to reimburse 300,000 coupons it isn't in their budget.

Interestingly enough, at work a few weeks ago I had printed off some coupons to our BIG main printer. Before I was able to go and get them someone grabbed the stack and ran the pile of their copies ( including my coupons) off in the copier. All my coupon pages came out black. It took us a few minutes to figure out why we had black copies in the stack, but then realized the coupons had gotten mixed in. Some of the coupon sites are able to keep people from copying them. Brilliant!

Susan said...

I a ml oving all this great feed back! I really want to make this work!

I was averaging thiry dollars a month for papers. That is where I came up with that total.

Also we have been living so frugally that I never buy body wash or some of those items so I worry if I start because I have a coupon I will be spending more. I will just have to see how good the deals are but am excited. I fell asleep thing about coupons.

So on the Albertsons coupons where you can double a coupon, it says three coupons per family per trip. Since I now have five of those coupons, do I make several trips in town or do I just use three today and three tommorow, they expire tommorow. What do you all do? What seems "right" to do?

I vowed to try this for three months. I even ordered 6 months of that magazine (can't rememeber name off hand)to see how all this goes. I hope it can change my life as well.

Thanks guys!

Amanda Davis said...

I agree with you completely! So glad to see you posted this today! I was just having the same discussion with my dad. I, much like Susan, am being "judged" but not because he thinks it's stealing, but because he think it's embarrassing and only poor people coupon. That made me so upset! I sat down with my dad and basically explained to him that my husband goes to work AND school so he can support us. We have a wonderful home and a great life. I'm lucky enough to stay home with my son, so why would I not want to save my family as much money as possible in order to make the best out of the money he earns?
Glad I got that out :)

Thanks again for this posting!

The Mom said...


Google The Rachel Ray show where she did the entire thing on coupons. Send your Dad the link. Did you know that the largest group of people who coupon are in the above $70,000 income? The smallest group of people who coupon is the under $24,000 a year income.

Think about that for a while. There is a reason that people are successful and a reason that people stay at a certain income level.

Anonymous said...

I think couponing is great especially now that times are so tough. I don't use them like I should because i get so frustrated that when I try to get in on one of the hot deals all the items are sold out. I have talked to employees at different stores that I shop at like cvs and they tell me that so many people come in with multiple cards and buy all of the stock out so there is none left for anyone else to get in on the good deals. I understand that everyone wants a good deal but don't be greedy about it, personally I think that is wrong and taking advantage of the store card deals.

Joy said...

Great discussion going on with this one. It is sad when people try and beat the system and do things dishonestly. Stealing is sin even if it is with a .35 coupon.
If we all play within the rules it will be best for all concerned.

My father in law was saying over Christmas how he hates to be behind someone in line with a hand full of coupons. Obviously he never reads my blog. haha.
We don't live in the same state, but I told him he didn't want to go grocery shopping with me.
I think it is ethical and makes us a good steward of our money God has provided us.

.:Anna:. said...

What a great discussion! Right now it's just my husband and I, and we would be OK if we didn't coupon, but honestly it's SUCH a money saver.

Sometimes I buy things I normally don't because I have a coupon, but when it's only $.50 or sometimes free, I can't resist.

There is a LOT more helpful information if you click on the "Coupon 101" tab... helped me :)

Anonymous said...

Hi thanks so much for this post. For anyone wondering about newspapers one way to save is to ask your local gas stations what they do with the papers left on Mon morn. i know with ours if there is anything left i can go up mon and morn and get them for free. Hope this helps someone and it is worth checking out.

The Mom said...

email me at mylitter@mac.com and I can answer anything quicker than on here.

You are lucky! We dont have albertsons doublers here! I would make 2 different transactions. Buy my first 3 items with the doublers than even go put my groceries in the car and come back and use the last 2.

Unless you really want to make 2 different trips to the store.

Amanda Davis said...

The Mom: Thanks! I'll have to look it up! My dad is just becoming more and more uptight with old age :P I don't let it bother me, though. I even tried giving him a coupon for a Christmas present he got for my son for Christmas and he said "no thanks!" It's his prerogative, right?! However, he did help me get the great deal on diapers this weekend at ToysRUs, so maybe my little talk with him helped him understand!

The Taskers said...

