Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Couponing 101

Welcome to couponing 101 on The Real Deal! If you're new to couponing, you should find the answers to most of your questions here. I have twenty years' experience in feeding a family on a tight budget, and although coupons are not the only ways I save money, they are an important part of my money saving strategy. I've structured this article like an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page. If you have questions you don't see answered here, either check out Advanced Couponing or send me an email!

1. What are coupons?

Coupons are discounts, usually in the form of paper, issued by manufacturers that allow you to save a specific dollar amount on a specific product, or family of products. Coupons are handed to the cashier during the check out process at your local store. The value of the coupon will be deducted from your total amount due. Some companies that primarily do business online will issue what are called "coupon codes" that allow you to save money on purchases at their websites by inputting those codes during the checkout process.

2. Where can I find coupons?

The easiest way to obtain coupons is in your Sunday paper. Most Sundays, the paper will include inserts from Proctor and Gamble, Red Plum, and Smart Source. You then clip the coupons for the products you will use, and add those products to your grocery list. In recent years, printable coupons have become available online. Coupons.com is the biggest source of what are called Internet Printable (or IP) coupons.

3. I support my local merchants, and I don't want them to lose out on money by using coupons...

This is a valid concern. However, coupons are issued by manufacturers, and the stores are reimbursed for every coupon that they send to the manufacturer. If your store doubles coupons, then that money is absorbed by the store; however, if a store could not afford the incentive of doubling coupons, they would not offer it. The stores figure that you will make purchases in addition to your coupon items when you shop there. You might have bought those additional purchases elsewhere if you didn't go to their store for the doubled coupons. For example, I do most of my coupon shopping at Safeway, because they double coupons. However, I also buy my produce there, whether it is on sale or not. So they are getting additional purchases from me. My little local market is not part of a chain. They can't afford to double coupons, so they don't. But they do get reimbursed by the manufacturer for every coupon I use there.

4. I often use natural or organic products. Are there coupons for those products?

Yes, but they are harder to find. I will be posting them here when I find them! However, my groceries and my household needs like baggies, toilet paper, and shampoo all come out of the same budget. If I can use coupons on those items, it frees up money in my budget to buy more all natural or organic foods.

5. What is "double coupons"?

Some stores will double the value of your coupons. For example, my Safeway doubles coupons up to $1.00. So if I have a coupon for $.55 off of one item, the store will double that so I'm actually getting $1.00 off of that item. Not all stores double coupons. You can check your store's coupon policy online.

6.  How do I keep track of my coupons?

There are many different methods for keeping track of your coupons. I use a zipper binder with baseball card and photo inserts that allow me to see each coupon. This is easiest for me. I have used the envelope method, where each group of coupons (canned goods, dairy, frozen, etc) are placed together in an envelope. You can find cute little coupon carriers online. How you keep track of them is up to you. What works for me, may not work for you.

7. When is the best time to use my coupons?

For maximum savings, it's best to hold your coupons until the item goes on sale. However, the item may not go on sale. Or you may need the item before it goes on sale. Better to use your coupon right away than to pay full price because you waited for it to go on sale and the coupon expired.

8.  Can I use expired coupons?

Most stores will not allow you to use expired coupons. You will need to check your store's coupon policy online. If I have coupons close to expiring, and I will use the item before it goes bad, I will use the coupon even if the item isn't on sale.

9.  How can I get savings like they do on "Extreme Couponing"?

Oh boy. This is going to be a long answer. It is almost impossible to replicate most of the deals seen on "Extreme Couponing." I believe that the show is inherently flawed. I have watched almost every show and I can tell you that I have witnessed shows where a particular store's coupon policies were violated, or where coupons were used fraudulently. If you watch closely, you will see that most of the purchases highlighted in the shows do not include staple items like milk, bread, or fresh produce. I don't know about you, but I have to buy milk almost every week! If milk isn't on sale, then I'm lowering my overall savings for that week.

First, it takes months to build enough of a stockpile that you don't need to buy something that isn't on sale each week. At my best point with having a stockpile, I still needed to buy lunch meat or fresh eggs or sour cream because I needed it.

Second, there are items that simply do not go on sale, or at least not very often. It's easy to stockpile soups and pasta sauce and ramen noodles, but you can't feed your family those foods all of the time. I use cornstarch on a weekly basis to thicken sauces, and it's one of those items that doesn't go on sale very often. I use rice four to six times per week, and I buy it in bulk at Sam's Club, because that's the best price. While I'm saving over buying it at Safeway or Walmart, that doesn't show up as a neat percentage on the bottom of my receipt. Even when it goes on sale, the price at Sam's Club is better.

Third, items do expire. Often, on Extreme Couponing, I see people with 12 or 14 bottles of laundry soap. Laundry soap can gel while it sits on your shelf. I make my own laundry soap. It takes about an hour of labor to make enough laundry soap for 2-3 months for my large family. Unless the Extreme Couponers are getting their laundry soap for free, then they aren't beating the price I pay. It does you no good to buy an item, even at a huge savings, if you can't use it before it expires.

Fourth, storage is an issue for most of us. I have a great pantry, and Mr. S. will be expanding it if he ever gets more than one day off a week. But even with the increased storage, I can't store $20,000 worth of food. I have outbuildings, but they aren't heated, so I can't store anything but dry goods in there-and those must be protected from bugs and mice.

All of that being said, I have had shopping trips where I have saved a phenomenal amount of money. With the price of groceries going up every week, it's really nice to be able to pay $.25 for shaving cream or $.50 for four rolls of toilet paper. But because I was buying fresh ingredients, too, my savings never hit those huge numbers. I do shop seasonally and preserve food to take advantage of sale prices, but sometimes you still need fresh cheese or yogurt. I'm pleased if, on a weekly basis, I can save 40%.

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