One evening in 1803, Thomas Jefferson came home from his job as president of the United States with exciting news. He had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, a $15-million transaction in which France handed over nearly a million square miles of territory to his fledgling nation. All lands from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains would now be American.
“Soon we will span the continent,” Jefferson told his wife Martha. “Our manifest destiny to stretch from sea to sea has been set in motion by my presidency. We have purchased the future of America.”
“Did you use the coupon on the refrigerator?” a skeptical Martha asked. “Because, you know, Napoleon is having a special, and with any purchase over $10 million, they’ll throw in the French West Indies.”
“This is the best deal since we bought the island of Manhattan for $24,” Jefferson answered. “The size of our land has been doubled.”
“You didn’t use the coupon, did you?” Martha continued. “Oh, well.”
The coupon may not trace its origins quite that far back, but the hope of getting a better deal has always been with us. In mankind’s earliest history, hunters and gatherers would return to the cave with what they thought was an impressive array of roots, berries and elk chunks, only to have their pride deflated by the well-intentioned spouse who’d been hoping for a free order of tree bark as well.
Americans save billions of dollars a year with just a little foresight and a pair of scissors. The coupon (pronounced “kew-pahn” by the unwashed and “coo-pohn” by those of us with a continental flair) has made its way into our everyday retail buying habits. For almost every product or service you can name, there is the opportunity to save substantial amounts on your purchase by handing over a thin slip of printed paper with your cash.
To her credit, my wife does a fantastic job of watching out for bargains that benefit the bottom line of our family’s budget. The picture below shows just a part of our collection, hanging in plain sight on the refrigerator where only a blind moron such as me could miss them.
I frequently neglect to use these coupons despite repeated reminders. A silly sense of pride is part of this — I see myself casually accepting of any price announced by the cashier with the noble proclamation that I’m willing to pay “whatever the cost” — though it’s primarily a memory issue. I’m lucky to remember my car keys and my clothing before leaving the house on a buying errand.
I’m trying to do better. Even though the 1/20th of a cent in cash value doesn’t go as far today as it used to, it still pays to shop wisely. The image of the Coupon Queen hauling a file cabinet full of paperwork up to the checkout so she can save $3.67 is now little more than a stereotype. Even urbane men of the world are regularly seen these days pulling a wad of vouchers out of their finely tailored suits to save a few bucks on the business lunch that will seal the upcoming merger.
Keeping this in mind has helped me do a better job of using coupons. I’ve now become enough of a veteran bargain-hunter that I understand slight variations in how the coupon economy works. Once you’ve steeled yourself to the humiliation of a transaction that announces to the world how cheap you are, there are subtleties at work in different settings that are worth knowing.
The coupon is most commonplace in the supermarket. Some stores even have special double- or even triple-coupon Tuesdays, where essentially they pay you to cart their stuff away. It’s not at all unusual to see every one of your fellow shoppers racking up big savings, buying one and getting one free, earning a quarter off here and free bag-of-chips-they-don’t-even-like there as they stretch their grocery dollar to extraordinary lengths.
A casual attitude toward the coupon also exists in the fast-food industry. As long as you declare your intention at the drive-through speakerbox to use it (in addition to “I have a coupon,” also acceptable is “I had a suit on” and “I’d like some Grey Poupon”), they’ll often ring up your discount without even taking the thing from you. The deals are usually not that great, and often involve some leftover, failed promotional item, like the McSquid sandwich or the Whopper Super Extreme, an all-beef patty topped with battery acid.
It’s in finer dining establishments where things tend to get dicey. You’ll want to keep the coupon hidden until you’ve finished your meal, unless you want smaller portions and/or spittle in your salad. Produce the discount as you ask for your check, and have confidence in your right to use it. I usually say something like “I have this coupon I was hoping to use if it’s something you accept and you promise we’ll never meet again.” Beware of hidden details in the fine print that may disrupt your plans. My wife and I once had a coupon rejected because we tried to use it on Veteran’s Day Eve, because holidays were specifically excluded from the offer. (In the end, we were just happy to have found a reservation on a night as crowded with celebrating couples as Veteran’s Day Eve).
Finally, there are opportunities to use coupons to purchase services as well as goods. I’m frequently able to take advantage of an offer for $8.99 haircuts at Great Clips (regular price: $11). The good thing about this set-up is that you don’t pay until after the cut is done, and by then there’s not much your stylist can do to mess you up on purpose, short of holding you down and gluing your floor trimmings back onto your scalp. The bad thing, for me anyway, is that I usually feel so guilty about gypping a struggling single mom out of a few dollars that I leave an excessive tip that negates any savings.
Harking back to the Jeffersons, it seems the time is right to expand coupon usage to other kinds of transactions, like those involving the government. Maybe we consider additional incentives to sympathetic Afghan warlords to accompany their direct cash payments, maybe a coupon for half-off the latest ground-to-air missile technology. How about offering the Chinese a deal on Treasury bills, in which a piece of an American monument is thrown in for every $100 billion sold? They could be given Teddy Roosevelt’s eyebrow off of Mt. Rushmore and hardly anybody would notice. Or the Statue of Liberty’s exposed armpit, which could then be covered up with a Band-Aid. You could say she nicked herself shaving. It’d make her more human.
Regardless of what the nation chooses to do, I’ll keep trying to remember to use my coupons. Frugality and thrift are valuable traits in these bad economic times, and I shouldn’t be ashamed to show them. Our third president would’ve been wise to heed the encouragement of his wife. Imagine Martinique as our 51st state.