I promised my coupon-curious friends that I would share some “tips and tricks” that I have picked up so far in my quest to become a fairly extreme couponer. I won’t claim to be an expert yet — in fact, watching this week’s TLC Extreme Couponing episodes (see clip below) where women get $2-$3K worth of items for FREE made me realize I have a lot more to learn — but I can share what I know now that I wish I knew when I started. First, some prep tips, because preparation is key to keeping yourself sane in the couponing process. Then I’ll share a few store-by-store helpful hints.

THE WEEKLY FLOW

By now you should have your binder ready to go, and you’ve probably already picked up some help from the fabulous online couponing sites out there (I know I’m discovering more every day). If not, read my previous posts before you go any further. But if you’re like I was a couple weeks ago — starting to scratch your head about how to proceed and wondering how to make this work week to week — here’s what I’ve learned about making couponing a regular habit.

First of all, decide how you want to get your coupons on a regular basis: Newspaper? Online? Online printables? Smart phone apps? Coupon clipping services? (By the way, yes, they exist and they are legit — I just discovered that this is one way people get a hundred of an item on one trip when it’s free.) The possibilities are almost overwhelming. But I think that if you want to keep things manageable from week to week, you need a “plan of acquisition” — something that works for you, your savings goals and your schedule. My strategy is newspaper inserts first, then online printables (when necessary for a particular matchup), then digital coupon loading to club cards. For now, this is enough to help me save 60-90% without going batty.

Why is this important, why not do it all? For one thing, it takes a lot of time to use every avenue available to aquire coupons. You’ve seen the ladies on TLC who say their couponing is a 40-hour work week — I believe them! Secondly, you won’t want to waste any resources — we’re trying to save money, right? Printing coupons you don’t use is not resourceful. Finally, it just helps to have an organized plan — from start to finish — so you can feel successful about what you’re accomplishing in those few hours a week you’ll spend getting really good at this.

My flow starts on Sunday morning. I now have a subscription to the weekly Sunday paper, and I just bumped it up to two copies today because I found out that I could, and the newspaper salesman at the grocery store gave me another free copy of today’s paper plus a $5 shopping card for doing so (score: I used it to buy two more copies of the paper and still have $2 left to spend when I shop).

My goal is to acquire four copies of the newpaper inserts each week. Some sites recommend you buy one copy per household member, but my reasoning with four copies (even though we are a family of five) is that most store sales that involve multiples are “buy 2” or “buy 4” — I haven’t seen one yet where you must buy more than four of an item to get the sale price. Plus having at the very least two coupons for the same item is fabulous for BOGO (buy one, get one) sales where you can use both coupons in one transaction (Walgreens is one place where you can, more on that later). Final reason is because a few stores have coupon maximums, and when they do, the maximum number of the same type of coupon used in one shopping visit seems to be four of the same coupon. So for me, four copies seems to be working out just fine.

Next, I go through the paper and pull out all the coupon inserts (of course) as well as the store circulars. Some of the store circulars will have coupons that need to be clipped too (such as Safeway and Walgreens), so pulling them out right away is helpful even if you’ve already used a Web site like Couponmom.com to figure out what some of the deals of the week are.

I’ve learned that some stores (like Walgreens) post their new weekly specials online the day before so you get a sneak peek, and you can even “double up” by buying on the day that last week’s sale ends and this week’s sale begins in one visit (I do this all the time at Sprouts on Wednesdays). But sometimes you won’t have the coupon that matches up with the new week’s sale price until Sunday morning anyway (this happens a lot with Walgreens).

Tip: Looking at next week’s sales in advance is helpful when you aren’t sure about some of this week’s deals. It never hurts to peek & see if next week will have better savings on the items you plan to buy. The good couponing sites like The Krazy Coupon Mom usually have a weekly preview list as well that you can scan, and see if you’re better off saving a coupon until the next week’s sales.

