Smart Money Podcast: Pet Costs and Extreme Couponing

Profile photo of Liz Weston, CFP®
Written by Liz Weston, CFP®
Senior Writer
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Edited by Kathy Hinson
Lead Assigning Editor
Fact Checked
Profile photo of Sean Pyles
Co-written by Sean Pyles
Senior Writer

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Welcome to NerdWallet’s SmartMoney podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.

This week’s episode starts with a discussion about pet costs, based on a survey showing nearly half of dog owners underestimated how much their pet would cost, which on average was over $1,200 a year. (Cat owners spend about half that amount, but many were still surprised by the costs.) Even small expenses — say, crickets for a gecko — can add up over time with a long-lived pet. Pet insurance can help, but it’s not for everyone.

Then we pivot to this week’s question from Leslie in Charlotte. They say, "I've been seeing a lot of TikTok videos from couponers getting items for free, but it seems like a lot of work. Is couponing worth it? And how do you get started couponing?"

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Our take

Extreme couponing does take a lot of work. You need binders to keep track of your coupons and sale prices, time to monitor all the sales and a fair amount of storage space to hold your bulk buys.

But regular people can profit from less-intense versions of couponing that deliver savings with much less effort.

The first steps might be signing up for your grocery store’s loyalty program and searching for coupons before buying online (just search for the name of the retailer and “coupon” or “discount”). Coupon databases, apps and browser extensions also can help you find discounts.

Coupon pop-ups, where retailers offer 10% or more off your purchase if you sign up for text messages or emails, are another low-effort way to save. You can always unsubscribe after getting the discount. Many retailers’ apps also offer coupons and discounts. Grocery store apps, for example, often allow you to clip a coupon right in the app.

Many of the things we buy have sales cycles. Familiarizing yourself with the best time to buy certain products helps you save money. Tracking prices for items you buy regularly can help you spot a particularly good sale, so you can stock up.

Cash-back sites are another low-effort way to save. When buying online, you start at the cash-back site and click its link to the retailer. It doesn’t cost you any more to go through the site, and you earn cash back on your purchase.

But remember you aren’t saving money if you’re buying things you don’t need or won’t use. Being mindful about your purchases may ultimately save you more than any couponing strategy could.

Our tips

Start small. If you’re interested in couponing, start with a few items you buy regularly and seek out coupons for them.

Go for the low-hanging fruit. Email signup offers or enrolling in loyalty programs are two easy ways to get discounts.

Shop smart. A deal is only a deal if you were already going to buy that item.

More about couponing on NerdWallet:

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, return to the podcast homepage.

Liz Weston: Welcome to the NerdWallet's Smart Money Podcast, where we answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I'm Liz Weston.

Sean Pyles: And I'm Sean Pyles. As always, be sure to send us your money questions. Call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. Or email us at [email protected]. We are here to help you. So keep your questions coming.

Liz: And if you like what you hear, leave us a review. On this episode, Sean and I are talking with shopping Nerd Courtney Neidel about how to get the most out of couponing. But first, this week in your money segment, Sean and I talk about something we love: pets.

Sean: Yes, pets, and their many, many expenses. The online trading platform TD Ameritrade just came out with an interesting report about Americans and pet ownership. First off, according to their report, almost a third of Americans have considered getting a pet since the pandemic began, myself included in that. But the report also found that many people don't fully understand the costs associated with pet ownership.

Liz: Nearly half of the owners say having a dog was more expensive than they realized. They spent an average of, I think, $1,200 a year on their dog. And they said on average, they would spend $3,300 if the dog got sick.

Sean: I personally don't have a price limit that I think I would put toward my dog — I say that because she's probably relatively healthy right now — but she's my precious little fur baby. I need to do what I can to keep her going. So I understand that people are willing to put some serious money behind their pets.

Liz: Yeah, my husband and I were raised on farms. So we always thought that we would be tough about this. After a certain time, you just got to let the animal go. Well, we had a cat who, pardon the TMI, but, got constipated. So we wound up sending it to the vet over and over and over again because you can't let a cat die of constipation. It got really, really expensive. And we realized we weren't the tough people we thought. We're marshmallows, and if our dog needs something, if our cat needs something, we're going to get it for them, which is why I finally bought pet insurance.

