Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Couponing for People Who Hate Couponing: A Zero-Stress Guide to Clipping Big Bargains

WARNING: If you know what a Catalina deal is and/or have actually employed one, this may not be the post for you. If you occasionally slice your pinky open while using adult scissors, this is definitely the post for you.

When you think of couponing, what’s the first thing that pops into your head? Is it GoGurt? Is it a planet-sized binder and never-ending stack of circulars? Is it a crazy cat lady, forever in search of the single slip of paper that will net her 14 free packets of McCormick fajita seasoning?

It’s understandable. Long stereotyped as the favorite pastime of bargain-happy grandmas and moms of 47, clipping coupons gets a pretty bad rap. Many believe it gets you minimal deals on junky food. I didn’t touch coupons for years, figuring the time it took to collect them was disproportionate to the amount of money they saved.

Now I know better. While I still buy groceries primarily based on the circular, I’ve come to realize that a simple, no-frills approach to couponing nets good money for little time investment. I don’t freak out, I don’t buy rainbow-colored faux food, and I save a couple hundred bucks each year. Not too shabby.

If you’re considering coupons, but don’t know where to start, read on. These simple explanations and stress-free strategies could kick off a lifetime of half-price egg noodles. If you do nothing else, make sure to scroll down to the GOLDEN RULE OF COUPONING, wherein I explain the practice’s most important tenet as well as the origin of the universe.

(Also? Readers? What am I missing? I’m sure it’s a lot. The comment section awaits.)


There are a few ways to collect coupons. Some are intuitive, others not so much.

Newspapers. Since the beginning of time, the Sunday paper has come equipped with bazillions of coupon-stuffed circulars. If you can’t swing a subscription, bum them off friends and family after they’re done reading. This is how I amass most of my deals. (Thanks, Dad.)

Store circulars and magazines. Occasionally, coupons will appear in publications within a supermarket or drugstore, probably by the door or the cashier. Though you’ve already made your plan, leaf through these, since they can offer good last-minute deals or bargains for next time.

Store shelves. You know those little ticket dispensers that line supermarket aisles? If they’re located by a food you enjoy, grab one. Hey, you never know.

Mailings. If you really like a particular company, you can frequently sign up online to receive coupon packets through the mail.

Online. Online coupon deals can be tremendous, but also a giant headache if you spend too much time looking for them. So, be judicious in your search. Speaking of which, there are three basic ways to collect and save.
  1. Go to aggregate sites like and Mambo Sprouts (organic).
  2. Visit individual company pages like Betty Crocker.
  3. Cruise popular forums and consumer sites like A Full Cup and Coupon Mom.
Be warned: you might have to sign up for the service and/or install a special printing program, but it can be worth it. Also, not every store accepts print-outs, and many supermarkets often restrict what you can and can’t use. Give your local chain a call before planning any big shopping trip.


My coupons currently sit in a small stack on my clock radio, vaguely organized by general category. Sometimes, I weed through them and pick out the expired ones (which can then be donated to the military). Your preferred method may vary, but other folks seem to enjoy:
They’re all small, cute, unobtrusive, and cheap (except the last one). Store ‘em in your desk or among your cookbooks.


It’s Sunday afternoon. You’re sitting down at the kitchen table, coffee at your side, clippers in hand. In front of you rests 20 coupon circulars, waiting patiently for you to begin slicing and dicing. How in the good name of Bea Arthur do you approach this? By following these simple rules:

Forget brand loyalty. You’re looking for products (ex: cheese), not brand names (ex: Sargento). If you find a coupon for a brand you like (Tropicana!), that’s fantastic, but the better toothpaste deals come when you let go of your Crest fixation.

Clip only for products you need or use. When you don’t eat yogurt, own a dog, or have dentures, getting bargains on Activia, Alpo, and Polident is senseless. A good rule of thumb: if you have to think about clipping a particular coupon for more than a few seconds, skip it.

Avoid clipping if you can find a comparable generic product. Even with coupons, store brand foods are almost always cheaper. In most cases, people can’t tell the difference in flavor or texture, either.

Don’t clip for junk. It’s undeniable: most coupons are for processed, insanely over-packaged crap, and hoarding them will only lead to blown cash and rampant unhealthiness. (*cough* Hot Pockets *cough*) However, you should always …

Be on the lookout for pantry staples. Yay! These diamonds in the aspartame-blanketed rough are more common than you might believe. Currently (4/14/10), in my alarm clock stack, I have coupons for bread, olive oil, sour cream, butter, soy milk, mustard, dried beans, chocolate chips, cooking spray, corn starch, baking powder, rice, pasta, and egg noodles. Not to mention tin foil, gum, deodorant, and the all-important Zyrtec (a brand we will not forgo).

