How to use coupons effectively


I like saving money — but it has to be easy. And spending hours clipping and organizing coupons, or planning epic shopping trips based on my coupon stash is not easy. Most of the time — if I clip coupons at all — they end up floating around the bottom of my purse, expired. Instead, I usually choose to save in other ways.

Yet, there are coupons. And there are people who use coupons. And then there are the people who USE coupons … in a big way. No matter what our method, there is room for all of us to save with the coupon game and then to put those savings in our savings account to go to work on our next goal.

Why (and why not) use coupons

Why use coupons? To save money. Simple.

Even if you won't be using the items, you can still use coupons to buy more of these items if you were planning to donate. Homeless shelters, churches, and even your favorite college student, could benefit from the toiletries you purchase with coupons.

Why not use coupons? Not so simple.

First, is it something you need? You shouldn't buy anything you weren't planning to buy and use just because you have a coupon.

Second, if it is something you were going to buy eventually, do you need to buy it now? Do you have space to stockpile? Do you have an organizing system to tame your stockpiled goods (or at least to keep your coupons from multiplying in the bottom or your purse or overflowing your wallet)?

Where to find coupons and codes

While I still imagine couponers sitting in their living rooms as they cut coupons out of the Sunday newspaper, that is so 1990s. This is the age of digital coupons.

So where should you look?

Paper coupons:

  • Newspapers – Most Sunday newspapers have a coupon insert, full of coupons.
  • Magazines – Some of my favorite magazines have coupons.
  • In stores – My grocery store sometimes has coupons by the items on the shelves. Also, I periodically get printed coupons with my receipt that were related to the items I purchased.
  • Products – Occasionally, the products themselves will have a coupon on the packaging.

Online coupons:

  • Save at the pharmacy – Do you take prescription medications? Often, medications have their own website. Check the website for coupons or cards you can take to your pharmacy to save money on your prescription.
  • Groupon and Living Social – These sites feature deals on the best stuff to do, see, eat, and buy in your city.
  • RetailMeNot – A digital-coupon marketplace, RetailMeNot features coupons from about 500 of the world's largest online retailers. When I googled my favorite online retailer with the word “coupon” in the search, RetailMeNot was the first hit. An added bonus? Former GRS staff writer Donna Freedman writes for RetailMeNot's blog.
  • Coupons.com – I found coupons for things like Dawn dish soap products, Ziploc bags, and other things I use regularly.
  • SlickDeals – This community-driven-bargain-hunting site relies on its community to post and rate deals and coupons. I checked out the forum to see members' reviews of refunds, deals, and more. Another similar site is FatWallet.

Deal websites:

Want to get the best prices on food and other products? Check out sites like Money Saving Mom to find compiled deals from your favorite stores. This particular site also has a coupon database to find coupons as well. Deal Seeking Mom is another site.

Grocery-saving apps:

  • Favado – This app allows you to sync your shopping list created on their site to your phone and notifies you when your favorite items go on sale. It also allows you to compare prices.
  • Checkout 51 – This is a different spin. Each week, Checkout 51 publishes new offers. If you buy an item from their offers page, you upload a picture of your receipt through the app. For instance, Pledge is one of the deals this week. If you buy Pledge, you are eligible for $1 cash back. Once all your uploaded receipts total $20 in cash back, Checkout 51 issues you a check.
  • Grocery iQ – Want coupons for items you buy week after week? This app delivers.

When (and how) to use coupons to get the best bang for your buck

First, you need to learn your favorite stores' coupon policies.

  • Do they ever double coupons? When?
  • Do they allow you to “stack” coupons, meaning use a manufacturer's coupon AND a store coupon at the same time?
  • Do they accept a competitor's coupons?
  • Will they honor your coupon if they are temporarily out of an item?

As you can see, stacking or doubling coupons will rapidly increase your savings.

Second, applying coupons to an item that is already at its lowest price will save you even more. You can use free methods, such as a price book, to know whether a sales price is actually low or not. Or you can use high-tech options such as The Grocery Game that claims to give you rock-bottom prices — even unadvertised sales. You can check this out with a free trial.

Stockpile your commonly purchased items if you find them at a low price for even more savings later.

Want to cut your grocery bill even more? If you meal-plan based on what is on sale AND what you have coupons for, you will save even more.

The icing on the cake? Use ebates.com if shopping online. If your store is participating, you'll get cash back in addition to your coupon savings. Also, use discounted giftcards to pay for your items … after using your coupons.

How to organize your coupon stash

As I already mentioned, I don't typically use coupons because I don't have an organized system for dealing with them.

Do we have anything in common? If so, here are a few ideas:

  • Keep coupons in baseball card binders or regular binders
  • If you are serious, use a plastic file box with labeled folders
  • Small, expandable folders, either small enough to fit into your purse or another plastic file box

If you use mainly online coupon codes, of course, you don't have to file anything.

After writing this article, using coupons doesn't seem very scary after all. In fact, with all the apps and sites doing some of the work for us, it should be easier than ever to use coupons and save.

Do you use coupons? Which sites or apps help you use coupons more effectively? What are your tips to save the most money?

