The Beginner’s Guide To Couponing: Finding Coupons, Organizing, And Where To Shop

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We've all seen it... those extreme couponing shows featuring people who use 300 coupons every time they go to the grocery store. They walk out with 80 bags of dog food, 25 gallons of laundry detergent, 50 tubes of toothpaste, 12 packages of spaghetti noodles and a case of diapers — all for under $10. Let's be honest, we all want to know how to start couponing to save those big bucks, but most of us don't want to spend that much time couponing.

Good news! The reality is that anyone can learn how to start couponing. Do you want 30 bags of dog food? Probably not, especially if you don’t have a dog. But couponing isn't just about leaving the store with a bunch of random free stuff. If you do it right, you can easily cut your monthly grocery bill in half. If you've been wondering how to start couponing, this quick-start guide is for you.

Before you jump in feet first and learn how to start couponing, decide on a goal. What do you want to accomplish? Do you want to save money at the grocery store? Do you want to stock your pantry? Do you want to go out and do some good in the world? Whether you want to reduce your grocery budget or you want to make care packages for the homeless, you have to start with a plan. 

Learning how to start couponing can save you so much money, even for the average person who only uses coupons for the items they need. You really don't have to be an "extreme couponer" to save money. Even a broke, single college student can learn how to start couponing to stock up on essentials like pasta, toiletries, snacks and other such items. By taking a few hours to learn how to start couponing, anyone can save up a good chunk of money.

How To Start Couponing

What You Need To Get Started

All you really need to know how to start couponing are:

  • A few copies of the local Sunday newspaper
  • A few copies of your favorite store fliers, and
  • A pair of nice scissors

A calculator might also come in handy, and if you end up falling in love with couponing, it makes sense to invest in some organizational tools, like a binder with pockets and sleeves to hold your coupons. You may also find that a filing cabinet is helpful for organizing your coupon collection. But when you're just starting off, stick with the basics.

Finding Time To Set Up Your Coupons

Shopping Terms To Know

Couponing can take up as much or as little time as you want it to. It can be a casual pastime or an extreme hobby. The important thing to know is that you control how much time you want to invest in it. Learning to how to start couponing can be an hour of your Sunday, or a full-time job, it's up to you.

To get a running start, plan on spending a couple hours a week on Sundays when the newspaper comes out. Plan to buy one copy of the paper for every member of your family — so a family of four should buy four copies. Then you start the real work: planning your shopping trip.

Loyalty Cards

If your store offers a loyalty card then make sure to get one. Some stores only give the sale prices to card-holders. Loyalty cards are free.

Double/Triple coupons

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Doubling or tripling coupons is when the store will take your 50¢ coupon and double it to make it worth $1. This is done automatically at the register; you do not have to do anything to take part in this promotion. First, find out if your store doubles or triples coupons. If they do, find out the maximum double/triple value and how many they will double/triple.

active kid vouchers

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Stacking Coupons

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Some stores will allow you to use one store coupon (the discount is provided by the store) and one manufacturer coupon (the discount is provided by the manufacturer) per item.

Printable coupons

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Competitor coupons

You are only eligible for a full refund if you have not spent your Amazon Prime benefits. We rated this service with a 4-star rating

Expired coupons

Some stores will accept expired coupons, though it is rare.

coupon pile stock

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Make A Plan

Read the weekly store ads to see what is on sale and which stores have the best prices on the items you need. If you don’t get the weekly ads delivered, you can usually view them on the store’s website.

Coupon Matchups

See if you can match coupons to the sale items to get an even better deal. Some websites do this for you. Couponing 101 provides weekly coupon matchups for CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Target, Walmart, Sprouts/Sunflower Market, Whole Foods, Safeway/Tom Thumb, Albertson’s, and Kroger.

Price Match

Some stores, like Walmart, will price match. This means that if grapes are on sale for 99¢/lb at Kroger, you can take the ad to Walmart and at checkout tell the cashier you would like to price match the grapes. Show them the ad and they will sell you the grapes for 99¢/lb versus their higher price.

