Up until last fall, my only sources of coupons were the occasional in-store flyer and the remnants of my Mom’s Sunday stash. I would cut out all the interesting ones and try to keep a mental note of what I had and when they expired. It wasn’t a very good system. I saved much more by trying to stock my pantry chiefly with Publix’s buy one get one free deals (especially when I found out that their “BOGO” policy actually means, buy one half off, get another half off…in other words, you don’t have to buy two to get the deal, a plus when the item is already-expensive olive oil and you have a budget to try sticking to). These days, I happen to live in a location central to almost all of the big drugstore and supermarket chains, so I have a number of possibilities when it comes to choosing where to shop each week. The key to making the most of that, plus maintaining a much more effective coupon system, without spending an entire day planning for my shopping is to use CouponMom.com. This is a free service that takes a huge chunk out of the work involved in “couponing,” and it is simple enough that, should I be without Internet access or should the site close, I could replicate what they do with just a little time and patience. I am nowhere near what some people can do with it (paying $10 for $60 worth of groceries is not unheard of), but I regularly save about 30-40% on groceries and other household items by collecting coupons and buying what’s on sale— preferably both at once (using a coupon on a sale item). You can find all sorts of tutorials on using coupons all over the web, but I thought I’d offer my take on it, since I remember well what it was like to be overwhelmed and turned off by the apparent effort for such apparently small gain. After a few months “in the business,” I feel like it is something I will be doing long-term, and which will only get easier with practice.

So the website linked above has a couple of databases to help you save time. You do have to register at the site to use them, but it is free, and you can create a junk e-mail address if you don’t want to look at the weekly newsletter or any resultant spam. The grocery deals database contains all the advertised sale items (both weekly and longer promotions where applicable) for a number of national and regional stores, showing where any coupons for those products can be found (for example, in the Red Plum circular that came out on 12/7). In order to make this work for you, all you have to do is get the Sunday paper (leftovers on Monday are sometimes slightly discounted), take out the two coupon circulars (Red Plum and Smart Source are the regular, “multi-brand” ones; sometimes Proctor & Gamble or General Mills will put out a coupon booklet for their products), date them, and put them away until shopping time. Then you look up the store(s) you go to in the grocery deals database, check the items to make a list, and note where coupons (if any) for the item are found. Cut them out and head to the store.

The grocery coupon database is a searchable database for when you want to find a coupon for something that doesn’t appear in the weekly ad or the grocery deals database. It gives a description and expiration date for all the non-expired coupons that have come out in the Sunday papers, plus coupons from online sources (which I am not as familiar with, lacking a working printer, but you can find some at smartsource.com and couponsuzy.com). Of course this also tells you in which circular the coupons can be found.

I save a lot of time using those two databases: not only that of going through each coupon circular, cutting out the desirable ones, and storing them; but also having to pick through them in search of the particular ones I want when it’s time to shop. Getting that chore out of the way was a huge motivator for me in starting this system.

A couple more tips:
– I don’t buy everything that’s on sale, or great quantities of it, unless we’re talking a 75% discount or more. At that point I will start considering if a product we really don’t use is worth the fraction of its original price. You might be surprised how often name-brand items can be bought on sale with coupons for a discount of 75% or more. From time to time you can get such items for free with coupons when they’re on sale. I have got a ridiculous amount of Pantene Pro-V shampoos and conditioners in my spare bathroom right now, because lately the sales and coupons have, as it were, aligned. Ditto with Suave, but that’s less remarkable because they’re significantly cheaper than Pantene anyway.
– Fifty cents off an item may not seem like much, but: 1) some stores double coupons up to a certain amount (usually 50 cents), which means you get a dollar off the item; 2) we all know that even pennies add up after a long period of time. So if you look at coupons as money (since you are in fact redeeming them as such), and realize the truth of “a penny saved is a penny earned,” you can get pretty motivated to stick with it even when you’re not saving a stunning amount of money from week to week.

And a motivational story for good measure: One of the friends who got me started on this has quite a stash of pantry and household items she has gotten for very little, for nothing, or–get this–in exchange for store credit, which means that buying the item made her money. You can really get into that at the drugstores like CVS (which has an instant store rebate program) or Rite Aid (which I don’t understand very well but which also employs store rebates). She not only has provided well into the future for her household, but she also has an abundance to give to needy friends or neighbors without any notice and without having to buy those items at full price. There’s nothing wrong with using thrift when it comes to giving, especially when the gift’s quality isn’t compromised in the least.