Guide to Extreme Couponing

One routine that my family had when growing up was the weekly trip to the grocery store. It was something that we did every Saturday morning. And, even though I was young, I was shocked at how much it costs to feed the family for the week.

Today, I know first-hand how expensive it is to go shopping. Of course, that varies on where you live and the size of your household. But, the average household grocery ranges from $314 to $516 a month. And, considering that the cost of groceries has been rising at the fastest pace in decades because if the coronavirus pandemic, learning how to save you hard-earned money is more important then ever.

Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to save on groceries. Sticking to a budget, figuring sales cycles, trying out different stores, freezing and storing food, and buying generic are all proven strategies.

You could also try growing your own veggies or paying with cash. More recently, I’ve resisted spontaneous purchases by shopping online and picking my order up at the store.

But, there is another tried and true technique. And, that’s good old couponing.

What kind of couponer are you?

When it comes to being a “couponers,” not all are created equal. Most fall into the casual couponer category. They take advantage of deals like “buy one, get one,” have earned rewards through an app, or spend a couple of minutes searching for coupons, sales, or rebates on their favorite items. While the savings are minimal, it’s better than nothing.

Beyond the casual coupon, there are the folks who skip brand-name products for their generic counterparts. Others are more competitive and self-disciplined. They only buy items that are on sale and can be combined with a manufacturer’s coupon. While both types can save big at the store, they have nothing on extreme couponers.

These are the people who can save up to an astounding 90% to 100% on their grocery bills. How? By combining the three other types, as well as using a manufacturer’s coupon and a store coupon simultaneously. They also make bulk purchases. Or, at the very least, know-how to get bulk prices on individual items — like applying a $5 off your purchase coupon in addition to sale items.

Extreme couponing: the good and the bad.

Thanks to the TLC show and 24/7 content consumption, extreme couponing has become a divisive topic. Some believe that this concept is too well, extreme. There are people who are seemingly addicted to couponing. They spend hours clipping coupons in order to stockpile and hoarding items just because they’re on sale.

On the flip side, this is a habit that can definitely save you money. Even better, some clever individuals have put this skill to good use. For example, in 2016 a college student donated over $100,00 in supplies to those in need. Brillant!

However, extreme couponing doesn’t have to go too far — either for good or bad. It doesn’t have to become an obsession that controls a portion of your life. At the end of the day, it’s really about saving money and shopping smarter.

To ensure that that you don’t take couponing too far and save big here’s an introductory guide on extreme couponing to get you started. After making the initial time investment, you’ll become a lean, mean shopping machine with little effort going forward.

Ensure that you need the item before buying it.

“The very purpose of coupons from the manufacturer’s standpoint is to get you to buy their product. Make sure you’re using coupons in a way that helps you get ahead,” Bri Bell, a registered dietitian and avid couponer, told U.S. News. “For example, getting a $5 item for only $1 after coupons sounds like a great deal. And it is unless you don’t end up using it. Then you just wasted that $1.”

Mary Potter Kenyon, author of “Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America’s Extreme Obsession,” adds that many coupons really aren’t worth it. “You will always find coupons for unhealthy frozen food products like pizza rolls and cold cereals, but sometimes it’s worth the extra money and time to make your own pizza rolls or cook up a pot of oatmeal. In other words, just because you have a coupon doesn’t mean you should buy the product,” she says.

Know where to find coupons.

You can’t coupon unless you have, well, have coupons. Luckily, they are readily available.

  • Inserts within your local Sunday paper or weekly flyers.
  • Magazines, such as “Better Homes & Garden Magazine,” are known for containing coupons.
  • Websites like Coupons.com, The Krazy Coupon Lady, Groupon, Ibotta, and Rakuten. They offer either printable or digital coupons, while others provide cashback or rewards.
  • Blinkies are coupons located in the “blinking” machines at the grocery store.
  • Catalinas the coupons that are printed out with your receipt.
  • Peelies are products that have a coupon attached to the product.
  • Tearpads are found on special displays at the store.
  • Apps, such as your preferred grocery stores, have exclusive deals and rewards for your loyalty.
  • Tools like Instacart, Price Cruncher, and Basket Savings can be used to compare grocery store prices.

If you clip or print out physical coupons, make sure that you have the right tools like scissors and a printer. You also need an organizing system like a coupon binder or envelopes.

When to look for and use coupons?

Now that you’ve found and organized your coupons, it’s time to put them to good use. But, if you really want to get the most bang for your buck, you need to strategic by knowing exactly when to use them.

Preferably, this is when there is a sale. To make this less of a guessing game, determine sales cycles. There’s a handy infographic from Living Rich With Coupons that can help. For instance, in January diet foods are on sale, while holiday items are in clearance.

