With gas prices rising, high unemployment, and inflation poised to spiral out of control, your talent for cutting household expenses is becoming more and more important. You can slash services like yard landscaping and premium cable channels, and you can reduce your utility bills by using electricity, gas, and water more sparingly. But what about everyday necessities like feeding your family and maintaining your home?
The average American family spends between $500 and $1,100 every month on groceries, toiletries, cleaning products, pet items, clothes, and simple entertainment costs. You know you can make some sacrifices to get from the high end of that range to the low end. But can you really reduce or even eliminate some of these costs without giving up on good nutrition and hygiene?
You absolutely can.
I still shake my head in disbelief when I look at what my family has saved in just the first three months of this year.
- January: We paid $474.59 for $2,088.27 worth of products (groceries and toiletries), saving $1,673.70 or 77%.
- February: We paid $402.85 for $2,369.40 worth of products, saving $1,966.55 or 82.99%. And we’re awaiting $305.94 more in rebates.
- March: We paid $361.19 for $3,122.63 worth of products, saving $2,767.44 or 88.43%.
That’s a total of $1,238.63 we’ve spent on $7,580.30 worth of name-brand groceries, toiletries, and cleaning products. We saved 84%($6,341.67 in savings) in three months without sacrificing quality by using discount grocery coupons.
With the tips below, it won’t take extreme time and effort for you to become an extreme couponer too.
But before we get into the strategies, let’s first take a look at the different types of couponers and assess which category you currently fit into.
The 4 Types of Couponer
I love snacks, so I recently printed out a coupon for $0.55 off of one 4.5-oz. Chex Mix bag from Coupons.com. But how much money I really save with this coupon depends on what level of couponing I’m at.
There are essentially four levels of couponing that range from casual to extreme. Levels 1 and 2 are well-known, but levels 3 and 4 are starting to become more popular. If you haven’t heard of these couponing strategies before, you could be missing out on a whole world of saving.
Level 1: The Casual Couponer
This is where many people find themselves. Most people hand over less than 10 coupons for a cart full of groceries. This normally saves a few bucks off the entire order.
Let’s say I take my Chex Mix coupon to a grocery store or drug store. I find the Chex Mix for $2.99 and hand over my coupon. I’ll spend $2.44 after the $0.55 in savings.
Level 2: The Generic-Brand Shopper
Many people also find themselves in this category. They’ve figured out they can save more money overall if they buy the generic brand over the name brand, even if they have a coupon for the name brand. By shopping solely for generic brands, they can easily save $200 to $300 per month without clipping a single coupon.
I can save more than $0.55 on my snack run if I throw my Chex Mix coupon out and buy the generic mix at $1.49 a bag. The generic mix might cost me $1.49, saving me $1.50 – a significantly better deal than if I were a Level-1 Couponer.
The problem for me is that I prefer the name brand over the generic – it just tastes different to me. If you’re in the same boat as me and prefer name brands, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. There are still two more levels left to go.
Level 3: The Coupon Deal Shopper
When the circumstances are just right, you can save more money buying the name-brand stuff than the generic brands. Items frequently go on sale, and when they do, the Coupon Deal Shopper capitalizes on the opportunity. They combine a store sale with a manufacturer’s coupon and get an item for pennies or even free. Many take it a step further and upload their receipt to Ibotta or Fetch Rewards for even greater savings.
If I wait for a sale, I can save even more money on Chex Mix than if I bought generic. For example, I happen to know that Walgreens puts Chex Mix on sale for $0.99 about once a month. During this sale week, my $0.55 coupon will get me the item for $0.44. That’s an 85% savings and way better than buying the generic mix.
The Coupon Deal Shopper saves 70% to 95% on everything they buy because they follow two rules:
- Don’t buy it if it’s not on sale.
- Always combine a sale with a coupon.
Saving at this level requires extra effort. You must clip and organize your coupons and be patient. But by spending about two to three hours per week, you can save 70% to 95% on everything you buy at the grocery store and drug store. The tradeoff could definitely be worth it.
Level 4: The Extreme Couponer
Did you know you can use a manufacturer’s coupon and a store coupon on the same item? Well, you can.
Did you know you can use two coupons on a buy-one, get-one-free sale? You can do that too.
