Once I decided that working from home was something I wanted to try, I also knew that it was more important than ever that I start saving money wherever I could. So around the beginning of the year (2009) I decided to really look into coupons and other ways to save money on groceries (and the like).
I had tried coupons before, but I mostly shopped at Wal-Mart, and only managed to save a few dollars here and there, so I quickly gave it up. However, little did I know that I wasn’t really using coupons to their maximum potential.
At the beginning of February, I started using all of the tips and tricks I had found on several Web sites. Now, as of the end May, I can honestly say that I average about 50% savings on my groceries every week! Sometimes it’s in the low 40s and one time I even hit 70%, but overall not only am I saving about half at the grocery store, but I’m also increasing my stockpile of items.
Before, when I would go to Wal-Mart, I could easily spend $100 a week (for two people) and at the end of the week have an empty fridge and pantry. Now I spend half that, and have extra items to carry me through the next weeks. For example, I have several jars of spaghetti sauce, boxes of cake and brownie mix, bags of rice, and more sodas than I can count—and that’s just a sampling of the items!
Combine Coupons with Sale Items
So how do I do this? I combine coupons with sale items. I also try and work meals around those, instead of deciding what I want to eat and then going to the grocery store. I also shop at stores that double and triple coupons to maximize my coupons (unless, of course, I have coupons that are $1 or more off, then those can also be put to good use at Wal-Mart or any other place with lower prices). (I personally shop at Kroger most of the time, but I know that Albertson’s doubles and triples as well, and if you don’t have these stores in your area, there are many stores that do this, so just find out what their policies are.) That, to me, is really the key.
For example, I recently had a coupon for $.35 off cake mix. At the store I normally shop, they had this cake mix on sale for $1. I later saw that Wal-Mart had this same cake mix on sale for $.96. Sure, it was technically cheaper at Wal-Mart, but, my local store triples coupons with values up to $.39, which means that my coupon was now worth $1.05. In other words, the cake mix was now free. (There are some stores that will give you the overage, but my store has now stopped doing that and will instead only double and triple up to the cost of the item. Okay, so I didn’t get the 5 extra cents, but the item was still free.)
And don’t forget the clearance items (or items that are “manager’s specials”)! I’ve found some deals that I’ve combined with coupons (yep, you can use coupons here, too) and get even better deals. And those manager’s specials include meat. Unless it’s a really good price, I try and buy all my meat in the “reduced for quick sale” area—I just freeze it as soon as I get home. Usually it’s about 50% off (depending on the item). Then I can plan meals using that. For example, I had some leftover potatoes from a few weeks ago, and was feeling a little lazy one week, and knew that I had frozen ground beef in the freezer. Meatloaf and baked potatoes it was! (And all I had to buy was sour cream, because I already had everything else I needed, even some frozen veggies to round out the meal.)
Shop Your Pharmacy
But, don’t think that only grocery stores can be great places to find deals. What about household items, like cleaners, and detergents, or just everyday toiletries like shampoo and toothpaste? Sure, you can get good deals at the grocery store, but an even better place you might try is your local pharmacy (a la CVS, Walgreens, etc.). Many of these stores have reward programs that you can use to really save on your total out-of-pocket (OOP) expenses.
I shop at CVS because I find their system works well, and is easy to understand (once you get the hang of it). I first read briefly about saving money at CVS from Heidi, and decided to find out more about it. Once I did, I decided to give it a go. From everything I read, it said to try it for 3 months to really start to see the savings. However, I will tell you, I saw it within just a few weeks! Once again, I started playing the “CVS Game” in February, and to date I’ve saved over 90%. And that includes a stash of toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorants, shampoos, other hair care items, body washes, etc. I don’t think I’ll need any of those items for quite awhile!
Again, with CVS you combine coupons with sales (yes, they take coupons—most of the places will). However, you need to go one step beyond, if possible, and look for the items which you can receive extra-care bucks (ECBs) back. ECBs are like money you can use on your next transaction. For example, they might have a deodorant on sale (or advertised) for $2.99, and give you back $2.99 at the end of your receipt to use on your next transaction. BASICALLY you’re getting that item for free (even though you might have to pay the $2.99 plus tax, but now you have $2.99 to use on your next transaction). However, this is where you can work the system. Say you have a coupon for $1 off that item. Now you’re only paying $1.99, plus tax, for the item, but still getting $2.99 back to use next time. The trick is to pay as little for the most items that will give you the most ECBs back. A good amount to start out with is about $10–15 ECBs, and then, as they say, you can start rolling your ECBs (however, I’ve seen people work with just $5, or so). In other words, the next time you shop, shop for items that will give you about the same amount of ECBs as you will be paying with. There will be times when you might have to pay a little out of pocket, but it’s minimal compared to your savings.
Note: Stores choose to put items on sale, and for every coupon you give them, the store gets reimbursed for it (plus a small fee). Don’t ever feel like you’re cheating them, and especially, don’t let them make YOU feel like you’re cheating (unless you’re abusing the system, then, shame on you)!
