Coupon Ethics

Here are answers to some common coupon ethics questions, including information about coupon decoding, fradulent printable coupons, and changing your zip code in order to access more printable coupons.

What about “coupon decoding”?

The barcodes on coupons are designed to match up to the barcodes on the products they are intended to be used on.  However, you can imagine that with thousands of products and thousands of barcodes, it gets pretty tricky to coordinate the coupon barcodes, product barcodes, and store computers.

There are occasions when a coupon will “work” on a product that’s not specific on a coupon.  Let’s say you have a coupon for $1 off Whole-Grain CheezIts”.  It’s clear from the wording on the coupon that the manufacturer wants you to purchase Whole Grain CheezIts with that coupon.  Not White Cheddar CheezIts or Party Mix CheezIts.  Now, you may be able to use that coupon on a box of White Cheddar CheezIts and have it go through with no beeps.  Awesome, you were just able to use it on the fattening White Cheddar Cheezits you wanted instead of those healthy Whole Grain CheezIts, right?

Not so fast.  Just because it worked doesn’t mean it’s right.  The manufacturer specified that they wanted you to purchase Whole Grain, not White Cheddar.  You just worked the system in order to get what you wanted and deliberately went against the terms and conditions set forth by the coupon.

It’s not right, just don’t do it.  If it says “not valid on trial size” but still “works” on trial size, don’t do it. If it says “valid on 16 oz size only” but “works” on the 10 oz size, don’t do it.  At best, you’ll be embarrassed when the cashier looks at the coupon and realizes you’re trying to commit fraud.  At worst, it’s a crime and you could be prosecuted.

People who work the system to get ahead in life die lonely and unhappy.  Couponers who work the system to save a few bucks die lonely and unhappy and maybe in jail.  Just don’t do it.  Abide by the terms and conditions that are listed on the coupon and you’ll be able to walk out of the store holding your head up high because you saved 93% using coupons ethically.

It’s important to note that some coupons beep at the register even if they are valid.  That’s just life, and as long as you purchased the correct product as specific on the coupon, your cashier should be able to “force” it through.

How do I know if a printable coupon is a fake?

anatomy of a fake printable coupon

The biggest reason we can tell this is a fake coupon is because there are no limits to how many you can print. Legitimate printable coupons usually limit the amount of times you can print per computer (usually 2). This coupon is in a PDF or jpeg format that would allow you to click print, select to print 1000 copies, and proceed if you wanted to. Fraud!

A legitimate printable for a free bag of Riceworks chips was distributed in PDF
to 2,000 people. Because it was a PDF, it was easily shared beyond the manufacturer’s intentions and as many as 30,000 of these coupons have been redeemed. The manufacturer had to withdraw the offer even though they’d issued it. Could have been avoided by using software that limits the number
a computer can print!

Another big red flag is that there is no expiration date. A long, long time ago, some coupons didn’t have an expiration date, but when was the last time you saw a legitimate coupon without an expiration date? No manufacturer would put out a coupon for a free product that doesn’t have an expiration date.

It’s also suspicious because this is a printable coupon for a completely free product. Not “buy one get one free”, but just free. Very, very rarely a manufacturer will make a legitimate printable coupon for a free product available, but it’s very rare. And it’s not for a product that’s up to $11 in value!

Finally, on this particular coupon, the last clue that tells me this is a fraud is because there’s a misspelling: the proper way to abbreviate “ounces” is “oz” or perhaps “oz.”. Definitely not “ozs”!

A great resource for checking whether or not a printable coupon is valid is the Coupon Information Center. It’s a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting coupon crime – which, by the way, is anywhere from a misdemeanor to a felony.

The CIC has a long, long list of fradulent coupons that are or have been circulating. If an offer seems too good to be true, check this list – it probably is!

I heard about a printable coupon that was available from for a certain zipcode – should I change my zip code in order to view it? is a great source of printable coupons.  You’ll want to be sure you do enter your zip code because you may be able to see more coupons that are targeted to your specific area.  However, it’s not a good idea to enter a zip code that is not in your area just to be able to access some coupons that are not available in your area.

Coupon manufacturer’s sometimes choose to target specific areas for a coupon – maybe they’re debuting a new product and it’s only available in select parts of the country, or maybe they’re trying to boost sales on a particular product line in a certain part of the country.  In either case, entering a zip code that is different than the area in which you live is gaining you access to coupons that the manufacturer didn’t intend for your region to have.

Additionally, did you know there are some types of coupons that are illegal in certain states?  Many states, Colorado included, regular dairy coupons, so that coupons for milk or cheese are restricted.  If you enter an Iowa zip code to gain access to a coupon for milk that’s not available in Colorado, you may be circumventing the law that prohibits coupons on milk in Colorado.

But, wait – don’t you tell those of us that live in Colorado Springs to subscribe to the Denver Post because they get better coupons than the Gazette?  Yes, and I believe that is completely ethical because you can susbcribe and buy the Denver Post in Colorado Springs.  You’re not manipulating anything in order to obtain the Post.