I often post about grocery deals like triple coupons, and several people have asked me how to best use coupons. So here I’ll sum up what I’ve learned from my smart, frugal friends and what I do myself. To get an idea of how much you can save, I just got back from a Harris Teeter Super Double sale. My items, at regular price, would have been $123.23. I used my customer card (VIC card) to get the weekly deals, and I used coupons, and paid $58.20. This is a typical shopping trip, and I bought only things that my family actually uses.
The basic idea
The basic idea behind couponing is to combine coupons, especially multiplied coupons (doubled, tripled) with grocery deals to get items for a deeply discounted price, or even for free. Several grocery stores in the Charlotte region double coupons every day. Harris Teeter, Lowes Foods, BiLo, and Bloom all do. In order to double coupons, you need to have a customer card at the store. I have customer cards for all three, and they’re all on my keychain. All three stores have the same basic limitations on doubling coupons. You can double up to 20 a day, and the face value of the coupon has to be 99 cents or less. That’s why a 75 cent coupon is often more valuable than a dollar coupon.
Special coupon deals
Harris Teeter and Lowes Foods frequently offer triple coupons, sometimes for a week at a time and sometimes for just a few days. When they do this, the limitations are the same as for double coupons. 20 a day and a face value of 99 cents or less. Harris Teeter also sometimes offers Super Doubles. That means they’ll double coupons with a face value up to $1.98. There’s still a 20 coupon per day limit. This is the time you want to break out your $1 and $1.50 coupons.
Combining with grocery deals
All the grocery stores have weekly deals, and they almost always require you to have a customer card. The serious savings occur when you combine the multiplied coupons (especially triple coupons and super double coupons) with a weekly deal. Here’s an example.
Oscar Myer Light Beef Franks: Normally $4.25 each $8.50
Harris Teeter weekly special: Buy one get one free -$4.25
Coupon – Buy 2, save $1 Super Doubles -$2
You pay: $2.25 for 2
This is NOT an unusual example. In any one shopping trip you can get many deals like this.
Where to get coupons
The easiest place to get a whole lot of coupons at once is the Sunday paper. You can get weekend delivery of the Charlotte Observer (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) for $2.50 a week, or every day for $3.50 a week, with occasional special offers. In each Sunday paper, except for holiday weekends, there are usually at least two coupon inserts.
There are several websites where you can download grocery coupons for free. It would probably be costly (and definitely time-consuming) to download and print every coupon you’d want to use, but if you know you’re looking for a specific item and you don’t have a coupon for it, it’s worth doing. Some sites are:
You can also trade coupons. Several library branches have coupon-swapping events set up. Also BJ’s Wholesale Club has regularly scheduled coupon-swapping events. And just keep an eye open. The health club I go to has a table in the back with coupons sorted into categories. I just bring in coupons I can’t use and take what I need. The coupons I pick up there probably pay for half of my monthly health club fee.
When you get your receipt after shopping the last thing you may want to think of is more coupons, but check. Coupons are often printed with the receipt and they’re usually pretty good, and aimed at the kind of things that you buy.
Everybody’s process is a little bit different, so I’ll just tell you what I do. I am not someone who wants to spend a lot of time on couponing so there are probably ways I could save more money, but it’s not worth it to me.
I keep my coupons in labeled envelopes. My labels are dairy, frozen, cereal, health & beauty, drinks, snacks, baking, meat, other groceries, and non-food. I also have an empty envelope that I fill with coupons that I’m using as I go through a store.
On Sunday I clip coupons from the paper. I clip most of the coupons, not just the ones I need. As I clip them I put them on top of the appropriate envelope. If it’s one I won’t use, I put it in a separate pile for trading or sharing. When I’m done clipping, I go through each envelope and take out any expired coupons (they can be used by deployed military personnel after the expiration date, so I drop those off at a coupon-swapping place.) Then I put the new coupons in the back of the appropriate envelopes. I keep each envelope sorted roughly by expiration date. However, if I’m planning to shop at a Super Double event, I move the $1 and $1.50 coupons to the front.
