Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Sane Person's Guide To Starting Couponing

"Extreme" couponing is the latest craze among the frugal, but I like to practice a more casual couponing. I'm kind of an evangelist for couponing - I get all het up when I see someone buy something that I know has a coupon, and even worse, is going on sale TOMORROW - but I also feel like people think you need to fill up your basement with mustard and spend all day alphabetizing your coupons by barcode in order to get deals. Not so! I will teach you how I coupon, which is to say, the relaxed couponing method.

1. Get 2 copies of the Sunday paper each week.

Why 2? Dunno. I suppose you could get 3. But I forbid you to get more than that because it leads down the spiral of I Could Be Getting More Stuff Free! This is the path to the mustard-filled basement. Man cannot live on what you buy with coupons alone (well, I guess you could, but you might die of scurvy.) Also, unless you are really, really good at couponing, the $2 per paper is going to set you back a lot if you buy ten a week.

The Sunday paper is where you will get most of your coupons. However, if you don't have a local paper that has coupons, you can also buy whole inserts, which is very economical compared to buying the coupons individually. I use Whole Coupons Inserts and Coupons By Dede when my paper doesn't have all the inserts for that week. You can even buy previous weeks of inserts to get you up to speed. Also, especially when you're new to couponing and don't have a ton on hand, printable grocery coupons will help fill out your binder.

2. Keep your coupons in order by date and insert.

This is how most couponing websites will refer to the location of the coupon you want to use - referring to the inserts by date and insert brand. RedPlum, SmartSource, and Procter and Gamble are the three major kinds. I'm a cutter-outer - I like to cut up my coupon inserts - so I keep them in envelopes labeled with the date and RP, SS, or P&G. Some people prefer to keep the coupon inserts intact and just cut out what you need for that week, which is also a good method. But whatever you do, don't cut them all out and then sort them by Dairy, Snacks, Canned Goods, etc like most coupon organizers are labeled. It'll make it harder to pull out what you need. If there are coupons you know you'll use RIGHT AWAY because you buy this stuff every week, buy more of that coupon from The Coupon Clippers and leave the original coupon in its envelope or insert. That way you can still find it two months later when you've forgotten all about it and now there's a big sale.

3. Get a giveaway bag ready.

Why start thinking about giving away stuff before you've bought a single thing? Well, I have a hard time admitting I'm wrong about stuff, and being wrong about whether we'll use something I paid ten cents for is the hardest thing of all. Luckily, if I determine I've gone on a couponing binge and bought something we'll never use, I repurpose that purchase charitably in my mind. "It was for the food bank!" I say. And thus my dignity is restored. If you don't have a giveaway bag, you might look at that eighth bottle of Caesar dressing and think, "Ah, we'll use it someday." The next time you see that bottle might be six years after it expires. Instead, it could've been doing somebody some good. You know somebody's going to have a food drive eventually, whether at your work, your church/synagogue/commune/whatever, or barring all else, the Post Office does it once a year in May. So make sure that your giveaway bag is always in the back of your mind - not least because you can do ten times as much good if it's 80% off. In fact right now I have an entire paper grocery bag filled with tampons, body wash, toothpaste, and other items that would keep a family clean for a year, but the whole bag cost about $20 and will make the women's shelter very happy. (The food bank bag, however, is full of mayonnaise, to keep me from hoarding it.)

4. Pick two grocery stores to target (max!)

While true extreme couponers will hit every store in the area, I think that attempting to cover all the sales will drive you batty. If you have any stores in the area that double coupons, you could pick that one, but do try to include the store you usually go to. I do most of my couponing at Giant Eagle, and go to Kroger when there's a special storewide sale on. I used to try to hit a third one too, and it became too much to keep up with. I would actually feel bad when I did not go to the third store, but who needs to go to the grocery store three times a week with only two people in the house? It was unwise. Some people prefer CVS, Walgreens, or other drugstores over grocery stores, and those have their pros and cons as well. I try to keep it simple and do most of my coupon shopping at the store I would be shopping at anyway. This is also a crazy-limiting suggestion - you can certainly go to other stores if you know there's a promotion, but trying to go to all of them every week just eats up time.

