Friday, September 20, 2013

Moderate Couponing

One of my favorite places to save money is at the grocery store.  When I go grocery shopping, my goal to save at least 50%.  If you've ever seen the show Extreme Couponing, it's like that, but since I'm a 20-something sharing an apartment with a roommate, I had to modify their strategy.  For those of you who haven't seen the show, extreme couponers get items for around 80% off (although the show depicts it to be more like 95%).  So how do they save that much?  They buy in bulk.
  • Coupons and rebates normally require that you buy in multiples.  For example:  Save $1 when you buy 3 boxes of cereal; spend $30 on P&G products, get a $10 gift card.
  • Product pricing cycles.  So if you purchase enough of each product when it's at its lowest price to tide you over until the product goes on sale again, you will always pay the lowest price for it.
Unfortunately, this means you have to have space to store a stockpile, which I do not.

The second reason that I moderately coupon is because it's hard to get a diverse selection of high-value coupons without getting the Sunday paper.  There are printable coupons online, but only for a limited selection of products.  This means that I don't save as much on my groceries, but I've found that since I don't go through food as fast as families do, I would end up wasting a lot of coupons or food.

Now to the good stuff!  Since I started couponing about 2 years ago, I've saved approximately $1,200 on groceries (which is a 46% savings).  To do this, I follow these rules:
  1. Know the prices of what you buy most.  One of the hardest parts for me when I first started was knowing when to buy and when to wait.  Just because the store says something is on sale, doesn't mean it's a good price.  This will be different based on where you live, so I recommend spending a couple of hours scouting the grocery stores close to you for the 20-30 products you buy most.
  2. Don't be brand loyal.  If you're dead set on Tide, you'll end up paying more for it because it won't always be the laundry detergent that is on sale.  Since you're not building a massive stockpile of Tide like extreme couponers would, you need to be flexible.
  3. Make a shopping list using online sales ads.  There are two types of items that will go on your shopping list:  Necessary and adjustable.  Necessary items are products that you need to replace soon (e.g., toothpaste, prescription drugs, milk) and adjustable items are items that can be changed based on the sales (i.e., you can have anything for dinner, so you pick the meal based on which ingredients have the best prices).  Find the best price, regardless of brand, for necessary items and add adjustable items to your list only if it's a good deal.
  4. Plan your meals based on the sales.  If chicken is on sale and beef isn't, figure out something to cook with chicken instead of the hamburgers you wanted to make
  5. Wait to print out coupons until you're making your shopping list.  After completing #3, search the Internet for coupons that match the items on your list.  If you print out every single coupon or even just every coupon you like, you'll end up wasting a lot of paper and ink printing coupons you never use.
  6. Shop at multiple stores.  Different stores will have good deals on each product at different times.  Shopping at more than one store will allow you to get the best deals.  But don't take it too far and drive all over town to save a couple pennies, limit it to 2 or 3 stores.
  7. Don't wait until the last minute to go shopping.  If you run out of toothpaste, you are forced to pay whatever the grocery store has priced it for at the moment.  Instead, when you notice that you have a few weeks worth of toothpaste left, start searching the sale ads and buy when you find a worthy price (which you'll recognize because of #1).
  8. Join customer loyalty programs at every grocery store where you shop.  Normally the sale prices will only apply if you scan a loyalty card first, and even if they don't, they'll reward customers who frequent their store.  Don't get cheated out of savings because you don't want to add another card to your wallet.
  9. Sign up for newsletters from companies whose products you use.  A lot of companies have coupons for people who sign up for their email newsletters or create accounts on their website.  You may want to make a separate email address just for those accounts so your regular account doesn't get flooded with promotional material.
  10. Avoid eating out when possible.  This will actually increase your grocery bills, but will save you money in the long run because eating out is ALWAYS more expensive than eating in.  There was a time where I was spending almost $200/month eating out and most of the time it was just because I was too lazy to pack a lunch.
I have adapted these techniques over the years as I learned what worked best for me.  I originally cut out all coupons and organized them, before I realized what as massive waste of time it was.  Moderate couponing is how I've turned extreme couponing into something viable for me.

There are roughly three groups of groceries, for which you should have different levels of expectation for savings.  They are food, household, and hygiene.
  1. Hygiene products (e.g., toothpaste, shampoo, and deodorant) are the EASIEST to save money on.  They are non-perishable, need to be constantly replaced, and their manufacturers and retailers are always releasing new coupons and putting them on sale.  These are the products you are most likely to get for free.  
  2. Food (for a balanced diet) is a little harder to save on.  As a general rule, you will not find coupons for meat and produce.  Occasionally, the store will put them on sale, but they will still be one of the most expensive food products you buy.  To balance this out, food items with long shelf-lives are very easy to save on.  You can easily get food like cereal, canned goods, and condiments for way less than the retail price.
  3. Household products (e.g., trash bags, laundry detergent, and light bulbs) are similar to hygiene products in that they are non-perishable and are constantly on sale.  However, since their base price is higher, they are difficult to get for free.  Silver lining:  There's more to be saved per unit.

Happy savings!

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