Using coupons to save money on groceries can be challenging. Perhaps you’ve tried using coupons, and you didn’t receive the savings you expected. You put a lot of effort into your planning and preparation, but the payoff was miniscule.
Many people collect coupons, clip coupons, save coupons, organize coupons and bring their coupons to the grocery store, only to save 20% or less on their entire order. The small amount saved by using coupons when shopping hardly seems worthwhile.
I once had the same frustrations, and I made many common couponing mistakes. Over time, however, I learned a lot of strategies and best practices for using coupons. In order to help move you from the 20%-30% savings level to the 80%-90% extreme couponing level, we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of the coupon mistakes to avoid, and tips to get the most savings from your coupons.
Common Mistakes When Grocery Shopping with Coupons
1. Using a Coupon on a Full-Priced Item
If you use a $1.00 off coupon on a full-priced box of cereal priced at $4.99, you don’t save much money. This actually violates the two tenets of extreme couponing: Only buy items that are on sale, and combine that sale with one or more coupons.
Wait until the cereal is on sale to use the coupon. For example, if the store has a two for $4.00 promotion, charging $2.00 for one box of the $4.99 cereal, you can buy the cereal, use the coupon, and only pay $1.00 for the box. That’s an 80% savings off of the original price! You are not obligated to buy two boxes on a sale like this.
2. Buying Anything on Sale
Just because an item is on sale doesn’t mean it is a good sale. An item that’s usually $2.99, and has a sale price of two items for $5.00, isn’t much of a sale. Wait for a better sale to splurge and use your coupons. When you use your coupons for items that are deeply discounted, you will save the most money.
Before you buy an item, calculate the price of the discount item, plus your coupon savings, to see if the resulting price offers a real savings. Remember, you set the price you want to pay for an item. If a store’s sale prices and your coupons won’t save you enough money, don’t buy the item!
3. Being Brand Loyal
Post or Kellogg’s Raisin Bran? Skippy peanut butter or Jif? Which brands should you buy? The answer: Whichever one you can get for free or close to free using your coupons.
Many people start down the road to extreme couponing because of a major impetus in their life, like a loss of income, a baby on the way, or too much debt. This is not the time to be brand loyal. You need to save money, and you can’t do that if you pass on good deals because you prefer a different brand.
If you can buy a necessary item for free or close to free, don’t worry about the brand; just take advantage of the savings.
4. Using Every Coupon
Some coupons don’t represent a real savings. For example, a coupon for $0.50 off of two boxes of brand name cereal won’t result in a real savings. That’s only $0.25 off each box of cereal. Even during a good sale, the coupon may not take the total price down to what you want to pay for the cereal. Wait for a better coupon and for another sale.
Sometimes you will have good coupons but no sales on the items you need, and the coupons approaching expiration date. Let them expire! You don’t have to use the coupons and make mistake #1, using a coupon on a full-priced item.
Our family routinely throws out expired coupons because the items didn’t go on sale, the sale wasn’t good enough, or the coupon wasn’t enough of a savings. Pass on deals that don’t represent a true savings. If you really need the item, buy one or two of them now, and wait to buy in bulk until the item is discounted.
5. Buying Every Great Deal
Only buy items that you need to buy. Otherwise, you will buy products you do not need, or buy products that expire before you have a chance to use them. Jumping on every great deal out there significantly lightens your wallet, and defeats the whole purpose of couponing.
6. Clipping Every Coupon
I used to cut out each coupon, one at a time, from the nine coupon inserts that we receive with our newspaper. Then I learned the time-saving secret that 1st graders use in art class. Stack like pages together from all of your inserts first, and then cut them out, using a single action.
If you use the coupon binder method, this saves you a lot of time. If you use the whole insert method of storing your coupons, put like pages together, and file the entire inserts. Use a paper cutter for cutting multiple inserts. In addition, make sure to quickly scan the coupon inserts and discard coupons you don’t need. This makes sorting quicker and easier.
7. Printing Coupons You Don’t Use
Online printable coupons from websites like Coupons.com can save you money. However, you must use computer paper and ink to print the coupons, which costs money and wastes paper. Many people print every online coupon available, and then throw most of them away. Print online coupons as you need them, to use during store sales.
Extreme Couponing Tips & Tricks
Now you know the biggest mistakes to avoid when shopping with coupons. To help you save even more money, here are some tips to help you get the most out of your couponing experience:
1. Get In, Get Out
Know what you plan to buy before you go to the store, and only buy the items that you planned to buy. If you stay in the store too long, you become susceptible to their marketing ploys, and you may end up spending more money. Get in, get the deals, and then get out.
2. Know Your Price Points
For every item in your pantry, determine the following price points:
- The Average Price. To get the best deals when shopping, understand the typical price points for items you buy on a regular basis. If necessary, keep a list of average prices for items you purchase. When the items go on sale, you will be better equipped to know if the sale price is really a deal.
- The Maximum Price. This is the maximum price you would ever pay for an item. Buy only one or two items at this price, and only when absolutely necessary.
- The Deal Price. This is the price you want to pay for an item when the item is on sale, and you have a coupon. If the sale and the coupon meet your qualifications for the deal price, then buy enough to last until the next sale.
- The Stock-Up Price. Also known as the Rock Bottom Price. When a sale and a coupon results in the lowest price you’ve ever seen for the item, collect as many of the items as you can. Go for broke!
