Missed the first posts this series? Read them here.
We’ve talked about why you should use coupons, how to obtain coupons and how to organize coupons. However, those things alone won’t help you cut your grocery bill unless you know how to maximize your savings with coupons. So today, I want to help you take this new-found coupon knowledge and put it into practice — to your greatest advantage.
You hear me say this a lot. But I think it bears repeating: please take baby steps when you start couponing. Do not go buy 10 newspapers, get a big honkin’ coupon box, and spend 5 hours clipping coupons when you’ve never used coupons in your life. You’ll overwhelm yourself, take an enormous amount of time and probably end up exhausted and burnt out — before you’ve even saved a penny on your groceries!
Start with a few newspaper inserts and a small coupon organizer. Check out the deals at your local store (you can find weekly deals for almost all regional stores in the Store Deals section of our website). Pick a few of the best deals that you have coupons for and can use and work those into your grocery trip.
Once you’ve gotten accustomed to matching a few coupons with a few deals, take it step farther and start looking for more coupon sources and try planning a menu based upon what’s on sale at the store. Once you’re comfortable with that, start practicing the Buy Ahead Principle.
Learning things gradually will help you to stay sane, save money and time and really determine what works best for your own family.
Prioritize Your Bargain-Shopping Based Upon Your Family’s Needs
There are often many more savings opportunities than time and it’s easy to lose track of this when you get caught up in the excitement of saving! Time is money, too, so always remember that it’s okay to not hit every deal.
In fact, I encourage you to cherry pick: focus on the best deals that week for items you need. Meaning, if you already have 10 tubes of toothpaste but are almost out of shampoo, prioritize shampoo deals over toothpaste deals. If you have extra time and extra wiggle room in your grocery budget, than you can definitely stock up on other great deals, but focus on feeding your family first.
How Much You Spend Matters More Than How Much You Save
A 75% savings on your grocery bill may sound impressive, but the 25% spent is what matters most. Stick to your grocery budget — even when it means passing up good deals — and you’ll see much greater savings in the long run.
In addition, when you commit to not going over budget, you’ll find that you focus on only getting the best deals and you’ll more easily be able to pass up a nominal deal because it’s not in the budget.
What tricks and tips do you have for maximizing your savings when using coupons? I’d love to hear!
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This is dumb, but I just wanted to say I cracked up when you used the word honkin’ to describe a coupon box. I am from the midwest too, where “honkin'” is used almost as often as “big”, but live in the southwest where I’ve never heard the word used. Anyway, it made it feel somewhat home-like to read that word. 🙂
I think the first thing people need to do is know the layout of the store they use most and organize coupons in that order. I use a big box store the most, so I put them in that order (right now I use envelopes, cause it was handy when I started… changing that VERY soon). I put them in order of how I move through the store.
When you go to your next store, you should be able to find your ‘category’ fairly easily.
Maybe I am wierd and know my stores layouts… when I figured out this little tidbit, it was easier to plan my ‘attack’ on coupons, stacking, etc. I definately save more when I am organized.
I had used coupons very casually on and off. I am very good at only buying things on sale, but just recently – like 3 weeks ago became interested in using coupons to maximize savings.
I want to save for a house, and only work 20 hours a week. My husband works 50 hours a week at a middle-class blue collar job. The only place I can think of to cut expenses is groceries, unless I cancel cable. But I don’t want to live like a pauper. I do call Comcast every year to renew the promotional rate, but I would rather switch to the dish. I feel cable price gouges their customers. But the hubby is committed to cable, convinced that if we went to the dish we would have to switch from cable internet to DSL and he’s not convinced the connection is as good. But I digress.
I just feel like I made one big mistake already – I just used a lot of ink and paper – like 100 sheets printing coupons off the internet. I suspect I’m only supposed to print them when I can match them with a sale, by using a coupon database.
Boy I’ll never do that again.
I’m also learning to watch the register. I noted after I got home that two stores did not ring up the sale price on a couple of items.
My challenge is deciding which store has the best deals that week. I used to alternate between BJ’s, Wal-Mart and my local Big Y when there were good sales.
