Couponing 101: Step #1, Get Some Coupons
When you start couponing, the first thing to do is get some coupons. There are three main categories of coupons.
Category #1: Sunday Paper Inserts: These coupons come from the Sunday morning paper and may include inserts from SmartSource (SS), Redplum (RP), Proctor and Gamble (P&G), and General Mills (UN). You can either subscribe to the Sunday Paper or pick it up on a newsstand.
Category #2: Coupons by Store: These coupons can only be used at the store designated on the coupon (ie. Target). These need to be kept separate from your other coupons but when ready to use, can be combined with manufacturer coupons for twice the savings!
Category #3: All Other Coupons: These coupons may include but are not limited to Internet Prints (Printables), tear-outs from magazines, “peelies” peeled off purchased products, coupon books, coupons direct from manufacturers, and mailers.
Couponing 101: Step #2, Organizing Your Coupons
Once you have collected some coupons, you need to find a way to organize and store them. This is a personal process and there is no one “right” answer. You have to find an organization system that works for you.
System #1: File By Insert Method.
With this method, you will collect your insert (or inserts) each week. Label them with the recent date. And then put the insert in a file folder with the corresponding date on the top. Repeat this process again following weeks – assigning each set of inserts a new file folder. I have a hanging file folder that I keep all my inserts in, but you can easily put them in a file cabinet or just in a pile on a shelf.
Pros of this method:1. No cutting till you need the coupon. Because my grocery matchups include the date and insert in the description (5/23 SS – which would be the SmartSource insert from May 23), you can clip as you need them. 2. This organization system takes little time. File and you are done. 3. Keeps your budget in-line because you won’t be tempted to buy something just because you have a coupon.
Cons of this method:1. Missing out on great savings of unadvertised sales or clearance (especially at Target) because all your coupons are at home. 2. Having to store coupons at home. 3. Missing out on limited time printables because you only clip what you need.
System #2: Clip All Method.
With this method you will cut all the coupons from the Sunday inserts, and store them in either an accordion folder, recipe/shoe box, or coupon binder. Each storage unit will have categories for the clipped coupons. Coupon binders are probably the most elaborate of these storage units. The are three-ring binders with clear baseball card holders that house all your coupons for easy access and viewing.
Pros of this method: 1. Never missing out on unadvertised sale or clearance because all you coupons are with you. 2. If you are visual, it is easier to remember what coupons you have on hand vs. digging through to find a specific coupon. 3. Little temptation. If you are trying to keep certain food out of your house, it is easier when you don’t have a coupon for the item on hand.
Cons of this method: 1. Time. It takes time to cut, sort, and organize your coupons. 2. If you only clip the coupons you think you will use, you may miss out on advertised deal for a new item. 3. You may spend more than your budget because you are finding great unadvertised deals that you can’t let go by.
System #3: Hybrid of Both Systems.
This is my current method. I still file all my inserts by date, but I also have a small coupon binder that is filled with one-off coupons, printables, and coupons for items that our family uses on a regular basis. So it is trying to manage the best of both worlds.
Pros of this method: 1. In some ways, you do get the best of both worlds. It takes less time that the Clip All Method, but you find great unadvertised deals for products you frequently buy.
Cons of this method: 2. In some ways, it is the worst of both worlds. It takes more time than the File By Insert Method, and you still miss out on unadvertised deals because most of your coupons are at home.
In the end – you need to find a system that works for you. I always advise to start out with the File By Insert Method and see if you even like couponing before you invest the time or money in the other systems. As you get your footing with couponing, you’ll start to find out what works for you and make appropriate changes.
Couponing 101: Step #3, How To Create A Price Book
A price book is one of the most overlooked steps in cutting your grocery cost, but is the one that will save you most the money.
Yep, not cutting coupons. But actively updating and using your price book to become an educated shopper.
A Price Book records the prices of your most commonly purchased items. (I recommend the top 25 items you purchase as a good starting place.) This way you can easily recognize a deal when you see one. Your Price Book should have five columns – Item Name, Full Price, Price By Unit, Store, and Date.
Tide Detergent (32 load), $4.00, $.125 per load, Hy-Vee, 3/15
To start, on your next shopping trip, record the price of your 25 most purchased items. This price becomes your benchmark. Brand names should only be noted for items you will not or cannot substitute (i.e. Tide HE Laundry Detergent vs. Laundry Detergent – Any Brand.)
A benchmark is important for two reasons:
- You know to NOT buy an item unless it is that price or less.
- You’ll notice that sales are cyclical, so buy tracking the price you buy items, you know when to buy and when to wait.
As you start couponing and strategic shopping, note in your price book when you purchase an item for a lower than benchmarked price. This new price becomes your new benchmark and you know not to purchase the item (unless last resort) unless it reaches the new price or lower.
Keep updating your benchmark as you continue to stock your stockpile and pretty soon you’ll have established the lowest absolute price. When an item hits this price – you know to buy as many as your budget allows.
