Coupons 101: Your Guide to Saving Money

An Introduction to Coupons

by Christina Brown of Northern Cheapskate

Using coupons is one of my all time favorite things to do to save money.  But if you’ve never used coupons, it’s easy to make excuses for not doing it.

I’m here to debunk some of the common myths surrounding coupon clipping and show you how you can save money with just a little effort.

First, the myths debunked:

Coupon clipping takes too much time.  When you’re organized and you have a good system, it only takes about 1/2 hour to an hour a week to clip coupons and plan your shopping trips. The time spent can easily save you 30 to 50 percent on your grocery bill.

I have to buy the Sunday paper to get coupons. There are many other sources for coupons – including printable coupons, coupon clipping services and directly from the manufacturer.

Saving money with coupons is difficult. The internet has made it a cinch to save money with coupons.  There are many great resources available to help you plan your shopping trips.

You can’t find coupons for anything healthy. Not true!  There are coupons for everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to organic meat and snack foods.  The secret is knowing where to look.

Coupons make you buy things you don’t need. It’s all about willpower.  No one made you eat that giant slice of pie at Thanksgiving, did they?  Just because you’re offered something doesn’t mean you have to use it.  The same thing goes with coupons.  Don’t buy things just because you have a coupon! The key to saving money with coupons is to use them to make smart choices with how you spend your money.

You can’t really save that much money with coupons. Every little bit adds up!  While I am an avid couponer, I’m not as serious as some (no stores double or triple coupons in my area and we don’t have a lot of stores to choose from). Yet over the past two years I have saved close to $4,000 by clipping coupons.  Coupons should be thought of like cash.  Would you leave a $1 bill lying on the ground?  So why not use a coupon for a product you were planning to buy anyway?

Finding Coupons to Use

Coupons aren’t just in the Sunday paper anymore.

The sheer volume of coupons that are available makes it easier than ever to save money.

Here are some of the most popular places you’ll be able to find coupons:

The Sunday newspaper. This is the easiest place to find coupons.  For just a couple of bucks, you can get hundreds of dollars worth of coupons.  If you want to know what coupons will be in the Sunday paper before you rush out to pick one up, check out the Sunday Coupon Preview each week.

Printable Coupons. Printables are my one of my favorite ways to clip coupons because they’re often higher value and come in more varieties than what you’ll see in the Sunday paper.  Check out Coupons.com, SmartSourceRedPlum and ValPak for the biggest collections of printables.

Magazines. Many popular women’s magazines such as Women’s Day, Ladie’s Home Journal, Oprah, Parents, Parenting, and All You (my personal favorite for coupons!) have valuable coupons in them each month.  I wouldn’t run out to buy these magazines just for the coupons (except for All You – they even have an index of available coupons in the beginning of each issue), but if you are already a subscriber to several magazines, keep an eye out for coupons as you flip the pages.

Stores and store websites.  Many supermarkets, department stores and drugstores offer their very own store coupons either in sales circulars, in home mailers, or on their websites.  These store coupons can usually be used in conjunction with manufacturer coupons for even more savings.  Some stores, such as Target, Walmart, and Kmart, are also starting to offer manufacturer coupons on their websites for your convenience. You may also find coupons right in the stores on displays or on tearpads. Store coupons are the most popular way you can save on produce and meats.

On or inside products. Pay attention to the packaging when you purchase and open up a product.  There are often coupons attached to the front of products that you can use at checkout (these are called “peelies”) or coupons printed on the inside of packages.   If you get any free samples of products, be sure to check those.  Manufacturers love to give coupons away with their freebies.

Facebook. Facebook is the hot new spot for coupons. Many companies offer coupons either by mail or e-mail when you become a fan of their product.  While you’re on Facebook, don’t forget to become a fan of Northern Cheapskate. Sometimes I share coupons there that I don’t always have time to blog about!

Cellphones.  Sign up for services like Cellfire to load coupons directly to your cell phone.  Some stores, such as Target also offer mobile coupons. Just be aware that texting fees may apply.

Direct from the source. If you’re looking for a coupon for a specific product, look no further than the company’s website.  You’ll most likely see links to special offers, coupons, or other promotions.  Sign-up for the company’s e-mail list and you’ll probably be rewarded with coupons in your inbox or your mailbox.  Consider calling the company and asking them for coupons.  Or tell them how much you love their product (be honest!) and chances are, you’ll get a coupon.  Sometimes it pays to be nice!