Then, once you've picked out your stores, sign up with any loyalty card programs they have. Use your real name and address (you might get coupons in the mail!) and make sure to sign up with that card on their website too. Many stores are moving towards e-coupons, so this is a potential source of free extra coupons that you can't miss.

5. Sign up with The Grocery Game or pick out coupon-matching blogs.

There are several different coupon-matching sites out there, but I think the Grocery Game is the easiest for newbies. How you use it: It just gives you a list of items that are on sale that week with their percentage-off and prices, you check off what ones you want to buy, and it generates a list of coupons you need to pull from your (dated and labeled) envelopes. Then, you can print off a shopping list and go to the store. It doesn't have a lot of printable coupons listed, nor will it always be 100% correct for your region, but it is super duper easy.

Here is a widget from the Grocery Game so you can see what it looks like:

View all Grocery Coupons & Grocery Deals

Alternately, you can find a coupon-matching blog. Even though I use the Grocery Game, I also check Coupon Katarina and Saving in Akron for their Kroger and Giant Eagle matchups respectively. These ladies go through the whole sale list and find all the coupons, both from the Sunday paper, coupon websites, and the manufacturer websites, that you can use that week. Usually, they also offer suggestions about how to match up the coupons to get the best deals if there's strategy involved. Make sure that the blogs you follow are using the circulars for your region - there are tons of these blogs so you shouldn't have a hard time finding one that does.

6. Think about what you are actually going to use.

This is another trap that we frugal people sometimes fall into. I'm perfectly willing to eat Fruit Roll-ups for lunch every day, but Boyfriend is not so willing. I'm probably more willing because I know how little they cost and that makes me happy when my lunch is inexpensive, but Boyfriend is only thinking about whether he likes Fruit Roll-ups or not. Your family may be happy that you are saving money, but beware of bringing home ten boxes of cereal and declaring that everyone is having cereal for dinner for the next two weeks. You may incite a revolt.

The best way to get the most out of your coupon money and time is to buy things that your family wants, ahead of when your family wants them. There is nothing to "win" here by getting your whole grocery cart for free if no one in your house wants to eat any of it, or you don't use enough of those things to get through them before they expire. So it might help to go through your list with your partner or someone else in the household and say, "Are you going to eat this if I buy it?" If they say no, and you buy it for ten cents on the dollar, that's going to be ten cents wasted, instead of ninety cents saved.

7. Start shopping!

At first, you're not going to be able to get really great deals, because it takes time to get going with couponing. A lot of sales will involve coupons from the previous week's circular, but a lot of times they will use two-month-old coupons which you won't have until you've been doing this a while. So the best deals will come over time. Keep at it! The idea is to buy things you need before you need them, so that when you want them, you can just pull them out of the cupboard. It's really hard to explain how exciting it is when I can just pull a frozen pizza we already own out of the chest freezer (another good investment, if you can get one used on Craigslist) and ta-da, we have dinner. Or if we want to have fajitas and only need to buy lettuce because I already have everything else in the house.

It is very easy to get 50% or even 75% off on many items. It is very difficult and rare to get 100% off unless you go nutty about the process. But you can really save a lot of money by getting 50% or 75% off stuff you use all the time! I haven't paid full price for paper towels, soup, cereal, dog snacks, salad dressing, or any kind of health & beauty stuff since I started couponing last year. The number of things I get for free is pretty low, though I do try to pick those things up for my giveaway bag even if we won't use it. (Brut deodorant, I'm talking to you.) But even though I'm not overly obsessive, I still have four shelves of stuff in the basement and two full bags of stuff to give away.

People of the internet, have you started doing any couponing? What do you think of my method? How do you do your coupon shopping? Any other tips for sanity-retaining couponing?


Personal Finance for Teachers said...

I think that you are right on the mark with telling readers to choose 2 stores max. When I started couponing, I made myself crazy thinking that I had to go to ALL of the stores EVERY week.

Also, I found it funny about your advice to get 2 copies of the Sunday paper. I had always meant to get 2 copies, but just never did. The first day that I got 2 copies, my daughter was home and she took all of the coupons! :--)

will5 said...

To keep things really simple (and to stop too much stress to start with) why not limit yourself to a single store until you get a better handle on coupling. As you gain "experience" you can expand the number of stores you visit.