At the store
When I’m shopping I get out my empty envelope. Going up and down the aisles, as I choose a product for which I’m going to use a coupon, I move that coupon into the envelope. I periodically count to make sure I haven’t gone over 20 coupons. I look at the weekly special circular to try to match up my coupons to the weekly sale items. Many people do this in advance, by downloading the weekly ads from the store’s website before they go. Also there are even websites that match up coupons and weekly specials for you. I haven’t found it too difficult to just do as I shop, though. I do make a shopping list, but it’s a flexible list. For example, instead of “grapes and apples” I’ll list “fruit” and then see what’s on sale.
The stockpiling concept
One criticism I’ve heard of coupon shopping is that you end up buying a bunch of stuff you don’t need. But if you shop wisely you’ll avoid that. The goal here is to build a stockpile of items when they are cheap or even free, and then avoid buying them at full price. For example, right now I have four bottles of dishwashing liquid in a closet. It will be a long time before I use them, but they were free with coupons. So I won’t find myself running out of dishwashing liquid and buying it at full price. So it’s true that I buy stuff I don’t need right away, but I never buy items that I can’t use. (Although, if you can get an item for free, why not consider donating it to a food bank or homeless shelter?)
You can stockpile food too. Many items that you might not think of as freezer food can be frozen. Some items in my freezer right now are Miracle Whip, yogurt, and bread. I know of people who freeze milk when it goes on sale. When I’m not sure if an item is freezable I google. Someone out there knows.
So the first month you coupon shop you might not save as much money as you’d like because you’re stockpiling. But after that, the savings will be dramatic because you find you don’t have to run out and buy pasta sauce and laundry detergent. You just get them from your stockpile.
Of course this depends on having room in your house to store the items. Even if you devote one shelf to your stockpile, you’ll see a benefit.
Secrets I’ve learned
Just buy one
A few things I’ve learned have saved me a lot of money. When an item at a store is listed as “2 for $3.98″ you don’t have to buy 2 of the items. Each will ring up as half price. Even if the item is listed as Buy One Get One Free it might be the case that you can get just one of them for half price. That’s definitely the case at Harris Teeter. If you’re not sure, just ask at customer service before you shop.
You can hardly ever use two manufacturer’s coupons for one item, but you can sometimes use a manufacturer’s coupon with a store coupon. This is usually permissible at places like Target and drug stores. There are usually coupon inserts for Target and the major drug stores in the Sunday paper, so you can clip those and combine them with your manufacturer’s coupons. The drug stores are usually an expensive place to shop for groceries or toiletries, but when you combine the coupons they can be great.
This tip is controversial. Use your own sense of ethics to decide whether to take advantage of it or not. A manufacturer’s coupon can almost always be redeemed in a grocery store for a different item. The registers generally check just the first few numbers. So if a coupon is for Uncle Ben white rice, but it happens that Uncle Ben brown rice is part of a weekly special, you can probably use the coupon for the brown rice. You can also probably use it for a smaller, less expensive item than what the coupon is for. I’m not recommending you do this. I’m just passing on the information.
Some more thoughts
You’ll do best if you’re flexible about brand. If you aren’t combining coupons and weekly deals, it’s usually better to buy generic.
I don’t buy a lot of produce at the supermarket. I usually go to farmer’s markets and get better deals, especially in the summer.
Never buy something that your family won’t use, or that goes against your nutritional standards. If I was willing to buy anything, I could fill up my shopping cart for practically free. But I don’t want to end up with a lot of junky snack food. If you don’t want your family to eat pork, for example, buying pork sausage is never a bargain – even if it’s free. (Although, as I mentioned, you might be able to donate it to a food bank or homeless shelter.)
There are some items that, once you get going with the stockpile method, you really should almost always be able to get for free. Deodorant, toothpaste, dishwashing liquid, yogurt, and pasta sauce are a few that you should be able to get for free (or almost free) as long as you aren’t picky about the brand. Sometimes it seems like all you see are coupons for toiletries, but go ahead and stock up. The coupons seem to cycle and before you know it you’ll be getting free spaghetti sauce, and taking the toiletries from your stockpile.
Charlotte on the Cheap, of course! By following Charlotte on the Cheap, you’ll know when the coupon events are taking place.
Southern Savers matches up coupons to weekly deals for several supermarkets in our region.
Harris Teeter Weekly Specials in flyer form, or as an interactive shopping list
Harris Teeter’s e-Vic program offers more savings
Bloom’s weekly specials