It’s hardly a new phenomenon, but the Internet has made it a whole lot easier, less time-consuming, and easier to spread the word. I’m talking about couponing. They’ve been in your Sunday paper since before you were born and they’re free money. The thing is most of us look at coupons as tedious work and just not cost-effective. That’s because, to be perfectly honest, we’ve been using them wrong.
Before I continue I have to tell you that I learned how to use coupons properly from the website SouthernSavers. There are other websites out there but SouthernSavers caters to my region of the country (super important) and I found her online tutorials and guides to be extremely useful. Plus she’s not annoying. If you really want to learn how to do this after reading my post, spend some time on her website, watch the Tutorials, and read the Getting Started Guides, especially the CVSing Guide.
You’re going to need a few things to start saving money:
- Computer with internet and printer
- Sunday paper either by subscription or trips to the store
- “Junk” e-mail address (for the many newsletters with special offers you want to sign up for but don’t want cluttering your “real” email address)
- Something for organizing—files, a binder with sheet protectors, envelopes
It’s going to be a lot easier to start couponing if your kitchen, pantry, and cabinets aren’t bare. If you have nothing at all, it’s going to take a few weeks to really start raking in the savings. The reason for this is because you have to make a major behavior adjustment when you start couponing. Instead of creating your shopping list based on things you want and need, you create your shopping list from sale circulars first and then take into account your wants and needs.
Using a website like SouthernSavers, you browse the weekly ad and create your shopping list. To start, you want to shoot for getting deals that are at least 50% off the regular price. This means those Buy 1 Get 1 Free deals are great to start. Then you start adding on the matched coupons from the store and/or manufacturer. If you work off the basic premise that a coupon alone or a store sale price alone is hardly ever good enough, you’ll be good to go. When you start, try not to go crazy over the best price of an item. Just remind yourself a sale plus coupon price is a million times better than regular price which is what you would have likely paid for it just a week before.
After you start and do it a few weeks, couponing can get really extensive. Many couponers keep databases and only purchase items at their lowest prices. This is practically impossible to do from the beginning and you have to dedicate yourself, and your time, to creating this. It’s obviously valuable but at the end of the day you need to decide how much time and effort you want to dedicate to this. I myself am experimenting with a database right now and you can pretty much make it as detailed as you want. You might decide to only go through the hassle for your 20 most used items for instance. Right now, I personally think this process is more important for people who live in areas with limited retailers. Being that I live in Miami, I have under 20 minute access to no less than four retailers. This means the chances of cereal, for instance, being at a great price any given week is much higher than for someone who lives with only one retailer less than 20 minutes away. For that person, a database becomes more crucial because they need to stock up knowing the item won’t be at their buy price for another 6 weeks (typical sales cycle).
Another note regarding the changes you may find cropping up when you begin couponing is regarding the stores you frequent. If you want to reduce your shopping time, I suggest you make one location your main. Now, this doesn’t mean you’re going to be retailer-loyal, quite the opposite, actually. But, becoming location loyal can help you in lots of ways including speeding up your time shopping because you’re familiar with the layout and developing relationships with clerks and managers which, when couponing, can come in handy. But be brave about venturing into stores you may have never frequented before or only did so rarely. For me, I’ve practically abandoned Winn Dixie. Between sales and coupons, Publix is now my favorite grocery store. They’re cleaner, have better service, and are doing an excellent job of getting prices down. It really took couponing to convince me of this. And of course, I’m a CVS convert. I now drive an extra mile to get to the CVS instead of the Walgreens closer to my house. I want my life to be as easy and pleasant as possible. The retailers that do that for me are the winners.
Lastly, I suggest you prepare to sacrifice as many brand loyalties as you can possibly stomach. The more flexible you and your family are, the more couponing benefits you. If you’re adamant about a particular product, I would definitely create a best price database for tracking it. Now, this ties me to my next, and final topic, regarding couponing.
A lot of us, especially fabulous and smart moms, often dismiss couponing as not worth our time because of the general assumption it’s all for junk—highly processed foods and chemically-laden products. This isn’t entirely true and with the latest innovations in green technology and the surging popularity of it, you are seeing more healthy options coming from manufacturers with coupons to match. That being said, if you really are set on completely healthy living, you’re going to have to take a few extra steps.
You can pretty much apply the same basic steps to specialty stores and items. The problem is the big blogs don’t necessarily track these things. What I would suggest is this:
- Make a list of all of the specialty products you use regularly or would like to try and the specialty stores you frequent (anyone out there say Whole Foods?)
- Go to their websites and click around until you find printable coupons and/or e-mail newsletters to sign up for and if it’s a store see if you can figure out how to find their Weekly Ad. If it’s Whole Foods, each store has its own webpage and corresponding weekly ad.
- Create and maintain a best price database (Crucial, in my opinion, where brand and/or store loyalty are not going away)
And that’s it really. Apply basics of couponing to specialty products and stores and you’ll be reaping savings in no time. Granted, they likely won’t be huge but hey it’s something. Besides you’re likely saving money already by shopping for lots of “raw materials” versus processed food.
A word to the wise: Make sure you absolutely positively give CVSing a shot. CVSing is my favorite coupon-related thing to do. For someone who likes shopping but hates the corresponding wallet damage, I think CVSing is the perfect cure. If you follow the guide on SouthernSavers, and other tips all over the internet, you will find the first purchase you make at CVS with these tips can easily be the only purchase you make with a decent amount of money out of pocket. “Decent” is subjective. I think mine was $10. Since then I’ve made purchases for 60 cents, $1.03, and $3.30 for example. And it lets you make lots of “fun” purchases like smelly stuff for you and your house, makeup, and other things some of us may consider (at least before couponing) indulgences.
One last thing about couponing: in many cases this can just be the beginning of a money-saving adventure. My employer offers us health care flexible spending accounts. These offer great tax-savings and I strongly suggest you snag one up if you have the opportunity. This is the first year I signed up for one and because I was clueless, I only went with $500. I only have $150 left, it’s June, and I haven’t even had my eye exam and ensuing purchase yet. Next year, I’m easily doubling, more likely tripling the amount. Regardless of my ill-informed decision, now that I’m couponing, all of my medical purchases are made with my FSA card, aka money I already received savings on. And if I want to go one more mile, when my surplus gets excessive, I can drive to a homeless shelter or other charity organization and make a tax-deductible donation.