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A New Chapter

Diary of a Work in Progress • RenéeGotcher.com

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Frugal Mama

Creative ways to save money and spend purposefully!

Couponing, Chapter Four: Revelation Time!

After seven weeks of dabbling in the pool of extreme couponing, I was totally hooked on saving money and became even more inspired to share what I’ve learned, as well as to use couponing to help others (more on that later). As excited as I was to start helping others, I decided that first, I’d better assess what I’d accomplished and see if this experiment was really paying off. Guess what? It was — seriously — and I had already saved over $1,000 in four weeks! Read on…

THE TALLY

Once I hit the four-week mark, I decided to add up my total couponing expenses (what I purchased on each shopping trip, plus expenses like buying the newspaper) and compare it to what I spent last month on grocery and household items when I was still shopping with no list, no budget, and almost no coupons. Then I would calculate the actual value of what I purchased (a little harder than the first step, more on that later) to figure out exactly what I saved. Time to let the numbers speak for themselves and find out if I was really doing my family a favor by investing my limited time into this couponing endeavor.

My first revelation was seeing that I did actually spend a lot of money on my many couponing excursions. I found myself getting a little sweaty as the calculator started into the $800 range and I still had quite a few receipts sitting in front of me. When I would walk out of a store spending only $20 to $40 on an impressive haul, I thought my month’s total would be something like $500 max. As it turns out, I spent about $930 — and although I could see that the $930 was stretched really far with one glance at my stuffed pantry and overflowing refrigerator & freezer, I was still a little startled by this tally.

I realized right off the bat that this total also included stocking up on household/personal care items that we would normally buy one at a time, yet I had purchased multiples because of the huge savings opportunity. For example, I had purchased six Gillette ProFusion razors for my husband (with two blades each), which would have normally cost at least $10 a piece, but I picked them up for a net of 98 cents each (sale price of $9.99, minus $4 coupon, plus $5 Walgreens Register Rewards received on each!). So with that opportunity, I bought as many as I had coupons for. This adds up when you’re stocking up the bathroom cabinets as well as the cleaning supplies, pantry, etc.

My Stocked Pantry: Saved 50% or more on everything, including many free/almost free items!

Then I remembered what The Krazy Coupon Lady said: You’ll spend more at first because you are building up a “stock” from which you’ll continue to pull items for months and months after the initial purchase. When I started this adventure, the cupboard was bare — no kidding. Now, I was staring at shelves full of enough food and household items to last for months, with the addition of those few fresh items you need week to week. I wish I had taken a picture of the pantry when I started because a picture is truly worth a thousand words, but I remember well enough the reasons I bought those newspapers that Sunday in April: It seemed like we needed everything, yet there was little money left to spend on anything.

The other thing I realized is that I was still sort of shopping blind: No budgeted grocery amount to shoot for, plus the use of my debit card vs. cash meant there was no easy way to gauge where I was at in my spending unless I actually stopped to add it up. I was having too much fun saving 60%-90% on each transaction to take a breather and look at the big picture. Going forward, I know that setting a grocery/household budget is going to be key, along with a little “cushion” to take advantage of the occasional screaming deal. But no more $900+ months, I promised myself — time to rein it in!

THE SAVINGS

The next revelation was really eye-opening: What had I spent on groceries, household and personal care items in the four weeks leading up to my first couponing experience, and was I able to spend less this time?

I hopped online and discovered that my bank account only went back to the three prior weeks online (because we haven’t switched to online-only statements, oops!), but I didn’t feel like digging up the paper statements at that moment. So I decided to just tally up those three weeks and see how close I had come to spending what we normally spend, and if necessary, dig up the paper statements to get a more accurate account.

However, right away I could see that our willy-nilly shopping habits had been costing us a lot of money, to the tune of $300 more in only three weeks than I had just spent in my four weeks couponing — and that’s before I calculated the coupon savings for those shopping trips. No need to locate that paper statement now, I was already more than convinced that my strategic shopping had already saved us quite a bit of money! I also felt a little sick when I started to realize how irresponsible I have been all these years not to have any kind of handle on where the money has been going every month, and literally wasting thousands due to poor planning and money management.

Next it was time for some better news (hopefully!): Figuring out how much money I saved on the value of what I had purchased by coupon shopping. This was a little trickier, because although many stores include a “you saved X” at the bottom of your receipt — taking into account sale prices, club card reductions, and any coupons used — I realized right away that this amount isn’t always right.

For example, if you buy something at a clearance price, most registers ring up the item with the clearance price, but do not take the savings from the original price into account in the “you saved” tally. Target is especially flawed in this area, because the only savings considered in the receipt tally are the prices with the arrow-down symbol right next to them (usually the weekly promotion price) — plus they don’t count any Target gift cards used toward the balance as a savings. Also, if the clerk had to make a price adjustment because something didn’t ring up at the proper sale price (this happened to me several times at King Soopers), the adjusted price doesn’t reflect any discount or savings either.

