Coupon Ethics: Coupon BarCode Decoding


Back when I was a child (when dinosaurs roamed the Earth), coupons had no expiration date, groceries were individually priced and everything had to be done  (including the redemption of coupons) by a cashier manually.  Then they started doing everything by UPC codes and people have been trying to figure out new ways to scam the system ever since!

First things first:   BarCodes are pretty standard:

The first 5 digits of the bar code are the manufacturer ID

The next 3 numbers are the “family” code

The last 2 numbers are the value code

So what is “BarCode Decoding”?  Simply put, it is deciphering the bar code on a coupon to see if it will work on different (preferably less expensive) items.

Those who decode coupons will match up the first 5 numbers with other products made by the same manufacturer, thus enabling them (in many cases) to take advantage of a “glitch” in the bar code that will allow the use of a coupon on an item other than what is described on the coupon.

Why is this wrong?

Despite what many people think, the bar code is not the intent of the couponThe bar code is merely a way to speed up the processing of the coupon.  The coupon is based on the wording of the coupon; the text is the “offer”.  If the wording of a coupon is “$1 off Product X”, then the coupon should only be used for “Product X” even if a glitch in the coupon will allow it to be used for “Product Y”.  Similarly, if the wording of the coupon is “$.50 off 4” and a glitch in the value code will allow it to be used for only 2 items, then it is still wrong to use it on only 2 items.

In a nutshell:  no matter what the bar code says, it is the text of the coupon that is the offer. Taking advantage of a glitch in the bar code to get around the text of the coupon is fraud.  It’s not fraud on the level of your Bernie Madoffs of the world, but it is still fraud nonetheless.

All that being said, there is some confusion as to what is and isn’t bar code decoding.

BarCode Decoding is:

Using a coupon good on (for example)  “Brand X Shampoo” on “Brand X Styler” just because the bar code matches up, unless the text of the coupon states that it may be used for a styler.

Using a coupon for a completely unrelated item, just because the manufacturers code on the barcode matches.

Taking advantage of a glitch in the value code section of the bar code to buy less of a product in order to get the same discount.

Using a coupon in any way other than the wording of the coupon

BarCode Decoding is not:

checking a bar code to ensure that it is a store coupon and not a manufacturers coupon (which means that, if it is a store coupon, it can be stacked with a manufacturers coupon at many stores)

matching up a bar code to ensure that a coupon will work on an item that is not pictured on the coupon, but that you are reasonably sure is included in the description (and example of this might be using a Johnson’s bath & body item coupon that has pictures of baby wash on it on a Johnson’s Buddies item.)

using the fact that the manufacturer ID “matches up” (as long as the wording does as well) to explain to a cashier why the coupon is valid on that item, even though it might have beeped when scanned.

I know at least a few of you who have read this far are already thinking of your arguments as to why bar code decoding isn’t that bad.  Let’s tackle a few of those right now:

“If the company was so concerned about it, they would make sure that the coupon was coded correctly!”

Yes – and if a frog had wings he wouldn’t bump his butt when he jumped….the world is an imperfect place and mistakes happen, even in the big bad corporate world of creating bar codes. 

If the mistake was that a $.75 coupon was coded for only $.25, you would be upset wouldn’t you?  When you are buying the exact same item described and pictured as on the coupon and the cashier tells you that she can’t take it because it beeped (thus meaning it was coded incorrectly), you want them to accept it anyway…right?  A glitch is a glitch, no matter who it favors!  Just because the glitch favors you doesn’t make it ok to take advantage of the mistake.

And once again, the bar code is not the offer on the coupon.  The text of the coupon is the offer.

I’ve called the company and they said that as long as it went through, they were fine with it!

How about if you call Proctor & Gamble and ask them if they were upset a few years ago when people took the $7 WhiteStrips coupons that were coded incorrectly and walked out with free Tide, Pampers & Swiffer refills?  Stores put out coupons to promote and move specific products, especially ones that they think need to be promoted and moved off of shelves.  There is a reason that the WhiteStrips coupon is currently a $10 one and the Downy coupons are only $.25!

