A couple of days ago my friend Ruth posted an awesome couponing tutorial at her blog Living Well Spending Less that I think anyone interested in couponing should read. Ruth has really inspired me lately to get my butt in gear and start using coupons seriously again. She routinely saves 70-80% on groceries now. I'm not having the same wild success as her--my savings are more in the 30-50% range--but it's certainly nothing to complain about.
Saving serious money couponing takes a serious amount of work. I spend at least an hour a day with my coupon organizer/sale flyers/on the internet browsing for deals. But what else do I have to do, right?
The first time I tried to coupon, I made a lot of mistakes--or tried to organize my coupons in a way that just didn't work for me. But I've learned from my mistakes, and have come up with some new methods of organization that really work for me.
So go read Ruth's blog first, and then come back here where I'll continue the conversation, listing the top 10 things this confirmed Slacker Mom wishes I'd done differently the first time around.
1) Ruth is a whole-coupon-insert-in-the-binder kind of girl. But I am not. Or I can't be. Maybe her girls let her sit quietly, thumbing through pages and pages of coupons, but to my boys, it looks like a big pile of confetti waiting to happen. I tried the whole-coupon-insert in the binder thing for a while and aside from the whole boys-hellbent-on-destruction thing, it didn't work well for me because without the print-out matching the sale flyer to the store sale, I was lost. When I needed to buy a product, I had to go through every single coupon flyer to see if I had the correct coupon, which was a time consuming and tedious pain in the butt. I figured there had to be a better way (for me). Since moving to NY, I have come up with my handy dandy coupon filing system (read about it here) and it is working like a dream! Of course, I do cut out every single coupon (and this probably wouldn't work as well if I got 6 Sunday papers as Ruth does!). The downside is that this is a time consuming and tedious pain in the butt. But the upside is I can see at a glance exactly what I have--and when the coupon expires. There is nothing I like less than having a perfectly good coupon for a product I regularly use expire on me because it never happened to go on sale. Now, I can pull these about-to-expire coupons, take them to the store with me, and get an item I need more cheaply than the retail price. And every little bit helps, right?
2) I used to write a grocery list, and meal plan, and drive myself insane trying to come up with a menu matching that week's sales. Some people (Ruth) are domestic goddesses--and by domestic goddess I mean a culinary MacGuyver who can literally whip together a gorgeous magazine-photo-shoot, food-pyramid-approved gourmet dinner in the time it takes other people (me) to warm up a can of soup. I've given up. Now I go through the sale flyer, pull out coupons that correspond to sales, toss them in the back of my organizational basket, and when it's time to go to the store, I take my big wad of coupons and buy those products and only those products. I pick up the stuff we always get every week too (milk, bread, lunch meat, cheese, etc). and consider myself done. Then we eat whatever we have on hand...whatever that may be. The week soup was on sale, we ate a lot of soup. Last week hamburger was $1.99 a pound, so we ate a lot of hamburgers. Some weeks we're up to our eyeballs in cereal. Other weeks it's english muffins. You just never know what'll be available. But it keeps things exciting.
And if you're thinking to yourself that that doesn't sound like a very balanced diet, when my brother and sister-in-law showed up unexpectedly on a Sunday afternoon, I was still capable of whipping up a pretty decent lunch on the fly: hamburgers and hotdogs, macaroni and cheese, sliced strawberries and pretzels for dipping in melted chocolate sauce, and homemade applesauce.
3) When I first started couponing, I wish I had understood that when a product is buy one get one free, the free item is basically half off, and it's totally permissable to use two coupons for the two items. (This is where having 6 Sunday papers really comes in handy.) My local Price Chopper says on its website that it will not accept coupons on the "free" item--and I'm not sure if I have ever used two coupons for products yet in a BOGO sale--so this doesn't always work out.
However, some coupons say "Only one per item" or "may not be combined with any other offer". Don't let that discourage you. You can still save more. See #4.
4) I also wish I had paid more attention to, and used, the store coupons in the weekly sale flyer. Usually, they look like a pretty average deal--like the $3-off-5-Quaker-brand-items coupon in the Price Chopper flyer this week. Pre-Coupon-Savvy me would have ignored it thinking "I don't need five boxes of oatmeal, and furthermore, five boxes of oatmeal are going to cost $15. Even at $12, it's not much of a sale."