Setting up bigger and better deals is what the Extreme Couponer does. They take the same measures as the Coupon Deal Shopper, but then they look for multiple deals. Why get just one deal when you can get three or four all at once? To this end, it’s not unusual for an Extreme Couponer to have four Sunday newspapers delivered to their home, solely for the extra coupons.
For example, at my local grocery store, Ken’s Steakhouse Ranch Dressing costs $3.29 for a 16-oz. bottle. Sometimes, it goes on sale for $1.65 per bottle. So I use four $1.00-off coupons from the Sunday newspapers during the sale and get four bottles at $0.65 a pop. I combine two big deals at once and walk away with 80% savings multiple times.
If you can get your hands on more coupons, go back to the store and do it again. Stockpile your deals because it might be another month or so before the item goes on sale again.
Lastly, Extreme Couponers also make good use of store coupons. For example, say your grocery store offers a coupon for $5 off a $20 purchase. You could walk into the store, buy at least $20 worth of great deals, and take another $5 off the total. It makes a sweet deal even sweeter. You’re essentially buying individual items in bulk at prices that are even better than buying in bulk.
The ultimate savings scenario is to combine three types of coupons – store coupons, manufacturer’s coupons, and store sales – all at the same time.
So, which level of couponer are you? Is it worth your time to become an Extreme Couponer to save 90% to 100% on everything you buy? If you answered yes, read on for a step-by-step guide to the ins and outs of extreme couponing.
An Example of Extreme Couponing
Extreme couponing isn’t as crazy as it may sound. You don’t have to let coupons dominate your life, and you don’t have to be embarrassed at the cash register. You just need to find the right moves to use coupons in conjunction with store sales and promotions, and then enjoy the satisfaction of getting items for free or close to free.
It’s all about timing. Instead of immediately using a coupon you find in the Sunday paper, you hold on to coupons until items go on sale to maximize your savings.
For example, suppose Butterball turkey bacon normally costs $3.29 at your grocery store, and you find a $2-off coupon. If you use your coupon right away, you’ll pay $1.29. But if you hold on to the coupon for three weeks, after the initial rush when everyone else used the coupon, the store will still be trying to move more turkey bacon. Now it’s on special, with a two-for-$5 deal. That means the price is only $2.50 each, so you can use your $2 coupon and pay just $0.50. You save $2.79 just by holding out.
That’s tough to beat, but this example can go even further. Suppose the store issues a coupon for $5 off a $20 purchase. If you collect 10 extra copies of that original $2 coupon, you could follow this simple math for incredible savings:
- Buy 10 packages of Butterball turkey bacon on a two-for-$5 special: $25
- Use your 10 manufacturer’s coupons: -$20
- Use the $5-off-$20 store coupon: -$5
- Your total: FREE
You had $25 worth of coupons, but your receipt will show you the truly good news: You saved $32.90 – that’s the full retail value of the bacon you got for free.
This is the kind of thing extreme couponing families do every day. They’re not covering the kitchen table with coupons and letting their lives get taken over by newspaper inserts. They’re just strategically combining coupons and store deals to get the best discounts.
Steps for Extreme Couponing
There’s no magic to extreme couponing, but it does require a bit of patience and some trial and error. Follow these steps to reduce the “error” part of that equation.
Step One: Gathering
You’re going to need a lot of coupons, but you don’t need to go crazy. The smart move is to get multiple copies of the same coupon so that if you come across a deal, you can maximize your savings. Think of coupons as currency, because at the end of the day, you’re going to use them like cash. Acquire as many as you can, using these top sources:
1. Sunday Newspaper
Coupon inserts like Smart Source, Red Plum, and Proctor & Gamble, as well as local ads, are the best places to start. The more copies you get of a coupon, the better your savings will be. I recommend investing in at least four copies of the Sunday newspaper. Alternatively, if you’d rather not scour through multiple Sunday newspapers, you can actually buy coupons for much less than their savings value and have them mailed to your house using online services.
Pro Tip: Write the date on the front of each insert so it’ll be easier to find two or three weeks from now. That way, you can track down extra copies once you find a good deal.