What works for me is to go ahead & clip all the coupons next and store them in my binder, because even if I’m not going to use some right away, I know I want to save any coupons for products I would purchase — whether it’s a brand we love and will definitely use, or something I could stock up on for others if the savings is big enough. At this point, I have also started clipping coupons I would not use myself but could give others or donate to the military overseas coupon programs. For now, those are in a ziploc bag waiting to be distributed.

I have enlisted my 10-year-old daughter to help me clip coupons because she’s precise enough not to cut bar codes or dates off even when cutting four sheets at a time (remember, we have four of each insert, and clipping them simultaneously saves lots of time). We put them in category stacks on a clean table, so that when we’re done, it’s easy to open the binder and put them away category by category. The only snag I’ve run into here is that I’m out of binder pages (and for some reason both Walmart & Target have had none in stock for weeks now!) and some categories are overflowing. So we’ve also started cleaning out coupons that have expired as we go, which also saves time in the long run.

Next, once my favorite couponing Web sites are updated, I start making individual store lists. I’ve mentioned before that while I think it’s a huge time saver to start with the coupon matchup lists you can find online, I still think it’s worth looking through the sale circulars yourself to spot deals you might personally have coupons for that are not part of the coupon matchup databases (like coupons you picked up from a store display, peelies off a product, coupons found inside boxes of product, store-specific coupons or Catalinas, etc.) I have found quite a few exceptional deals on my own each week this way.

I like to start with Couponmom because their  coupon matchup list can be sorted by % saved, which is key to deciding whether a deal is worth doing when you have already built up a little stock of necessities. I sort my list by % saved highest to lowest, then select the items I want to add to my shopping list, and print a list made up of only those items (a nice feature of this Web site). Once I have a printed list per store, then I add any purchases I found identified on “tip of the week” based sites like The Krazy Coupon Lady or Coupon Divas that did not show up on my original Couponmom list (not sure why that happens but it does), as well as deals I spotted myself.

Now that I have a printed list per store, I can easily pull the coupons out of the binder and put them, along with my list, in my pocketed dividers per store at the front of my binder. That’s it for Sunday — I’ve decided that since no store sales end on Sunday (most end on Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday), there’s no reason to take up anymore family time by shopping with the Sunday crowds.

THE SHOPPING SCHEDULE

It’s really helpful to know which days of the week you want to shop at each store so that you don’t miss out on sales that end midweek. Monday or Tuesday is when I start shopping for this week’s deals. Audrey has ballet on Monday nights, so while she’s in class, it’s the perfect time to shop without kids if my husband is in town. It also gives me a tight deadline of an hour to get it done. If for some reason I miss out on this little shopping window,  I will shop at Safeway & King Soopers by Tuesday evening if items on my list will be off sale by midweek.

You can tell when the sale price is guaranteed by with a quick scan of the sale dates on the bottom of the circulars. Some grocery stores also do a midweek sale circular that goes from Wednesday to the following Tuesday, as well as the Sunday paper circular, which is usually good all week. Gotta keep an eye on this! I have missed a few great deals by forgetting about the Tuesday changeover.

Wednesday is Sprouts double-deals day (here in Colorado), when they honor prices from both last week’s and this week’s flyers. This is usually a short trip for mostly produce that I know is best priced here compared to my other local grocery options. It’s hard to track what I save here because they don’t quantify their sale savings on the receipt, but I can usually find key produce savings of half-off or more from what the grocery stores charge for the same items that week.

Next shopping day is Friday: Safeway has “$5 Friday” deals, so if I want to pick up any of those items, I’ll do that on Friday, plus they also have weekend sales that also start on Friday to Tuesday. I will also go to Walgreens on Friday (if I didn’t already go on Monday) because I know that at least here in Castle Rock, my Walgreens restocks on Friday mornings, so anything sold out earlier in the week (which happens often now) will hopefully be restocked by now before the sale ends on Saturday. Finally, I will usually try to shop at Target on Friday as well so I can avoid the Saturday crowd, knowing that their weekly sale will also end on Saturday.

