Extreme Couponing 101: How to Save 84%+ on Groceries
With gas prices rising, high unemployment, and inflation poised to spiral out of control, your talent for cutting household expenses is becoming more and more important. You can slash services like yard landscaping and premium cable channels (e.g. DIRECTV), and you can reduce your utility bills by using electricity, gas, and water more sparingly. But what about everyday necessities like feeding your family and operating your home?
The average American family spends between $500 and $1,100 every month on groceries, toiletries, cleaning products, pet items, clothes, and simple entertainment costs. You know you can make some sacrifices to get from the high-end of that range to the low-end. But can you really reduce or even eliminate some of these costs without giving up on good nutrition and hygiene? You absolutely can!
I still shake my head in disbelief when I look at what my family has saved in just the first three months of this year.
January: We paid $474.59 for $2,088.27 worth of products (groceries and toiletries), saving $1,673.70 or 77%.
February: We paid $402.85 for $2,369.40 worth of products, saving $1,966.55 or 82.99%, and we’re awaiting $305.94 more in rebates.
March: We paid $361.19 for $3,122.63 worth of products, saving $2,767.44 or 88.43%.
That’s a total of $1,238.63 that we’ve spent on $7,580.30 worth of name brand groceries, toiletries, and cleaning products. We saved 84% ($6,341.67 in savings) in three months without sacrificing quality using discount grocery coupons.
With the tips outlined in this article, it won’t take extreme time and effort for you to become an extreme couponer too.
Before I get into an awesome step-by-step guide to extreme couponing, let’s first take a look at the different types of couponers and assess which category you currently fit into:
The 4 Levels of Couponing
I love snacks, so I recently printed out a coupon for $0.55 off of one Chex Mix 4.5 oz bag from Coupons.com. Now with coupon in hand, I’m ready to go save some money. But how much money I save will now depend on what level of couponing I’m at. Recent experience has shown me that there are essentially 4 levels of couponing that range from casual to extreme. Levels 1 and 2 are well known, but levels 3 and 4 are starting to become more popular. If you haven’t heard of these couponing strategies before, you could be missing out on a whole world of saving.
Level 1: The Casual Couponer
This is where many people find themselves today. Most of the time, a person will pay for a whole cart full of groceries while handing over less than 10 coupons. They end up normally saving a few bucks off the entire order. In the simple example of the Chex Mix coupon I have, I could walk into a grocery store or drug store and find the Chex Mix for $2.99 and hand them my coupon, allowing me to spend $2.44 after the 55 cents in savings.
Level 2: The Generic Brand Store Shopper
Many people also find themselves in this category. They’ve figured out that they could save more money overall if they buy the generic brand over the name brand even if a coupon was used on the name brand. By doing all their shopping solely for generic brands, they can easily save $200-$300 per month without clipping a single coupon. I can save more than $0.55 on my snack run if I throw the coupon out and buy Generic Mix at $1.49 a bag. In this example, the Generic Mix costs me $1.49 and saves me $1.50, a significantly better deal than if I were a Level 1 Couponer.
The problem for me here is that I prefer the name brand over the generic – it just tastes different to me. So are you out of luck if you’re in the same boat as me and prefer name brands? Don’t worry because there are still 2 levels left to go.
Level 3: The Coupon Deal Shopper
Believe it or not, when the circumstances are just right, people can save even more money buying the name brand stuff than the generic brands. Items frequently go on sale, and when they do, the Coupon Deal Shopper capitalizes on the opportunity. They’ll combine a store sale with a manufacturer’s coupon, and get the item for pennies or even for free.
You know what happens when you align the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon all in a line? You get a solar or lunar eclipse, right? Well, that’s exactly what the Coupon Deal Shopper does. They set up little eclipses all over the place at different stores and walk away with items for pennies on the dollar. So if I wait for a sale, I can save even more money than buying generic.