Build Your Stash of Coupons
While I have read about some people who manage to save without coupons, the ones who save tremendously are the ones who not only use coupons, but have a stash. To me, that’s the best way—they’re out there, why not use them?
The best place to find coupons is your Sunday paper. I know of some people whose local paper either doesn’t carry the coupon inserts, or doesn’t carry very many. A suggestion might be to see if you can get the paper of a nearer larger city delivered (or go somewhere to buy it) because more than likely they will carry them. Also, I have heard that if your paper doesn’t carry the coupon inserts, you can contact the company that does them and have them sent to you. I’m not sure if this is true for all of them, but I think some do. The three inserts that come (although not all the time) are from Redplum, SmartSource, and P&G (Procter and Gamble). And, the best way to build your stash is to have multiple inserts, which means multiple papers. I started by getting double coupons, and now am getting three papers.
However, there are a few other places to get coupons. There are different online sites that you can print coupons for free from your computer (I’ll post a link to these later). Most only let you print 2 of each coupon from each computer (though I’ve been able to go to the library and print more out to get extras). Also, specific brand sites will sometimes have coupons on there, or send newsletters out with coupons. Additionally, if you sign up for some newsletters, they will send you coupon booklets via mail (and while you may only have one of each item, they’re usually good amounts off). You can also find coupons on eBay, and a few coupon clipping sites (where they charge you a fee for the transaction). Some people question the ethics of this, since many coupons say they are void if transferred or sold, so you decide where you sit.
Oh, and start off clipping everything (if you’re going that route). Sure, YOU may not need diapers (baby or adult), but if there’s a good deal on something and you can get it for free or close to free, you can always donate those (and any extra items you may get) to nursing homes, women’s shelters, etc.
Organize Your Coupons
As soon as you stash your coupons, you need to figure out what your best organizational method is going to be. I started out with plastic baggies and only sorted by expiration month. Not good enough once I was starting to have a nice stash. SO, I looked into different methods and decided what I thought would work best for me.
I use a binder, with the clear baseball card insert sheets—nine pockets per page that usually hold coupons nicely (some coupons are large so you have to fold them to get them to fit). You can buy a binder, or find one around your house (you’ll probably end up needing one that’s at least 2 inches) and get the inserts. I actually found a pack that included the binder and 100 sheets for less than $20 (at Wal-Mart). Sure, it says something on the front about collector’s cards, or something, but I don’t care. (Seeing as it’ll run you $3–5 for 10 sheets, I thought this was a pretty good deal.) Some people use the binder, but only regular clear sheets where they put the whole coupon insert, without clipping them—that way they don’t have to clip all at once but still know what they have. Others use those accordion folders, and each pocket is for something different. Choose whatever works best for you.
Now you have to sort them. Some people sort by type of item: cereals, soaps, frozen, etc. I, along with many, sort alphabetically by product name (or occasionally by brand name, if that makes more sense). For example, I will put Cheerios (or Honey Nut Cheerios) in “C” for Cheerios, but if I have a coupon that says all General Mills cereals, I will put them in “G.” You get to know what goes with what, like I know that Kellogg’s includes things like Frosted Flakes or Froot Loops, but Post includes Honey Bunches of Oats. Also, many times sales ads might say their sale is on General Mills cereals (in which case you know you have coupons in two places), or they can be specific in the ad and just say Cheerios (which, again, you could have them in two places). I find that those are the most extreme in the case against alphabetically organizing coupons, but it’s so easy when you’re in the store and see a good deal (that maybe wasn’t advertised) and you can quickly flip to your appropriate section to find it. (I also try and alphabetize within a section, though sometimes it gets a little sloppy if I don’t want to have to insert a whole new page.)
Research Sales Flyers
You have your coupons clipped, your binder organized, and your flyers in hand. Now what? Well, as I posted earlier, match up anything on sale with those items you have coupons for. Also, don’t despair if you don’t have a coupon for it. More than likely it will either still be on sale next week, or go on sale again soon. However, don’t feel as if you HAVE to use a coupon just because you have it. If you’re buying items just because you have a coupon, but you don’t really need it, then it’s not really saving money, or if you’re using the coupon just because it’s about to expire but there’s not a sale, again, you’re not getting any real savings (unless you really DO need the product). You’ll start to find out that coupons come in cycles too, and those expired coupons will come back sooner than you think.
Your goal is to buy things at “rock-bottom,” or near, prices. How do you know when something is at its lowest price? Well, I think it’ll take you a little while to figure that out as you shop, however, there are some savvy ladies out there who do a lot of the work for you and can usually point you in great directions (I’ll post their Web sites later). Obviously, anything that, with your coupons, is free, you should get as many as you can. And, of course, if you need something, then get it, even if you don’t have a coupon. As you continue to shop, build your coupon stash and stockpile, you’ll find that you won’t need as many items because you already have them (and hopefully, most for free or almost free). Another thing some people do is shop different stores for the best deal. I personally feel I don’t have the time for that right now, BUT it can be a very lucrative way to maximize your grocery savings.
