Couponing today isn't like your mother's couponing! Today it's more than saving money; it's a hobby for many, a business for others. Go online and you'll find any number of sites and blogs dedicated to saving a penny here and there. There's even a television show about extreme couponers!
But don't make fun! There's some serious money to be made just by spending some time looking at what you buy and finding deals. The trick is not to become so addicted with the deal that you lose sight of the purpose: Saving money!
Responsible couponing sites and blogs will tell you upfront that you won't get rich from couponing. You'll also be told that the first thing you must do is establish your budget for groceries, clothing, and any other categories in which you may be able to use coupons. This is critical. Without a budget, instead of saving money, you may well be finding yourself short at the end of the month because of all the good deals you've managed to buy. Yes, with each deal you saved money over what the product would have cost without the coupons.
If you are going over your budget, you are not saving money in the final analysis. You're just getting more for the money you are spending!
Isn't that the same as saving money? Not necessarily. If you go over your monthly budget, you either must cut back on something else to come out even at the end of the month; or you are putting something on credit cards, which doesn't necessarily save money unless you can pay the bill in full each month; or you are postponing payment of something, including putting money into your savings account.
So, to make the most of couponing without going broke, do the following:
1. Set up your budget. If you aren't sure, look over your grocery bills (or bills for whatever category) for the last 2-3 months to get an average of what you spend. Then look at that amount realistically. How much of what you buy is wasted? How much is unnecessary (think junk food; think quality)? Then adjust your amount to something you can really live with. Start with more money in your budget and aim not to spend it all rather than start too stingily and feel failure at not meeting your budget!
2. Start saving coupons. Most coupon sites and gurus suggest keeping all coupons you come across. This is because brand loyalty is not something encouraged by couponing. It also allows you to swap coupons you don't need for products you don't' use with other couponers, too.
3. Take stock of what you have on hand. Part of the goal of couponing is to build up your pantry so that you can live from your pantry, for the most part, which will allow you to wait until items you need are on sale before you buy them. The goal is to never pay full price is you can keep from it and than means having a sufficient supply that you can wait for items to go on sale.
If you don't know what is in your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer, you need to develop a comprehensive list so you know what you can use and what you need to stock up on. You will also know if something that was a deal when you bought it is still sitting on the shelf months after purchase because you haven't (and probably won't) use it.
Discard anything past its "use by" date. Of the rest, donate anything you won't use for whatever reason. Food pantries are always in need of food and you get a tax donation to boot (just keep track of what you donate and give it a fair market value.)
4. Make a list of the things you need. Include meats, vegetables (canned and frozen), staples, anything and everything you use on any kind of a regular basis.
5. Find out the coupon policies of the stores you frequent. Does your store have a limit on the number of coupons or the number of coupons per product? Does your store double or triple coupons? If so, is there a limit? Does the store have a reward or loyalty program? Does the store match advertised prices of competitors? What is the policy on Internet coupons that you must print off at home? Does the store allow you to stack coupons?
Every store is different and the rules may mean the difference between a real bargain and a not-so-wonderful one. Internet coupons (printables) are often the source of the greatest controversy because of counterfeiting. Also, some stores limit the amount per Internet coupon that they will honor. For example, a local store may only accept these printables up to a maximum of $2 off. This is important because often online printable coupons are higher in value than the ones found in the weekend edition of the newspaper.
6. Keep store circulars until they expire. You will need the competitor's add when you attempt to match prices, so just keep them with you when you are shopping.
7. Plan your meals around weekly circulars. As you build your pantry, work with the circulars to get the best meals possible at the cheapest prices so the extra in your food budget can be used to stockpile needed items that are on sale. Don't limit yourself to grocery story ads. Several discount stores have grocery components and drug and discount stores often have better prices on sundries (hairspray, makeup, etc.). These are often the stores that will stack coupons and match prices as well.
8. Make your list but be flexible. Always go shopping with a list, but be flexible to take advantage of unadvertised specials. IF something not in the circular is on sale and IF it is something you use regularly and IF you have coupons, get as many as your budget will allow.
