My Couponing Journey, Part 2

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My Couponing journey

Last October, I jumped into the world of couponing!  It has become one of my favorite hobbies and thrills…because I’m a nerd.  I’ve been saving my notes for an eventual follow-up post and this is it.  Below is a summary of my first year of couponing, my learnings, and how I took it to the next level (and you can, too)!

I got (more) organized.

Organization is key to couponing!  I beat myself up about some careless mistakes I made.  I had to take a step back and realize it was a dollar or less that I lost out on and vowed to be more organized next time.  I have to make sure my math is right, I know which coupons can be combined and which cannot, and I always check my receipt to make sure things rang up as they should have (your store probably has a policy to reimburse you for items that don’t ring up correctly.  I’ve visited Customer Service more than once).

Keeping those little slips of flimsy newsprint is important, too.  Early on I invested in a $1 coupon organizer!  The Dollar Store had a great plastic mini accordion file that has served me really well!  I used to keep everything in a paper envelope and the coupons often fell out and got mixed up, etc.  My coupon file keeps everything in order and in place.  I highly recommend you invest in one of these if you want to start couponing.

I used technology to my advantage.

Couponing is not just about newspaper clippings and hand-written lists anymore.  Technology really takes it to the next level.

  • Digital store coupons.  Your local grocery store (in my case, Shoprite) may have an app with digital coupons that you can combine with paper coupons.  These digital coupons can be loaded onto your store loyalty card in advance via the app so once you scan the card, you get all the applicable deals!
  • Price compare via store apps.  Tech also allows me to compare prices from home while I’m making my list.  If I see an item on sale at Shoprite that I’d usually get at Walmart, I can check the price on my Walmart grocery app to see if it’s a better deal or not.  Or I can check what the non-sale price of an item is at Shoprite to see if it’s really that great of a deal.  OR I can check if a branded item on sale at Shoprite is cheaper than a private label Walmart item.  Sometimes this happens!!!  We’ve actually been buying more branded items than private label in the last year because they offer more coupons/promotions.  You are NOT sacrificing quality if you’re couponing.   In many cases, you’re trading up!
  • I’m officially an Ibotta believer.  Ibotta and I have had a checkered past.  I downloaded the app a couple years ago but I wasn’t really buying any of the items it promoted.  I didn’t understand why people loved it.  But I noticed that the free coupon database I was using included ibotta rebates and I finally re-downloaded the app and decided to try again.  I’ve made over $86 in ten months and my last 3 months have averaged well over $10/month.  I’m about to add $12 to just from ONE grocery trip earlier this week.  It’s worth it!  I believe the shift is happening because I’m buying more branded items vs private label and I’m stocking up on items vs just buying one at a time.  The couponing websites help me find the great deals and allow me to take advantage of more ibotta rebates.
    • Side note:  If you want to use ibotta AND Savings Catcher at Walmart, it can be tricky, but it’s not impossible!  At this point, Walmart Pay is the only way to use Savings Catcher…but you don’t get a paper receipt to scan for ibotta!  I googled this conundrum and found that some savvy couponers had figured out a way to get around it:
      • Go into Savings Catcher and pull up the receipt with the QR code.
      • Take a screenshot.
      • Pull this screenshot up on a device that you are NOT using for your ibotta app.
      • Scan the QR code on one device with the ibotta app on a second device.  I know it’s a bit confusing, but you do what you gotta do for those dollars…
  • Convenience vs coupons. Earlier this year, my local Walmart started offering FREE Grocery Pickup.  I envisioned my life improving drastically.  Except I realized that you can’t use paper coupons OR rebate apps like ibotta with pickup.  ::shakes fist::  I hope that changes one day.  Luckily most of our Walmart rings these days are smaller and include almost all private label items that would not be eligible for coupons and rebates anyway.

I changed my thinking about the items we buy.

