It occurred to me recently that maybe some of you are new (or new-ish) to using coupons and not quite sure how to start. So I thought I’d offer some suggestions about how I’d get started.
1. If you don’t have one already, start a price book. I know it’s a pain, but even if you never touched a coupon, a price book will save you thousands of dollars in the years to come because you’ll know the best price on any item you regularly buy. And after you’ve been keeping your price book for a while, I think you’ll find that you can mentally keep track of most prices in your head. (Read my prior explanation of why a price book is important.)
2. Once you know what your target prices are, start reading the weekly ad circulars for all of the stores in your area that you would be willing to shop at. You want to get used to scanning them for the things you need at the prices you’re willing to pay.
3. Subscribe to or buy the Sunday newspaper – it’s the single best source of coupons. Whether a subscription is worth the cost seems to depend entirely on the area you live in. Here in LA, I found that I can get a bargain Thursday to Sunday home delivery of the LA Times for $39 per year, minus a $20 Vons gift card, which works out to 36.5 cents per Sunday paper, plus all of the other papers for free. (The in-store price for a weekend edition of the LAT is $1.50 plus tax.)
4. Start making shopping lists. Base your lists on your review of the weekly ads, plus the deals listed on all of the blogs out there. I list Ralphs deals if it’s a good week. (They’re a Kroger store but the deals are pretty exclusive to Ralphs, i.e., we have higher prices.) There are too many blogs to list that post the weekly deals at the various grocery stores, drug stores and retailers like Target and Walmart, but if you do a search, you should find them pretty easily.
I do want to give a shout out to Gina at Moneywise Moms, who lists the Safeway deals (Vons & Pavilions out here), because it was the way she listed the deals that made me really “get” grocery couponing. I also want to give a shout out to Mercedes at Common Sense with Money, because she helped me to make sense of the Register Rewards system at Walgreens when I first started playing The Drugstore Game.
A word of advice here: be prepared for this part to take a fair amount of time until you get the hang of it. A year and a half ago, when I really started using coupons, I would spend hours each week reading the deal blogs and coupon forums to figure out what I was doing. Now, I spend maybe an hour prepping my deals.
5. Experiment with how you like to organize your coupons. This is something that’s also going to take some time, and especially, trial and error. There are quite a few ways to organize coupons. A binder filled with baseball card holders is a favorite. (I don’t do this, but Money Dummy created a video showing how she uses her binder.) Filing inserts by date is another favorite method – basically, you only clip coupons as you need them. That’s why coupons are listed with the date and insert they came from in the deals posts, so they can be found easily.
I used the insert filing system for a while, but found that I missed having my coupons with me in the store, since I would only take what I was planning to use. At this season in my life, it’s hard for me to plan an extra trip back to a store if I found a great deal, so I now clip every coupon and file it in one of three handy coupon wallets that I got at Target for $1 each. It works for me, and I encourage you to try different methods to find what works for you.
6. Learn the coupon rules at the stores you shop at. Each store has different rules, and unfortunately they’re not always consistent – not by chain, not by store, and not even by cashier. In fairness, I do think that often, the rules are communicated poorly to the staff so they may not necessarily know them. Some people contact the stores and request an email with the official coupon policy, then carry that with them so they can demand follow the written policy if an employee gives them a hard time. Target and Walmart have their coupon policies online. Safeway has their printable coupon policy online.
Above all, keep this in mind as you start to use coupons: Everyone has their own way that works for them. So the best thing you can for yourself if you’re really serious about saving money is to not give up. Be patient, and stay focused on your goal of saving money!