It’s been just three weeks since my couponing journey began, and this week, I really took it up a notch. Altough I’m still a novice compared to the “pros” on TV who are saving 90% or more, I think it’s safe to say that my couponing is already moving into the “extreme” savings realm — reaching a high of 75% saved today at Walgreens (with lots of items for free)! I can officially say that my prior loathe of shopping has been completely transformed into a healthy affection — for shopping strategically, that is.

How did I manage to jump into the deep end of extreme savings? Through some modest research, some trial and error, and some Q&A with my savvy saving girlfriends, I have learned a lot of valuable tips since my first respectable foray into the world of extreme couponing. Though there’s a lot of helpful (and detailed) information on Web sites like The Krazy Coupon Lady, Coupon Divas, Coupon Mom, and more — most of which I still refer back to as I sharpen my skills — I thought I’d sift through this wealth of couponing knowledge for you and pull out a few valuable nuggets that made all the difference for me this week.

It comes down to preparation and getting up to speed with the systems available to help you make extreme savings possible on a regular basis. Here’s what I think you need to know to get started:

THE BINDER

One of the first tips I received from savvy saving supermama Rosanna Ward (my sister-in-law in Oklahoma) was to store my coupons in a binder. She graciously shared details of how she set up her binder using clear baseball-card display pages, with a zipper pouch in front to store pulled coupons for a particular shopping trip, etc. It all sounded so efficient, so organized… and so extreme, if I’m being honest. I felt a headache coming on, and I thought, “Do I really want to be hauling a binder of coupons through the store aisles — is it really that necessary?”

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My Binder: I’m a “crazy” coupon lady!

I was starting to understand where that Krazy Coupon Lady got her name. Was I ready to be that crazy with my coupons?

I balked at first — and proceeded to make my next two major couponing trips (to King Soopers and Safeway) with the same plastic envelope-sized coupon sorter that I started with. Except after another week of Sunday paper clippings — plus many more Web coupons printed out after I learned to maximize the multiple printers on our home network — the blue sorter was suffering from a beer-belly bulge. I could still close the “zipper,” but an unsightly overflow was hanging out for all to see.

It was a hot mess — and worst of all it, it took forever to locate coupons once I was in the store and discovered additional coupon “stacking” opportunities (more about that later). Once again, I also failed to make shopping lists prior to both trips (more about that later too). I did improve my savings — both trips netted more than 50% saved — but it was much too inefficient for my personality.

Lesson No. 1: Savvy saving sister-in-law was right — get a binder! And more importantly, get organized! What was I doing there without a list?

So I purchased a baseball card binder at Target (Walmart was out, of course, affirming why I hate shopping there) and — time to chuckle — it was the only thing I bought all week that was not on sale, with no coupon. Bah, humbug… but it turns out that $14.99 was money well spent.

It took me several hours to get all my coupons into the binder pages, and I used The Krazy Coupon Lady’s binder organization tips to set it up (though her list lacked some categories for the way my brain works, so I will probably edit). I won’t lie, this step took me the longest of anything I’ve done yet to get prepared. But I’m a night owl, so I knocked it out in one evening, and now that it’s done, it’s done!

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Binder Pages: Full of “cash” to spend!

Adding newly clipped coupons this Sunday was a breeze! Pulling coupons for each store prior to shopping was also a simple procedure. And most important to my sanity, locating coupons mid-aisle when I spotted unexpected deals was also a snap.

Bottom line: There’s nothing crazy about shopping with a coupon binder! In fact, I think the highly organized, savvy shopping supermama image carries a little more glamour and celebrity these days (thanks TLC!) The friendlier store clerks are already getting to know me, and they were impressed with my organized self this week — as well as how much more money I saved on my return trips!

I felt like I had graduated elementary couponing school and was finally one of the “big kids.” It felt really, really good!

 THE LIST

It was shocking, really, to discover a major flaw in my shopping habits until now: I rarely made a list before heading to the grocery store. There was the occasional moment where I would realize that if I didn’t jot down a few must-get items into my Droid, I might forget something integral to a recipe or even a daily necessity like milk, bread or toilet paper. But it was never about planning — it was simply a reminder.

