Learning How to Coupon at Grocery Stores
A Beginner's Guide to Learning How to Use Coupons to Save Big on Groceries
"Really, you want ME to learn how to coupon?" I said to my husband in fall of 2009.
While I had nothing against saving money, I didn't want to spend hours clipping coupons to buy a bunch of processed food we didn't need. Plus, I had no idea where to begin. Saving 40% to 50% on my grocery bill seemed unreachable, especially with purchasing some of the health food items we use on a semi-regular basis. Reluctantly, I took up my husband's suggestion to get together with my friend Kim, a local couponing guru and mom of 2 young children, for a personal how-to-coupon lesson.
You see, I was the mom who runs out to the store several times a week because I don't plan ahead and answer the question of 'what's for dinner?' an hour or two before it needs to go on the table. Who has time for coupons?
Turns out, I do. I'll show you an easy way to coupon that can fit into your busy life and save you money.
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sado27/4917385326/
Grocery Store Couponing Easy Enough for a Busy Mom
Don't worry. You won't turn into the crazy coupon lady, have a hoard big enough to last your family for a year or spend all your free time clipping coupons
That evening with Kim learning to use coupons and sales was the most profitable 3 hours I've ever spent. She walked me through couponing terms, types of coupons, how to match coupons with weekly grocery store and pharmacy ads, and ....my biggest concern.... how to put it all together in an easy way so that a busy mom could actually do it! In honor of Kim, I've made this site to give to others the tools to be able to save significantly on your grocery bill. As I got the hang of it, I've been able to save thousands of dollars on our annual grocery budget and feed my family even better than before. It's been totally worth it.
I'll walk you through some simple steps of a process to help you make the most of your grocery dollar. You'll be equipped with resources that take a lot of the legwork out of hunting down coupons, knowing when to use them and more to help you save money and keep your sanity too.
Yes, that's me in the newspaper ad telling my story of how I save money. I look pretty normal, huh?
photo credit: BunnyFabulous
So What Do You Think About Couponing?
Is Couponing (using coupons and sales together to save lots of money) a good idea?
Take Baby Steps!
You don't have to start doing every part of this process right away. That can be overwhelming when you're not used to doing it. Instead, start with one step at a time, get comfortable with doing that particular step, then add another one on.
Figure Out Your Grocery Spending - And WHY is this a good first step in couponing? 'Budget' is a four-letter-word to me, and what does it have to do with coupon
I can relate. Before couponing, I never had a grocery budget or had any idea what I spent on groceries each month. While compared prices on the shelf and tended to buy the cheaper item, I also made many impulse purchases and was sometimes surprised to see the results of my spending in the low level of our bank account.
How does figuring out what you spend on groceries every month -- A.K.A. having a *gasp* grocery budget -- help you save money?
- Knowing how much you spend gives you a starting point to work from
- It helps you track your spending and know how much you have to work with
- It provides accountability so you know when you get near your limit for the month
- It provides encouragement -- when you save money each month, you can see the results. If you're like me, I'm motivated by money. That may sound crass, but seeing how much I was under budget each month is an accomplishment I celebrate....and the reward is more money in the bank account to save, spend on other things, or give away.
- It helps you make future goals to save more
Grocery Spending Baby Step
For a set time period, say two weeks or a month, save your grocery receipts and add up how much you spent during that time. Doing this again for another similar time period will help you get an even better idea of how much you typically spend.
photo credit: BunnyFabulous
Coupon Tip: You can use TWO coupons for a Buy-One-Get-One-Free (BOGO) sale
Example: Cheerios cereal is BOGO this week at your favorite store. You have (2) $.75 off one box of Cheerios coupons.
The first box of Cheerios rings up at $3.50, then the second one rings up $3.50 minus $3.50 (free). You can use one $.75 off coupon on the first box of Cheerios, and the other $.75 off coupon on the second box of Cheerios. So, after coupons, you're paying a total of $2.00 for 2 boxes of Cheerios, which comes out to $1.00 apiece instead of $1.75 apiece.