But don’t forget to check out those clearance items or areas—those don’t tend to be advertised!
Southern Savers (http://www.southernsavers.com/): This is one of my favorite sites to visit. Even though she posts mostly deals located in the Southeast, she posts Kroger and CVS deals (my favorite part is that her Kroger ad runs Sunday to Saturday, but mine runs Wednesday to Tuesday, so usually I’m a few days ahead of the game for figuring out deals, etc). She’s also very detailed and thorough.
Couponing 101 (http://www.couponing101.com/): I like her site because she’s in my area and so her ads tend to be spot on, and she’s pretty quick on the other freebies and deals to be had out there.
Thrifty Mama (http://www.thethriftymama.com/): This lady’s REALLY on the ball with posting deals, though she tends to focus more on the pharmacies and other deals and freebies (there are many coupons out there for free items as well as samples if you sign up at company Web sites). She also has a weekly Festival of Free posting where people can post links to giveaways on their own sites.
Grocery Gathering on BeCentsAble (http://www.becentsable.net/Default.aspx?pageId=335025): While I have only really glanced at this site once in awhile, it’s actually a good place for you to find local bloggers/sites who post deals that will help you.
Grocery Game (http://www.thegrocerygame.com/): This place is a subscription-based service (though not that expensive, overall) where they have local shoppers who scour the best deals for your area. I did the trial, but felt that the local, free bloggers I read were better at the posted deals (and once in awhile I felt that my area’s shopper would let coupons slip by her), but it’s a good place to get to know what those rock-bottom prices are.
Coupon Clippers (http://www.thecouponclippers.com/): I have never used this site, but it does have its appeal. You pay a handling fee only for the coupons you want. Apparently they get to you pretty quickly, too. (There’s a little more to this, but if it appeals to you, their selection is quite nice.)
Coupons.com (http://print.coupons.com/CouponWeb/Offers.aspx?pid=13306&zid=iq37&nid=10): Printable coupons.
Smartsource.com (http://coupons2.smartsource.com/smartsource/index.jsp?Link=5S2ZUA6PWPEPO): Printable coupons.
Cellfire (http://www.cellfire.com/), Shortcuts (http://shortcuts.com/Home.action), and P&GeSaver (http://www.pgesaver.com/): You can load e-coupons on to your shopper’s cards for different grocery stores (however, they only currently serve a few stores, but see if they cover one near you).
To be able to do this, you can’t be brand loyal. Sure you can prefer one brand over another, and when your fave brand goes on sale, stock up! But Suave shampoo washes my hair just as well as Herbal Essences. And, if you find that something you bought isn’t up to your standards, find someone who could use it (I’ve even heard of people selling their unopened items at garage sales for more than they paid for them).
When looking at online sites and resources, pay attention to any freebies, rebates, and other programs going on that you may not have heard of. (Two examples: Target had a deal going on that when you buy 2 of certain items, you get a $5 Gift Card back. Well, Glade candles were part of this, and so we bought 2 small candles that we had two $4 of 1 candle coupons for. Total paid OOP for candles: $3.50 (and change), BUT we received the gift card, thus making the candles free, in essence. THEN we turned around and bought some cleaning supplies, with good prices, combined with coupons, we paid about $4 for 3 LYSOL items, and paid with the $5 gift card we had received earlier. But why specifically LYSOL? Well, on one site I saw that the LYSOL has a promo running that if you buy 3 different LYSOL products, you can send for a $3 rebate. In other words, once I get the rebate, I would have only paid $1 for 3 items.)
By no means is this the only, or even best way, to shop by using coupons. There are women out there that constantly save a lot on their groceries—way more than 50%. I’ve only been doing this for about 3 months and I thought I needed to share this info, because now that I see what I can get for my money, no one should have to pay retail price for groceries and other items.
Many of the sites mentioned above have really detailed and comprehensive guides to get you started; I just wanted to point you in a general direction so you too can save money! They also post good information about what’s considered ethical regarding couponing, and what to do regarding coupon policies at different stores (even different stores within the same chain), as well as many other wonderful deals (and ideas) out there. And, this is just a jumping off point for you to find the best deals for your family, from groceries to clothing. The information is there for you and you can choose what you want to do with it.
I do know though, that if you take the time (and involve your family so they can get in on the experience as well) to clip and organize and find the deals, you can start to save and build a stockpile. My husband likes to go shopping with me now so he can hunt for deals as well. And we feel great when we see how much money we saved, and how much we got for it. I’m still learning as well, but if you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer then based on my experience, or try and find them on some of the sites I frequent.
PS - If you have any tips you wish to share, I would love to hear them! ALSO, if you have any questions, just leave them in the comments and I'll answer in the comments. That way, anyone can see them (and maybe they'll find them useful as well).