I note that BJ’s has the best deal on milk in my area, running between $2 – 2.26 for a gallon skim milk. Milk usually runs between $3-4 in my area. The next best price I found was at a gas station this week for $2.69.
However, I fear I may be overspending on other items at BJ’s. I originally joined to save on buying diapers in bulk, but I have yet to buy any diapers at BJ’s. I am finding better deals by combining sales, coupons and extra bucks at CVS.
I feel a little less confident in knowing the best deals on other items. I also have found myself running all over town, making 3 small trips a week chasing deals. I’m not sure that is the most practical approach either.
I have started to price check items on my grocery list before I go and buy. Due to our bills, I try to buy for a month at a time, we are also on wic, so that cuts our milk budget.
For example, I had some extra time betwee the end of class and the time I had to pick DS up. I popped into the commisary to look at prices of items that are on my grocery list, so I have a fairly good idea of what my total is going to be (coupons not taken off). I’m glad I did. Herbal Essence is on price cut until June (normally $2.59, on sale for $2.01; making it $1 after coupons). Hubby loves Herbal Essence (I can use whatever we have), at that price I will get it and we are stocked up on conditioner and shampoo for awhile.
Like a lot of people these days, I go with a list. I have a little notebook, that I keep. I go and write out my list, then go through my binder and see what I have coupons for. When I find a coupon that matches an item, I pull it and highlight that item. I also keep a list of Target and CVS (my most shopped stores).
If I have a BOGO coupon or a buy this item and get $$ off this item, I try to find a coupon for the item I have to buy. For example, there was a $1.50 off ground beef when you buy 2 Classico Sauces. Just before that coupon expired, a lot of Classico coupons came out. I planned my trip, I bought the smallest ground beef packages I could find. We use ground beef a lot for dinner, it was worth it (and I found an item I had not seen at my grocery store). Or the Gillette coupons in last Sunday’s paper, buy the deodorant and the get body wash. Free if your Dollar General carries both items.
The biggest strategy in the last two months for saving money is to stay away from the grocery store – not going after the deals every week. There was a “Eat from the Pantry” challenge back in January (I think). I didn’t do it then, but now apply those types of principles more frequently. I know that there will be larger grocery trips on some weeks when I am stocking up, but I’m spending less than my weekly trips. My budget is $400/month for a family of four where I routinely feed extra people.
My mom was a coupon clipper and so I learned some of the basics from her. I’ve watched this blog for a few months now and realized earlier this spring that I was chasing too many deals. I had two “catalina” coupons expire on me from items purchased that I didn’t really need or use. I had to slow down at that point. My biggest temptation is using a coupon before it expires, even if it’s not the best deal.
It’s important to me to eat a limited amount of processed food and and earth friendly cleaning products. There aren’t a ton of coupons for fresh produce out there and I’ve given myself permission to still buy it – but focus on what is in season and what is on sale!
I have a post on my blog about my overall strategy for saving money which includes couponing, but like someone commented above, it is not the main thing that saves me money. I feed my family of six (including two teenagers!) for about $100 a week. Here’s the link if you want to read more: http://thepeacefulmom.com/2010/01/17/how-to-save-big-on-groceries-2/
I go grocery shopping twice a month. My local Acme grocery store has sales running from Friday to Thursday. On Thursday night I go to the store, and both sales – the one ending that Thursday night, and the new one starting the next mornings – are both in the computer system, so I can shop two sales at once. A cashier told me this a few months ago and I am forever grateful for that tip! Even if all the little signs aren’t up on the sale items, they never fail to ring up at the right price. I always go after 8 pm and it is pretty empty 🙂 So nice to only have to shop twice instead of every week to get the deals!
@Marlene, Lucky! That would be awesome! ( I shop at multiple stores but it would be nice to be able to do this at my main store, or heck even one that I only go to for the really good deals)
I am a big store brand person. We use as much store brand at places like Target as we can. I always compare my coupon savings with the store brand price. Many times I have left the name brand coupon on the shelf for the “not so thrifty shopper” and stuck with the store brand. Diapers is a great example, even with a $3 coupon I still pay more per diaper for Huggies than the UP and UP (which are exactly like Huggies). Yes, there are a few items that I buy name brand—I can’t do without my Tide! 🙂 But I’ve found that most store brand items are just as good and then I don’t have to focus so much on getting the best deal.
