Most of us have seen one of those extreme couponing reality shows on TV—the ones where the shoppers walk out paying pennies for 10 carts full of goods. Seems too good to be true, right? While I don’t know for certain whether the show is staged or not, I can assure you from personal experience that it’s possible to walk out of a store paying just a few cents for a cart filled with goodies.
My most successful shopping trip involved cartloads of scented candles, cleaners, body wash, deodorant and a $100 American Express gift card for which I paid about $3 and change. The register receipt was about fifteen feet long, and by the time the cashier was done ringing my transaction, I actually had an audience. The store opened a checkout lane just for me so nobody had to wait behind me for the almost 45 minutes the transaction lasted. While my busy schedule now prevents me from couponing at that level, I still love to save a buck when I can. If you, too, wish to avoid spending unnecessarily, or simply want to experience the thrill of getting things for free (or very cheaply), here are some tips to get you started.
DON’T SET YOURSELF UP FOR FAILURE
Decide what it is that you wish to accomplish and determine what your limitations are. The level of extreme couponing that you see on TV requires so much time and energy, that it’s almost like having a part time job. If you do have the time and energy, then go for it. If not, be realistic and set your goals somewhat lower. If you are a couponing beginner, start off small and work your way up.
The single most important fact that will determine your savings is having the right coupons at the right time. In other words, you’ll need to know what’s going to be on sale next week and make sure you have coupons for those exact items. A quick Google search will reveal many Internet sites that publish this information. One of my favorite sites, SlickDeals, has a forum that lists upcoming sales for many of the national grocery chains. Once you know what’s going to be on sale, it’s time to get your coupons ready.
Read Related: 6 Best Coupon Sites
PREPARE YOUR ARSENAL
Most people associate clipping coupons with the Sunday paper, but there are many other sources. I used to get most of my coupons from professional coupon clippers who offered their services on Ebay or directly through their own web sites. One of my favorites, Coupon Dede, even offers a rewards program (and on your first order, you may enter “MAMIVERSE” in the coupon code box for a 10% discount). There are plenty of other providers on the Internet, as well. Once you’ve found what you need, order the coupons on the spot. If you hesitate, the supplier may well run out of the coupons you want. You can find out ahead of time what coupons will be in your Sunday paper by checking out a web site called Sunday Coupon Preview. Other sources of coupons include in-store handouts, and print-at-home sites such as Coupons.com, RedPlum, and SmartSource.com.
ENSURE SMOOTH SHOPPING
If you are going to use many coupons at once, go to the customer service desk before you shop. Ask them to explain the store’s coupon policy and give you any advice they can offer. Inquire about in-store coupon booklets.
If you have a lot of coupons plus a cartload of merchandise, and the person behind you only has a few items, allow him or her to go ahead of you. If the store is busy, and you have an unusually large quantity of coupons, let them know ahead of time. Give them the option to open up a checkout lane just for you.
Most store employees enjoy it when their customers save money by using coupons and will encourage their use. Occasionally, you will encounter a cashier who doesn’t like spending the extra time it takes to scan coupons. When that happens, don’t get upset or discouraged. Your goal should be to build rapport with a few cashiers and service personnel at the stores where you usually shop. Once you find a cashier with whom you are comfortable, try to go shopping during his or her shift. And remember, employees also buy groceries, and probably use coupons, too. So if you have extra coupons, share them; you’ll make their day!
Read Related: Couponing Tips to Get You Started
Not being able to use a coupon when you need it most—either because it’s expired or you just can’t find it—can be frustrating. You can avoid this by getting and staying organized. Whether you use a small accordion-type folder, a series of envelopes, or a binder with baseball card-type sheet protectors, find something that works for you. Weed out the expired coupons weekly.
MAXIMIZE YOUR SAVINGS
Coupons are issued by both stores and manufacturers and are usually clearly labeled as such. Although you should never use more than one manufacturer’s coupon on a single item, most stores will not only allow, but encourage you to use both a store coupon and a manufacturer’s coupon on the same item. One of my favorite situations was the “trifecta” of savings: when an item was on sale, and in addition, I was able to apply a store coupon and a manufacturer’s coupon. You should also look out for opportunities to use coupons that are part of a “buy one, get one free” promotion. Most stores will allow you to use coupons on both the item you are paying for as well as the “free” item.
Never photocopy or knowingly use a fraudulent or expired coupon, and always read it carefully to make sure you don’t violate its terms. Be considerate of other customers; if you are purchasing multiples of an item that is on sale, make sure you leave some for others. If you are going to purchase a large quantity of the same item, consider asking the grocery manager to special order the items for you, so the store has plenty of stock. We all know how frustrating it can be when a store is out of an item you really need, especially when it’s on sale.
IT’S ABOUT SAVING BIG BUCKS
Don’t let the time you spend looking for coupons take away from your productive hours or family time, especially if you are self-employed or work from home. It doesn’t benefit you financially to spend hours trying to find a coupon that will save you only $1. Also, don’t buy things simply because you have a coupon. You could end up buying something you don’t really want or need. Avoid long drives that will cost extra gas money in search of a deal that’s only going to save you a few pennies.
Most importantly, have fun. Don’t let extreme couponing overwhelm you. Start off small and work your way up. Extreme couponing isn’t for everyone, but if you really get into it, the payoff is definitely worth it.