Ethical couponing 101: What you should and should not do

We have many new couponers on the blog these days (and that is wonderful!) and I think this might help with some of the questions about what couponers should and should not do. Hopefully it will also prevent unnecessary frustration at the register, as well.

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We have many new couponers on the blog these days (and that is wonderful!) and I think this might help with some of the questions about what couponers should and should not do. Hopefully it will also prevent unnecessary frustration at the register, as well. This is a repost of an article I wrote last summer about ethical couponing.

Have you ever had the frustration of going to the store for a good deal only to find out from a cashier that one shopper had bought 20 of the item and cleared the shelf? How about witnessing a customer trying to use multiple reward cards from various friends and family members so she can get around the coupon limits imposed by the store? Recently, store managers have shared some pretty sad horror stories when it comes to coupon shoppers.

Just last week, I watched a customer berate an employee at a local drug store in Cary because the shelf price was different than the price she paid. In demanding her refund, she was so rude and condescending to this calm employee that I was shocked. Everything from bad manners to outright cheating is happening at area stores every day, which is why I felt compelled to focus this week’s article on couponing with a conscience.

There are some rules of etiquette that couponers should follow and some actions that couponers should definitely not take when shopping. Hopefully you have already been practicing ethical couponing, which makes the stores much more likely to continue offering their great promotions. For those of you new to the coupon game, these suggestions will help you, and everyone around you, to have a more positive couponing experience.