For example, I happen to know that Walgreens frequently puts Chex Mix on sale for $0.99 approximately once a month. During this sale week, if I walked in there with my $0.55 cent coupon, I’ll pick up the item for $0.44 instead of $2.44 on a $2.99 item. That’s an 85% savings and way better than buying the Generic Mix!
The Coupon Deal Shopper saves 70% to 95% on everything they buy, because they follow two rules:
Don’t buy it if it’s not on sale.
Combine the sale with a coupon.
Saving at this level requires a little bit of effort. You must clip and organize your coupons, and be patient. By spending about 2-3 hours per week, you can save 70-95% on everything you buy at the grocery store and the drug store. Can’t do better than that, right? There’s still one more level to go!
Level 4: The Extreme Couponer
Did you know that you can use a manufacturer’s coupon and a store coupon on the same item? Well, you can. Did you know that you can use two coupons on a buy-one-get-one-free sale? Well, you can.
Setting up bigger and better deals is what the Extreme Couponer does. They take the same measures as the Coupon Deal Shopper but then they look for multiple deals. Why get just one deal when you can get three or four all at once? To this end, it’s not unusual for an Extreme Couponer to have 4 Sunday newspapers delivered to their home. Let me give you an example to explain why:
At my grocery store, Ken’s Steakhouse Ranch Dressing costs $3.29 for a 16 oz bottle. Sometimes it goes on sale for $1.65 per bottle. So what I do is use my four $1.00 off coupons from the Sunday newspapers during the sale, and get four bottles at $0.65 a pop. That’s how I combine two big deals at once and walk away with 80% savings multiple times. If you can get your hands on more coupons, go back in the store and do it again! The idea here is to stockpile your deals and get a lot of each item because it might be another month or so before this item goes on sale again, so buy a month or two’s worth at once.
Lastly, Extreme Couponers make good use of store coupons as well (i.e. the ones that say $5 off a $20 purchase). So you could walk into the store, buy at least $20 worth of great deals like these and take another $5 off the total. This simply makes a sweet deal even sweeter. It’s almost like you’re buying individual items in bulk at prices that are even better than buying in bulk. The ultimate savings scenario is to combine 3 types of coupons: store coupons, manufacturer’s coupons, and store sales all at the same time. Yup, that’s why we call this person The Extreme Couponer.
Now that you know what all the levels are, what level of couponer are you? Is it worth your time to become an Extreme Couponer to save 90-100% on everything you buy? If your answer is a resounding “Yes!”, read on for a step-by-step guideto learn the ins and outs of extreme couponing.
Going to Extremes: An Example
“Extreme couponing” isn’t as crazy as it may sound. You don’t have to let coupons dominate your life, and you don’t have to be embarrassed at the cash register. You just need to find the right moves to use coupons in conjunction with store sales and promotions, and then enjoy the satisfaction of getting items for free or close to free. It’s about timing, and not necessarily using a particular coupon just because you found it in that week’s Sunday paper. Instead of using it immediately, you’ll hold on to coupons until items go on sale, maximizing your savings and becoming an extreme couponer.
For example, suppose that Butterball Turkey Bacon normally costs $3.29 at your grocery store, and you find a $2 off coupon. If you used your coupon right away, you’d pay $1.29 and leave the store patting yourself on the back and thinking, “Not bad.” But you can do even better!
If you wait for a store to have a sale, you can really win out and find yourself saving much more. Imagine that you held on to the coupon for three weeks, and after the initial rush when everyone else used the coupon, the store is still trying to move more turkey bacon. Now it’s on special, with a two-for-$5 deal. That means the price is only $2.50 each, so you can use your $2 coupon and pay just 50 cents instead, saving $2.79 just by holding out.