I definitely sacrifice some deals because I like the simplicity of shopping at one store each week. Lately I’ve been trying to hit up two stores when they are both having deals I don’t want to pass up.
Also, just because something is a good deal doesn’t mean I buy it! If it’s a good deal, but it still costs $5, and it’s not something we normally buy, then I pass it up! I can use that $5 to buy something we actually need – and stay within our budget. Learned that the hard way!
The other thing I found now that I practice stockpiling and couponing is that nagging list on the fridge of items we need is almost non-existent! This defintely reduces the grocery budget because you are not forced to buy items at the normal price. Now I just go shopping in my basement to get the items I need!
I definitely agree to planning your trips. I plan each of my trips every week usually CVS, Walgreens, and Giant Eagle. I walk into the store with my list and coupons, thats it! Makes it go a lot quicker and you only get the items you need.
Finally, don’t be nervous! I still get a little nervous expecially in Giant Eagle to make sure I work the deals right, take your time and watch the coupons at the register to make sure they scan right. Also fight for your coupons, if it is for the product you bought, make sure you get the coupon taken off or have the cashier remove the item for you bill!
I would encourage those starting out to get familiar with the fine print, and know if you can actually apply the coupon to that product. I would get so frustrated early on because the register would not take a coupon I had, because I hadn’t paid attention and the item I had chosen wasn’t exactly what the coupon was for. This took some of the fun out of it for me in the beginning. Plus, honestly, you want the cashiers on your side and if you try to get through with a bum coupon deal too many times, they remember! I like to build trust in those relationships because I see those people all the time, in addition to it just being the right thing to do.
I leave my coupon box in the car, so I’m not tempted to comb through it if I spot a deal I missed. I won’t buy an item without a coupon, and I usually forget about it soon after.
I have a price in my head that I strive to reach before I will buy a product. So if I have a high value coupon for Pampers but it still doesn’t make the diapers cheaper than Target, I’ll stick with the Target brand. But then, I’m not picky about diapers! I can count on one hand the number of items to which I am brand-loyal, mostly due to hubby preferences 🙂
Most importantly, PLAN AHEAD! I can’t emphasize this enough. I certainly don’t grab my inserts or coupon box and just head straight to the store to pick things at random! That would be crazy, and I’ve already tried it that way 🙂 I show up prepped, selected coupons in hand along with my grocery list, and this way I feel so much more organized and not at all frazzled. I can be in and out of the store in less than 30 minutes if I have to- two kids in the cart.
@chelsea, I totally agree with the coupons picked out and a list in your hand ( & the kid part, I have 2 little ones too). When I first started I would get so nervous, especially when an item would be free. I felt guilty or like I was stealing. Now I go in with my list and coupons together get my stuff and don’t think twice about it. I think having my list made me feel more confident about what I was doing and I always calculate how much everything is going to be and underneath, I write my best guess including tax in parentheses. Of course this is wrong 90% of the time lol but close enough I have a idea with tax. This allows me to be alerted if the total is much of a difference. ( I have had quite a few trips that the cashier hadn’t taken off all the coupons, my worst experiences are with Target.)
Stephanie Burley says
I have couponed leisurely for the past couple of years, but have become more serious and strategic in my couponing within the last six to eight months.
There are a couple of things that I had to determine right away. One is that I would not try to keep up with my couponing friends, and another is that I would not buy things that I would not use. These two things are important for my situation because I work outside of the home, have numerous work and church responsibilities, and have four young children. I simply cannot “afford” to spend an excessive amount of time chasing deals, printing coupons, etc. I love CVS deals (love to stack), and for groceries I either use tons of manufacturers coupons at Meijer (often stacked with their coupons) or I price match at WalMart and use coupons. I have started to stockpile household staples, and I have found that my life has become so much more free without the frequent trips to WalMart for the basics.
Thanks so much for providing this website! It encourages me, and gives me many helpful tips!
I totally agree with the statement “How Much You Spend Matters More Than How Much You Save.” I know many people who will get something because “it’s such a great deal!”, but if they didn’t buy it at all it would be an even better deal!