Sean: There are so many unexpected expenses that can pop up — I had that when we adopted our dog. She was only nine months old, and so, first of all, she needed puppy classes — and we also didn't really know what we were getting into. It turns out we have a dog — she's an Australian Kelpie mix, which basically means that she has a ton of energy. When we adopted her, my partner and I were living in an apartment. And one of the first things we learned about Pepper, my sweet dog — her breed — is that she is not an apartment dog. She needs to be outside just for her own mental well-being, even if it's just laying out in the grass as my dog is doing right now. So that ended up accelerating our home-buying timeline, actually. So you have to really do some research and try to anticipate these costs before you end up moving up your house hunt six months like we did.

Liz: Well, it's kind of like having a kid. When you have a kid, all of a sudden you're looking for a bigger house, you're getting a bigger car. There's a cascade of expenses that can go with it.

Sean: And I think it's also worth trying to look forward into the future as much as you can with this pet. I think that my gecko is a good example of this. I've had a gecko for 19 years.

Liz: Good heavens.

Sean: Ozzy, he was a gift for my 10th birthday. Yeah. And he eats crickets. Right? You think that they're pretty innocuous, cheap little things that he eats. Well, I ran some numbers before hopping on this recording and I realized that I spend around $156 a year on crickets alone. And $156, 19 years, that is just shy of $3,000 for bugs for my gecko. And let me tell you, crickets are just the worst. They're noisy, they smell, they're awful. They eat each other — it's just disgusting. But in the grand scheme of things, it really isn't that much. $3,000, that's about twice what people spend on their dog a year according to that TD Ameritrade report. One thing I want to discuss as well with you, Liz, is pet insurance. I know it's pretty hotly debated, especially among folks at NerdWallet. We have a very active dogs Slack channel, and people weigh the pros and cons all the time about pet insurance. But you have pet insurance for your dog. So can you talk about what it's like for you?

Liz: Yeah. This is something I resisted for a long time because insurance is supposed to be for the catastrophic expenses. Those are the big expenses that you couldn't pay out of pocket, or that would be really, really painful. Well, in my case, it's all about the pain. I don't want to have to dig into our savings to pay for a $5,000 surgery. And the other thing is, veterinary medicine is getting better all the time and they can do things with animals and for animals that they couldn't do 10 years ago. So, in the past, you might've been facing a situation where, OK, this is terminal because there's not much we can do. Now you have the option. Are you going to turn down that option? Are you going to deprive your fur baby because you don't want to pay the money? And that's the discussion I don't want to have with my husband, with my child, with the dog. So we pay for the insurance.

Sean: I have a sort of middle ground where the vet that I go to, it's a big national chain that I will not name, but they have a subscription service where I basically pay X amount per month per pet. And that affords me unlimited visits if I need them, and it gives me a discount on shots. I get a discount on any sort of dental care they might need. And for me, that is worth it. Because for example, last year I had to have my cat's teeth cleaned, and they ended up having to pull a couple of his teeth as well. And that made it so that I'm paying what, $35 a month. And that saved me from having to fork out $1,200 in one go. So I'm basically paying that same amount, but because it's disbursed over an amount of time, it feels easier to digest.

Liz: That's a really good idea. Now, it doesn't have catastrophic coverage. If, heaven forbid, Pepper needed surgery, it wouldn't cover that, right?

Sean: I would get a discount. But it doesn't cover it in the way that insurance does. So again, it's kind of mid-tier version. It's not quite insurance, but it's not quite just going straight to the vet. But I found it really handy because when we were visiting some family in California a couple of weeks ago, the dog woke up one day — she was shaking her head a lot, something was obviously wrong with her ear. She has these big Australian Kelpie ears, Google it and you'll see how big they are. They're like bat ears. And something was wrong. So we were wondering, OK, is this an infection? Let's just go to the vet, figure it out. And because there was one of these vet offices nearby, we went, they looked at it, it seemed like something had just fallen into her ear and they gave us some anti-inflammatory medicine. Twenty bucks later, we were on our way. So big expenses aren't covered per se, but it makes regular checkups really handy for me to do.

Liz: If you are buying pet insurance for the catastrophic expenses, you can make it a little more affordable by having a big upfront deductible. Now you can't get it as big as you might get on a car, but you can have a $500 deductible for many plans and that can help keep the cost down.

Sean: One thing I think would be worth looking into with people who are shopping around for insurance is getting a few different quotes because from what I've seen, there may be a dozen or so main pet insurers and their policies and structures vary greatly. So before you land on one, maybe shop around a little bit, see what you can get with each one and what would work for your pet. If you know that you're going to have some care in the future, yeah, maybe get that higher deductible.

Sean: But, I am personally going to hold off on getting insurance because my dog's breed is known for being particularly healthy. The oldest dog ever recorded was a Kelpie.

