Could a Coupon Really Sell for $361? You Bet. Here’s How

selling coupons
Chris Potter under Creative Commons

Last time my wife and I moved, we received a bunch of great coupons in the mail, including one good for 10% off at Lowes. That one coupon saved us over $100 when we bought a washer, dryer and other items!

In fact, we had so many coupons that we wound up recycling a bunch that we didn’t need. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize I could make money selling coupons on eBay, and now I wonder how much money I threw in the trash.

One of the ones we threw out was for 10% off at Home Depot. When I look at Home Depot coupons on eBay, I see one has 14 bids, the highest at $25. It seems outrageous that someone would pay $25 for a coupon, but then again, we did save $100 using that one at Lowes. And $25 is nothing compared to the bids I found for Target coupons…

How Much Would You Pay for a Target Coupon?

What’s the value of a 10% off Target coupon that expires in a few weeks? More than you think. On November 11, 2014 I found several of these coupons selling for more than $100 on eBay. One coupon had 48 bids and was already at $361 — with a day left in the auction!

The listing advertised that the coupon was good for Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year and only a couple of weeks away. That’s a clue to the seemingly insane price. Apparently some people are planning to spend thousands of dollars on Christmas presents at Target. For them a 10% discount is significant.

I still don’t quite get it, since with 10% off you have to spend almost $4,000 before you save the $361 cost of the coupon. Do people really spend that much in one store at one time? But as my real-estate-investing friend tells me, it doesn’t really matter why people pay what they do for what you’re selling, as long as you got it for less and they close the deal.

We got a 10% off Target coupon for free when we moved, and I’m pretty sure I threw it away. Ouch!

Is It Worth Buying Coupons?

The Target example is an extreme one, although a good one to remember next November. But some eBay coupon auctions are easy enough to understand.

For example, among the dozens of coupon auctions with active bidding, there was one for 12 coupons for Bounty paper towels, each good for $1 off. The highest of 13 bids was $4.10, and the buyer also had to pay 50 cents for shipping. If someone regularly buys Bounty anyhow, why not spend $4.60 to save $12?

I looked for something my wife and I normally purchase, and found a batch of six coupons for Nestle Pure Life water, which we buy in 28-packs. Each coupon was good for a $1 discount, so we could save $6 total. But the highest bid was already $3.54, and the buyer had to pay $1.25 shipping, meaning the total savings would be only $1.21 on six purchases; not worth the trouble in my opinion.

But as my friend says, don’t worry about why people pay the price… and worst case scenario, no one buys your coupon and you wind up recycling it. All you’ve lost is the time it took you to set up the auction.

How to Start Selling Coupons

Start by setting aside coupons you don’t plan to use. To give you an idea of what sells best, here are some of the auctions that had active bidding when I searched “coupons” on eBay:

  • 20 Tide Pod $2 off coupons. Highest of 20 bids: $13.00
  • 16 Fancy Feast cat food $1 off coupons. Highest of 13 bids: $8.50
  • 12 American Spirit cigarette coupons (get a pack for $2.00). Highest of 18 bids: $40.09
  • 47 PowerAde buy two, get $1 off coupons. Highest of 18 bids: $30.00
  • 20 Winn Dixie coupons for $5 off a $30 purchase. Highest of 14 bids: $10.19
  • 30 Tide Detergent $1 off coupons. Highest of 13 bids: $7.50

Most auctions were for multiple coupons, so you’ll likely want to stockpile coupons before listing them. More than half of the auctions advertised free shipping, while others charged from $0.49 to $1.25 for shipping.

You’ll have to pay auction fees, of course. Those will vary according to what extra services you buy and whether you’re designated as a “top seller” (in which case you get a discount). For example, if you’re a new seller and you close an auction at $15 with free shipping and no extras in your listing, you’ll pay $1.50 according to the eBay fee calculator. It would be $1.55 if you charged $0.50 shipping.

Since your cost to send coupons is no more than the cost of an envelope and stamp, there’s still plenty of room for a profit.