I used to be guilty of scouring the endcaps at Target for all the clearance deals and ended up bringing home stuff we didn’t really need, but I was so thrilled to get something 75% or 90% off I didn’t think about it much. Now that I’ve gone to a much more simple lifestyle, attempting to only buy what we really need, my spending has gone way down and the balance in my savings account way up! Saving money can be addicting, but damaging if one doesn’t keep within a budget. Great post, Crystal!
Oh girl- I am guilty of browsing through the clearance sections at Target too! Now, I literally have to avoid the sections altogether to keep myself out of trouble.
Lauren @ Just Add Lauren says
I agree that my biggest problem is trying to up my savings PERCENTAGE instead of focusing on my total grocery budget. This is a slippery slope, because you can tend to use coupons for items that you wouldn’t necessarily even want, just because you have a coupon and can save money on it. The only time I do that now is when I can get it for free or VERY cheap (like less than .50)
I think it is also important to know what the good prices are in your area. I was telling my mom a while back that I by organic milk marked down at safeway (50% off) for around $2.50 per gallon, and that was nice because it is only about .75 more expensive than the regular milk (which is $1.88 in my area). She was flabbergasted and said that milk in her area runs around $3-4 per gallon. Each region is different, so know what a good price in your area is.
You’re right that it’s so easy to get caught up in how much you’re saving. It’s even worse when you have a friendly competitor who gloats that her latest trip showed a 52% savings compared to your paltry 51%.
I’m doing much better with my shopping since I adopted a monthly budget and now aim to stay within or below that amount, regardless of the percentage of savings.
I second that advice to read, read, read. If there’s a bargain blogger who regularly shops the stores in your area, he or she is likely to post those unadvertised deals and tell how that store handles different coupons and situations. Without a blogger that shops in your area, the forums at both A Full Cup and Hot Coupon World are full of tips.
Here here Crystal! I just did a seminar at our local library on saving at the grocery store. I expressed over and over…that I do not save the most with couponing…I save the most by having a set budget and buying only what I need for each weeks menu. I kept stressing that having some sort of budget that you refuse to go over really helps in deciding if it is truly a deal or not..couponing comes third in my process 🙂 Budget, Menu, then coupon 🙂
I’m in the same boat as Diane. I have just started and find myself getting all excited about a good deal and using my “Great” coupons only to find out a week later that if I had saved that coupon, I could have gotten the same thing for free. I’ve already figured out that I can pretty much always get cleaning supplies and personal care items for free or very close to free, but I’m wondering what other items I could be getting for free if I just wait long enough.
@Patrice, Watch the prices/deals over about 3 months time and you will have a better idea of when an item is at its absolute lowest price and which items occasionally are free.
@Patrice, Just to name a few things I can typically get free:
Frozen Veggies, birdseye or green giant (steamers)
Cereal (usually general mill, whatever select kind at the time)
These are sometimes free things:
spices, only certain ones I tend to get free
These are things I have gotten free, but not very often:
Bagel bites (this was only once or twice, $1.00 coupon on website and these were ten for ten)
Buns (more hot dog than hamburger)
These are things I get really cheap often:
Betty crocker scalloped potaotes
tony’s single serve pizzas
super soft pretzels
Pork and beans
popcorn ( not as often as the others but usually 20 cents when I do buy it)
There is others but that is a quick list that I can think of right off the top of my head. I have gotten other things cheap and free, but they were only a one time thing or a coupon for a free product.
One thing I try to do is use my OYNO coupons to purchase my meat. The OYNO coupons are typically good for 2 to 4 weeks and I watch meat prices during this time and purchase it when its on sale. (of course if the OYNO coupons are rolling, I roll them first. And sometimes I dont need the meat and actually need something else, but just in general I go by this)
Also just like I said to Diane, you may be in a different area so this might not be typical prices and low’s in your area.
Hope this helped some!
@Dani, O and by really cheap I mean around 50 cents or less.
I also clip only the coupons on products that my family uses plus the ones that I know will yield free products that are good donation items. However, I have a paper recycle bin in my laundry room that I put the leftover inserts into so if a great deal does come up, I should have those coupons still within easy reach.
