Observations and Oddities

Not so extreme couponing- part 2

Facebook can be blamed for credited with introducing people to a variety of new hobbies. Some fall in love with virtual farming, others manage zoos or wage mafia wars.  For me, the vice is couponing.

It all began very innocently.  A friend of mine suggested I “like” his wife’s couponing page  and, wanting to be supportive, I obliged. I quickly became intrigued by the steady flow of posts promoting the new “deals” she finds daily and took some time to explore her website.  I admit to being a bit judgmental of couponers in the past, thinking it to be a pastime for people with way too much time on their hands.  But knowing the writer of this page and what an intelligent and busy woman she is, my viewpoint soon changed.  If she found time to do it and was that successful at it, I thought, I could, too.

In the beginning, her site was my couponing primer. I would read her found deals and then try to duplicate them in my weekly shopping. It was helpful to mimic her actions, as it taught me how to find the deals and how to work the combinations of sales, store coupons, manufacturers’ coupons and promotional offers.  It also taught me not what to do, as I made a few saving mistakes in those first few weeks. But like all good students, I was eventually able to depend less on my teacher and venture out on my own. I do however, still visit her site and follow her Facebook posts as she is still my mentor and I continuously learn from her expertise.

I promised in my last post to share some more information about my couponing practices. I’ve covered how it is I got started. Now, for the other tidbits I promised to dole out:

Find your own guru
My guru is the friend’s wife I’ve described above. Her site, www.midwestcouponchick.com, is my primary reference tool.  If you live in the Indianapolis area, her site could be a great reference for you, too. If you live somewhere else, simply try Googling (that is a verb, right?) “coupon blog” with your city name.  You’ll want to find someone in your region to follow so that you’ll have access to the same stores, sales and coupon policies your guru posts about.

I encourage the use of other’s sites not just so you have someone to learn from, but to save you time. There are tons of these sites out there, with people who are already taking the time to scan the ads, search the net and visit the stores to find the best deals. What’s amazing is, they happily share this information for free on their sites.  So, accept their generosity and save yourself some time and hard work.

Think outside of the box

Walgreens stacking deal. Hefty one zip bags, regular price $3.29 each. Starburst jelly bean eggs, regular price $.99, on sale for $.75. I used a 2 buy one get one free store coupons and 3 $1.00 off coupons on the bags, a $1.00 off 2 store coupon and $.50 off 2 manufacturers coupon on the candy and $3.00 Walgrees cash. Grand total out-of-pocket: $1.01.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned from couponing is that the big box stores are rarely the places where you will save the most money. Before I took up the habit, I did most of my shopping at Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart. Now, I rarely set foot in those stores. Some of my best grocery deals come from places I would have considered the most expensive before: Target, Walgreens and CVS.

The trick is shopping at stores that give you a variety of ways to save. The three stores mentioned above are great for the practice of “stacking” or using both a store coupon and a manufacturer’s coupon on the same item (get Target coupons on their web site, Walgreens coupons from their weekly circulars and in their monthly coupon booklet). In addition, CVS and Walgreens offer in-store cash rewards that can make the deals even more beneficial.

Be sensible
To make the most of my habit, I shop at 5 stores every week: Meijer, Kroger, Walgreens, CVS and Target. I explained three of these above, the other two are favorites due to their double coupon policies. For me, this is really not a big deal because all 5 stores are within 4 miles of my house and of each other (in fact I have two Kroger and Walgreens locations and 3 CVS locations in the same 4 mile grid). If this is not the case for you, you’ll obviously want to consider the tradeoff of driving all over the place while burning your nearly $4 per gallon gasoline.  A deal is only a deal if it saves you money.

Don’t be a snob
One of the cardinal rules of couponing is to not be a brand snob. I admit to struggling with this one a bit, especially when it comes to my health and beauty products and my laundry detergent. If you’re not overly brand loyal, you’ll be able to benefit from more savings opportunities. For me, I’ve had to find a happy medium. I do try new brands in product categories that don’t bother me as much: frozen vegetables, paper goods, etc. and I won’t pass up a free deal even if it is a brand I won’t use. I take the items I can get for free or nearly free, but don’t meet by brand pickiness, and donate them to the food pantry at my church.

1 +2 = free

Better than free. Suave deodorant, regular price $1.19, on sale for $.88. Use 3 $.50 off one coupons, at a store that doubles. FREE deodorant, plus $.36 overage credited to my other purchases.

Free items-this is probably the topic that sparks the most interest. Getting free items is a very common occurrence for me anymore. Of course, you can’t get everything for free, but there is a selection of items you can get for free on a very regular basis. For instance, since I got into the couponing groove I have not paid for toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss, deodorant, muffin mix, cake mix or cake frosting. I also often get frozen vegetables, candy and pasta for free. There are all kinds of free opportunities out there. They are generally a result of a good sale plus a stack or a sale plus a double coupon, or a coupon plus a promotional deal, or a combination of all of the above.

I now have a list of items that I truly believe I should never pay for along with a collection of arbitrary guidelines of things I will never pay for more than a dollar for, etc. It’s funny what kind of rules you can establish around your couponing process once you get used to it. What I’ve found is that now that I know what kind of prices I can get on a regular basis, and now that I have established a decent stockpile, I can be more patient and wait until the deal is right before making a purchase.

