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The Ultimate Guide to Couponing for Beginners
Have you ever been in the checkout line at the grocery store and the person in front of you hands the cashier a stack of coupons? You watch as their total drops and drops and they pay very little for their cart of groceries. You were probably in line behind me! I’m kidding, of course, as I am not the only couponer out there, far from it, but if you live in Northern New Jersey, it might have been.
I can’t tell you how many times I am asked the following questions in the grocery store:
“Where did you get all the coupons?” “How did you do that?”
Other times people will say, “I wish I could do that, too.” I tell them they can and direct them to a couple helpful web sites.
There’s a bit more to it than being able to read a web site but I don’t have time in the checkout line to explain all the intricacies of the transaction I just completed. My ice cream is melting, after all.
“Precious treasure [and oil] remains in the house of the wise, but the fool devours it.” Proverbs 21:20 (NRSV with Apocrypha)
So, today we’re going to discuss how to coupon as a beginner, but before we get to that, I want to talk about the power of coupons. Coupons aren’t just for junk food (I hear that one a lot) and they aren’t just for the poor (I know millionaires who coupon). Couponing is an excellent “hobby” for people who are frugal, on a budget, have a limited income and those who like to give. I’m big on this last one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as frugal as they come, but I love to give.
To illustrate my point about giving, I’ll do something I don’t do often. I’m going to tell you what couponing has allowed me to give in the last year. I don’t brag and I don’t want a fuss. I just love to help where I can. It’s difficult to explain to people that the coupons in the Sunday paper have power without giving examples. So, here we go.
In the last year I have given several baby gifts to neighbors and church families (diapers, wipes, bottles, toiletries, etc.) of several hundred dollars each. When my best friend moved to a remote part of the state without gas lines (which means everything in her house is electric) and she got a huge unexpected electric bill in the winter I was able to help. I packed up around $500.00 retail worth of food and commonly needed household and personal care items and had my son deliver them to her house. I donate several bags of food, personal care and household items to my church just about every Sunday. I try to make sure no one sees me do it but once in awhile that doesn’t work out. Like I said, I don’t want a fuss.
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Every time I go to my parents house I bring them a bag or three of food or things I know my mother likes (my dad isn’t all that picky). I have two relatives that need to take aspirin every day. When there’s a deal I stock up and because I do that they never run out.
I started this section with one of my favorite Proverbs (If you’re a Dave Ramsey fan, you know he paraphrases this one often as well). Your stockpile is the treasure. Your stockpile is what allows you to get the best deals on things and feed your family on a budget. So, building it up and then using it and giving it away is your goal. Spending the money God has entrusted you to manage wisely and making sure your family is fed and cared for is wise. I am truly blessed in this regard. Through couponing I can provide for my family and my friends and my extended church family. Being able to provide for all these people is such an overwhelming joy.
What is a Stockpile and Why Do I Need One?
Your stockpile is the real savings superstar in your arsenal. Do you like mustard? I love mustard on hotdogs and corned beef and I have to have it for my egg salad recipe and deviled eggs on Easter are a must. We use a lot of mustard. Did you know the best time of year to buy mustard is May and June? Things like mustard, ketchup, BBQ Sauce (if you don’t make your own but I’m not judging), mayonnaise, etc. Think Picnic and BBQ time and all of that stuff is on sale starting a week or so before Memorial Day.
Why does it matter when mustard is on sale? It matters because we don’t want to pay $2.99 for that precious bottle of spicy brown goodness! We want to pay pennies or nothing for it and we want to buy enough to last us and whoever else we are feeding until the next sale (long expiration dates are awesome). This is called stockpiling.
If Your Living Room is Surrounded by Shelves of Canned Goods, You Might Be a Hoarder
You don’t need a huge stockpile and it should not take over your home. I have seen some truly scary pictures on the internet. This is not about hoarding or greed.
If you know you will probably use five bottles of mustard over the course of the year for BBQs and your recipes, then that’s your goal. If you can pick up a few extra then give them to family, friends, neighbors, your church pantry, etc. Stockpiling is not about greed or hoarding. Its about making sure you have what you use on hand so that you don’t need to pay full price for it. It is the smart way to shop.
Have you ever suddenly come down with the flu and found yourself at CVS in the middle of the night staring at $15.00 cold medicine price tags? If you had started stockpiling cold medicines and related items in the fall when they were on sale around “back to school” time, you could have been home in bed. Don’t worry, you’ll be ready for the next flu season.
