Getting Started – Couponing 101!!

Welcome to the wonderful crazy world of Couponing!!  If you’re reading this and/or hanging with us in our coupon class then you are probably hoping to save money, right?!?!!  J  Good news…. you WILL save money!!  Bad news…. it’s going to take a bit of hard work, dedication and some of your spare time every week (Spare time, remind me of what that is again J).

Can you believe that every year there are billions of dollars in coupons that go unused by the general public?!?!!!  This is happening at a time when our economy is at its worst.  Prices have gone through the roof for everything from cereals to soaps, toilet paper to canned goods.  If you’re not using coupons then you are likely wasting money that could go for other things.

What we will share with you are the tips and tricks that work for us.  Please take the info we give you and adjust it to fit your needs.  In order for any system to work it has to be something that you understand and that fits your lifestyle.  What works for one doesn’t work for all!  Any information we pass along is not the be all end all of couponing.  It’s a place to start!  There is no right or wrong way to play the couponing game.  The only rules are printed on the coupons themselves and found in each store’s coupon policy.  That’s it! 

Our hope is to help you save a minimum of 50% on your grocery bill!  Remember that making changes in our lives take time and dedication.  Couponing is a commitment and well worth it.  So get out your scissors and let’s get started!

Rethinking The Way You Shop & Learning to Stockpile:

 Before I started couponing, a typical month would consist of twice weekly trips to the grocery store.  I never had the things I needed on hand so I was always running to the store to get something for dinner that night or for lunch the next day, etc.  Grocery shopping for me never included planning & organization.  It was always impulse driven and filled with extreme lack of planning.  I found myself purchasing generic brands and spending a lot of money at Costco.  I truly felt that those 2 things were somehow offsetting the expense caused by my lack of planning.  This was very much NOT the case!  In fact, it really was only making things worse.  Also, my family was getting sick and tired of the same meals every week!  

I decided quickly that I had to make a change!  In order for me to not have to run to the store twice a week (ok, every other night) I needed to start making sure I had the items my family goes through on hand in my pantry.  This meant I had to figure out what my family goes through each week and make sure I have enough stockpiled to support that.  Stockpiling is the way you need to start thinking about shopping.  Sit down with your pencil & paper one evening and write a list of all the items your family uses.  Cereals, granola bars, soups, condiments, rice & pasts, toothpaste, deodorants, shampoos, etc.  Now, think about how often you are running to the store to purchase those items in a period of one month.  You are going to aim to have 3 to 6 months worth of those items on hand at all times!  Scary, right?!?  Believe me, this is the way you need to train your brain to shop!  Essentially you will be shopping from your stockpile.  This will take a good 3 months of couponing & stockpiling before you start seeing extreme savings.  You will have to continue your regular shopping until you get your stockpile built up. 

Finding Coupons:

Ok, so we know what our family needs now we need to know where to find coupons.  Most importantly you will need the Sunday paper!  Rule of thumb used by couponers is one (1) Sunday paper per household member and if you can afford it one (1) extra for your pantry.  So in my family’s case we purchase 7 = 6 household members + 1 pantry.  We are extremely fortunate to have the Peninsula Daily News (PDN).  This is the best source for newspaper coupons in our area.  The Seattle Times never has the RedPlum insert, they are mailed directly to subscribers and The Kitsap Sun has very few coupons in their inserts.  However, often times you will find that The Kitsap Sun has a few coupons that the PDN didn’t receive.  Once you start buying papers you’ll figure out what works best for you. 

Coupons can be found in numerous locations, not just in the Sunday papers!  Once you start keeping your eyes peeled you’ll notice them all over the place!  You’ll find manufacture coupons inside and outside product boxes, randomly placed in magazines (such as Food Network & Women’s Day), they will be sent to you in the mail (email & USPS), Sunday newspapers (check the Parade inserts too!!) and you can print them off the internet (be sure you NEVER copy coupons…it’s fraud and you WILL go to jail)! 

Here is a list of some of the great sites you can find internet printable coupons:

www.coupons.com – Newspaper coupons vary by region, as do internet printable coupons.  Try using some of these zip codes: 07039, 30303, 85254, 34102, 76065, 98370, 90210, 20010, 98054, 10022, 98042, 60030, 22222, 77377, 77477, 10001, 03110

www.redplum.com

www.smartsource.com

www.couponnetwork.com

www.kelloggs.com

www.bettycrocker.com

www.pillsbury.com

 www.facebook.com – If you don’t already have a FB account, you may consider setting one up even if it’s just for your couponing needs.  Many of the best deals I have scored have been using coupons that were available on FB!

