How to use coupons (and get the most from your grocery bill)

Saving on groceries. It’s a trend, it’s a necessity, it’s addictive. I know, because I’m one of those people who comes home and crows about those little numbers on my grocery receipt. (Today, I saved 38 percent. Last week, it was 41 percent. I think my all-time high was a very special 52 percent.)

How do you do it?

Well, every week, your newspaper carries hundreds of dollars worth of coupons. More might come to your home in a Valpak or similar mailer. Online, you’ll find zillions more coupons. Combine those with other deals and you’re off and running.

So just how do you find them and use them? J Pruitt asked this question on an older deals post. I’ll provide a few suggestions here. I’m sure you all know many more, so please chime in in the comments. And don’t forget to check last month’s article with 21 ways to save on groceries.

Use a price book

If you have a great memory, you can do the basics in your head. Otherwise, make a price book (Google it or check here for details):

  1. Know the prices of the things you buy so you can tell if they’re really on sale.
  2. Compare brand names to store-brand names. Compare the price with the coupon to the available price on the store brand. Check by ounce or by container size — one can might be 18 ounces and one 15 ounces.

Find coupons

Coupons are like free money — as long as they don’t motivate you to buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need or that is still expensive with coupons. Here’s where to find coupons:

  1. Check your Sunday newspaper.
  2. Ask friends or relatives who don’t bother with coupons to save their circulars for you. You can use multiple copies of the same coupon to buy multiple items that are on sale — stock up!
  3. Check your Wednesday newspaper (or whenever the food section and extra ads might appear during the week). Our paper sometimes has extra copies of the coupon circular in the Wednesday paper.
  4. Sign up for the shopper card. Give your correct contact information. You will get money off at the register, and some retailers will mail you valuable coupons. (I often get coupons for $2 off a produce purchase, or $10 off a purchase of $100 or more, as well as money off specific products that I purchase regularly.)
  5. Go online. Two of the biggest coupon sites are SmartSource.com and CoolSavings.com. (I did this in preparing this post — in just a few minutes I found 7 coupons with a value of $5 before doubling, or $7 doubled.)
  6. Take the register coupons that print out when you check out. If you don’t need them, recycle them or leave them for someone else.
  7. Check other stores, like Walgreens. Walgreens has an EasySaver coupon circular online or inside the store. Each month, several items are free with a rebate. If you apply the rebate to a gift card, you receive an additional 10 percent off.

Find sales

The surest way to get the very best deal is to combine a coupon with a sale price. Check your store circular, or find it online. Visit your grocery store Web site or try MyGroceryDeals.com — you sign in and find sales and coupons for your zip code. (This site was mentioned in the comments on my 21 ways to save post.)

Double your coupons

Many grocery stores double coupons up to $1. This means they double any coupon with a face value of less than a dollar, for a total value of no more than a dollar. A coupon worth $0.25 is doubled and redeemed for $0.50. A coupon worth $0.55 has $0.45 added to the value for a total redemption of $1. Any other coupon up to $1 is worth $1, and any coupon of $1 or more is redeemed at its face value.

About.com has a list of stores that double coupons, by state. To be sure, call your local store and ask.

Get organized

Use your coupons in whatever way works best for you. Some people take the whole circular shopping with them and look for coupons when they get to something they want to buy.

I use a coupon organizer that I found at Goodwill for 99 cents. I added additional dividers for categories I use. Every Sunday, I cut out coupons for the items I need. At some point during the week, I take the coupons off the counter and put them in the organizer. When I am going to do a big grocery shopping trip, I make a list as follows:

  1. I check for things we’ve run out of and need immediately and add those to the list.
  2. I look through the sale flier and add the super deals to the list. (For instance, this week cream cheese is 79 cents. I will probably buy about 5 blocks, depending when the expiration dates are.)
  3. I sort through my coupons. I discard coupons that are expired … except the ones that just expired. Sometimes those are worth a try!
  4. I pull out coupons that match sales — those are the best deals.
  5. I pull out coupons that will expire in the next couple of weeks — if there’s a good price, I might use them before they expire.
  6. I keep the new coupons out — sometimes those are for an item that is on sale because it’s new and hot.
  7. I sort the coupons in approximately the order in which the store is organized.

I write the coupon items on my list, or just put the list on top of the coupons and head for the store. As I shop, I compare coupons and prices. If it works, I put the item in the cart (of course!) and tuck the coupon behind my list. If not, I stick the coupon back in the front of my organizer and deal with it later.

