Who's using coupons?

I'm always surprised at people's reactions to the idea of using grocery coupons. When asked who uses them, my first response (without referencing any scientific research) is "smart people." That answer always amuses the journalists who asked me the question. So I was glad to read in a recent "Spending Smart" column ("Smart wealthy people use coupons" written by Greg Karp) that regular coupon users tend to be people who are smart about managing their overall finances.

Karp cited statistics from a consumer study compiled by the coupon-research firm CMS. CMS publishes an annual study on grocery-coupon trends. Last year's study focused on income levels of coupon users. Although shoppers across all income levels use grocery coupons to some degree, the highest level of coupon use is actually in the highest income level studied. Shoppers with household incomes of $150,000 per year or more tended to use coupons most frequently.

Although it seems that shoppers in lower income levels would use coupons more often, there are logical reasons why we see higher usage among wealthier households. First, as I've shared in previous columns, the majority of grocery coupons come from the Sunday newspaper coupon circulars. More than 75 percent of the 302 billion coupons issued from manufacturers are distributed via this traditional method. Newspaper readership is more common among higher-income households, giving them more access to more coupons. Additionally, according to the article, shoppers in this income level tend to use the Internet more often, which has a significant source of grocery coupons.

Are people wealthy because they are frugal, or are they frugal just because they enjoy the challenge of saving money? I think the answer to both questions is yes. I come from a long line of frugal people. Of course, we use grocery coupons because it is one of many practical ways to save money on everyday expenses. Frugal people also tend to mow their own lawns, shovel their own driveways, eat at home most of the time and pack their lunches for work. We don't buy $3 lattes even though we can afford it, because we know if we skipped the daily latte that we would probably have a million-dollar nest egg by the time we retired. Truly frugal people stay that way regardless of how high their incomes or bank accounts have grown. We aren't suffering. We're having fun.

When Karp contacted me to ask my opinion about findings from the CMS study, I told him they made perfect sense. I've also observed that many grocery-coupon users are young mothers who have left the workforce to be home with children. That's when many women begin using grocery coupons, just as I did when my first son was born 15 years ago. Grocery coupons help us save money and stay within a one-income budget. Creating a grocery list filled with "strat egic shopping" bargains, coming up with good meals made out of these bargains, and saving $50 at the cash register is a fun game that can challenge our intelligence and creativity.

Saving money on groceries can also be fulfilling when you view the task as a real contribution to your family's finances. I consider saving money at the grocery store to be the equivalent of a part-time job because I view my savings as earnings. If I save $50 at the grocery store, I know that I would have to earn $75 in a part-time job to net $50 after taxes. Since it could take a full day to earn that income at a part-time job (that would require childcare and commuting expenses) I feel very smart being able to earn that amount of money in about 30 minutes of planning.

• Stephanie Nelson shares her savings tips as a contributor on ABC News' "Good Morning America." Find more savings tips in her book "The Greatest Secrets of the Coupon Mom" and at She can be reached at

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