Five years ago a show surfaced on TLC called “EXTREME COUPONING” that purported to show how average people could save enormously in their grocery shopping by using manufacturer’s and store coupons. Viewers watched in suspense as the shoppers piled their purchases on the belt, then waited in breathless suspense as the cashiers tallied the vouchers.
Extreme couponing joins shopping skills with couponing in an attempt to save as much money as possible while accumulating the most groceries. The concept was first mentioned by The Wall Street Journal on March 8, 2010 in an article entitled “Hard Times Turn Coupon Clipping Into the Newest Extreme Sport.” On March 25, 2010, ABC’s Nightline followed up with a segment entitled “Extreme Couponing Competition: How Far Can $50 Go?”
This show was a “reality” show but careful study reveals it to be a “scripted reality” show, one in which the producers have a desired outcome in mind when they begin filming and guide the “performers.” Needless to say, there has been a considerable amount of criticism of the methods used.
But this article is not about the TV show; it is about discussing ways to better couponing at the food market. Savings on clothes and furniture and appliances are there, but outlining them would take more space than is allotted here. I might cover that in a future post.
Let’s get on to the main topic.
7 Ways to Better Couponing
1. Efficient and effective couponing requires advanced planning. Before you grab a Sunday paper or the weekly grocery ad supplement, you’ve got to know what you are buying now. Go back a couple of months and write down the items on your receipts (You DO save your receipts, don’t you?) See what you buy the most of, because that’s where the greatest savings will be. Classify the purchases by brand and size, put it all into a spreadsheet, and you’ve got a profile of your food shopping. This is a vital first step; if you don’t know what you’ve gotten in the past, you’ll have no direction on what you are going to buy in the future.
2. Sort your list by the items most frequently purchased. This will help you educate on two levels – what your family is really eating, and how much. In all likelihood, this is going to be a surprise to you. It will be a shock to see how often you buy chips and cookies, and how infrequently you buy vegetables and fruits.
3. Head to the store and bring along that inventory list. You’re not going to buy anything this time. Slowly, carefully, go down that list you’ve made of what you’ve purchased in the past, and look for store brand equivalents. In a lot of cases, manufacturers produce the name-brand and the generic equivalents at the same time, with the same ingredients in the same manner. In a blind taste test, the average consumer would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
4. Write down the price of the bargain brand. Make sure you compute the “unit cost” as well. The unit cost is the price divided by the number of ounces of the item, i.e., the unit price of a can of green peas is .0577¢ per ounce. You’ll need this to compare the true unit cost of items. You’ve now established your “target price”, which is the price of generic brands.
5. Go through the weekly advertising supplement that comes with the paper. Find the section of coupons. You may also get these in your mail once a week. Look for deals on the items you buy most often. Generally, these are going to be for the name-brand products, so what you do is compute the unit price after the coupon savings. Don’t waste your time on things you know you won’t use; concentrate on what’s on your list. Put the data on that spreadsheet so you can manipulate and compare it.
6. Compare the coupon deal with the generic brand. What you are doing now is seeing if there are any savings in using the coupon over buying the store generic. A further refinement will be to compare the unit cost of the various sizes of the product; is it cheaper, unit wise, to by a 48 ounce jar or two 20 ounce containers? Sometimes manufacturers will require multiple purchases to qualify for the savings. Make certain there is in fact a benefit in doing this, and that you’re not spending more than you are saving.
7. Check digital coupons. A blessing of our modern technology is there are now even more ways to gather coupons than clipping them out of flyers and ads. At least two chains in our area now offer “digital coupons” you can select; redeeming them only requires you to key in your phone number or swipe your store loyalty card. If you’ve bought the qualifying products, the coupon value is deducted from your order total. These digital coupons usually have long-life, (they don’t expire for several weeks) and can often be used multiple times.
And Here are Some Bonus Tips
These tips will only apply to special circumstances – or if you want to go the extreme coupon route.
Suck up. There’s nothing wrong with writing (either email or snail mail) companies whose products you enjoy using. Sometimes as a “thank you” for the feedback, they’ll send you vouchers good for discounts on future purchases. At the most it would cost you 49¢ for a stamp.
If you’re a senior citizen… The practice of “double coupon days” seems to have vanished, likely because they were so popular. If you qualify, chains have days set aside for senior citizens and they reward them with discounts on their entire order. Using a store’s loyalty card will sometimes give you savings, but that advantage needs to be balanced against the knowledge they are keeping track of what you buy through that card. But then tracking is so common these days, it probably isn’t worth worrying about.
Compare prices between stores. The most important research you can do is discovering the usual and customary shelf price of those things you shop for. Comparison shop; if Store A offers X for $2.95 and you have a 25¢ off coupon, but Store B sells it for $2.49, then the convenience of going to the other store will have to be balanced against the lower price. Track the prices; do certain items increase in price right before a holiday or a peak shopping period? Those are the items you need to try to find coupons for.
Check the package for special offers! Don’t be too hasty in throwing out the packaging! Occasionally manufacturers will print coupons on the outside and sometimes on the inside of the boxes.
Get organized. The best way to organize your physical coupons is a wallet or folder with dividers. Select designations for each tab (“dairy,” “snacks,” “canned good,” etc.) and keep the coupons you collect there. Always sort them within the sections with the earliest expiration dates in front. If they’ve expired, throw them out. If you find yourself throwing out many, re-think your needs; it may be that you don’t use as much coconut milk as you thought.
Never go to the grocery store when you are hungry. This advice is so common that it’s a virtual cliche – but it’s worth repeating. Eat a filling meal before you go shopping. Your natural hunger might lead you to buying things to fill your stomach rather than filling your needs at home. Shop as early in the day as you can. Doing the chore when you are tired and unfocused might lead to giving in to impulse purchases.
Use a shopping list. Buy only the things you have on it. If you have a special event coming up, plan the menu well in advance then make a special trip to get just those things you need for the meal. Do your regular shopping another time.
Commit the store floor plan to memory. If your store has one available, get an aisle-by-aisle guide. Organize your shopping list by the aisles and code your coupons with the aisle numbers. This will keep you from wandering up and down every aisle, leaving you open to “impulse” buying. Spur of the moment picking can substantially inflate your costs.
“Pay yourself first.” If you have a savings goal you are trying to reach, try this to help get there. Pay for your purchases with a check. Ask the cashier to tell you how much the bill is before coupons and discounts are computed. Write the check for that amount. The difference between the final bill and the subtotal before the savings is deducted, will come back to you as “cash back.” Don’t pocket that money; put it immediately into an envelope in which you are putting money set aside for that goal.
Do you have any techniques you use to cut your grocery shopping costs? Did you ever watch “EXTREME COUPONING?” What was your reaction – was it amusing or did it inspire you?