It's probably safe to assume that no one's ever gotten rich clipping coupons. That doesn't mean saving money is a waste of time, though. Some money-saving habits are worthwhile and save you a heap of cash in the long run. Others just aren't worth it. Here are some specific habits I've ditched because they aren't worth my time and energy (or yours). Illustration by: Angelica Alzona
Clipping Physical Grocery Coupons
Coupon clipping is an often-ridiculed habit, partly because people assume it takes a lot of time to coupon. For me, it didn't.
I had a whole system I followed that took me all of 15 minutes every week, and I usually saved anywhere from $10-15 per week. After a while, though, I realised that just because a task isn't time consuming doesn't mean it's worth your time.
Let's look at the maths. At a $15 savings for 15 minutes, I'm basically earning $1 a minute, which is pretty good: That's $60 an hour. The maths adds up, but it lacks common sense. I don't actually earn $60 an hour the way I would at a normal job. Sixty minutes of couponing will probably not save me much more money, unless I'm buying a bunch of crap I don't need. Also, I'm not a robot. I actually value my free time much more than that, and the busier I get, the more I value an extra 15 minutes a week.
There are easier ways to save $10-15 a week. If that was a make-or-break amount to me, I could always move to a cheaper apartment and save a lot more money. And then there was the clutter. I hate clutter, and thanks to coupons, I had stacks of newspaper circulars piling up in my desk drawers. It was a waste of space and paper.
Another problem with couponing is that, according to research like this 2003 study from NYU (PDF), it leads you to buy stuff you wouldn't normally buy. Overall, it's just another advertisement designed to get you to consume. Don't get me wrong, if the right coupon falls into my hands, I'll use it. For example, my local grocery store recently sent me free coupons for stuff I actually buy, so why not use those? However, that requires no time or effort on my part.
What I Do Instead: Plan Meals Better
Instead of fretting over coupons, I worked on a bigger problem: My grocery shopping and restaurant spending. I have a bad habit of overspending on restaurants every month, and my overspending adds up to way more than the $60 I was saving with coupons. I would overspend on groceries, too, and buy a bunch of food I didn't eat because I didn't know how to shop efficiently.
My lack of meal planning was a bigger problem than anything because I was spending a bunch of money on unhealthy food I didn't even enjoy.
There are a handful of awesome meal planning apps out there, and I've tried quite a few, but MealBoard is my favourite. It costs $5.99, but it's worth it for the functionality and simplicity. You can add or upload any recipe, and drag and drop that recipe on specific days of the week, and the app will automatically generate an organised shopping list so you can quickly get everything you need. You can also save weekly templates. Some apps will do similar stuff for free, but they're usually limiting and hard to organise, at least in my experience.
Overall, I saved more by ditching the coupons and focusing on my real spending problem.
Searching for the Best Price on Everything
Of course, if I buy a $900 laptop I'll presumably use for years, I'm going to look for a good price. Deal hunting serves a purpose, but I've spent way more time than I care to admit searching for, say, the best price on toilet paper.
I've learned to be pretty savvy at finding the best deal on stuff and sometimes it pays off. I'm still proud of the KitchenAid mixer I scored for $US160 ($210), for example. However, I cringe to think about the time and energy I've wasted researching deals on every tiny purchase, only to save a couple of bucks here and there. The small stuff adds up, but that logic applies to your time and energy, too.
What I Do Instead: Set Guidelines
Instead of searching for the best price on just anything, I set a dollar limit. If I'm buying something that's over $30-$40, I'll take the time to search for a better price. However, if I just need something quick — toilet paper is a good example — I'm not going to spend more than a couple of minutes of my time looking for the best deal. If I spend two dollars more on toilet paper, so be it. There are bigger regrets in life.
Your own guidelines should vary from mine, and mine aren't set in stone. I just have a general idea of when deal hunting is worth my time and when it's not. Tech can help with this, too. Tools like Honey, Invisible Hand and CamelCamelCamel make it easier to track prices and make sure you're saving the most money.
On a more behavioural note, part of learning to let go of this time-wasting habit was learning to let go of my scarcity mindset. In the past, when I realised I spent even a few bucks more than I needed to spend on something, it would eat me up inside. Frankly, I was cheap! And that's primarily because I was stuck in a mindset of scarcity: A fear of being poor that caused me to react defensively, rather than act progressively, toward my finances.
Using Saving Apps That Require Way Too Much Work
There are a lot of fun apps out there to help you save money. I was addicted to them, not really because they saved me a ton of cash, but because they were fun. It was like playing a game in which I saved a few cents here and there.
After a while, though, I realised how much time I wasted on these apps, most of which required some extra effort on my part: I had to take photos of my receipts and upload them, check into a store every time I entered, or answer some survey questions. It was all too much work.
