Returning an Item When You Used a Coupon


I am really enjoying the “Couponing Ethics” discussions that we have been having.  This question came to me via email from Caroline and I loved it.  If you have any topics to contribute, please don’t hesitate to email me!

Hi Mindi,
I love your blog! I’ve enjoyed reading the posts about couponing ethics and I’m not sure if you’ve covered this before, but what about the issue of when you need to return something you’ve bought with a coupon? The particular coupons aren’t itemized on the receipt and there’s no way to tell which coupon was used on which product. I was just thinking about this because I need to return something I bought and used a coupon for. Will the cashier be able to adjust the price if I tell her/him I had a $1 off coupon? What if you return something and don’t remember (a) if you used a coupon for that item, or (b) how much the coupon was for? I’d be curious to see what you and your readers say…

Ok – here’s my feelings

As I have said in the past, I look at coupons as tiny little gift certificates…no different than as if I went directly to the manufacturer and asked them for money to use for my purchase.  As long as a coupon is “scanned in to the sytem” the store is going to be paid the full amount of the coupon.

The problem arises when too many people look at coupon as a “discount” and not a form of payment.  It’s not a discount.  The store will be getting that money from the manufacturer assuming that they comply with all the rules printed on the coupon (and I can’t imagine that many stores that accept coupons don’t comply).

So what happens when you return the item

Unless the store is able to void the sale (which most stores can’t do unless you return it within a few minutes), you should get back the full price of the item.  Even if you return the item, the store will be getting the money for the coupon and for them to subtract out the value of the coupon when you return it would result in an unfair enrichment on their part.

Here’s an example:

You buy Gator Golf at Target using the $5 coupon.  I believe that Gator Golf is about $15.

You give them your coupon and $10.  The minute that the coupon is scanned, it goes in to their “system” for reimbursement from Hasbro.  In order for Hasbro to approve the reimbursement, they will make sure that Target sells sufficient quantities of Gator Golf, which includes all those people who buy Gator Golf without a coupon.

You get home and your child says “But Moooo-oooommmmm!  Gator Golf is for baaaaabies!!!!!” 

You go back to Target the next day to return it.  Even though you are returning it, the $5 coupon is still in their system for reimbursement.  If they give you back just $10, they will have the product that they can re-sell for $15 and in a few weeks, they will have $5 from Hasbro for your coupon.

In other words – you would have $10 and they would have $20 (the $15 Gator Golf and the $5 for the coupon)

But if they give you back $15, then everyone is even!

Clear as mud?

There are a few exceptions to this:

If I purchased something at the grocery store that had double coupons, I would have no problem if they subtracted out the doubled value (giving me the “single value), since that is a store promotion and comes out of their profit.

Likewise with store coupons:  those are promotions for which the store often isn’t reimbursed (although sometimes they are, but it’s too hard to tell which is which to argue with them)

I do recognize that there is the potential for abuse with this

Last week Ronzoni Bistros were Buy One Get One and I had 6 BOGO coupons.  I got 12 for free (hey – my husband likes them for lunch…not me!).  In theory, I should be able to take all 12 of them back and get $13.74 in cash ($2.29 x6) back, because Giant is getting reimbursed that amount from Ronzoni.  But that just doesn’t sit well with me.  To me, that seems like scamming.

Do you think that you should get the money back for the coupon when you return something?  As always – you are more than welcome to tell me why you think I am WrongWrongWrong…as long as everyone is respectful!


  1. Heather says

    I haven’t returned an item (yet!) that I’ve purchased with a coupon. When it happens, I’ll cross that moral river wearing hip waders. Hopefully I won’t get too wet. :)

    I can see how people try to scam the system by doing this. I’m sure stores have a list of who’s who among the coupon return scammers but most couponers are ethical.

    This reminds me of a blog post I read last year on a Walmart blog where a mother and daughter would return merchandise to Walmart after they’ve used it without the receipt. Apparently they must keep a log if you return without one and you are allowed only so many returns without a receipt. I seem to recall three times but I could be wrong (I did read this a year ago).

    • Liz says

      I just dealt with this issue at CVS. I bought 2 boxes of cereal on sale, using coupons. I went back next week merely to exchange for 2 different cereals included in the same sale. They wouldn’t do it–a one for one swap. (They said because of inventory tracking.) I didn’t want the ones I had, so I reluctantly took a return for the full amount. It seems to me that in your example above, the store comes out even, but the manufacturer gets shortchanged. They just reimbursed CVS $5 for an item that was in fact not sold. I suppose it might yet be sold, but who knows?

      Of course, I could have simply kept the 2 boxes, which I had decided I didn’t like and wasn’t going to eat. I would then have had to donate them to the soup kitchen. But I didn’t think they would be too eager to get Fiber One, either! I think, from the moral aspect, perhaps intent has to be factored in. I wasn’t trying to defraud anyone. But mistakes do happen. Just don’t overdo it!

