Sunday, November 25, 2012

The End of the Couponer

I made a decision today that now changes a nearly lifelong habit.

As a little boy - after my parents' divorce - we were poor. We had lost our house (well, I had lost my house - since what ever little bit of equity might have been in a two-year old newly built home was divvied up in a divorce settlement). After about four or five months of living at my grandparents', we moved into a townhouse apartment.  A few years later, it was time to start giving me an allowance. Chores was one way (emptying the dishwasher, helping with laundry, taking out the trash, etc.). Another way was ingenious and began a long-lived habit.

My mother decided - most likely in an effort to teach me the value of money in addition to helping our grocery bill - that I could make additional allowance money but cutting out coupons for her to use at the market... but only for things that she was going to buy anyway.  I received the face value of the coupon as part of my allowance.

While today that would mean minimally 35 cents here or 50 cents there. Sometimes a 75 cent-ers or a $1 as well.  Until recently, Ralph's would offer double coupons - which I'm sure I would have benefitted from!  But back in my allowance days, coupons were only 5 cents or 7 cents.  I think 10 cents was the max. I don't recall any higher, but there may have been.  I could sometimes persuade my Mom to buy a more expensive brand if my coupon reduced it to the same or less than her normal brand.

When I moved out on my own, coupons became the norm for me.  I would cut them and save them in a envelope that I would bring to the store with me. 

When I moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, it turned into such a big thing for me.  I upgraded to a 5x8 file box with section dividers. My Mom would mail me coupons from the Philadelphia area as I had discovered that oft times they would be higher amounts than my LA versions. 50/75 Cents were the norm. $1 coupons were frequent. Double coupons was the norm - along with occasional Triple Coupon days! - and I could increase savings by only buying itms when they were on sale AND with a coupon. I could save over 60% off my total grocery bill on each trip.

There were times when Ralph's (my store of choice due mainly to their Double-Coupons Everyday policy) would have store coupons in their circulars or mailers - and their policy allowed for use of both store coupons and manufacturer coupons at the same time! 

Sometimes the use of my coupons resulted in me saving more than the cost of the item. I'd actually make money by taking an item home!   I'd go through the store circulars and figure out where to shop for the best savings. I'd go between Von's and Ralph's and a produce market.  Mambo Sprouts was coupon booklet that I received in the mail with lots of healthy and natural and organic brands.  These were added to my arsenal of savings as well.

These were truly halcyon days for grocery savings.

It all began to crumble during a major five-month long supermarket strike during the Winter of 2003/4. My couponing was curtailed and I ended up shopping at Trader Joe's (a non-striking market) most of the time. I fell in love with them, but with few national brands, coupons had no place.

When the strike ended, things were never quite the same.

Ralph's quietly altered their Double-Coupon Policy to limit savings to no more than $1 savings per coupon. A 75 cents off coupon would only 'double' an additional 25 cents to cap it at $1. Huge change that they simply added as fine print, while still advertising Double Coupons Everyday!

I got healthier and started eating better. Gone were most national brands giving Trader Joe's more of my business and leaving fewer and fewer coupons worth being cut by me.

Flash forward to today.  I shop at Ralph's less than once a month - except for a quick trip in for their store brand Non-Dairy Creamer.  The Mambo Sprouts mailer has ceased production.  Ralph's Double-Coupon Policy has quietly disappeared altogether.  To add insult to injury, coupon face values have dropped down into 25/35/50 Cent ranges again.

This morning's Sunday paper yielded no new coupons being cut out. A look through my (now 18-year old) coupon box revealed a handful of expired coupons from last month and a total of about 12 left - all due to expire by December 31, 2012.

There is no reason to continue. 

So, mark the date. After nearly four decades - 80% of my life - the Couponer that began as a young boy, is putting his scissors away, stashing the old beige box in the back room, and calling it a day.

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