The coupons that my friend recently emailed me WILL scan at many stores, but are fraudulent coupons and they may not upset the manufacturer, but the store that doesn’t get reimbursed will likely be a little miffed! 

Stores need to show sufficient quantity of product sold/ordered in order to be reimbursed by a manufacturer.  What if the recent high-value Huggies coupons (there were for the Gentle Care line) would also work on “regular Huggies” and you redeemed it at a store that had yet to start carrying the Gentle Care line?  It may have scanned (because it was coded for ANY Huggies), but the Huggies people could look at the reports and say “how can they be taking this coupon?  They don’t even carry Gentle Care?  We’re not reimbursing them!”

Times are tough!  I need to save money however I can!  If taking advantage of a small glitch in the system makes me dishonest, it’s such a small thing I can live with that!

Only you can decide your own “dishonesty comfort level”.

You may have noticed more and more segments on your local news about using coupons and coupon classes.  While I applaud the news stations for showing people how to save money, the reporters have been distorting the facts a bit.  I know a few people who teach coupon classes and know that those people teach how to read a coupon for the purposes of verification only….not as a way to “get around the system”.  But the news reports are making it seem like it is fine & dandy to decode a coupon to use it other than as intended.  After a few months of watching these reports, I finally had to speak up and say something.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!


  1. Julie says

    Thank you for explaining this.
    There are so many legitimate ways to save money using coupons that it’s sad people look for ways to misuse them. It’s one thing to unknowingly benefit from a glitch — like getting overage when you weren’t expecting it — but to go through all that decoding. . . there’s no excuse in my book.

  2. Hilary says

    OK, this seems like WAY too much work for me to even save a buck. LOL! Seriously, why do people feel the need to abuse the system? It ruins it for EVERYONE. This could be the reason why the Kmart ladies, at two stores, were very hesitant to even speak to me about using Internet coupons next week. I cannot believe people would even do something like this. Great article and hopefully it will make one person think next time before doing something like this!

  3. Hilma M says

    “Only you can decide your own “dishonesty comfort level”.”

    Thank you for posting this. I was on a blog and saw someone had posted a comment about some RRs that were printing out that was an obvious mistake on the Cat company in charge of things… The ad stated certain sizes and they were printing out on travel sizes. There were MANY blogs sharing this “money maker”… The comment poster said to her it was stealing… I pretty much stayed out of it because there are some who just don’t care, they will “take advantage of an obvious mistake” and she was attacked for sharing her opinion… I have to agree with her and with you… and just want to ask WHY can’t we just do things honestly??? I know I have to live with myself and I don’t want to do anything that COULD eventually hurt someone… such as I have had 2 walgreens managers tell me that they are going to “phase out” the RRs for Walgreens stores as too many are taking advantage in ways that were never intended… like buying things withh RRs and bringing them back for cash or buying some product to get a RR and bringing it back but not returning the RR.

    I am so sorry that this has became a book but I had to get it off my chest too and since this is about honesty well… I think we should ALL learn to be honest!!!

  4. says

    It is me, Retail Manager checking in again. Thank you so much for this post. It is just demoralizing seeing people try and bully their way to a fraudulent discount. I always read a coupon before I use it. I feel very strongly that discounts are not to be abused.

  5. Diana says

    I think your integrity paves the path for readers and bloggers alike. Thank you for this post.

  6. Holly says

    This post has really enlightened me. I just starting using coupons at the beginning of the year and did the deals exactly as the coupon blogs explained. I now know that some of the deals were not 100% honest.

    Is there a was to make it right with the store after you know you’ve submitted a coupon that they will not be reimbursed for?

    The two coupons that come to mind are a colgate and a Purex coupon.

    I used the PDF colgate coupon for $1.50 off at Walgreens in January and now I know that the coupon was an illegal copy. Can I go to walgreens and explain it to them and reimburse them myself?

    The other coupon was for 50 cents off Purex naturals. I redeemed that one a few weeks ago at rite-aid for regular Purex detergent. They don’t even sell the Naturals. Now I know that they won’t even get reimbursed for it. Can I explain that as well and pay them for the coupon I used?