However, as I approached my next phase of couponing education, I realized that lack of planning (in shopping, in life, etc.) often leads to overspending, and that’s how things can easily spiral out of control. In the past, I had no problem being strategic about my business, my home educating lesson plans, healthy eating for my family, and getting physically fit. So why didn’t it ever occur to me that strategy might help ease the burden of our financial stress as well?

The results of a lack of planning became readily apparent to me this past Mother’s Day morning. As the family scurried to put together breakfast in bed for me before I woke up, my hubby realized we were out of a few key ingredients. What he didn’t know is that I had already planned to purchase them on my next couponing trip to the grocery store later that same day (I was waiting for the Sunday paper delivery). Since time was of the essence, he left me soundly sleeping and simply ran out to the neighborhood King Soopers to pick up those few necessities, not realizing the binder sitting on the table had coupons for many of the items (including FREE butter — a King Sooper coupon!). Because of my misstep in planning this week, he spent over $3 on the butter, $3 on the eggs, and many more additional dollars picking up impulse extras that grabbed his attention (another habit we all have to work on).

I did get a surprise Starbucks latte delivered bedside out of the experience — and the delicious, made-from-scratch waffles — so I’m not complaining, it was a wonderful Mother’s Day morning! But the experience reminded me how far I’ve come in realizing that a strategic plan is really more important than any other factor in the couponing equation.

Next time, for example, I won’t neglect to buy everyday essentials while couponing, especially if the cupboard is nearly bare in that department. I also learned that although it’s important to notice when store sales start and end at each store you plan to shop at, you still have to take into account the flow of your life and when you will need things.

Lesson No. 2: Make a list— and be as strategic as possible — but don’t overlook the obvious. If you need eggs, butter and milk, don’t be so blinded by the mega-deals on everything else that you forget to buy them.

MORE ON “THE LIST”

Here’s what I learned about strategic list-making: It can be as easy or as complicated as you want it to be. I don’t want my coupon-shy friends out there to think that this has to be overwhelming and take hours upon hours in order to save lots of money. You can simply examine what others do and pick a method that works best for you. Just getting started on the road to shopping strategy will begin to pay off before you know it.

The easiest thing to do is to check some of the major couponing Web sites (my favorites mentioned above) each week and see what they have already flagged as hot deals for the week. You can simply stop there, cash in on those deals, and shop with the binder for those unexpected store deals — or you can take it up a notch.

My analytical brain wouldn’t let me stop with the couponing Web site deals. For one thing, I realized they don’t always point out the best “stacking” opportunities because they don’t know what store-specific coupons you personally might have in your possession (once again, more about stacking later). Also, they don’t take into account coupons you might have in your possession for other reasons, like store displays in the aisles. Lastly, I find it pretty easy to just flip through each store circular myself after visiting the sites to see what deals they’ve found, and I just circle all the items I know I have coupons for in my binder. Then I cross-reference all my circled items among the different store circulars to see who in fact had the best deals on particular items this week.

Pantry full of food at last!

Then making the list is easy. With a list for each store made, I then pulled the coupons for that store and put them into pocket dividers at the front of my binder (didn’t spring for the zipper pouches yet), one pocket divider per store. With my organized binder, my strategically planned list, my purse in hand, and yes, no kids (when possible), shopping time was cut by at least 2/3 compared to my prior shopping trips — less than an hour for each trip!

The best part is that as I shaved off more time spent through these new efficiencies, I saved more money than I had so far. And the pantry was getting stocked. And the budget was still under control. And I was not only feeling more confident in my couponing skills, I was actually having fun. It’s fun to “win” — and saving money by becoming a strategic shopper is a win-win situation for you and your family!

THE CRAZY COUPON “STACK”

For the newbies, coupon “stacking” is not using a bunch of the same coupon, that’s a no-no — it means combining a store coupon with a manufacturer coupon (commonly referred to as MFGs) to maximize savings on one item. MFGs are most often found in the newspaper or online at sites like Coupons.com, ShopAtHome.com, or the company Web sites themselves. Most stores also offer store-specific coupons, either in the newspaper circulars (like Walgreens or Safeway), or mailed directly to you (King Soopers/Krogers), or online (like Target or Safeway — Target has printable coupons, Safeway has store coupons you can download to your shoppers card along with MFG coupons).

Lesson No. 3: Stacking is key to extreme savings! No matter how you come about them, you can always use a store coupon with an MFG coupon to maximize additional savings. And the savings get extreme when something is also marked down to a sale price.

