The key is to start small and set S.M.A.R.T. goals, or those that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely (thanks for indulging the teacher in me). It is unrealistic to say that you're going to begin your first shopping trip and do 8 transactions and spend only $20 out-of-pocket (OOP) and get $500 worth of groceries. But it is realistic to say "I'm going to save $10 at ShopRite this week using store sales and my coupons." Couponing trips don't always work out the way you hope they will and it is important to set yourself up for success or you'll quickly become discouraged and stop trying.
Couponing can consume a lot of your time if you let it. It is important to keep in perspective the value of your time. I've learned that while saving or making money is a wonderful thing, it isn't as wonderful as spending time with my husband and family and friends. If you think of couponing as a second (or third) job, you will be able to step away from it when necessary and put other things first.
As you get better at organizing and using coupons, preparing for a shopping trip will go faster. However, although I save more time now than when I started due to my familiarity with the layout of each store I go to, large shopping trips can take large amounts of time. Shopping is no longer a "Hey, I see cereal and I think we need cereal so let me just grab a few boxes and move on" sort of thing when you are couponing. Now it will be, "Okay, so this cereal is on sale this week and I have 3 coupons to use on the 18 oz boxes so let me look for those boxes and match them to my coupons before putting them in my cart so that I am sure I have the right ones" (P.S. - this type of monologue seriously goes on in my head while in the store). Be prepared to spend more time in the store locating the right items than you usually would.
Know that you may not be getting all the deals possible but that saving anything is always better than saving nothing. To save money you can no longer just make a list of everything you need at the store and then go buy it. Odds are, most of the things on your list are not going to be on sale. From this point forward, you should shop based on the sales. Even if you don't use a single coupon, shopping the weekly sales will save you a great deal of money; the goal is to buy an item when it is at its "rock bottom" price. Most sales go in 6 week cycles. This means you only need to buy 6 weeks worth of a product when you shop. If you don't know how much of a product you will use in 6 weeks, date the product when you open it and then use it as you normally would. Now you can track how long it takes to use an item which will help you determine how much you need to buy for 6 weeks. Buying enough for 6 weeks at the rock bottom price will keep you from having to buy a product when it is not on sale. Jenny from Southern Savers has created two lists here and here that can help you figure out if you're getting a good deal with a sale.
Many websites have already created shopping lists with every sale item from various stores. They then go the extra step (for the ambitious among us) and pair the items up with available coupons. When you are just beginning to coupon, it is unlikely that you will have all of the coupon match-ups. If you don't have the coupons or are short on time, stick with just the available printable coupons and you'll still save big.
The website I use for NJ area stores is Living Rich With Coupons. Go to "Find My Store" and select the store you want to shop at. (Even I, a seasoned couponer, only shop at one store. Some people prefer to shop around but I find that I am never really so desperate for an item that I cannot wait for it to go on sale at my preferred store.) Once you're at your store's weekly deals, you will see all the items on sale and the coupon match-ups. After you click the box to the left of an item, it will appear in the "My List" tab in the bottom right-hand corner of your screen. When you go to print or e-mail it (send it to your Smart Phone if you want to be eco-friendly and save money on ink), all of the items selected will come up with the coupon match-ups. If you see a green check mark on Living Rich, that means the item is likely at it's rock bottom price and if you use it, now is the time to get it. When you're just starting out it may be that you cannot get everything at its rock bottom price but getting as close to that as you can is a realistic goal. Another website I use is Southern Savers but the majority of stores are not located in the NJ area. I will write more on Southern Savers in my Pharmacy Shopping post.
Many coupon sites will tell you that you have to give up your brand loyalty if you want to save the most money. While I believe this is mostly true, I am still particular about certain things (such as Bounty Paper Towels and Puffs Tissues). I know I would save more if I bought Brawny Towels and Kleenex tissues but the savings are not so great that I feel compelled to give up the luxury of not have a red Rudolph nose during cold season. Instead, I remind myself that I am saving in so many areas and that I am buying the brands I like at the lowest prices possible; so, it is okay if what I buy costs a little more. You may not feel this way and would be willing to trade a favored brand for greater savings...that is totally up to you. Just remember that if you buy a brand of something that you then won't use because you don't like it as much, you're not saving anything at all.
Another thing you should do when you have the time is to calculate the unit price of an item when you're at the store. If you have no coupons, this is easy to do because the unit price is often listed on the label that has the price. Contrary to popular belief, buying in bulk isn't always the most cost-effective thing to do. When you have coupons, be sure to calculate their worth into the unit price to determine which size of a product is really the best deal.
I also try to save my coupons under $1 for use at the grocery store. This is because at most grocery stores, coupons under $1 will double. So a $.30 coupon becomes worth $.60, a $.50 coupon is worth $1, and a $.75 coupon is worth $1.50, etc. Use the coupons under $1 at the places that will double (not at a pharmacy) to make them more effective.
Finally, I really stick to buying only groceries at the grocery store. Items that can be found at a pharmacy like CVS can usually be found for cheaper there, counterintuitive though it may seem. When I first started learning about couponing from my sister, it seemed crazy to me that items like toothpaste, medicine, and shampoo would be cheaper at a pharmacy when I always thought those items were over-priced at places like that. Well, I quickly learned I was wrong and will prove to you why I was wrong in my next post on How to Use Coupons: Pharmacy Shopping.
THE LEAST YOU NEED TO KNOW
- Be realistic with your goals and understand that it will take time before you see huge savings
- Throw out your old methods of shopping. Don't shop for what you need, shop for what's on sale that you need. Weekly sales ads are your new best friends.
- Stock up on at least 6 weeks worth of items when they are at their rock bottom prices. Examples of rock bottom prices for various products can be found here and here.
- If you have a little extra time, use coupons matched-up to sale items to maximize your savings.
- Calculate the unit prices of items and take coupons into account to determine the best size to buy.
- Use coupons under $1 at grocery stores that allow doubling.
- Use websites that have already done all of the sales and coupon match-up work for you, such as Living Rich With Coupons or Southern Savers
- Try to be flexible about brand names, but if that doesn't work, just try to get the brands you like at their lowest price.
- Buy only groceries at the grocery store. Save items like toiletries for the pharmacy.
By following these tips you should begin to see big changes in your grocery budget. Remember to start small and not let yourself get overwhelmed!