Although extreme couponing can save you a lot of money at checkout, it’s also a big hassle. You have to amass a large collection of coupon inserts, go through them all to find the paper coupons you want, clip them, sort them, and hold up the line at the register while you present them. For many people, it’s not worth the effort.
But online coupon codes are a different story. Just run a quick search of “coupon codes” plus the name of the site where you’re shopping, and bingo. You get a whole list of codes from coupon sites like RetailMeNot, Coupons.com, and Slickdeals that can shave as much as 50% off your order. Just type in the code of your choice, and watch your savings pop up in your cart.
It’s hard to believe you can save so much money doing something so simple, but you can. According to a 2019 study by CouponFollow, the average American household stands to save as much as $122 per month — $1,465 per year — using online and mobile coupon codes.
And that’s not just CouponFollow pulling dollar amounts out of the air — they crunched the numbers. It really is possible to achieve that kind of savings when you shop.
What the Numbers Mean
To figure out how much shoppers are saving with coupon codes, CouponFollow analyzed data from its browser extension, Cently. It looked at over 435,000 transactions to figure out how often promo codes worked and how much people saved with them.
CouponFollow found that roughly 40% of all purchases made online were successfully matched with a valid coupon code. The shoppers who used these codes saved an average of $30 per purchase, or 17.2% of the total amount they spent.
To translate these numbers into annual savings, CouponFollow compared them with spending data from the 2017 Consumer Expenditure Survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This survey notes how much consumers spend each year in different categories, such as food, household items, apparel, and entertainment. CouponFollow looked at how much coupon code users saved on purchases in each of these categories. They then compared that with the amount spent in each category to figure out how much a typical consumer could save over a whole year.
Based on this comparison, CouponFollow calculated that an average household could save $1,465 per year with coupon codes — 6.4% of its total spending. However, to save this much, the household members would have to buy everything online using promo codes for each purchase.
For most families, that isn’t a realistic way to shop. There are some things it just doesn’t make sense to buy online, such as fresh food. According to a 2018 NPR/Marist poll, a majority of Americans have never shopped online for basic household goods or groceries. And even among people who regularly make online purchases, a majority of shoppers say they prefer in-store shopping.
So clearly, Americans won’t be switching all their shopping to Amazon and other online retailers soon. But the CouponFollow survey illustrates one thing clearly: For the things you do buy online, coupon codes can be a big money-saver.
Coupon Code Savings by Category
Coupon codes don’t save you the same amount on everything you buy across the board. They give you better savings in some categories than others based on several factors.
- Chances to Save. Just because you find a coupon code doesn’t mean it still works. And some categories have more promo codes available than others. The more usable discount codes there are in a given category, the more chances you have to save.
- Savings per Purchase. Coupon savings vary both in dollars and as a percentage of your spending. Some promo codes offer only a dollar or two off your purchase, while others can knock off as much as $40 per purchase. However, some small-dollar coupon codes are worth more in terms of percentage. For instance, a coupon for $0.50 off a $5 item saves you 10%, while a coupon for $5 off a $100 item saves you only 5%.
- Savings per Year. The amount you save in each category over a year depends on how much you spend in that category overall. If groceries make up a much bigger chunk of your budget than hair care, there are more opportunities to save each year on groceries than on shampoo.
The categories that offer the best chance of finding a usable coupon code aren’t always the same categories that give you the most significant savings on each purchase. And the categories with the biggest one-time savings aren’t always the ones that save you the most per year. You have to look at all three factors to figure out where discount codes are the most effective.
Best Chance to Save
According to the CouponFollow survey, the category most likely to have usable coupon codes is tobacco and smoking. Over half of all people who bought cigarettes or other tobacco products online were able to use a promo code for the purchase, saving an average of 14%. Of course, you can save even more money if you quit smoking and avoid the expense altogether.
Other categories for worthwhile savings are alcohol and groceries. Over 45% of shoppers in both categories were able to use coupon codes, saving 18% and 16%, respectively.
Biggest Savings per Purchase
In dollar terms, coupon codes for travel deals offer the biggest savings. The average shopper who used one saved $41.05.
But it’s also hardest to find coupon codes that work in this category. Only 30% of shoppers were able to take advantage of a travel coupon. And since travel is expensive, a $41 savings only represents 8.2% of the total spent. It’s not a trivial amount, but you can probably save more money overall by planning a less expensive vacation.
Other categories that offer good savings in dollar terms are household items, averaging $38.84 per purchase, and alcohol, averaging $37.40. However, since alcohol only makes up a small part of most families’ budgets, this savings only adds up to around $47 per year.
Highest Percentage Saved
If you’re looking at your savings as a percentage of the total rather than a fixed dollar amount, coupon codes for restaurants save you the most. Over 38% of users were able to find promo codes to use on their online food orders, saving $7.49 on average — over 20% of the cost of their meal.
Coupons for personal care and beauty products also take a significant percentage off the purchase price. About 45% of shoppers in this category successfully used coupon codes. They saved an average of $17.98 per purchase, or 19.4% of what they spent. People who bought clothing online also had good luck saving money with discount codes, cutting their bills by an average of $31.89, or 18.8% of the total cost.
Biggest Yearly Savings
Just because you don’t save a high dollar amount or percentage per purchase doesn’t mean you don’t save big overall. For example, in percentage terms, coupon codes for groceries offer only a middling savings of 15.8%. Moreover, only 46% of grocery purchases involve a coupon code, so overall, shoppers can only expect to take 7% off their grocery budget this way.
However, since groceries are something every family buys regularly, this modest percentage can still add up to a sizable chunk of change over a year. CouponFollow calculates that coupon codes could save the average household $316 per year on food prepared at home. That’s a bigger yearly dollar total than any other category. The savings can be taken a step further when using an app like Fetch Rewards or Ibotta.