Be kind to cashiers: This is my number one request. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen obnoxious customers hassle cashiers over something as silly as a coupon. The snide tone of voice, the eye rolling, the generally bad behavior is something you would expect from a 3 year old, not an adult speaking to another adult who is only trying to do his/her job. Even if the cashier is not handling a coupon the way you think it should be entered, ask politely to speak with a manager. If you are not able to resolve the issue with the manager, just don’t buy the item in question and call corporate to discuss the issue when you get home. It’s just a coupon, it’s not a reason to wage a grocery war. Trust me, the cashiers and managers all know who the difficult couponers are and they are never happy to see those folks come into their store. Even if the cashier is less than professional, don’t stoop to his or her level. Ask to speak with the manager and go from there.
Use coupons correctly on intended items: Just because a coupon may scan on another item by the same manufacturer (which sometimes happens), it does not mean it’s ok to use it on another item. This is called bar code manipulation and it is unethical. Follow the wording on the coupon regarding what product(s) you can use the coupon on and how many you need to buy. If the coupon requires you to buy 2 of the item, you need to buy 2. If the coupon requires that you have to buy the 6-pack of soap, than it is not ok to try and use it on the 2-pack.
Follow expiration dates: Many couponers have accidentally given a coupon to a cashier that has recently expired, not realizing the usage date had passed. These days, my arms aren't long enough to even read some of the expiration dates! Cashiers realize we all make mistakes and are usually fine when we apologize and understand that they can't take the coupon. The issue is with people who intentionally use expired coupons. The stores usually do not get reimbursed for these and it costs all of us money in the long run when stores pass on these losses in the form of higher prices and less promotions. Don’t try to pass expired coupons and hope you don’t get caught. Most stores are very clear that they don’t accept expired coupons. You can actually send your expired coupons to the US military overseas. They can use expired coupons for up to 6 months after expiration date. Head to for more information.
Only use legit coupons: Coupons you received in an e-mail pdf file for free products are not legit. Coupons from manufacturer websites and many coupon printing websites are legit. The coupon sites I recommend here on the blog are legit, to the best of my knowledge. On the first day of every month, I post a long list of legit coupon sites to print from. Those are where the majority of my best coupons come from these days.
No photocopying coupons: It’s right there on the coupon that it’s not ok to stick a printable coupon in your copy machine and make copies. It is not only unethical, it is illegal to make photocopies of coupons.
Follow store coupon policies: They actually work for your benefit. When stores have limits on the number of like items you can buy, it’s not because they want to make you mad. These limits are in place so one couponer doesn’t come in and clear the shelves leaving nothing for the rest of the shoppers.
Shelf clearing/hoarding = bad manners: Shelf clearing is rude and makes it difficult for others to enjoy the good deals. I’m not talking about buying 3 or 4 of an item. I am referring to those who buy all the cases in stock of an item so they can have hundreds of something and nobody else gets any of that item. There will always be a good deal in the next couple weeks and there is no reason to hoard all the best buys. In the Raleigh area, very few stores will let you do that if you are using coupons, anyway.
Tear pad clearing = bad manners: It’s also very uncool to take all the tear pads or coupons from in-store displays. It’s fine to take some extras to share with friends, but grabbing an entire tear pad of coupons is not fair and it’s not right.
When using e-coupons beware of stacking: Grocery store e-coupons are manufacturer’s coupons and are not intended to be used with paper manufacturer coupons on the same product (called stacking). The only exception is the e-coupon program at Harris Teeter (also known as ZVR coupons). For now, their policy allows for stacking of e-coupons and paper coupons.
Be a Coupon Fairy: When you are not going to use a coupon, leave it on the shelf next to the product. When you are in line and cashier is impressed with a specific deal, give her an extra copy of the coupon so she can do the deal as well. Take a look at the products in the cart of the person in line behind you. Maybe you can give him or her a couple coupons to help save them a little extra money. Being a coupon fairy is an excellent way to pay it forward, do a good deed and spread a little happiness.
Warn those behind you in line: When you are the person with 1000 coupons, warn those who get in line behind you that you have a lot of coupons and it may take a while to get through the line. They will be very appreciative and you won’t have to deal with their eye rolling. Often, I have a lively couponing chat with those who choose to stay in line behind me. It’s also a good time to put on your coupon fairy wings and see if you have any coupons to share for items they are buying.
Let those with just a few items go ahead of you: If you have a cart full, it’s always nice to let someone with a couple items go ahead of you. It’s such an easy random act of kindness.
Tipping when dining with coupons: When using coupons at restaurants, base the tip on the pre-coupon total, not the after-coupon total.
Be organized when you get to the register: Don’t be fumbling to find your coupons while people are waiting in line behind you. Before you head to the register, make sure you have everything you need and that your coupons are ready to be handed to the cashier. The easier we make it for the cashiers, the better it is for all couponers. If you forget to give a cashier your coupon before you have paid for your items, many stores will not give you the money for that coupon after the sale. If you are organized, you are less likely to forget a coupon.
Shop off peak hours: If you would rather shop when the store is not very busy and you won’t have to wait in line for very long to check out, try not to shop during the busiest times of the day including lunch and right after work. Weekends are also very busy. Best times to shop (if possible) include weekdays early in the morning, weekdays between lunch and dinner time or later in the evening after the dinner rush.
Take the time to say Thank You: When you receive good customer service or appreciate a promotion like Super Double coupons, take the time to let the store manager know about your experience. I also recommend calling the corporate office of the business or posting on their Facebook page so the helpful employee can be recognized. The specific employee will often receive some sort of award or recognition when you call corporate with a compliment and give the name of the employee.

I encourage you to look at the big picture when deciding how to use coupons. As more people begin to coupon because of this difficult economy, the temptation may arise to stretch the boundaries for proper coupon use. I am not trying to be the coupon police, but for many families, couponing is a way to make ends meet. It allows them to afford to put food on the table and pay the rent or mortgage. If some couponers don’t follow the rules, it becomes more likely that stores and manufacturers will not offer the coupons and deals they now offer. If this happens, honest couponers who are just trying to support their families will suffer. If we do follow the coupon etiquette suggestions above, there is a much better chance that we can all continue to use coupons to help us live more comfortably within our means.

You may not agree with all the thoughts I shared above but if you find yourself using coupons in a way that would be embarrassing to explain to your child, mom or religious school teacher, you may want to rethink your methods. The other very important reason to use good coupon etiquette is because it is simply the right thing to do.

Please share any other suggestions you have regarding couponing manners. Together we can all help each other to represent couponers in the very best light possible and save tons of our hard earned income. As I always say, it’s your money – spend it wisely!


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