I don’t expect to shop at all stores every week, but now at least I know when I should go to each particular store if it’s on my list so that I won’t miss out on deals because of the sale changeovers. Plus some of these stops will be pretty short, thanks to the fact that I’m already well stocked on necessities and I have a better shopping plan in place so that I’m not wandering around the aisles looking at sale tags. And if I do run across the occasional unpublished sale while shopping, the coupon binder is with me at all times so I don’t miss out.

THE INTERNET

So far I haven’t said much about Internet coupons, and one reason is that I have found that most of the best deals available each week tend to match up with coupons from the newspaper. As a result, paper coupons have become my primary source of coupons and the one thing I stay on top of each week. However, most of the coupon matchup Web sites do flag available Internet coupons as well, so when I’m in list-making mode, it’s easy to click on the link and print that coupon immediately just for that deal, rather than going to the coupon sites first and printing anything I think I’ll use.

Unlike newspaper coupons, printing Internet coupons requires time to search, printer ink, perfect computer-printer synchronization (which has been troublesome for me from the get-go, see my first post for details if you’re on a Mac), and then you still have to cut them out and file them after you print them (and they print much bigger than most newspaper coupons, making them harder to store in your binder). Better to know you need it before you print it, I say.

The other option is loading coupons onto our store club cards. While I was a fan of this at first, I’ve run into two snags with this: You can only use the coupon once, and you don’t have a visual prompt reminding you that the coupon is there!

True, all coupons can only be used once, but here’s the situation: If you want to buy more of that particular item this week because it’s on a great sale, you’ll have to find more of that same coupon on a coupon Web site (they are usually the same as what you find on coupons.com, etc.) and print it anyway in order to do multiples. Most coupon Web sites let you print at least two of each coupon per computer — which in today’s connected households can mean four or more copies possible of each coupon. So if it’s an online coupon, better to just print it and get multiple copies at once rather than load just one onto your store card… unless you really only plan to buy one of that item.

Next is the visual cues: There’s something to be said about having a binder of coupons that you can flip through and remember what you have on hand at all times. That first month about half of my digital coupons loaded onto my club cards expired before I got to use them. And when it comes to being resourceful, I felt like I was wasting paper to print a fresh list each week from the store Web site of which coupons were still on my card. I suppose I could go online and look at them each week, and then write down on my printed shopping lists which items have a digital coupon loaded, but that’s another step that is easy to forget.

The bottom line: For now, I’m only using the Internet coupons as needed, when someone else has identified a coupon matchup. It’s just easier that way!

THE STORES

I have found that the grocery stores are the easiest for checking out without any concern about splitting your shopping trip into more than one transaction (unless you plan to go past 1,000 items like the ladies on TLC, not a problem for most of us!). The sale prices come off automatically no matter how many of an item you buy, all the coupons come off the final total easily, and it’s also no problem to apply additional Catalinas or store gift cards/vouchers at the end regardless of what you bought. The only snag I have run into at a grocery store is when the register didn’t ring up the correct sale price. But this is easily fixed with a trip to the customer service desk if you catch this after checkout.

Although grocery stores have been the easiest place to check out, I have found that you can typically save more — with the right coupon matchups — at stores like Walgreens and Target. Both of those stores offer “cash back” in a sense: Walgreens offers “register rewards” that can be used like a manufacturer’s coupon on a future transaction, Target offers “gift cards” that can also be applied toward a future purchase. Both scenarios require at least one transaction to earn the reward or gift card, and another transaction to use the rewards earned.

The difference is that in Target’s case, the gift card comes off the final total of your next transaction, and you can apply as many as you have, so they are basically like cash and can be used on any items purchased in your second transation. Target gift cards are simply easier to use right away. Taking into account the $5 gift cards you can earn when purchasing two or four of an item (again, this is why I get four copies of the newspaper now), the net expense can result in free items and even cash earned on a transaction if you have good coupons to apply to the sale. I love these!

I also love the fact that Target has 100+ store coupons online at any given time, and many of them will “stack” with a current MFG coupon to increase your overall savings. Combining sale prices with MFGs and Target coupons (and sometimes even earning $5 gift cards on top of that!) has resulted in lots of free or almost free purchases since I started paying closer attention to the Target coupons. And it’s pretty easy to print those off — again, when you know you’re going to use them.