3. Use the Overage
When your coupons exceed the sale price of an item, it produces an overage. Many stores do not give you cash back for this overage, but will apply the overage towards other items in your shopping cart. You can stock up on toothpaste and shampoo, and buy meat and produce, paying pennies for the entire cart.
4. Present Your Coupons in a Certain Order
You can maximize your savings by handing the cashier your coupons in a specific order. If you have a store coupon for $5 off of a $20 purchase, for example, use that coupon first. Otherwise, your other coupons might negate the $5 coupon by discounting the total amount of the sale to less than $20.
Some stores automatically apply all of your coupons correctly, so the order may not matter. But just in case, give the cashier the price minimum coupon before you give use any other coupons.
5. Get Multiple Copies of Coupons
You can use a coupon for each item purchased. If you purchase two boxes, you can use two cereal coupons. Extreme couponers often buy four or more newspapers every Sunday, just for the inserts. Other couponers order the inserts directly, bypassing the newspapers altogether.
6. Organize Your Coupons
When you collect coupons, you need a place to store them that you can easily access. Put your clipped coupons in a coupon binder with baseball card pages listed from A-Z. Some couponers prefer to file by product, using “P” for popcorn or “S” for salad dressing, while others file by brand name; “A” for Aunt Jemima Waffles or “V” for Vlassic pickles.
Choose what works best for you, and remember to sort coupons by expiration dates, too. Use hanging file folders and storage bins for filing whole inserts. Keep similar pages together, so when you begin to clip them, you can clip them all at the same time. Write down the date of the insert with a black felt-tip pen, so you can identify it more easily when you need to search for a coupon by date.
7. Know Your Store’s Policies
Does your grocer double coupons, price match, accept competitor coupons, or give rain checks if sale items are out of stock? If you don’t know, ask. These policies can help you save even more money, and they may not be prominently advertised.
- Price matching is when a store adjusts their item’s price to match a sale at a local store in the area, thus giving you the same sale price offered by the other store.
- Competitor coupons are store coupons from another grocery chain. Your store may accept competitors’ coupons, but it may not be clear who their competitors are.
- Rain checks may be issued in limited quantities for some items. Walgreen’s does not issue rain checks on items that produce “register rewards,” but they do issue rain checks for non-sale items.
8. Stack Coupons
For each item that you purchase, use one manufacturer’s coupon and one store coupon. For example, if Target has a sale on Planter’s Peanuts for $2.00, you can use a $1.00 Target coupon for Planter’s Peanuts and a $1.00 Planter’s Peanuts coupon, and enjoy a free can of peanuts! You can find store coupons online, or in your favorite store’s weekly flyers.
9. Stockpile Coupons
In addition to looking online and searching through newspapers, look for even more ways to find and stockpile coupons. Ask neighbors and coworkers to save their coupon inserts for you, buy additional Sunday newspapers, and sign up for e-newsletters from companies like Kraft and Proctor & Gamble.
10. Use Rebates
In addition to using store coupons and manufacturers’ coupons, many stores also offer rebates. Stores often print booklets that list rebates for in-store items. If you can’t find a list of rebates, ask a clerk if they have rebate booklets available.
11. Sign Up for Store Savings Cards
Sign up for rewards cards at the stores where you shop. The cards provide shoppers with additional savings. Once you sign up for rewards cards, you will also receive additional coupons in the mail.
11. Stockpile Items You Need
If a $15 bottle of ibuprofen goes on sale for $7.99, buy as many bottles as the store allows you to buy. Some stores limit the number of sale items that can be purchased at once, but many stores don’t set limits. You can use this opportunity to set up your long-term home food storage.
If a store puts a limit on a necessary sale item, visit other store locations to create your stockpile. Don’t stockpile items that expire in the next year; if you have to throw items away, you won’t save any money. You can also donate excess items from your stockpile to charity.
12. Donate the Excess in Your Stockpile
You probably don’t need 40 tubes of toothpaste right now. However, if a sale and coupons result in 40 free tubes of toothpaste, get them anyway. Having an overflowing stockpile allows you to give in ways you never dreamed.
When you give away items from your stockpile, you make room for more, and it feels very good. Keep the toothpaste you need, but give the rest of it to a church, homeless shelter, food bank, or other charity that can put the items to good use. You can also put a basket of items together and give the basket to a friend, neighbor, or coworker as a gift.
It seems counterintuitive, but when you give from your stockpile, the size of the stockpile increases. You may even be able to take tax deductions for charitable contributions and donations.
13. Go on Small Shopping Sprees
Get the most out of coupons by using them during small shopping sprees. When you only buy a few items at a time, you can receive the most savings from sales and from your coupons. Stores seem to alternate sales items, discounting various items at different times of the year. If you can make multiple trips to the grocery store, and limit the amount that you buy on each visit, you can use coupons for sales items only, thus maximizing your savings.
14. Alternate Stores
Different stores offer sale prices for the same items at different times of the year. Visit multiple stores to get the most out of your coupons.
Extreme couponing conjures up images of long hours spent at the grocery store, and whittling down a thousand dollar shopping spree to less than $50. That makes for great TV, but it rarely happens that way in real life. Real extreme couponers make many trips, to many different stores, and repeat the process again and again. Utilizing the above tips and suggestions will help you take your couponing to the next level, and increase the amount you save when shopping.
Couponing is a valuable skill that can benefit you now, and in the future. As you learn more about couponing, receiving 80%-90% off every time you shop will eventually become a reality.
Do you have any savings strategies do you use when shopping at the grocery store?