We live in a Golden Age of Coupons. Every morning when I open my email, I see offers from Gilt City, Daily Candy, Living Social, and Groupon scattered among news briefings and actual correspondence. I signed up for these missives because I love a good deal, but for the most part I delete them unread; I can't forget my mother's folk wisdom: You can go broke buying wholesale.
I guess not everyone's mother told them that: Groupon, the best known of the Internet-discount services, was valued at $30 billion in its June IPO. Intrigued by this ludicrously large sum, I resolved to stop ignoring Groupon's emails and to see what all the fuss was about. Because I'm fitfully prone to extremes, I also decided to test the usefulness of Groupon on a micro scale. For one full week, I spent money on only Groupon deals. Groupon was, effectively, my sole currency.
First I implemented a few ground rules: I limited my spending to $200, a number meant to encapsulate all my non-rent/non-recurring-payment expenses, including food, and to be roughly equivalent to what I spend in a normal week. (I did allow myself a few emergency purchases like a subway pass, toilet paper, etc., and loaded up on groceries beforehand.) I could use only newly purchased Groupons, not stockpiled ones, and my goal was to spend them all within the seven-day period. One of the genius/terrible aspects of Groupon, depending on your perspective, is that people often fail to use them before they expire—resulting in a burgeoning secondary market. I wanted to avoid this particular kind of suckerdom.
The first day was disappointing. For my area (New York City), my options included a dance performance I had no interest in seeing, a guided tour of D.C. or Philadelphia, a Web-based laundry-pickup service, and a box of local coop organic produce, deliverable by mail. I'd been hoping for something indulgent, and Groupon was literally advising me to eat my vegetables.
Yet I went ahead: I spent $20 for $38.98 worth of greens that, when they arrived a few days later, didn't seem all that seasonal. I also decided to go for the laundry service: Like produce, I normally wouldn't consider getting it delivered, but the Groupon deal (this time, $15 for $30 worth of services) tricked me into thinking I was making up for the convenience surcharge. (In fact, as I realized a few days later after bothering to do some basic math, doing my own laundry and going to the supermarket would have been cheaper.)
On day two I took a bye. Groupon offered me yet another show I didn't want to see, a random deli sandwich far from where I work and where I live, and exercise programs that couldn't be completed during my week of Grouponing. (Here I should note that, in the past, I've gotten excellent deals on otherwise pricy yoga studios. Though I suppose coupon-yoga only works for me because I'm not picky about my "practice.")
The following morning I resisted the very, very brief urge to purchase 14 hours of tarot-card instruction to the tune of $50, stared longingly at a helicopter tour of Manhattan that would have exploded my budget, and instead bought a $10 coupon for $20 worth of lunch at a Thai restaurant in a faraway Brooklyn neighborhood. It may seem pathetic, but a midday, sit-down meal requiring more than an hour away from my desk counts as adventurous, and so later that week (you have to wait a day until your purchases are active) I met a freelance friend for a leisurely lunch. The food was average, the restaurant was empty, and any sense of grandeur I might have felt by treating him was spoiled by the moment when I had to root around in my bag for a crumpled coupon, only to have it momentarily rejected by the waiter because we hadn't spent quite enough.
Still, fairly pleased with the novelty of that experience, I met another work-from-home friend a couple of days later for $15 worth of lunch at an upscale noodle place, purchased for a mere $7. When the waiter figured out that we were using a Groupon, he whisked away the specials menu. Ouch. It seems my dignity can be bought for the low, low price of $8.
I also ventured out one day that week with several officemates to a "nearby" coffee shop—a 20-minute walk each way—where I had a Groupon for $8 worth of lunch. My sandwich was fine, but a 20-minute sandwich ought to be a work of near-art (weird that there's all this talk of an obesity crisis). The whole "time is money" concept hadn't occurred to me when I clicked "purchase," and yet after lunch I rushed back to the office full of anxiety that didn't seem worth the savings.