9. Keep a price book. This is the key to #8. If you don't know what the regular price is, what the usual sale price is, and which store usually has the best bargain on the item, you may not be using your coupons wisely, let alone your money. Knowing prices is the key to great savings and great couponing!
For example, a woman shopping at a membership club store was recently putting several cans of a popular national brand of coffee in her cart. What she obviously didn't know was that a grocery store just a couple of blocks away was running that same brand on special at a lower price for the same size package. Not to mention that there were coupons for 25 cents off (doubled at this particular store) that would reduce the price even further. At normal prices, yes, she was getting a bargain; but not knowing the current pricing in the store circulars for her geographical area was costing her about $1 a can. That's a lot of money!
Also be aware of unit pricing. Sometimes, bigger is not better. Take your calculator with you and find out the cost per ounce or serving and compare prices per size. Often a medium sized product is less costly than a smaller sized package of the same thing. Sometimes not. Be sure to factor in the coupon. It does make a difference!
10. Check out coupon sites and blogs. Even people who have been couponing for years can pick up a new idea or two. And, because none of us can be all places all the time, blogs are useful to let us know of current deals, both locally and online. Often online coupons are available to print for a very limited time. Coupons on product web sites often have a numerical limit that, once reached, causes the coupon to no longer be available. Remember something about the early bird and the worm? Same principle applies here.
Also coupon sites often allow you to print multiples of coupons. This helps with your stock up plan. Other coupon sites are sites that let you order coupons for a nominal price and a shipping and handling charge. This comes in handy for coupons on items that aren't often the subject of coupons (like razor blades or premium dog snacks). Just be sure you will use the coupons before their expiration dates so you aren't wasting your money.
11. Develop a system for filing and tracking coupons and rebates. There is nothing more maddening than knowing you have a coupon for a product and not finding it unless it's finding it and seeing that it has expired! Or sending in for a rebate and not having a duplicate copy to prove you submitted it when you call or go online to find out what happened. Or losing reward dollars/points because you went shopping a day later than usual.
Don't use coupons just because they are going to expire but do keep track so that, if you need the product, you use the coupon closest to expiration (assuming the amounts of the coupons are equal). IF, however, it is an item you don't use too often but you have a coupon for a large monetary amount, use the coupon with the best return regardless of the date.
12. Never go shopping without your coupons, fliers, and plan. It seems the minute you walk into a store to pick up one or two items that you know you don't have coupons for, you will find an unadvertised special too good to pass up and you won't have your other coupons with you.
13. Factor in your time and driving costs. If you are fortunate to live close to two or three grocery stores and big box discount stores, you don't have to worry too much about spending more to get to the store than you save in the coupons. However, if these stores are some distance from each other and your home, find the one or two that usually have the best deals and focus on those.
14. Rethink brand loyalty. Couponers will tell you that if you really want to save, you can't afford to be too picky about brands. HOWEVER, be centsable! If you buy a brand no one will really eat, you are not saving money. If you buy a brand but have to use more of it to do the job, you are not saving money. So, test them out.
Use your coupons on the smallest size possible and sample. If your family can't tell the difference, add those brands to your list of possibles. But if not, stick to the tried and true. Use your coupon sites to get multiple coupons on those brands when they are available and stock up when they are on sale. Otherwise, you are throwing money away, not saving it.
15. Keep double checking your budget. Remember that you are only saving money when you are buying things you will use at their cheapest price possible, including coupons and reward programs, and stay within your budget. Otherwise, you are going into debt (either literally or figuratively) and that never saved anyone money!
If you are not couponing, get started! You'd be surprised at what you will save.
If you are already couponing, do a double check to ensure you are not borrowing money from one part of your budget to fund your coupon habit.
If you're not, then keep going. Check out coupon sites and blogs for more ideas on saving.
If you are having budget problems, go back to Step 1 so that your couponing is helping you and your family in the long run and you're not going broke using coupons.
Make cents of your coupons and watch your savings grow!