Confessions of a Coupon Skeptic
For the first three years of our marriage, I shopped at Aldi for 90% of our grocery needs and then shopped sales at another local grocery store for the rest. With only two mouths to feed at the time, I spent about $100 per week on groceries and household items. One day my husband told me about a woman he heard on the radio who described saving her family thousands of dollars a year by couponing. I was skeptical.
In the summer of 2008 our family moved to Georgia for my husband to attend graduate school. Money was tight and I was looking for ways to stretch our budget. I was spending about $400 per month on groceries for our family of three. I decided it was time to investigate the claims of couponers. With some research, I learned that there was a very powerful method of couponing that I had been missing: coupons are most effective when combined with sale prices.
Previously I shopped the sales and used coupons if they happened to match an item on my grocery list. Now my shopping list consists of rock-bottom price sale items for which I also have coupons. It’s not uncommon for me to score freebies at grocery stores or drug stores each week. I’m seeing consistent savings of 50%-80% on my shopping trips, thanks to coupons, and I now spend just about $200/ month on groceries and household items for our family of four. Paying retail is a thing of the past!
YOU can become an Extreme Couponer
SimplyFrugalLiving.com puts resources at your fingertips that take the time and confusion out of couponing. The key to extreme couponing is twofold:
- Knowing when a sale price is at its rock-bottom lowest
- Using your stash of coupons against those rock-bottom sale prices
In order for this method to be effective, you need to have access to a lot of coupons. There are two types of coupons: manufacturer’s and store coupons.
I highly recommend subscribing to the Sunday paper, as it contains some of the best coupons. You can save up to 75% on a subscription here.
Most weeks you will find both a Smart Source and a Red Plum circular in your paper, although occasionally only the Smart Source circular is included. Once a month or so you will also receive a General Mills circular and a Proctor and Gamble circular. Start collecting these circulars right away; you need to have several weeks’ worth to heighten your opportunity for saving. When you receive your paper, make sure you pull out the circulars and date them right away (see picture below).
There are hundreds of manufacturer’s coupons to be had online. The standard sites I visit are:
I recommend visiting these sites at the beginning of the month and printing two copies of the coupons you know you would use in a month (two is the limit per computer). My reasoning for this is that the manufacturers set limits on the number of times a coupon may be printed, so if you catch them at the end of the month, the most popular coupons are often gone. These sites will occasionally add new coupons during the month, so it’s always a good idea to check back once or twice, especially if you’re looking for a specific coupon.
Another way to secure wonderful manufacturer’s coupons is to visit the websites of your favorite product companies and register with them. They will often mail you coupons with a much higher value than the ones in circulars or online. I have had good success with this for cereal, diapers, and many other commonly used products.
You might also consider getting a subscription to All You. The magazine is literally packed with valuable manufacturer’s coupons. Get a discounted subscription here. You will only spend $1.66 per issue…a great value for the savings in each copy!
Most grocery stores have their own store coupons, so make sure you have a shopper’s card and a correct address on file with your grocery store.
Many store websites will allow you to load coupons from their website right on to your shopper’s card. These are manufacturer’s coupons, and they must be used at their store with your card. The coupon savings show up automatically on your receipt if you purchase those particular items.
You can also load coupons onto your shopper’s card at following websites:
I never used to pay much attention to the coupons that print at the register, but now that I’m couponing, I hold on to them like gold! Some stores will allow you to stack your manufacturer’s coupons with their store coupons (or even competitor’s coupons, i.e. Publix) for even greater savings.
There are many different organizational systems available to you, but I will share what has worked well for me.
Pictured below are the two main organizational items I use: an expandable file folder and a zipper binder, both purchased inexpensively at Walmart. I recommend getting a binder that zips because it keeps your coupons from slipping out during a shopping trip. In the front zipper of my binder I keep a pair of scissors, some paper clips, a pen and a pencil. This binder comes with me every time I go into a store. It may seem a bit cumbersome, but it is more than worth it for all the money it has saved me over the years!
Your Sunday circulars file away very neatly in the expandable file folder. Just label all of the tabs in pencil with Sunday dates. Every two or three months the dates need to be updated.
