Monday, March 16, 2009

Boot Camp: Couponing Ethics

You might be chuckling to yourself about the title/topic of today's Boot Camp segment. I mean, honestly– what ethical issues could possibly arise in couponing? You just clip the piece of paper and hand it to the cashier, right? Looks like a pretty amoral activity at first glance, no?

The truth is, even couponing has its share of ethical decisions– and if you've been couponing for any length of time, you know what I'm talking about. For those of you who are new to the couponing arena, I think it will be worth your time to read through and think through some of the ethical issues that arise when using coupons. I believe it's really important for us each to make some decisions about how to coupon with personal integrity and honesty.

The most controversial area of couponing ethics deals with manufacturer's coupons. There are basically two schools of thought on the ethics of manufacturer's coupons:

1) If a store will accept any manufacturer's coupon, it is perfectly fine to use it (even if the item purchased is not the item listed on the coupon). The responsibility for correct coupon usage rests solely upon the store employees.

2) No coupon should be used except for purchasing the specific product(s) that the manufacturer intended.

I believe that in order to be 100% confident that we are using coupons in an ethical and honest way, we should strive to follow the second school of thought, and (to the best of our ability) use every coupon in the specific way it was intended by the manufacturer. In order to do this, we need to understand the language that we find printed on coupons. Here are some terms and phrases that are important to know, along with my understanding of what each phrase means when printed on a manufacturer's coupon:

• Good only on product(s) indicated or listed. This condition is implied on any and all coupons, even if it does not say these specific words. You may only use a coupon to buy the specific product listed on the coupon. If the coupon lists a category or range of products, you may purchase anything that falls under those categories. If the coupon specifically excludes a specific product, you may not use the coupon on the excluded products.

• One Per Purchase. You may only use one coupon per item that you purchase. Pretty basic.

• One Per Transaction. You may only use one of that coupon per cash register transaction.

• One Per Household. You may only use that particular coupon one time. Period.

• One Per Customer. You may use that coupon one time for each member of your family.

• Void if sold, exchanged, transferred or reproduced. Means it is not ethical to buy, photocopy or otherwise obtain coupons in a way that would fall under these categories.

This last phrase is a controversial one. There are thousands of people buying and selling coupons online, and they believe they are doing this in a way that does not violate the "void if sold..." condition of coupons.

Coupon clipping services as well as Ebay auctions enable couponers to find the exact coupons they need in large quantities and then order only those coupons and have them shipped to their homes. The clippers and auctioneers say that you are paying for their time to clip, sort and mail the coupons. In other words, they believe you are paying for a service, not a product (i.e. the coupon), thus this last condition on coupons is not violated.

I understand that this is a gray area. But for me personally, I think it crosses the line of what is ethical. It's a hard sell to prove to me how you're not buying coupons when you give someone money, and they give you coupons in return. I have even noticed that some coupons have now added "void if auctioned" to the conditions printed on their coupons, and this is further confirmation to me that purchasing coupons from a coupon clipping service or an online auction is really not following the manufacturer's intended use of the coupon.

The idea of following the manufacturer's intent for a coupon brings us to the next important point to consider about couponing ethically:

Following the manufacturer's intent for any given coupon is your responsibility, not the responsibility of the store or store employees where you are shopping. Many, many coupons will scan through just fine, even if you have not purchased the specific item listed on that coupon. For example, let's say you have a coupon for $.55/1 off a certain brand of string cheese, and the coupon specifies that it is for multi-packs 10 oz or larger. If you purchase a single string cheese for $.25, the coupon will still scan and give you $.55 credit– but you have not followed the stated intent of the coupon. Some cashiers will even try to convince you that it's fine to use a coupon for an unlisted or unintended product as long as the coupon scans. They may tell you that it's fine, because the store will get reimbursed.

I had this exact scenario happen to me four days ago at Walgreens. I had a three $5/1 Huggies coupons, but when I got to the store, they only had two packages of diapers and one package of wipes available. I told the cashier that I would pass on them, because my coupons were only for diapers. She tried to convince me to just use the coupons anyway because "they scan just fine and we will get reimbursed anyway. So it's no big deal." I just told her I'd rather not.

Here's the bottom line, When dealing with a manufacturer's coupon, only the manufacturer has the right to make a judgement call about coupon usage, not a store employee. Even if the store employee tells you it's okay, you need to make your own decision about whether you are using the coupon correctly. If you have questions about whether a certain coupon can be used on a certain product, take a few minutes and call the manufacturer. They have the authority to tell you which coupon/product combinations you can use. If they give you the go-ahead, you're good to go.