Great post, Tiffany. I agree with Mary; I believe that one "unethical" way of couponing is using multiple cards at the same store. Even having a "wife" and "husband" card registered to the same household address is considered "illegal" according to store policies (i.e. CVS). Its really annoying, and just playing rude, when you're at CVS and trying to get a week's deal and you see people with carts brimming with things that you know can't go through on one card. At the end of the day the store workers who are checking them should really enforce the policy, but they rarely do. And even if they did, someone would just stop shopping at that store and go to another one that let's the get away with it. It's just about common courtesy, something that's unfortunately lacking in this world.

Keep up the great work!

The Taskers said...

Great post, Tiffany. I agree with Mary; I believe that one "unethical" way of couponing is using multiple cards at the same store. Even having a "wife" and "husband" card registered to the same household address is considered "illegal" according to store policies (i.e. CVS). Its really annoying, and just playing rude, when you're at CVS and trying to get a week's deal and you see people with carts brimming with things that you know can't go through on one card. At the end of the day the store workers who are checking them should really enforce the policy, but they rarely do. And even if they did, someone would just stop shopping at that store and go to another one that let's the get away with it. It's just about common courtesy, something that's unfortunately lacking in this world.

Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

Great post Tiffany. I would also like to include one more thought. It is "not okay" to take someone else's coupons without permission. For example, I buy my coupons from a local dollar store on Sunday mornings. Many times, I get home to find my coupons missing. Someone is stealing the coupons out of the papers at the store. And, it is not okay if you work at a hospital to steal the coupons that belong to individual patients. Patients pay for the papers delivered to their rooms. It is not okay to swipe their coupons without their permission. Shame on coupon swipers!

MM said...

I just have to add a comment on using multiple cards at a store. I am a new mom (pretty new) in which my husband currently has 3 jobs and still is around to be a dad. I have been couponing for a little less than a year. I agree that it is wrong to have multiple cards "wife, husband, etc." However, shopping on the weekend is the only time a get a break from the little one, in which my mom watches him. In exchange for my mom watching my son so I can have some time off and get my shopping done more efficiently, I do her shopping along with mine. Also, it is not uncommon around here to get 2 feet of snow at any given storm, and being older, my mom does not feel safe driving in the snow in her little vehicle. So while it is wrong that people have multiple cards for themselves. In my case, I may at certain times have to make two transactions using two seperate cards if my mom wants to take advantage of a deal I want. If she doesn't want the same things I do, then I just use mine (then I get to rack up on my quartly savings...shhh...don't tell her)! So this is an example in which I am using the cards the way they should and not trying to empty the store. Though I agree that there are those that do, some people are definitely not doing it legitimately, though it seems like more and more are not.

shooterstrigger said...

Think about that for a while. There is a reason that people are successful and a reason that people stay at a certain income level.
There are many reasons people don't or cant use coupons. The majority of coupons are aimed at suburbanites. White families, such as your own, where the mother has the luxery of staying home. People in those lower income brackets are typically from minority groups or single parent households. Minorities are going to use fewer coupons because there are fewer available for the products they use that are specific to their culture. For example, there are always several shampoo coupons available in the Sunday circular...when was the last time you saw one for black hair care products? I am sure African American coupons are available but they typically are going to take more time to locate and obtain. which brings me to my next point...time.
Many people are not going to find couponing to be an effective use of their time. I read an article that said if you spent as little as 30 minutes a week clipping coupons you could save $6500 a year. Well, that only amounts to $4.50 an hour. I imagine, a single parent working long hours to support their children would rather have an extra half hour a week with their child than work another job for $4.50 an hour. You said you save $500 to $600 a month by useing coupons. That is impressive, but I would challenge you to add up the hours you work clippong, organizing, plannning, and shopping. Add in the money you spend on papers, magazine subscriptions, and purchasing coupons (which btw is not ethical). I would be surprised if you find that you are "working" for more than minumum wage. Everyone does what they think is best for their family. You stay home and clip coupons to help out. I chose to work for more than minimum wage. My husband and I work opposing shifts to keep our son out of daycare. My DH and I love our carreers. Our jobs are very secure so I don't ever have to worry about layoffs or cutbacks. On the down side, they are service positions and therefor don't pay the greatest. We are in that under $70,000 bracket. Clipping coupons is not going to improve the quality of our life. The time I have available to spend with my husband and child is worth far more than minimum wage.
That being said, I do uses coupons when I can and work to use my money and time as well efficently as possible. I like your blog because you have so much information all together and I don't have to waste time looking for deals. But honestly I enjoy your "family" stories far more than the rest of the blog.

