I used to be like one of those people on Extreme Couponing. I would stack coupons and use rebates and register rewards and gets a ridiculous amount of stuff for very little money. We once moved about 48 bottles of baby shampoo because, well, it was free! (We had several kids, too, so that isn't as ridiculous as it sounds. And it works on adults.)
As my life became busier, I used coupons less and less. There was a large stretch of time where just buying groceries was enough to push me over the edge, much less trying to organize coupons, compare prices and be sure I was following all the fine print. Now the kids are bigger, but I'm still busy, so couponing is a hit-or-miss thing for us. We are overseas, so we can use coupons up to six months after the expiration date, but we don't get US coupons. We rely on coupons sent from kind individuals and groups in the US. They come to our local Fleet and Family Service Center (the Navy's equivalent of an Airman and Family Readiness Center, or Army Community Services) or to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. The Relief Society has a nice set-up outside the commissary with different sections for each category of coupons, and volunteers sort the incoming coupons to make them easy to use.
In a compromise between guerilla couponing and not doing anything at all, I have hit upon a system that works for me. I go ahead and do my grocery shopping, then if I have time I go out to the coupon boxes and see if there are any coupons for products that I've already decided to buy to buy. This way, I'm not agonizing over various prices with and without coupons, there are no hours of prep time keeping everything organized, and I'm not tempted to buy things that I don't want or need just because the price is right. On a good day, I can get my kids to help. It isn't perfect but it works for me.
I'm having a shockingly busy week, but we had no food, so I went to the commissary and ended up with a full basket of things. I knew that there would be coupons for many of these items. I parked my cart and headed out to the coupon area. The bins were full, which is great because it means more coupons to find, but it also means that it takes longer to sort through the piles to find the coupons that you want. I spent at least a half-hour going through the stacks and pulling out coupons for items in my shopping cart. The whole time I was sorting, I was thinking. "You have way too much stuff to do to be wasting time here looking through coupons. You could be working and earning more money."
Nothing could have been further from the truth. For starters, I found over $20 worth of coupons for things I was already buying. More importantly, money not spent has so much more value than money earned. What do I mean?
There are so many expenses involved in earning money that every dollar that you don't spent is roughly the value of earning two dollars. Earned money is whittled away by taxes, commuting costs, work clothes, lunches...any expense that you incur in the earning of that money. Not spending money costs very little. Even if there is a small outlay, maybe a thermos to bring lunch from home or a newspaper subscription to get grocery coupons, that small outlay will keep you from spending much more in the future.
For me, that half-hour sorting coupons was well spent. $20 per half-hour is $40 per hour, already well more than what I can earn. Plus, my earnings are subject to self-employment tax of 13.3% and federal taxes at the 15%. I'd have to make nearly $60 an hour to reach the value of my little couponing project.
Obviously, everyone has a different cost-to-work, so everyone will have different calculations. Families who require child care, especially for multiple children, often find that the cost-to-work is much higher than the potential income. High commuting costs, the need to live in an expensive area, or other unusually pricey things definitely have to be taken into consideration when calculating the value of your earnings. The equation is rarely simple.
The easy take-away, however, is that not spending money has more value than earning the same amount of money. If you spend $1000 less on a car by comparison shopping, you've equaled around $2000 in income. I don't know about you, but I have to work a lot of hours to earn $2000.
Spending less, whether by not spending at all or by finding ways to lower your costs, is nearly always good investment of your time.