Walgreens register rewards are harder to work with, but they can also easily result in a lot of “free” or close-to-free net expense on purchases. The trick with Walgreens register rewards is that you can only earn one of each type of register reward offer per transaction, they function as an MFG coupon and not simply “cash off” at the end, and you also can’t use that register reward earned toward the purchase of the same item in a future transaction. This is where my head starts to spin, but once I read up on the policy online, it was crystal clear. Walgreens takes the most planning by far, but I’ve also saved the most money there, so I think it’s worth the extra time to make it work.

What I have started doing at Walgreens is this: I split my coupons into two envelopes, one for items that will result in a register reward, and one that is for items where no register reward is earned. I only split up my order into the minimum amount of transactions it will take to earn all the register rewards. For example, if you “buy 2, get a $2 register reward” on toothpaste and I have four coupons I can use, I split my order up into two transactions — that way I earn the register rewards twice. Tip: You can earn multiple register rewards on one transaction as long as they’re not for the same item (ie. earn one on the toothpaste deal, and another on a razor deal), so that’s one way you can easily combine and not have to split up each transaction.

Next I do a transaction that uses up the register rewards I just earned on any items on my list that don’t earn register rewards. Usually I have coupons for these items too, and the rule when using a register reward is that the total number of items in the transaction can’t exceed the number of MFG coupons used (not counting Walgreens store coupons). So if I am buying something on sale that is BOGO, or buy multiples to get the sale price, I should have enough items in my transaction to also use the register rewards for additional discount.

If not, I can always pull in a filler item that is cheap and useful (like I found that postcards are just 25 cents and are always useful) to bring my total amount of items higher so I can apply additional register rewards to the transaction. Or I simply add something that is at a great sale price but I have no additional coupon for (so the register reward essentially becomes an MFG coupon for that item). This strategy has resulted in transactions where I’m paying a few cents for $30 or more worth of items!

Sometimes things don’t work out exactly in such a way that I can use all my register rewards in one shopping trip, but I don’t get worked up about that because I know I’ll be back in the next week or so to coupon shop again, and I can use it next time. The bottom line is that whether I save the money now or later, I am still saving money by earning and using Walgreens register rewards.

Walgreens is also the best place to use your BOGO coupons, or apply coupons to Walgreens BOGO offers, because the only rule on MFG coupons is that the total number of coupons can’t exceed the number of items in the transaction. So for example, Walgreens is offering a body wash at BOGO, so you pick up two, but you can still apply two MFG coupons for that item to the total purchase, even though technically you only “bought” one. The next savings is really great, especially for higher priced items like medicine, vitamins, etc. where the MFG coupon can be as high as $5 off. Read this coupon policy carefully (it’s on Walgreens Web site) so you understand how this works and can maximize it at the right opportunities!

My last store tip is to keep an eye on the clearance sections. Target’s end-of-aisle clearance shelves are especially plentiful when it comes to brand-name items marked down for no apparent reason. Special packaging (like multi-packs or sample-included packs) seem to be in the clearance a lot, so in that case you end up with more product overall for even lower cost than the clearance price when you apply a coupon to a clearance item. For example, I used a BOGO coupon to get two men’s body washes that were marked down to $3 each in clearance that each had a half-size sample attached, for a total of like 60oz of body wash for just $3!

Another good deal is “manager’s special” stickers, which most often mean that the product will be expiring soon, but if you just make a point to use it right away, why not? I purchased a whole Foster’s Farms all-natural chicken on manager’s special for $4, and cooked it that evening to reap a few gallons of chicken broth plus cooked chicken meat that we used for dinner and another meal the next day. Now that’s an extreme savings!

So how are you feeling about your couponing efforts? Are you making progress or still feeling stuck or overwhelmed? Stay tuned for my next post, where I will take a breather to look at the raw data — the numbers — and see where couponing has gotten my family so far.

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