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BE Pennypacker
BE Pennypacker
5 years ago

My wife and I don’t use coupons too often at the grocery store partly because we buy a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables (not a whole lot of coupons for these). For other items, we try to stick to the store-brands (not a lot of coupons here either). If something goes on sale or if we somehow run into a coupon, we’re not afraid to stuff the cart. Unless it’s something bulky like TP, in which case we have our limits.

Kim
Kim
5 years ago
Reply to  BE Pennypacker

I agree with you. I tend not to use them for food items because my husband and I buy fresh too. They come in handy with most other stuff though. 🙂

Michael
Michael
5 years ago
Reply to  BE Pennypacker

I’m not sure if it works the same where you are, but here in the UK I’ve found that supermarkets will give you a lot of coupons for fresh produce if you consistently buy it. This is particularly the case in Sainsbury’s, which has coupon printers at the checkout (I think these are called Catalinas in the US).

We also get a lot of coupons for money off your total purchase (e.g. save £5 when you spend £40) which you can tactically combine with sale items to bring the price even lower.

Ricky @ The Skint Dad Blog
Ricky @ The Skint Dad Blog
5 years ago

I’m from the UK and It’s really only in the last year or so that we as a population have been using coupons more and more.

Unlike in the United States, the coupons in the UK are mainly controlled by the supermarket not the brands themselves which means you still don’t always get the best value.

Hopefully as time goes on we’ll see them more freely available and the savings will increase.

Katya
Katya
5 years ago

Sometimes you get cut up running after coupons and deals. You spend more money then you have to. Remember that crazy show about Couponing?
I only save coupons for what I have to buy.
RetailMeNot saved me some money. Croupon-I use if I am looking for new service.
Make a decision: What do I need first.

Michael
Michael
5 years ago

I use coupons all the time and couldn’t find it easier. Between the mailings I get every week (red plum or Valpak), my monthly Costco coupons, or checking Coupons.com, I probably spend about 5-10 minutes per week couponing. This usually translates to a savings of anywhere from $5-20 per week, depending on what I’m buying (looking at my receipt from Sunday, it saved $10.75). Like the posters above, I can almost never find coupons for fresh fruits/meats but I do try to buy those on sale whenever possible. One of the local stores has recently started sending out their own… Read more »

KWL
KWL
5 years ago

I don’t coupon too much for groceries because, like others have said, we buy fresh produce and there aren’t too many coupons available. However, I do use a cashback app called Savingstar, which has a Healthy offer for say 20% cash back when you buy the specified fruit or vegetable(this week it’s tomatoes). Like Checkout51, it also offers deals on non-food items and pre-packaged food items like Betty Crocker and like Ebates, has cash back features for online shipping. Best part though is it has a very low cashout amount of $5. I do coupon for other necessities, as I… Read more »

Sarah @ little bus on the prairie
Sarah @ little bus on the prairie
5 years ago

With four small kids, my favorite way currently to use coupons is via a digital app on my smart phone.

Several popular stores have now released their own apps that give you the discount at checkout either by scanning your phone or just by entering your phone number. The apps usually sync instantly, so if I see an item o clearance, I can very quickly check the app and see if there is an additional coupon to stack on top of the deal right there in the store.

It saves me a lot of time!

Barb@livingrichlyinretirement
5 years ago

I have to laugh when people take it as either or proposition. I also purchase fresh meat and produce, and still make a killing on coupons. I mean, I still use flour, sugar, spices, olive oil, low sodium broth, canned beans on occasion, ice cream and frozen pizzas. All of which have coupons available. As to whether you need it now. I only buy things at my lowest price, whether I need it or not. the question is rather WILL I need it, and how much do I use over say, a six month period. Missed in this article however,… Read more »

Juli
Juli
5 years ago

If you shop at Kroger, go to the website and register your card. You can download digital coupons, and almost every Friday there will be a free item. I do almost all my grocery shopping there, and they will send me coupons quite often for $1 off $4 of produce, or $3 off $10 off meat, etc.

Katherine
Katherine
5 years ago

I use southern savers. Basically, all I do is look at Publix BOGO because I live really close to Kroger, go to Costco all the time, but Publix is my favorite but a bit out of the way. So if they have an awesome BOGO on my favorite items, I’ll go. SS compiles all of the southern grocery stores sale items and then gives you the details of if coupons exist for those items and the sale price + coupon for the total price.

Kelly
Kelly
5 years ago

Thank you so much for this post! I’ve attempted to coupon a few times, but they usually expire before I make it. Then I stop caring.

I used the app Coupon Sherpa last weekend at Macy’s and was impressed. The app lets you find coupons in your vicinity, and seems helpful so far.

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
5 years ago

If you have coupons that expire, the members of the military can use them for six months afterwards, so get them to someone who can use them.

