Couponing is not something I’ve always been terribly open about, even though I’ve actively done it since 2013. What started as a near necessity as a college student has evolved into a hobby and something I do more for the challenge and excitement of the process rather than need, although the money-saving benefits are certainly helpful and obvious. The less I spend on household products, the more I have to throw towards debt, save up for a home improvement product, or add to my emergency fund. I’m not entirely sure of my reasoning for keeping my couponing under wraps until now. Maybe it has something to do with the stigma associated with the process. I don’t want to come across as being a cheapskate or worse, a scammer. I’m here to tell you that these coupons and discounts are MEANT to be used. As long as you follow the fine print on a coupon or in a store’s policy, you are not doing anything wrong; you’re simply being a smart shopper! I hope this post will help address some misconceptions of couponing and give you a starting point for how you could implement these savings strategies into your own life.
Full disclosure – if you’ve ever seen the show “Extreme Couponing,” that is not me! If you’re looking for a guide on how to get $1,000 worth of groceries for 37 cents, this is not it. Major hauls like that require an extreme amount of planning and are very time-consuming, and quite frankly I just don’t have that kind of time (I’m sure most of you don’t, either). Additionally, that show first aired over five years ago, and times have certainly changed. The use of coupons seems to have been reformed over the last several years (probably due in part to that show) and some stores have really cracked down and added limits to the number of coupons you can use in a transaction or the number of transactions you can do per person. This is meant to be a guide for how you can regularly take advantage of modest savings – think anywhere from 25 to 75 percent – to benefit you and your family (hence the “moderate” title of this post :-)). By leveraging a combination of store sales, coupons, rebates, and store loyalty programs, you can really save big!
- Store sales – This is obviously the easiest way to get a discount on products. It doesn’t require you to print or clip anything, so it’s simple and straightforward. It’s a very passive process and while every little bit of savings helps, simply relying on a store’s sales alone won’t do you much good.
- Printable/clipped coupons – While obviously more time consuming than only taking advantage of a store’s sales, this takes your savings to the next level. I like this form of coupons because, if for some reason, the register doesn’t accept your coupon and deduct the appropriate amount, generally most cashiers/managers can use common sense and reading comprehension to read the fine print on the coupon, see that the item you are purchasing does indeed match the coupon, and manually deduct the amount from the total (although this doesn’t always happen… keep reading!). Paper coupons can hold up your transaction, however, as they take time to scan and some people feel uncomfortable when they hold up others in line behind them. I take advantage of self-checkouts as often as possible when using paper coupons so I avoid this, take my time to ensure all coupons deduct as they are supposed to, and only call a store employee over if a coupon won’t scan correctly.
- Digital coupons – Another way of taking your savings to the next level. Many stores offer digital coupons, where you “clip” them to your account before you get to the register, and the coupons are supposed to automatically be deducted at checkout when you buy the correct items. While these are nice from an ease of use perspective, they don’t always work properly and oftentimes the store is unable to do anything to manually enter it if it’s not a paper coupon. Sometimes contacting the corporate office for a store will help because they’ll credit you for the digital coupon that should have been deducted (more on that later – some are not worth your effort so it’s better to just not buy the item and try again the next time there is a sale or promotion).
- Store loyalty programs – Walgreens has their Balance Rewards program, where you earn points on purchases and sometimes even earn bonus points for buying certain items. When you earn enough points, they can be redeemed like cash at the register to lower your out-of-pocket amount even more. CVS Pharmacy has their ExtraCare rewards program which gives you personalized coupons based on your purchases and sometimes rewards you with special ExtraBucks that can also be redeemed like cash at the register.
- Cash back rebates – Checkout51 and Ibotta are two of my favorite apps to use for this. When you buy certain items they feature (and this changes every week or so), they will give you cash back via PayPal or a paper check, depending on the app, that you can withdraw once your account reaches a certain amount. If it’s your lucky day for couponing, you may be able to stack a store sale with a paper or digital coupon, earn bonus points for your purchase, plus receive a cash back rebate, making your purchase free or even a moneymaker!