From Word-of-Mouth marketers. Join free organizations like Vocal Point, Kraft FirstTaste or SheSpeaks for a chance to try free products and in addition to the samples, you’ll also get coupons.  In return, all you need to do is give your honest opinions about their products.

Online Coupons. If you’re shopping online, visit sites like RetailMeNot, FreeShipping.org, or Ebates, to snag some savings.  You can also find household goods with coupon savings and free shipping available at Alice.com.

These are just some of the many places you’ll find coupons.

Make Your Coupons Work For You

Using a coupon to save money is a good thing. But using a coupon to its full potential is how you snag the really big savings.

Here are my top ideas for making your coupons work for you:

Stack those coupons. Most stores allow you to combine a manufacturer coupon with a store coupon for even more savings. Wait until a sale and save even more.

Timing is everything. Most products run on a sales cycle of 4-8 weeks. You want to make sure to time your purchases so you’re buying products at their lowest cost, and buy enough of them to get you to the next sale.

Pay attention to sizes. Read the fine print on your coupons to know exactly what products and sizes you need to buy. If a coupon says $1 off one item, find the smallest size, and purchase it with the coupon. You may end up getting the item for free or nearly free. Bring a calculator to help you figure out the unit prices of an item. Sometimes using a coupon on a bulk package results in a smaller price per item than using a coupon on a small package, so do the math.

Avoid brand loyalty. When you’re willing to bend on what brands you’re willing to try, you open yourself up the possibility of being able to score free or cheap groceries with coupons. And you may even find that you can beat the cost of store brand items with your name brand coupons.

Make the most of “Buy One Get One Free” coupons. Most stores will let you use a coupon to get a discount on the first item you are buying. Then use the “Buy One Get One Free” coupon to get the second one for free. You’ve instantly lowered the cost of the two items. Some stores will offer a store coupon for “Buy One Get One Free” and will allow you to match it with a manufacturer “Buy One Get One Free” coupon so that you get two free items! Check with the stores in your area to determine what their coupon policies are.

Trade your coupons. If you’re not going to use them, trade them for ones you will! Trade them with friends, family, or visit A Full Cup or Hot Coupon World and you’ll find many online coupon trading groups.

Use your coupons to stockpile. When you see a great sale on something, fill your pantry. Many items go on a 4-8 week sale rotation. If you buy enough during a great sale, you’ll have enough to make it to the next great sale and will never pay full price. I’ve noticed the coupons usually follow the same cycles.

Use the internet to plan your shopping trips. The internet is your best friend when trying to save money with coupons. There are many fabulous websites and blogs that do all the work of matching the coupons to the store sales to help you save the most money.

Organizing Your Coupons

One of the biggest challenges of being an avid coupon clipper is keeping your coupons organized.

There are many ways to organize your coupons, but I thought I would share the system that works best for me.

I currently use a system that is based on The Coupon Mom‘s coupon organization system.  The Coupon Mom doesn’t clip coupons every week – instead she writes the dates on the front of each coupon insert she gets from the newspaper and files them by month in file folders.  When she plans a shopping trip, she uses her coupon database to find what coupons she needs, and then only clips those coupons from her collection.   Of course, I use the coupon database at Northern Cheapskate to plan my trips!

This method for coupon organization is a huge time saver.  But as someone who lives about 30 miles from everywhere, I found that I needed to make a personal adjustment to the system.

Before I file away the inserts each week, I clip the coupons that I am almost certain to use – for example, diaper or training pants coupons, cereal coupons, and other staples for our pantry and toiletries.  I keep an eye out for unique coupons such as “buy one get one free” or high value coupons.

I then keep these coupons in a coupon organizer that I always bring with me when I go to town.  The coupon organizer has separate pockets that I’ve designated for different categories (i.e. baby items, baking, breads & cereals, beverages, cleaning and laundry, paper &  plastic items, meats & vegetables, toiletries, and snacks).

The reason I do clip some coupons is that sometimes I run across an incredible deal while I am shopping for other things, and I want to make sure that I can maximize those savings with my coupons.  If my coupons are sitting in a file folder at home, there’s not much I can do about it when I’m 30 miles from home.  By the time I go home, clip those coupons and get back to town, I will have not only wasted an incredible amount of time and gas money, but chances are the deal won’t be there anymore.