I believe the scenario changes a little bit when you are using a store coupon instead of a manufacturer's coupon. If a manufacturer's coupon says "limit one per transaction," I think that you should absolutely only use one coupon per transaction. If a store coupon says "limit one per transaction," I think it's okay to ask the store employee whether you can use more than one per transaction. If he/ she says it's okay, you're perfectly welcome to do so. The same would apply if the store coupon says, "limit 3" at a particular price. If the store employee allows you to purchase more than 3, then I believe it is ethically okay.

The difference between these scenarios and the scenario where the store employee is giving you "permission" to incorrectly use a manufacturer's coupon is authority. The store employee has the authority to act and judge on behalf of the store. The store employee does not have the authority to act and judge on behalf of the manufacturer.

Is this enough to get your mind working through some potential ethical decisions you'll have to make while couponing? I hope so. A couple of final thoughts:

You may get accused of acting unethically or dishonestly, even if you are not. It has certainly happened to me. I have been told that I am committing "fraud" by store employees because I was using so many coupons and getting stuff free! Of course I hated that the employees thought that, but I had confidence knowing that I work very hard to coupon in a way that is honest and ethical. I knew that I was only using legitimate coupons on legitimate items, and that knowledge was worth a lot to me in those moments when I was accused. Many store employees will not understand the complexity (and after a week of Boot Camp, does anyone disagree that there's some complexity to this whole system!?!) of your deals and transactions. All they see is that you are paying next to nothing and leaving their store with sacks full of products, and that's alarming to them! So they accuse you of doing something wrong. (They often seem to forget that when you hand them a stack of manufacturer's coupons, their store will receive cash back from the manufacturer for the face value of every coupon.) If you are confident that you have couponed in a 100% ethical way, you have nothing to worry about! I like that peace of mind. (And by the way, no deal is worth getting into an angry dispute with a store employee. In this case, it might be better to walk away from a deal, even if you are not doing anything wrong.)

And finally, I just wanted to say that I hope The Frugal Muse will be a community where were can swap ideas and share deals that all fall under this umbrella of ethical couponing. I really appreciated it last week when Amy pointed out to us that the wording had changed on the second run of the Huggie's printable coupons. I want you to know that, to the best of my ability, I will only post deals and coupon match-ups that meet the standard of couponing ethics we have discussed in today's Boot Camp segment. If I ever overlook something and end up posting a deal that does not meet these standards, I sure hope you'll let me know, just like Amy did!

Okay, I'd love to open this up for some discussion. Leave a comment and let us know what you think about couponing ethics. Have you encountered any ethical dilemmas in couponing? Are there other specific topics dealing with couponing ethics that you'd like to hear more about on The Frugal Muse?

A parting thought as we conclude this segment on Couponing Ethics:

The bottom line (as in your final cost) is not truly the bottom line. Yes, we all love a great deal and the chance to get stuff we need free or cheap. But getting a good deal is not nearly as important as integrity and honesty. Most of the time, getting a good deal and maintaining our personal integrity are not mutually exclusive. But when we encounter a situation where we must choose, let's choose integrity and honesty! That's the real bottom line.


  1. Very helpful! Thanks! I had a question about the use of a coupon just the other day, and this answered it. I love your attitude of integrity. You're awesome! :-)

  2. Very nicely put! It would be easy to "cheat" while using coupons but we need to hold ourselves to the higher standard. We have someone to answer to in the end and that is the most important thing!

  3. I dropped off some old newspapers today at a recycling bin, fully intending to see if I could snag some inserts, but I noticed a sign that said the bin's contents were property of some company, I guess that owns the bin. I don't know if that's the case with all recycling bins, but I thought I'd point it out as another ethical area to be aware of for any potential dumpster divers.

  4. Rita, Thanks for the 'heads up' on the recycling bin situation. Definitely something good to be aware of!

  5. Question for you, on the RR it says "One coupon printed per offer" so do you read this as we should only do it once?

  6. Sarah,

    I had always read that "one coupon printed per offer" means that only one RR will print per offer in a single transaction. So for example, if you purchase two items that are free after RR in a single transaction, only one RR will print (even though you purchased two). This makes sense to me, since the verb of the wording is "printed," showing the limitations of how many will RR will print in a transaction, not how many times we should take advantage of the offer in separate transactions.

    What do you think? Does that make sense to you?

  7. If you buy two different items in one transaction that have a RR deal going on then it will print, but two of the same (for instance the toothpaste this week) in one transaction will not then print two. Also, you can't then use the RR you get from buying an item (tootphaste) to then pay for that SAME item in another transaction... you can use it but it won't print another register reward.


  8. Yes, that's always what I've found to be true.

    I should have specified in my above comment that I was talking about how if you try to buy two of the SAME item in one transaction, it will only print one RR.

    So I think we are talking about the same thing!