Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Low Carbing On A Budget Part III -- Couponing 101

I’m sure everybody has seen, or at least heard about, Extreme Couponing, where couponers walk into a grocery store, load up eight shopping carts, present a stack of coupons two inches thick and end up paying a dollar for $1,000 worth of groceries.

That’s not going to happen to you or me.

There’s several reasons for this.  First, let’s get the biggie out of the way:  The people on these shows aren’t doing their ordinary grocery shopping.  They’re showcasing one shopping trip where they’ve cherry picked a list that corresponds with the most spectacular coupons just so they can show they can save 99% plus of their bill under absolutely perfect conditions.  Even for them, these are atypical shopping trips.  Most of us aren't going to go to the store for 200 boxes of Cheerios.  Even if we ate Cheerios in the first place.

Let’s face it:  Low carbers are never going to get the kind of results other couponers will.  Why?  Because we buy (or at least should buy) heavily from the fresh produce and fresh meat counters where coupons are rare.  For the most part, food coupons are for heavily processed foods which, hopefully, we aren’t buying.  That doesn’t even take into account that these extreme couponers are spending a huge chunk of time (often over 40 hours a week) clipping coupons and searching out deals.  They also usually have a ginormous stockpile occupying their entire garage and/or multiple rooms in their house.  So unless you’re prepared to make couponing your actual profession, you can’t hope to equal their results.

However, couponing can, with very minimal time and effort and without a ginormous stockpile, be a wonderful asset for low carbers, and I’m going to show you how to do it.

First, realize that while there aren’t many coupons for fresh meat and produce, you do eat a lot of things that aren’t fresh meat and produce, such as oils, dairy, eggs, condiments, cheese, beverages, frozen or <shudder> canned vegetables, sweeteners and so on.  Also, remember all the consumables around your house that aren’t food?  Household cleaners, paper and plastic products, health and beauty products, pet supplies, and over-the-counter medications and so forth.  All of these are ready coupon candidates.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I only started using coupons early last year.  I’d watched Extreme Couponing, but somehow it all seemed like (a) too much trouble, and (b) inapplicable to me as a low carber.  Then, after a shopping trip to Meijer, I was ready to throw out the Catalinas that printed out at the register, but . . . I looked.  There in my hand was a coupon for $7.50 off my next meat purchase of $25.00 or more.  I had almost thrown away $7.50.  What low carber doesn’t spend $25 on meat on a shopping trip?  That was the beginning for me.  I went home, got online and did some research, and picked my jaw up off the floor when I realized just how much money I’d literally trashed over the years.  If I’d started couponing back when I moved out of my parents’ house 27 years ago, I probably would have saved enough money over the years to go out and pick a new sportscar off the lot.  Still, better late than never.  I’ve saved hundreds of dollars this year alone, and you can too.

If you followed my earlier instructions, you already have a list of your favorite consumables, food and otherwise, from your store price comparisons earlier.  If you have trouble making this list, just walk through your day, and while you’re in the bathroom, kitchen, pantry or the laundry room, open the cabinets and look at what’s in there.  Make your list and break it down into categories.  I break my list down by the aisle at the grocery store I usually shop at:  Produce, Meat/Fish, Deli, Frozen, Beverages, Snacks, Canned, Condiments, Baking Aisle, Dairy, Paper/Plastic, Cleaning, Health/Beauty, Pills (for me, this encompasses both over-the-counter meds and supplements) and Pet Supplies.

Invest in a coupon organizer wallet, or, if you’re ambitious, a three-ring binder with clear pocket sheets of various sizes.  My coupon wallet (here’s the exact one I use, if you care: http://tinyurl.com/cuebfw4) has dividers labeled with the same categories I just listed above, so I can neatly store my coupons.  This wallet is perfectly adequate for my purposes and (important to me) small enough to go in my purse, but you can always go big with a large coupon organizer like this (http://tinyurl.com/cmhkzr2) or a three-ring binder.  Don’t get overexcited and spend a bunch of money on some fancy coupon binder “system” on eBay.  Make your own dividers and buy some cheap clear plastic pocket pages with varying size pockets for varying size coupons.  The goal here is to save money by couponing, not eat up all your savings buying couponing “supplies” that you don’t even need.

I refuse to carry a huge binder or box of coupons with me to the grocery store.  It gets me stressed and confused.  If you get so far into couponing that your stash of coupons outgrows your coupon wallet, my advice is to buy a cheap cardboard expanding file folder, label it, keep your coupons in there, and then transfer what you’re going to use on a particular shopping trip into your coupon wallet.

