I bought an accordion coupon organizer last week. It’s a wallet-sized device that straps to the cart as you’re grocery shopping. It comes with 24 durable tab dividers, to prevent the coupons for meat, dairy, and Hannah Montana paper dishware from commingling.

It cost $11. To date, that far eclipses any savings I’ve realized by actually using coupons, but a mission must start somewhere. And I am on a mission. It started with the coupon evangelists. There I was, enthusiastically engaged in the modern pastime of minding other people’s business on Facebook, when a friend with two young children announced that she had done her weekly grocery shopping in a manner fantastic and foreign, the result of which had been that, upon check-out, the store was compelled to pay her for her patronage!

Intrigued, I began to read up on “couponing,” as it’s called by its devotees. I found that what was once an old-fashioned Sunday-morning ritual—searching circulars for 20-cent savings on baking powder—had become a full-time and fully modern pursuit. I began vaguely to recall the couponing of my childhood—my own mother’s coupon tin, avocado green in the fashion of the time, perched on the grocery cart seat I had recently outgrown. Its position was fitting, as the tin had greater power over my mother than I could claim at the time, its contents dictating the family’s weekly menu with sometimes dubious results. The oft-deployed SPAM coupon was the bane of the Ham kids, who considered it among the great, cosmic injustices of life that the tin’s murky, green confines never seemed to yield up coupons for fudgesicles.

I found myself suddenly bewitched by the memory of the little green dinner despot. The tale of my friend’s extraordinary shopping trip seemed a key to unlocking the tin’s great power and resolving some leftover childhood consternation. Perhaps it’s that I’m getting older, but I feel I can now understand my mother’s near-spiritual sense of purpose on those Sunday shopping trips. Though I don’t have kids, I’m in a new stage of life—one in which I buy large quantities of laundry detergent in the same style of countertop dispenser in which I used to purchase large quantities of wine. I’m old enough, that is, to have occasionally been overwhelmed by the idea of feeding several tiny mouths with the alimentary capacity of a Nathan’s hot-dog eating contest but none of the prize money.

I have always been a natural cheapskate, but never an industrious one. I make my means and live within them, but am too lazy to do it with exceptional concentration. The first lesson of couponing is that it’s not something one pays lip service to—you don’t just collect on easy savings. Sure, you may get 15 percent off your next purchase at Ann Taylor, but you’re not really getting out of this endeavor all you could unless you make it a part of your everyday life—buy a book from a coupon guru, read a couple couponing blogs, probably write a coupon blog, and have coupon seminars with friends.

Coupons have come a long way since Asa Candler, father of the best-known brand in the history of the world (and the sweet elixir that fuels my work day), created the first modern coupon in 1887, mailing an offer for a free Coca-Cola to potential customers and inserting coupons in magazines. Thanks to new technology, the integration of coupons into one’s life can be thorough in the extreme. An application on my cell phone tells me when I’m near an establishment where I could get a buck off a delicious freshly sliced deli sandwich, for instance. Websites like Groupon allow you to buy online coupons from your local restaurants and stores and double up on your savings by promoting coupons to your friends via email, Twitter, and Facebook.

But even if the way one finds coupons these days is newfangled, a life of couponing still rewards good old-fashioned diligence and frugality. In economic downturns—the Great Depression is when couponing found its place in the pantheon of American rituals—there’s more reason than ever for consumers to try to save, and more reason for companies to earn their business by helping them. I think that’s what I love about it. Coupons reward good behavior on both sides of a mutually beneficial transaction, freely entered into. They’re tiny, paper refutations of the zero-sum caricature of capitalism, and for couponers, a daily exercise in respecting what they have in hard times.

That seems healthy, and I’m determined to join their ranks. Of course, I have to wait for my coupon organizer to turn my muddle of miscellaneous savings into a rewarding new way of life—unless my mom will let me use hers. SPAM, anyone?

Mary Katharine Ham

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