Another Couponing Best Practice - Meal Planning - Remember, this is coming from the mom whose natural instinct is to decide that day what to have for dinner.
This is one of the first things my couponing guru friend Kim mentioned as an integral part of how she saves money using coupons. There are several aspects to this.
First, when you have meals laid out for a particular time period, you know what you need to put on your grocery list to make them. You can then find coupons to save money on those particular items. Having a set lists cuts down on impulse purchases. Secondly, after you are used to planning your meals ahead of time, you can plan them around what you already have on hand as well as what will be on sale that week at the grocery store.
You can meal plan for any time period that best suits your needs. Kim planned her meals out on a monthly basis since she has a pretty good idea of the sale cycles of her favorite grocery stores (more on this later), but I like to do 2 weeks at a time. Other moms I know plan one week at a time right after the grocery ad comes out for the week so they can most effectively create their weekly menu around items that are on sale that week.
The photo is a sample of my 2 week meal plan for dinners (we eat mostly leftovers for lunch and just rotate between a handful of favorites for breakfast). It's using a lot of ingredients I happen to have on hand and incorporates a number of sale items too -- like the really cheap chicken breast this week of which I bought several packages, as well as the inexpensive parmesan cheese for the risotto, caesar salad and the parmesan pork chops.
photo credit: BunnyFabulous
Menu Planning Resources - Need some ideas for menu plans? Here are some examples, suggestions and recipes and guides to get you started.
- Step-by-Step Menu Planning - Save Time in the Kitchen
Organized Home walks you through menu planning step-by-step if you need more guidance, inspiration and/or resources to get started menu planning.
- A Basic Guide to Menu Planning
Simple Mom shares her strategies for menu planning.
Meal Planning Baby Step
If you don't already plan your meals ahead, plan them out for several weeks. You can do it one week at a time, or a couple of weeks at a time. Whatever works best for you. Just practice making a weekly/bi-weekly menu, creating a shopping list based on your meals and other necessities only. You're just wanting to get into the habit of doing this so it becomes more second nature.
photo credit: BunnyFabulous
Pick One Grocery Store at First
When you're first learning how to use coupons & sales to save money, choose just one grocery store to focus on. Usually, it'll be the one you go to most often. Since different grocery chains' sales and coupon policies can work differently, it's easier to just learn how to save at one store and then try another one after you've mastered the first. Just keep it simple. :)
Finding Sale & Coupon Match Ups
This can sound intimidating, but it's actually very easy if you have a couponing blogger who does sale/coupon matchups for your grocery store of choice do all the heavy lifting for you.
First, you'll need to find a blog that does coupon matchups for the grocery store chain at which you want to get deals. To make it very, very easy for you, MoneySavingMom.com has a huge list of stores around the United States for which she does coupon matchups. Find the store you want to shop at from the list, then click on the store's logo. That will take you to a list of the best deals for that week.
Then, at the bottom of the best deals list, there's another link to the full list of deals for that week. Usually this will take you to another couponing blog that specializes in that store or that particular area of the US.
If you live in the Southeastern United States (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina or South Carolina), it's even easier to find coupon matchups. SouthernSavers.com covers most every store in the region. Just choose from the menu at the top of their page and if you don't see your store, hover over the 'Other' button, then choose your store from the menu that pops up.
For those in Ohio/midwest United States, my friend Kristy runs 4our2cents.com and has coupon matchups for area grocery stores as well as big box stores like Meijer and Target.
photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cdharrison/432334056/
Finding Coupon Matchup List Baby Step
Find a coupon matchup blog (see directions in the previous section) for the store at which you want to start saving money. Peruse the list and see if there are any that you would want to purchase and just get used to the layout of the matchups. Don't worry if you don't see anything you want or need. There may be something next week.
photo credit: BunnyFabulous
Stack manufacturer and store coupons
Most grocery stores will allow you to use one manufacturer coupon AND one store coupon per item. If the item is on sale, then you really save big!
