Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Staying Organized and Under Budget: A Beginner Tutorial to Couponing

Couponing. It's all the rage right now. We're all pinching pennies and trying to be more frugal. I am by no means an extreme couponer. My goal is to use coupons and sales to save 40-50 percent off retail. In my house, we don't buy that much junk food (which is super easy to get super cheap with coupons, but I digress). Instead, I use it on dairy, frozen vegetables, condiments, dry ingredients, and some meats.

You may have a different reason or goal for your couponing, but I wanted to leave you with some tips from my own experiences. I know there are others with much more experience than I have. This is just meant to be a general overview of the couponing process.

You can read more about how I organize my coupons for my shopping trip here. I will warn you that I LOVE spreadsheets, so beware.

Matching the coupon to the sale. The #1 key to saving money with coupons is matching a coupon with an item on sale. Otherwise, the coupon used on a regular, retail item will cost the same as a generic brand item. There are some great websites and blogs that do most of the work (matching coupons to sales) for you.

Here are some of my favorite. I've included one of each of the main types of couponing sites (Database, Blog, and Forum):

CouponMom.com: This is fabulous database of stores and coupons. She requires you to create a username and password, but it's all free. She has a useful, downloadable tutorial for how to get started. There are three, main ways (that I've found) to use her site: (1) Search the database of all coupons to find out what you might have. (2) The BIG one: electronic listing of store sale flyers with valid coupons. She has a feature that you can check off which items you want to add to your list and have it printed or e-mailed to you. (3) Provides links to internet coupons and Target store coupons to be printed off your personal computer.

SouthernSavers.com: This is more of a blog style and highlights sales in the southeastern US. She also has a coupon database for this region. She has some very helpful video clips to explain more about couponing, which is useful for any region. Plus, you can print out a list of the items that you want to purchase. Love her!

HotCouponWorld.com: This site is more of a forum style. Deals and stores are listed under discussion topics. It is helpful to visit this type of site a bit more frequently, as people post new deals daily. You can spend a LOT of time sifting through the discussions. I have to limit my time and just look for stores in my area.

Where to find coupons. Despite what the extreme couponers will tell you, this MUST be done legitimately.
  • Sunday newspaper. You can either pay for a home delivery subscription or pick up a paper each week. I waiting for a promotion to get a year's subscription of Sunday papers for $52. That's $1 per week. The newsstand price in our area is $2.25. Here's a forum discussion about the coupons included in each paper.
  • Online coupons. The coupon companies (and some manufacturers) will allow you to print manufacturer coupons from your computer. Smart Source and Red Plum both have online coupons. You  may also find some manufacturers offer a coupon for their product if you sign up for their newsletters (you can unsubscribe later).
  • Magazines. Check your magazines for ads with manufacturers coupons.
  • Contact your favorite brands. Often times, when you let your favorite companies know how much you love their products, they like to send you coupons. I have found that this is not 100% true, but about 75% of my correspondence has resulted in a coupon. In addition, if you have a complaint, please be honest, specific, and respectful. This will help the company find and resolve the problem for future products.
  • Catalina (Cat): This is the little coupon that sometimes get printed at checkout and the cashier hands you with your receipt. These can be pretty awesome (free stuff)! I found out from SouthernSavers today that the Catalina is not the actual coupon but the promotion for your next trip: "Buy X roll of brand Y toilet paper and get $2 off your next order." Many couponing websites have forums and discussions devoted solely to Catalina (cat) coupons.  
  • Blinkies. This is the little machine on the shelves that doles out coupons. They usually have a red blinking light on the side. Even if you don't immediately need the coupon, it's a good idea to get one for future sales. These are usually a manufacturer coupon and can be used at any store that accepts a manufacturer's coupon.
  • The Penguin! It took me ages to figure out what people were talking about, when they'd post "seeing THE penguin." I thought they all lost their minds. I do not know if they do this in all areas of the country, but there is a 4-5' cardboard Penguin display standing (usually) in the frozen section of the grocery store. They are loaded with coupons. One sidebar... Please leave some coupons for other people to enjoy the savings, too! If you don't think you're going to use all the coupons before they expire, please don't grab them all. Thanks!
  • Coupon swaps. There is some discussion about whether or not to swap coupons or "pay" someone for the labor of cutting the coupons (e-bay). The coupons state that they can not be transferred or have monetary value, so I'm going to leave that to you to decide how to handle.