I do the same thing…I go through the inserts and find what I normally use. The rest go in a stack and I reference them when someone posts a good deal! My coupon wallet is smaller that way.
I have a question for experienced couponers out there. I am just starting to use them and am curious what the “good deals” are. I realize this does vary by your area, but in general, could people give me some prices that they think are deals? For example, now that I am really paying attention to prices, I realize that I was paying about 1.99/lb for chicken and just saw a deal on it for 1.69/lb. But is the 1.69 really a deal or have I just been paying way too much before? 🙂 Maybe give me prices you shoot for on chicken, beef, pasta, and produce? I really appreciate it!
@Diane, I can usually get Chicken for 1.59 on sale. This usually comes around every two or three months. From time to time I might find a better deal, but not usually. I usually buy enough at the 1.59/lb range to last abou three months. Then if something better comes along in between (rarely happens) I stock up good and canskip the next 1.59/lb sale. I usually get noodles for free, but at the most I pay is 50 cents. When they are free, I stock up with the coupons I have. When they are 50 cents I buy what I need for that week’s meals only. Produce will take me forever to go through each thing (& sorry don’t have that time right now). Hope this helps a little bit, but also keep in mind we could be in total different areas which could affect our prices. Just pay attention for the next few months and the longer you do this the more you will realize your area’s lows!
@Dani, Thank you-I appreciate your feedback!
@Diane, Also I would say (without knowing your lows of course) the 1.69/ lb is a buy price for your chicken. ( not sure if this is boneless or not though. My buy (stock up) price of 1.59/lb is boneless. I would buy at 1.69/lb here if I needed meat)
@Dani, I live in So Cal. I have a “Virtual Price Book” that I have just made available online. This database lists the highest & lowest prices /ea I’ve seen on thousands of items in the last 6 months. You can find it here: http://myfrugalicious.net/myfrug/prices/view/item/ASC/ALL/ALL/
@Misty, Sorry Dani, I meant to reply to Diane.
@Diane, I make my price cap at what the generic brand sale price is. For example, Suave shampoo is 89 cents at Target (every day price). So I am willing to pay up to 89 cents (after sale/coupon/ECB/etc) for a bottle of shampoo. Cereal, $1 per box. Chix $2/lb for BLSL breasts, 99 cents if it has bones. Can soup/beans, dry pasta, 50 cents. Cheese $2/pound. Produce is a bit harder to balance organic/in season/local with price. Just to be totally honest, I do cheat the price cap for some of out most favorite items–Tillamook cheddar cheese, Kashi cereal, my face moisturizer.
Prices can really vary regionally, so what works for me maybe waaaay off in your neighborhood.
@karen, Thank you! I appreciate it.
I’m not sure if anything has been posted on here, but Jenny at southern savers did list a buy price list that was very helpful in knowing when to stock up on items. It is kind of specific to the Southeast…. but is a a good idea of what the stock up price is.
Here is the link http://www.southernsavers.com/2010/02/using-a-buy-price-list/
@Meegan, Thank you for the list…it helps!
And I thought if I got brownies, cake mix or pasta (not whole grain) at $1 a box that was a good deal. I’ll have to keep an eye out for 40 cents and 75 cents a box.
I have started feeding my family only whole wheat pasta. What would be a good price for whole wheat pasta?
@Angie, You can get whole wheat pasta pretty cheap too if you find coupons. There aren’t any out now but Barilla has done some, I think they were $1/2, so if you wait until they’re on a really good sale you should be able to get them under $1. If you’ll settle for Ronzoni Smart Taste (not whole wheat, but has added vit/min) you can get them for free with $1 coupons when they’re on sale for $1.
@Diane, It definitely varies by area and by store. The more you do it, the better you will understand what a good price is. For now, when you see chicken is $1.59/lb. stock up because it is less than you were paying. Maybe you see it for less, than stock up a little more if you have space. It takes practice and some patience! I did a post awhile ago on some of the stock-up prices: http://savingsaints.blogspot.com/2010/01/tock-up-worthy-master-list.html
@Dawn, Thank you for your list…I’m starting to get a better feel for what good prices are. I’ve been paying way too much for diapers!