A Price Book can be hand written or electronic but needs to be something you can easily access through your phone or carry in your purse when shopping. By recording the unit price of your 25 most purchased items you can make sure you’re comparing apples to apples when in pursuit of the best deal.
My first Price Book was written on a cute piece of paper that I kept in my mini expandable coupon organizer. As my preferences change for how I organize coupons so does the look and feel of my Price Book. Currently, my Price Book is a 3×4 notebook I keep in my purse.
The reason a price book will save you more money than coupons is because the biggest decrease in price comes when an item is on sale. If you are able to track the sales (and create benchmarks), you’ll know that Tide is the best deal when it is $2.50 per bottle, not $4.00 per bottle
Couponing 101: Step #4, Learn To Stockpile
When you know the price ranges for your common items, you will be able to spot when they hit their lowest price. When they hit their lowest point, you should stock up and buy at least four to six weeks’ worth of that item. By taking this approach, you’ll be stocking up (at their lowest price) on a few items every week. By the time you have gone through your supply of any particular item, you’ll likely find that it is at its lowest price again.
“The key to really saving money is to buy items when they are at their lowest price, not necessarily when you run out of the item. By taking this “stocking up” approach, you will be saving an average of 50-70% off of these items.” (source: Stephanie Nelson’s “Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half”)
Some organizational tips for organizing your stockpile area:
1. Find a place for dry items. You will need to find an area in your house for your stockpile. Is your kitchen small but you never use the hall closet? Make it into a pantry. Can your washer and dryer be moved to the basement so that you can turn that room/closet into a pantry? Are there other rooms in the house that can be used to store non-food items like toilet paper and body wash? Be creative.
2. Find a place for frozen items. In addition to dry goods, you should also be stocking up on items that can be kept frozen till use (including cheese, bread, chips, meat, frozen meals, frozen veggies, etc.). Even if you don’t own a deep freeze, you can still stockpile frozen goods. Dedicate a space in your refrigerator’s freezer that is for stockpiling.
3. Clean up. Remove expired items from your pantry. And while you are at it, donate items in your kitchen that you never use. Clear things out and make room for your new stockpile and items you do use.
4. Be mindful of expiration dates. When you are shopping try to pick the item with the longest expiration date. When your items are at home, always put the items with the shortest expiration date to the front. Every month, go through your stockpile and pull out items that will expire before you have a chance to use them and donate them to a local food pantry. You know the items will be used and it feels good to share your wealth.
5. Place like items together. This way you’ll know when to buy again. If half your body wash is stored in an upstairs bathroom and half is stored in the hall closet – you’ll never know how many bottles you have or if you should restock. Also, put detergents and cleaners on a different shelf than food items.
6. Be mindful of items that don’t move. I was super excited to get Pop-Tarts for $.25 a box last summer. Until I realized that in January, we had just as many boxes of Pop-Tarts as we did in August. So they all got donated and I made a mental note that no one in my family likes Pop-Tarts. However, I bought two bags of True Nut Clusters and they were gone within a week. Next time Nut Clusters go on sale, I’m stocking up because I know my family will eat them.
Couponing 101: Step #5, Making a Shopping List
Here’s the process I’ve found works best for me and my family in creating my shopping list(s) each week…
Make a List and Check it Twice:
First, print off the grocery coupon match-ups to make an initial shopping list for each store you plan to shop at that week. Second, scan the grocery ads for additional items your family will need and add these to your lists. Third, add any items from you meal plan that you may need that week. Fourth, add up your list to give you a “rough” amount of how much you will spend at each store. Put your lists aside for a few hours or overnight. Finally, re-evaluate the items you have on your lists to make sure you really need them or if you buy them you will stay within your budget (both money and time) for the week.
Clip Your Coupons:
Once you’re satisfied with your lists, find and clip your coupons. There are a lot of great ideas for how to match your coupons to your list in preparation for your shopping trip. One is to simply paperclip the coupons to the back of the list (just be careful not to lose them). Another is to store your coupons in a zipper pencil pouch or envelope with the list on the outside. And yet another is to carry a notebook with not only the coupons you plan to use but all others just in case you find a great deal you weren’t expecting.
If possible, shop alone. It allows you to completely focus on your shopping trip and helps eliminate the “possibility of error” while you are trying to determine the best price for laundry detergent. However, for some of us we need to shop with our kiddos or spouse. If you are shopping as a party, then try to keep the trips small and try to be as organized as possible before you head into the store. And grant yourself your some grace – it can be hard to be a referee and a coupon ninja at the same time.
Last check before you leave the store:
Check your receipt before leaving the store and take the store ad with you. There have (unfortunately) been many times that my receipt did not match the deal I thought I was getting. Sometimes it’s been my fault, but more often than not the price in the computer did not reflect the store ad. Take 1-2 minutes to check over your receipt before leaving the store and go to customer service if you have questions or need a resolution.
Couponing 101: Step #6, Make a Meal Plan
Creating a meal plan and a shopping list go hand-in-hand. By working on both of these steps at the same time, you only need to check your stockpile once and you should have your meal plan for the week.
