As I have pondered this topic for a few weeks now, several thoughts have come to my mind. Here are my thoughts and musings…
To begin, let’s remember that the companies that print coupons do so because it is beneficial to them. They must be making money off of coupons or they would not keep printing them. Check out this article about sneaky ways that coupons actually cause you to spend MORE money. Of course, it is possible to stay strong and avoid buying things that you don’t need. But, remember that you are being exposed to a ton of advertising just by looking at coupons (coupons ARE a form of advertising).
One of my biggest concerns with couponing is the formation of an unrealistic expectation about the cost of food (see this article). Over the past few years, I have come across the concept of “unrealistically low prices.” I would like to unpack this concept for you. When my eyes were first opened to the needs of the poor and to the reality of my life in relation to the poor, I highly valued a low price on clothing and food to save money, to identify with the poor by living on less money, and to be able to give more money to those in need. As I have learned about food justice and about sustainable living, the way I spend my money has changed along with my idealogy. I first read about the concept of unrealistically low prices in a book called “The Plain Reader,” a compilation of writings by Anabaptists. The idea is that the price that you pay for something should be a reasonable price for what it is. For instance, buying a dress for $5 does not reflect the cost of the fabric, the cost of the labor to make the dress, the cost of transporting the dress to the store, and the overhead costs of the store where it is being sold. If any one of us spent several hours sewing a dress from purchased fabric, we would never sell it for only $5. This is an unreasonably low price. Some one is losing when items are sold for unreasonably low prices. The workers may not be receiving fair wages, the environment may not be treated well in the process…there are probably a combination of factors at play.
In his book “The Omnivores Dilemma,” Michael Pollan takes this even further when he talks about the true price of our food. For instance, the true price of a Big Mac at McDonald’s must take into account the way the corn was grown that is fed to the cow who is raised in unhealthy conditions and then shipped (using gas) to other locations to be processed. There is waste to be accounted for, pollution that fills our skies, top soil lost, and large amounts of fuel used. Plus, there are many people that participate in the process – farmers, ranchers, truck drivers, factory workers, advertisers, fast food workers. Can all of this possibly be covered in the dollar or two that we pay for a hamburger? My point is simply this: is it reasonable to expect to pay so little for our food? And, is it possible that we are doing this on the backs of the poor?
Personally, I want to spend my food money in such a way that I am supporting small and local businesses and farms. I want to pay a price that is reflective of the food that I am receiving, not because I like spending lots of money, but because it just seems like the right thing to do. I want businesses to succeed that have ethical practices, keep preservatives and additives out of their food, and sustain the local economy. And, really, spending my money that way is better for me, too. Fresh, local, natural foods means that my family stays healthier (and in Jedidiah’s case, more calm and rational, too). It means that the earth God gave us is treated well. It means that workers are paid a decent wage (a great way to help the poor!). I spend my money in this way by buying a share in a Community Supported Agriculture, by searching out local options in stores and in my area, and by choosing brands that I respect.
The problem is that I don’t really have all that much money. So, just like the avid couponers, I am always looking for ways to save money. Here are some ways I do this without (in my opinion) compromising my first point:
-I gladly take the items that others throw out. Our country has a whole lot of waste, and I find it completely acceptable to use things that would otherwise get thrown away. Twice a week I participate in “Manna,” a free food giveaway in my alley. Grocery stores donate all the food they are about to throw out, due to impending expiration dates. Even Whole Foods donates food to our little operation. I’ve thought about starting to take pictures of all the food I get for free – it’s truly amazing. Like the Manna of the Bible, it only makes sense to take what one can use because it’s all expiring quickly! Maybe I’ll write a whole post about Manna one day soon. I am also the recipient of many great treasures obtained through the dumpster-diving adventures of some of my friends. They know what factories to go to and get unopened food that isn’t even past expiration (the companies throw it out because it would be past expiration by the time it arrived in the stores). I could say more here, but you get the idea…
-I choose to grow some food of my own. We grow what we can on our porch, but we are limited in this department. I look forward to a time when I can have a huge garden and grow a greater percentage of our food. I think this is one of the best possible ways to have fresh, healthy, inexpensive food that is good for us and for the environment.
-I participate in a food cooperative. The cooperative buys quality food in bulk and then sells it at cost to the members of the co-op. I even bring my own containers to fill up with rice, nuts, pasta, etc. This way, I am even able to reuse my packaging! I really think it would be easy to start something like this wherever you are, as long as you had a group of people interested in helping to get it started.
Finally, I want to address the topic of stockpiling or hoarding food (something that goes hand in hand with extreme couponing). Honestly, this just doesn’t sit well with me. Biblical passages like the man with all his storehouses of grain are flashing before me. I am not completely against saving up for the future or being prepared, but I am against the kind of “catastophobia” (that’s what my husband calls it) that causes people to hoard food out of fear. In contrast, I am a proponent of “preserving the summer’s bounty.” All cultures have had to find ways to preserve seasonal foods so that they would have food for the whole year. I see this kind of like the extra portion of manna that God gave the day before the Sabbath. Canning, freezing, drying, and fermenting food when it is in season means that we are prepared when there is less food available. It also means that we do not have to buy as much at the store. And, personally (although my space is limited), I would rather have canned applesauce, dry beans, and frozen fruit to eat in the case of the hypothetical catastrophe than Dorritos and the newest flavor of boxed crackers.
SO, will I use coupons? Yeah, I think I probably will. Here and there. I see nothing wrong with saving a little money, especially on high end healthy snack options. Who knows, buying a few of these things might help some good companies get off the ground. But, I do not want to dedicate myself to saving money through extreme couponing. There are other ways that I find much more life-giving…to me, to the earth, and to others around me. I would rather spend time with people, in my garden, and cooking from scratch than sitting on the computer looking through hundreds of coupons. If I can live on less money and still spend the money I do have in a way that gives back to people and the earth, that’s what I want to do.
PS – I want to say thanks to those of you beginning a conversation in response to my last post on the current couponing craze. Many good points have already come to the surface in that conversation. I want to address those points in a later post.