Be on special lookout for personal products. Coupons are fantastic for cosmetics and body care items (shampoo, toothpaste, etc.). If you like L’Oreal eyeliner, and see a bargain, don’t hesitate. You could consistently save 50% or more without much effort.

Take advantage of double and triple coupon days. Never in my life have I seen a Double Coupon Day in a New York City supermarket. But I’m assured they exist in many other wonderful parts of the country, as does the rare and hallowed Triple Coupon Day. Check your grocer’s website for dates.

Beware hoarding. Odds are you’ll never end up in a terrifying A&E series, but there is such a thing as going overboard on coupons. If you don’t have sufficient storage OR the product will go bad before you use it, avoid buying multiples.


If you take nothing else away from this post, remembering this single rule will still help you bank mad cash every year:

Wait for sales to use your coupons.

Sales alone can save you money. Coupons alone can save you money. But they’re at their most powerful when combined. This may mean waiting a few weeks after your initial clippage, but trust me, it’s worth it.

Let me give you an example: I buy Del Monte diced canned tomatoes all the time. They’re usually $1.89 at my local supermarket. (Not a typo. I double checked.) Two weeks ago, they went on sale for $1.00 each. That’s a good deal by itself.

However, I also had a coupon for $1.00 off four cans, meaning each dropped to $0.75. What would have been a $7.56 spending spree became a $3.00 bargain. I saved 60% off the usual price.

Sweet, right?

In order to obtain these most excellent deals, leaf through your supermarket circular (at its own website or Money Saving Mom) before going shopping. Food companies generally offer circular and coupon deals around the same time, so matching them will be easier than you think.

And that’s our ballgame. Readers, what advice would you give a beginning couponer? What do you think of the words offered here? Did I get anything wrong? (Seriously, please tell me.)


If you like this article, you might also be taken by:
[(Photos courtesy of Hearts and Home (coupon book), Encyclomedia (coupon dispenser), and Strom Products (egg noodles).]

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MCM Voices said...

You are so young, and yet so wise. It took me years to figure all this stuff out.

Does your allusion to Hot Pockets indicate a weakness? I've not had one, but this DIY recipe from Serious Eats might be helpful:

Kris said...

@MCM! How are you? Thanks for the nice words. Weird coincidence - I wrote that SE post. Those things are super good.

veggieterrestrial said...

I like all of the weekly circulars for all the stores in my area are summarized with links to printable coupons and shopping plans. It is way too easy to get addicted though. Or spend time getting things free that you don't even want or need.

ilikecoffee said...

So I've been couponing for a little over a year now. The first full year I spent hours clipping and organizing them, but this year I've gotten much smarter. I organize my coupons by date. When the paper comes, I look through the coupon packet and then put the entire packet in a file folder labeled with the date sans clipping. Then, before I go shopping, I use a site like MSM or (it has a huge coupon database!) to see if there's a coupon for the things I plan to buy and when the coupon came out. Therefore, I spend no time clipping coupons I won't ever use. MSM always says where the coupons for her store deals are found. I do miss out on the random deals that I find after I'm at the store, but to me the time saved is better than the money saved on those last minute deals.

Lindsey said...

Great post, as ALWAYS. And Bea Arthur! Please tell me you've seen this:

Rachel B. said...

A couple of things:

a) I've found Moleskin's Memo Pockets product helpful for couponing. It's a teeny accordion file, the same size as a small Moleskin notebook, and it fits easily in a purse or pocket.

b) Alas, here in Canada, we don't have the Sunday coupon inserts of which you speak. But between and, plus the other options you mentioned, coupons are still plentiful.

c) I've started to make a habit of donating new personal care products to my local women's shelter. I'm pretty broke most of the time (student), but couponing lets me be generous -- combining coupons with sales means I get a lot of things for free. Even if I don't use a particular brand of shampoo, if it's free, I'll take it.

MCM Voices said...

Kris, I shoulda noticed that! I'm making them right now! I hope they will atone for the red lentil & rice burritos I made last night, which did not go over too well with Copy & Paste (my 15 yr old twin boys).

sunflowerramos said...

I have to say the Internet has opened the doors for this coupon lady. My mom taught coupon clipping is a must and she taught me well.
Also, do not forget to visit various websites like Target and Costco for coupons.
If you are an Executive Member of Costco, then you will have coupons mailed to you. Most of the time, I can get really good deals on cat litter, dish washing soap and other things.
I have even taught my husband to clip coupons!!

Beth said...

Thank you SO much for posting this!!!! I avoided coupons b/c of the junk food, or the SAVE $1 when you buy 5! rule. This helps me see that I can make it work to cut our spending.
Thank you SO much!

My Life on the Dole said...

Great advice! You sound like the voice of reason in the coupon-advice world, particularly re: using generics & sales. Thanks for the great tips for on-line coupon sources as well.