 Most of these websites will allow you to print two (2) copies of each coupon PER COMPUTER.  Yes, if you have access to more than one computer you can print a coupon on each computer available, 2 times each.  Be sure to go back and select the coupon again if you’d like that 2nd copy.  Also, please be aware that you will be prompted to download a special coupon printer application.  This is a security control measure that prevents coupon fraud by keeping track of which coupons were printed, how many times that coupon was printed and it also helps provide high quality prints so your coupon will scan easily at checkout.  This is a safe application and there is no way around it if you would like to print internet coupons. 

 Organizing Coupons:

 So, how do you organize coupons??  Honestly, we’re not really sure but we can give you a few pointers that have helped us out.  Organizing coupons can be the road block that halts every new couponer.  It’s extremely overwhelming at first and sometimes that’s enough to keep people from even trying.  There is no method that supersedes another however, you’re more likely to use your coupons if they are organized in a fashion that works for you.  Everyone functions a little differently when it comes to organization so let’s check out a few variations:

 1)     The Binder Method

2)    The Envelope Method

3)    The Filing Method

4)    AND…. The Combined Method

 Binder– This is the most widely used method for couponers.  It allows us the ability to go to the store and see the coupons we have available to us.  Some of the best and most unexpected finds are on the clearance racks.  Using the binder method means you have your coupons with you at all times.  This is the single biggest benefit to using a binder!!  You have the ability to take advantage of deals you may not have set out to because you have your coupons with you.  It also makes thumbing through a store ad much simpler.  As you flip through the ad you can flip through your binder and check if you have any corresponding coupons.  Now, let’s move on to the binder itself.  You’ll need a good sturdy binder; 2” capacity with locking rings is recommended.  Purchasing one that zips, snaps or Velcro’s is a great way to keep everything safely together.  You’d hate to lose any of your coupons!  You’ll want to purchase a package of 9 pocket baseball card holders.  These can be found on Amazon.com and run about $16.00 for a package of 100.  Another necessary component of the Binder Method is dividers.  Having your binder split up into sections that make sense to YOU is key to using this method successfully.  Some people have their binder split up alphabetically by manufacturer; some have it split up into sections based on aisles at their favorite stores.  We have ours split up into categories such as frozen foods, refrigerated, canned good, etc.  If you’re interested in a copy of our divider breakdown for your use, please let us know!  We will gladly give it to you!!

 Envelope – This is just as simple as it sounds.  Clip your coupons and put them into an envelope.  Easy, right?!?!!

 Filing – This method is pretty simple.  Instead of clipping your coupons, organizing them and filing them away in your binder or envelope you simply file the inserts away by date.  Some people use a mini-filing box, some use a crate and others use an accordion file.  Each Sunday the new inserts are filed away until they are needed.  Every week coupon bloggers such as The Coupon Project (thecouponproject.com); Coupon Connections (couponconnections.com); Fabulessly Frugal (fabulesslyfrugal.com) and Queenbee Coupons (queenbeecoupons.com) put together store ad matchups so you’ll know what is on sale and which coupons to use to get the best deal.  On their ad matchups they list the coupon, the value and which insert and date that coupon can be found in.  This is where a method like this can come in handy.  If you’re the type that likes to be prepared and only go to the store with coupons you’ll need and no extras then this might be the method that works best for you.  You’ll simply find the coupon you need, cut it out and take it to the store with you.  This method, though it saves on clip time, reduces your ability to use a coupon “on the fly”.  Clearance finds are “on the fly” scores!

 Combined – The combined method combines the binder & filing methods.  Let’s get real; you’ll never use ALL the coupons in every insert you receive.  You just won’t.  This way eliminates useless clipping and gains you a bit of sanity.  The long & short of the combined method is this.  Clip only the coupons you think your family will use and put them in your binder, then file away the inserts by date.  Write Sunday’s date on the front of each insert.  The insert date can be found on its spine.  Some coupons require you to clip through that date plus it’s easier to find the one you’re looking for if the date is clearly marked on the front.  If there is a sale you’d like to take advantage of and you haven’t already clipped that coupon, don’t worry!  Just go to your file and pull out the insert you need.  Clip the coupon and you’re good to go!!


