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Extreme Couponing for Food Shelf Purchases

Updated on April 13, 2015

How To Use Coupons for FREE & Cheap Food

With the state of the economy lately, there are even more people here in the US that are having trouble making ends meet. As a result, there are adults and kids that are going hungry every day. Local food shelves are having difficulty meeting this increased demand, and the problem is compounded by the fact that traditional outlets for bulk food cheap are limiting availability.

One way you can help your local community is through strategic use of coupons to buy bulk quantities of food at tremendous discounts. We have set-up a program in our local area to benefit the CAER food shelf. It has been a tremendous blessing!

In this lens I'll go through the steps necessary to set up a program in your area.

FREE Food

We have been able to get FREE frozen green giant Steamer's vegetables, Marzetti and Wish Bone brand dressings, bottles of shampoo, and much more!

It really does work....and the CAER Food Shelf in Elk River, MN is benefiting from our coupon program every week.

Background - How it Works

If you've ever gotten the Sunday newspaper, you know there are typically a couple of coupon packs in with the ads. They are typically printed by two companies: Red Plum and Smart Source. There can also be separate coupon insert from major manufacturers, like Proctor & Gamble. The coupons can be for anything from a new product, to daily staples like tuna, macaroni and cheese, cookies, etc. Most coupons are good for an amount off (e.g., 50 cents) on the purchase of a single quantity of the product. However, if you have 100 copies of the coupon, you can buy 100 of the same item, and use one coupon for each to save on all of them. Local grocery stores will often put coupon items on sale as well at the same time, which is where the power of this approach can really save a lot of money when combined with the coupons. For example, let's say a can of tuna is normally $2.00. The local grocery store has it on sale for $1.50, and you have a coupon for 50 cents off a can. By purchasing the tuna during the sale, you can get each can for $1.00, or 50% off!

Before You Start - Confirm Program Viability

Before you launch your program, you will want to coordinate with your local food shelf to make sure they are on board with the plan. Most will welcome the help, and may even have something similar started or at least researched. You are also likely to find volunteers that work there who might be willing to help you with your new project. Make sure you know what items are in need and which are less desirable. For example, canned and boxed foods are typically best, while frozen food or perishable produce may actually be unwelcome if the food shelf does not have the means to store it.

The second step before starting this program is to call all your local stores and confirm they will support you. For example, you don't want to come to the store with 100 coupons for a product, only to find out that they have a company policy that forbids purchasing bulk quantities. Inquire as to whether they accept online printed coupons too, as many stores do not. Make sure that you tell them you are purchasing for the local food shelf, and usually they are more than willing to help. The local stores in our community have been very cooperative, and have even offered to order extra quantities of items if we call them in advance to let them know we are coming in. If possible, set up an appointment to go see the store manager in person. Make sure you ask about different times of the day and week when you should do the actual shopping. The store is much more likely to be cooperative during the slow times, typically Tuesday and Wednesdays. Finally, inquire about whether they do any "double coupon days" or other special programs, such as VIP cards whereby you can get extra discounts or promotional points based on how much you spend.

Books on Using Coupons to Save

Collecting Coupons

In order for your coupon program to be successful, you will need to collect multiple copies of the coupons you want to use. Again, if you want to buy bulk quantities with coupons, you'll need a lot of coupons. This is where you can get your friends and neighbors involved. Anyone who receives the local Sunday newspaper is a candidate to help. All you need to do is let them know what you need and why and you should find plenty of willing participants. In other words, just ask anyone that doesn't use their coupons to give them to you. It's a great way to get kids involved too (you may need to bribe them with some cookies for children :). They can help with the collection and cutting either at your own house, and/or those of your friends and neighbors. Note: make sure to explain that you need the whole coupon flyer intact, as it will make it far easier to find coupons you want to use later.