That’s tough to beat, but this example can go even further. Suppose that the store issues a general coupon for $5 off a $20 purchase. Sound familiar? If you collected a few extra copies of that original $2 coupon, say ten of them, you could follow this simple math for incredible savings:
Buy 10 Butterball Turkey Bacons on two-for-$5 special: $25.00
Use your 10 manufacturer’s coupons: -$20.00
Use the $5 off $20 store coupon: -$5.00
Your total: FREE
You had $25 worth of coupons, but your receipt will show you the truly good news that you saved $32.90, since that’s the full retail value of the bacon you got for free. That’s the kind of thing that extreme couponing families do everyday. They’re not covering the kitchen table with coupons and letting their lives get taken over by newspaper inserts. They’re just using coupons and store deals together to get the best discounts, and they’re walking off with at least 90% in savings.
There’s no magic to it, but extreme couponing does require a bit of patience and some trial and error. Use this step-by-step guide to reduce the “error” part of that equation.
5 Steps for Extreme Couponing
Storage and Distribution
Step 1: Gathering
You’re going to need a lot of coupons, but you don’t need to go out of control. The smart move is to get multiple copies of the same coupon, so that if you come across a deal you can maximize your savings. Think of coupons as “currency,” because at the end of the day, you’re going to use them like cash. Acquire as many as you can, using these top sources:
1. Sunday Newspaper
Coupon inserts and local ads are the best places to start. Look for coupon inserts with titles like “Smart Source,” “Red Plum,” and “Proctor & Gamble.” The more copies of a coupon the better, so I recommend investing in at least four copies of the newspaper. This way, when you find your favorite deals, you’ll have four coupons. Alternatively, if you’d rather not scour through multiple Sunday newspapers, you can actually buy coupons (for much less than their savings value) and have them mailed to your house using the site, The Coupon Clippers.
Insider’s Tip: Write the date on the front of the insert, so it’ll be easier to find two or three weeks from now, and you can track down extra copies once you find a good deal.
2. Online Printable Coupons
Just a few years ago, the Internet might not have been worth your time for finding coupons. You had to dig around for far too long to find the right deals in your area. Now, individuals and various websites are curating the best deals available and, better yet, setting up local deals to get in on coupons and big sales. You can get alerts about manufacturer’s coupons and find links to coupons that you’ll just need to click, print, and file. Usually, on sites like Coupons.com, you can only print one or two copies of a coupon, but it’s still worth it.
Insider’s Tip: Don’t print everything you find just because coupons are “free.” Filter yourself and only print what you need to avoid excess clutter and wasted ink and paper.
3. Grocery Stores
Have you ever seen those small devices in the aisles that blink and share coupons? Or have you seen a stack of “Tear here” coupons near the entrance of your local market? Take advantage of these in-store sources of coupons, and don’t ignore the store’s free coupon booklets either.
Insider’s Tip: While coupon booklets are often sitting out in plain sight, some stores require you to take some initiative. If you don’t see them near the door, ask at the front desk.
If you write a letter to the manufacturers of your favorite items and tell them how much you like their products, they’ll often send you coupons – and free samples of new stuff that you haven’t tried yet. Today, I received a coupon for one free three-pack of JELL-O Temptations, worth $3.30. All I had to do was write to Kraft and ask.
Insider’s Tip: Don’t let it get you down when some of your letters go unanswered. You’ll have a few duds, but more often than not, companies will respond with higher-value coupons than you find in conventional places.
Even if you pick up four Sunday newspapers, you can get some extra free coupons by building a rapport with your neighbors and asking them for their coupon inserts. Plenty of people buy the paper and then scrap the money-saving inserts. Recycling is great, but it’s even better if you can rescue some deals before they’re carted off.
Insider’s Tip: I’ve heard stories of couponers whose neighbors have agreed to give them their coupon inserts at the door. After a walk up and down the block, they have around ten copies of great coupons they can use.
With all of these resources, you’ll have a wealth of coupons. But where will you keep them without losing track or letting them take over your home (and your life)?
Step 2: Organizing
The trick to successful coupon organization is to find a system that you’re comfortable with and will stick to. You need to know which products you have coupons for, and when your coupons expire. You don’t have time for a frustrating, disorganized pile cluttering up your coffee table. Since there are plenty of options available, think about the pros and cons of two popular choices.