Scan as you shop

Don’t forget to keep an eye on the shelves. I’ve found many things on sale that weren’t listed in the flier. Especially for your regular purchases — for me, canned beans, cream cheese, milk, produce and my weakness in packaged goods, Betty Crocker cookie mixes — always take a look in case they are on sale. Another reason, too, for going through the coupons is that you’ll have an idea while shopping that you have a coupon for a certain item so you can save more.

Buy low, live high on the hog

When an item is on sale for the cheapest you’ve ever seen it, don’t just buy one — buy as many as you’ll possibly use before the expiration date. Then don’t buy it again until it goes on sale again for a great price. If you must buy while it’s high, buy one and wait until you buy more. Truly, this is the key to great prices. I have many boxes of crackers in my storage room, because they are regularly priced low at Costco — and I had a coupon to save $2.50 more per box.

Store well

Learn how to store things. Milk can be frozen — so if you find a great sale, be sure there’s some headroom in the carton so it doesn’t explode, and pop it in the freezer. If I find onions are $1 a pound at King Soopers and $0.39 a pound at Costco, I buy the enormous bag and store it in my chilly laundry room for weeks. Check out these tips on storing food and this article on modern root cellars.

Learn from the experts

If you’re intimidated, sign up for a service like The Grocery Game that guides you along. I did this when I was starting to really save money. If you haven’t been doing it, you’ll more than make up the membership costs. And once you gain confidence, feel free to cancel your membership if it isn’t convenient for you. This site gets you looking at your grocery receipt, and you’ll never want to turn back.

Don’t buy what you don’t need

Did I say this at the beginning? That’s because it’s really important. If you get a great deal on a pantry full of yogurt-covered chocolate raisin pasta clusters or hair dye, well, that’s $10 you shouldn’t have spent.

On the other hand, if you get really good and can obtain a lot of free tampons that you don’t need because you use a Diva Cup, you can donate those to a women’s shelter and feel great (and perhaps take a tax break).

(This post doesn’t yet touch on warehouse stores, which are their own saving wonderland if you use them well.)

What other ways have you found to cut down the grocery bill?

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7 thoughts on “How to use coupons (and get the most from your grocery bill)

  1. SavvyChristine says:

    Thanks for explaining about coupon doubling and providing that link. I never knew what it was, and always felt kind of silly for asking — either that, or I would forget to ask.

  2. Lan says:

    I don’t think I knew that Costco would accept coupons… thinking about what I coulda saved this past weekend just kills me.

    I’m not very good at utilizing coupons in any case, but I have taken to leafing through the circulars, just so I have a sense of what’s on sale, where, for the coming week. Usually if there’s a sale on something at the local grocer, it’s also going to be a good price at Costco–but not always, so I’ve found it helpful to bear that in mind, and not get lured in by the box-o-mandarins that would actually cost me less at my grocery story.

    But here’s one question for you: do you set a grocery budget each month? If so, how do you balance out the “stocking up” when something is on sale with the need to (a) stick to your budget and (b) get the variety you need for what you’ve planned to cook?

  3. cheaplikeme says:

    @L’an – I don’t think Costco takes manufacturer’s coupons … but they accept their own coupons, so I go through that flier religiously (and remove the ones I *need* so I don’t get tempted by the “great deals” on luxurious sofas or GPS units or whatever).

    I have a monthly grocery budget target that is higher than what I usually hit. That’s because it incorporates our CSA membership (paid in one big chunk) and purchases like our quarter beef last year. We buy a lot of our food bulk at Costco (pasta, onions, garlic, eggs, frozen veggies) and then fill in at the regular grocery store, and the stocking up cycle is such that typically we spend about half our grocery money at Costco. But many months we don’t hit our grocery figure; other months (with the big buys) we exceed it. If it were plotted on a graph, it would go up and down dramatically, and the average would be our budget target.

  4. Andrea says:

    I know this is an older post, but there is a volunteer program called Overseas Coupon Program. You send coupons that you dont need or wont use to military bases overseas to help military families.

    The commissaries (military grocery stores) will accept coupons up to 6 months expired.

    The website for this has gone down for whatever reason, but here it is if it ever comes back up! http://www.ocpnet.org

    If that doesnt come up, I’d be more than happy to help out with any more information.

    I WAS able to find the main info here http://web.archive.org/web/20080122021455/http://www.ocpnet.org/

    Hope that is useful to someone, and pass it along 🙂
    Thanks!

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