If you’ve ever seen TLC’s “Extreme Couponing,” you might conclude that coupons are for crazy people. You don’t need a five-year supply of toilet paper, and you especially don’t want to devote 40 hours a week to planning your grocery shopping.
If you do a little studying and monitoring, you can easily design a coupon strategy for yourself that gives your maximum savings with minimum time invested.
How about 15 minutes per shopping trip and $150 in savings? That’s what Stephanie Nelson, publisher of Coupon Mom, did recently, combining coupons, store sales and deals offered by her store’s loyalty card.
The proliferation of websites that match coupons with store sales has made saving money with coupons easier than ever. Those same sites offer video tutorials, links to store’s coupon policies, printable coupons and, most important, matching coupons to items on sale at most major store chains.
Where to Find Coupons
That means even a lazy shopper can save money using coupons with minimal effort. “Let other people do the work for you because they already have,” Nelson says. “A lot of people think they have to do it all themselves.”
You can find coupons in a variety of places. According to Nelson, 80 percent to 90 percent of grocery coupons still come in the Sunday newspaper. But you can also get coupons online, at match-up websites, coupon company websites and manufacturers’ sites, as well as at some grocery store websites. Plus, some stores offer what is called a “Catalina” strip of coupons when you check out. We have a page of coupons and a page of online shopping promo codes here at Living on the Cheap.
If you don’t take the Sunday newspaper, check the recycling bins in your apartment complex, ask your family and friends to save coupon inserts for you, or drop by restaurants where people are likely to leave discarded newspapers and coupons.
But don’t turn down free money, says Laura Daily, a consumer savings expert and publisher of Mile High on the Cheap in Denver, who gives couponing workshops. “If I handed you a $5 bill, would you take it and crumple it up and throw it away?” she asks.
But, she adds, “You don’t have to be fanatical about it. … You can [clip coupons] while you’re watching TV.”
Strategize for More Savings
There are two parts to couponing successfully, Nelson says. One is clipping and finding coupons. The second is using your coupons strategically by matching them to store sales.
For example, if Nature Valley granola bars are $3.95 a box and you have a coupon for 50 cents off, then you’ll pay $3.45 a box. But if the bars are on sale for $1.99 a box, and you go to a store that doubles coupons, you’ll get those same granola bars for 99 cents a box.
The trick is to keep track of how often the items you buy go on sale and then stock up. If you have both a store coupon and a manufacturer’s coupon for the same item, you can usually use both, increasing your savings.
“The whole key to saving on groceries is to stock up on an item when it’s at its lowest price, not when you need it,” Nelson says.
Certain items go on sale every three months and others every six months. Once I learned that, I started waiting to stock up. Even without coupons, I can almost always get a deal on cereal, tea bags, granola bars, salad dressing, snack crackers and frozen dinners. Other frequent sale items include canned tomatoes, name-brand toilet paper and paper towels, soda and ice cream. Meat also has predictable sales cycles.
Want to match your coupons with sale items? Hold on to your coupon supplements, because many items for which you’ll find coupons in Sunday’s paper will go on sale about a month later.
Really dedicated bargain hunters keep a price book to track how often their favorite items go on sale and at what price, so they know what bargains to wait for.
Coupons Only For Junk Food? Not So
Both Nelson and Daily laugh at those who say coupons are only for unhealthy, processed foods. A recent week’s manufacturer coupon offerings include Fresh Express salad, Greek yogurt and oatmeal.
“I’m a very healthy eater and we save a lot of money with coupons,” Nelson says. And, as Daily notes, even Whole Foods offers coupons these days and accepts manufacturers’ coupons.
Both coupon experts use their skills to acquire items for charities, and some of their best scores are for toiletries and cleaning products. In fact, Nelson says, about 50 percent of coupons are for non-food products.
Daily recently got 53 tubes of toothpaste and 36 bottles of liquid soap for only the cost of sales tax, combining coupons with stores sales and clearance items – another tool in a savvy couponer’s arsensal. “If I can get a product for free or almost free, it’s coming home with me,” Daily says.
Organizing Your Coupons and Apps
There are myriad ways to organize coupons. Some people create a coupon binder. Others use envelopes and sort by category. Daily recommends the small coupon organizers you can find at dollar stores, with sections for each category. Nelson recommends filing your coupon inserts by date but not clipping until you check the store matchups and are ready to shop. Whatever you do, make sure you carry your coupons with you.
While there are smartphone apps for coupon mavens, they don’t yet go far enough that you can abandon paper. Saving Star, which gives you cash back for your purchases, has an app that lets you load coupons onto your store loyalty card. Ibotta provides rebates if you buy specific products.