Liz: Oh.

Sean: So I'm holding onto hope that she'll be like that as well. So we'll see — I'm just not there yet.

Liz: Yeah, I understand that. And the other thing with insurance is it gets more expensive every year. It's not like you lock in a $200 or $300 payment. With our dog, he's 10 years old. He's going to be 11 shortly. And he costs almost $1,000 a year. So it's expensive.

Sean: Yeah. And Pepper is not even 3 yet. So it's not as urgent.

Liz: And come on NerdWallet because we have articles about pet insurance that can help you figure out how to shop for it.

Sean: Yeah. And we have a link to that article in our show notes post. So check that out as well.

Liz: All right. Well, let's get on to this episode's question.

Sean: This episode's question comes from Leslie in Charlotte. They say, "I've been seeing a lot of TikTok videos from couponers getting items for free, but it seems like a lot of work. Is couponing worth it? And how do you get started couponing?"

Liz: Oh, I want to know the answer to this question as well, because I've tried couponing and, boy, did it seem like a lot of work for not a lot of payoff. So I want to know the lazy woman's way to do this.

Sean: Right. And I want the lazy man's way because I'm far too lazy to even get involved in this. But I'm amazed by the deals that people can nab with coupons. I've seen that Extreme Couponing show, but to me, it seems like a huge hassle. But to help us answer Leslie's question, on this episode of the podcast, we're talking with Courtney Neidel, a Nerd who's done a lot of writing about shopping and how to find the best deals. Let's get into it.

Liz: Hey Courtney, welcome to the show.

Courtney Neidel: Hi Sean and Liz. I'm excited to be here.

Sean: I'm really glad we could bring you on, Courtney, because we have a question that seems kind of simple, but I think it could get really, really complicated. Basically, our listener, Leslie, is wondering about couponing. Obviously couponing has been around forever, but it's taken on a new life with social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram and Reddit — there are all these big couponing communities. And Leslie has seen some good deals on them and she's wondering about the best way to get started and if it's even worth the hassle. So to start, I'm wondering how much work it is to get these discounts.

Courtney: It really varies depending on how much work you want to put in. I am a huge fan of the Extreme Couponing show. I love seeing people ring up hundreds of dollars worth of groceries and paying $7 for it. The problem is, that's probably not realistic for all of us. If you watch that show, you'll see these couponers have dedicated binders. They really plan out the stores, the sales, the manufacturer coupons, the retailer coupons. They stack things, they buy in bulk. There's all these strategies that go into it. So, if you want to get really extreme, that's obviously when you can see the biggest savings, but you really can start with small — things like using a coupon code online, or bringing a couple coupons to the store with you and work your way up. But basically, any coupon you use will obviously save you money.

Liz: Courtney, I have a question and I feel kind of stupid asking it, but do people still use paper coupons or are we talking all digital?

Courtney: They totally do. You can do both. There's even apps that will combine paper and digital for you. It's always a great idea to download coupon apps, use coupon websites, things like RetailMeNot. There's browser extensions when you're shopping online, things like Honey, where they will automatically look for the best coupon for you, but you can totally look in the Sunday newspaper and physically clip coupons and bring those with you.

Sean: Courtney, you mentioned some of those browser extensions, and I've actually tried those and they are what make me skeptical of this whole couponing industrial complex as it were because I've never actually gotten a discount using them. So I'm convinced that they're just taking all of my information and shopping habits and selling them to who knows who else, but can you really get a discount with them? Because I just haven't had that experience.

Courtney: That's a good point. I think it really varies. I have tried them before, and they will come up with no coupons available. So I will double-check even the browser extension. So if they recommend a coupon for me or maybe tell me that, no coupons, I don't always trust them. I go a step further and literally Google the name of the retailer and the word "coupon: and see if there's another website they can find a coupon for me. And sometimes I find one that they didn't find.

Liz: Well, and there's also what I feel like are sham sites, which is you do the same thing, you put in the retailer and coupon or discount code or whatever. And what you get back is a bunch of sites that don't actually have the coupons, or they pretend that they have the coupons and they don't. Again, it just feels so icky and scammy. It feels like it might not be worth the effort. But you're saying it does, sometimes.

Sean: Right.