Example: Kraft shredded cheese is on sale for $2. Your grocery store has a store-specific coupon for $.75 off Kraft cheese, and you find a $1 off Kraft cheese manufacturer coupon. You can use both on ONE package of cheese.
$2 package of cheese - $.75 off store coupon - $1 manufacturer coupon = $.25 for one package of cheese!
photo credit: BunnyFabulous
Where Do I Find Coupons? - The sale and coupon matchup lists I see tell you the coupons to use, but where do I find them??
These are the most common places to find coupons. Most of the sale matchups will tell you specifically where to look for them (refer to the coupon lingo list to decipher the abbreviations), but here's a more comprehensive guide.
- Newspaper inserts. -- These coupon fliers appear in most Sunday newspapers around the country. Examples of each, Smart Source, Procter & Gamble and RedPlum, are pictured in the photo right before this section. You may have to paw through your Sunday paper to find them, and you won't get all three every week. Most weeks there will be a Smart Source (SS) and a RedPlum (RP), and the Procter & Gamble (P&G) insert comes out once per month.
The contents of the insert vary from city to city AND newspaper to newspaper, so it is likely that there will be times where a coupon is matched with a sale, and that coupon won't appear in your insert.
- Printable Coupons -- Most grocery sale/coupon matchup lists will have a link directly to a printable coupon that goes with a sale. Quite convenient. Some of the main coupon sites are Redplum.com, Smartsource.com and Coupons.com. Each of these websites will ask you to install a coupon printer and/or allow it to continue. Coupon printers are generally acknowledged as being very safe to install. The links to printable coupons may also take you directly to the manufacturer or brand's website, facebook page, or to the coupon print page itself.
- facebook -- 'like' the pages of your favorite products; many companies use facebook pages to promote special offers and coupons. Most couponing blogs that you'd follow for coupon matchups will also let you know when new printable coupons become available on facebook and other websites.
- Magazines -- If you already subscribe to popular magazines like Real Simple, Woman's Day, Ebony or Redbook, odds are that you'll find a good coupon or two reading through them. The mother lode of coupon magazines is All You, which can usually be gotten fairly inexpensively via subscription. It usually has between $50 to $70 worth of coupons.
- Blinkies -- These are the mini coupon-dispensers in grocery stores. Get them while you're looking through the aisles if you think you'll use them.
- Catalinas -- These are coupons that print out on your receipt or at the register. Not all grocery stores do them; check with your favorite.
Find Loads of Coupons in All You Magazine - If you're going to subscribe to one 'womens' magazine (like Redbook, Women's Day, Ladies Home Journal, etc.) go for
All You is chock full of coupons; typically between $50 to $70 worth of them per issue. Their coupons tend to be high-value too. I've gotten the best EggBeaters coupon from here, the highest value Easter candy coupon I'd seen this year and more. The magazine is a positive, helpful resource for learning how to save money, cook delicious, healthy meals and lose weight as well. They get lots of input from their readers and really listen to what real women have to say.
You'll also find cute decorating ideas, organization help and thoughtful human interest stories. Oh, and fashion too. They find jeans, dresses and other great outfits for women of every size and shape.
If an item you need isn't on sale, how do you find a coupon for it? Use a coupon database! You can search by brand names or type of food, i.e. 'Kraft' or 'cheese' or specific products like 'Pampers Wipes'. Most databases will tell you if the coupon is for a specific store, or if it's a manufacturer coupon.
- Southern Savers coupon database
This one is super-easy to use. The results come up as you're typing and you can immediately see where to find the coupon. No signup is required.
- A Full Cup -- coupon database and more
A Full Cup has an extensive coupon database that also includes expiration dates so you know how long you have to use an available coupon. This site requires a free membership which also gives you access to forums and more coupon resources.
Where to Store Your Coupons - My advice: Don't clip a coupon out of a flier until you need it!
Clipping all the coupons out of a newspaper or store flier and then trying to store them takes a lot of time. I've found it much faster to store fliers whole in a place where they're organized by date and/or type. Then all you have to do is grab the flier for the date you want and cut out the coupon you need.