I don’t clip all of the coupons because I find it is usually a waste of time.  I really only use about 1/3 of the coupons from the Sunday inserts.  I also found that it was harder to keep them organized when there were so many of them.

I know others who organize their coupons in recipe boxes or binders, and others who alphabetize their coupons by product.  I did try using a binder system, but ultimately found it to be clunky and hard to keep up.

My current system seems to work best for me.  I save time by not clipping every single coupon, yet I’m armed with coupons when I stumble across a clearance sale at my favorite discount store.

Recognize that it takes some trial and error to find a coupon organization system that works for you.  But once you figure out what works, you’ll be on the road to some great savings!

Planning Your Shopping List

Once you’ve got your coupons and you’ve honed your coupon skills, it’s time to start planning your shopping trips around the best sales.

If you live in a large city with lots of shopping choices, just creating your shopping list can be a little intimidating. There are so many deals out there. And even when you live out in the woods like I do, it’s important to plan your excursions to make the most of your trip to town.

Fortunately, the internet makes it simple to find great match-ups. You can find many blogs that do the complete match-ups of coupons to the sales you can save on everything from household cleaners to groceries and toiletries.

You will also find websites that offer searchable coupon databases and forums with endless information on steals and deals.

I’m a bit of unique case when it comes to looking up coupons and deals. I read A LOT of deal blogs and forums – not just for my personal use – but in an effort to help you.

You may wonder why I don’t do my own coupon match-ups on Northern Cheapskate. The reason I don’t is that compiling these shopping lists takes an incredible amount of time and energy… and so many other sites do it BETTER than I ever could. I would rather use my energy in other ways to help you save money.

So here is a list of my favorite sites (in no particular order) for deal match-ups. Every single one of these resources is FREE to use. While there are sites that offer paid weekly or monthly subscriptions for these store match-ups, I find that there are plenty of wonderful, free services out there that do the job just as well… if not better. For example, check out:

  • A Full Cup – free forums and a searchable coupon database to help you plan your shopping.
  • Hot Coupon World - similar in feel to A Full Cup, but a whole different community, often with different deals!
  • The Coupon Mom – This is how I got started in couponing. Her shopping lists aren’t always as comprehensive as some of the blogs, but she does offer a lot of good advice for the beginning couponer.

A few blogs I also check before shopping:

Please check out my list of resources for a list of the many other blogs I turn to for match-ups. And if you use these resources, please tell the people who put all of the work into them a big “Thank you.” They do a great job!

Frequently Asked Questions

Below is a list of questions readers typically ask me about coupons.  Please feel free to send me your own coupon questions and I’ll do my best to try to answer them!

Is it really worthwhile to print your own coupons? Printer ink and paper costs money.
Nothing is every really free, unfortunately.  Read my post How Much Are Your Coupons Costing You to see some price comparisons for the different types of coupons.  I find it is worthwhile to print my own coupons. It only costs a few pennies per coupon and I am only printing ones that I’m relatively certain I will use.

Printable coupons drive me crazy! I can never get them to print! What can I do?
Ah… I have not escaped the frustration from online coupons myself!  Sometimes I find switching web browsers can help (for example, if you’re using Firefox, switch to Internet Explorer).  I also recommend reading Trouble Printing Coupons? for more ideas.

What happens if the cashier won’t accept my coupon?
If you truly believe you have legitimate coupons and you are using them in the manner in which they are intended, I would ask to speak to a store manager. If that doesn’t work, keep moving up the food chain until you find someone who can help you.  I recommend visiting your stores’ favorite sites to locate their coupon policies.  Knowing the policies ahead of time will help prevent coupon heartaches at the checkout.

How do you know what is a legitimate coupon? Some of them look fake. Chances are if it seems to good to be true, it probably is.  Read about fraudulent coupon resources for ideas on how to determine if an offer is too good to be true.

What if I forget my coupons or screw up a coupon deal?
Ugh.  Even the best of us coupon clippers forget our coupons or botch a deal now and then.  Don’t be too hard on yourself.  If you are out of something and don’t have a coupon, consider purchasing a smaller size or a store brand instead.   I keep my coupon organizer next to my purse so I always grab it on my way out the door.

I hope that my coupon tips and tricks have helped you.   In the end, you have to ask yourself how much time you want to invest to save money. For me, the hour a week it takes to find, print, clip and organize my coupons is well worth the money saved.  For others, it may not be a priority. Only you can decide.

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