I’d love to start saving. Can you lend me a few bucks? (How couponing can help you save)

America Saves Week is upon us.

Editor’s confession: until now, we treated ‘America Saves Week’ a lot like ‘Earth Day.’  We didn’t really celebrate it, so much as acknowledge it’s recent occurrence with a tinge of guilt “It was Earth Day last week?  Aw nuts! Well, let’s to look at a tree or something…”  Of course, America Saves Week is deserving of much more attention.

People are putting away much less money today than they did in past years.   Whether blame lies with an economy that requires families to spend more, in order to survive or with a  national-lifestyle that begs us to obtain more than we need remains to be seen.  Whatever the case, the reduction in personal savings has created something of a financial-planning double-whammy.  Not only are we ill-prepared for a rainy-day, we have forgotten how to plan.

But, teaching people how to save provides little help for somebody who has zero left over at the end of each month.  For most people, the fight to put money away into a savings account is not a question of ‘How do I do it?’ so much as it is a question of ‘Where do I get the money?’  In our effort to provide real-world solutions, here is a primer on Couponing. 

Using Coupons

This is the most lucrative way to save money.  It is also the most promising: the more time you put into it the more you will save. Couponing can discourage people because they don’t have “time” to do it. With a family of 4, I save on average $400-$500 a month just using coupons on daily items such as toiletries, food and other household products. After doing this consistently for the last 2 years, I now only spend about two hours a week planning. So yes, it takes time but that extra money allows us to save for other things we want or need.  (I would much rather sit on my couch after the kids go to bed, watch TV and cut out coupons than work a part time job)  If you decide to coupon, here are some ideas to make the venture worth your while.  

Step 1: The Sunday Paper

For starters, get a Sunday newspaper (In Cleveland, this would be the Plain Dealer ). Inside the newspaper, there will be a Smart Source insert every week and a Proctor & Gamble coupon insert the last Sunday of each month. The third insert is Red Plum and depending on your area, this will be in your newspaper or will come in the mail in that packet you probably thought was junk. Sunday newspapers now run about $2.50. Ouch! However, if only want to get it for the coupons, the papers are half-off at most places on Monday mornings. Go to the store on Monday morning to purchase one, flip through the coupons to make sure the coupons are at-least worth the cost of the paper. (Here’s a secret: you can buy as many copies as you want.  If just by skimming, you see at least $10 or more in coupons you would use, and the paper costs $1.25, you may want to buy 5 copies.  You can also ask friends or family to save their unwanted papers for you)

If you have ever seen the show ‘Extreme couponing’ and wonder “how do they get 100 packages of cake mix for free?” It’s because they got their hands on 100 newspaper inserts and linked those coupons with a particular sale. (There’s a reason it’s called extreme!)  People either have some kind of connection with the newspaper publisher; ask their friends or family; go door to door in their neighborhood; or even ask their children’s teachers to save them for the family.  The lesson is clear – if each copy of the paper represents savings to you, you should be willing to do the legwork to get as many copies as you can use. 

Once you get your hands on several inserts, you can supplement them with online coupons. The first way to get online coupons is to sign up with the product’s company. If you eat a lot of Kellogg’s brand cereal, for instance, go to Kelloggs.com and sign up for their email list. Do this for all the brands you consume on a weekly basis. If you tend to eat healthier and organic brand names, you’ll be surprised how many of them have coupons available, too. Generic store brands generally do not have coupons.  But, you will be surprised to realize that you can save significantly more using a coupon to buy a brand-name product.

After you sign up for alerts from your favorite brands’ websites, you can scope out several websites that are dedicated to couponing, such as: Coupons.com ; Redplum.com ; or Smartsource.com to name a few.  These sites have the Sunday inserts, plus additional coupons. Usually, you are allowed to print two copies of each coupon per computer.  Since more is better when you coupon, find out how many copies of each coupon the websites allow you to print off.  If they allow you to print coupons from two computers per house, you can print 4 copies total. (Be careful: Xerox-copying coupons is illegal. For those who are not concerned with this tidbit, remember that the stores will know if you have made copies, as the bar codes are unique to each coupon and their system will quickly learn that you gave them a coupon that has already been used)  Also be careful to only print coupons you plan to use right away as they can expire quickly and printer ink is not cheap. 