1. Coupon Binder
In a coupon binder, you’ll use A to Z dividers and baseball card protector sheets. This thick binder will hold individual coupons, sorted by the first letter in the product’s name. You can also use pocket pages for coupons that expire quickly (within a day or two of the day you find them) or coupons that are only valid at a particular store. The coupon binder is simple and handy, but it has a few drawbacks.
Advantages of a Coupon Binder
You’ll have a portable container that you can move from the house to your car and carry into the store. Should you see an unadvertised sale or something on clearance, you can easily check to see if you have a coupon for that item and make an on-the-spot decision to buy or not.
You can make a note of which inserts your favorite coupons came from, so you’ll have an easy reference if you want to get more.
You can also keep a list of your stores’ coupon policies in the binder.
Disadvantages of a Coupon Binder
You’ll need to commit to clipping coupons and filing them. It’s going to take a while to get this organized. You’ll need some space to lay out all the coupons and cut them.
Expired coupons are harder to find in a binder organized in this manner. Once in a while, you’ll have to go through your binder and remove the expired coupons to make room for new ones. This audit will be a regular time commitment for you.
2. Whole Inserts
If you choose the whole inserts method instead, you’ll file away the coupon inserts in their entirety. You don’t have to clip a single coupon until you’re ready to go shopping. Even then, you’ll clip only the ones you need. You’ll just collate the inserts you have so that identical coupons are all grouped together.
If you have four identical “Smart Source” inserts, for example, arrange the pages so that when you’re ready to clip them, you get all 4 coupons at once. You can use a hanging file folder system in a filing cabinet, portable bins, or a large accordion folder to hold the pages, and you’ll build a coupon database to keep a record of what’s in the file. You’ll save time over clipping and filing, but you’ll give up some advantages too.
Advantages of Inserts
You can save plenty of time, especially if you date the front of the insert and arrange the pages for easy clipping.
These files are easy to maintain, since you can just wait for the whole insert to expire and then toss the whole thing in your recycling bin.
You don’t have to take your entire collection of coupons with you to the store – just the ones you clipped specifically for your trip.
Disadvantages of Inserts
It will be difficult to make quick decisions at the grocery store when you find an unadvertised sale or a clearance item. You won’t have time at the store to scan through all your inserts and start ripping coupons right there in the aisle.
If inserts aren’t the only source of your coupons, then you’ll still be searching for a system to organize other loose coupons that you’ve printed from your computer or picked up in stores.
In short, the whole inserts method saves you time, while the coupon binder method puts you in more control at the store. So now that you have your coupons and they are organized, it’s time to plan a shopping trip.
Step 3: Grocery Shopping
Especially for your first shopping trip as an extreme couponer, I suggest pursuing only one deal. Keep it simple and get comfortable at the register. Once you’re familiar with the process, you can reach for bigger deals and more of them. But for this first target, let it go something like this:
1. Watch the Sales Ads
Take a look at your grocery store’s weekly ad to see what’s on sale this week. If you see what looks like a good sale, check to see if you have a coupon for that item. Do the math and determine if the new price is a good enough deal for you. If it is, compile your multiple coupons and get as many items as you can in a single transaction.
Buy-one-get-one (BOGO) deals are great because sometimes you can use a coupon on the free item too. My local grocery store, for example, is running a BOGO deal with Mueller’s Pasta 16-ounce packages priced at $1.39 each. I have a coupon for $1 off two Mueller’s products of 12 ounces or more. Take a look at the math:
Two boxes of pasta on sale/BOGO: $1.39 Dollar-off coupon: -$1.00 My total: $0.39 for two boxes
That means I’m paying under 20 cents per box, for a total savings of 86% off, and I have ten coupons. I’ll get 20 boxes of pasta for $3.90.
If you’re looking to more easily match sale items at your local grocery store with their corresponding coupons, try out a service like Savings Angel. There’s a monthly membership fee involved, but it can help you save a lot of money and time by automatically alerting you of big sales and coupons for the items you want.
