When you’re a busy mom, the prospect of adding one more item to the to-do list can feel like the straw that just may break the camel’s back. But when it comes to couponing, carving out a few hours each week to get organized and create shopping lists around the best deals can be worth it.
While TV shows like Extreme Couponing feature people who turn the practice into a part-time job, the reality is that couponing can pay off with just a small time investment. Even amateur couponers can save money, try new products for cheap and free up cash to invest in other worthwhile ventures (like a vacation, perhaps?). When you look at it that way, the time commitment can easily pay for itself. Here’s how to break into the world of couponing without going to extremes.
Break Out the Scissors: How to Get Started
1. Start small
Don’t feel like you need to find every deal imaginable at every store you’ve ever visited. Instead, pick one or two stores (ideally those where you shop frequently) and commit to couponing at those establishments. That way you can learn the ins and outs of couponing in a controlled way, without feeling overwhelmed.
2. Seek out coupons
There are a number of places to find coupons:
- The Sunday paper This classic source of coupons is still a good option. The newspaper subscription easily pays for itself once you get into the swing of couponing.
- Internet printables Sites including coupons.com, redplum.com, couponchief.com, and smartsource.com offer printable coupons for a variety of stores.
- Newsletters and social media Sign up for newsletters from your most frequented stores, and they’ll regularly send you embedded coupon offers that allow you to buy items online. On Facebook, “like” the pages of products or brands that you frequently use and you’ll be notified any time a new coupon is available (the same goes for following brands on Twitter).
- Online coupon aggregators. This is a great option if you’re pressed for time. Some blogs, like Couponing 101, compile deals from different retailers. Simply print the ones you want and you’re all set to shop.
- Mobile apps. Many coupon sites offer apps that let you access coupons from your smartphone; the cashier then scans the barcode at checkout. Some stores even have their own apps, which frequently offer coupons. There are also several grocery-specific apps, including Coupon Sherpa and Ibotta.
3. Develop an organizational system
Ultimately the way you organize your coupons is up to you, and figuring out what works best probably involves a process of trial and error. The two most popular methods are:
- The Binder Method Fill a three-ring binder with baseball card inserts (found at most craft stores). Then add dividers and label by category. Be as specific as possible—instead of “food,” try “produce,” “dessert items,” “refrigerated section,” etc. Then write the names of the stores you frequent on envelopes and stash them in the binder’s front pocket. When you’re ready to hit the stores, just slip the coupons into the appropriate envelope(s) and stash the envelopes in your bag or wallet for easy access at checkout.
- The File Box Method Purchase a large box that’s divided by folders or tabs. Arrange coupons in file folders according to category, and label each tab or folder with the category title. This method allows for a quick, top-down visual assessment of the kinds of coupons you have.
If neither of these options works, check out this resource for more organizational ideas. Speaking of organization: schedule time each week to clip and organize coupons as well as plan shopping lists.
4. Time things right
Just because you have a coupon doesn’t mean it’s the right time to buy. You’ll get the most bang for your buck if you wait until an item you have a coupon for goes on sale. Also try to wait until you’re able to “stack” your coupons—meaning you use a manufacturer coupon and a store coupon together on the same item (this is where coupon aggregator websites come in handy).
5. Prepare for checkout
Ready to shop? Before leaving the house, take the time to get organized. Write down the price and quantity for each item you plan to buy, and stick to the list once you get to the store. If you have a lot of coupons, try to shop during off-peak hours like the early morning, early afternoon, or late evening; checking out is much less stressful when there isn’t a huge line behind you.
6. Get empowered
Easing into the couponing lifestyle is much easier if you keep the following tips in mind:
- Learn to shop differently. Instead of purchasing items after you’ve run out and you need them immediately, get comfortable shopping for the items you regularly use when they are available for the best deal. Stocking up means you won’t have to worry about running out of frequently used products. When it comes to perishable groceries, it’s helpful to plan meals around what’s on sale.
- Take stock Pay attention to how quickly you use up common household items such as shampoo, soap, cereal, diapers and detergent. This gives a sense of how much to buy so you don’t end up wasting anything.
- Remember to comparison shop Just because you have a coupon for an item doesn’t mean it’s the cheapest deal. Compare that product to other brands to make sure you’re actually spending less by using the coupon.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for a raincheck If a store runs out of a sale item you planned to purchase, head to customer service and ask if they’ll offer a raincheck. In most cases, they provide a slip of paper listing the item details so you can buy the item at the sale price the next time you’re in the store.
- Make a price book If you find yourself with some free time, consider making a master list of the items and prices of things you regularly buy. That way you can refer to the list to see if a coupon is actually a good deal.
- Don’t buy things you won’t use Unless you’re planning to donate the items, there’s simply no need to buy things you don’t need—no matter how good a deal you’re able to score.
Coupon Etiquette 101
Don’t sacrifice common sense—or common courtesy—in the name of a good deal. Keep these tips in mind to avoid committing any couponing faux pas:
- Know each store’s policies. Different stores have different rules when it comes to using coupons. For example, some establishments limit the number of coupons you can use during each transaction. Know the rules ahead of time to avoid unnecessary hassle at checkout.
- Read coupons closely Review the fine print so you’re aware of any restrictions on size, quantity, or other factors, as well as expiration dates. This can help you accurately plan shopping trips and spare you and the cashier from any conflicts at checkout.
- Read the receipt before leaving the store That way you can uncover any price discrepancies and address them immediately at customer service. Resolving disputes becomes infinitely harder once you’ve left the store.
- Be respectful Never try to pressure a cashier into breaking the rules—it could cost them their job. Remember that treating other people well is much more important than saving 99 cents.
- Stick up for yourself If you’ve read the fine print and are confident you’re applying coupons correctly, don’t feel bad about explaining to the cashier why the coupons are valid. If the cashier won’t budge, ask to speak to a manager. Just remember to be respectful to all parties.
- Donate extras Once you hit your couponing stride, you may find yourself with more items than you need. Or perhaps you randomly score an item for free but don’t actually have a use for it. This is a great opportunity to pay it forward by donating extra items to food pantries or homeless shelters.
No matter how you decide to incorporate couponing into your life, remember that your sanity is more important than savings. Finding the best deals can easily turn into an obsession, so prioritize self-care and healthy relationships over all else. Instead of letting yourself be overwhelmed by couponing, make it a tool that works for you. Follow the tips above, keep a balanced mindset and you’ll reap savings for years to come.