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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Couponing Basics

If you’re anything like me, the idea of saving (a ton of) money by using coupons is appealing in theory, but overwhelming in practice.  The concept is pretty simple--combine money-saving manufacturer’s coupons with in-store specials and coupons to save anywhere from 50-100% off your grocery bill.  In order to be successful, the way you shop has to change.  Instead of simply making a list of the things you need in any given week, you predominantly shop for what is on sale, buying enough to last for 6-8 weeks (the length of time before it will be on sale again).  
For the first couple of months, you will work at building up a stockpile, a little “mini grocery store” at home that you can then “shop” from as you need those items.  Once you have a stockpile, the amount you spend each week will reduce even further, and you will be able to select only the very best deals to replenish your stockpile.  I’m not going to lie, it takes a fair amount of time to figure everything out and to get started, but it does get easier and less time-consuming as time goes on.
But where does one even begin? How do you stay organized?  Where do the coupons come from?  How do you know if you are getting the best deal?  What happens when you go to the grocery store with a billion coupons?  Compared to people who have been doing this for years, I am by no means an expert in couponing, but I thought I’d put together some pointers for anyone who is interested in getting started.
Where to begin?
The first step is simple and yet probably the hardest.  It is making the commitment to start.  You probably won’t save 90% off your grocery bill the first week, but you still save a lot.  The first thing to do is find a good website in your area that lists each store’s weekly specials and the corresponding coupons.  When I was in Seattle I used couponmom.com (which used to charge a fee but is now free) and now here in Florida I mostly refer to southernsavers.com.  
After you have gone to one of these websites, figure out which grocery stores are in your area, (you will have more success if you are willing to go to more than one store), and then look at the list of specials for that week.  There are many printable coupons now available online, so for your first few weeks, until you have collected a good supply of newspaper coupons, your primary source of coupons will be the internet.  See which specials are things that your family likes or needs, then of those, see which ones have corresponding printable coupons.  Print the coupons you need, print your shopping list, and you are ready for your first trip to the store!
How do I stay organized?
There are a lot of different ways to organize coupons, and a lot of different coupon organizers available.  Once you get going, you will probably figure out what works best for you.  When I first started, I found the Couponizer book worked best for me.  It helped me sort my coupons and my lists, and it was easy to flip through when I was at the store.  
However now that I have been doing this a little longer and have a lot more coupons to deal with, I have found it easier to use a portable accordian file similar to this one.  I used my label maker to label the different sections.  Two of the sections are for coupons that are already clipped, one for food items and one for non-food items, and then within each of those sections, I have the coupons sorted into different categorized envelopes (baking, dairy, meat, frozen, etc.)  I also have a section for my grocery lists, a section for restaurant coupons, and a section for store coupons (like Michael’s, Old Navy, Gymboree, Target, etc.)  The rest of the sections are separated by date for the Sunday paper inserts, which include RedPlum (RP), Smart Source (SS), and the Proctor & Gamble Brand Saver (PG).  I stopped clipping those each Sunday because I realized that it was easier and quicker to simply clip them as needed, since the SouthernSaver and CouponMom lists both refer to those coupons by date.
I have also heard of people using binder systems or small accordian organizers to sort their coupons.  It can become very daunting to sort, file, and remember what coupons you have, much less get rid of them as they expire.  Ultimately, you need to use whatever system makes the most sense to you.
Where do I get coupons from?
The two main sources of coupons are the Sunday inserts and the internet, from sites like Coupons.com, RedPlum.com, SmartSource.com, and different companies’ websites or facebook pages.  Most coupon sites will only let you print a coupon twice, so it helps to have more than one computer to print from.  It also helps to have multiple email addresses to use when signing up for free coupons.  I highly recommend getting multiple copies of the Sunday inserts, either by purchasing more than one paper each week, or by asking friends & neighbors or local businesses for their inserts.  I usually get at least 4 copies, and sometimes 6 if it is a really good week.  If there is more than one paper in your area, be sure to check which paper offers the best coupons.  Some papers will only do either RedPlum or SmartSource instead of both.
How do I know if I am getting the best deal?
It will take a little time to know what you are willing to pay for any particular item.  It will mostly be trial & error.  My one recommendation is that if you can get an item for free in any given week, GET IT, even if it is not something you will use.  You can always donate it!
What happens when I go to the grocery store?
This is where it can get tricky, especially when you are just starting out and going to grocery stores that you don’t normally shop at.  Before you set foot into the store, you should make sure that you have your list and all of the coupons you are planning to use.    It can take a couple of hours to collect everything, especially in the beginning and especially if you are printing a lot of the coupons you will be using, but being prepared ahead of time is the difference between a complete fiasco and a relatively painless experience.  (Especially critical if you will be shopping with children in tow!)  I usually paperclip the coupons I am using for that trip to the back of my list.  I like to have them handy to make sure I am getting the right item.  I leave my coupon file in the car so that if I happened to see an unadvertised sale while at the store, I would be able to run out and get the matching coupon, if needed.  
I try to go at times that I know the store won’t be too busy, like mid-morning or after 8pm.  It might just be a Southern thing, but I also try to always look nice when I go to the store, and if I bring my kids, I make sure their clothes and faces are clean and they look cute.  Once I get to the checkout stand, I usually tell the cashier upfront that I have a lot of coupons, and ask whether they would prefer them to go with each item or all at the end.  I’m not a cashier, so I can’t say for sure, but it seems like they appreciate the courtesy. I am always very polite and very friendly and I have never once had a problem or snide remark from a store employee, even when I have handed them a stack of 50 coupons; on the contrary, they are usually very impressed by how much I save, and many of them ask questions.  
It does help to know each stores’ coupon policy.  Many grocery stores accept competitor’s coupons, but sometimes the individual cashiers don’t know that.
What else do I need to know?
Throw your brand loyalty out the window!  Most of the stuff you buy will be name brand, but it may or may not be the brand you normally buy.  And if there happens to be a hot deal on one of your favorite items, stock up!  
Warehouse stores don’t necessarily have the best deals.  Once you have established a stockpile and a ready supply of coupons you will find that you can get almost everything cheaper at the grocery store, as long as you are willing to wait for the sale.  However, there are a few things that are still cheaper at Costco and Sam’s Club.  I do a lot of baking, so buying economy size bags of powdered sugar and flour work better for me, and I really like their big tubs of blue cheese and shredded parmesan cheese.
Have fun with it!  Couponing can be time-consuming but it doesn’t have to be tedious.  On the contrary, it is strangely addictive.  Challenge yourself to see how much you can save in any given week, and revel in your small victories.  After a while you won’t even consider paying full retail for anything.

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