Mary S. says
@Diane, I have had some of the same problems as you. I could tell when I was getting a good price but wasn’t sure yet if it was stock up level low. What I did was I started saving my receipts and I made a spreadsheet (though you could just use a piece of paper) and once I week I figured out what I had spent on certain items after coupons and sales. I did this for a couple months and by the end I was able to see where the low points were and shoot for that price or lower.
Diane, first… I’d say anything less than what you were paying for is where to start.
As you get more experience, you’ll learn what the “right” price is for your area.
Also… the list of “free” items will grow. I laugh these days when I think of all the things I used to pay real money for, and now, I have enough stockpiled that I won’t take it out of a store unless their paying me.
Go with Crystal’s baby step idea. Any price that is lower than what you’re used to paying is a step in the right direction. Before you know it… you’ll be that “experienced couponer” offering advice and encouragement to people.
@kandle, Thank you! I was starting to feel almost guilty for paying more, but you’re right, any money saved over what I was spending is better than nothing. I am definitely paying attention now.
@Diane, I live in So Cal. I have a “Virtual Price Book” that I have just made available online. This database lists the highest & lowest prices /ea I’ve seen on thousands of items in the last 6 months. You can find it here: http://myfrugalicious.net/myfrug/prices/view/item/ASC/ALL/ALL/
@Misty, Thank you for this. We do a lot of shopping at Costco, so this is really helpful to see if we are really getting the best price.
I would add, read, read, read, read.
When I was starting out (I started reading here first), I read back through the archives of how deals worked. I read for almost a month before I gave it a shot. By that time, I felt like I had enough information about how it should go, and how it could go. Also, through comments from others, I had a good sense of when to stand my ground and when it was a “YMMV” situation.
Also, while I was reading, I was collecting coupons. I knew I was going to need them, and figured better to have them (we already were getting the sunday paper).
So when I was ready, I was able to jump in, feeling fairly confident and I think the store appreciated that I was fairly well organized, and knew what I was doing.
@kandle, Ditto! I did similar stuff when I was starting out, and I was still nervous as a cat walking past a dog the first couple times, but having read so much and knowing how things were going to work really made it very easy to get into.
Jenni @ Life from the Roof says
This was very well written. I wish I had had this when I first started couponing – it is so easy to think that “more is better” when it comes to bargain finding, but sometimes it’s better just to take a few deals that will give you the most bang for your buck.
I think the principle of “stacking” has helped me the most when it comes to coupons, especially at CVS where I’ve started to scan my Extra Care card more recently. They will give you really good coupons that you can use in addition to ones you already have. Paired with a store sale, you can really save.
When I’m limited for time, I also tend to just clip coupons on items that will really save us the most money and that we use a lot. For example, saving on a tube of toothpaste or body wash may be great, but it takes us awhile to go through that toothpaste and body wash, so the “savings per month” isn’t as much as if we had gotten 4 packages of diapers, which we would go through a lot quicker, and which cost us a lot more.
2 things come to mind.
First, the issue of not being tempted to use a coupon when really, I know it’s not the best deal I can get. Sometimes having a high value coupon is exciting enough for me to want to use it on a less than stellar deal. For example, Oscar Meyer lunch meat is on sale for $3.50 at our store. With my $1 coupon I can get it for $2.50. But the package is only 9oz so that’s still almost $5 a pound. That is waaaay more than I budget for meat. In the meat department I can get an entire ham for $1.98 a lb!
Second, not putting too much pressure on myself regarding coupons. During the week, my binder stays in a basket on my dresser. As coupons and inserts fall into my hands I tos them in the basket too. Then on Sunday afternoon, after church and the babies are napping I sit down with my coffee and toss expireds and add my new coupons. It’s usually only an hour tops and I’m ready to start the week.
I agree it is tempting to use a high value coupon when you first get it. How do you know though if next week you may find an even better sale? I also get frustrated when I have taken the time to print out a coupon and then not use it because I never found that great sale.
@jenney, Oscar Mayer oven roasted turkey breast Deli Meat is on price cut for $1.52 at my Target this week. They also have a coupon on their website, I think it’s B3G1 free. I didn’t need that much lunch meat but I used two $1 off coupons to get two packs for $1.04. That’s worth it!