2. Set Your Limits
When you’re looking for deals like this one, you need to figure out if the final price is worth it to you. I’d take the pasta for 19 cents a box, but at 35 cents a box, I’d wait. Why? Because as you get more familiar with extreme couponing, you’ll see price points that you know you can beat, and others that you know you won’t find ever again. For instance, I’ll never pay for toothpaste, razors, deodorant, body wash, or shampoo ever again because I know I can find coupons to knock the cost down to nothing.
Decide what prices you won’t go over, and if a sale-coupon combo doesn’t get you there, just wait for a better sale. Keep your target prices in a composition notebook and mark the best deals you’ve gotten on common items. Using the pasta and toothpaste again as examples, my entries look like this:
16 oz. Mueller’s Angel Hair Pasta Lowest Price Ever: $0.10 a box; Can frequently get for: $0.20 a box; Don’t pay over: $0.30 a box.
Crest Whitening Tooth Paste Lowest Price Ever: FREE; Can frequently get for: FREE; Don’t pay over: $0.
3. Check Store Policies
Periodically check your stores’ coupon policies. Every grocery chain is different in how their coupon policy works, so it’s good to stay in the know on these topics:
Does your store ever double the value of coupons?
Do they limit the amounts of the doubled coupons?
Do they have a limit on how many coupons they’ll double?
How do they treat coupons used with a BOGO sale?
Do they have special discounts for seniors, students, or veterans?
Do they accept (or even double) competitors’ coupons?
Often, cashiers are unaware of policy changes, so they might let you use your coupons today, but tomorrow a different cashier may reject them. Some look the other way on expired coupons. Extreme couponers keep a copy of the stores policy to help “educate” misinformed employees. Don’t be rude about policies, but be aware of the rules and make friends with a store manager and some staff members.
4. Make Mistakes
Occasionally, you may learn at the register that your coupon plan doesn’t work out the way you expected. It could be that you bought the wrong size, or the coupon won’t scan properly. Remain calm and be polite. Mistakes happen, whether they’re on your shoulders or they’re the store’s fault. If you can’t resolve the issue, tell the cashier to void the item or call the manager. Just remember that you are not obligated to buy the item simply because you took it off the shelf. If the deal does not work out in your favor, do not buy the item at all. You are the customer, and you should never feel guilty about trying to get a good deal.
5. Have Fun
Saving money shouldn’t be a chore. It’s a game. When you set up deals, go after them, and take home your winnings, you’ll experience some pretty good emotions. Some couponers get a rush of adrenaline at the checkout lane, and others have reported having a “coupon high” afterward. It’s a pretty good feeling when the cashier and the bagger’s jaws drop and they only utter, “Wow!”
So that’s how you set up your first deal and the subsequent deals. Next, take a look at some extra resources to help spur you along the path of extreme couponing greatness.
Step 4: Resources
Plenty of websites are dedicated to helping you save money at the checkout lane. Coupon compilers scour the news and inserts to prepare deals for you before you even get your paper. They’ll tell you what items to get and where, and which coupons you’ll need. In addition to Savings Angel, which I mentioned earlier, some of the great sites dedicated to extreme couponing (that my family uses first-hand) are:
The Grocery Game, by Teri Gault
How to Shop for Free, by Kathy Spencer
The Krazy Coupon Lady, by Heather Wheeler and Joanie Demer
I Heart Publix, dedicated to saving at Publix Supermarkets
Totally Target, dedicated to saving at Target
Money Saving Queen, by Sarah Roe
Many sites also maintain coupon databases, which are useful tools, particularly if you use the whole insert method. A database lists coupon publishers, product manufacturers, stores, values, and expiration dates.