It all depends on the size of your family and how often you go out to eat, but for most families, plan for between 3 – 5 meals per week. Look to items in your dry goods pantry and your freezer to come up for meals that week. If you need additional items to create those meals, add them to on your shopping list. But remember, the goal is to use as many items in your stockpile as possible. So while it is okay to get a couple of ingredients per meal, you shouldn’t be buying six or seven.
If you need inspiration, try looking at these websites:
By creating a 7-Day meal plan, you don’t have to make multiple trips to the store or have a “5 o’clock what am I gonna make” moment. Plus, you’ll be able to focus on buying additional stockpile items for future weeks. Before long, you will be able to create 2-week or 4-week meal plans with your stockpile items.
FAQ: What is Coupon Fraud?
Coupon Fraud = GO TO JAIL. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200.
The definition of coupon fraud is using coupons illegally. Illegal use means you defraud the system and can be prosecuted.
The chances that you are actually prosecuted is slim. (Unless you were the folks at Simon Marketing who defrauded millions with McDonald’s Monopoly Game. True story – it had the FBI involved.)
However, when you use coupons illegally, you hurt your store because they will not get reimbursed for the coupon.
If this happens enough times, the store may decide to limit the dollar amount off for internet coupons or stop taking internet coupons all together. (We’ve seen both of these scenarios in Kansas City.)
Because I know how important coupons are to your life and how you wouldn’t want to go to jail (just kidding), I thought I would share some examples of coupon fraud.
Photocopying Internet Coupons
Each printable coupon has an individual code attached to it. If the reimbursement center finds two of the exact same codes, it will give credit (reimbursement) to the first coupon, but not the second. The store loses out. Don’t photocopy – print out your coupons from the computer.
Using Expired Coupons
Just because the coupon doesn’t “beep” doesn’t mean you should use it. Unless a store gives EXPLICIT direction that they accept expired coupons – don’t use them. Again, the store may not get reimbursed for expired coupons.
Using coupons you receive in an email from your buddy
If the coupon you receive is a .pdf, .jpeg, or .tiff file – 99% of the time it is a fake coupon. Also, if the offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. (Remember, the FREE bag of Doritos coupon?)
In rare cases, companies will produce a coupon in a .pdf, but that coupon will come from the manufacturer website, not from your buddy’s email.
Using multiple coupons for one item
The rule is one coupon value per one item. If you buy one item, you can use one $1/1 coupon. If you buy two items, you can use (2) $1/1 coupons or $1/2 coupon.
You can not use (2) $1/1 coupons for one item. It’s wrong. Don’t do it.
Could you get away with all of these scenarios plus more?
Stores want to give good customer service, so many times they will “push” coupons through if the register “beeps”. As coupon users, it is our job to hold ourselves to the highest ethical standard of coupon use. By doing the “right” thing, we allow coupon acceptance to continue. However, if too many people complete “shady” deals, the restrictions on internet coupon usage will continue to increase.
There are so many great deals available to us by using coupons ethically, that it isn’t worth the heartache to complete a “dirty” deal.
Why Rebate Checks Matter…
One of the questions Ali and I get asked is “Do you really send off for rebates? Does it even matter?”
The short answer is “YES, we do” and “YES, they really matter.”
This month I’ve received $69 in rebate checks – for Up, Olay Buy $50, Get $20, $15 Olay Buy Two Regenerist Products, $10 Kraft Keep the Jingle in Your Holidays, and $20 Nabisco Back to School. Most of the products I submitted rebates for were either FREE after rebate or I made money because I paired a good sale with coupons.
As coupon cutting – price-book loving – strategic shoppers, you know the power of a good sale. But many people we talk to say rebates just confuse them or they forget about submitting the rebate till it is too late. It is important to understand rebates, the process, and when to submit them – and if done correctly – can be just like icing on your already “coupon high” cake.
Here is a rebate organization process that works for me.
1. When you see a rebate that you will use – print it out. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to find the form on-line after the fact.
2. Have a place for your rebates near your coupon organization area so they will be top of mind.
3. When there is a killer sale for the rebate items see if you have any coupons to make it better. Also – read the fine print on the rebate form. Know if all of the purchases have to be on one register tape, do you have to cut out UPC labels, or how many items/which items you need to buy. (Believe me you don’t want to go to the store again to buy a box of Wheat Thins so you can submit the Nabisco rebate – been there, done it.)
4. When you get home from the store – fill out your rebate form and put it in the mail the same day. The chances aren’t good of finding the receipt 30 days later.
5. Create a list in a book or on a spreadsheet for your rebates. Mark when the rebate was mailed, the number or email address where you can check the status, and the dollar amount. When you get the rebate check – mark the date received in the book too.
Once you get in the habit of completing rebates, here are some ideas of how you can use the rebate money.
– add it to the existing grocery budget for additional stockpile purchases or spluge items,
– put the toward a long-term saving goal (in my case – that’s for a treadmill),
– or if it is a tough financial month – use it to supplement the smaller grocery budget.
So the long (and short) answer is “YES – rebate checks do matter.”
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