So I decided that for this first account of savings — and to help me feel a lot better about how I’ve improved our situation — I would take the extra time to look over each receipt and figure it out  — clearance prices, adjustments, gift cards and all. Although it took me more time than I ever want to spend again to calculate my actual savings, I felt that it was important for me to measure this as close to the penny as possible so I could really evaluate my results.

I was ecstatic to discover that the actual value of what I had purchased was just under $2,200 — for a total savings of about $1,270, or an overall average of 58% saved in my first four weeks! Phew — it was really worth it! I saved a ton of money, and I had a lot of food, household and family essentials to show for it.

Spent only $1.50 (mostly tax) — almost $20 saved!

Now the overflowing pantry made a lot more sense: If I had purchased all of these items prior to couponing, that would have cost me more than double my original “budget” of what I could spend in any given month. And because my willy-nilly spending meant that I was saving little to nothing on those previous purchases, it became clear to me why even after $1,200+ spent the three weeks prior to couponing, the cupboard was still nearly bare.

A-ha moment: There is no way I can go back to the way I shopped before! This is big money saved, money that can go a long way for our family of five, and even if I take into account the extra time I spent learning and preparing for this first go-around (that I won’t have to spend again), the dollar value return for those hours I spent is still pretty impressive. Plus, now that I am stocked up on the monthly necessities, I will only purchase new items if they are an “extreme” deal (thus the term extreme couponing) — and each week, I am discovering you can find 20-30 items that are FREE or almost FREE at both local grocery stores and national chains. So going forward, I will spend much less each month than I did to get stocked up in the first place — and definitely much less than I spent before couponing.

Most of all, now that my eyes have been opened to how my prior shopping habits were seriously hurting our overall bottom line, I am determined to get it right this time. No more excuses!

THE POSSIBILITIES

Now comes the fun part: Being blessed with abundance means you have more to give when others are in need. Giving is an area that has long-challenged me, because even when things were great for us financially (two full-time incomes, just one child), I still felt like we were living pretty close to our means and that we didn’t have “the extra” to give whenever opportunities presented themselves. It became a “someday” situation: Someday, when I’m making more money, when all the bills are paid, when we have no debt, etc., then I can freely give when I feel led to. But we never seem to arrive at someday, do we?

However, I realized that if I spend a few extra minutes each week clipping additional coupons for things I may not use myself but could donate — and a few extra minutes at the store purchasing those items for next to nothing (or getting them FREE, or even making money back on them to purchase things I do need) — then that time spent produces much more value in the form of those actual donated products than if I simply donated money, and it was spent less effectively than what I could do with it.

A recent episode of TLC’s “Extreme Couponing” really opened up my eyes to the charitable possibilities of couponing. There has been a lot of big needs in the news lately. My girls recently asked me if we could do anything to help the Joplin tornado victims, and I knew that I wanted to but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it without donating money online. Just a few days later, a door opened: I learned of a local family who was driving a truckload of supplies to Joplin that week. Perfect opportunity to pitch in, especially when I knew I had plenty to give. Thanks to all the extreme deals I had taken advantage of those first four weeks, I was able to donate four boxes of personal care items and food without a second thought — and all it cost me was my time and the expense of buying the items at 80-90% off. What a fabulous reason to get your coupon plan into action!

The final revelation for me has been realizing that this couponing adventure has been about more than just extreme savings or following a trendy TV series: It’s another important step in a journey toward becoming a more responsible steward of the abundance I’ve been blessed with, and in turn, be able to give and share freely and purposefully.

I look forward to being a more useful vessel going forward!

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Couponing, Chapter Three: Tips and Tricks, Store by Store

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.

Couponing, Chapter Two: Time to Get Extreme, Baby!

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!

Couponing, Chapter One: Not Extreme, But Not Too Shabby

THE REVELATION

By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the concept of “extreme” couponing — the meticulously planned effort to match clipped and online coupons with weekly store deals and coupon doubling to end up paying next to nothing on your total grocery bill.

If you haven’t, you’re in for a jaw-dropping revelation. There are people out there saving as much as 99% on their family grocery bills on a regular basis, and creating stock piles in their pantries, basements and garages that put mini-mart shelves to shame. It doesn’t seem possible, but it is — and apparently, a lot of people know about it! In fact, TLC has a new reality series dedicated to this phenomenon.