Here is an example of an easy transaction I recently did that took advantage of store sales and digital coupons at Family Dollar. The whole preparation and shopping process probably took me 30 minutes total. I clipped the digital coupons to my account before getting to the store, then entered my phone number at checkout and they automatically were deducted from my total.
Items I purchased and how much they cost:
- 6 roll pack of Sparkle paper towels: Regular price $5.00, on sale for $4.00. There was also a digital coupon for 50 cents off.
- Gain liquid laundry detergent – 40 ounces: Regular price $5.25, on sale for $3.95. There was also a digital coupon for $2 off.
- (2) Febreze Air Effects sprays: Regular price $3.00. These were not on sale, but there was a digital coupon for $3 off the purchase of two.
- Mr. Clean multipurpose cleaner – 24 ounces: Regular price $2.00. This was not on sale either, but there was a digital coupon for $1 off.
- OxiClean laundry paks – 24 count: Regular price $5.25, on sale for $3.95. There was also a digital coupon for $3 off.
- Dawn dish detergent – 28 ounces: Regular price $3.50. This was not on sale, but there was a digital coupon for $1 off.
- Febreze plug warmer: Regular price $3.00. This was not on sale, but there was a digital coupon for $3.00 off, so yes – it was a free item!
Had there been no sales and no coupons, my total before tax would have been $30. With the sale prices, the total came to $26.40. To make this deal even better, there was a digital coupon for $5 off a purchase of $25 or more, which can be combined with other digital coupons. After combining this coupon and the various item coupons listed above, my total was only $7.90! Considering the original cost was $30, that is a pretty great savings (roughly 74%)! Here is a photo of the items I bought as well as my receipt.
Let’s say there was also an Ibotta rebate for $1 back when you bought a Febreze room spray and 25 cents back for purchasing any Dawn dish detergent. Since I bought two Febreze sprays and one Dawn detergent, I would have earned an extra $2.25 back, making my final cost only $5.65, a truly sweet deal!
The biggest downfall or issue I’ve experienced while couponing definitely comes down to some of the cashiers I interact with who like to play the “coupon police.” Don’t get me wrong – I have had several over the years who I absolutely love because they enjoy waiting on me, seeing my savings, and make the shopping experience a pleasant one. I also completely understand that cashiers need to do their jobs and can get in trouble with their employer if they allow coupon misuse or manually push through things at the register that are not allowed, but some take this a little TOO seriously. I’ve also found that a lot of managers and especially cashiers don’t understand their store’s own coupon policy or the language on a coupon, which can be frustrating. I will do my best to explain things to the employee but if the situation is clearly going nowhere, then I will politely tell them to void the transaction and I leave the items. I’m not rude or nasty to the employee, regardless of their behavior towards me. I will address the issue with the corporate office later, who will often offer a gift card or bonus points on your reward account for your trouble. Target and Walgreens have the best customer service, in my opinion; Dollar General and Family Dollar, not so much. Their corporate office is extremely difficult to get ahold of, and they’re not terribly helpful once you do. These little tidbits are things you pick up through experience. Not every shopping trip will be successful, but the ones that are make it worth it.
I also want to note that as a general rule, I don’t buy an excessive amount of product, especially if it has an expiration date. The same sales usually come around at least twice a year, so I will buy enough to stock up until the next sale. I like to give some products to family and friends as well. My boyfriend may jokingly complain that I have too much laundry detergent, but he doesn’t have much room to whine when he hasn’t had to pay for the detergent for a single load of laundry he’s done over the last year. 🙂 Occasionally I have sold extra products at a garage sale I’ve organized if I bought too much or I don’t think I’ll use them up before they expire. I make sure I at least get back what I paid for the item and enough to cover my time, gasoline, and effort, but it is still a deep discount for the buyer compared to what they would pay for the item in the store themselves, so everyone benefits. I’ve also donated products to local organizations (my favorite is donating pet food and toys to an animal shelter). I hate waste, so I do my best to efficiently use the products I buy or ensure someone else will use them.
If you have any questions about couponing, feel free to leave a comment or otherwise get in touch with me! I’m happy to help where I can. Have you ever tried couponing? What are your thoughts on the process?