Step 2: Research – your work has just started

Now that you have your coupons, it’s time to research.  I use theKrazycouponlady.com .  I love this site because it does the research for me! You select the store you shop at normally (like Giant Eagle or Wal-Mart) and select “match-ups”. You’ll then be directed to the best sales that week and it will break down the item sale price, what coupon to use and how much your final price will be. It also tells you where the coupon is from. (at this point in the process you should already have out a pen and paper.  Sites like this have a lot of information – too much to remember!)

The site might say: “use the $1 off from Smart Source 2/23 paper.”  If you didn’t get a paper last week, of course, you know you don’t have that coupon. However, if the coupon is available online, it will provide a link to print the coupon. This is the time to get any additional coupons that you might have missed. If you are targeting just one store, write down your list of what you want to get that’s on sale, the coupon needed for that item and mark next to it how many to get. Then continue to make a list of other items you may need. If you don’t have a computer or are not internet savvy, you can also do your own matchups by circling items in the store ad on sale that you have a coupon for. (Matching-up your coupons with the current sales manually is much more time consuming and you may miss some deals.  But, it will still save you money!)

Step 3: Organize – embrace the effort

This is the key to keeping up with couponing. You have to; must; really need to; can’t do this without being ORGANIZED! 

Imagine the scene:  You read Consumer Courage; cut out a hundred coupons, threw them in an envelope and shopped for everything on your list.  You find yourself at the check-out line with a cart full of groceries and a handful of coupons.  You’re frustrated because you have to sift through an envelope containing your hundred random coupons. You are taking forever in line, so the cashier (who is tapping her foot and rolling her eyes at the customer behind you) shuts off her service light so that the other customers can find a different lane. After what feels like an hour, you find the majority of the coupons and your bill goes from $120 to $95. You are semi satisfied with that.  But after you get home you really start to wonder if all that was really worth $25? (Am I really cut out for this?)

If you stay organized it will get easier and it will be worth it. To start, buy a three-ring binder (these cost a few dollars) and then baseball card or coin collector insert pages to go inside (you can get the inserts at a craft store).  Before you go shopping, you can put the coupons in different slots and categorize them. That way, you can avoid the embarrassing scene at the check-out counter.  Are there other ways to organize coupons?  Certainly.  If you do a search on how to organize coupons and a few different ways will come up: such as Here , Here or Here .   Find a method that works for you because without organization, you’ll burn out fast.

Step 4: Shopping – no longer a mindless activity

When you’re in the store, you can lay your binder out nicely in the front of the cart. As you pick up the five boxes of cereal on your list, take the 5 coupons out of the binder and put them into a separate envelope. Do this for each item on your list.  When you get to the register, you can hand the cashier the envelope.  As long as the coupons are not expired and are for the right products, everything should be smooth (like buttah. No big whoop)    Once you are organized, your $25 savings will seem a little more rewarding.  As time goes by, you will be motivated to learn from any mistakes you made or challenges you had, so you can make the next experience more efficient.

Also, some stores (like Dave’s and Giant Eagle) offer double-credit for coupons. (a mere phone call can help you figure out if your favorite store does this)  Your 50 cent coupon is now $1 off and your .75 cent coupon is now $1.50 off. The savings can be endless when these deals are paired up with store sales.  By way of example: Let’s say cereal is on sale for 5 boxes for $10 and when you buy all 5, you get a $2 coupon printed out for anything in the store for your next shopping trip.  To get ready for your trip, you gathered 5 separate .75 coupons to use.  If the store offers double-coupons, each one will be worth $1.50.  The total for 5 boxes of cereal will now be $7.50 ($1.50 x 5 coupons).   Those same 5 boxes of cereal now cost $2.50 ($10.00 – $7.50 in coupons)  Once you add the $2 store credit that you received and you’ve just spent fifty cents for 5 boxes of cereal!  Add this up over weeks, months and years and you are on your way to saving hundreds and thousands of dollars.

Tempting though it may be to buy 50 boxes of cereal, remember two things: 1) You have to fit whatever you buy into your house; and 2) Food goes bad.  For perishable items, a good rule of thumb is to stick to a stockpile of a month or less.  Pay attention to shelf-life dates unless you plan to freeze it. If it’s non-perishable, stock up a maximum of 6 months. (You don’t want to hoard 50 bottles of mustard in your basement when you only go through a bottle every few weeks)  If it’s really a deal you can’t pass up, consider donating it to charity or a local food pantry.

Posted by Nikki Perel (who just wrote her first blog post, ever!) If you have any questions about couponing, feel free to e-mail the author: [email protected]