Of course, I was not one of those informed people — until this week. Up to this point, I’d heard talk of books, Web sites, and a “krazy coupon lady” teaching how to maximize coupon savings. Then I started hearing about some impressive bottom-line savings from my own friends. I finally chimed in to a recent Facebook couponing boast — I mean “post” — to ask the obvious question: “How did you do it?” I (and the other 20 or so curious commenters) didn’t get an answer that day, so once again I put it back on the backburner.

Then this week, I caught an episode of “Extreme Couponing” while channel-surfing, and I was schooled in the art of mega-savings. It’s not nearly enough to shop with a store discount card and grab a few shelf-display coupons as you go (which is usually the best that I can do). It’s more than just bringing the Sunday paper’s best coupon clippings along for the ride, and even going the extra mile to print coupons off the Internet. It even goes beyond comparing the weekly store circulars to see which store has what on sale this week and splitting up your shopping trip to maximize each store’s deals.

All of these savings strategies do come into play, but with extreme couponing, you combine these techniques into a caculated, aisle-by-aisle shopping plan that can take hours to execute but can amount to savings of hundreds to thousands of dollars every month. Who doesn’t like the sound of that? It also makes bottom-line sense for a lot of families to invest some time in this project. When you divide the massive savings by the hours spent on an extreme couponing excursion, it pays better than most part-time jobs.

For me, the real bottom line is this: If I don’t have to pay as much for it, why should I?

Realistically, I don’t forsee being able to carve out enough time to make my couponing effort as extreme as the women I saw on TLC — and the stock-piling was a little “crazy lady” for me. But you have to admit, it feels pretty great to score big savings when you shop, right? I love that feeling of victory when I’ve saved crazy amounts of money on things I really wanted, and it’s even better when it’s something I really needed. What better way to start being a good steward of my finances than with the daily necessities?

THE PLAN

Today I decided to dip my toes into the pond of extreme savings. However, my first experiment wasn’t very well conceived: For starters, I’m not really sure why I thought this would be a good day to give it a try. My husband just left for a business trip to China this morning, and with no obvious commitments on the schedule until the late afternoon, I thought I could squeeze in a first run at coupon-centric shopping. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

First, I sat down at the desk to map out my plan. No wait, first I need to have coupons! Oh, and I also need those weekly store circulars, but where did they end up? So far, not so good. Luckily, I was quickly rescued by a Google search, which uncovered a list of Web sites that do a little bit of the coupon-matching homework for you.

I started with CouponMom.com, and in minutes, I had a list of the best weekly deals matched up with online or newspaper coupons — in order of percentage of savings — on my computer screen for both grocery stores I’d planned to shop at. Voila, that was easy! I’ll just click on the links to the online coupons, print those out, and then pick up a paper at the store for the rest. No problem!

But of course, there was a problem — or two, or three.

First snag: Most of the online coupon links take you to sites like Coupons.com and SmartSource.com, where you have to install their “coupon printer” app first in order to print the coupons. For some reason, my Mac refused to install the Mac-based printer app. I wasted about 20 minutes uninstalling and reinstalling before deciding this old PowerBook G4 was not going to cooperate today. Time was ticking away, so I decided to go back to the list and see if any coupons came from sites that didn’t require this special printer app…

Second snag: I finally found a Web site that didn’t require the printer app — victory! — but it did require a more recent version of Java than my Firefox browser was apparently running. I tried upgrading my Java — while enjoying my second cup of Java — but about halfway through that second cup, the Java upgrade failed. Boo! Hiss! I know the G4 is an old beater, but come on… I am starting to take it personally.

After wasting another 20 minutes or so on that one, I move on to a new Web site — ShopAtHome.com — where you can “attach” online coupons to your store discount cards. Like the other sites, you’re presented with pages of coupons that you can sort through and select the ones you want, but instead of printing them out at the end, they get uploaded to your store discount card account, and when you check out at the store, the coupon is automatically deducted from your bill — along with any additional discount the store is already offering.

This is brilliant — no printing coupons, no apps! I am back in business. I quickly click through the available offerings for the best coupons that match up with my shopping list and the original store deals print-out from CouponMom.com. Looks like I won’t save as much as I could have had those initial recommended coupons printed out, but I will still save a lot more than I normally would.

Luckily, I also remember that I just received a mailer from King Soopers — one of the stores on my list — with a stack of “preferred customer” coupons they send out about once a quarter. Those are usually pretty good, so I ruffle through my desk to find it and am pleasantly surprised to see there are some more overlapping savings with the items on my list — score! I pop those into my purse, along with the printed shopping lists that ID which items have additional coupons uploaded to my store cards, and I’m finally ready to shop.

Third snag: Oops, it’s now 3pm, and it’s time for those afternoon plans. The coupon experiment will have to wait a few hours.