Combining Coupons with Sales:

 The goal of couponing is to save money by using coupons with store sales.  This is the way we fill our pantries for pennies on the dollar!  Using coupons on regularly priced items will save you money BUT if you use that same coupon on a sale item then you’ve put even more money back into your pocket.  Makes sense, right?!  As I mentioned earlier, there are many fantastic coupon bloggers in our area that figure this out for you!  Every week they post store sales matchups and tell us which items are a good price if you need them and which items are a great price or STOCK UP price.  This stock up price is the lowest price you will pay for a particular item.  They have spent years figuring out pricing trends and sales cycles and if they’re telling you this is a fantastic price, it is!  If there is an item your family uses and it’s listed as a stock up price, be sure to take advantage of it.  Remember, you’re aiming to have a 3 to 6 month stockpile.  Store sales average a 3 to 6 month cycle which is why we recommend your stockpile be the same.  Buying what your family will go through in a 3 to 6 month period at rock bottom prices means that you won’t need to stock up again on that item until it comes back on a rock bottom sale. 
 Getting a Handle on Weekly Coupon Blog Ad Matchups:

 Throughout this guide we have mentioned weekly ad matchups and explained that you can find them on the various coupon bloggers website.  Here is a great quick explanation about how to read these:

Johnsonville Chicken or Smoked Link Sausage – $2.99
With in-ad coupon, limit 4
$1/1 Johnsonville Chicken Sausage, exp. 4/1/12 (SS 01/01/12 #2)
$0.55/1 Johnsonville Pork & Chicken Sausage or Chicken Sausage printable
$1/2 Johnsonville Sausage, exp. 4/2/12 (SS 01/22/12)
Final Price: as low as $1.99

The first line indicates the sale item and in this particular case, the sale is for either variety (Chicken or Smoked Sausage). 

 The second line indicates that there is a store coupon available and you should check for it in their ad.

 Line 3, 4 & 5 are telling you what manufacture coupons are available for the items on sale.  This means that you can use one of those manufacture coupons along with the in-ad coupon mentioned in line 2.

 The last line simply indicates the price you can expect to pay if you’re using the highest value coupon listed.  Also, the coupon bloggers will typically make this line item RED indicating that it is a stock up price.  Other blogs may have a red star next to the product, etc. 
 Understanding the Fine Print:

 Understandably, reading the fine print on a coupon can make you feel like you need a magnifying glass and a law degree just to understand what the manufacturer or store is trying to say!  One of the biggest head scratchers for newbie’s is the “Limit 1 Coupon” verbiage!  This line of text causes more headaches, arguments & frustration than any other!  The variations of this “Limit” verbiage are as follows:

 Limit 1 Coupon Per Transaction

Limit 1 Coupon Per Purchase

Limit 4 Coupons Per Shopping Trip

 Let’s take a closer look at each:

 “Limit One Coupon Per Transaction” means if you want to buy 2 items and you have 2 coupons you’ll need to buy 1 item and use 1 coupon, pay the cashier and do a second transaction where you’ll purchase the second item using the second coupon.  Make sense? 

 “Limit One Coupon Per Purchase” or some variation means you can only use 1 coupon per item.  So, if you have 10 coupons you can purchase 10 items using 1 coupon per item.  This is the verbiage that causes the most drama.  Cashiers that are not educated in couponing often view the “purchase” part of that wording as “transaction”.  NO!  The manufacturers are telling you it’s ok to use as many coupons as you’d like to BUT you can only use 1 of their coupons per item. 

 “Limit 4 Coupons Per Shopping Trip” you will more often find these on P&G coupons though many other manufacturers are jumping on this bandwagon as well.  Basically they are saying, look…. We want you to use our coupons and stock up on our product but we don’t want you cleaning out the store shelves.  So, this verbiage means that in shopping trip you can only use 4 identical coupons on 4 identical items.  Now, the part that can get a little sticky is the “shopping trip” definition.  Some stores will only allow you to purchase 4 items and if you want more you’ll have to leave the store, go out to your car, etc. then come back in and do another separate shopping trip.  Other stores are more lenient and will allow you to separate out your items & coupons into separate transactions.  Basically allowing you to do as many transactions of 4 as you’d like.  Once you start getting the feel for the stores you’re shopping at, this will become clearer.  Safeway & QFC will make you leave the store and defines that as a shopping trip.  Albertsons in Poulsbo will allow you to break them up in to transactions of 4.  It’s definitely a YMMV situation.