The Mom said...

It is hard, esp. when you are a working Mom as well. I should know, I work outside my home as one of the Director's of a private preschool.

Anna said...

I am always surprised at people who choose not to coupon-it's like turning down free money. If someone handed me $30 and said, "Cut this money up in your spare time and you'll save $600 in the next 30 days!" I'd gladly do it.

Since money is time, and time is money, using your time wisely would benefit your income.

After children are in bed and you're enjoying a 1/2 hour TV show that time would be an ideal to cut coupons. The ability and desire to multi task is the key.

As far as spending the time to clip, organize and shop, it goes back to being effecient. If you are organized, it literally takes minutes of your time to coupon. And as far as spending time shopping-unless you have everything ordered online for you by someone else and then delivered to your home, you are going to have to leave your house and go shopping anyway. Once you learn how to coupon, it takes minutes of your time to save extra money, without the time spent away from home at a third job. It can be argued that perhaps yes, you could get the same amount of money by picking up a second job, but then you would be away from home, on your feet, and it wouldn't be as simple.

I do not feel that coupons are aimed at suburbanites. There are coupons for dish soap, hand soap, cleaners, paper products, food, band-aids, hygiene products (especially for teeth), etc, and school supplies, which hopefully are being used by all ethnicities, whether or not they make more than $1,000 a year. Most of these products are free when purchased with a coupon which would be even a bigger reason for those who have a low income to learn how to coupon.

Thankfully, its a free country and people can choose to do whatever they want. Many people, including those who are NOT white, find that couponing is an effective and satisfying way to save money.

shooterstrigger said...

Tiffany. I am sorry if I offended you. That was not my desire. I guess I get a little caught up at times. My whole point was just that we shouldn't judge other people's situations. We all do the best we can with what we have been given. My examples were just that...examples. I know a lot of people swear by couponing. But there are many reasons why couponing is not the answer for some families. It is not just about organization. I liked the above poster's last sentence. I suspect with many people the satisfying part is more important than the effective part. And that is ok. If you ENJOY the process, the work doesn't matter. For me personally, it is more satisfying to try and use natural products. I would rather spend my time making biscuts with my son than watching for a pilsbury coupon and corrosponding sale. Every choice we make has it's pros and its cons. Yes, thankfully we do live in a country where we can choose how to live our own lives. Obviously I have some interrest in saving money or I would not have stumbled onto your blog:) I just haven't found couponing to be the holy grail for me. Sunday's paper had a lot of coupons; there were 6 I could use and a couple more I knew would expire before I needed them. For a variety of reasons my family simply doesn't used the products most coupons are aimed at. If I see one in the paper I can use of course I will clip it. Anyway, again I am too long winded. As I said before your blog is great. I am thankful that you find satisfaction in compiling this information so I don't have to spend a lot of time looking for it. I hope you are blessed in your pursuits. I certainly don't want to be someone with nasty comments.

The Mom said...

Oh I am not offended. I was just agreeing that it is difficult to find time when you work.

oliv2b said...

Shooterstrigger-- quite a few of us following this site work outside the home as well as clip our coupons. It is all about time management. I have two young son's so I clip my coupons one night during the week after they have gone down for the night.

As for "The Mom" this working mom loves your site--the savings deals and the family stories. Please keep them coming!

Cindy said...

I don't really think this falls under coupon ethics, but I was just thinking how unfair it is that if you live in a large metropolitan area, the coupons in your Sunday circular are more plentiful and of higher value. I will check out a particular deal that mentions a coupon in one of the Sunday circulars only to find that it is either missing in mine or of lower value. I live in a very rural, economically deprived region and many of my neighbors could benefit from the same coupons offered in other areas. On another note --- Tiffany, you have become my favorite money saving blogger. I have been seriously couponing for the past year and a half and I have visited countless blogs. You are one of the few that doesn't try to make couponing seem like it will be the answer to all of one's money woes. Couponing won't make you rich but it can save your family money. Keep up the good work on this site.

Emily Heizer said...


I don't understand how you can reprimand anyone for "judging" anyone, when you made clear judgments against both stay at home moms, and caucasians.

Also, since it's a couponing website, if you find couponing to be a waste, I don't understand why you're posting these types of comments...

And as "Mom" said, everyone needs toothpaste, toothbrushes, food, etc. Your examples seem very superfluous.