Frugalista

Time Management and Saving Money

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Recently I got a question from a reader and friend on a common concern: Is the money saved by couponing and other grocery shopping strategies worth the time spent? Here's her email:

How do we figure out whether or not your brand of expert coupon clipping is worth our while? I look through the Sunday paper, and flyers sent to me, but it seems like shopping at more than one store per week, plus looking online and through ALL the flyers in the newspaper would wind up costing me more time then they would save me money.

So, what I'm wondering is, how much time does it take to save how much money? If I devoted an hour a week to expert couponing/shopping, how much money would I save?
 
That's probably an impossible question to answer with a one-size-fits-all number, because there are so many variables at play -- how much you can get done in that one hour, what kind of food you usually buy, where you shop and how much flexibility you hae in what you buy each week. But it's also the most important question that anyone doing this kind of shopping should be asking themselves. I have a few ideas for getting a handle on the time/benefit of aggressive grocery shopping:
 

1. Track your time and your savings.

Since I really don't know exactly how much time I spend on this stuff and how much I save -- and since people ask me about it all the time -- I decided to find out. Starting this week, I started tracking how much time I spend couponing, planning and shopping. I would suggest that anyone interested in adding some couponing to their routine but concerned about the time investment do the same. Ideally, track how much you spend shopping normally for a week so you have something to compare it to.

Since I can't go back to shopping "normally" to compare, I'll just use the national average as my baseline. The average woman, with or without children, spends 8.4 minutes per day grocery shopping, or about 59 minutes a week. So normal people spend an hour per week shopping. I know I spend more than that, but I'm not sure how much more.

When tracking my own time, I won't count the time I spend researching and writing this blog. When I prepare to shop, what I usually do is pull up a blog post -- either one of my own or someone else's -- and use that as a guide to make a quick list and gather the necessary coupons.

I'll get back to you next week with my first results on that.

2. When thinking about the time you spend on shopping tactics, consider what else you could use that time for.

My friend is particularly concerned about the benefit of time spent saving money vs. the money she could be earning working from home; in her case, this is a valid comparison because she is able to work from home and set her own hours.

However, a lot of us would not be earning money during the time we are using couponing. Personally, I try to limit my money-saving activities to time that I am also supervising my children. Since it doesn't take as much concentration as my paid work, writing, I can do it without having a babysitter or waiting until the kids are asleep.

If I wasn't couponing, planning or shopping during the hours I spend, I would probably be cleaning my house or doing some activity with my kids (admittedly something more fun for them). So my financial benchmark is the amount I pay the woman who cleans my house twice a month. She gets about $20 per hour -- but in reality it would take me twice as long to do the cleaning she does, since I would have my kids in the house with me. Therefore, I decided to set my goal at $10 an hour -- if I were not saving that much for the time I spend, I would reconsider my time investment or find ways to streamline the process.

If it the benefit were about the same, I would still prefer shopping to cleaning -- last time I wrote about this, a commenter said, "I would rather clip a thousand coupons than scrub my bathtub!" Me too.

Which brings up another point. Whether aggressive shopping is worthwhile also depends on whether you like it. I love how coupons make shopping seem like a game to me; in fact some of my coupon time takes the place of other diversions I might otherwise indulge in like a game of online Scrabble.

If you find it a hassle and hate the fact that coupons keep cluttering up your desk and if confronting a cashier about using a coupon gives you nightmares, you might be better off finding other ways to save money or using the time you would have invested to earn money.

The last thing to remember in your time comparisons is tax. If I was able to save $20 by investing an hour in couponing, or I could earn $20 by working an hour, I'd choose couponing. Earning $20 means taking home $15 or less after taxes, social security, etc.

On the flip side, if every hour you spend working gives you a thrilling sense of productivity and advances your career, then it may be worth it to you to work even if you are making less than you could save by couponing.

There's lots more to say on this topic: I'll post soon about my ideas for what to do if you only have one additional hour per week to spend (assuming you already spend that average one hour per week shopping). And next Wednesday when I post my spending I'll also post my results for my first week of tracking my time. A sneak preview: So far since Wednesday, I've spent 4 hours planning and shopping, and saved $80.

Photo by laffy4k, used via Creative Commons license.

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3 Comments

Kaylea said:

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Agree, agree, agree -- and I'm looking forward to reading your results.

I think coupons fit (or don't...) into an overall strategy for how a person deals with finances. My personal experience comes after a year of work to learn the skills to do reasonably well at this game, and there are tons of people whose gaming skills far exceed mine, that's for sure. If I had only looked at my efforts the very first week of trying to use coupons, I would've been seriously disappointed with the $13 in coupons or whatever that I had spent like 3 hours finding, cutting, and figuring out how to use on a list of random stuff...there's a lot to learn, and some of the pieces, like stockpiling, are very long-term strategies that don't necessarily help even in the first six months.

My current estimate is that I spend about 7 hours/week on the whole package -- coupons, sales, planning my shopping list from those coupons & sales, making a meal plan, reading blogs for deals, etc. My estimate is that it yields my family at least $1000/month in overall improvement of our standard of living....probably more. And, as you say, not only is this stuff fun, it's also something I can do while watching a movie... With this "at least $1000" figure, I am thinking in broad terms -- overall budget impact, deals, savings, free goodies, better quality, etc.

I think the "is it worth it" calculation has to vary by individual circumstance, too. If you use frugal strategies for one hour to spend $20 to get $60 worth of stuff, maybe you've made $40/hour -- but if you don't even have the $20 to begin with, or if that $60 worth of stuff will all go to waste in your house, or if it was all from a fancy pants store but you think the generic/cheap store is equal in every way, maybe you didn't add $40 to your life after all....

Resweater said:

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I spend less than 2 hours a week on couponing, and I save about $100/week. To me that's like earning $50/an hour for sitting in my jammies cutting coupons, while watching Desperate Housewives ;) While I do go to more stores, now that I coupon, I spend less time actually shopping. So instead of going to one store for over an hour, comparing prices, and figuring out what I need, I get my mini list ready from the blogs, and make a well prepared 15 minute trip to 2 or 3 stores. Now that I stockpile, I don't seem to run out of things either, so I never HAVE to go to the store anymore... it's all at my convenience.

HappyGoLucky said:

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It's all about time vs. money. What is your exchange? If you are spending more time coupon clipping than what it would take to normally purchase those items on their own then it isn't worth your time. I firmly believe in stocking the pantry as it helps to save in the long run. ALso, who wants to run out to the grocery store at the last minute realizing you are out of something you could've had on hand. It's all about planning. I have found some great coupon deals using online coupons and manufacturers coupons...and for date nights I like to use a great a new company that a friend told me about called IMIN.com - super savings for us Chicagoans.

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