Coupon Organization: A Survey of How People Do It

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My wife and I use coupons for many of our household products, from toothpaste and garbage bags to toilet paper and Tones spices (yes, I had a coupon for this once upon a time). While we don’t use many for actual food products (since most of the advertised food is more or less junk food), we still do accumulate quite a few of them over time.

This, of course, means that an organizational system is helpful.

Of course, not every scheme works equally well for everyone, so I went around the web and found out how different people organize their coupons. I was inspired to do this by Carrie (an old friend who introduced us to cloth diapering), who lamented on Facebook recently that she was having a hard time keeping her coupons organized.

So, without further ado, here’s a collection of various coupon organization schemes from around the web, starting off with our own.

I use a coupon binder – a repurposed photo album – where all of the coupons fill up various slots in the album. This is often taken along on grocery store trips along with a grocery list that has an * by each item for which we have a coupon. See full details of my scheme.

Here’s what our binder looks like on the inside – actually, this was our old binder, which eventually got put in the ol’ “circular file” after years of wear and tear:

Inside the coupon binder

Crystal from Money Saving Mom (http://moneysavingmom.com/) uses a “coupon box” to keep her coupons organized. Inside of that box, she has a series of envelopes for various product groupings. When it comes time to make her grocery lists, she pulls out coupons only for the items she needs and puts them into an envelope for each store. See full details of her scheme.

A Thrifty Mom (http://athriftymom.com/) uses a zippable binder to organize her coupons. It becomes something of a traveling “grocery shopping kit,” as the grocery list, a pen, and other useful items can be stored in it. It’s pretty self-contained and very portable. See full details of her scheme.

Stacey Doyle from The Digerati Life (http://www.thedigeratilife.com/) uses a very similar zippable coupon binder and has a nifty YouTube video showing off how her binder works.

Debbie from Destroy Debt (http://www.destroydebt.com/blogs/debbie) actually finds that the Dayrunner coupon organizer works best for her needs. It has an $8 up-front cost, but it’s small enough to fit easily in her purse, so she just always carries it with her. See full details of her scheme.

Finally, Becky Robbins and Michael Greenley have a great debate at Helium about whether or not it’s even worthwhile to clip coupons at all. I think that it is, but I think you quickly reach a point of diminishing returns where further time investment isn’t worth it any more. The coupons we clip are mostly just the ones that basically fall into our laps or out of the Sunday newspaper.

One final note: remember that everything has a price. There are a lot of coupon and sale combinations that will get you stuff for free, but even free has a cost. It takes time to get the item and, more importantly, it takes space to store the item. If it’s not something you’re ever going to use, it’s too high of a cost to pay. You never want to find yourself in a situation where your pantry is full of “free” stuff that you’re never going to use and you’re trying to figure out ways to jam more stuff in there. Coupon organization (and a moderate, reasonable time investment in it) can save you some money on stuff you already use – don’t go wasting time chasing “free” stuff that will just end up cluttering up your home.

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48 thoughts on “Coupon Organization: A Survey of How People Do It

  1. I don’t clip coupons because I mostly buy whole foods, but I liked this post. Maybe I will start keeping an eye open for things like orange juice coupons or coupons for baking supplies. Something to think about!

  2. Other than toiletries and cleaning products, few items we purchase have coupons. And we don’t guzzle through enough toiletries and cleaning products to justify a system to organize those coupons. An envelope works fine for us, coupons are listed on the face with the coupons inside.

  3. I love these posts. It’s great to see a variety of different methods. I’ll take some bits and pieces from each and modify them into a system that will fit my shopping “style”.
    Thanks for rounding these up Trent.

  4. I’m still trying to figure out the best method for my needs. Right now, I simply use a plain letter-size envelope and paper clip the coupons into categories (food/non-food). But it’s really messy and I can’t sort through them too well if I see something on sale at the store that I didn’t have noted on my list (such as a deal for deodorant that, with my coupon, would be nearly free).

  5. Coupons are definitely worth the time investment. I suscribe to a couple of coupons blogs and only print out the coupons I normal would use. My last Target trip had $96 worth of stuff, but walk out paying $71. I usually try to hit the stores first thing in the morning or in the late evening if I have a bunch of coupons I want to use for that trip.

    Sometimes I don’t like the looks on the clerk’s face when I hand them a pile of coupons, but I keep reminding myself that any dollar saved is an extra dollar towards paying off my mortgage early.

  6. I have a hard time with coupons, I always am reminded of this one time when I was watching Wife Swap and the lady had the coupons spread out all over the floor trying to find the one she was looking for. Plus, as you mention, most of the time they are food junk food, and we have recently begun eating a more healthy diet without as much of the processed “food”. Coupons would likely undue this effort.

  7. I tried to do the coupon thing but gave it up because it was so boringly tedious and I’d rather spend my time enjoying life. Plus i started getting all the processed food out of our diet so there aren’t many coupons I see that I could use. It’s not worth buying a $2 paper (we don’t subscribe) for only $1 worth of coupons. When I stopped using coupons I only noticed a slight increase in our grocery budget but not enough to convince me to spend the time couponing. I tend to agree with the “no” debate on that link. If I happen to get a coupon for sething I’ll use I will use it but I’m not going to go out of my way for a coupon.

  8. I use the ones that fall into my lap, which are pretty few given that we don’t take a newspaper nor subscribe to “women’s” magazines.

