Is Trading Coupons Illegal?

What Does the Small Print on Coupons Really Mean?

Close up of a person's hands sorting through coupons at a grocery store checkout line. A coupon organizer sits next to the person's hands, near the register.

Andersen Ross / Getty Images

If the words that you see in small print on many manufacturers' coupons, "Coupon may be void if copied, transferred, reproduced, sold or exchanged..." has you worried that you should not give your dog food coupons to your friend with a dog, you can relax.

The disclaimers and redemption rules about transferring coupons is the way manufacturers protect themselves if they find the need to discontinue honoring a coupon. It's a cushion, or protection, for the manufacturer to void the coupon offer if they find that it is being distributed in a fraudulent manner.

Many manufacturers promote the idea of consumers sharing their coupons with friends, but it is the way that the sharing is done that the manufacturers want to manage. Handing coupons to friends, leaving unused or unwanted coupons at the grocery store, giving coupons as presents, or having a coupon exchange club is legal and ethical.

What Is Not Ethical or Legal When Trading Coupons?

The type of trading that manufacturers want to prevent involves the act of duplication and coupon distribution. Let's look at it from a manufacturer's point of view.

With any kind of promotion, a company has to set parameters of how much can be spent on the promotion and where the promotional efforts should be focused.

For example, let's say that Campbell Soup decides to circulate a coupon in the northeast in October when it is getting chilly outside to help promote a product, with the concept that eating soup on cold days will warm you up.

First, they have to figure out how much they want to spend on the promotion. Then how to get the biggest bang for their buck by planning where to promote the coupon. Hot soup in October in Florida may not be the most prudent place for the coupon; however, hot soup in Maine in October makes sense.

They then decide which medium they should use to promote the coupon. Should they display the coupon in newspapers, magazines, or maybe an in-store promotion?

Once these decisions have been made, the company then decides how long the promotion will run, designs the coupon and then schedules the coupon for distribution.

All of this takes a lot of planning. If the company goes way over budget, it may have to possibly cut out future promotions, such as distributing a coupon in the southern states in November. If the company comes within budget, future promotions have a better chance of being activated.

How Does Unethical Coupon Trading Affect All of This?

Let's say I see a coupon in my Sunday paper that I decide to scan into my computer and post online for anyone landing on my site to print and use. I have gone against the usage policies that all manufacturers have on coupons by copying the coupon and transferring the distribution to my website. The company has now lost control of where the coupon offer is distributed.

Or maybe I decide I want to print multiple copies of the coupon so that I can use them a bunch of times at the store, plus share them with my friends. Again, doing so goes against the coupon usage policy of duplication and exchanging the coupon, and the company has now lost control of how many coupons are distributed.

And finally, let's say I have so many that I printed that I decide to sell the coupons. Again, it clearly states on the coupon that I cannot sell the coupon and doing so voids the coupon's value. By selling the coupon, I am selling something that has no value.

As a consumer, I do not have the right to take over the distribution of a coupon. However, passing along my unused coupon that I received from my paper does not fall under this criteria because:

  • The coupon was distributed in my area.
  • I am giving away the original coupon, not a duplicated copy.
  • The coupon has not been redeemed.
  • At no point has the manufacturer lost control of the coupon.

Therefore, be aware of whether your coupon sharing fits into the ethical boundaries before you pass it along.