2. Online Printable Coupons
The Internet is a treasure trove for coupon hunters. Plenty of individuals and various websites curate the best deals available. You can find alerts about manufacturer’s coupons and links to coupons you can just click, print, and file. On sites like Coupons.com, you can usually only print one or two copies of a coupon, but it’s still worth it.
Pro Tip: Don’t print everything you find just because the coupons are “free.” Only print what you need to avoid excess clutter and wasted ink and paper.
3. Grocery Stores
Have you ever seen those small devices in the aisles that blink and share coupons? Or a stack of “tear here” coupons near the entrance of your local market? Take advantage of these in-store sources of coupons, and don’t ignore the store’s free coupon booklets, either.
Pro Tip: While coupon booklets are often sitting out in plain sight, some stores require you to take some initiative. If you don’t see them near the door, ask at the front desk.
If you write a letter to the manufacturers of your favorite items and tell them how much you like their products, they’ll often send you coupons – and maybe free samples of new stuff you haven’t tried yet. Today, I received a coupon for one free three-pack of JELL-O Temptations, worth $3.30. All I had to do was write to Kraft and ask.
Pro Tip: Don’t let it get you down when some of your letters go unanswered. You’ll have a few duds, but more often than not, companies will respond with higher-value coupons than you find in conventional places.
You can score some extra free coupons by building a rapport with your neighbors and asking them for their coupon inserts. Plenty of people buy the paper and then scrap the money-saving inserts. Recycling is great, but it’s even better if you can rescue some deals and put them to good use.
Pro Tip: I’ve heard stories of couponers whose neighbors have agreed to leave them their coupon inserts at the door. After a walk up and down the block, these couponers have up to 10 copies of great coupons they can use.
With all of these resources, you’ll have a wealth of coupons. But where will you keep them without losing track or letting them take over your home (and your life)?
Step Two: Organizing
With all of these resources, you’ll have a wealth of coupons. But where can you keep them without losing track or letting them take over your home?
The trick to successful coupon organization is to find a system that you’re comfortable with and will stick to. You need to know which products you have coupons for and when your coupons expire. You don’t have time for a frustrating, disorganized pile cluttering up your coffee table. There are plenty of options available, but here are two popular choices.
In a coupon binder, you use A-to-Z dividers and baseball card protector sheets. This thick binder will hold individual coupons, sorted by the first letter in the product’s name. You can also use pocket pages for coupons that expire quickly – within a day or two of the day you find them – or coupons that are only valid at a particular store. The coupon binder is simple and handy, but it has a few drawbacks.
Advantages of a Coupon Binder
- You’ll have a portable container you can move from the house to your car and carry into the store. Should you see an unadvertised sale or something on clearance, you can easily check to see if you have a coupon for that item and make an on-the-spot decision to buy or not.
- You can make a note of which inserts your favorite coupons came from, so you’ll have an easy reference if you want to get more.
- You can also keep a list of your stores’ coupon policies in the binder.
Disadvantages of a Coupon Binder
- You’ll need to commit to clipping coupons and filing them. It’s going to take a while to get this organized. You’ll need some space to lay out all the coupons and cut them.
- Expired coupons are harder to find in a binder organized in this manner. Once in a while, you’ll have to go through your binder and remove the expired coupons to make room for new ones. This audit will be a regular time commitment for you.
2. Whole Inserts
If you choose the “whole inserts” method, you’ll file away the coupon inserts in their entirety. You don’t have to clip a single coupon until you’re ready to go shopping. Even then, you’ll clip only the ones you need. You’ll just collate the inserts you have so that identical coupons are grouped together.
If you have four identical Smart Source inserts, for example, stack the pages so that when you’re ready to clip them, you get all four coupons at once. You can use a hanging file folder system in a filing cabinet, portable bins, or a large accordion folder to hold the pages, and you’ll build a coupon database to keep a record of what’s in the file. You’ll save time over clipping and filing, but you’ll give up some advantages too.
Advantages of Inserts
- You can save plenty of time, especially if you date the front of the insert and arrange the pages for easy clipping.
- These files are easy to maintain. You can just wait for the insert to expire and then toss the whole thing in your recycling bin.
- You don’t have to take your entire collection of coupons with you to the store – just the ones you clipped specifically for your trip.