Having a dedicated place to store your coupons makes it sooooo much easier to find them when you need them. A portable file box like this one is a great solution.
Use hanging file folders to organize Sunday coupon inserts, printable coupons, and coupons you get from magazines. I also have folders for my favorite grocery store's weekly sales fliers and coupon booklets so I don't have to search through piles of clutter. I can just find the folder I need and grab the coupon I want.
The Buy Ahead for 6 Weeks Principle
This principle is one of the key components of making coupons and sales work together for you. Purchasing enough of an item at a rock-bottom price to last you 6 weeks is much cheaper than purchasing them one-at-a-time at full price.
Most grocery stores run their sales in 6 week cycles. For example, if Cheerios is on sale this week, it will most likely go on sale again 6 weeks later. So, if an item you would like to purchase is on sale, now is the time to get coupons for it and buy enough to last you until the next sale.
Here's an illustration from my own shopping:
We like Silk soymilk and use a 1/2 gallon carton a bit less than once a week. So for us, a 6 week supply would be 5 cartons. If we just bought it as we used it at the regular price of around $3.50 per 1/2 gallon, here's what it would cost every 6 weeks:
$3.50 x 5 cartons of Silk Soymilk = $17.50 for a 6 week supply
When Silk goes on sale, it's usually priced at $2.50. Most times, there are coupons for $1 off a carton, $.75 off a carton or $.50 off a carton. If I buy all 6 weeks worth of Silk during the sale week and use one coupon per 1/2 gallon, here's what my savings could look like:
$2.50 x 5 cartons of Silk Soymilk = $12.50 for a 6 week supply
Then, if I have 5 coupons for $1 off a carton of Silk, I can take that $12.50 - $5 worth of coupons = $7.50 for a 6 week supply.
That's a savings of $10. I'm saving 57% if I buy a 6 week supply of Silk during a sale and using coupons.
Silk's expiration dates usually go out that far, so we'll definitely use it by then. I don't have to buy Silk again until it goes on sale and I can get it at a big discount. The reality is that this won't apply to every item on your grocery list. There are some items that never go on sale, and others like fruits and vegetables that go on sale mostly when they are in season, but there are lots of foods that you can use this principle to buy very inexpensively. Some you won't save as large a percentage on...like olive oil.. but there are also products that you can save an even higher percentage on, like 75% or even 100% if there are good coupons available during a sale.
photo credit: BunnyFabulous
Going to the Store
Go on your first couponing grocery run! Here's how to make it easier. My biggest piece of advice is to be friendly to cashiers and managers.
Personally, I recommend putting the coupons you're taking to the store with you in some type of order -- at least having coupons for like items together to make it easier for the cashier. Put all your coupons in an envelope or coupon organizer so that you have them in one spot and don't have to dig for them in your purse, pocket, etc.
Get in the line of the friendliest-looking cashier for your first coupon-using experience. After going to the store several times using a stack of coupons, you'll learn which cashiers at your supermarket take coupons in stride and which get grouchy with you or don't have a good grasp of the store's coupon policies.
Be friendly and pleasant with the cashiers and managers. I can't emphasize this enough. There's the old saying 'you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.' If a cashier has a question about a coupon, politely and kindly as them if they can have a manager address it. The vast, majority of the time, managers will be very helpful. You don't want the staff of your favorite store thinking 'oh no, here she comes again..that annoying lady with the coupons.' After couponing for awhile, you usually get to know the store managers, and at least in my case after they've started recognizing me, they've gone out of their way to be helpful and customer service has gotten even better.
photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alishav/4714766778/
Cute Coupon Organizer
Looking for something stylish, practical and durable in which to hold your coupons while grocery shopping? This sweet striped coupon holder can store your coupons for this week's grocery run and also has tabs to organize printable coupons or other coupons you keep on hand for items you purchase frequently.
Makes me want to trade in my plain-jane one.