I’m launching Frugalistic Mom with this series about how to save money without wasting your life chasing pennies. Part I outlined some easy ways to save money on groceries, and today I’m sharing my low-maintenance coupon system. You can find the entire Save Money Frugalistically series here.
Coupons have a lot of baggage attached to them. Coupon clipping brings up negative associations new and old, from the maniacs on Extreme Couponing to 1950s housewives whiling away hours pasting Green Stamps.
But if you look around, you’ll notice more and more normal people of all ages handing over coupons at grocery stores and drug stores. Coupon use is up because times are tough, and yes — they really can save you a significant amount of money. But they can also take over your life if you let them.
The coupon system I use, which I call low-clip couponing, minimizes the time you spend dealing with coupons, while still allowing you to reap the benefits. Here’s how it works:
1. GET SOME COUPONS
The two main sources of paper coupons (we’ll talk about e-coupons at the end) are the Sunday newspaper and the Internet. The biggest-circulation newspapers usually have the most, highest-value coupons, so I get mine from the Chicago Tribune. I get two copies of the Trib each Sunday (whenever Groupon* offers a deal on subscriptions, I sign up) and if there are any coupons I know I will use multiple copies of, I sometimes pick up extras for $1 apiece at Menards or a dollar store.
Online, you can print coupons from many sites: Coupons.com*, Coupon Network, RedPlum* and SmartSource, for example. A lot of the best coupons are offered for a limited time on product companies’ Facebook pages. If a really great coupon becomes available that I’m pretty sure I will use, I print it right away. But I try not to print too many online coupons unless I am heading to the store, because otherwise I find that I’m spending too much on paper and ink.
2. ORGANIZE THOSE COUPONS
Some people clip every coupon they think they ever might use, and store them in thick binders with plastic baseball card holders, boxes or other organizers. I do not do this.
I usually don’t clip any coupons at all until I’m making my shopping list and heading to the store. Instead, I store each Sunday newspaper insert, intact, in this black filing box.
I like this size box — it comfortably stores a few month’s worth of coupons and if necessary it can be thrown in the car. (You know, for a coupon emergency like a crazy double coupons event, or a boring football Sunday at my mom’s house when I want to spend some time purging expired coupons.
Inside the box, I have a file folder for each week.
As is Frugalistic Mom’s wont, these folders are not labeled with adorable stickers or a label maker. I scrawl each Sunday’s date right on the folder with a Sharpie, and then when the coupons inside expire, I empty the folder, scribble out the date, and write a new date on it.
I only purge my coupon box every couple of months, and it takes 5 to 10 minutes.
3. NEVER OPEN THE BOX
Just sit back and admire your neatly organized coupon collection. Pass it on to your daughter and tell her it’s called a “hope chest.” Just kidding. Go on to step 4.
4. KNOW WHEN IT’S TIME TO USE A COUPON
Step 4 is what divides the coupon superstars from the coupon weaklings. We superstars use no coupon before its time.
How do we know when it’s time? We rely on other people to tell us.
Every Wednesday, Chicago grocery stores publish a new weekly sale ad. You can pore over this sale ad yourself and decide what you want to buy this week, or you can log onto Frugalistic Mom or other money-saving sites to find out what deals the experts recommend. You can even use a service such as SavingsAngel or The Grocery Game to generate a weekly deal list. Lately I really like using CouponMom.com to prepare for my shopping trips — it’s free and it will help you create a printable list with the coupons listed right on it.
All of those sites will tell you not only what the best sales are, but where to find the coupons for those sales. They’ll say, for example, “Ronzoni pasta is on sale for $1, so clip the $1 off coupon from the 9/4/11 SS to get it free.” (I just made this up — don’t go looking for that exact coupon.) In this example, SS means SmartSource, one of the coupon booklets you got in the Sunday paper and filed away in your folder marked Sept. 4, 2011.
Other abbreviations you’ll see in grocery deal posts include RP, referring to the RedPlum insert, and P&G, referring to the monthly Proctor & Gamble Brand Saver.
5. CLIP THAT COUPON
Once I have my list in hand with the coupon dates listed next to the items I want to buy, it’s a cinch to flip to the appropriate file folder, take out all my copies of that particular insert, and clip all my copies of the coupon.
I keep my clipped coupons in two little files in my purse.
This one is for grocery coupons.
And this one is for drugstore coupons.
These little files are also where I stash any coupons I receive at the register in the store, like those Walgreens Register Rewards or any Catalina coupons at the grocery store. So then I have them and I know where they are.
You can organize your little accordian file by store, or by aisle, or whatever you like. You might want to keep any good printables that you have printed in there too.
Another reason coupons end up in my files is if I’ve clipped them for a certain sale and don’t end up using them. It happens to me too! I also sometimes clip a few coupons for products that I always buy.
6. GO SHOPPING
When it’s time to use your coupons, don’t be shy. Do watch the register and make sure each one comes off. If something doesn’t come off and you don’t catch it before the cashier totals out your transaction, don’t worry. Just go to the service desk and they will straighten it out for you. In fact, if you forget to use your coupon, take your receipt and coupon to the service desk and most stores will deduct the discount right there. Most employees are very nice about this so don’t hesitate to do it!
7. IF THERE’S TROUBLE
Sometimes you will have a cashier who says you can’t use a certain coupon. They’re usually wrong. They may think it’s not OK to use six identical coupons on six identical items — but as long as the coupon doesn’t state a limit and the store doesn’t have a written policy banning it, it is OK.
The best thing to do if the cashier gives you any trouble with your coupons is to smile and politely ask for a manager. In most cases, the manager on duty will smooth things out and you’ll soon be on your way. If the manager is taking too long to get there, you might want to go ahead with your purchase and simply bring the problem coupon up to the service desk.
It’s a good idea to know the coupon policies of the stores where you shop. Most stores now have them posted online. Some shoppers even like to print out the coupon policies so they can pull them out in case of conflict.
So there you have it: Using coupons frugalistically. Easy peasy.
* Affiliate link — if you buy through that link, I could get a small commission.