Inside the binder I have a set of tabs to create sections. I recommend writing your tabs in pencil, because you may want to change them over time. I have a tab for my grocery stores, for Walmart and Target, and for drug stores. When I prepare a trip to one of the stores, I put my shopping list and the coupons I have clipped in a page protector behind the appropriate store tab. My other categories are cereal, snacks and beverages, refrigerator/freezer, canned/boxed goods, baking, health/beauty, baby/misc. Do whatever works for you!
I use a combination of page protectors and baseball card holders (located by the checkout counters at Walmart) to file away my coupons. I can see them at a glance and it helps me save even more when I’m in a hurry in the store and need to quickly see if I have a coupon for a certain item.
There are lots of options when it comes to organizing your coupons. Don’t spend a fortune on it! Figure out what will work for you and what you will be sure to use.
The coupons that are scattered around your kitchen or at the bottom of your purse won’t do you any good if they aren’t available when you need them! I keep an envelope on the counter in my kitchen and any coupons that come into my house through the mail, from a friend, off another product, etc. go into it immediately. Then, usually once a week, I take the envelope and file the coupons away in my binder. Car trips around town (when my husband is driving!) are my favorite time to do this task.
If you come to one of my Extreme Couponing Classes you’ll find that I offer my coupon binders for sale at a reasonable price.
Depending on your region and your favorite grocery stores, you should be able to find a blogger that offers weekly coupon match-ups. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find match-ups for your store. Simply do a google search, such as: Giant Eagle coupon match-ups.
SimplyFrugalLiving.com provides coupon match-ups for the following national stores:
…the following PA Grocery chain stores:
…and in IL and WI:
My coupon match-ups look like this:
Nestle Refrigerated Cookie Dough, $2.24
- Nestle Toll House Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Refrigerated Cookie Dough $1/1 08/16/11 Very Best (exp 01/01/70)
- Nestle Toll House Refrigerated Cookie or Brownie Dough Product $0.55/1 03/22/11 Nestle Family (exp 01/01/70)
- Nestle Toll House Refrigerated Cookie Dough $1.50/2 08/03/11 Very Best (exp 01/01/70)
- Nestle Toll House Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough $1/1 09/11/11 RP Insert (exp 11/11/11)
- Nestle Toll House Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough $0.75/1 09/11/11 SS Insert (exp 11/01/11)
Final Price as low as $0.74
You can see why it is important to start collecting the Sunday paper immediately so that you have the coupons you need to plan an awesome shopping trip! Having said this, most coupon match ups will include links for online printable coupons if there are any available for a given sale item. Take note of these, especially while you are building up your supply of Sunday coupon circulars.
Once you have made your list, print a copy and then cut out the specific coupons you need for your trip. Put your list and coupons in your coupon binder or purse and you’re ready to strike some major deals! When you have shopped this way for a while you will never want to walk into a grocery store again without being armed with lots of coupons and a list.
Know your store’s coupon policy like the back of your hand. Many stores have a written policy on their website, but if you can’t find one, call the store and ask to speak to the manager. Ask these questions: (Yes, I realize there are NINE of them!)
1) Do you accept coupons?
(Some stores, i.e. Aldi and Sam’s Club do not accept coupons.)
2) Do you double coupons?
3) If so, up to what amount do you double?
(i.e. coupons 50 cents and under are doubled)
4) Do you have a limit on the number of coupons you will double?
(I have never experienced this, but I know some of my mom’s stores in Wisconsin have a limit.)
5) Do you allow more than one coupon per item?
(manufacturer’s and store coupon)
6) Do you take competitor’s coupons?
7) If yes, who do you consider to be a competitor?
(Publix considered Rite Aid to be a competitor in Georgia, and they would take Rite Aid’s $5 off $25 coupons!)
8) Do you accept one coupon for each BOGO (buy one, get one free) item?
Usually the only way they will do this is if their policy is to charge 50% for each B1G1 item, rather than full price for the first and nothing for the second. Publix is a good example of this–you can actually buy one of a B1G1 item and it will be 50% off. If your store has this policy, they should accept one coupon each for B1G1 items. And if they allow coupon “stacking” (accepting both a manufacturer’s AND store coupon for each item), you are pretty much getting free items because you are basically paying full price for one item and using four coupons against it!