Worried about not having enough space to store your stockpile? At first, I wouldn’t worry too much because you need to start small. You can store things in plastic bins, your garage (if you have one) is excellent for stacking paper products, laundry detergent, cases of water, etc. Basement shelves are great. When you need to store things you find a way but remember you just want enough to get to the next sale cycle.
Sales are cyclical. They generally run in 3-6 month cycles depending on the item you are couponing for at that time. Once you get the hang of this it will be easier to determine how much of something you need and how much you can afford to give away.
What Couponing is Not
So, let’s dispel a few of common couponing myths that may have kept you from trying it before now. Clearly you’re interested otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this blog post.
“Coupons are for poor people”
They sure are! They are also for rich people, short people, tall people, skinny people and anyone else you can think of or put a label on. Coupons are for everyone, and like money, they don’t discriminate.
“Coupons are Only for Junk Food”
There are tons of junk food coupons out there, I’ll give you that.
There are also coupons for meat, cheese, dairy products (depending on where you live, we are allowed very few in New Jersey), fruit and vegetables (fresh and frozen) and tons of other things that aren’t junk food. Coupons for fresh meat, dairy and veggies are less common but there are other ways to save on those things.
If you have a set grocery budget (mine includes personal and household items all lumped into one because it’s easier for me to handle) and you are picking up most of your personal care items cheap or free, doesn’t that free up money in your budget for the more expensive items that have less frequent coupons? Yes, it does! I can tell you this past week I printed coupons for fresh ham, pork tenderloin, bacon, block and shredded cheese and yogurt (I also printed ice cream coupons. I mentioned that I like ice cream, didn’t I?).
There are also coupons for organic, non-gmo, gluten free, soy free, dairy free and peanut free foods. There are coupons for pretty much everything. Need strawberries? Sign up for the Driscol’s email list and they will send you berry coupons.
“Couponers are Stealing from the Store!”
I’ll be honest, I love this one. It cracks me up! If you read the small print on all coupons, you’ll learn that the stores are reimbursed the full face value of the coupon plus an 8 cent handling fee when they send the coupons in for processing. If stores didn’t get their money back, do you think they would accept coupons? Of course not!
Coupons are legal tender when used on the products they are specified. Coupon fraud is a real thing and it’s sad that it happens, but it does. The best way to deal with that is to make sure that you are using your coupons for the specified products and quantities and following the rules in your store.
“Couponing Takes Too Much Time”
It will take you more time at first. This is true when you learn anything new. As you coupon more you will find your speed increases.
I have to tell you, I am a very busy person. I have a large family (including extended family, friends and my church family), a full time job, a blog, social obligations and three pets. I love to cook (often from scratch), meal plan, budget and I read a lot.
Anyway, I’m busy! Which is why my blog is called A Busy Chick (Chick will be my last name when I marry next year in case you were curious). I don’t have time to breakdown every deal at the grocery store, all the big box stores, the pharmacies, etc. I just can’t. Oh, and all the online deals. God bless those who do it for me though!
I concentrate on teaching others how to quickly find the deals and coupons for the things they need and want. I have a large networks of friends and acquaintances online who post deal break downs for all of these stores and they are amazing! I don’t need to re-do all of their work and you don’t either.
Back before couponing information was available on the internet, I would sit in my dining room with my store flyers, a note pad and my coupons and figure out deals. That was time consuming!
I don’t want you to have to spend that much time prepping to coupon. So, I speed up the process by enabling people to find the information they need.
Let’s discuss one other thing quickly. If you have ever seen a television show called “Extreme Couponing” please forget the majority of what you saw. Put it right out of your mind! It’s entertaining for sure, however, it is also loaded with coupon fraud and stores bending their own rules to accommodate the show. It is not a true portrayal of couponing and it shouldn’t be used as a guide. But if you just like watching that kind of thing for entertainment that’s your choice.
So, How Do You Coupon?
Pick One Store to Learn First
The objective here is to start couponing and become familiar with the process and your chosen store’s policies. Then you can branch into more advanced couponing topics and more stores. If you try to do it all at once it will become overwhelming. Let’s get a couple quick wins under our belts and then we can move on to more complicated deals. If you see a deal online that looks too complicated don’t attempt it until you are comfortable.
First thing you want to do is a choose the store where you would like to begin couponing. You should pick a store that you are comfortable with, one where the cashiers know you is best. I have a lot of friends who are cashiers and I met most of them while I was couponing.
Once you choose a store, sign up for their store loyalty card if you have not already. This gives you access to the best deals in the store. Most stores also offer digital coupons that you can load to your loyalty card. They are available in the store’s smart phone app and on their web site. Choose which method you prefer and add coupons to your card.