When to look for coupons? Research from Deal News had found that we should look for coupons during the first of the month and early in the week. Coupons are also released around holidays and special occasions. And, the highest levels occur at the end of August and the end of October.

“When you have a good idea of when coupons are being released and some of the general patterns stores tend to follow, you can coordinate savings for your own purchases accordingly,” writes Sarah Jones. “It can help give you that bit of extra edge in your own savings game.”

Know the rules, etiquette, and policies of couponing.

Before you get too carried away, find out what your store’s coupon policy is by visiting the customer service department at your local store. Make sure to inquire about the following:

  • Is there a loyalty card? If so, what are the benefits of signing up?
  • Does the store double or even triple coupons? For instance, if you have a 50¢ coupon will the store automatically double it to make an even dollar?
  • Are you allowed to stack coupons? What this means is combining a store coupon with a manufacturer coupon.
  • Does the store accept coupons for competitors or offer price matching?
  • Does the store accept digital and printable coupons?
  • Will they honor expired coupons?

Additionally, make sure that you don’t engage in unethical, or potentially illegal, behavior like:

  • Making copies of coupons.
  • Knowingly using fraudulent coupons.
  • Refusing to use the coupon as intended. For example, if the coupon is $1 off a 12 oz. bag of Seattle’s Best regular coffee, don’t try to use it on a bag of decaf.
  • Be aware of the limitations. If you’re allowed five coupons for five of the products at one time, then that’s the final deal.

Set aside time.

You don’t have to necessarily spend hours and hours couponing. But, it still requires a time investment to sort and organize your coupons. What’s more, it also will take time to plan your shopping trip.

Usually, this is based on knowing how much you use to prevent hoarding and wasted and future plans. For instance, if you’re having a birthday dinner, then you’ll probably want to look for coupons for items for this specific event.

I know that time is a limited resource for most of us. The good news is that you can squeeze in time to coupon during lulls. Examples would be during your commute to work or while you’re watching football on Sundays.

Another idea would be cutting back time on other activities like if you read for 30-minutes each night, reduce that to 25-minutes, and spend the other 5 on couponing.

Another great way to save time? Use tools like Honey or Pouch. They will automatically apply any available discounts when you checkout.

Plan your shopping spree.

You’ve put in the time and effort. Now it’s time to go shopping and use those coupons!

Not so fast though. You need to have a plan of action ahead of your shopping to make the experience as painless and effective as possible.

For starters, avoid going to the store during peak hours. Usually, this would be on the weekend or ahead of a holiday. Stores can also get hectic after work as people are picking items for dinner. Data from Retail Aware found that midweek mornings, particularly Wednesdays and Thursdays, have the fewest shoppers.

You should also become familiar with the layout of your store so that you know where everything is located. You should also be friendly to employees so that they won’t find you to be a nuisance. And, if the store is out of an item, make sure to get a rain check.

Furthermore, always make sure to make a list and stick to it so that you won’t buy items you don’t need. I’d also recommend that you buy in bulk and forget brand loyalty, Sure, there are times when things are non-negotiable, personally there is only one type of ketchup and that’s Heinz. The idea here is to find the best deal possible.

And, make sure that you don’t get fooled by any tricky. One of the most prevalent examples of this is the 10/$10 promotion. You do not have to buy 10 items to get the $1 price unless specifically states — which is rare. Another is the “One per purchase” rule. What it means is that you’re only allowed to use one coupon per item purchased. So, if you have 5 items and 5 coupons you can use them all.

From my experience, you should also watch the cashier make sure that they are scanning all of your coupons. And, always double-check your receipt before leaving.

Create your own grocery stockpile.

Here’s why you’ve been couponing — to accumulate a reserve of groceries and household essentials when they’re on sale. During the pandemic, this was important for so many people has it helped them save money and limit trips to the store.

However, there are some key points to remember when building your stockpile.

  • Start small so that you don’t go over budget — the following tools can also help you budget. Remember, this building a stockpile is a process and takes time.
  • Only purchase what you’ll use. If you hate tuna fish, then why buy it just because it’s on sale?
  • Be aware of how much space you have. If your freezer is already packed with frozen meats and veggies, then don’t look for these coupons since you already have enough.
  • Know how much you use. I eat the occasional bowl of cereal. But, I’m not going to take advantage of a 4 for $10 deal because they will probably go to waste.
  • Pay attention to non-perishables. Unless you have the room to freeze certain items, try to stock up on items that have a long shelf life.
  • If you did go overboard, then donate whatever you aren’t going to use to someone who is in need.

Final words of advice.

Extreme couponing may have gotten a bad rap over the years. While it’s true that some people have taken this concept too far, in reality, it’s an effective way to save money. However, that’s only possible if you put in a little legwork and only purchase what you’re going to actually use.

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I'm Chalmers and I'm the Co-Founder and CTO of Due.com.

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