  2. Kristin says

    ITA with you Mindi. I haven’t returned anything either that was purchased with a coupon (usually food & diapers & household stuff, not stuff I would return) so haven’t done that. And I see how people might abuse it though. But I do think stores have some checks & balances in place with their return policy, right?

    If not, let them. And maybe I can be hopeful that the people who cleared out Walgreens tomato sauce will return it so I can buy some! 😉

  3. says

    That makes sense to me. There have been times I have used a coupon to get a deal and then discovered the deal wasn’t working like I thought it would (ex – register rewards). So I have returned the item and gotten the full amount but I almost would rather have the coupon back!

  4. says

    I believe that Target is trying to crack down on this. Their receipts have changed where they TRY to match up coupons with the items and then the return value is lower. The problem is that their system doesn’t work exactly correctly and the receipt is very confusing sometimes!!

    I think they were probably having a lot of people use a Target and MQ on things like diapers and then turn around and return them and basically make money.

    Coupons supposedly do not have cash value, so I guess I wouldn’t expect to get anything back on a return except what I paid in real money or giftcard/extrabucks.

  5. Cynthia Gilbert says

    I have returned things that I used coupons on, and I did receive the full amount. I also see how easily this could be abused by unscrupulous coupon-users, but stores would have to return the coupon if they didn’t reimburse the full amount or it would be fraud. The logistics of returning the coupon to the customer would be mind-bending. Maybe the way of the future is all e-coupons, and then they will be better able to manage things like this without anyone being short-changed.

  6. Jennifer Y. says

    I hardly ever return anything anymore, but when I do, I usually just let the computer do it’s thing.

    There is huge potential to take advantage of exchanges at CVS, though. (Maybe I shouldn’t be publicizing this?) A few months back when they were having one of their Glade deals, I bought 4 candles. The only had vanilla and I wanted apple. I found the apple candles at another CVS and asked to do an even exchange. They had to return the vanillas and re-ring the apples. This generated another set of extra bucks. The cashier actually stopped to look at this and I said “I already got the extra bucks from the original transaction”. I consider myself a pretty honest person, but it took a lot to do that. To see ecbs torn up and thrown away… makes my heart skip a beat.

    • Kristine says

      I think you did the right thing in your CVS scenario, Jennifer! I agree it would be EXTREMELY hard to watch those ECBs get ripped up though!

      It’s kind of like at the portrait studio when they try and upsell you a package when you pick up the pics (Sears does this). I always say “no”, but it kills me to watch beautiful pictures of my children being thrown into the trash!!

  7. Manisha says

    This has happened to me in really rare situations, but I basically agree with everything Mindi said. The store gets the money anyway. I guess to me it’s intent. If you are meaning to take advantage, that’s the issue. If you are legitimately returning something because you don’t need it/want it/like it, then it’s fine.

    To be honest, I truly wouldn’t mind if they only gave me the money I paid out of pocket if they returned the coupon. That coupon is valuable to me, so if I wasn’t going to use it now, I would use it some other time. KWIM?

  8. CJSime says

    I don’t believe that I should have to keep an item if it fails to meet my expectations. And most return policies allow for that. That being said, I hate returning stuff. I know how the coupon database works but it still seems iffy to me if I used a coupon.

    I especially HATE returning things to CVS, what if I got ECB for that item or at Walgreens and their RRs? I really feel badly then. In those situations I think the RR say if you return the item you are to return the RRs too. But CVS doesn’t have a control like that and Walgreens I don’t know how Walgreens would enforce it.

  9. Amy says

    I just returned some Dove lotion to CVS this morning, before I read this post. I had used a coupon, but didn’t think about it. I got the full amount back, but I think that this is okay and legit since I didn’t like it. As long as I am not doing this constantly, it’s okay. And I think they wuold pick up on this at my store!

  10. Misty says

    I have done this twice in the last week and had different feelings about it each time. They are probably the only 2 returns I have made in a year, but…the first one was at Albertsons and I bought granola bars, Quaker something or others, well the ones I bought had high fructose corn syrup in them and I don’t let my kids eat that. Well I know I bought them on sale and used a coupon and I’m sure got a recyclable shopping bag out of the deal, but I didn’t realize until I got home what was in them. (that’s what I get for taking the kids shopping I forget to check those things) Anyhow I know the simple harvest were on sale at the same price, promo at the time and just wanted to exchange them. They wouldn’t and gave me the refund for 3 boxes at a price I would have never dreamed of paying and at the end of my trip I forgot to buy the darn granola bars after all since they weren’t on my list. So…was I wrong IDK, I did feel a little guilty, but even had I remembered I don’t know if I would have bought them at almost $4 a box, even with my coupon, and the money back they had given me.