Courtney: Yeah. And I think an interesting thing is when you talk about marketing stuff is when we shop online, I'm sure you guys have seen that there's always that coupon pop-up. If you sign up your email address, if you sign up with text messages and then you'll get 10% off, 15% off, 20% off. The problem is if you don't take advantage of that, you're missing out because the retailers are preparing to offer you that discount. And they have built that into their pricing. They're ready to sell your order or your item for that percentage off. So if you don't take that extra step, you're going to be overpaying for the item and you should have been paying maybe 15% less.

Liz: Oh, wow. That could be a significant discount.

Courtney: Exactly.

Sean: I have been a sucker for those email coupon prompts more times than I want to admit, but that brings me to another point. And one thing that I always come back to with couponing is that the deal is not really that great of a deal if you're buying something that you don't need at all. Like on that Extreme Couponing show, these people have literal hoards in their garages full of toilet bowl cleaner or whatever random thing that could buy 50 of for five cents. And I think that's something that we should mention. If you are buying something you don't need, you're not really saving money.

Courtney: I totally agree. And I think we see the same thing with some of these loyalty programs, where if you become a member and the more you spend, the more discounts you get. But then it's a slippery slope because you just want to spend more money to unlock more discounts. But if you weren't a member in the first place, maybe you wouldn't even have bought those things that you were buying. So I think that's a really great point, Sean.

Liz: So if I have other things to do with my life and I don't have a garage or a basement or whatever to stuff in 20 cases of toilet bowl cleaner, what's the best way for me to approach this if I do want to save some money? Because a lot of people do right now.

Courtney: Exactly. Saving money is so important right now. So if you want to do it more in smaller quantities, what I like to do is really just track prices and become familiar with things. So that means like even the toilet bowl cleaner and the normal things you buy at the grocery store, learn to recognize a good sale price. Even if it's without a coupon, it might just be on sale. And when you find that, I like to buy a couple of backups, maybe buy at that time of the year and then you're set on that. Otherwise, if you download retail store apps, sometimes they will bring you the coupons for you. So maybe your local grocery store, you can clip coupons right within the app and it makes it a lot easier and you don't have to do a bunch of outside research. You kind of do it all in one place.

Liz: My grocery store is the one place where I have a loyalty card and I don't really care that they have all my information — I'm sure they're selling it. I don't really care that much. That's great advice, Courtney. That's very helpful.

Courtney: Oh good. Yes. Shopping is so fun.

Sean: But it can also be really stressful. Sometimes when I'm in an online shopping haul, I can get overwhelmed by all of the coupons and various other limited time offers that pop up. And I often end up closing out all of my tabs and feeling better that I didn't spend that money anyway. But I do have a question about getting started with couponing, because that's something Leslie was interested in as well. And starting out is where I feel like people could get overwhelmed. I was watching one couponer on TikTok who said that you absolutely have to have a binder and get some baseball card holders for all of your various coupons. And you have to make sure that the expiration date is facing out so you know when to use them. And it seems like a lot to do for couponing. It made me think that this is not for me. So I'm wondering how you think the lay person can get started.

Courtney: Yes. I think that's a really good point, and that definitely sounds like a very dedicated couponer, which is great and takes a lot of effort and motivation. That's definitely when you're looking at coupons and then sometimes you're having to match the products to the coupons you find. So I think if you want to just base it more on, you already want to buy something and then see if a coupon is available for that item, that's a little bit more manageable. You can also use online resources. So there's coupon databases that are all aggregated together. The other component is you have to usually learn a store's coupon policy because they really vary from store to store or retailer to retailer. Sometimes they will accept manufacturer coupons. Sometimes they'll only accept their own retail coupons. So a manufacturer coupon is when it's from the brand itself. So you might be able to get a coupon that comes from them. Sometimes you can stack it with a coupon that comes from the store. So that's when you start seeing these layers of research and the need for a binder because you're grabbing coupons from a bunch of different places. So to make it easier, definitely start small. Start with the items that you were going to buy on your list already, and then just get the hang of it and start learning the policies. And then you can really build on it from there.

Liz: Now, what if you don't want to mess with this at all? Are there shopping tips that help no matter what happens to be on sale or how much effort you want to put into it?

Courtney: Yes. I think the whole topic of coupons is really a broader conversation about just shopping smart. So you don't have to be doing all of this really dedicated buying 10 bottles of pasta sauce at a time. You can just shop smart. So part of that is what you guys were talking about earlier. What Sean said about only buying things if you actually really need it and thinking about that purchase. So maybe pulling it up, looking at it, coming back to it a little while later and seeing if you really still want it. You can also time your purchases throughout the year. So this goes beyond just groceries — things that you're buying for your house, for clothing, appliances, electronics, there's usually a best time of the year to buy just about anything. For instance, the end of the season is the best time to buy clothing for that season. So as summer comes to a close, you'll see all the summer clothing on sale while all the fall clothing is full price. So just thinking through your purchases and being smart and intentional about things you buy. And then also shopping sales, because sometimes retailers won't even offer coupons. They might just discount their whole inventory by a certain percentage at certain times of the year. So you don't even have to worry about coupons — you just shop during that sale and you get the discount automatically applied.