9) How can I receive your store coupons in the mail?
A certain level of flexibility is necessary in order to maximize your savings.
1) Store loyalty
When our family lived in Georgia, I had been shopping mainly at Kroger (and Aldi) thinking that Publix was so much more expensive. But when I learned that Publix would stack coupons (two coupons per item: store and manufacturer’s), AND they took competitor’s coupons, guess who started getting the bulk of my business? Kroger only accepts one coupon per item, and it must either be a manufacturer’s coupon or a Kroger coupon. However, they will accept both an electronic coupon loaded on your shopper’s card AND a manufacturer’s coupon for one item, so it is possible that you could “stack” coupons for a few items on your Kroger shopping list. This requires some careful planning, though!
Find out which grocery stores in your area are the most “coupon friendly” and start shopping there! In Georgia, most stores doubled coupons valued at 50 cents and less, but here in Pennsylvania, most grocery stores double coupons 99 cents and less! Sadly, I have not yet come across a grocery store that will stack coupons.
Note: Most drug stores, including Target, will stack coupons!
2) Brand loyalty
I have never been incredibly loyal when it comes to brand name foods, although there are a few personal care product brands that have won my loyalty. If you want to achieve major savings you do need to be willing to try new brands. I had never tried San Giorgio pasta, but when I was able to get a free box of it, you’d better believe I took it! And we liked the pasta, too! Be flexible. Be willing to try new things. Unless we have tried a brand and definitely did not like it, I always go for the brand that I can get at the lowest possible price.
3) Time commitment
I am occasionally asked the question, “How long does this take you each week? I don’t have a lot of time to put together lists and coupons!” I am right there with you! I don’t have a lot of time, either. But, I figure that the ratio of time spent to money saved means that I make about $100 an hour for preparing my shopping trips, so I’ve decided it’s worth it!
You should expect a learning curve as you begin this journey. I probably spent 3-4 hours a week at the beginning for what now takes me just about an hour a week.
Monthly Cost Breakdown w/Grocery Item Categories
I mentioned at the beginning that I spend $200 or less per month on grocery and household items. Here’s how it usually works:
I look for the orange stickers indicating a manager discount at Sam’s or other grocery stores and then purchase our meat supply for the month. We eat meat as part of our dinner meal 5 days a week. We have two vegetarian dinners per week. We also eat breakfast meat on occasion.
Milk and other dairy products: $30-$35
Our milk and eggs are so expensive in PA right now! Over $3.85 per gallon of milk and eggs are $1.39. I purchase most of my dairy products with coupons at Giant Eagle.
Canned/boxed goods, snacks, bread, and freezer items: $30-$35
I purchase most of my canned items at Aldi because I can usually get them less expensively there than I can with coupons at Giant Eagle. The other boxed goods are purchased at Giant Eagle.
I purchase my produce at Sam’s, Aldi, or the Strip in downtown Pittsburgh.
Purchased through Subscribe & Save at Amazon Mom, Rite Aid, or Target
Paper Products: $20-$25
These items are purchased at either Target or Giant Eagle, depending on the sales and coupons available. This category includes paper towels, napkins, toilet paper, kleenex, etc.
I don’t buy cereal until I can get it for about a dollar per box, and then I buy a month’s supply of it. Our cereal is usually purchased at Giant Eagle with coupons.
Personal Care: $5-$10
Purchased at Giant Eagle, Target, or one of the other drug stores.
Is Couponing worth it?
You may be asking, “Are savings worth my time and effort?” Well, let me ask you two questions.
1) If you could increase your monthly income by $200-$400 (or more), would you do it?
2) How would you spend that extra money each month, or would you put it in savings?
If you are currently working within a monthly budget, your answer to the second question will be more concrete. Our family has a written, thorough budget for each month, and let me tell you, we know where the money we save through couponing is going! What would that look like for you? Would you put the money toward paying off any debts more quickly? Would you put it in a savings account for a new vehicle? The options are endless!
Don’t hesitate—dive in now! Make sure you’re getting your discounted Sunday paper each week so you have lots of coupons, and start saving! Remember, a dollar saved is better than a dollar earned. You don’t have to pay tax on money you save. =)