Last week we discussed various sources from which you can collect coupons. Assuming (which we all know we're not supposed to do and the reason why) you did your homework and have a stack of coupons to work with today, let's move on to how you can put those sweet little pieces of paper to work (to save the even sweeter pieces of paper that go into your wallet. You know, the green and white kind with faces on them.)
To repeat last week's disclaimers, I am in no way a Super Sale Guru, so if you are, apologies for the redundancy and feel free to shower me with your money-saving knowledge in a kind and loving email. This week's column is designed for folks who have never couponed or are not sure how to do it strategically.
A quick word about how to organize and sort your coupons. Everyone has a different method and it might take a bit of experimentation to find what works best for you. If you follow certain blogs with coupon databases and/or weekly coupon matchups featuring your favorite stores (a big one is CouponMom.com; for the central Ohio region I enjoy cleverlysimple.com) I'd recommend organizing your coupons by the date they were issued. When I was in a particularly intense coupon phase, I put each week's coupon insert into a three-ring binder organized by the date in which they appeared in the paper. It was very easy to find a particular coupon referenced in a matchup if I could just flip to the correct date and clip as necessary.
(A coupon matchup, if you are not aware, is when someone matches up the sales in a store's weekly ad to any coupons that are currently in circulation. If you're interested in finding some online, do a web search for "[insert store here] coupon matchups." Be aware that some ads vary by region, so it's a good idea to cross-check the matchups with your local ad.)
You can either clip only the coupons you know you'll use or keep them all until their expiration. Lately I have been saving the ones I'll use and carrying them around with me in a quart-size Ziploc bag so they're with me at all times. High-tech, I know. I also have a mini accordion folder that could serve the same purpose and would allow me to sort coupons by category (baking, beverages, personal hygiene, etc.).
Once you land on an organizational system that works for you, it's time to begin cashing in those coupons!
I can't address every grocery and drugstore in a single column, so this will be pretty basic. But it's good information to know if you're just starting out and need some framework upon which to build your couponing skills.
* Familiarize yourself with your grocery store's coupon policy. Most stores post their policies online. These should address what specific types of coupons the store does and does not accept; whether the store stacks manufacturer's and digital coupons (meaning you can use both for a single item); whether or not the store doubles coupons and, if so, by how much (example: some stores double coupons up to $.99, others up to $.50. If you take a $.75 coupon to a store that doubles to $.99, you should save $1.50 on your purchase. Often coupon doubling policies vary by region, so check with your local branch if this is not spelled out.) It's not a bad idea to print this out and take it with you when you shop.
* Don't use all your coupons right away. Hold on to them until you can pair them with a sale so that you're making the most of your money. Would you rather save $.25 on a can of gourmet sardines when it's regularly priced at $10, or when it's on sale for $8.99? Sales typically go in cycles, and once you start paying attention to what is on sale when, you'll get a good feel for when prices on certain types of items will drop.
* Don't buy something just because you have a coupon for it. Especially if it's not something you'd usually buy anyway, or if the generic version of the product is cheaper even after the coupon is used for the name-brand item.
* If a manufacturer's coupon says, "Redeem at SuperMart" and even features the SuperMart logo, it doesn't necessarily mean SuperMart is the only place that coupon can be redeemed. Unless the coupon says "Redeemable only at AwesomeMart," you can use it at any other grocery store that accepts manufacturer's coupons.
* Pay attention to the fine print. Some coupons will not double regardless of where you're shopping. Also, just because a particular product is pictured on a coupon doesn't mean that's the only thing the coupon can be used for — check the wording on the coupon for exactly what products and sizes it covers.
* Don't be too hard on yourself at first. If you're just getting started, don't expect to come away from a grocery trip having spent $15 on $100 worth of groceries just because you used coupons. Start with one or two items and expand your repertoire from there. Keep an eye out for blogs that post coupon matchups and check them out before your next grocery trip to see what you might be able to use. Eventually, with practice, you can make it to Coupon Guru status.
Then your assignment is to email me and let me know what it feels like. And maybe send me a candy bar that you got for free with a coupon.
If you have any advice about couponing, suggestions about a frugal living topic or an idea for a future column, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear from you!