    I appreciate blogs like yours that are honest and having a blog author that knows her stuff. I enjoy this new discovery of saving money, but like many of you, I want to do it the right way.
    So thank you!! Any feedback on my questions will be greatly appreciated.

  7. says

    What a great post! I had never heard of this until I was doing research for my post about coupon ethics, you did a great job of explaining what it is and why it is wrong.

    I feel like there are enough good deals to be had that this is really unnecessary. I had a friend say that she wanted to buy Kellogg’s Cereal but all she had a coupon for was Frosted Flakes. She asked the cashier if she could use it and the cashier said she could as long as it didn’t beep. I had to explain to my friend that it really isn’t up to the store to decide because it isn’t the store’s bottom line that is effected. Kellogg’s put out a coupon for Frosted Flakes in order to promote Frosted Flakes.

    I also came across another blog recently that talked about using the wrong coupon on multiple items but she justified doing so because she was donating it all to charity. To me that is nothing more than thievery, taking the high moral ground of Robin Hood. Stealing from the rich to give to the poor is still stealing.

  8. says

    Thank you, again, Mindi, for stepping up on your soapbox and setting the record straight about barcode decoding and how it is ethically and morally wrong. I realize that more and more people are using coupons and we need to let them know the correct usage. Don’t people realize that using coupons incorrectly just draws negative attention to couponers? I have recently seen two videos of couponers on thier local new channel admitting that they used a coupon for something other than what was on the coupon and was was so frustrated because I knew that this is wrong.
    Continue the good work you are doing and continue your posts on the ethical use of coupons. I just read Nicole of Frugal Is Fabulous’ post on ethical use of coupons. You go ladies!!

  9. Jeanne says

    Thanks for posting this- I saw recent newscasts promoting decoding as well and thought it was wrong but now I KNOW it is wrong. Great post!!!

  10. Kristin T says

    Great post. I was horrified to see a couple of blogs that I always thought were credible explain the art of barcode decoding. I couldn’t believe that these people were teaching others, especially newcomers who aren’t experienced enough to question them, that it was ok to cheat the system. Luckily most of the stores I frequent pay enough attention to what you buy that they wouldn’t allow this, and self checkouts here beep like crazy with coupons that it isn’t worth it to go through those lanes. Thanks for this in-depth post. Nicole did an awesome job too!

  11. says

    There are so many legitimate ways to get things for free, I don’t know why people even have to stoop to this level! Great post. I didn’t even know this stuff was going on.

  12. misti says

    Thanks for this post. when I first began to use coupons, I copied the printable ones for multiple use, until I learned from reading other posts that this could cause the store not to be reimbursed…initially I had just thought it wouldnt matter because they were offering up millions of them over the internet so what did my few copies mean in the grand scheme of things?? Then I realized what I was doing was selling my integrity for .50 to a 1.00 at a time!

  13. says

    Excellent post! This sooo needed to be shared! When I started couponing, I became aware of this and backed away like I never even saw it. I didn’t want anywhere near it because it was wrong!

    I know people who actually teach couponing classes and TEACH how to decipher codes as a part of the class. Is that not sick! How are we supposed to get legit deals when an army of couponers are being taught the fraudulent way to do it?? I even had someone send me an email and try to tell me how I could use one – um, no thanks!

    In the grand scheme of things, it’s not remotely necessary to do this!

  14. says

    Great post! I always try to avoid posting deals I see elsewhere that are using coupons wrong. If the coupon says “any” then it’s “any” it doesn’t mean “whatever you want”. Thanks for sharing!

  15. Abigail says

    Great post and very relevant. I have been using coupons for sometime now and have to say it is getting tougher to handle day by day. Because of few people using and blogging about illegitimate use of coupons it has becoming so difficult to deal with most store cashiers. Most of them look at you as if you are a thief and when sometimes they say they have bad experience with some customers, so now they have to read through each coupon just to make sure. What we don’t realize is that these poor folks at the cash register may lose their job if they ended up pushing illegitimate coupons while we enjoy our freebies. Even now I see sites promoting the use of $10/3 Avenoo coupon on other than the stipulated product (and asking feedback of store location that allowed the coupon ). These people kill the deal for everyone and make everyone using the coupon look bad.