For example, if I saw a sale on Pam cooking spray and wanted to know if I had or could find a coupon for it, I’d type the product name in the search box of the coupon database and get an abbreviated response like, “Pam cooking spray, any: 04-03-11 SS. $1/2.” The SS tells me that it’s a “Smart Source” insert, and the publication date is from April 3, 2011. I also know it’s a dollar-off-two coupon, so I can determine if it’s worth cutting out. It all depends on the sale and other combined offers. The coupon database that I personally like to use maintained by Hot Coupon World.
Want to know how much you’re saving over time? Unless you’re a spreadsheet whiz, you’ll need some tracking software. I recommend Coupon Sense, which will notify you of deals in your local zip code – local offers that other websites don’t usually find. It also has tracking software so you can enter your receipts from the stores you shop at most often. At $10 per month, this service really pays for itself. I’m already in awe at how much my family saved during the first quarter of this year:
January: We bought $2088.27 in groceries and toiletries while only paying $474.59, yielding a savings of $1,673.70 (77%).
February: We bought $2,369.40 in groceries and toiletries while only paying $402.85, yielding a savings of $1,966.55 (82.99%).
March: We bought $3,122.63 in groceries and toiletries while only paying $361.19, yielding a savings of $2,767.44 (88.43%). The percent savings just keep on growing!
To summarize, we bought a total of $7,580.30 worth of groceries and toiletries, and only paid $1,238.63, leading to a grand total of $6,341.67 in savings (84%)!
It’s clear that getting great deals and tracking your savings is a lot of fun and motivating. But what do you do about all the stuff you bring home? This brings us to our last step.
Step 5: Storage and Distribution
When you start getting extreme savings, you’re going to stockpile items very quickly, and you’re going to need more space. Organization and free space management are two skills that you’ll want to develop over time if you’re going to have a lot of stuff on hand.
You can easily pick up more than a month’s supply of frozen meat and vegetables, so a deep freezer, for example, is a must. Set up a cabinet or shelving unit in your garage to conveniently store the hundreds of canned goods you’re going to stack up. Your may be coupons organized, but if you don’t stay ahead of storage space, all of your free items will overrun your house. Keep this list of do’s and don’ts in mind:
Clear away clutter in your kitchen cabinets. Throw away old small appliances you don’t use anymore. Use this opportunity to downsize your home and clear out old and expired items too.
Add shelves in your garage, wall-to-wall if you can fit them and still leave enough room for your vehicle.
Invest in a deep freezer. A chest freezer is more cost efficient and holds more than an equivalent-sized upright freezer.
Place like items together and keep things near where you’ll use them. Put the extra cereal in your kitchen, dishwasher and hand soap under the sink, and toilet paper in the bathroom closets. Excess – and you will have excess – goes in the garage.
Consume and organize your food and drinks by earliest expiration date, so you can avoid throwing things away. Keep expiration dates in mind while shopping, and don’t buy more than you can use before expiration. If you find no way to consume it all, you can always give it away to friends or donate to a charity.
Avoid a stockpile so large it doesn’t fit on your shelves. No deal is good enough to let it fill up your living space. You should be able to relax and watch TV without seeing grocery bags full of chips and soup cans.
Pick a few areas of your home that are off-limits, and don’t store anything there. Hallways are not storage areas.
Don’t be stingy. If you have more items than you can store, share with your family, neighbors, or a local charity.
The biggest do of the them all: do bless others with your good fortune. With extreme couponing, you can do a lot of good with the money you save, like paying down debt, quitting a second part-time job, spending more time at home, and donating to charity.
While most of the good that comes from extreme couponing directly benefits you, if you have the right attitude about it, you can pay it forward and bless someone else with it too. Maybe you know someone who recently lost their job. Bring them some food and milk that you purchased at a really cheap price. If you know someone who’s sick, take a few cans of soup out of your stockpile and pay them a visit. Donate pet supplies and pet food to the humane society. There is so much you can do. Giving of your stockpile will bring you far greater joy than getting free stuff at the checkout lane. I guarantee it.
Are you an extreme couponer? What are some of the best strategies and methods that work best for you? How much money have you saved, and how much time do you spend scouring for the best deals? Share your stories in the comments below!