Disadvantages of Inserts
- It will be difficult to make quick decisions at the grocery store when you find an unadvertised sale or a clearance item. You won’t have time at the store to scan through all your inserts and start ripping coupons right there in the aisle.
- If inserts aren’t the only source of your coupons, then you’ll still be searching for a system to organize other loose coupons you’ve printed from your computer or picked up in stores.
In short, the whole inserts method saves you time, while the coupon binder method puts you in more control at the store.
Step Three: Grocery Shopping
Now that you have your coupons and they’re organized, it’s time to plan a shopping trip.
For your first shopping trip as an extreme couponer, I suggest pursuing only one deal. Keep it simple and get comfortable at the register. Once you’re familiar with the process, you can reach for bigger deals and more of them.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Watch the Sales Ads
Take a look at your grocery store’s weekly ad to see what’s on sale this week. If you see what looks like a good sale, check to see if you have a coupon for that item. Do the math and determine if the new price is a good enough deal for you. If it is, compile your multiple coupons to get as many items as you can in a single transaction.
Buy-one-get-one (BOGO) deals are great because sometimes you can use a coupon on the free item too. My local grocery store, for example, is running a BOGO deal with Mueller’s angel-hair pasta 16-oz. packages priced at $1.39 each. I have a coupon for $1 off two Mueller’s products of 12 oz. or more. I can buy two boxes of pasta for a total of $1.39. With my $1-off coupon, that’s $0.39 for two boxes.
That means I’m paying under $0.20 per box, for a total savings of 86% off. If I have 10 coupons, I’ll get 20 boxes of pasta for $3.90.
If you’re looking to more easily match sale items at your local grocery store with their corresponding coupons, try out a service like Savings Angel. There’s a monthly membership fee, but it can help you save a lot of money and time by automatically alerting you of big sales and coupons for the items you want.
2. Set Your Limits
When you’re looking for deals like this one, you need to figure out if the final price is worth it to you. I’d take the pasta for $0.19 a box, but at $0.35 a box, I’d wait. Why? Because as you get more familiar with extreme couponing, you’ll know which price points you can beat and which ones you won’t find ever again. For instance, I’ll never pay for toothpaste, razors, deodorant, body wash, or shampoo ever again because I know I can find coupons to knock their cost down to nothing.
Decide what prices you won’t go over, and if a sale-coupon combo doesn’t get you there, wait for a better sale. Keep your target prices in a composition notebook and mark the best deals you’ve gotten on common items. Using the pasta and toothpaste again as examples, my entries look like this:
16 oz. Mueller’s Angel-Hair Pasta
Lowest price ever: $0.10 a box
Can frequently get for: $0.20 a box
Don’t pay over: $0.30 a box
Crest Whitening Toothpaste
Lowest price ever: FREE
Can frequently get for: FREE
Don’t pay over: $0
3. Check Store Policies
Periodically check your stores’ coupon policies. Every grocery chain’s coupon policy is different, so it’s good to stay in the know on these topics:
- Does your store ever double the value of coupons?
- Do they limit the amounts of doubled coupons?
- Do they have a limit on how many coupons they’ll double?
- How do they treat coupons used with a BOGO sale?
- Do they have special discounts for seniors, students, or veterans?
- Do they accept (or even double) competitors’ coupons?
Often, cashiers are unaware of policy changes, so they might let you use your coupons today, but a different cashier may reject them tomorrow. Some look the other way on expired coupons. Extreme couponers keep a copy of the stores policy to help “educate” misinformed employees. Don’t be rude about policies, but be aware of the rules and make friends with a store manager and some staff members.
4. Learn From Your Mistakes
Occasionally, you may learn at the register that your coupon plan won’t work out the way you expected. It could be that you bought the wrong size, or the coupon won’t scan properly. Remain calm and be polite. Mistakes happen, whether they’re on your shoulders or they’re the store’s fault.
If you can’t resolve the issue, tell the cashier to void the item or call the manager. Just remember that you’re not obligated to buy the item simply because you took it off the shelf. If the deal doesn’t work out in your favor, don’t buy the item at all. You are the customer, and you should never feel guilty about trying to get a good deal.
