WRAL SmartShopper

WRAL SmartShopper

Back to basics week 4: Coupons = Cash!

Posted January 28, 2010 2:45 p.m. EST
Updated February 12, 2010 10:13 p.m. EST

For the next 4 weeks of the Back to Basics weekly series, we are going to be covering the techniques that will help you cut your grocery bill in half including couponing, grocery store reward programs, drug store reward programs and meal planning. It's a whole new way of thinking if you are not already a couponer, but it will save you more money than you can imagine on your grocery bills!

This week, I am going to share with you the joy of couponing. It has helped my family, and so many others, save thousands of dollars each year on groceries. We use couponing to keep our weekly budget for groceries and non-food essentials at $70, which equals $300 per month. That includes food, bath and beauty items, cleaning supplies, paper products and dog food. Using the combination of sales, coupons and store promotions, I bring home much more than $300 in product each month. Here we are at the end of January and I have spent $297.97 so far this month. Had I paid full retail price for the items I bought, they would have cost $1356.06. That’s a savings of 78%! Much of that savings is because I couple the great sales with coupons. Often those coupons are doubled yielding savings of 75% or more regularly. I offset the cost of the items that don’t offer coupon savings (like produce and meat) by saving on other items like pasta, rice, frozen veggies, paper products and more. I will also admit that this month, there were some great freebies including Steamfresh veggies, brown rice, dental floss, Crest toothpaste, and tons of items at the Harris Teeter Super Doubles promotion. I did some serious stocking this month because there were so many good deals. The great news is that I have plenty of products to use in February and I also have lots of items I can donate this month. There were very few great buys at the store this week but that’s fine, because I am well stocked from the last 3 weeks of great deals. This week I only needed to buy produce, milk and a couple other items to complete my meal plan for the week. The reason I am so well stocked is because of couponing. Let’s spend some time covering the most important aspects of couponing so you can start saving some big money at the register.

First you start with understanding the types of coupons and how they work.

Three types of coupons:

Manufacturer Coupons – issued by the manufacturer

Store Coupons – issued by the store

Register Coupons (also called Catalina coupons) – print out at the register

In many stores, like Lowe’s Foods and Walgreen’s, you can couple manufacturer’s coupons and store coupons for the same products saving tons of money! This week (through 1/30) you can get free Sure Deodorant for Men at Walgreen’s using the store coupon in the flyer and the manufacturer coupon that was in the paper. Last week at Lowe’s Foods you could get free Crest by combining the store coupon in their 3-week coupon flyer with the .75 manufacturer’s coupon.

Register coupons (called Catalinas) are both manufacturer’s coupons and store coupons. They cannot be combined with other coupons. Lowe’s Foods and Harris Teeter will accept Catalinas from other stores if it is a coupon for an amount off your total purchase. For example, they will take a Food Lion Catalina for $4 off a $40 purchase. They will not accept a Catalina for a specific product, such as .50 off Steamfresh Veggies.

Coupon policies in local grocery stores:

The next step is to figure out the coupon policies for your local stores. We are so lucky because in the Triangle, we have 3 stores that double coupons every day of the week. They include Harris Teeter, Lowe’s Foods and Kroger. Click on the link in the box above to see the policies for each store. I find excellent deals at all three stores, but tend to do more shopping at Harris Teeter and Lowe’s Foods because they double higher value coupons and Kroger is not as convenient for me to get to each week.

Finding good coupons:

Once you know how the stores will take your coupons, you need to find good ones for the items you use. You don’t need a bunch of diaper coupons or baby food coupons if your kids are in middle school, right?. Your goal is to stock up on the best buys for items you use. Finding multiples of coupons for those items is the way to build a great stockpile for little cost. Here are some of the ways I find coupons for our favorite products:

Sunday Newspaper Supplement – I buy one newspaper a week so I have a good selection of a bunch of difference coupons

Coupon Clipping Websites – When I want multiples of a coupon and didn’t get them through trading with friends during the week, I use coupon clipping sites that charge a fee to find and send them to you. The fee is usually around 5 to 10 cents per coupon. If a .75 coupon is doubled to $1.50 at HT or Lowe’s and I paid .10 to have it sent to me, that’s still a $1.40 return on my 10-cent investment. Can’t say the stock market has offered that type of return lately! I usually use www.thecouponclippers.com or www.ebay.com. If you buy from ebay, only do Buy It Now auctions for specific products. Don’t buy a “lot” of 100 assorted coupons. You don’t know what you are getting or how much each coupon is worth.

Friends, Neighbors, Co-workers, Family – Trade coupons with everyone you know. Set up a coupon basket at work in the breakroom or at church. Leave those coupons you don’t want and take those you do. Assign someone to go through the basket each month a remove expired coupons (and send them to our overseas military – click HERE for more info).

Manufacturer’s Toll Free Phone Numbers – If it seems like you can never find a coupon for a favorite product, try calling or e-mailing the company. Many will send coupons just because you asked. This is an especially good technique for high cost organic items and gluten free products.

Product Packages – I have found tons of coupons on the inside and outside of packages. Don’t throw them away until you have taken a good look in the package for any hidden coupons.

