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Friday, October 1, 2010

beginner's guide to coupons (week 1)

***Updated 9-5-2011***

If you are reading this Beginner's Guide to Coupons, you are probably hoping to save some money. The good news is that you will save money. The bad news is that you will have to work at it, at least a little.

Extreme Couponing, or “Super Couponing,” as it is sometimes called, can be a little scary at first.

I originally decided to write this series after several readers contacted me to ask for advice on how to start using coupons.

The general theme seemed to be that they would read my shopping results each week and see how I consistently save 70-90% or more on my grocery bill each week, and would leave my blog inspired, determined to try it for themselves. But then, as soon as they started to look at all those coupons, they would quickly get stuck over how to begin, suddenly overwhelmed.

If this sounds like you, I’m here to help. This is my 8 week “baby steps” series on how to start extreme couponing. Each week I break the process down into a manageable bite, complete with assignments for specific tasks that will help you get going.

If you follow my steps, by the end of the eight weeks, you will not only have a firm grasp on using coupons to save 60% (or more!) off your weekly grocery bill, you will also have an impressive stockpile of food and toiletries for your family to use.
Now for a few disclaimers: There are a lot of websites and "coupon experts" with a lot of different ideas for saving money.  Many of them are excellent.  Some I will even refer you to.  I don't claim to have all the answers or even the very best or most perfect system for saving money with coupons.  But I do save a ton of money with coupons, and I post all of those results right here on my blog.

What I will share with you during the course of this series is what works for me. Feel free to tweak as necessary to make it work for you, particularly if you are reading from a different region and have access to different grocery and drug stores.

The purpose of this series is to break the process down, step by step, and to take it slowly so that it is not too overwhelming.  If you are catching on quickly, feel free to speed up the process. If you are having trouble, slow down and go back and re-read the previous week’s assignment.

Extreme couponing doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Any savings are better than none, so even if you only employ some of the techniques found here, you will still be saving your family money each week.

So without further ado, let's begin with week one's topic:  How to Start.

Starting anything new is hard.  We've all heard the saying, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."  And so it is with coupons.  Many people try to start saving with coupons.  However, after putting in a lot of effort and only saving a few dollars they simply give up and say it's not worth it.  And I have to say, that kind of coupon shopping--clipping a few coupons here and there for things already on your list--probably isn't worth the effort.

To save, really save, with coupons, you have to change your thinking.  That's step one.  Instead of making a list for the things you need or want each week, and then buying them regardless of whether they are on sale or you have a coupon, you need buy what's on sale, and as much as possible, buy ONLY what's on sale (and lots of it.)  Extreme couponing is a cumulative process, not an instant magic formula.  You have to commit and you have to have a little patience.

("But what will we eat?" you ask, and that is a valid question.  I'm not going to lie.  Figuring out what to eat, especially at the beginning, can be tricky, especially if you are used to shopping based on your weekly meal plan.  For now, you'll just have to trust me when I say that once you have a stockpile, figuring out what to eat gets much, much easier.  (And for weekly ideas on cooking from your stockpile, check out my stockpile meals series here.  But for simplicity's sake, let's not worry about that yet.)

Instead, let's worry about the beginning.  This week our focus will be on just getting set up.

To save money with coupons, you have to have....coupons. (duh!)  It is also pretty critical to have some way of organizing said coupons so that you can find them in order to use them.  Thus, this week's assignment is to start collecting coupons and to set up your coupon organizing system.

("But how will that save me any money this week?" you ask, and that is also a valid question.  The short answer is that it probably won't.  Remember, this is a cumulative process.  Be patient, you'll get there.)

week one assignment:

  1.  Establish your coupon sources.There are 2 main sources of coupons: newspaper inserts and printable coupons. (There are also a few secondary sources of coupons, such as free coupon booklets (often found at the front of grocery stores or in the mail), store flyers, “peelies,” (coupons stuck to the product you are buying), and coupons that come inside a product.)