Make a List

Don’t go to the store without a list. Lists remind you what you came for and keep you from buying items you don’t need.

checklist with pink marker

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Rainchecks

If your store is out of the sale item, get a raincheck. Go to customer service and ask for a raincheck for the item you wanted. They will fill out a piece of paper with the item details and price. Then you can come back another day (usually no more than 30 days) and buy that item at the sale price by giving the cashier the raincheck. This also gives you more time to gather coupons for the item. You can still use a coupon if you are using a raincheck.

Beat The System: Understand Overage

“Overage” happens when the worth of your coupon exceeds the cost of the product. That means you are owed money in cash from the grocer or get credit towards your current bill. Awesome! But how does this happen? There are many scenarios that can create overage:

Combining

Combining a manufacturer coupon and a store coupon together. Example: Home Pride has a manufacturer coupon for buns. Your local grocery also has its own coupon for Home Pride buns. Combine and double the savings.

Clearance

Using a coupon on an item that has been reduced/on clearance. Example: You have a Home Pride manufacturer’s coupon for buns and then find a bag that’s reduced by 50% for quick-sale, now only $1. Apply your $3 coupon to the reduced $1 buns and presto—you’ve got $2 in overage.

supermarket

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Catalina

Applying “Catalina” coupons on your bill. Example: Big chains like Walmart may offer “save _ dollars off your next purchase”—these are also known as “Catalina” coupons. Let's say you only owe $3 on your current bill. Apply a “$5 off” Catalina and you’ve now got a $2 overage. 

Price-Matching

Price-matching an item you’re already using a coupon on. Example: Walmart is selling Oral B toothbrushes for 99 cents. You price-match at a neighboring store and apply a coupon offer of “buy 3 toothbrushes, get $4 off." Since they’re only 99 cents each, if you buy 3 then you’ve got an overage of $1. Well done!

Don’t Be Fooled

10/$10 promotions

You do not have to buy 10 items to get the $1 price. The only exception to this rule is if the ad states that you must. Those times are rare and are usually for items that are buy X get Y free, final price 2/$5, etc.

Rock-Bottom Prices

Don’t go out and use your coupon immediately. If you use that 25¢ off toilet paper right away when it’s not on sale, you aren’t reaching your saving potential. Wait until toilet paper goes on sale for $1 then use the coupon. If your store triples coupons then your toilet paper coupon could be worth three times as much. Matching sales with coupons is getting a great price. Combining sales plus coupons plus another promotion (rebates, double coupons, store coupons) is getting the best price.

woman grocery shopping

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“One Per Purchase”

Most coupons say “one coupon per purchase” somewhere in the fine print. Cashiers will try to tell you that that means you can only use one coupon per transaction/day. This isn't true.

One per purchase means that you can only use one coupon per item purchased. So if you are buying 10 items and have 10 coupons then you can use them all. Learning how to start couponing with this knowledge will save you time and frustration at the checkout line.

Make A Pricebook

Start paying attention to prices and keep a list of items you regularly buy with the best and regular prices for those items. This will help you when you see that canned veggies are on “sale” for 10/$10 but the regular price is actually 99¢.

“Bigger Is Better”

The cost per unit of the bigger box of cereal may be less than the smaller one, but when combining coupons with sales, the smaller box is likely the better deal.

Watch the Cashier

When checking out pay close attention to the price screen to make sure everything rings up at the correct price. Also, make sure that the cashier scans all your coupons. Coupons sometimes stick together or get dropped or the cashier will scan the coupon but not realize that it didn’t go through. Kindly point out they missed one, and they will correct it.

cashier monitor

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Limits

Stores will sometimes put limits on the item to make you think it’s a great price. If cereal is on sale for 2/$4, you might not even notice it. But if it’s on sale “2/$4 — limit 2!” then you will probably think it’s a great price since they had to put a limit on it.