  16. CJ Sime says

    Thank you for posting this. I love couponing ethics. There are so many people blindly following coupon abusers advice. It is also good for me to think about things I’ve never thought about before.

  17. The Thrifty Mama says

    Thank you for the posting. While I do somewhat agree with you and respect what you have to say, I’m still iffy on the subject. Coupons have been out for a long time, and companies really do know what they are doing. Yes mistakes happen, but I don’t think they are as upset over it all as some of us may thing.
    For instance, the current V8 Fusion coupon that is available online says for two flavor types, that I haven’t even seen anywhere yet. The coupon works for any flavor. I don’t think they want people to not buy their products just because we can’t find the specific flavor anywhere. They just want to draw our attention to their products.
    If they want me to print their coupons and run around town trying to find their specific flavors all over the place, they can kiss my business goodbye. I think they code them this way so that people can easily try their products without a hassle. Just my two cents. I truly respect what you have said and can agree with you on some points.

  18. Anon says

    This is exactly the problem. Maybe for a minute think V8 fusion are to promote 2 of their new flavors or 2 of its not-so-much-selling products. If we justify each of purchases like this (and I am sure we can) there will be no end. I am using the Aveeno coupon that is meant for ageless, well because they want me try Aveeno product and not their positive ageless. Each one can find excuses for what they do. What if we just leave this coupon and take it for its wording. If the company sees its product not moving inspite of the coupon will it not re-think about the wording and probably put out generic coupon (for all flavors)? Anyway as Mindi said – Only you can decide your own “dishonesty comfort level”.

  19. starbucksgirl says

    I have to agree with Crystal at thrifty mama. While agree with some of the points made in this article I am also not 100% sure that it is unethical to use a coupon for another item in the manufacturer’s product line. We don’t know that the only intent of the coupon is that we buy “X” product in their product line; this is an assumption. I am remaining open-minded on this issue until I have a definite answer.

    • Mindi says

      I guess I don’t understand how the wording of the coupon…the exact wording of the offer….can’t be considered a “definitive answer” of the intent.

  20. Amy says

    Great article and I 100% agree with you. As badly as I need to save money, I won’t sell my soul to save money unethically. I am angered that blogs such as the 2 comments above would promote using coupons incorrectly. Also, she is out and out lying when she says those flavors are not out yet from V8 – I was just at SuperTarget this weekend and they were there. The company clearly wants the consumer to try the new flavors, otherwise the coupon would read “any” V8 fusion. If people cheat with coupons, don’t you wonder what else they cheat at?!

    • Mindi says

      I just want to point out that V8 DID release a coupon for “any” V8 fusion…it’s a $1 in the 4/19 SS

      They put out a $2 for the specific flavors because they are new and they are promoting them.

      (oh – just as an aside, I wouldn’t say that she was “lying”….she just said that she hadn’t seen the flavors yet. Oftentimes new products and flavors are slower to reach some areas than others)

  21. Sara says

    Wow, those are some strong words from Amy. You’re not willing to “sell your soul” for savings, but you’re willing to quickly judge someone who was just being honest on how they interpret something. I would never speak so harshly to someone I had never met or did not know their circumstances.
    I’m fairly new to couponing and I’ve never heard of decoding a coupon before, nor do I really understand it. I agree completely with your post that you should use a coupon for what it says it is good for. I used the $10/3 Aveeno coupon for items in the positively ageless line and I’m happy to try a new product with such a great deal. I wasn’t even aware you could use a coupon for anything other than the product listed – however, I would never try to make someone feel bad or call them a liar if they chose to do so.
    It makes me sad to see all the negative, judgemental comments. It is a shame so many people are willing to put others down in an effort to elevate themselves, or prove a point.
    This is my first time to visit this website and although I appreciate the information provided by Mindy and will be careful when usuing coupons to make sure I’m getting the right product, I don’t think I’ll be a regular visitor to this site. It’s too uncomfortable when people are putting others down.