For example: This week King Soopers is doing a fabulous deal called “Buy 10, save $5” — for every 10 items you purchase from a qualified list, you get $5 off the total bill, with no limits to overall savings. With this list, I then identified that I had coupons for many, many items on the “buy 10” list and chose to focus on those only to reach my 10 sets. Plus, some were also stackable: Like a King Soopers coupon for Eggo Waffles, plus an MFG coupon. On that item, I saved FOUR times — 75 cents off from King Soopers, $1 off from the doubled 50-cent MFG coupon (learn which stores double coupons), and an additional 50 cents due to the “Buy 10, save $5” deal. The waffles were practically free!

Another way to “stack” deals is to look for clearance items. Yes, even the grocery store has a clearance area — and it’s not for broken, expired, damaged or opened items like at Bed Bath & Beyond. They are most often items cleared out for simple reasons, like a change in packaging, phased-out flavors, etc. This week I stacked coupons with clearance-marked items such as Bertolli Pasta Sauce, Whole Grain Rice Helpers, Tyson Frozen Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts, and more at Target — and saved 70%+ as a result on quality brand items we use all the time. Clearance isn’t always guaranteed to be good, but that’s why you shop with the binder — when you spot an awesome deal, you’ve got that coupon ready to make the most of it.

Lastly, couponing gets extreme when you find that rare but amazing match between a coupon and a sale price that’s below the coupon value! You read that right — “earning” money on a purchase is not a myth! In fact, I found more than a few of those opportunities just this past week.

One was on Reach floss at Walmart (it was the only time I went to Wallie World all week — just to get this and a few other key matchups). It was marked at 88 cents, and the MFG coupon was for $1 off. Because the clerk rings everything up first, then the coupons are taken off at the end, the coupon’s full value is utilized. I “earned” 12 cents per floss I purchased (I bought five since I had 5 coupons). That wasn’t too shabby, and bottom line is the floss was free!

A better one was Nivea Men’s & Women’s Body Wash, which was just marked down at Target to $2.43 for the 16oz bottle (the 8oz was even cheaper at around $2, but I opted for the double size). The MFG coupons from two weeks ago’s newspaper were for $3 off each. I bought six and “earned” $3.42 off the rest of my purchases. Now that was impressive!

This is also a great example of when your coupon scores can lead to new opportunties, such as donating. I have been selling Mary Kay for almost eight years now, and I’m not going to stop using the quality skin care that I have developed trust and loyalty to simply because I can get another brand on the cheap — I could have done that at anytime. But if my couponing time results in me picking up free facial cleansers or body lotions that I might not personally use — but could happily donate — then why not?

You may not always have extra cash on hand to donate when a need arises, but putting free products in someone’s hands on a regular basis — whether it’s a disaster situation, a friend in crisis, or donating to a local shelter or military care packages — is easily accomplished if you don’t automatically write off certain couponing opportunities just because you don’t use the particular brand. If I can get it for 50 cents or less (a random threshold I came up with this week), I will do it when at all possible and then donate it. What a concept!

Pantry bliss!

I think there’s definitely still more to learn and adjustments that I can make before I hit my stride with the practice of extreme couponing. For example, staying on track with the monthly budget is going to be vital. Ironically, you can still go broke “saving” money if you aren’t smart about it. So the next item on the agenda is to figure out what my monthly budget should be for both essentials and “stock up” opportunities going forward. (And yes, another alarming flaw in my life systems is a lack of a written and tracked monthly budget… more about that some other time!)

As I continue to figure that out, and pick up more couponing tips and time-savers, I will keep sharing what I’ve learned with anyone who’s curious. My next post will focus on some store-specific tips I developed through trial and error — and what adjustments worked for me. A sneak preview: You don’t need to break up your purchase into a million transactions at Walgreens to maximize the “register rewards” they  regularly give out. I bet some of you can’t wait to see how I got by that one!

My goal is to help any woman who desires to become a savvy saving supermama achieve her own personal savings goal even faster — and hopefully more gracefully — than I did, by learning from my experiences and having some fun in the process.

Are you one of those women? If so I would love to hear from you! And I’d love it if you “like” my blog, I could use a few fans to make me feel less “krazy” — thanks!

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