But the New-And-Improved Coupon-Using Brittany looks a little more closely. The coupon specifies BRAND not OATMEAL, and in case you aren't aware of all the products Quaker sells, there's a handy picture on the coupon (albeit, a very small picture). I can use this coupon to buy cooking oatmeal (cookies, yum!), instant oatmeal, Captain Crunch cereal, or Aunt Jemima syrup or pancake mix. This week, Captain Crunch cereal is buy one, get one at $3.99 a box (and I had a coupon for $1.50 off two boxes! SAVINGS!). Then Price Chopper also published a store coupon for $1 off Aunt Jemima syrup which is regularly $2.99 a bottle (MORE SAVINGS!). I figured why not, I'd poke around on Google and see if there were any Quaker oatmeal coupons out there, and for filling out some MadLibby-type thing on its website, I was able to print out 2 $1 off Quaker oatmeal coupons, on sale this week for $2 a box (WHEEEE! EVEN MORE SAVINGS!). With my manufacturer's coupons I got two boxes of cereal, two boxes of oatmeal, and some pancake syrup for $7.98 BEFORE the Price Chopper $3 off coupon. Now doesn't that piddly coupon sound a lot better to you?
5) I ignore the suggestion that I should shop all over town to save money (hence my more modest savings). It's a great idea if you can do it, but 1) I don't have that much free time because I categorically will not shop by myself with the boys and 2) I don't live in an area with a wide selection of stores. In my town, there are 4 grocery stores in the area: Walmart, Price Chopper, Hannford, and a small independently owned IGA. Before I started using coupons, I shopped pretty exclusively at Wal-mart, but they don't double coupons there, and rarely have the type of loss-leader sales I like to take advantage of, so I don't go there much anymore. The IGA doesn't advertise its sales (if it has them) so it's off my radar. Hannaford has sales, but I have yet to find more than two items in its sale flyer that I'd consider going to the store for. On the other hand, I LOVE Price Chopper. They have great loss leading sales, have a great sale flyer with great store coupons, have facebook only coupons that are AWESOME, and on Thursdays post extra online-only coupons on their website (where I found the Aunt Jemima coupon). Which brings me to...
6) Find a store you love, with a sale flyer that's easy to read, that has sales on the products you want and then shop there exclusively. This goes against all the best couponing advice, but for me, it's working out great because 1) I know the layout of the store like the back of my hand so I don't spend half my shopping trip on long, fruitless searches, 2) I know where to find hidden bargains (yogurt near it's expiration date had two additional store coupon stickers on the packaging), 3) it's also the only store locally that gives you cents-off credit for gasolene. If I'm going to spend a certain amount on groceries, in my opinion it's better to use it all towards that gas credit.
7) Use every single coupon offered to you. I used to ignore the little kiosk where you can scan your card and get good-for-that-day-only coupons, but lately I've been in a what-the-heck kind of mood. It's sort of like playing the lottery. Sometimes the coupons are duds, or for things I don't think I need. Investigate anyway. When I first printed out the coupons tonight, they didn't look all that great. But I read them more closely. $2 off a $10 health and beauty purchase--I was stocking up on toiletries tonight and was easily going to spend $10. Ka-ching! $1 off Price Chopper preserves. Preserves were all $3.99 (a dud of a coupon in my opinion) EXCEPT the apricot preserves, which were inexplicably on clearance for .99. Suddenly, they were free and my dud of a coupon became awesome!
(Incidentally, I spent $82.13 on my groceries this week, but saved $80.67. By almost exclusively buying loss leaders, I saved $30.02 using my store card, and then saved an additional $50.65 with my coupons, and have .20 cents off a max 20 gallons of gas at Sunoco. :-D)
8. Never ever buy anything online without checking to see if there's a coupon code somewhere. I like retailmenot.com, personally, but there are a gazillion sites out there. There's no use paying money you don't have to.
9. That advice about putting something in your shopping cart and then leaving it there really does work. A couple of days ago, I was shopping online and put an item in my shopping cart because I wasn't sure if it was what Tom and I were looking for. Yesterday, I get a coupon for 50% off 1 item, for 24 hours only. We realized in a hurry that at half the price, it was exactly right!
10. Have an email account that you use for all the offers you get from companies and sign up to receive all their "special offers". I have one account dedicated to nothing else but these sorts of emails, and while it's another gigantic, time-consuming pain in the butt to scan through 300 new messages every day--every so often I get an incredible, too-good-to-pass-up steal of a deal. I've made at least 4 free photo books from various websites, gotten a free photo mug, free museum tickets, free clothes, etc (usually minus shipping--but Hello! Can you say cheap Christmas presents?). Most are for very limited periods of time, and never during a time when you're thinking about gift giving (June and August were hopping this year) and I've stayed up into the wee hours to meet a deadline, but it is totally worth it when you're not stressing out about your finances come December.
If any of you out there have other tips to share, I'd love to hear them!