    • Mindi says

      Hi Sara!
      This can be a bit of a hot-button issue and I hope that the above comments are as “intense” as it gets (and as I said, I don’t agree that Amy was “lying”….I think that her stores have yet to carry the new flavors)

      That being said, it is not my job to judge and I don’t believe that I have done so. If people read my post and continue to decode bar codes, it’s not as if I am going to turn them in or anything 😉

      But I cannot and will not support using coupons for other than they are intended…and just like any contract, the wording of the coupon is the offer.

      With that in mind, I made my feelings known on this subject and hope that I educated a few people about some bad information that many have been getting, both on the news and some coupon classes.

      What they do with that information from that point on is up to them!

  22. The Thrifty Mama says

    I really don’t like being called a liar. I work very hard to be ethical and honest. I have not seen these new V8 flavors anywhere.

    And I’d like to expound upon the mention of “Well I called the company and they said it’s okay” argument that you mentioned. Honestly I don’t see how you can refute this. If a company is the one responsible for it and they say it is okay, then there is no issue.
    Just like if I had a coupon for Chick-fil-a that said “Valid at Chick-fil-a in City A.” Well if I took it to city B and asked the manager if I could use it there, and he says yes, then there’s no issue. Final say is up to the company, and if they say yes, well there you go.
    And intent doesn’t sit right with me either. CVS doesn’t intend for all of us to just get free stuff all the time, but we do. If we always base everything on what companies intend, we will have to stop doing all the deals that get us free items, or even get us overage.
    I think it’s just a balance though. I’m not sure we can just apply one answer across the board. I didn’t feel right about the Aveeno coupons after mentioning them on my site, so I removed them. It’s about listening to our guts I think.
    I do believe this is a gray area, and you must do what you feel is right. I will in the future be very careful in the coupon deals I promote, because I do not want to cause anyone to stumble. Thanks for the post, and I am very blessed by it. We all do need to continually re-evaluate our couponing practices to make sure we stay honest and ethical. I answer to a higher power for what I do, and I know that He will convict me if I run into a deal I shouldn’t do.

  23. Anon says

    If we are not sure what the company intended by its wording or we are just in doubt, how about sending them a mail or calling and asking. If our stores denied us a coupon that was legitimately our claim we would immediately call/mail corporate to complain why not the reverse. If we are not sure, why not just mail/call and ask. Why do we in that situation assume we might be the correct ones? Especially when you run a frugal blog/take classes you must be really careful about these things because people kind-of look up to you and what you say/blog reaches to a lot of audience. It is not just 1 person then being unethical. It is 1 multiplied by all the followers multiplied by every illegitimate coupon they use.

  24. Amy says

    I would agree with Anon’s above comment. The V8 coupon is clearly for 2 specific products only. If some others feel V8 doesn’t care which products they buy, maybe they should call the company and ask them what their intentions were. But we all already know that answer, it’s just plain silly to assume anything else.
    I apologize if “lying” was a strong word, but I have a big problem with someone claiming to be a Jesus follower and then boldly leading people to use coupons falsely. I think Mindi is dead on with her blog post. There are also others, such as Money Saving Mom, who only promote the most ethical use of coupons. Thank you for the post Mindi!

  25. Heidi says

    Products do not show up at the same time all over the US. I get frustrated when I spend my time and paper and ink to print a manufacturer’s coupon and then drag it all over looking for the product sometimes for months and never finding it and then having the coupon expire. This happened to me with Welch’s new water drink. I still don’t know what the stuff looks like, because to this day I’ve never seen it. Yet the manufacturer allowed the coupon to be printed in all zip codes. If I had the V8 coupon and I looked for the product and never found it I would feel justified using it on another flavor.