I am currently unemployed & watching every penny. I didn't use coupons before as it seemed to take too much preparation time & at the store. Now, I live for them so I can save every penny to get through this tough time.

Another couple of coupon tips:

(1) Use coupons at discount stores such as Dollar General. DG has great prices, & I only recently learned that they accept coupons. You can save a bundle by using coupons off their already low prices.

(2) If you have an Aldi store in your area, skip the coupons & stock up on their super low prices. They mostly carry their own brands (which are excellent & come w/ a double $$ back guarantee) & have limited selection but you cannot beat their prices on the basics.

Keep up the good work!

Linda J-H said...

Somewhere I read (and written by a man no less), that the coupons in the Sunday newspaper run 30 days prior to a sale. If you hold the circular for the required month, you will reap the benefits of a double play.

Alas, I am coupon impaired (I always forget them when I make my list and shop), but this may be a help to those who are not afflicted with this condition.

CJ said...

I only clip coupons for things I will use or eat. The omits a lot of the processed foods that coupons are available for.

One great website that offers tons of free things, plus great coupons is Vocal Point. I've gotten coupons for free cereals (name brands like Rice Crispies, Kashi, etc.), free Pantene products, free skin creams plus dollar off coupos to use or share.

I can't tell enough people how great the coupons are. Thought I'd share with the Cheap, Healthy, Good crowd.

April said...

If you live where Publix are abound, try That woman is ON it. I've tried the using coupons when things go on sale and it REALLY is amazing.

My most memorable recent score was Mueller's pasta was on sale Buy One Get One Free, and I had two coupons for $1 off 3 boxes. So I got six since I use them a lot, and they won't perish, and saved a good chunk o change. Sometimes the Sunday paper pays for itself many times over!

Dee Seiffer said...

Great post, as usual. I would add a few things:
1. Find a coupon exchange - My local library has one. It is just three baskets on a table. I clip all the coupons from the flyers and donate the ones I don't use. I can take as many coupons for what I will use as I need.
2. Use multiple coupons. If it is a great deal on something I use a lot, I buy as many as I can.
3. Drug stores- CVS has amazing deals. I've spent $7 and saved $65 in one trip. You NY'ers will be getting Walgreens. They have the same kind of deals. You'd be surprised at the grocery bargains at the drug stores. One week I got 15 cans of tuna for $4. (It all went to the food bank.) Of course, great deals on toiletries, etc. lists the deals and coupons buy geographic area and store.

Zoya said...

Great post! I would like to add information on "stacking" coupons. Store coupons (put out by Walgreen's, Target, CVS, etc.) can be used on the SAME ITEM that you use a manufacturer's coupon on -- i.e., pay for one item using two coupons. Most coupons that were mentioned in the post and comments were manufacturer's coupons. As the name suggests, these are issued by the folks who manufacture the product. However, every week, store coupons are also issued. You can find the latter in store circulars and sometimes on Catalina-type printouts. CVS issues most of its store coupons via that method, and I've gotten some really great deals by using those printouts along with manufacturer's coupons I've printed out at home or clipped.

I've had the "couponing" hobby for a few years now, and have learned a lot along the way from some great websites. They include Coupon Mom, A Full Cup, and Refund Cents. Happy couponing!

kerri said...

My only frustration is that I still don't know what a catalina is! :D I recently started reading Money Saving Mom and jumped on the Frixion pen deal. Getting paid to get pens at Walgreen's was fantastic!'

Money Maus said...

Thank you for this wonderful post!

I recently started delving VERY slowly into the coupon world, thanks to a girlfriend who loves clipping coupons and, of course, all my favorite personal finance blogs!

I bought the Sunday paper a few weeks ago... but there were NO coupons on it! Turns out, the coupon inserts in my area just come in the regular mail. Woohoo for that! :)

Jen Blacker said...

I split my shopping between Costco for bulk items, meat, and diapers; and Safeway for everything else. Safeway has coupons on their website that you can either print out or just electronically add to your Safeway card. So you don't have to clip at all! I also go to a couple of coupon websites to print out coupons for my monthly shopping trip to Safeway. I just keep a small envelope, go through the coupons and the Safeway ad to see what to buy, then plan my food menu for the month that way.

This saves my family tons of money each month and there is no stress over "what's for dinner?"

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else have a problem with the macy ad blocking half of the post!

Anna said...

Linda, that man's info is linked right here in this post.

Kris, I started a cash-only budget this year, and one thing that I have noticed is that meat goes on sale at the end of the month. I don't always have enough money left to stock up as well as I'd like, so this month I'm trying to plan ahead.

I also shop on Tuesday, I find more clearance deals before the new sales start on Wednesday.

JessA said...

Thanks for the great post. I am new to couponing and I am just inept at it! I'll keep at it, though, I'm sure I can get the hang of it eventually.