Kristen
Kristen
5 years ago

In our area we have Fred Meyer stores (owned by Kroger). I use my rewards card for the retailer and pay with my credit card every time I shop. I get 1% cash back from each (yes, credit card gets paid off- no interest expense). Then, Fred Meyer sends me coupons for things I *actually* regularly buy, often including $ off fresh produce or items from the bakery/deli. I just put those in my wallet and look through at the checkout for any matches. Life is too short for crappy food- I am a cheese and ice cream snob, and… Read more »

Beth
Beth
5 years ago

I don’t find grocery coupons all that useful because they’re usually for stuff I don’t buy. What I do find useful is watching the weekly specials and shopping local (when stuff is in season). That’s a better strategy for me. We don’t get the kind of coupon deals our American neighbours do.

I do use coupons for clothing, craft items and household goods — a few retailers have regular discount coupons I can use to buy items I need.

If there’s a coupon and it’s for something I need, why not?

Honey Smith
Honey Smith
5 years ago

My supermarket lets you download coupons from their website directly onto your loyalty card and they are automatically applied at checkout. They have coupons for organic store brands all the time, also. That is the main way I coupon. If I buy the item before the coupon expires, it’s applied without my having to do anything. If I don’t buy the item, I didn’t need it anyway.

They also send me coupons in the mail or print them at checkout, lots are the $5 off $40 etc. that others have mentioned.

stellamarina
stellamarina
5 years ago

I called in at a garage sale the other day and thought what the lady was selling was a little odd….like lots of packets of new makeup or hand cream and san pads. Then another customer asked her, “Do you coupon?” The reply was “Yes” Oh….then I understood…..she is getting all this stuff cheap with major couponing and now selling it for a profit.

Chasing Gains
Chasing Gains
5 years ago
Reply to  stellamarina

Wow that’s different! I wonder how much money she makes by doing that?

Tricia
Tricia
5 years ago
Reply to  stellamarina

This is very common in the US. I have friends who make thousands every summer doing this….and I have resold some items that were free with coupons also. Free market economics 101. (I do donate a lot of items to domestic and homeless shelters.)

misty
misty
5 years ago

I know people think they are doing a great thing by clearing store shelves using coupondonatget items to donate. But I wish many would stop to consider those of us who still have to buy our own stuff! We may not be in need of charity, but still must pinch pennies until they bleed. General coupons etiquette should be taken only what you are going to use for your own family. If you are buying to donate wait until a promotion is almost over and take what you can. Also if you do use something be freaking reasonable with your… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
5 years ago
Reply to  misty

That’s why it was no surprise that after shows like “Extreme Couponers” many coupons now have item limits on them and the store limits how many of the same kind you can use in a single transaction. Doesn’t stop the really determined ones but it can really slow them down and is enough of a hindrance to stop the dalliances.

AMW
AMW
5 years ago

I use coupons every month…there are coupons for fresh fruit (cuties) and nuts. The biggest savings come from the non food items…toilet paper, cleaners, laundry soap, razors, cosmetics, etc, OTC meds, etc.

Sara
Sara
5 years ago

I used to be a really aggressive coupons – before I had kids and back when my work hours averaged 30 hours a week. As much as the technology has advanced and there are tons of sites that match things up for you, it’s still time consuming to me to sit down and go through it all. If this weeks huge triple play is on Glade for example, I don’t use that. One strategy I have adopted and I rarely see mentioned is to just pick one store. I shop at Target. I can explain how to start a manufacturer… Read more »

Kayla @ Femme Frugality
Kayla @ Femme Frugality
5 years ago

Overall, I’m still a fan of coupons. But it can be difficult to find coupons for the things you actually need or want. Plus it can be hard to find coupons for healthy and fresh foods.

Evangeline
Evangeline
5 years ago

The ‘I don’t use them because I only buy fresh produce’ is an invalid argument. The money I save on toiletries, paper goods, and other things I do not make allows me to buy all the fresh/organic items I could ever want. Save where you can to spend where you want.

Steve - Australian Coupons
Steve - Australian Coupons
5 years ago

Coupons are a wonderful way to save and I used them almost on a daily basis while living in the US a few years ago. Rest of the world is a different story altogether. Here in Australia, coupon usage is very limited and major grocery chains like Coles and Woolworths simply have not jumped on the couponing trend like the rest of the world for some reason.

Wes Ehret
Wes Ehret
5 years ago

chachingonashoestring.com is another Fantastic site! Deals. Coupon organizing tips, online coupon database, and a ton more.

middle class
middle class
5 years ago

I find couponing rather easy in the electronic age. My diligence will vary depending on how busy I am. I know I’ve saved hundreds on household products, cosmetics and random goods. Here are some tips: 1) Loyalty saves time. I’m mostly loyal to Target and CVS. I ignore sales at Walgreens and Rite Aid. 2) I check coupons.com and print out coupons for stuff I normally buy. That doesn’t take long at all. 3) If I”m planning a trip, I’ll go to http://www.couponmom.com and see the best deals for that store or for a certain product. It’s not the most… Read more »

Aliza @CouponsRain
Aliza @CouponsRain
5 years ago

Whoa! A Complete, very informative and to the point Article I found on coupons. Actually, coupon sites have made our work really easier and we are doing online shopping through these discount coupons. You could have mentioned Mobile Apps as well 😉 Latest method of saving money…

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