  26. says

    How does everyone feel about the Tresseme deal this week. There is a coupon for $1 off and it “says” 24hr line but the picture has all of the 24hr line products and the regular products that are on sale at CVS on it as well. I didn’t even notice the wording as I printed it from a link after seeing the deal. When I was in the store I noticed it but then I noticed that the picture had ALL of their products on it not just the 24hr. The coupon scanned and the cashier accepted it. I do not believe that is unethical. Buying pampers when a coupon is meant for teeth whitener is just ridiculous. However, I know manufacturers strategically put the picture of the most expensive item on a coupon because people think it has to match the picture and they put any in tiny letters under the brand. How do we know that they aren’t adding the wording in there to propagate us into buying the more expensive one because we think we have to. Like the Tresseme. Oh and how many of you have been using the axe coupons and the dove coupons for trial sizes. Do you really think the company intended for you to use it on the trial to get it for free? In that case wouldn’t they have just made the coupon for a free item?

    Here is an interesting question. The B1G1 coupons with the B1G1 deals are no question for me. That is ethical because they are getting the amount for that coupon so they are still profiting what they were expecting off of the sale. But what about when you have a B1G1 coupon and a regular sale. Is it ethical to use a non b1g1 coupon on the item that you aren’t getting for free? I have always assumed that the items involved in the coupon were required for the coupon making them ineligible for another coupon because of the 1 coupon per item clause in the coupons. A couple weeks ago I used a b1g1 on the schick razors at walgreens with the store coupon too (nonissue). Then I saw a post with someone saying to use the $4 off coupon from another insert on the one that wasn’t free. If I had known we were allowed to do that I would have used that too. The same thing with my bacon peelie the other day. $.55 off bacon when you buy 2 biscuits. Is it really ethical to use a coupon for the biscuits since technically the coupon was off the bacon or is that wrong because the coupon for the bacon required the biscuit purchase.

  27. The Thrifty Mama says

    Amy – I do not boldly lead people to use coupons falsely. I do make mistakes, and if they happen I remove them and/or confess my mistakes.

    I have seen many posts by big bloggers that I didn’t feel were personally ethical (even though no one else seemed to even see an issue with it). However, since I consider a lot of couponing ethics to be gray areas and personal choices, I do not judge or think ill of these people. I hope that we can all agree to disagree on some points, and not pass judgment on people. I agree with Heidi in that if I use my ink and paper to print a coupon from a company and then travel to at least two different stores trying to find the deal, I should be able to use the coupon if it is programmed for any item.

    • Mathew says

      I use my ink and paper to print a coupon from a company and then travel to at least two different stores trying to find the deal, I should be able to use the coupon if it is programmed for any item.

      I am sorry but that is just putting another nail in the coffin, I can understand that you mistakenly used the coupon or that you used it because you did not find the mentioned product (do not agree but still forgivable). But telling that you spent ink and gas on the coupon, entitles you to use a coupon that is not legitimate, is just wrong. Then the people who create pdfs out of coupons, modify barcode etc should be rewarded for their “hardwork” (time spent on computer, power, any software they used etc) . Don’t you think? We are the choices we make, it is our choice to print or not the coupon, it is our choice to use the coupon or not and it is our choice to consider it ethical/unethical or try justifying it but problem is the brunt of your choices are mostly suffered by the people shopping in the same store after you (who are watched and scrutinized just because a shopper before them decided to use the easy way) .There is white and there is black and then there is grey or simply put what works/benefits for us and grey does not make it right.

  28. The Thrifty Mama says

    LOL, seems like no matter what I say everyone wants to throw stones. To each their own. Matt totally misunderstood me but I think I am done here. Not worth my time to try to defend myself.

  29. starbucksgirl says

    Crystal, you don’t need to defend yourself. I will. I know that you are very ethical in your couponing and I respect you tremendously. You have proven yourself to be a person who cares about doing what is right. I also believe that you are an intelligent Christian that thinks through issues carefully with the time that the Lord has given you.

    There are a few posts here that are emotional in nature and are not well thought out; they are just rants. It is not wise for these people to respond from emotion. It is best not to respond to a rant (but entrust yourself to Him who judges justly).