    SO my second one at Kmart, they are doing the doubles this week and I had coupons for $3 off eyedrops that I thought would take off $5 with the $2 double but it doesn’t. Well the eye drops were not something I would use or have bought if they weren’t going to be free or close to it so I returned them and asked for my MQ back and they said it was already in their system and they couldn’t give it to me, but would give me back full price for the item. So I guess in turn I made money, trading my Q for cash, but I would have rather had the Q back and used it elsewhere when The item was on sale. Was I wrong? I don’t think so because in neither situation did I go into it and try to scam them. Somedays do I look at my stock pile of cereal and think wow frosted mini wheats are $5 a box this week I could return these and make some cash, well yeah for a second, but I don’t want to be that person. And I don’t want to do that where I shop. I respect the people there and even if I am the coupon lady I would hope they respect me and know I am not trying to cheat them at all.

  11. says

    I agree with Mindi’s take on this as long as people aren’t trying to make money by purposely returning products. Everyone needs to return something at sometime for some reason but I doubt anyone would make a “job” out of returning products purchased with coupons for cash and that the store would allow it.

  12. says


    I would like to add that a common misconception customers have is that we can re- use their coupon. So that if they used a 30% off coupon and returned the item- they will be refunded what they actually paid and then may NOT get 30% off another item. You may get an exchange credit but if the item you bought was 10 dollars and you paid seven, even if you exchange it for another item that is ten dollars you owe the difference. That is my most common customer question.

  13. Dora Standpipe says

    The problem lies in manufacturer coupons vs store coupons.

    This story is spot on concerning manufacturer coupons. If you need to return the item, you should get full price back from the store you purchased it at as long as you follow their return policy. A manufacturer coupon is taken in lieu of cash which will be given to the store by the manufacturer. Don’t feel bad returning things when using a mfr. coupon, stores sell way more items without mfr coupons than with. This is also a marketing strategy built into budgets by the mfr itself.

    Store coupons are a completely different matter. The store itself is eating the discount. They, too, build this into their marketing budgets. You will only get what you actually paid for the product if you make a return. (Reading Celia’s post above is correct.) The bummer is that you lose your coupon because they will not issue you a replacement coupon even if the promotion time is not over. Some stores even try to refuse you an even exchange if you find the product is defective, but if you speak with a manager this is typically worked out.

    One source of confusion I see often is with Target selling you two packs of diapers and then you get a $5 gift card with purchase. They mark it on their receipt your refund price is $2.50 less per pack. If you used mfr coupons with the store coupon or offer, they should still refund you the amount you paid plus the amount of the mfr coupons, but then keep $5 back to pay for the gift card you got. If they refuse to refund your mfr coupons, I would report them to the attorney generals office in your state.

  14. Roxy says

    I have returned things bought with a coupon.The way it is refunded is too complicated for me to understand.

    Two days back I saw a walgreens $20 off coupon for a blood pressure meter.I bought it for my mom and obviously I got a discount of $20.Mom didn’t like it so I went to return it the next day.Walgreens refunded the DISCOUNTED price NOT the full price.
    Okay,but what happened to my coupon that I had saved?
    Apparently walgreens ate up the price difference as well as the coupon.
    I didn’t want to argue so returned home.Can someone explain that to me,please?

  15. Nadya says

    I don’t return anything I get for free, even if I don’t want it, I’ll just donate it, unopened of course. Now if it’s a beauty product and it gives me a rash or something like that, I’ll take it back or notify the manufacturer. I’ve seen some people do some crazy things to cash in on their coupons! I had some A&D coupons for $3 off any A&D product, making them free at Target last year when they were 2.99, and I guess others had that coupon deal because I saw a lady trying to return 20 of them!!! The cashier was doing it at first, then he saw that she had all of them and then he wouldn’t do it. I wonder, though, if he was right?

  16. Anthony says

    I once went to Wal-marts to buy glade pluggin refils as gifts since, I had 5 BOGO coupons. So i bought them and got a pretty good deal. It was also the 2 for 10$ special event. The cashier took the original price of the product off which is $7.34. At the end i paid $19.80 for all 10 of them. Due to some allergy reasons, i had to return all of them. So i returned them to Walmarts the very next day and the cashier gave me $82.94 back which was the full price for all 10 items. So i made $63.14 for returning all 10 items. So i think its amazing that walmarts would do this when you return items that you used coupons with :)

    • Lyn says

      I agree with Anthony. If taking items back after using coupons and getting face value for them is really fraud or a scam, then why is the system allowing it to happen? The receipt is right there in front of customer service. They can see what you’ve paid and that you used coupons.