  • I buy a lot of non-food items at Shoprite.  A year ago, I wouldn’t think to buy non-food items at a grocery store.  I was sure they’d be much more expensive there than at Walmart or another box-type store.  It turns out there are actually much better deals on these household items at grocery stores than at Walmart.  Between digital coupons and sales, I save a lot!  So now my Shoprite purchases are much more diverse.  I buy laundry detergent, toothepaste, razors, shave cream, cleaning supplies, soap, etc. etc. in addition to food.
  • Flexibility opens the door to deals.  If you’re open to trying different brands, you can take advantage of better deals.  I stopped insisting on buying the same brand bread for my husband because I realized he didn’t care.  I could just buy what was on sale each week!  We also participated in a local radio station’s food drive last year and I used couponing tactics to get all my items to donate.  This is a great way to give back while stretching your couponing muscle and challenging yourself to save as much as possible.  It’s so fun!
  • I’m still struggling with wastefulness.  One of the things I learned early on in my couponing journey was that it’s often more economical to buy many of a small-sized item vs one large club-size item.  Unfortunately I’m sustainability-minded and I am struggling with the extra packaging this causes.  Case in point:  All Free and Clear Laundry Detergent.

BJs offers a ginormous container for $14.99. Even if you use some coupons toward the purchase, you’re still paying over $10.  (Club stores really don’t have great deals, people.  I get a free BJs trial membership once or twice a year and the only things I buy are discounted vendor gift cards now…because you can’t beat a $100 Disney gift card for $94.99!)  With Shoprite sales and coupons, I can buy 5 smaller bottles for 0-99 cents each for a maximum total of $5.  It’s a much better deal!  But also much more packaging.  Sorry, Mother Earth, I’ll try to make up for it elsewhere.  (By the way, if you have or are having a baby, this is the best detergent!  Skip the expensive Dreft and wash your whole family’s clothes with All Free and Clear which is so much more economical and equally safe for sensitive baby skin.)

  • Sometimes I’m picky about my products.  I’m pretty sure that the basic Secret deodorant I buy never goes on sale….and there hasn’t been a coupon in a long while either. So I buy it at Walmart when I need it.  I could probably switch to a different deodorant that has more sales and coupons, but I just don’t want to.  I guess in this case I did NOT change my thinking about what I buy!

The Next Level – Living Rich with Coupons

A few months ago, we had a new attendee to my Finance Lunch and Learn at work.  At the end of the session she mentioned that she was really into couponing and we started chatting about it since I was into it, too.  She told me about a site that was new to me:  LivingRichWithCoupons.com.  Talk about life-changing!! This site took my couponing to the next level:

  • It matches up your weekly store circular to all available coupons.  The site features a lot of local grocery store chains.  It lists most of the sale items from the weekly circular along with any available coupons, including digital store coupons, newspaper coupons, coupons.com, rebate apps like ibotta, SavingStar or Checkout51, as well as any printable coupons from brand websites, etc.  That took a lot of the work out!  No more searching for coupons in the coupon database.
  • I learned about coupon doubling.  Throughout my life I’ve heard about “double coupons” but never really knew how it worked.  Since I didn’t know the rules, I never thought about it.  As I started seeing the deals on LRWC, I realized that they were assuming some coupons were doubled.  Then I learned that Shoprite doubles ALL coupons up to $1.  If you have a 50 or 75 cent coupon, you can just assume it’s $1.  It’s that easy.  Now, take it a step further to use that knowledge to your advantage:  A 50 cent off coupon on ONE box of cereal is better than a $1 off coupon on TWO boxes of cereal.  The 50 cent coupons will both double to $1 for a total of $2 off two boxes of cereal vs just $1 off both boxes.  Mind. Blown.
  • It taught me how to be paid to buy things I don’t need.  Before discovering this site, I’d had 1-2 wins where because of a combination of a sale and multiple coupons, I was paid to buy an item.  A lot of folks don’t understand how this works.  It just means you have more coupon savings than the item price.  An item may be $3.50 on sale, but you have $4 in coupons, so you would get “paid” 50 cents.  When this happens, you don’t actually get money back in your hands.  The savings is applied to the rest of your register ring.  You have to ensure you have another item to absorb the negative balance.  LRWC will list “deal ideas” where they tell you what to buy and which coupons to use and do the math to show how much you pay in the end.  In some cases, the item will be FREE and in some of those cases, the item will be a Money Maker.  My lunch and learn colleague says she just visits the site each week to search “FREE” (CTRL+F) to find those deals specifically and get money off her purchase.  This has been such a thrill for me.  At this point, I get at least one money maker every week.   I will never spend money on toothepaste or razors ever again!  I do accumulate a bunch of random things, but friends, family and lunch and learn folks are usually happy to take them off my hands!  I can also donate certain things to animal shelters and our church food pantry.  I love that I’m saving money and having the opportunity to bless others.  I will say that one drawback of the money makers is that when I’m buying items I’m not familiar with, I have to work harder to make sure it’s exactly the right item.  And then I obsess over what variety to get even though I’m not going to use this item.  My grocery trips end up taking a little longer.
  • While the site is awesome, it’s not 100% reliable.  Sometimes the coupons they list aren’t available to me.  Sometimes their math is bad.  So I still have to go through and make sure I have the coupons and do the math to make sure it’s a good deal for me.

