GUEST BLOGGER COLUMN, ROCKSTAR ON A BUDGET: “COUPONING FOR BEGINNERS”
Depending on your budget and living situation, groceries can take up 30% or more of your budget. What if you could cut that number in half, or reduce it even more? With just a little bit of time and effort each week, you can be well on your way to big savings! It’s all a matter of knowing some basic tips and tricks, and coming up with a system that will work for you. It can be a hobby that grows on you, with some amazing rewards. So with that in mind, this will be the first of many installations where I will share what I’ve learned on my extreme coupon journey.
How to Start*
- Sunday Paper: This is my favorite source for coupons because of the variety and quality of deals, despite the cost of a subscription. Check in to discounts for subscriptions or asking someone who gets the paper if they’d be willing to give you their coupons. There are three types of inserts: Smart Source (SS), Proctor and Gamble (P&G), and Red Plum (RP).
- Mail and Magazines: Sometimes coupons will come in the mail. Val-Pak sends out monthly coupon packages if you join their mailing list (you can sign up on their website). Some magazines also include coupons for name brands.
- In Store Savings: There are a few ways to snag coupons after you’ve arrived at the store. Many grocery stores have blinkies and tearaways, two types of coupon dispensers. The blinkies are the red plastic mechanical coupon dispensers that are often attached to shelves. Tearaways are ads of coupons. You can take as many as you want of these; just make sure you check the expiration date and don’t take too many that you’ll just throw away later! Another way to save in store is with catalinas, which is a needlessly fancy term for the coupons that print out at the bottom of your receipt to be used on your next shopping trip. These are generally only good at the store you made the original purchase, but if you want to use them at another store, ask if they accept competitor’s coupons (many larger chains will).
*My next article will talk about online coupons, as well as rebate and savings apps.
Now that you’ve started collecting coupons, you need to keep them organized! Everybody has a system that works for them, so I’ll just provide the most common methods and some tips. It’s all about what works for you!
- The Binder Method: The hardcore couponers swear by the binder method, and if you are thinking of going this route, I definitely recommend googling some of their techniques because I don’t practice this one myself. Basically, you organize your coupons however you like in plastic sleeves in a binder so that you can see them all and easily flip through to find the ones you’re looking for. The downside of this method is that if you collect a lot of coupons, you’ll need a LOT of plastic sheets and they can get expensive. However, it is an excellent organizational strategy.
- The File Method: This is my method, and I love it because I can easily carry hundreds of coupons with me but still find what I’m looking for quickly. I bought my coupon organizer at Walmart for $3 and it’s lasted over a year (actually I’ve expanded into 2 organizers, but I digress…). These are also known as accordion organizers, and they have anywhere from 6 to 15 tabs to stick different types of coupons in. I have mine organized in the tabs by type (frozen, canned goods, cleaning products, drinks, etc.). Within the tabs, I then organize everything by brand name to easily pick them out. It takes a little bit of effort to keep it organized, so normally after I cut coupons out of the Sunday paper I organize the new ones in their place and throw out any expired coupons. By doing it weekly, it really cuts down on the work.
- The Quick Method: Don’t have time to file and organize? Simply keep any physical coupons you have in a filing cabinet or otherwise organized by dates. If you get the ones from the Sunday paper, just keep the dates straight. Then follow coupon blogs that tell you where to find the coupons they reference, and you can go straight to the coupon insert from that date and cut out only what you need. If you use this method, you can also make your store list and then use online printable databases to only find coupons for what you need. This method is for people who are shorter on time, but it won’t lead to such good savings. The key to extreme couponing is to plan your shopping trips around coupons combined with store specials. Once you’ve been doing it for awhile, the goal is to shop to stock up on different things each week so you’re getting the best deal on everything you need.
General Coupon Policies
Every store will have different coupon policies, so if you have a favorite grocery store or drug store, it’s a good idea to get familiar with their particular policies, almost always found on their websites. Sign up for the free rewards card, if it’s offered, because this will get you access to the best sale prices. Many grocery stores also offer gas rewards, which means that every dollar you spend there goes toward discounted gas at an affiliated gas station. (For example, I shop at Giant, who has partnered with Shell Gas. For every dollar I spend, I get a gas reward point. Every 100 gas points equals 10 cents off a gallon of gas. In addition, each week buying certain items will give you extra gas points. I save an average of 50 cents off a gallon per month, and since I rarely drive, this really adds up.) I have outlined some of the most common coupon policies to get you started:
- Coupon doubling: Most stores will double coupons up to a certain amount. Basically, this means that the store will match the value of lower value coupons. For example, say I have a coupon for 25 cents off a roll of paper towels. A store that doubles coupons would match that 25 cents, giving me a total of 50 cents off that roll of paper towel. Most stores in my area double coupons up to 99 cents, but be sure to check your store’s policy. In such a case, 75 cent coupons are my favorite because they double to $1.50 off your item with the store’s doubling policy. Some coupons will say DO NOT DOUBLE, but there’s a way to check if it will double regardless (if you find an awesome coupon you really want to use). There’s an iphone app called Double Check where you scan a coupon and it will tell you if the ability to double is encoded in the bar code. I’ve found quite a few coupons (especially Harris Teeter store coupons) that say do not double but actually do.
- Stacking: How many coupons can you use on one item? For most stores, you can use one manufacturer’s coupon (i.e., the ones you print or find in the Sunday paper, usually marked “manufacturer’s coupon” or sometimes “mfg”) and one store coupon (i.e., the catalinas printed out on a previous receipt or specially marked store coupons-Target has lots of these) per item. So if you have one manufacturer’s coupon for $1 off orange juice and one store coupon for $1 off orange juice, you’ll save a total of $2. If you start factoring in lower value coupons and a doubling policy, it could add up to even more! The general rule is one manufacturer’s coupon per item, BUT you can still get multiple items. If you had three orange juice coupons, you could buy three bottles of orange juice and use each coupon. Most stores have a policy of three coupons on like items, and some only allow you to use two printed coupons per like item.
- BOGO and half price loopholes: Make sure to check with your store before trying this one, but some stores who sell things BOGO (buy one get one free) will ring the 2 items up at half price. This means that you can use two manufacturer’s coupons (and/or store coupons) on these items. For example, if you were buying granola bars that were originally $5 and on sale BOGO, each of the two boxes you buy would ring up as $2.50. If you have a coupon for, say, 75 cents of one box and you have 2 of them, you’ll save 75 cents of each box, or $1.50 off your total. That brings it down to $3.50 for both boxes of granola bars. If those 75 cent coupons also double, you’ll save $1.50 EACH on the granola bars, bringing your final total down to $2 for 2 boxes of granola bars. If you had paid full price for those 2 boxes, you would have spent $10. When you find a great deal like that, and if you can afford it, stock up! I have an empty shelf in my linen closet dedicated entirely to granola bars and cereal because when there is a good deal, I stock up. Anything you don’t end up using can also be donated.
In my next post, I’ll discuss the actual process of taking your coupons to the store, general couponing tips, and explain some common acronyms for couponing.
Stevie, 23, is a technical writer for Navy engineers and will soon be attending George Mason for her Master’s in Biodefense. In addition to writing for No More Ramen, Stevie also runs her own personal budgeting blog (check it out!) and cooks way too much food at once.