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.
  • – 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 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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