Getting great deals feels as good as winning penny slots!

I’m pretty sure the same sector of my brain that deals with addiction and wanting to gamble is activated by couponing and getting a great deal.  I’m definitely addicted to the thrill of couponing.  So much so that I’ve learned while I can buy things I don’t need for FREE, I shouldn’t buy things I don’t need for cheap.  Even if there’s a sale and coupon, if I wouldn’t normally buy it, then it’s money that doesn’t need to be spent.  I had one shopping trip where I bought several of these items because they seemed like a great deal and they just collected dust in my laundry room for months.  When I finally made us use them, it was past the expiration dates (which, by the way, is often fine, I was just making the point that it had been a long time).

But more often than not, I’ve had wins!  I often feel the need to share these wins, and since I have a captive blog-reading audience, you get to hear about them!  But I also hope they serve as couponing inspiration!

  • Just like the Extreme Couponing ladies said last year, I’m typically saving 50%+ of my grocery bill.  Basically the savings listed on the receipt is usually MORE than what I pay.  It’s a great feeling!  This is also an indicator of the new shopping pattern I’ve developed.  I really only buy things on sale at Shoprite and go to Walmart for things I need immediately or can’t get on sale.  It works for us.
  • Here’s an example of a great register ring:  I spent $4.31 after sales, coupons and ibotta and saved over $52.  I got several things I didn’t need like toothepaste and razors because they were money makers and I also got a probiotic that I use that’s normally $18.50.  It was awesome.
  • Did I mention they pay me to buy things?  I already discussed this, but it feels good EVERY TIME.  I swear you can do this, too!  These are really the best wins.  Even better when they pay you to buy things you’ll actually use!
  • When the cashier praises you for your mad couponing skills.  Since I’ve been working from home, I started shopping with my retired dad.  On Mondays he can get a 5% veterans discount and on Tuesdays a 5% seniors discount.  More money I can save at Shoprite!  This last week, I was on a roll and after scanning all the coupons and checking us out, the cashier remarked “That was amazing!”  I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but since then, my dad has mentioned it on several occasions, so I’m feeling more proud of that moment.  You know that cashier sees a lot of people and baskets, so if I knocked HER socks off, I must be doing well!  Together we spent $94 and saved $120!
  • I’ve also become a gift card queen.  I probably need to do a separate post about credit card hacking (aka strategically buying gift cards to maximize credit card reward points), but in this case it’s grocery-specific.  Shoprite has been offering a weekly gift card deal for the last 6 weeks or so.  Buy a $50-$100 vendor gift card, get $10-$20 back on your next purchase.  This is a 20% return, people!  I buy gift cards that I’ll eventually use myself and then get the savings on my grocery bill the following week.  It’s been a nice addition to my usual coupons.  (But I also feel guilty about my increased use of gift cards and the fact that they’re not easily recyclable, see sustainability guilt above)

The Big Picture

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking this is too much for you, that it’s only for extreme freaks (like myself).  If this is you, I commend you for making it this far because this post was a lot to digest!  Yes, I consider couponing a hobby at this point, but if we take a more high-level view, couponing is about reducing expenses.  In the game of wealth-building, the goal is to maximize income and minimize expenses.  Couponing can help you save extra money to pay off debt or save for a big ticket item.  It can fuel your dreams!

Are you into couponing?  Do you have any other tips to share?  If you haven’t couponed before, do you think you’ll give it a shot now?

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