Terms and Acronyms. Yes, the couponing world uses lots of acronyms. I grew up in a household of a giant computer company that is an acronym and even had an internship with them, so I'm used to the world of acronyms and overly-complex jargon. So it's been fun to have my domestic life riddled with acronyms. I have collected a few of the most common terms and acronyms found on the couponing websites. This is not a complete list but some of the most common.
  • Smart Source (SS). Coupon inserts found in newspapers. Couponers will refer to the company and the newspaper date. For exmple, "SS 9/25" refers to the Smart Source ads from the September 25th newspaper.
  • Red Plum (RP). Another coupon insert found in newspapers.
  • Proctor and Gamble (P&G). Coupon insert found in newspapers. They are typically included once a month, and the coupons are usually valid for one month.
  • Internet Coupon (IP). These are manufacturer coupons that you can print from your personal computer. You may have to download a small amount of software from that company, but the website will prompt you through each step.
  • Buy 1, Get 1 free (BOGO): Some stores in our area require that you buy 1 item at full price in order to get the free item. Other stores will charge you half-price for each item (and will allow you to buy just 1 item at half price). You will need to read your store's coupon policy to find out what coupons you can use on BOGO items.
  • Manufacturer coupon (Mfr Q): The manufacturer provides the coupons, and your store will be reimbursed for the value of the coupon. This is why it is important to make sure your coupon matches your item. Otherwise, your store will not be reimbursed. We want our stores to stay in business.
  • Store coupon (Store Q): Some stores will mail them, included them in the weekly flyer, or have a stack of them in the store. My local stores (in NC) don't always have them, so it's a super exciting day when I can get them!
  • Out of pocket cost (OOP): How much you actually had to spend at the store. The forum-style couponing sites offer a great place for people to share their shopping success stories, and you will see this OOP acronym.
  • Stack coupons: match a store coupon with a manufacturer coupon on the same item for extra savings. The easiest example is a Target coupon plus a manufacturer coupon.
  • e-coupons from store: These are typically manufacturer coupons that can NOT be doubled or stacked with a paper manufacturer coupon. You either download them to your card online or at a kiosk in the store.
  • Rewards cards: Be sure to find out if the store requires you to have a rewards card (almost always free) to take advantage of the promotional prices. 
  • Expiration date: Take care to keep your coupons up-to-date, as it will save you the heartache of getting to checkout and not being able to use the coupon. Been there. Done that. You can send your expired coupons to servicemen and women overseas, as they can use expired coupons toward their purchases. There are several great programs that offer this service.

Coupon Policies. I can not stress enough how important it is for us to follow each store's coupon policies. If more people are not following them (can constitute fraud), the stores will be forced to reduce or remove their coupon acceptance policies. With that said, it is good to know the policies, so you will be able to maximize your savings and time (because time has value, too).

How to store and track your coupons. Storing your coupons is highly personal. Everyone has a different way that they categorize their coupons. The best advice I can give you is to start SIMPLE. Don't buy a massive binder right away. I am a big proponent of getting a quick return on my investment. If I have to put big $$ toward my couponing, it will take me a while to recoup my costs. Here are some suggestions from some friends and some of my own:
  • Accordion file: I started with this. It works great, if you already know what's inside. Otherwise, it's no fun to stand in the aisle (with whiny kids) and sift through your coupons.
  • Don't clip until you need it: This is the moto of CouponMom.com. She files her coupons by type (SS or RP) and by date. In my experience, I've missed some great unadvertised deals because I didn't have all my coupons with me. Then again, it will prevent you from overbuying, if you only have the coupons you NEED. Again, this is very personal.
  • Binder with baseball card holders: While I do use this now, along with index dividers for each food section, I did not invest a lot of money. When I recycle my ink cartridges at my office supply store, I get $3 off coupons. I use these toward my baseball card holders and index dividers. Again, I wanted to save as much out-of-pocket.
  • Picture album: My mom and a few friends keep a small 4x6 picture album for their coupons. Find one on clearance at drug store, if you want to give this one a try.
As I mentioned earlier, my post today is not an extensive list of all the couponing terms and policies. It is my hope that you can feel a bit more confident about starting.

Disclaimer: I have not been compensated for any of my writing. They are all my own. I do want to say that I have family in the grocery business (or who have been in the grocery business), so it is very important to me that we all use our coupons with honesty and integrity. I want our grocery stores to be successful and provide good service to all their customers. If we want to be treated with respect, as couponers, then we should respect our stores and their employees. If you think something was charged in error, definitely ask for some assistance. However, please be kind.

If you are new couponing, what seems to be the most daunting part of starting? If you are a pro, what other tips can you offer someone just getting started?


  1. Thanks, Andrea! Well, considering that you have a 2 year old and a newborn, I think couponing can take a backseat for a bit. ;-)

  2. This is an awesome post Kristy! I fell off the couponing wagon because my paper subscription expired and I got behind. I really did save a lot when I did it though!