Grocery coupons: balancing time spent with money saved
Now when I say "serious," I mean serious for me. I know there are coupon fanatics out there, with elaborate systems of organization, regular visits to coupon websites, and pantries overflowing with ten-cent cans of chili. Those people are serious. My coupon clipping is limited to the local paper, mailers, and in-store coupons, and my shopping is limited to the stuff I need and/or already buy. We're don't eat many processed foods or prepared snacks (those we do often come from Trader Joe's). And I'm not looking to make couponing a hobby -- I just want to save a few bucks with relatively little time spent.
Here's what I do:
I read the store ads from the weekly and Sunday papers.
First, it helps me become familiar with each store's sale "style." I know, for example, never to buy household gadgets for full price at one store since they regularly go on "buy one, get one free" sale. I can also begin to compare prices for similar items at different stores to see which store is generally offers better deals.
Second, the store ads often have in-store coupons that lower the price of items I regularly need, such as pantry or baking staples. Especially sweet: in-store coupons can be used in combination with brand coupons clipped from the Sunday paper. I just got a bag of my favorite cough drops for 50 cents using one of those combos.
Sometimes store ads have general coupons, such as "20% off all Home items." Clip those every time -- you'd be surprised how many items fall under these broad categories.
I only read the ads for the stores I regularly shop. Buying a few cheaper items at a different store isn't worth my time.
I shop at at least one "has it all" store.
Groceries, hardware, sporting goods, clothing, toys, etc. I find that these types of stores have the best coupons AND offer me the best return on my time spent shopping. My local "catch-all" store also sells gift cards through my daughter's school scrip program, so my weekly grocery shopping nets the school a little money as well.
I'm a member of the store rewards program.
This saves me significant $, plus I get "bonus" coupons and cash-back rebates in the mail, and discounts on gas.
I read the coupon circulars in the Sunday paper and in the mail.
I only clip coupons that are for categories of items I already buy. Notice I say categories -- not specific products. In most cases, I'm not a brand loyalist, so I buy whichever diswasher detergent is on sale at the time.
I only clip coupons that are worth 50 cents or more. Again, I'm trading money for time -- the time spent fiddling with coupons in my purse and at the store. It's not worth 10 cents for me to have to dig through a bloated folder of low-value coupons.
One trick here: most Sunday coupons are good for a few months. Because I read the store ads, I have a good sense about which items regularly go on sale. So, if a Sunday coupon comes up for something I need, but don't need right away, I add it to my list with a note to check if the item's on sale. If it isn't, I'll hold onto the coupon for the next week.
And use scissors to cut out the coupons -- faster to cut, easier to sort, and strangely pleasing to see all of those neat rectangles.
I note couponed- and sale items on my shopping list.
As I write my list for the week, I put a "c" next to items that have coupons, and "s" next to sale items (or "s?" for items I'd like to find out if are on sale).
I keep my coupons with me.
I don't clip that many coupons, so I can keep them all with me. I've got a little double-sided plastic pouch inside which I keep my shopping list, coupons, and any gift cards or credit slips I intend to use. I put new coupons in at the back so older coupons naturally float at the front of the pile. Binders and files are bulky and take time to manage, and the time/money balance is what I'm after.
Each week, when I'm done shopping, I weed through the coupons and throw away the ones that have expired. This little exercise gets me to regularly go through the pile so it's easier to remember what's in there.
I don't sweat it.
If a coupon expires and I miss out on my dollar-off-Cheerios, I try not to let it bother me. It's tempting to overfocus on the details in this exercise...the big picture (for me) is easy money savings, not maximum money savings.
OKAY! I know many of you are way more experienced and savvy about the whole coupon thing than I. Share your secrets! Let's talk coupons!