    There are many gray areas in couponing and many believers do not see things in black and white in the same areas. I think that you need to follow your conscience because you are the only one that is accountable to God for your choices. We will not answer to each other on this issue; we will answer to the Father. It is wonderful to share our perspectives as it causes all of us to think carefully (so thank you Mindi for sharing your perspective which caused me to think).

    My personal plan to investigate this issue. I will contact 10 manufacturer’s to find out how flexible they are on my coupon usage so that I can be armed with information. I will report back to Crystal with the information when I have a chance to make the calls. I had planned on working on this project next month anyway so this post is a great impetus.

    For the rest of you out here posting; be careful with the assumptions that you make. You are accountable for every rash word that you make.

  30. starbucksgirl says

    BTW, Shannon raises some great questions re: some very gray areas of couponing. I appreciated that post also. Thanks for making us “think” all of these issues through.

  31. starbucksgirl says

    I also agree with Crystal that if someone has called a company and the person on the phone said that they were “fine” with the way that the customer used the coupon then you have to go with that answer. You cannot second guess the decision of that company; we have no idea how these companies are run or what their marketing strategies are. We are just guessing.

    I have worked in marketing for years and often times a variation can play off of an intitial marketing strategy. The company that manufacturer’s the coupon may be glad that they have sold any of their product line with the coupon because it gets their name brand out in people’s homes everywhere and that is a good thing.

    Someone may see that product in your home or you may tell them how incredible that product is and they will go out and pay full price for the product and that makes the manufacturer very happy. My point being that we don’t know their intent so unless you have worked in the couponing industry for a manufacturer and have spoken with several other manufacturer’s about the their operations then you are just guessing about their final “intent.”

    Market share is also important to manufacturer’s. If, for example, several thousand couponers use coupons to get a reduced price on the items that they like (which are not listed on the coupon), then the manufacturer will see a spike in the sale of these items and they will be able to say that they are the premier seller of this item and that also brings in more buyers for their product (most of which will probably not use coupons). Marketing strategies are very complex. Don’t assume that the manufacturer is “upset” that we are using these coupons for a different item. My guess (and it is just a guess so don’t assume that I am an expert in this area) is that they are glad that we are using our coupons to buy any of their products.

    Only time (and a few phone calls) will tell.

    Having appropriate information brings light to these ethical issues. There are many gray areas in couponing.

  32. Mindi says

    Hi Everyone!

    A few things:

    While I have allowed all comments on this post to stand, the conversaation is teetering close to being uncivil. Please attack the issue, not the person. Despite my love of sarcasm, I would like this site to remain an encouraging place where nobody feels “chased away”.

    To those people who have sent me nasty emails over this issue: Right back atcha! That is the extent of a reply that you will be getting from me!

    As for calling the company and asking their intent….unless you speak to the CFO or a Director of Marketing or whoever is “in charge” of the coupon program, I disagree with “if they say it is ok – then it is fine”.

    Many of us have called companies and received different replies on the same coupon issues, depending on who you are talking to and what day it is and what mood the person answering the phone is in.

    People complain constantly about (for example) different coupon policies at different stores. I live near 4 different CVS Stores. Two of them will allow using a BOGO coupon on a BOGO sale, 2 will not. The ones that won’t will do it if you get the “right” cashier.

    As for knowing their intent….I firmly believe that they make their intent clear when they place wording and pictures on the coupon. They usually place a picture of the most expensive product, hoping the customer will assume that they must buy that product…an example would be the $5 Huggies coupons that said “good on any Gentle Care item” on them. They were hoping that putting the picture of the $12 pack of diapers would make people buy the diapers. But by saying it was good on an “item”, not “diapers”, they allowed the use on the $6 package of wipes.

    Crest does the same thing with their coupons. They put out $1 coupons with a picture of the most exapensive toothpaste and a long list of more expensive varieties that it is valid for…but at the very end of the lsit, they say “any 4.2 oz tube”. This opens the coupon up to be used, not just on the $4 tubes, but the ones that frequently go 10 for $10. They know that people are going to start reading the 7-line description and not read throught to the end and assume it can only be used on the “premium versions”…but they leave it open so that the coupon can be used on ANY toothpaste.

