A Beginners' Guide to Couponing
My wife and I have been actively couponing for years and we regularly save over 25 percent of the total cost of our weekly grocery expenses for the family through couponing.
Knowing where to find coupons and how to organize and use them, swapping and trading with others, and many other strategies can make an enormous difference to expenditure.
Juggling a budget can be very difficult, especially in these challenging times for the economy, which is why I thought that I would put together this rough guide.
You won’t become an expert from reading it, but it will give you the bare bones of how to coupon and hopefully you will save a lot of money.
These days, you’ve gotta milk a dollar out of every dime.— Gayle Forman
Where Do You Find Coupons?
First of all you need to know where to find coupons. One good place to start is with newspapers and magazines—in many cases, you can get them for free and they can be mailed to you.
There are various websites where you can find coupons online, plus you will also see coupon offers on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
In-store displays at your favorite store are another good place to find coupons; you will often find them on display near the entrance/exit to the store.
You can sign up with some manufacturers, or write to them, and they will send you free coupons for their products.
Purchased products are another source of coupons; they often take the form of "buy this and you get $1 off your next purchase," or whatever.
Why You Should Trade Coupons
Don’t worry if you acquire lots of coupons for products that you aren’t interested in—they are still worth keeping, as you might find that it’s worth your while to get involved with trading coupons.
Trading coupons basically involves you linking up with other couponers and swapping coupons that you don’t want in return for ones that you do – for example, you may not require coupons for baby food, but require coupons for breakfast cereal, whereas another couponer might want baby products but not cereal.
You can generally find other couponers via online forums and agree to mail each other coupons. (Any spare coupons that you don’t need and can’t swap can be sent to help military families).
More than once, I began a conversation detailing a recent shopping trip or the latest great deal, only to abruptly stop talking when I saw my companion’s eyes glaze over. Gradually it dawned on me that not everyone else was thrilled by free shampoo and toothpaste. In fact, I realized, while my hobby seemed tedious to some, it was downright bizarre to others.— Mary Potter Kenyon
Keep Your Coupons Organized
One of the biggest challenges for couponers is not so much finding and getting coupons, but organizing them all once they’ve got them.
This requires a system for categorizing them and doing some forward planning. I would strongly recommend getting a coupon organizer wallet that you can use specifically for this purpose.
One that is portable enough for you to take to the store with you on shopping trips generally works best for most couponers (some coupon wallets are even designed to fasten to your shopping cart).
How you organize your coupons is a question of personal choice, but most couponers have some system of splitting up their coupons into groups according the type of product that they relate to and how quickly they are due to expire.
Don’t worry if you struggle with organization at first; most couponers find that they have to try things out and make a few mistakes before they find their ideal method for organizing their coupons.
Make a Grocery List
Once you have your coupons organized, you can put together your grocery list.
The ideal is to find a balance between the grocery needs of your family and the coupons that you have available, the aim being to maximize your savings.
This doesn’t mean that you radically change the sorts of things that you would normally purchase, but it can mean making minor adjustments, such being a little more flexible with the brands that you buy.
Buying more of a non-perishable product while you can get it cheap is also a great tactic for saving money, although don’t allow yourself to get too carried away!
Most experienced couponers use a coupon spreadsheet when putting together their shopping list.
He that will not stoop for a pin will never be worth a pound.— Samuel Pepys
What's Proper Coupon Etiquette?
With the introduction of certain television shows and couponing blogs to the public, many people often ask how some of those people on the shows get such amazing totals that the average person doesn’t seem to achieve.
Typically, people see this when they watch extreme couponing shows.
If someone asks me this question, it always seems to present a good opportunity to discuss the ideas of coupon etiquette and coupon ethics. Proper use of coupons is important to everyone: the retailer, the manufacturer and the consumer.
All are affected by those who chose to not use coupons ethically.
When people use coupons incorrectly to shortcut building stockpiles, they are damaging opportunities for other people to save with coupons.
Some Couponing Pitfalls to Avoid:
- Expired Coupons: Review your store’s policy. Respect the stated expiration date. Often, stores may accept an expired coupon if the customer insists, but that is a loss for the store. Enough losses for the store and they will become suspicious of those who use coupons, or alter their policy to become more strict with regard to coupon use. This will affect all those who use coupons. We cannot recommend anyone attempt to use expired coupons.
- Copying Coupons: Copying coupons is blatantly illegal and should not be done. Those who use coupons that have been copied can be prosecuted by the retailer and manufacturer, and are defrauding people. Again, this type of behavior will damage opportunities for other people to save with coupons.
- Stealing Coupons: This is primarily around taking coupons off of products you have not purchased. While there is some debate about whether or not the manufacturer intends for someone to redeem the coupon, or the fact that some people take only what they intend to redeem, there are other more extreme and less debated practices out there. A friend of mine who coupons on another site observed a woman who instructed her child to open boxes of vitamins on the shelf to remove the product coupon that was inside the sealed box. This sort of thing is extremely dangerous. Opening items, tampering with them, in an attempt to obtain a coupon to use is just like theft. It is better to put out a trade request or to purchase it from one of the coupon clipping sites, instead.