Coupon Fraud – How to Avoid It:

 Many coupon newbie’s don’t realize when they begin couponing that there are rules that must be followed and if they are not followed, serious legal repercussions can occur.  Each coupon defines its rules for use!!!  Every coupon lists an expiration date; limits of use (how many you can purchase) and clearly states the product for which that coupon can be used on (size, flavor, etc.).  Products purchased with coupons for which they are not intended for is coupon fraud!  Using a coupon past its expiration date is coupon fraud!!!  Photocopying coupons, either from the internet or from the newspaper is coupon fraud!!!!  Coupon fraud carries severe penalties even for those of us who have inadvertently used a coupon incorrectly.  It’s our job to be sure we use them within their limits.  It’s not the stores job to babysit us, though they will be severely reprimanded if they accept a coupon fraudulently.  Not only that, they will not be reimbursed by the manufacturer.
 Stacking Coupons:

Simply put, stacking coupons means using 1 store coupon AND 1 manufacture coupon together on the same item.  I know, I know…. Manufacture coupons say only 1 coupon per item.  Yes, this is true!!  However, many times stores will put out coupons in their weekly ads for you to use to obtain a particular price.  In this case the store is picking up the difference not the manufacturer. 

Store coupons are issued by the store, redeemable only at that store and typically limit the quantity of items you can purchase.

Manufacture coupons are issued by the manufacturer and say “Manufacturer Coupon” on the top and can be used at any store that accepts manufacture coupons. 

Example:  This week Albertsons has a store coupon for Viva Paper Towels.  This coupon will allow you to purchase these towels for $5.50 each.  There is also a $1.00/1 Viva Paper Towel manufacture coupon available.  If you “STACK” the store coupon for $5.50 and the $1.00 manufacture coupon you will get the Viva Paper Towels for $4.50 each. 


Store Policies:

Every store has its own policy regarding coupon usage.  Store policies can be found on their corporate website or on the numerous coupon bloggers websites including ours.  It’s important that every couponer, whether seasoned or newbie, keep a copy of the coupon policy for each store you shop at on your person.  This not only helps you remember the rules but it also serves as a great tool if you’re being questioned by a store cashier.  Many newbie’s are under the assumption, and rightfully so, that cashiers know their stores coupon policy front and back.  That’s just not the case!  Most cashiers have no idea what their stores policy is.  If a cashier is giving you a hard time about your coupon usage kindly pull out the coupon policy and point out to them why you were using a coupon in that particular manner.  Sometimes you’re right, sometimes they are.  Though coupon policies are corporate, most have a disclaimer stating that a store manager can use their discretion.


Rain checks:

 Ever gone to the store to take advantage of a great deal only to find that item was gone from the shelves?  If you haven’t, lucky you!!  If you have then you know how frustrating it is.  You’ll find yourself running into this very scenario much more now that you’ve started couponing.  No worries, when you go to the store just ask them for a rain check!  A rain check, if you’re unfamiliar, is a slip of paper that a store issues you that guarantees the price of an item when it was out of stock.  For example, let’s say you head to the store to pick up some toothpaste only to find that they’re out of stock.  Ask the cashier for a rain check on the toothpaste.  You & the cashier will fill out all the necessary information on the rain check most importantly it will list the current price of the toothpaste.  Be sure you keep this in a safe spot as many stores have a 30 day expiration.  Also, I would recommend you keeping a copy of the store ad (if the item was advertised) in your binder until after you pick the item up.  That way if there are any questions you can show them the ad. 

 Some stores (and this is another YMMV situation) will allow you to purchase the item for which you are getting a rain check thus allowing you to use your manufacture coupon and prevent you from having to worry about it expiring.  In this case you would be given an IOU from the store.  Be sure you keep your receipt so you do not have to argue that your items are already paid for.  Not all stores will do this, but it’s always worth an ask.


Basic Rules of Couponing:

 These rules are really just unspoken coupon etiquette.  Here are a few tips that will make your life much easier!

 Use Coupons Only as Stated – Know the fine print on your coupons before redeeming them.  This will take time and practice.  It’s worth it!

 Don’t be a shelf clearer – Buying 15 of an item such as shampoo and leaving none for others is just rude.  If there are only a few of that particular item on the shelf, say maybe 3 or 4 then fine.  That’s ok.  Stores have the ability to limit quantities and you’d hate to have them limit you embarrassingly at the checkout stand.

 Be Nice, Polite & Respectful – Simply put, be nice to your cashier and be respectful of others around you.  If you are nice to your cashier it will make your shopping experience much smoother and much more fun!!  If you have a cart full of goodies and numerous transactions to do, be sure you are respectful of the person standing behind you in line.  Offer to let them go ahead of you.  It’s the right thing to do!  Also, be sure you are organized before getting in line at the register.

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