    It used to be that most coupons came from the Sunday paper, but that is no longer the case. I estimate that at least 40-50% of the coupons I use each week are printable coupons. However, the Sunday paper is also an important source of coupons.

    This week you should find out which of your local paper’s has the best coupon inserts. The easiest way to do this, if there is more than one option in your area, is buy one of each and then compare. For example, in my area, there are 3 different papers for me to choose from. Of those 3, two get all the coupon inserts each week and one doesn’t. Thus, I only buy the two papers that include all the coupons.

    For printable coupons, the main sources are Coupons.com, Coupon Network, Red Plum, and Smart Source. Current coupons from all these sites can be found at www.printhotcoupons.com/save. There are also coupons available quite often on company websites and Facebook pages.

    You will sometimes only print coupons when you need them, but because coupons have become so popular in the past year, it has become increasingly necessary to print new coupons as soon as they come available, before the print limits are reached.

    On my sister website, PrintHotCoupons.com, I publish an easy-to-read daily list of links to the hottest new coupons, so all you need to do is read through the list and then click the links to print the ones you want.. Most printable coupons have a limit of 2 per computer, so it helps to have more than one computer.
  2. Start a subscription to the Sunday paper.(Or figure out where you will get your paper from each week.) It may seem weird at first, but to save a lot of money with coupons you will probably want to get multiple copies of the same paper. I never get less than 4 in a given week, and sometimes I even get 6 if there is a coupon I really like.

    Try asking friends, family, neighbors, or local businesses for their unused inserts. Some areas even have free local papers that include coupon inserts. BE SURE to subscribe to or buy the local paper that has the best coupons. Not all Sunday papers are equal!!
  3. Consider buying a cheap B&W laser printer.You will be printing a LOT of coupons. An inexpensive laser printer can literally save you hundreds of dollars over the course of a year.About a year ago I bought the Brother HL-2140 and I have been very happy with it thus far, especially since I buy my super long-lasting (6 months+) high-yield toner cartridges through Ebates for less than $18 each, which is half the cost of an HP ink-jet cartridge that lasted only a few weeks.
  4. Get organized. Your system need not be elaborate; on the contrary, the simpler it is, the easier it will be to maintain. (And trust me, it will need regular maintenance!) Ultimately you need to figure out what works for you when it comes to organizing your coupons, but there are a two main options, each with its own pros and cons:

The Filing Method:

The filing system is probably the easiest to set and requires the least amount of time and effort to maintain.  However, it will take you longer to plan your shopping trips each week, and you will always have to plan your trip before going to the store.

The  filing system is two-fold.  For my weekly newspaper inserts, I use a portable file box with hanging folders.  Each folder is labeled with the date, and then each Sunday I just plop the whole stack of inserts in the folder.  It's easy-peasy and requires no clipping.  (I also have a folder labeled "to sort," which is handy for keeping track of coupons I've printed or clipped but then not used but haven't yet had time to put away.)
The second part of my system is for loose coupons, which come from a variety of sources.  For my loose coupons, I have used my trusty Couponizer binder, which I just love.  I can sort by category, and it is small enough to fit in my purse so that I can bring it with me to the store.  However, a small accordion file would probably work just as well.
To see the filing system in action, you can watch my Quick & Easy Coupon Organization video here

The Binder Method

The binder method takes a little more time to set up and maintain each week, but planning and gathering your coupons for a shopping trip is much faster.  Coupons are organized by category instead of date and it is portable, which means you can take all your coupons with you each time you go to the store.

I use the Qubie Coupon Organization System, which includes the QubiePro Binder for all your grocery coupons, as well as two smaller binders for specialty store coupons and store cards & gift cards.  It arrives ready-to-fill, with plenty of clear 9-pocket "baseball card" sheets and pre-divided into sections.  You can also make one yourself using a 2" or 3" heavy duty binder, 3-ring binder dividers, and baseball card pages.