THE EXPERIMENT

I decide to limit the experiment to just one store today, given that it’s now after 6pm and I have three hyped-up daughters along for the ride. At least no one will be hungry, I thought — we just came from a pizza party. I look over the list and quickly make a second edit, deciding to focus on the most important needs first that still maximize the savings for a single shopping trip, and save the rest for later.

Even with that shorter list, I found myself in the self-check line two hours later with too many items to be in the self-check line. But the store was pretty empty and no one was waiting, so I decided to stay in the self-check so I could monitor the check-out process and make sure we’re getting all the right deals.

Did I mention that we’d been in the store two hours already? If you’ve ever shopped with three kids before, you’ll know that there’s a reason I skipped over the shopping experience itself — it was not fun, to say the least. And the pre-shopping meal apparently wasn’t enough: Toward the end of our trip, my three-year-old poked a hole in a bag of bagels — that I was not going to buy — and pulled out a bite. Lesson No. 1: Do this without the kids next time!

Back to the check-out counter: One of my big scores of the evening was going to be the store’s “buy four General Mills cereals, get a $5 gift card” special — because I’d planned to do that transaction first, using an additional coupon per box of cereal and selecting those four cereals that were already on sale, then use that $5 gift card off a second transaction with the rest of my items. I also had a preferred customer coupon for $1 off three boxes of GM cereal, and according to the Coupon pundits, I should be able to use that too (since it wasn’t a repeat coupon on a single item).

I rang up the four boxes, the online coupons attached to my card kicked in, the store sale prices kicked in, and I hit the “coupon” button to use the one printed preferred customer coupon. In self-check, this requires a store clerk to come up and enter your coupon for you. However, the clerk manning the self-service area tonight told me I couldn’t also use the store coupon — even though it was not a repeat coupon and it was for three items together, not one item being couponed twice. I remember what I just saw on “Extreme Couponing” this week, and I am sure he must be wrong: How else do those ladies dwindle down a $550 shopping trip to just $5, including tax?

We went back and forth about it a few times until I caught sight of my three-year-old pulling more bites out of that bag of bagels I was now on the hook for, so I quickly gave up the fight. Lesson No. 2: Find out what the deal is with using different coupons on the same item. I think I’m right, but I need to be better prepared for a battle next time.

I finished checking out without using that additional $1 coupon, then I told him I was done so that he could issue me that $5 store gift card. He looked perplexed, because I still had about 20 items in my cart. So I explained that I wanted to use the gift card now — on the rest of my items — because, well why not?

He handed me the gift card, and I pulled out the rest of my coupons and got down to business completing my check-out. With the kids visibly coming undone at this point, he softened up and came over to help me load the bags into my cart.

As we made small talk, I mentioned I would use that rejected $1 coupon next time I was in the store while the GM cereals were still on sale, so I could also get an additional $5 gift card — and at last, he understood. He smiled and said, “You know, it’s better to use a regular check-out line if you want all those deals to be worked in together — their registers will automatically issue those deals while they ring it up. That doesn’t happen automatically in the self-serve line.”

Lesson No. 3: Make friends with a few supportive store clerks and always use their lines. My experience tonight revealed that extreme couponing also requires some partners in “crime” to make sure they are helping you maximize all those coupons and deals together — someone who knows what you’re trying to do and wants to help you do it.

Time to make some new friends!

THE RESULTS

In all honestly, I probably spent a total of four hours on today’s experiment — two at home prepping my coupons and battling with my computer, and two at the store wandering back and forth (with the kids pulling me in all directions) because I didn’t have a shopping plan — and saved exactly $41.91 on what would have been a $100.53 shopping trip. So I “earned” about as much as I pay my high-school babysitter, a little more than $10/hr. Not very extreme, but not too shabby.

However, I did also strategically plan to make meals that utilized the best-priced items available at my grocery stores this week — instead of planning the meals first and then buying what I needed to execute them. If I calculated the cost of making meals I might have normally planned to make and compared it with the cost of the meals I will make with the $58.62 in groceries I purchased today, I bet I have saved an additional 30-40% over what I would normally spend. (Sorry, I’m not going to spend another minute calculating that out for argument’s sake!)

If I can really feed the family this week while my husband is out of town, and have some staple foods left over for when he gets back — all for less than $60 — then that will be a big savings over what my usually random shopping and cooking habits cost us. I’ll be curious to compare four weeks of strategic shopping with four weeks of random shopping and see what the difference is.

Until then, I think I’m ready for a refresher course in couponing. I’ll have to try and catch another episode of “Extreme Couponing” this week, and go back to the Web sites to read up on the couponing rules. Next time, I hope to have a better plan, a better computer (I’ll use my husband’s laptop when he returns), a better shopping experience (peacefully walking the aisles without kids), and a better bottom-line result.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

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