Be patient

Once youve established a stockpile, youll be able to wait for the deals, improving your overall savings.

If you’re just getting started with couponing, be patient.  While you can save a substantial amount right off the bat, it’s more likely that it will take a few weeks for you really to start seeing the savings you’re looking for. I took a couple of months before I hit my stride. Once I had spent some time building up my coupon supply (I buy 3 Sunday papers each week, print coupons online and do electronic couponing ) and creating a basic stockpile, I really started seeing the savings. I now spend about 50% less per month than I did before couponing.

 Have fun
The process of couponing involves some work, but I encourage you to have fun with it. For me, it’s a strategic challenge. I am somewhat addicted to the game, getting truly excited when I score a great deal and equally disappointed if I miss one (I’m still really mad about missing a $0.28 fabric softener deal a few weeks ago). If you hate doing it, then don’t. Go to the big box stores and get the lower everyday prices. If you do love it, then I wish you well and hope to see you and your binder at a nearby store sometime soon.


Not so extreme couponing

The combination of my recent Facebook posts regarding my couponing habit and the season premiere of TLC’s Extreme Couponing has generated several questions from my friends about how exactly it is I manage my “personal savings program”.  While I have no intention of turning this into a couponing blog, this is a subject that I do have some true passion for, so I think a post or two may be in order.

To those who prefer my sappy, silly and sarcastic content, I promise to get back to basics soon. However, today the tone will be a bit more instructional in nature.

To keep myself on track I think we’ll give a Q&A format a try.

Q. Are you like the crazy people on TV who spend hours and hours on their couponing and have shelves and shelves of stockpiled items?
A. Yes and no.  Yes, I do spend a decent amount of time clipping, planning and shopping. Yes, I do stockpile some items. No, I am not like the people on TV. 

I promise this is not a statement of denial.

 I spend about 2-3 hours a week clipping coupons, organizing them, searching the ads and making my lists. I then spend a about another 2 hours shopping.  This is generally a Sunday afternoon activity.  I clip coupons over lunch with my family, then organize and plan after that.  I spread my shopping out over the course of the week.  (To give you some perspective, I spent a least an hour or two planning even before my couponing habit began. My old style was to explore cookbooks and build out detailed meal plans before writing my shopping list, so the amount of time I spend now is not a big stretch).

My stockpiling is relatively minor. My linen closet holds a collection of body washes, dental care items, shampoo, conditioner, soap and deodorant- enough to last my family a few months.  A storage cabinet in my basement holds a few weeks’ worth of dry goods and a shelf in my laundry room boats an ample supply of household cleaners.

I do not own a second refrigerator or a deep freeze and have no intention of obtaining either.

stockpiling doesn't have to be extreme

Q. Why do you stockpile?
. It’s a matter of simple math.  If you can purchase something for pennies on the dollar (or get it for free) why not take advantage of the deal while you can?  It saves you in the long run.

Q. How much do you really save?
A. Admittedly, I used to be the person who scoffed at the people using coupons in front of me in line at the grocery.  I wondered how much difference a 25 cent coupon could really make.  After being properly indoctrinated into the couponing society, I now save 50-60% off my monthly grocery bill.  Others do much better.  I really am a very moderate player in this game.

Q. I’d like to try couponing, but I’m not organized enough.  How do you it?
A. I am, by nature, an organizer.  However, I don’t believe that you have to be as OCD as I am in order to be an effective couponer.  The “secret” is what you see on the TLC show or in the hands of a shopper in your local store- THE BINDER. 

Coupon binders are as varied as the individuals who build them.  Mine is a simple three-ring binder filled with clear baseball card sleeves. Each card slot holds a collection of identical coupons.  My binder is also divided into 25 sections, such as dairy, produce, frozen, laundry, H&BA, paper goods, pets, etc.  In this instance I am pretty extreme.  Most people I know have far fewer categories, but as I alluded to before, I’m a bit of an uber organizer.

In addition, my binder holds my shopping list, labeled envelopes for each store I will shop at, copies of the related store ads, a print out of any electronic coupons I’ve added to my store shopping cards and a pair of scissors.

I shop primarily from the envelopes which I fill with the coupons I plan to use prior to going shopping.  The binder is along for the ride so I can seize any additional deals I may stumble upon.

the essential tool- the binder

There’s a lot more I can say about the process, but I really want to build some suspense into this intriguing series of posts, so I’ll just leave you hanging for now.  I promise at least one more post in which I will offer more details on what got me started, how to find deals, what stores are the best for couponing, introduction to coupon vocabulary (terms like “stacking” and “Catalina” are key), which items I NEVER pay for and more.   If you have specific questions, I’d be happy to offer my best answer. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I love saving money and will gladly help you do so too.  Just leave a comment here or on Facebook and I’ll either respond back to you directly or include the answer in a future post (or both).

In the meantime, start scouting out binders, cleaning out closets and storage rooms to make space for stockpiling and sharpening your scissors.  There is some saving to be done!