Shop early. If you have couponers in your area, then it’s best to get to the store as early in the sale as you can.

Check Your Receipt

Before you leave the store look over your receipt to make sure everything rang up correctly and all of your coupons were scanned. If there is a problem, take it to customer service immediately so they can fix it. If you leave the store and come back at another time, then it might not be fixable. If the cashier missed a coupon and you notice right away, it’s easy to see the mistake. But, if you come back later after several other coupons have been added to the cashier’s stack, or the stack is gone, then there is no way to prove that they missed a coupon.

Some of the most common couponing issues you may encounter include:

Some stores will not pay overage in cash but in credit for future purchases.

You may need to fill the overage gap with “fillers”. Because a store may not grant overage in cash or a shopping credit, you may need “fillers”—items that add up to the near/exact overage amount. For instance, you have a $1 overage from coupons, you may then need to grab an item that’s $1 (e.g. gum) to fill the remaining overage. If you’re really savvy, you’ll have lots of overage and this will fund the rest of your regular grocery items like fruit and meat.

Stores may not allow you to use two coupons simultaneously, such as a manufacturer’s coupon and a store coupon. A store may also not carry the product you have a coupon for. If your trip is far or your item is essential or popular, you may want to phone ahead to see if it’s in stock.

Finding And Organizing Coupons

stacked newspaper

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Get Coupons

The Sunday newspaper is a great source of coupons. Buy the newspaper with the largest circulation to get the best coupons. You can sometimes get them cheaper by buying a double pack. Purchasing one newspaper per family member will help you add to your stockpile.

Ask your friends and family for coupons. If they get a newspaper but usually throw out the coupons, then they’ll probably be happy to give them to you. Peruse the Internet. There are many great online printable coupons to be found. There are several legitimate printable coupon websites. Check the store. There are many varieties of coupons you can find in the store.

There are many places to find coupons, and there are just as many strategies for gathering them up in multiples. Many people on shows featuring extreme couponing have been building up networks of people through their churches or neighborhoods for years — that's how they have so many multiples of the same coupons. Don’t be discouraged if you can't achieve that level of savings right off the bat. You can be successful with just a few multiples of the coupons that offer discounts on products you’ll actually use.

Organizing Your Coupons

Envelopes

You can start by clipping and putting them all in an envelope or check file. Once you’ve been couponing for a few weeks, you will need something bigger.

File by Insert

With this method, you file your inserts by date in a box and use an online coupon database to find the coupon you need. This method doesn’t require much work, but you might miss out on unadvertised deals by not having all of your coupons with you at the store.

Coupon Binder

With this method, you would clip all of your coupons and file them in baseball card holders in a three-ring binder. With this method, you can carry your binder to the store and have all your coupons with you while you shop.

Where to Shop

Learning how to start couponing also includes learning where the best stores to shop are. Do your research each week. Many extreme successful couponers start each week by writing down each store's sales and seeing who has the best price on each item.

A frequent mistake often made by people when first learning how to start couponing, is that they think everything needs to be bought at the same store. This simply isn't true, go to as many stores as you can to save the most money.

Conclusion

assorted groceries

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Don’t just buy something because it has a coupon. Only buy what you need. It pays to check. A brand name with a coupon isn’t always cheaper than discount brands and buying it at a more expensive store that accepts your coupon could still be pricier than buying it somewhere else.

See a free coupon magazine? Don’t just grab one, grab several. Even if coupons are limited to one per transaction, you can use them again at another time. If you have a high-value coupon, hold out until that item is further discounted for maximum savings. If you’re really keen for savings, write to manufacturers of products you love & you’re likely to get some coupons of appreciation in return. Extreme couponers vouch that this works quite often.

Know the terms & conditions of your coupon before going out so you are prepared to explain them on check-out if need be. Shoppers behind you will also be grateful if you know what you’re doing and are prompt.

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