5. Have Fun
Saving money shouldn’t be a chore. It should be a game. When you set up deals, go after them, and take home your winnings, it’s a great feeling. Some couponers get a rush of adrenaline at the checkout lane, and others have reported having a “coupon high” afterward. It’s a great feeling when the cashier and bagger’s jaws drop and they utter, “Wow!”
Step Four: Resources
You now know how to set up your first deal and subsequent deals. Next, here’s a look at some resources to help spur you along the path of extreme couponing greatness.
Plenty of websites are dedicated to helping you save money at the checkout lane. Coupon compilers scour the news and inserts to prepare deals for you before you even get your paper. They’ll tell you what items to get and where, and which coupons you’ll need.
In addition to Savings Angel, some of the great sites dedicated to extreme couponing are:
- How to Shop for Free
- The Krazy Coupon Lady
- I Heart Publix
- Totally Target
- Money Saving Queen
- Hot Coupon World
Many sites also maintain coupon databases, which are useful tools, particularly if you use the whole insert method. A database lists coupon publishers, product manufacturers, stores, values, and expiration dates.
For example, if I saw a sale on Pam cooking spray and wanted to know if I could find a coupon for it, I’d type the product name in the search box of a coupon database and get an abbreviated response like, “Pam cooking spray, any: 04-03-11 SS. $1/2.” The SS tells me it’s a “Smart Source” insert, and the publication date is April 3, 2011. I also know it’s a $1-off-two coupon, so I can determine if it’s worth cutting out. It all depends on the sale and other combined offers.
Want to know how much you’re saving over time? Unless you’re a spreadsheet whiz, you’ll need some tracking software. I recommend Coupon Sense, which notifies you of deals in your zipcode – local offers other websites don’t usually find. It also has tracking software so you can enter your receipts from the stores you shop at most often. At $10 per month, this service really pays for itself.
Step Five: Storage & Distribution
When you start extreme couponing, you’ll find you stockpile items quickly, so you’ll need space to store everything.
For example, you can easily pick up more than a month’s supply of frozen meat and vegetables, so a deep freezer is a must. Set up a cabinet or shelving unit in your garage to conveniently store the hundreds of canned goods you’re going to stack up. Your coupons may be organized, but if you don’t stay ahead of storage space, all of your free items will overrun your house. Keep this list of do’s and don’ts in mind:
- Clear Away Clutter in Your Kitchen Cabinets. Throw away old small appliances you don’t use anymore. Use this opportunity to downsize your home and clear out old and expired items too.
- Add Shelves in your Garage. Wall-to-wall shelves are great if you can fit them and still leave enough room for your vehicle.
- Invest in a Deep Freezer. A chest freezer is more cost-efficient and holds more than an equivalent-sized upright freezer.
- Group Like Items Together. Keep things near where you’ll use them. Put the extra cereal in your kitchen, dishwasher and hand soap under the sink, and toilet paper in the bathroom closets. Excess – and you will have excess – goes in the garage or can be donated.
- Organize and Consume Your food and Drinks by the Earliest Expiration Date. Avoid food waste by keeping expiration dates in mind while shopping, and don’t buy more than you can use before it expires. If you’re not able to consume it all, you can always give it away to friends or donate it to a charity.
- Only Stock Up on As Much As You Can Store. No deal is good enough to let it fill up your living space. You should be able to relax and watch TV without seeing grocery bags full of chips and soup cans.
- Designate a Few Areas of Your Home as Off-Limits. Don’t store anything in these areas. Hallways are not storage areas.
- Don’t Be Stingy. If you have more items than you can store, share them with your family, neighbors, or a local charity.
The biggest “do” of them all is: Do bless others with your good fortune. With extreme couponing, you can do a lot of good with the money you save, like paying down debt, quitting a second part-time job, spending more time at home, and donating to charity.
While most of the good that comes from extreme couponing directly benefits you, if you have the right attitude about it, you can pay it forward and bless someone else with it too. Maybe you know someone who recently lost their job. Bring them some food and milk that you purchased at a cheap price. If you know someone who’s sick, take a few cans of soup out of your stockpile and pay them a visit. Donate pet supplies and pet food to the humane society. There is so much you can do. Giving of your stockpile will bring you far greater joy than getting free stuff at the checkout lane. I guarantee it.
Are you an extreme couponer? What are some of the strategies and methods that work best for you?