This week your task is to set up your own system.  Buy or re-purpose a file box, label your folders for the next 8 weeks, and then buy the Couponizer or small accordion file for your loose coupons.  (Label categories if using accordion file.) I have used both systems extensively, and I honestly can't say I prefer one over the other.  I love the simplicity of the filing system, and the fact that it is so low-maintenance, but I also like being able to see all my coupons and to take them with me on a shopping trip.  Ultimately, it is really a matter of personal preference.

Part One Wrap Up
This week your BIG task is to set up your own coupon system. I have used both systems extensively, and now I actually use a combination of the two—filing my inserts and using the Qubie to hold my many, many, many printed coupons.

I honestly can’t say I prefer one over the other. I love the simplicity of the filing system, and the fact that it is so low-maintenance, but I also like being able to see all my coupons and to take them with me on a shopping trip. Ultimately, it is really a matter of personal preference.

For help completing this assignment I created a “Cheat Sheet” that includes quick links to all the items I’ve listed here. You can find the cheat sheet at:


So that’s it for this week. Just to recap: Figure out where to get your coupons, set up a newspaper subscription, figure out how to print coupons more cheaply, and get organized.

It might not seem like much, but this is the baby steps program, remember?

We’ll start saving very soon….


  1. Thanks for sharing!

    I've been reading posts on how others started couponing in the hope of getting ideas for myself. I recently purchased a zippered binder and am organizing it with my coupons. I've been trying to convince the hubby on buying a printer, but he insists that he can print the coupons over where he goes to school :-(

    Can't wait for next weeks' installment :-D


  2. This is a great post! My husband turned me onto coupons (and recycling and reading the newspaper, and...) before we got married and we do pretty well with them!

    Thanks so much for stopping by Sew Super Sweet earlier this week, I appreciate the visit and look forward to spending some more time on your site!

    Happy weekend!

  3. This is pretty much as far as I've gotten with my couponing, so I'm looking forward to reading what comes next!

  4. Thanks for following my blog! You have some fabulous tips over here :) I'm your newest follower

  5. I am your newest follower...stumbled across your blog at Top Mommy Blogs. Cannot wait to get started on Couponing...so glad I found your blog! Thanks!

  6. K Ruth, I'm taking baby steps and starting today. :/ I feel sick.

  7. Thank you for the tips. I have a question: How can one plan meals around what is on sale if one is concerned about health & the environment? I have a few simply rules that govern all of my purchases of food & toiletries at the grocery store:

    1) Food must be organic. Food grown with the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, other agrochemicals, and GMO crops, will not pass my lips nor that of my family's.

    2) Food must not contain refined carbohydrates as all of the nutritional value has been removed in the refining process. For example, no white flour, white rice, white pasta, white sugar. We only eat whole grain flours, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and use only unrefined sweeteners such as raw honey, blackstrap molasses, and unrefined sugar.

    3) NO artificial ingredients. That is, no artificial flavours, colours, preservatives, etc.

    4) NO pre-prepared foods. All meals must be prepared from scratch.

    5) NO excess packaging. We buy dry staples like brown rice and whole wheat flours and spices from bulk bins and won't buy anything in single-serving sizes or overly wrapped/packaged for environmental reasons.

    6) Food must be local and in season. With the exception of tropical and citrus fruits, we buy only local and seasonal organically-grown fruits and vegetables.

    7) Food must be humanely raised. We are vegetarians so we do no buy meat but we only bought cage-free eggs until we got our own chickens. We are also concerned about how the humans producing the food are treated. For example, we only buy fair trade coffee.

    For toiletries, we do not use things like toothpaste with artificial sweeteners or colours, or products that have been tested on animals or that contain unnecessary, unhealthy chemicals. We avoid artificial fragrances and carcinogenic ingredients. This limits the brands we can buy; there is no way I'd use, say, Crest toothpaste or Dove soap or Tide detergent, even if they were giving it out for free. None of that garbage enters our house.

    So, considering that I don't allow my family to eat artificial, processed junk, there is very little that I can think of that I can buy with coupons. How can you care about your family's health and the environment and still use coupons? I'd love to know if that is possible!

  8. I'm addicted to trying to get coupons to save money. Even if it's 10 cents off.

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