Friday, April 15, 2011

Saving Money on Groceries Part 3: Coupon basics

Coupons are pretty hot in the media right now, what with extreme couponing shows and commercials for printable coupon sites. There's a reason for that. Grocery coupons are an outstanding way to save money on the things your family needs and even to get things for free. They help you lower your budget, make it possible to afford treats that would otherwise be out of reach, and even sometimes help you to bless others with your abundance by donating some of your free products.

But coupons only help you save money when you use them wisely. Coupons are inherently a marketing tactic, and companies only give them out because they know they can convince you to buy their products. If you buy everything you have coupons for, you will usually end up spending more money on your weekly groceries - and probably end up with a bunch of junk you don't want to eat or use.

My personal grocery coupon strategy is essentially to acquire two types of coupons: coupons for things that I buy on a regular basis, and coupons for things that will eventually be free.

"Need" coupons If an item is on your regular weekly grocery list, and you're going to buy it anyway, then using a coupon for it clearly and immediately saves you money. For example, my family buys milk, yogurt, and orange juice almost every week, so whenever I see a coupon for one of those things, I grab as many as I can possibly get. Even if the item is not on sale, but you need it, you can use one coupon and buy one like you normally would, essentially putting a dollar back in your pocket.

As a more specific example: we generally buy one of three brands of orange juice, depending on which one is on sale. Recently, there was a $1 off coupon for one of our preferred brands. The coupon made the regular price of that orange juice less than the sale price of any of the others, so I got about 10 copies of the coupon. Then, every week, I bought one bottle of orange juice like normal but with the coupon instead of the sale. When the brand I had the coupon for went on sale, I bought 3 of them. Then, the next week, I didn't need to buy any and I could make it until the next sale. (When the coupon was about to expire, I bought up a couple extra, even though it wasn't a sale week. It still saved me money over what I would normally pay.)

Did I try to buy 100? No way. It would still have cost me a lot of money, and how could I possibly have used that much orange juice before it expired? Where would I store it? But 3 was a reasonable level for me, and enough to get me to the next sale. It was also an amount that fit into my grocery budget, which is really important to remember.

Coupons for need items like bread, milk, juice, and even meat and produce do exist, you just have to keep an eye out.

Free and stockpile coupons There are some coupons that I always make sure to acquire extras of simply because I know that, by my store's sales cycle, they will eventually be free. A 50 cent off coupon for mustard, for example, will yield you free bottles at many stores that double coupons. Whenever that coupon came out, I made sure to grab a few. When the sale made it free, I would pick up 2 or 3. You could choose to get more, provided your store doubles more than 3 like coupons, but you need to think of what you'll do with them. Do you have room to store them? Do you plan to donate them? Do you go through more than 2 or 3 bottles of mustard before the sale and coupon come around again?

This is how people manage to "never pay for" certain items. I know at the stores I used to shop at, I didn't pay for mustard for years. Other items you can consistently get for free in most places include hot sauce, salad dressing, toothpaste, floss, and 4 packs of toilet paper. There are regional variations, but the more you keep track of your store's prices and sales cycles, the more you'll start to get a feel for which coupons are most useful for you to stock up on.

Free items are also a great way to get some treats for your family for free. Especially when a product is relatively new, it's often easy to find a coupon that will make it free. I remember having a shelf full of Betty Crocker Warm Delights when they first came out, none of which I paid for. I probably wouldn't pay for them, honestly, but they made a nice treat if they were free. So, if you see high value coupons for new items, it makes sense to save them for at least a little while to see whether you can get them for free or very cheap.

I talked a lot today about using multiples of coupons. Next week I'll explain a little more about where you can get those coupons.

Good luck and happy savings!