Sean: And I've been seeing some of those blanket sales from online retailers, a few of which have actually filed for bankruptcy recently. Some have had blowout sales of 60% off site-wide. So I've been able to get some good deals just shopping through those big sales.

Liz: Well, and I'm remembering back to the Great Recession where when it hit, retailers had so much stock. We were getting amazing deals. Honestly, it was like a blowout and I haven't seen anything like that come along quite yet other than the retail bankruptcies that you were talking about, Sean. But I think as we get closer to Christmas, maybe we'll see more of those. I don't know. What do you think, Courtney?

Courtney: Definitely. I think Black Friday will be really big this year because we've seen a lot of retailers struggling because everyone has been so focused on buying those necessities, like toilet paper and paper towels and all these things that we were seeing sell out. So all of these other retailers that were more discretionary purchases or things that you buy for fun, they haven't been prioritized as much. So that's why we're really seeing them discounting and really being aggressive with their sales. And I think we're definitely seeing that as we approach Christmas.

Liz: One question I wanted to ask, Courtney, is, what about the cash-back sites? The ones that are trying to get you to go through them, to buy and get a certain percentage back, are those worth taking advantage of?

Courtney: I am a big fan of those. I'm so glad you brought that up. Those are so fun. Basically what you do is you sign up for one of these websites, make an account. And instead of going directly to a retailer's website, you click the link from that cash-back website and it'll take you to the retailer. By doing that, they can track your purchase. They are earning a commission because they referred you to the website and then they cut you a check literally for a portion of that. So you might get 3% cash back on whatever it is you ordered. And then after the end of the month or the end of the quarter, depending on how they do payouts, you literally get money back. So you can think of it as a coupon, but you just don't actually see your savings until after the fact. So you'll pay the normal price upfront, but then you get this discount later on. So if you are a big online shopper, like I totally am . . .

Liz: We all are now.

Courtney: Yeah. So it's a really good idea. If you're going to be buying anyway, you might as well be getting some cash back on that.

Liz: OK, cool. That's good to know.

Sean: I have another question for you. I'm wondering about these online couponing communities, because that's what kicked off this whole thing for Leslie. Are you involved in any of those and have you been able to get coupons from them?

Courtney: Is it embarrassing if I have never been on TikTok before?

Sean: I will say no, because I had never been on TikTok before we even got this question. So don't worry. We are millennials. And I think that we can now own that we are no longer the youngest bunch of folks online anymore.

Courtney: I feel very old. I have no experience with that actually. I have been a solo coupon user, but I think that's fascinating that it's becoming more popular. We associate coupons with, like Liz mentioned, literally cutting it out of the newspaper and using a physical coupon. And now it's having a resurgence online in the digital era.

Sean: All right. Well, do you have any final shopping tips for Leslie, either about couponing or how to nab the best deal?

Courtney: I think the best advice is just to be a savvy shopper, which it sounds like just by asking this question, you're already on the right track. So just thinking about your purchases being very intentional. Another little trick that I like to use is — I know we talked about signing up for those email lists, and I sign up for a bunch of email lists — and then when a new sale pops up, I search my inbox and compare it to emails they've sent me in the past to see if it's really a good deal or not. So if they're emailing me for like 30% off site-wide, I can look back and be like, wait, you actually have offered 40% off site-wide before. So maybe I should wait a little bit longer. So that's something I like to do. Just do your own detective research for shopping too.

Liz: That's a great suggestion. Thank you for joining us. This was super helpful.

Courtney: Thank you.

Sean: Now let's get to our takeaway tips, and I can start us off. First, start small. To get into the coupon game, try starting with a few items you want and get coupons for them.

Liz: Next, go for the low-hanging fruit. Email sign-up offers or enrolling in loyalty programs are two easy ways to get discounts.

Sean: Lastly, shop smart. Remember that a deal is only really a deal if you were already going to buy that item.

Liz: And that's all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730 NERD. You can also email us at [email protected]. Also, visit for more info on this episode and remember to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.

Sean: And here is our brief disclaimer thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet's legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

Liz: And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.