Don’t go to the other extreme and just shove your coupons into an envelope or your pocket.  Your coupons will get crumpled (bad if you have to feed them into a slot at the register), mixed up, and possibly forgotten.

Where To Get Coupons

The first and most obvious answer is, of course, the newspaper, generally the Sunday paper.  There are two main newspaper coupon inserts, SmartSource and RedPlum.  Once a month is the big, wonderful Procter & Gamble coupon supplement.  There are also other coupons to be found in the newspapers, such as Walgreens flyers and weekly newspaper magazines.

Now, let me state at the outset:  I neither run around begging people for coupon inserts, nor do I comb through recycling bins or dumpsters looking for them.  I’m too proud and too lazy.<G>  That said, my parents, who live in an independent living apartment, save their coupon inserts for me (in exchange, I do their grocery shopping and coupon for them<G>) and their neighbor’s as well.

Magazines often contain coupons.  If you already subscribe to a magazine, fine, but it generally isn’t worth it to subscribe to a magazine just for the coupons.

If you get serious about couponing, online coupon clipping services can be worthwhile.  I buy some coupons from Coupon DeDe’s (www.coupondede.com).  There’s a small “handling fee” per coupon, as well as postage to mail them, so this kind of thing is most useful if you’re going to use a lot of coupons.

Some coupons can be found right on the product.  Peel-off coupons can be used at the time of checkout.  Other times coupons can be found inside the packaging or printed on the packaging, to be cut out for later use.

Catalinas are paper coupons printed out at the register, so named because the machine itself is branded Catalina.  These coupons are a wonderful, wonderful resource.  Catalinas are one of the few sources of coupons for fresh meat or produce and for store-brand products.

You can often get coupons direct from the manufacturer.  Some manufacturers have downloadable printable coupons.  Others, if you write or email them about their product, will mail you coupons.  Many manufacturers will mail you very high-value coupons just for contacting them and asking a question or showing interest.

There are numerous sites for free online printable coupons, such as www.coupons.com.  Most grocery stores accept printed coupons, but some don’t.

Store loyalty cards can give you a double or even triple savings.  Take the Kroger Plus Card, for example.  Every week in the weekly sales flyer you’ll see special discounts for Plus Card holders.  Additionally, if you set up an account on the Kroger web site, you can download digital coupons directly to your Plus card.  These coupons are automatically applied when you scan your Plus card at the register and check out.  And finally, every time you check out and use your Plus card at Kroger, a certain number of points are accrued on your Plus card, corresponding to the size of your purchase.  You can use your Plus card and these points at Kroger gas stations (and, to a lesser degree, at a couple other gas stations, such as Shell) for gasoline discounts.  For instance, if you have 100 points, you get a 10-cent discount per gallon, 20 cents for 200 points, up to $1 off per gallon.

If you have friends or other family members who coupon, consider a coupon swap wherein you cut out the coupons you want from an insert, then pass the rest on to others, and they pass theirs on to you.  Most manufacturer’s coupons are good for at least a couple of weeks, so you can even swap coupons by mail.

How To Combine Coupons

Yes, you can combine coupons.  You can’t stack up three identical coupons and use them all for one product, but you can combine coupons from different sources.  Say that you have a manufacturer’s coupon from SmartSource for 50 cents off a tube of Colgate toothpaste.  There’s a Walgreen’s store coupon for 25 cents off that same tube of Colgate toothpaste.  You can use both coupons for a total of 75 cents off that tube of toothpaste.  Or say that I have a digital coupon downloaded to my Kroger Plus card.  I can use a paper manufacturer’s coupon for the same product.

Now, let me add two disclaimers here.  First, read the coupons.  They often have limitations on them, such as “limit of four like coupons per purchase” or “cannot be combined with other offers.”  Also, be sure your coupon hasn’t expired and that it isn’t another store’s coupon.  Some stores will actually accept expired coupons or coupons for other stores, but most won’t.  Second, know your store’s coupon policies.  For instance, some stores double coupons under $1 all the time, or certain days of the week.  Some stores don’t double, period.  Other stores double coupons under 50 cents.  It’s worth your time to find out the store’s coupon policies and make notes for yourself for the future.  Few stores actually post, either on the premises or on their web site, their coupon policies.  You’ll have to ask.  Brace yourself and do it.  It’s less embarrassing than a misunderstanding at the cash register.