Manufacturer’s Websites – Many manufacturer’s offer coupons every day including Pillsbury.com and bettycrocker.com. I post printable coupon links from manufacturer’s every Friday in the Friday Freebies blog post.

Printable Coupon Websites – There are tons of great printable coupons on sites including smartsource.com, coupons.com, eatbetteramerica.com, redplum.com and more. Click HERE for lots of printable coupon sites.

Register Coupons and Blinkies – Don’t overlook those coupons in the aisles in the red boxes (called blinkies because they used to be in boxes that had a red blinking light). Some are pretty good coupons. The register coupons can be high value as well.

Magazines – There are some good coupons in the All You Magazine offered at Walmart stores. I have a subscription because my niece was selling them as a fundraiser and I couldn’t say no to her! I recommend buying the magazine at the store after you look through it each month to see if it has enough coupons to justify the price. I don’t use every coupon each month and some months there are very few I use. There are often coupons in other magazines as well including Good Housekeeping and Better Homes and Gardens.

In Store Coupon Containers – Don’t forget to look at product displays in the stores. Some of the best rebate forms are found in big displays (especially during Superbowl and Final Four months).

Coupon Swaps - If you are looking for a coupon swap in the Triangle, head to savvydollar.org and click on Coupon Swaps. There are swaps taking place almost every week somewhere in the Traingle. They are a great way to get multiples of coupons and meet other awesome couponers in the area. They usually meet at local fast food places.

Coupon Organization:

The last step in couponing is to get organized. As you may have already discovered, if you don’t have a good coupon organization system, it’s hard to find your coupons when you need them. When you do finally find them, the day after you went shopping, they are too often expired.

There are many ways to organize coupons including:


Small purse size coupon holders


Binder method

I have been couponing for over 10 years. When I first started, I used a purse size coupon holder with about 8 slots. I was so frustrated because I didn’t have enough room and could not find the coupons when I really needed them. I read about some couponers who used the binder method in 1999 and when I first started using this method, I was amazed at how easy it was to find my coupons. I simply use a three ring binder (I prefer a zipper binder), tabbed dividers labeled by product type and baseball card pages to hold the coupons. You can actually see all your coupons and find them when you need them. The binder is a great place to keep store ads, calculator and your grocery list, as well. Coupons are filed alphabetically in each section starting with Baking, Beverage, Bread and so on. If you want to make your own binder, the full list of binder tabs that I use can be found HERE. Scroll down to the article on Organizing Coupons. Since 2005, I have been selling coupon organizer insert sets including 25 tabbed pre-printed dividers and 25 coupon insert pages. To see more about my organizer insert sets, click HERE.

If you accept the binder mission, make sure you file new coupons each week and take out the expired coupons each month. You can actually send your expired coupons to our US military overseas and they can use them at the on-base commissaries for up to 6 months after the coupons have expired. Click HERE for more info.

Now that you know the basics of couponing, here are some answers to questions that people often ask me.

Is couponing for everyone?: At least to some degree, yes! Even if you only use organic, locally grown produce and homemade shampoo, I am guessing that you don’t make your own toilet paper. For those who don’t find coupons for food products they use, there are still great coupons out there for paper products (including recycled ones), bath and beauty products and non-toxic cleaning items, like vinegar. Call the companies whose products you do use and request a coupon. Can’t hurt to ask and you may be surprised at the coupons you receive.

How much time does it take?: Of course, the more time you put into the techniques, the more you will save. There is a very direct correlation. The good news is that you don’t have to spend 20 hours a week cutting coupons, picking apart grocery store sales flyers and hoping you can decipher the coupon code. If you watch a one hour TV show a week, that’s usually enough time to cut, clip and file your weekly coupons. If you are already watching the show, it’s not like you even have to find extra time to coupon. You are already spending that time being relatively non-productive. Couponing just makes whatever you are watching a money-saving TV show! Then you will spend another 20-30 minutes per week looking at the sales ads or the weekly deal lists I post (or both), making your meal plan, and writing your list for the store. The good news is that the time you spend preparing to go to the grocery store will save you time (and tons of money). I spend less time in the store because I know what I am getting before I get into the store. That’s a good thing when you have 2 kids in tow.

Aren’t Harris Teeter and Lowe’s Foods the most expensive stores?: Actually, no one store has all the best deals. HT and Lowe’s Foods offer awesome sales and combined with their coupon doubling policy, they have the best prices on many items each week. Like any other store, some weeks certain products are not as good a buy and other weeks some prices can’t be beat.

So, you now have enough information to start couponing THIS WEEK! Take a look at the good deal lists I post here on Sundays (drug store deals) and Wednesdays (grocery store deals) and use that as your guide. I don’t post all the sales in every flyer. I post the better ones for Harris Teeter, Lowe’s Foods, Kroger and Food Lion. I am also going to start adding a produce list for Walmart because they do have some competitive prices on fruits and veggies. Don’t get overwhelmed. Give yourself a few weeks to get the hang of couponing and get your coupon inventory up and running. Next week we will be covering the grocery store reward programs that will help you save even more every week! Remember, it’s your money – spend it wisely!