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Do Coupons Really Help You Save?

I spent a week taking advantage of every deal I could uncover. Read on to find out what I learned—and how you can make the most of your own clipping and clicking.

My editor gives me this assignment (thanks, Michelle), and my mind immediately flashes to my mom cutting coupons at the kitchen table. I panic—not only because I don’t own a kitchen table (I live in New York City, so I barely have a kitchen), but also because saving a few cents has never seemed worth the effort. But whatever, it’s on. I decide to take the lazy…er…smart route and make the deals come to me by signing up for email alerts from the stores I frequent. And voilà—my BlackBerry starts buzzing right away. Here’s what one savings slacker learned from seven days of coupon craziness.

Lesson #1: Sales Aren't Just for Swag
I wake up to a message from LifeBooker.com, a site with spa and salon sales. I click the link and find a spa offering 20 percent off massages (dropping the price from $100 to $80). I also go to Groupon.com, which has great daily deals based on the number of people who sign up, and see an $80 facial for half off. Um, spa day, anyone? I had no idea, but there are actually tons of deals online for everything from yoga and haircuts to happy hours and more.
AMOUNT SAVED: $60 (or -$120 depending on how you look at it. I guess I didn’t exactly need a massage and a facial)

Lesson #2: Over-Ordering Rots Your Budget
On day three of my little experiment, my email alerts me (bright and early too—remind me to turn my ringer off before bed) that Fresh Direct is offering free delivery. I enter my address online and find out that this drops my bill by $15. Solid. To make the most of the deal, I order more food than usual, including a full pound of coffee marked down from $7.39 to $5.99 and wild shrimp for $10.99—$5 cheaper than the original price. (I also try a coupon code from RetailMeNot.com, but it’s a bust.) Of course, I don’t actually cook the shrimp and instead meet my friends out for sushi. But hey, at least I check out local sale site TheDealMap.com before I go and find 10 percent off at Masamoto (the place where we’re headed), which saves me $1.65.
AMOUNT SAVED: $23.05, although all that raw shrimp went bad in my fridge while I was out eating...raw fish. Ironic?

Lesson #3: Buying Online’s Not Always A Bargain
I’m heading to London for a few days, which means one thing: new clothes. I practically swoon when Banana Republic sends me an email about a 20 percent off sale. It takes two seconds for me to copy the code, click on the site and find a cute silk dress for $98. I then convince myself that it’s going to be a rainy mess in London, so it’s completely fine to order a $150 trench too. In the end, I save $50 by giving the code EXTRA20…but the online purchase also means an extra $20.31 for tax and shipping. Next time, I’m just going to the store instead (and maybe not ordering on impulse).
AMOUNT SAVED: $29.69

Lesson #4: Coupons Can Cost You
I do a search on Twitter and find tweeters posting discount codes on, well, pretty much everything. I start following a user called Cheaptweet (twitter.com/cheaptweet) and see a link to a coupon for $1 off a Jamba Juice smoothie. I print it out and take it with me, despite the fact that I’m in the mood for coffee. After downing my $5 berry drink (not counting the discount), I’m still jonesing for caffeine, so I stop into S-bucks and order a café mocha for $4.35. Ahh, that’s better.
AMOUNT SAVED: -$4

Lesson #5: Saving On Things You Need is...Saving
As the week goes on, I realize it’s time to get a bit (fine...a lot) more practical with my coupon clipping. So I search the blogosphere and hit up a few sites run by regular people like you and me (okay, not me, I’m a total weirdo...but like you) who just happen to dig savvy shopping. I get unnaturally excited (no, really, I do a little dance in my lime green ergonomic desk chair) when I click on Printable-Coupons.Blogspot.com and find discounts on things I actually need. “Need?” you ask. “What now, a dire lipgloss sale? An I’ll-die-without-it cocktail ring?” Oh, you’re just so funny. Actually, this time around I print off coupons for laundry detergent ($1 off Tide To Go!) and shampoo ($2 off Dove!). There’s also a coupon for 30 percent off an entire purchase from Saks Fifth Avenue (gasp!), but I manage to resist the lure of peep-toe heels and cute summer tops.
AMOUNT SAVED: $3 (and I’ll definitely be back for more)

Lesson #6: Never Turn Down Free Toilet Paper
I have a dirty secret. Despite the fact that there’s a Duane Reade pharmacy on just about every corner in NYC, I’ve put off searching for the store’s points card that I signed up for more than a year ago only to lose shortly thereafter. Totally ridiculous—the card is free, saves money and takes up minimal wallet space. So today, before I leave to buy my drugstore essentials, I do some recon work in my apartment and find the little blue card way in the back of my junk drawer, next to a half-empty box of nails and a grape Tootsie Pop. When I get me and my basket to the checkout counter at the store, I learn that my old card was actually packed with points—which results in a free four-pack of quilted TP (and then some). Not bad.
AMOUNT SAVED: $5

Coupon Conclusion
Here’s the thing: It’s hard to say how much I really saved since a lot of what I purchased (trench, shrimp, massage...), I only bought because I had a coupon. Still, adding up the things I would have spent money on even without a discount, I did save a good chunk of change. My advice: Sign up for grocery and drugstore (and maybe a favorite clothing store) alerts, but stop there.

-- Caitlin Moscatello

See More: Budgeting , Saving , Money