To Stockpile Or Not To Stockpile?

The couponers on the show have big, rather intimidating stockpiles.  I don't have the space for a large stockpile or the patience to rotate stuff.  My "stockpile" is two sets of cheap plastic Plano shelves in my laundry room and a stack each of toilet paper and paper towel packages in the garage, and my Plano shelves are nowhere near full.  I don't have room or time for more.  I only stockpile everyday items that are relatively non-perishable, like toothpaste, deodorant, paper goods, laundry detergent and so on.

That said, when you happen on a really great bargain at the store, it does pay to stock up if you have the money and space to do so.  You don't have to go crazy with it.  Chances are the same great price will come up again in a few months.  But when shank-end hams go on sale at Kroger for 77 cents a pound, I get three or four and put them in my upright freezer.  I've got five boxes of Splenda packets that cost me nothing, after sales plus coupons.  My 18-cent Speed Stick deodorants would last Paul and me probably a year, and my $1 bottles of Tide detergent will keep us in laundry for at least a few months.

Make your own decision about stockpiling based on your available space and personal preference.  If you don't mind stocking up when a great bargain rolls around, you'll save more.  If you can't, you can't.  Simple as that.

Now, Put It All Together – Combining Sales and Coupons

You have your list of commonly-used consumables and prices.  You have your weekly sales flyers.  You have your coupons.  Now is the time to find some serious bargains.

Look, Cascade ActionPacs are on sale at Kroger.  Ordinarily I could get them a little cheaper at Wal-Mart, but at the sale price it’s much cheaper at Kroger.  And look!  There’s a digital coupon for 25 cents off that I can download from the Kroger web site to my Plus card, and I’ve got a manufacturer’s coupon for 50 cents off.  On Thursdays, my Kroger doubles coupons under $1, so if I buy the Cascade on Thursday, I can get $1.25 off the sale price of the product.  Wow!!!

When you make up your shopping list for each store, arrange your list under the same categories you do your coupons.  If you have a coupon for some item, put a little “C” next to it so you’ll remember to get that coupon out (you can break it down to “MC”, “DC” and/or “SC” if you have both manufacturer’s coupons, digital coupons and/or store coupons for an item).  That way you'll remember to have all your paper coupons out and ready at checkout.

To Make It Easier

All of this sounds terribly complicated, but it’s not.  First of all, at least some of this, like menu planning and knowing the price spread between your local stores, are things you should be doing anyway.

You don’t have to devote a lot of time and energy to saving money.  Most of it can be done sitting at the computer.  I spend about a half hour a week, if that, clipping and filing coupons, including discarding expired coupons.  I spend about another half hour late Wednesday night or Thursday morning looking at the weekly ads, planning my weekly menu and printing out my shopping lists.  In exchange for that hour of time, I’ve eliminated all but one or two grocery trips (depending on whether I’m going to more than one store) and a lot of time, effort and confusions.  No, I don’t save 99%+ on my grocery bill, but it’s very, very common for me to save over 50%.  (In case you're curious, my top savings on a grocery trip was 77%.)

You can buy books on couponing, but it seems ridiculous to me to spend money learning how to save money, particularly when there are so many free resources available online.

Here’s a couple of essential couponing resources:

www.couponmom.com.  This is where every couponer should get started.  Don’t feel like you have to buy her book.  The information on the site, and the lovely downloadable .pdfs, will answer all your questions and talk you through everything step by step.  The database is very valuable.  Sign up for the newsletter.  Seriously.

www.mojosavings.com.  This is a daily newsletter every couponer should sign up for.  It will steer you towards the best deals as well as delineating how you can combine this coupon with this sale to get incredible prices.

www.coupondede.com.  I mentioned this earlier, but this is the best coupon service I’ve found, so if you want 20 of that wonderful $1.00 off Mio coupon, you can do that without buying 20 newspapers.  They mail the coupons very quickly, so you can confidently buy a coupon that's going to expire in, say, five days.

If you feel intimidated, start slowly.  Check out one week's Catalinas and newspaper insert coupons and set aside only those for products you use anyway.  If you need any of those products, then use the coupons even if the products aren't on sale.  Some savings is better than full price!  Those big ticket "Sale plus store coupon plus manufacturer's coupon equals a free product" items aren't nearly as common as the TV show makes them appear.  But every coupon you use is money in your pocket, regardless!

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