While coupons can save you money, they won’t always get you the best deal. For some people, no-frills stores such as Aldi and Save-A-Lot are a better choice, as long as you don’t demand name-brand products. Sometimes a store brand item without a coupon is cheaper than a national brand with a coupon. Don’t be blinded by coupon mania.
“Just because you have a coupon doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good deal,” Daily says. “Quite often, generics beat out a good deal with a coupon.”
Tips For Less Extreme Couponing
Do extreme couponers have you throwing up your hands in despair? Are you so overwhelmed by their complicated systems and huge savings that you don’t use coupons at all? Try these low-maintenance couponing tips and watch your savings add up without a lot of effort.
Extreme: Monitor dozens of coupon sources and spend time hunting down coveted coupon codes and inserts.
Effortless: Let the coupons come to you.
Time-savvy shoppers collect coupons without searching for them. The coupons that arrive with your newspaper and daily mail are the tip of the iceberg. Many of your favorite stores and brands will email coupons directly to your inbox. General Mills, for example, sometimes delivers coupons along with its A Taste of General Mills e-newsletter. Customer loyalty programs, such as CVS Pharmacy’s ExtraCare Rewards Program, are another source of coupons that are printed with your receipt or loaded onto your card based on your purchases. Many of these programs, like Safeway’s just for U Club, now provide smartphone apps that put coupons at your fingertips as you shop. You can print out manufacturers’ coupons directly from Living on the Cheap.
Extreme: Clip and save every coupon you come across.
Effortless: Only keep the coupons you know you’ll use.
“Don’t clip coupons just because you think you may try something,” says Yat-Yee Chong, a Living on the Cheap reader from Fort Collins, Colo. “It’s usually a waste of time.” Use the same clutter-free approach with coupon mailers and email coupons. Immediately print, clip and file coupons you know you’ll use. Recycle or delete the rest.
Extreme: Have an elaborate coupon filing and storage system.
Effortless: Stash all your coupons in one grab-and-go container.
Jenni Derryberry Mann, a Living on the Cheap reader from Nashville, Tenn., keeps coupons in a Ziploc bag attached to the refrigerator with a magnetic clip. She says her coupons are “easy to file, easy to see and easy to purge every couple months.” Nicole Ford, a reader from Shoreview, Minn., suggests keeping restaurant coupons in the car. Other portable storage ideas: expandable files, diaper bags, purse compartments, recyclable grocery bags.
Extreme: Shop several stores each week to capitalize on store-specific savings.
Effortless: Shop strategically at one store.
Shopping at one store makes it easier to snag that store’s best deals. Choose a conveniently located store where you enjoy shopping. Monitor discounts on products you already purchase. Scan the store’s website for coupons before leaving home. Target, for example, offers dozens of printable online coupons. Join your store’s customer loyalty program and shop on double coupon or other discount days.
Extreme: Calculate discounts to the penny.
Effortless: Use simple techniques to estimate savings.
Laura Laing, author of Math for Grownups, explains how the average shopper can benefit from basic math. Laing recommends rounding costs to the nearest dime for quick calculations. For example, a bottle of salad dressing costs $1.49. You can use a coupon for 50 cents off 2 bottles or a 25% shopper’s club discount. Rounding the original price to $1.50 simplifies finding the best deal. With the coupon, you’ll pay about $2.50 for two bottles of dressing ($1.50 + $1.50 = $3.00; $3.00 – 50 cents = $2.50). With the shopper’s club discount, you’ll pay about $2.25 for two bottles of dressing ($1.50 + $1.50 = $3.00; $3.00 x 0.25 = 75 cents; $3.00 – 75 cents = $2.25). You’ll find that the shopper’s club is the best deal and can probably do most of the math in your head.
Laing adds, “It’s a good idea to learn how to find 10%, 20%, 25% and 50% off very quickly.” To find 10% off, start with the full price and move the decimal one place to the left. That number is your discount, which you can subtract from the original price to find the discounted price. To find 20% off, simply double the 10% discount. Again, subtract from the original price to find the discounted price. A 50% discount means you’ll pay half the sticker price. To calculate a 25% discount, divide the 50% discount in half again, and then multiply that discount by 3 to find the sale price. To read more about calculating percent-off discounts, visit Laing’s blog.
Find all our tips for getting the most savings with coupons at our Coupon Insider collection. What are your best tips for saving money on groceries, with or without coupons, that don’t have you devoting 20 hours a week to planning your shopping trips?
Kim Kankiewicz contributed to this report.