- Improper Redemption: Because coupons are encoded with bar codes from the manufacturer, some extreme couponers understand that the manufacturer and retailer don’t always check to make sure the coupon matches the product. We watch extreme couponing shows occasionally, and on one a woman used $5.00 off Crest Whitestrips coupons to buy Crest Toothpaste, because the codes were similar. This is fraud, and is illegal. The $5.00 off coupon was clearly for a much more expensive product and the customer actually made money on the transaction by practicing improper redemption. The coupon should match the exact item and size/quantity you are purchasing.
- Selling Coupons: Selling coupons is also illegal. Many people will obtain free coupon fliers and booklets and then sell coupons at online auction sites. What is permissible is for someone to use a clipping service, that clips coupons for consumers (for convenience) and then charges for the time and postage to do so. These sites clearly state that they are not selling coupons, or reselling coupons.
- Rain Check Abuse: Going into a store less than 30 minutes before they close and requesting 25 rain checks for items going off sale is an extremely dodgy practice. It makes stores limit rain checks and decide to not offer rain checks on the last day of sale.
- Shelf-Clearers: Shelf clearers are couponers who do not advance plan, order ahead and who take all the available deals on a particular item. For example, recently there was a deal that resulted in free laundry detergent drops if you had the right combination of coupons. The first store I went to in the morning had its shelves cleared before 8:00am in the morning. When I asked at customer service, I was advised a woman had come in when the store opened and took all their detergent drops in one purchase. This practice denies others and seems quite greedy and selfish. I would encourage those who use coupons to only get the deals they will need, based on family size, and to leave some on the shelf for others who use coupons, as a courtesy. Building a stockpile is important – for all couponers. Please don’t build yours by denying others the opportunity to build their stockpiles.
It is tempting when looking for grocery store deals to compromise on coupon etiquette and coupon ethics. However, it is important to keep both in mind when you use coupons. That way, everyone can continue to benefit from coupons and it will be more available to the average consumer.
Glossary Of Coupon Terms and Abbreviations
Sometimes people speak ‘couponing’ in a way that is hard for beginner couponers to understand.
In order to make interactions and trades with fellow coupon enthusiasts easier to comprehend, I have put together a list of coupon terms to help out.
The list is aimed at all those who use coupons, but will be of especial use to couponers who are just starting out. The glossary of coupon terms includes: coupon terminology and coupon abbreviations.
Blinkies are coupons that are dispensed in-store, from little machines situated in the aisles. These can be manufacturer or store coupons and are called blinkies because the machine has a blinking red light designed to grab a shopper’s attention.
BOGO or B1G1
Buy one, get one (free). Variations of this might be B2G1, etc. Depending on store policy, you can combine this type of store sale with a manufacturer’s coupon or a competitor’s coupon to save greater than 50% on each item.
These are weekly flyers issued by stores to advertise products on sale for the week. They are often found in the Wednesday or Thursday paper (depending).
An organization or website that offers coupons for a fee. The fee is not for the coupon, but for the service of clipping and mailing it to you. It is illegal to sell coupons.
These are store coupons issued by a retailer’s competitors, but which (according to store policy) may be redeemed elsewhere. This is done in an attempt to capture grocery dollars. For example, Kroger’s may offer a coupon that Publix will accept so that you will shop at Publix instead of Kroger.
Wallet with lots of compartments that is specifically designed for coupon use, as it enables you to organize your coupons into different categories. (For examples of coupon wallets, see: Top 5 Best Coupon Organizers Online)
An envelope of coupons mailed to complete a trade.
These can be either weekly or monthly advertisements for special price savings. They can often contain manufacturer’s or store (retailer) coupons.
Hangtags are coupons, either manufacturer’s coupons or store coupons, that are found hanging by a string around the product’s neck.
Inserts (also Coupon Inserts)
These are the little booklets that contain the coupons found in your Sunday paper. Some examples would be Smart Source, Red Plum, General Mills or Proctor & Gamble. Some inserts might be full of store coupons, too.
Internet Printables. These are coupons that can be printed from home on a home PC and printer. They can be found at manufacturers websites, online coupon sources and social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
ISO is an abbreviation for ‘In Search Of’ and is used when trading coupons.
A coupon issued by the manufacturer of the product. When the coupon is redeemed, the manufacturer pays the retailer for the value of the coupon plus $.08.
Peelies are either manufactured or store coupons that are affixed to a product and must be peeled off for redemption.
Coupons that come in an Adobe Acrobat or PDF format.
Q or coups
A shorthand version of the word coupon.
Rebates are when you buy a product and get something in reimbursement in return. This can either be cash or a gift card of some kind.
Retail Coupon (also, Store Coupon)
A coupon issued by the retailer.
The process whereby a couponer can combine two coupons, like a store coupon and a manufacturer coupon. Stacking is also achieved by combining a competitor coupon with a manufacturer’s coupon. These are done to deepen savings.
Tearpads are found in product displays. They are either manufacturer or store coupons and are pads of coupons which must be torn off to be redeemed.
These are coupons issued by stores for an amount off of a specific grocery purchase. For example, $5/30 is $5 off an order of $30 or more. Some stores will accept one of their own plus one by a competitor, as well. So, if you have an an order totaling $80, and you have a $5/30 off store coupon and a $5/50 competitor coupon, you will receive 10% off your total order.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2015 Paul Goodman