Other categories that offer big annual savings are household items at $272 per year and eating out at $264 per year. These categories also account for a pretty high percentage of a typical family’s budget, so the savings from coupon codes add up.
How to Maximize Your Savings Using Coupon Codes
Chances are you can’t do all your shopping on the Internet just to take advantage of coupon codes. When you’re out of milk, you probably need to pick up a carton that day, not place an order that will take time to arrive. Besides, for a purchase this small, the amount you’d spend on shipping would probably cancel out the coupon savings.
However, for the things you already buy online, it makes sense to wring as much savings from coupon codes as you can. You just have to know how to target your use of promo codes to maximize your savings.
1. Time Your Purchases
The CouponFollow study revealed that retailers are more likely to offer coupon codes in some months than others. October is the best time of year for online coupons. Shoppers who searched for promo codes during this month had a success rate of better than 41.5%. April and May are both good as well, with success rates of over 41%. By contrast, shoppers who looked for online coupon codes in January, March, August, and September succeeded less than 39% of the time.
When you look at the size of the discounts from coupon codes, the differences are even more significant. Shoppers who used promo codes in November, including online deals for Black Friday, saved more than 19% on average. December and October are also good months to save, with discounts of 18.1% and 17.5%, respectively. February and May are the worst months for coupon code savings, with discounts averaging only 16.5%.
So, if you have a big purchase to make online, it makes sense to wait until October or November. Shopping at this time will maximize your chances of finding a coupon and getting a good discount with it. If that’s too long to wait, at least avoid shopping in August, when both the availability of coupons and the discounts they offer are at a low ebb.
2. Always Check Certain Categories
Always check for coupon codes when buying tobacco, alcohol, or groceries since those categories yield the most usable coupons. And in dollar terms, you’ll score the best deals on dining out, personal care, and apparel.
By contrast, if you’re shopping for books, your potential savings from a coupon code are pretty meager. Only 36.6% of shoppers find a promo code that works, and even those who do find one save only $6.40 on average. It’s still worth doing a quick search for online coupon codes when you’re shopping for reading material since it only takes a few seconds. But if you don’t turn up a deal right away, it’s probably not worth spending more time looking.
3. Use Coupon Apps
The biggest advantage of online couponing is its convenience. Using apps or browser extensions that do the searching for you makes it even easier.
With apps and extensions, there’s no need to open a new browser window, run a search, and figure out which coupon codes apply to your intended purchase. You simply shop through the app or have the extension running in the background. Whenever you shop online, it automatically shows you a list of available coupon codes, so all you have to do is select the best one. This makes it easy to search for deals, even in categories like books and travel where discount codes are scarce.
Of course, even with a browser extension, you still need to take a little time to look through your list of coupon codes and compare the deals. It’s tempting to click the code that offers the highest percentage off your purchase. But sometimes, you can save more in total with a different type of deal, such as a flat dollar amount or free shipping.
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4. Stack Your Savings
Coupon codes aren’t the only way to save money shopping on the Web. Sometimes, online stores run site-wide sales, offering a discount on every single item they sell. In other cases, they offer discounts on specific products that don’t require a promo code. So it’s worth searching for these types of bargains when you shop online rather than just relying on your handy coupon-code app for savings.
If you want to turbo-charge your savings, try “stacking,” or combining your deals. On most sites, you can only use one promo code at a time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t combine online coupon codes with other types of deals. Here’s an example of how this could work when shopping for a sweater:
- Find a Sale. You compare prices on several websites. Most charge $30 for the sweater you want, but you find it on sale for $20 on one site.
- Use a Coupon Code. Next, you search for coupon codes or let your browser extension do it for you. You find one that gives you an extra 10% off on one item. That reduces the price to $18.
- Use a Gift Card. You buy the sweater using a gift card you purchased on a discount site such as Raise.com for 10% off its face value. Although you’re using $18 worth of credit to buy the sweater, the cash price you paid for it is 10% less, or $16.20.
- Use Rewards. You purchase through a rewards program, such as Rakuten (formerly Ebates), that gives you 3% cash back on your $18 purchase. That rebate saves you an extra $0.54, reducing your out-of-pocket cost to under $16.
However, deal stacking doesn’t always work smoothly. For instance, some sites have only one spot where you can enter a promotional code — and that includes the number of a gift card. So, if you have both a gift card and a coupon code, you can’t use them both. In cases like this, compare the savings from your two types of deals and use whichever one is a better value.
5. Don’t Pay Extra for a Discount
Some coupon codes give you a deal only if you spend a certain amount on the site. For instance, a code might give you free shipping on any order over $50. If you already plan to buy $50 worth of goods, this is helpful. But if you’re not, you have a dilemma: Is it worth buying something extra just to use the promo code?
If you’re just shy of the limit, the answer could be yes. For instance, if you can save $10 on shipping by adding a $2 item to your cart, even if it’s something you don’t need, you still come out $8 ahead.
However, if what you plan to buy only costs $20, it’s not worth buying an extra $30 worth of stuff to save $10. It’s only justifiable if what you buy is something you needed anyway and the cost on that site — including shipping — is in line with what you usually pay. Otherwise, “spending to save” really isn’t saving at all.
Using coupon codes is so easy, there’s no reason not to do it every time you shop online. No, you won’t always be able to find a promo code that works. But looking for one takes only a few seconds — perhaps less if you’re using an app or browser extension. And the savings — especially in categories like alcohol, apparel, and personal care — can be significant.
Chances are you won’t really save $1,465 per year by using coupon codes. But if you can save even 10% of that amount with practically no effort, why wouldn’t you?