Feb 082011

An acquaintance once told me that when she’s buying a lot of stuff, she tries to find a really chatty cashier, and then she distracts her with small talk and presents coupons for items she didn’t actually purchase. She seemed to find it amusing that she could get away with this, but I find it to be stealing.

Two of God’s commandments in the Bible are to not lie, and to not steal. But if you’re misusing coupons, you’re breaking both of those commandments. Some people believe that coupon fine print doesn’t really matter, but when you use a coupon, you’re entering into a contract with the manufacturer, stating that you agree to their terms. So, if the manufacturer says that a coupon may not be combined with any other offer, and you present two manufacturer’s coupons for the same item, you’re breaking that contract. You are, in effect, stealing from the manufacturer. And if you’re doing it knowingly and intentionally, you’re lying to yourself about your honesty and integrity.

I know that I have many readers who are new to the coupon world, and it’s easy to unknowingly misuse coupons when you don’t really understand how they work. Please understand, I’m not trying to judge, or make anyone feel bad, because I made mistakes myself when I was a coupon newbie. I just want to help you decipher the coupon world so you don’t make mistakes in the future, and to that end, here’s a list of common terms and their definitions:

One Coupon Per Purchase. This means that if you purchase one bottle of salad dressing, you can use one manufacturer’s coupon for that bottle. If you have two coupons, you can buy two bottles, and use both coupons. But you cannot apply two coupons to the same bottle.

One Coupon Per Item Purchased. This means the same as One Coupon Per Purchase, but the “per item purchased” is intended to clarify that you can use more than one coupon if you purchase more than one item.

Limit 1 Per Transaction. This means that no matter how many items you’re buying, you can only use one coupon, unless you have your cashier ring each item up separately (though I don’t recommend this. It’s really not fair to the people behind you), or make multiple trips to the store.

Limit 1 Per Customer/Person. This means that if you’re shopping alone, you can only use one coupon. If you have several coupons with this wording, you can send your spouse or older children to purchase some also. You can also make multiple trips to the store, but I consider this to be an ethical gray area because it seems in opposition to what the manufacturer intended.

Limit One Per Household/Family. This means that you cannot drag your spouse and kids to the store and have each of them purchase one. It means one per household, and I know that stinks, but we must accept it.

May Not Be Combined With Any Other Offer. This typically means that you cannot combine a coupon with any other special offer or discount, such as another coupon from the same store or manufacturer, or an employee, or student discount. So, while you generally can combine a manufacturer’s coupon and a store coupon on the same item, you cannot combine a manufacturer’s coupon with another manufacturer’s coupon. Even if the store you shop at accepts this, it’s still coupon fraud.

Understanding Product Description

Each coupon has language specifying what it may be used for. For example, if the coupon says “Save $1.00 on any Pillsbury Easy Frost No Fuss Frosting,” this means that you can only use the coupon for this particular product. However, if it says “Save $1.00 on any Pillsbury Brand Frosting,” you have a lot more options to choose from.

Many people think that if they buy regular Tide with a coupon for Tide Free and Gentle, it’s OK as long as the register doesn’t beep, because it’s still a Tide product. Right? Wrong! You’ve used the coupon in a manner not intended by the manufacturer, and in this case the manufacturer is not required to reimburse the store. This is, by definition, coupon fraud. The same applies to purchasing an item specifically excluded on the coupon, buying a trial size when the coupon language excludes trial sizes, and trying to apply a coupon to an item on sale, when the coupon language states, “Valid on regularly-priced items only.”

Ethical couponing is important because if enough people misuse coupons, manufacturers will stop issuing them, and stores will stop accepting them, and this ruins the savings opportunities for everyone. I know that some people may think I’m being nitpicky here, but it’s very easy to tell yourself that it’s OK, because it’s only 50 cents here and there, and the manufacturer won’t even miss it. But it’s not really a bargain if you sacrifice your integrity, and God calls us to do better than that.

“In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:6

For more information about coupon terms, please see Coupon Lingo Explained.