Plus, those shopping portals and apps are just that: Shopping apps. They might help you save a few bucks here and there, but ultimately, they motivate you to buy stuff the same way a good sale does. We actually feel more relaxed and happy when we get a good deal on something, and this might encourage us to actually spend more. For example, one study from Columbia Business School concluded:
The study helps explain why luxury products and services, such as high — end boutiques and luxury hotels, are often sold or provided in relaxing environments. Everything else being equal, consumers will be willing to pay higher prices if marketers are able to relax them first, which has important implications for marketers.
In short, when I used these apps, I might have saved a little cash, but they put me in consumer mode and quite literally rewarded me for spending. That might seem harmless, but over time, keeping up with all of those apps and tools encouraged me to consume mindlessly.
What I Do Instead: Mindful Spending
Instead of trying to figure out which apps were worth it and which weren't, I gave up on the ones that weren't working for me, deleted them and kept the ones that required zero effort on my part.
Not all apps or shopping portals require a ton of work. I'm fine with the ones I use because I never have to look at them. Some of them might be worth it, but more than anything, it came down to conscious spending: Making deliberate choices about my purchases rather than spending impulsively.
Rather than try to get cash back or rewards for my purchases after the fact, I've found that I save more by actually questioning my spending to begin with. You can do this by literally asking yourself a few questions before a purchase, like:
- Is this a planned purchase?
- Will it end up in the "crap" pile one day?
- Where am I going to put it?
- Have I included this in my budget?
- Why do I want/need it?
There's nothing wrong with spending your money, but it comes down to priorities. Make a list of a few things you actually enjoy spending money on, then, as Tiffany "The Budgetnista" Aliche puts it, "put your needs and loves before your likes and wants."
Sure, you could argue that you might as well get rewards or rebates from spending on your needs and loves. If it's worth your time and doesn't encourage bad financial habits, go for it. In my experience, I saved more in the big picture by limiting my time with those tools and my exposure to other marketing that encouraged me to consume. Don't get me wrong, I still spend. For the most part, I try not to spend as an activity, however, and only do it as a means to an end: Buying something I love and that I've budgeted for.
Looking Exhaustively for Travel Deals
Travel can be expensive, so I understand the need to look for the best deal on everything travel-related, but sometimes, it can backfire.
For example, when I talked about my experience using a last-minute hotel hunting app, the hotels hated it. Sometimes that resulted in less-than-stellar service. One hotel clerk even told me to just call next time and they will honour the price if I book directly with them. It's easy to overthink the effort that has to go into finding the best travel deal. Sometimes it's as simple as picking up the phone and booking.
Flights are expensive, so you want to do whatever you can to save. For me, this typically means shoving everything in a single carry-on to avoid bag fees, and agreeing to an unreasonable amount of stops to save $50 or so on your flight. The savings can be worth it, but they can also be really inconvenient.
When calculating the value of your time to see if a savings habit is worth it, you also have to consider the cost of the headache. The headache of stopping in two cities and rushing to your next flight might not be worth the $50 savings to you. You want to fit your time and comfort into the equation, too. Especially if you're on holiday, you want to enjoy your time travelling.
What I Do Instead: Focus on the 'Big Wins'
Rather than meticulously monitor flight prices, stick to a strict budget during my trip and exercise every other inconvenient frugal travel hack, I've found a much easier option: Fly when it's cheap. Over at Business Insider, writer Libby Kane said this was her "favourite trick to save money on travel" because it's "a single decision that saves hundreds of dollars". She's right!
Rather than make your travel more stressful or time-consuming than it needs to be, you can simply travel in the shoulder season, when the weather is still good, but the tourists are gone and the prices are reasonable. It automatically saves you hundreds on flights and hotels.
Of course, this isn't always possible, and it's a little obvious to just say, "fly when it's cheaper." Most of us don't choose when we can fly, we fly when we have to, and obviously, it helps to search for the best prices and do your homework. Instead of trying to scrimp on every little travel expense, though — like luggage costs and dining out — I focus on what money writer Ramit Sethi calls the "Big Wins". These are the costs that are so expensive, the savings are actually worthwhile: Flights and lodging. I'll take the time to search for a decent deal on airfare and hotels, and beyond that, I just try to enjoy my trip.
Frugality is great way to help reach your financial goals, but it isn't just about saving money. It's about utilising your resources efficiently, and that includes your time and mental bandwidth. Everyone values their time differently, of course (and this calculator can help you figure it out), and some money-saving habits are worthwhile. Others, however, cost you more in the long run, or they cost more time and headache than they're worth. For me, these habits have proven to be more trouble than they're worth, and thankfully, there are better options.