The Rules for Selling Coupons on eBay

To avoid problems, like having your account closed, you have to carefully read eBay’s manufacturer’s coupons policy. The rules include:

  • A limit of $100 in sales or 25 coupons per month
  • No coupons for free products
  • Must be physical coupons printed on paper, not codes or e-coupons

Many of the rules reflect a recent policy change that has upset sellers, and violations are rampant from what I saw. The information on eBay’s website doesn’t make it clear whether store coupons (like that $361 Target coupon) are treated differently from manufacturer’s coupons, so I called eBay and eventually got a human on the line (yes, it can be done with persistence). I asked if all coupons fall under the same policy as “manufacturer’s coupons,” and whether single sales can be allowed to pass the $100 limit.

I was put on hold while the confused agent researched the policy, and was eventually transferred to a listing specialist who also seemed unsure about the policy. I was put on hold again. After some time, this agent decided that yes, all coupons fall under the same policy. When I asked about the current auctions that exceeded the $100 limit, she said this was okay as long as the reserve or starting price was $100 or less and no more sales were made that month once there was a sale over $100.

My impression was that nobody at eBay knows for sure what the policy is, so you might want to call and ask if they will send answers to your questions by email. Specifically ask if it’s okay when the bidding passes $100 on your coupon auction. With an email answer, you at least have some defense if another eBay employee thinks you violated the policy.

In any case, if you make about $100 in coupon sales per month, you might net $80 or $90 after fees, with a product you got for free.

Bank Bonus Coupons

Bank bonuses are the reason I discovered eBay’s coupon auctions in the first place. After making about $1,000 from bank account and credit card sign-up bonuses this year, I wanted to find more. In my search, I stumbled upon a page about Chase Bank coupons and found that while you can normally get a bonus of $150 online, the company prints and mails out the best deals (up to $450). And yes, you can buy them on eBay.

I receive similar certificates offering sign-up bonuses in the mail regularly. Usually I don’t qualify because I’ve already got an account at the bank advertised or I can’t set up payroll deposits (because I’m self-employed). I was throwing away these offers, but now I might sell them on eBay. They’re treated like manufacturer’s coupons according to the eBay listing specialist I spoke to, but they’re worth special mention because they have a high individual auction value — meaning you don’t have to collect a bunch before creating a listing.

I checked eBay and sure enough, I found many sign-up bonuses up for auction. The bidding was between $11 and $20 on the first four or five I saw. You have to search by bank name (search “Bank of America coupon,” or “Chase credit card coupon” for example) to find all of the various offerings.

How to Get More Coupons to Sell

Okay, so you’re checking out that junk mail and picking through your newspaper. But what if you need more coupons to sell? Here are a few places you could look:

  • Newspaper inserts your friends save for you
  • Inserts from free local newspapers or alt-weeklies (find them on street corners of most big cities)
  • Magazines in the library
  • Displays in stores and offices
  • Junk mail from friends

An article on eBay suggests that you can get a “mover pack” from the post office that’s full of coupons, often including the juicy 10% off Lowes and Home Depot ones. You can also sign up for the Lowes Mover’s Program to get coupons. Of course, if you’re not actually moving, you might not feel good about using either of these strategies.

A mailman made $35,000 selling JC Penny coupons on eBay, which he had salvaged from the post office’s “undeliverable” bin.  But he also got charged with petit larceny after JC Penny complained. He is suing the company and the county where he was arrested, saying there is nothing illegal about what he did. Of course, the new eBay rules seem to make it impossible to copy his strategy even if it is found to be legal.

The complaints about the policy change suggest that selling coupons was a viable business for some eBay users before the new rules went into effect. While that may not be the case now, you can still make some extra cash every month. And maybe you can scale up when other auction sites develop a good coupon market that isn’t so restrictive.

In any case, isn’t it kind of fun to sell things that you get for free?

Your Turn: Have you ever sold coupons on eBay or elsewhere? Will you give it a try?