13 January 2011

Grocery coupons: balancing time spent with money saved

Amazon: Coupon organizer I just had the lovely experience this week of saving over $40 on a $160 grocery bill. It was my first serious foray into using coupons.

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!

Related:Use "Jenny's" number to get grocery club discounts

Your comments

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My local grocery store will double and triple coupons up to 50 cents, so it's worth it to me to clip them all.

We plan our meals Sunday, make the shopping list at the same time (so nothing is forgotten!), buy our school scrip Monday and go straight to the grocery store.

Before we head out Monday morning, my husband goes to the usual coupon sites (Coupon.com, etc) to look for offers on products we're going to buy. Since we tend to buy staples from the same brands, he visits their website and Facebook pages to see if they have special offers there. It doesn't take much time, and we end up saving money each week, so it' time well spent.

By shopping at the right place, being selective on which products we buy organic, planning our meals, and looking for deals, we've cut our grocery bill in half. And not sacrificed taste or quality of food!

I'd like to hear about which of these "has it all" stores have store coupons in their circulars. Around here, the three big chains (Target, Walmart, and Meijer) don't offer these. Maybe it's a west-coast thing?

And I've also found that the coupons in the Sunday paper can vary widely from region to region. When we moved from a growing, affluent metro area in the Southeast to a struggling rust-belt city in the Midwest, both the quality and quantity of coupons in the Sunday paper dropped precipitously. Out here in the flyover states, more than half of what's in the paper are mail-in offers for muu-muus and commemorative plates, rather than real coupons.

And if anyone has recommendations for websites that offer coupons without demanding all of your personal information or that you download and install specialized software on your computer, I'd be all ears.

In HALF? Now that's impressive. Great suggestion to visit brands' sites and Facebook pages. I would love to hear a more detailed accounting of your weekly shopping routine. Hint, hint.

Wow, your hubby helps? Lucky!

I've actually been thinking about this a lot recently! (Blogged about it recently, too, if anyone cares about the newcomer's blog :-D I've got some specific online resources I use: http://www.eclecticmamma.com/2011/jan/10/how-chop-down-your-grocery-bill-theoretically/) I do mostly what Gina does, but I do my planning/shopping two weeks at a time, right after payday. I haven't figured out a good system for my coupons yet... Currently they're in a big file in my kitchen, but that means I don't have them if I want to stop at the store on my way home. Decisions decisions!

Coupons, clubcards , you name it , i love them, i wait for my bonous points in the post with such impatience !!!:)

Our regional grocery store, HEB, doesn't like to stack store coupons with manufacturer coupons. (They don't have "specials" only in store coupons.) Which I don't get as the money comes from different places... I say they don't like to, but I usually do - I just make sure that the two coupons are not next to each other in the stack. That said, for those of us who don't buy a lot of packaged things, coupons save but not 40%. I got $15 off of $150 yesterday... between store and weekend coupons. That's about typical for me... We live 45 minutes from a major town, HEB is the only game here in small town land.

I wanted to point out that there are other uses for coupons - military bases. If you cut out all of the coupons and sort according to food and non-food, you can mail them (US postage rates apply to APO addresses) to international US military bases. Family Readiness Centers usually are the ones to accept them, but it varies by base. They can use them up to 6 months expired, too. AND, the PX and Commisaries get 5 cents per coupon redeemed EXTRA to use on whatever they want - like new carts or shelving... so they are really very interested in using coupons.

My best friend lives abroad on a base and so I mail them to her. She takes the directly to the PX and Commisary where they go into a special sorting system by type (deodorant, shampoo, cake mix...) and then shoppers can sort through right there. Other bases have volunteers that will tape the coupons onto the actual items. It's a great way to support the troupes without doing or spending a whole lot extra.

I agree with doubling and tripling, you might want to check if you store does that. It makes that 25c off coupon worth a lot more. My husband does the shopping (and cooking) and he also searches the coupon websites in case there's something we normally buy on sale. We'll hold off on things like TP or laundry detergent until it goes on sale, so sometimes will have multiples of them but at least we saved money.

He also started putting the money he saved into an account to help save for a future vacation. He only started doing it a few months ago and already has built up a few hundred dollars.

Keeping coupons with me all the time was a trick that really worked for me. Occasionally I would spot something that I didn't plan on buying and it would break my heart knowing that there's possible a coupon somewhere home, that would allow me to have this item at a discounted price. So now I have a separate pocket in my purse for coupons and before I go to the cash register, I look through all my coupons and try to find something for this particular store.

Thank you for your comment! My family and I live overseas in Okinawa, Japan, and the first thing I do when I get to the commissary is check out the coupon bins to see if there is anything on my list that has a coupon. It is so great to still get the benefits of coupons over here. Please send you old coupons! They go to good use! :)

being a subscriber of the desi-style cuisine (by marriage), it's not always possible to take full advantage of the coupons since the majority of the meals are vegetarian (not many stores have produce coupons).
i used to be "heavy" into couponing to the point of acquiring a photobook and putting coupons inside: yeah, totally hardcore :).. lol..
then after a recent experience of a simple flipping of the box to find out HOW much sodium and sugar is in regular (boxed, pre-packaged) products, i had to reduce the use of coupons to almost none. even with cereals - we only have oats (more filling and healthier) than a regular dry cereal.
i miss those days of the urge discovering a 50 cent/off coupon that i know will be doubled for an item that's on sale for $1.

www.commonsensewithmoney.com
www.southernsavers.com
www.redplum.com
www.pgesaver.com

These are the top sites that I use to help me with my couponing adventures. I also have just started, but am not getting much support from the family members I live with. My children know that when I take them shopping, they dont get something that isnt on sale. When "Sugar" or "Bobo" take them, they get whatever they want. Ah the wonders of grandparenthood....

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