    Many other companies do this as well. They put out a coupon for “Save $X ON SUPER NEW FLAVOR OF OUR PRODUCT” and then in tiny tiny letters they will have “or any other flavor”. The intent is clear: to pomote and move the new-pricier product, but allow the use of the coupon on others in the same “family” of products.

    I remember once being at a store and almost arguing with a cashier (before I told her to just take it off my order) over a $.75/2 Ortega coupon. I was using it to get seasoning packets for free and she didn’t want to accept it because she didn’t think that Ortega “intended” for it to be used on the super-cheap packets. Just as I didn’t think that she should be trying to be a mind-reader, I don’t think that we should either. The wording of the coupon HAS to be “king” in order to ensure continuity!

  33. Rachel says

    Thank you for the great post. I found this from Thriftymama’s site=). When I first started to use coupons and started pulling from various sources and before I weeded out the ‘bad’ blogs/sites from the good I made quite a few mistakes. I didn’t realize there was such a thing as decoding and that I took part in by using a coupon that I read could go with another product. I just thought great for me and my family! NOW that Ik that it’s dishonesty that I can not live with and be proud of saving money and providing for my family needs.

  34. starbucksgirl says

    “The wording of the coupon HAS to be “king” in order to ensure continuity!”

    I respectfully disagree Mindi. Your assumption cannot be “king” as there are just too many gray areas in couponing (many of which both Crystal and Shannon have made reference to).

    Still, I’m thankful that you shared your perspective.

  35. Jacquelyn Cox says

    Ok I feel like an idiot now. I never thought of coupon decoding until I saw what I thought was an innocent tip of couponing on Action News. I had no idea that it was not ethical! Oh boy, I have even been telling others about this fabulous tip! Thanks for the information. Now I stand corrected.

  36. says

    Mindi- Wonderful post. I have been looking for something like this to post on my blog. You said it so well I would like to know if I could copy it and link you up as a guest post?
    I ask this rather than just linking b/c I want to make sure the info is easy for all to see. I think it is so important and I do not want people to miss it. There has been a lot of local bloggers in my area promoting de-coding and I am not even sure if they realized they are leading others astray.

  37. says

    I was hoping to hear back from you about using your post. I want to get this published soon so I will just link unless I hear from you soon. Thanks

    • Mindi says

      Monica – I’m sorry for not responding. Please feel free to repost this on your site, as long as you list it as a “Guest post”, don’t change any of my wording and provide a link back to here!


  38. Frank says

    question from a naive guy who is just starting to use coupons . . . can’t an adjustment be made to the “system” (i.e., the bar code system) that would correct this? seems that would solve the problem.

    • Mindi says

      Ok – I could be very wrong on this, but I read somewhere that there are only a few companies that create barcodes. Manufacturers don’t create their own barcodes….they have to buy them from the “barcode company”.

      Also – there are a finite number of combinations to be made with a 5 digit code (since the first 5 digits are usually the manufacturer). Companies may not want to use up all of their barcodes on, for example, a separate barcode for the 16 oz size of salad dressing than the one for the 8 oz size

      HOWEVER, many coupons are now starting to have a second barcode on them to try to rectify this problem. While this is great, the technology to read both hasn’t seemed to trickle down to many stores. Ever see a cashier fold your coupon in half to scan it? It’s because the 2nd barcode on the coupon is making the register beep!

  39. says


    Great post! We’re using this to help our Educators communicate proper coupon redemption practicies!

    Thanks for taking the time to post it.

    Kristin @ BeCentsAble

  40. says

    Thank you so much for this. I have a friend that decodes coupons and thinks it’s just fine. I’ve always had a problem with it. I appreciate your ethics and just know that at least one other person feels the same way.

    BTW, I’m in South Jersey. I’ll be teaching a couponing class on Saturday May 9 to a bunch of people from church. I’ll be doing a similar class in June for Catholic Charities.

    Thanks for your blog. It’s just great!