So, now you’re thinking, “how do I know which coupons to add?” Start simple! Add coupons for products you are likely to purchase, items you commonly use, things you have wanted to try and any particularly high value coupons as they are usually going to be on sale. If it’s not an item you can use, give it away!
Depending on the store, some or all of your digital coupons will “stack” with paper coupons. This means you will be able to use the store digital coupon and a paper coupon and double your savings!
This depends on the store. For example, Walgreens puts out a booklet of coupons each month (those coupons can also be loaded to your card, however, Walgreens limits how many coupons you can load, so if you have the booklet don’t load them on your card). Any Walgreens store coupon will say “with card.” For example, “Save $1.00 on Scott Paper Towels with card”. This means it is a store coupon you can use with your store loyalty card and you can also use a manufacturer (paper) coupon.
Walgreens has other couponing rules that need to be adhered to which I’m not going to elaborate on in this post. If you are interested in couponing at Walgreens read their coupon policy and then look online for store deals. It is the most difficult of the national chain pharmacies to master.
At Shop Rite (my favorite grocery store in the Mid-Atlantic region) there is no longer a limit on how many digital coupons you may load to your card and they are all stackable with manufacturer coupons. Shop Rite’s digital coupon offerings come from the parent company of SavingStar, which is a coupon/rebate offer app that I highly recommend when you are ready to move on to apps. However, if I have a digital coupon that is the same as a SavingStar offer, I won’t be able to receive the SavingStar offer. Which is fine but I find a lot of people seem confused when they do not receive that rebate.
CVS and Rite Aid do not limit how many digital coupons you may add to your card. Some are store coupons and some are manufacturer coupons. The store coupons will stack with paper coupons but the manufacturer coupons will not. Just something to keep in mind.
Where Do I Find Coupons?
You can get coupons from Sunday newspapers, the internet and friends. My mom saves all her coupon inserts for me, minus the ones she cuts out to use herself. Other friends and I often mail each other envelopes of coupons. It’s a nice thing to do and it’s fun, plus who doesn’t like to get mail?
You could also ask friends or neighbors who don’t use coupons if they would mind giving them to you after they have read their newspaper. You may find coupons in the recycling bin at the post office on Mondays. Some public libraries have coupon exchange baskets where you can take coupons you need and deposit coupons you do not want for others to use. You could start a coupon exchange at your church or job (if they allow it). There are lots of ways to get coupons. You can even write to companies and ask them to send you some, they often do!
You will see blogs and other couponers use the following abbreviations: SS, RMN, PG. These are the names of the inserts found in Sunday papers. SS = Smart Source. RMN = Retail Me Not (formerly Red Plum or RP), PG= Proctor & Gamble. PG only comes out once a month and the coupons have various expiration dates all within that month.
OK! I Have My Card, My Digital and Paper Coupons and I Read the Coupon Policy. Now, What?
Now, we search for deals! You can sit down with your store flyer and a notebook and manually search the deals if you want. I don’t suggest this.
There are much easier ways to find deals. Start with the big coupon blogs. Now, I must mention that you need to read the deals and make sure they make sense to you. These blogs provide a great service but there are a couple of things to be aware of starting with price differences. Especially if you have chosen to begin couponing at a national pharmacy chain store. Prices vary. Cover girl lipstick might cost $5.99 at your store, but the same lipstick is $6.79 at my store. This is common. The price differences matter. So, if you choose a deal where you expect to pay $1.50 plus tax at checkout and your total is higher, it is probably due to a price difference.
There are also typos. Coupon blogs are run by human beings who make mistakes. This is where reading the whole deal a couple of times comes in handy. It may say to purchase two of an item but then say to use one coupon. Sometimes, this is correct because the coupons is for x-amount off of 2 items. Sometimes, it’s a typo. You will find typos all over the place, it happens. If you don’t understand the deal you are reading always move on to another one. Alternatively, if you read the store ad and the coupons you can usually figure it out.
You should also be aware that when deals are posted online tax is not included. Tax rates vary, as do taxable items, so unless otherwise noted, all “final price” or “out of pocket” totals are before any applicable tax.
Write down (in many cases you can print your list from the blog with all the details) the prices and quantities and coupons and final price on your list and take it to the store with you. Make sure you take your coupons to the store with you too! If the price is higher than you expected to pay then you need to decide if this deal is still worthwhile to you. If it is not, that’s okay.