Two great places to put out a collection box for the coupon flyers are churches and retirement communities. Many churches are involved in their local food shelf operations anyway, and since many church services are on Sunday, the same day the newspaper gets delivered, it's a perfect time to collect them. Retirement communities are also a great place to request coupon flyers. Many residents of retirement gift and assisted living communities eat all their meals at the onsite cafeteria, meaning they have no need for their coupons.

Huge Cereal Savings!

Using Sunday Paper Coupons combined with a store sale, we were able to purchase 400 Boxes of Cereal for just $0.20 each.

That's right, 400 boxes of cereal like Cheerios for only $80!!

Finding Deals

This is the most critical and time consuming part of the program. In order to be cost effective, you'll want to look for products or promotions that are a good bargain (e.g. gift baskets on sale), so you can combine sale prices with coupons for maximum savings. Most local stores will also have an advertising circular in the Sunday paper, listing their deals for the week. Keep in mind there may be "deals" for items that you probably still will never use, because they are not good food shelf items. For example, getting a can of organic fruit or a lobster bisque for $3.00 instead of $5.00 is not a good deal, because you can get a can of Campbell's soup for $2.00 even without a coupon. Again, this is where talking to your local food shelf can help you identify the kinds of foods that they need. On the plus side, food shelves are not picky about brands, so if you get a great deal on toothpaste, they won't care if it's for Crest, Colgate, or a store brand. You may also need to visit more than one store, as they usually have different items on sale.

The good news is, there are websites (like Coupon Mom) that will actually help you figure out what is a good deal, and what coupons exist. These websites do a lot of this leg work for you, making the job of finding deals far easier (see the list below for some good ones). The websites will typically show you which items are on sale and also which circular holds the coupon you need for maximum savings. This is why keeping the coupon circulars together, and filing them by date, can save you a lot of time. For example, if an item is on sale this week, and there was a coupon on page 3 in the Red Plum flyer from two weeks ago, you can go to that stack in your files and easily find them all. Remember, you'll normally need one coupon for each box or can you buy.

Implementing the Program

Now that you've confirmed your program is viable and devised a way to collect, file and use the coupons, you'll need to figure out how to buy and pay for the products you want to buy. With our local program, we try to save a minimum of 50% off regular price to consider purchasing something, and preferably 60%. I would recommend you make a "test run" with only a few coupons and a few items to make sure you are comfortable with making the purchases.

As with any charity program, money/funding is always an issue. My only recommendation is to try and be creative when thinking of ideas and make sure to let your supporters know how much you are saving and how much good you are doing. Keep track of how much you have saved and how many items you were able to buy with their help. That should hopefully keep people involved and keep the coupons and money to run the program coming in.

Tips for a Successful Program

The key to a successful program is organization. Use a spreadsheet program like Excel to keep track of regular and sale prices for regularly needed products like tuna, soup, cereal, paper towels, etc. That way you will know when you see a deal just how good it is. Also, when you find a really good deal, buy as much as you can, because it may not be such a low price ever again. If you are buying shelf stable foods like nut tins, then they are almost guaranteed to be able to use the food in the coming months or even years before any of the products expire.

Share Your Ideas on Making A Successful Coupon Program

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    • profile image

      dessertlover 6 years ago

      What a great idea....I need to be better about using coupons in general. You can save so much money.

    • aliciamaggie54 profile image

      aliciamaggie54 6 years ago

      This is a good idea:)

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      great lens!

    • profile image

      DealTattle 7 years ago

      We are new and can be found at http://www.dealtattle.com or http://www.squidoo.com/DealTattle. We help people exchange thrifty ideas and swap coupons. Everyone can add, find, tweet and share money-saving offers and tips. A real deal community.

    • Darla Dixon profile image

      Darla Dixon 8 years ago

      This is so cool...great minds think alike I guess! I've had a page on this subject for some time too : couponsforcharity Using Coupons for Charity I love your page and I will link it on mine!

    • HealthfulMD profile image

      Kirsti A. Dyer 8 years ago from Northern California

      Great idea on using coupons to support charity. Thank you for submitting this lens to the Month of Thanks Challenge.