When a deal doesn’t work for me, either because the price is too high or the coupon beeps at the register and the cashier won’t take it (it happens don’t get flustered), I just tell myself God doesn’t think we need this item (or these items as the case may be) and I don’t purchase the items. Never be afraid to politely say that you no longer wish to purchase the item because your coupon isn’t working. No one is going to throw you out of the store, I promise.
Please be kind to the cashiers. I can’t stress this enough. They don’t program the computers and it is not their fault that a coupon doesn’t scan or doesn’t beep. If they aren’t allowed to put it through for you there is nothing they can do. You could politely ask if a manager would be able to look at the coupon and put it through. Sometimes they will and can do it and sometimes they cannot. It depends on the store and their rules. There’s never a reason to be angry with the store staff. Oftentimes coupons are not coded properly and don’t work as they should. So, repeat after me, “God says we don’t need this deal today,” and politely advise the cashier that you’d no longer like to purchase the item(s). Also, make sure you get your coupons back, those are yours.
I have seen a number of confused upset couponers scream at cashiers. There’s never a reason for that and they ruin their relationship with that store.
After big blogs, the next best place to find deals quickly is Instagram. Yes, Instagram! You can follow hashtags like #targetclearance or #targetdeals and so on. These tags exist for pretty much every store you can think of but not everyone tags their posts. I’m guilty of this quite often.
Your best bet on Instagram is to find the people who post deals for the stores that you want to shop at and follow them. Then you’ll be able to see all their deal break downs as they post them and make your list.
You can also find couponers on YouTube. Yes, YouTube! They will post deal breakdowns, coupon news, store news, haul videos, explain policy and program changes at various stores and more. Some are better than others and they only cover stores they shop at so if they aren’t showing you deals for Kroger it’s because they don’t have one. You’ll need to find someone who does Kroger deals to find that information.
Let’s Review What We Have Learned About Couponing So Far
- Choose one store to learn first.
- Sign up for the store loyalty program.
- Load digital coupons to your card.
- Gather paper coupons.
- Find deals for your chosen store on coupon blogs, Instagram and YouTube.
- Print out or write down all the information for your deals.
- Take your list and your coupons to the store and purchase your items.
- If something doesn’t work out, keep your cool, be polite and move on.
- You don’t need a huge stockpile to care for your family and help others.
The Next Logical Question – How Do I Organize My Coupon Collection?
Well, there’s really no right answer for this one. It’s a matter of preference. I’ve tried every way there is and I still wish I had a better way. You can keep them organized in file folders by week and then you need to go find and cut out your coupons for each shopping trip. You can cut them all on Sundays and organize them in binders with baseball card holder sleeves or in a shoe box with dividers. I know people who do all of these. I’m currently back to the binder method. My kids help me keep it organized and get them cut so that saves me a lot of time.
What About All These Cell Phone Apps?
There are lots of smart phone apps available that offer coupons and rebates. If you have a wireless printer you can print coupons right from your phone. You can get cashback on grocery offers from Ibotta, Checkout51 and SavingStar. There’s Receipt Hog, Receipt Pal, Fetch Rewards, Makena, MobiSave, Find & Save, Berry Cart, Hopster and probably more. My favorite is SavingStar followed by Ibotta.
I suggest working on the paper coupons and the store match ups and learning the store before you crazy trying to add in the apps. One thing at a time makes the whole process less overwhelming. The idea is to save money and give, not stress yourself out over shampoo and green peppers.
Is That It?
Well, no. I left out rebates, special offers from manufacturer’s, writing to manufacturers and asking for coupons, printing coupons from the internet (never, ever photocopy coupons), rebate apps, target gift card deals, Cartwheel, Savings Catcher, CVS Extra Care Bucks, Walgreens Balance Rewards Points, Rite Aid Bonus Cash, Plenti Points, Dosh, Ebates, Raise, Catalinas and probably a few other things.
There are a lot of things that are “advanced” in terms of coupon experience and I could explain them all and then you’ll never want to learn to coupon because its too much to take in. Please believe me. I am a survivor of coupon burnout, overwhelm and four kids who eat all the cookies while you’re at work! Start small, learn your store, then learn another store. Rinse and Repeat. Search out more advanced topics when you are ready. And you’ll be giving and saving lots of money in no time at all. You can find me on all the socials or my blog, feel free to ask questions.
Pamela McMahon is a busy chick. Founder of abusychick.com, she blogs about saving money, cooking and budgeting to feed her family of five, friends, neighbors and donate heavily to her church’s food pantry. Pam is a big time giver and deal hunter who strives to help you save time, money and stress with tips, tricks, resources, product reviews and much more.
You can find her online at:
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