    Generally speaking, I have so few coupons on even my “big” shopping outings that it’s simple to just paper-clip them to my list – which, like Trent’s may feature an asterisk beside the couponed items.

    Where I save big on groceries is through store brands, buying on sale, and loyalty cards. Then I wreck it all by putting a bottle of wine in the cart! :-)

  9. You can actually sell coupons you don’t want on eBay. If you’re already cutting the ones you want, go ahead and cut the rest, then sell them. The Bed Bath and Beyond ones sell like crazy on eBay.

  10. I do think coupons are a great idea, provided that identifying and using them don’t take up much time. This includes storing and manageing them.

    Sometimes, spending 30 minutes to find coupons that will save $3 total on things I would already buy isn’t that great of a use of time. If time investment is worth the savings, and the opportunity cost isn’t too hight, then I’m all in. I’m all for sensible frugality, and a money-saving mindset.

    One question – and I have asked this recently in a different venue – what is your system for disposing of old/expired coupons, in terms of how often you purge and how much time is spent doing that?

    Thanks, and I enjoy your site. Keep up the good work.

  11. For me, I have found that I end up wasting more time and money to clip coupons (for the most part) than not clipping them in the first place. I don’t normally buy the newspaper, so it costs me money to buy it just to get the coupons. Then I find coupons for things that I like and wouldn’t normally buy, so I end up spending money on those items. Also, I’ll end up buying a product when I don’t need it because the coupon was going to expire. I end up wasting more time and money because of the coupon scheme.

    I have an iPhone with some coupon apps, if I remember, I’ll try to use coupons from there. Also, I get e-mails from clothing stores and if I happen to be shopping and if I happen to be buying something, then I’ll look and see if the recent e-mails apply. If I go with coupon in hand, then I’ll end up buying something I don’t want just because it’s on sale.

    Yes, I know it’s about self control, but if I’m trying to save money, I end up not having the greatest control. I don’t purposefully clip coupons anymore.

  12. Of the coupons I do use, I only use them at Giant because they double coupons up to $1 (higher than anyone else in town). So I just taped together many envelopes (because we have an excess in the house anyway), accordion-style, and each envelope serves as a category. The categories just line up with the aisles of the grocery store.

    Like others I don’t use them for much food, except for basics like oil or pasta, but I never buy cereal without coupon + sale. I do use lots of coupons for hygiene necessities though!

  13. i always go for non-perishable bogo. the extra one goes to the local food pantry. toothpaste and infant products are greatly appreciated.

  14. I love MoneySavingMom because she will tell you what products are cheap or even free at different stores, saves me from “chasing” the deals because I only look at stores I go to normally. I have quite a stock pile of cheap or even free shampoos, deoterants, toothpastes, toothbrushes etc. I will probably end up donating some of these items to the shelter in town because if I bought an item for 25 cents or even free than I give away a lot more of them than $2.50 toothpastes. Plus if I donate 10 – 25 cent toothpastes than it is a better use of my $2.50 than just donating cash to them because I know they will only get 1 or 2 tubes.

  15. I used to use coupons a lot when my kids were still at home but got out of the habit now that it’s just me; however, I’ve recommitted myself to use them again. Focusing on just the dry goods – Trent’s right: most of the food coupons are just junk food and processed package foods which I avoid. I’m hoping I can reduce my weekly grocery budget at least a little bit. And I just found out that I can download coupons straight to my Fred Meyer Advantage card which works for me – no brainer and easy organization.

  16. If you are one who enjoys couponing for fun (they exist) consider donating your free loot to charity. Money Mate Kate (a blogger) does this, and i think it is GREAT

  17. A certain amount of discipline is required if you want to get into the couponing game.

    You could find yourself with a houseful of crap you’ll never use if you’re not careful.

  18. Wouldn’t it be troublesome to sort through all the coupons when we go shopping? Organizing the coupon is tedious job.

    In my country (Malaysia), we still don’t have so many coupons from businesses, maybe due to less competition.

  19. One other thing to think about when using coupons is expiration date. I used to organize my coupons by expiration date. Ones that expired on May 31 were put in May. If they expired before the end of the month, they were put in the previous month.

  20. Couponing is a great idea. A lot of people have many kids who, when all is said and done, use a lot of toothpaste, deodorant, toilet paper, paper towel, school supplies, etc. I often get a free compact or lipstick with a coupon, and $0.50 off the original item, with a coupon. All of these products are used within a reasonable amount of time.

    My closet in the guest bathroom is full of shampoo, deodorant, toothbrushes, etc. But, if I didn’t have it stocked full of supplies, it would go empty. The opportunity cost is nothing.

  21. Also, not all coupons are for junk food. I have many coupons for whole wheat bread, brown rice, yogurt, organic milk, “buy milk and get free eggs,” string cheese, etc. You just have to look.

  22. I use couponmom.com You only clip coupons as you need them.. each week you write the date on the coupon circular and file it away.. each Sunday and Tuesday she updates the list. It tells you by store what is on sale, and what paper had the coupon.. you select the ones you want, and it prints a nice list for you. You can sort by % saved to see what is the best value. She also has a coupon database so if you need chips and dip for a party, you can search to see if there are any coupons.

  23. Thanks Trent for this one. I have a coupon organizer that isn’t working well for me so this has given me lots of ideas. Since we are retired, time spent on couponing is money for us to use to pay bills, etc. Last week at our local grocery was triple coupon week, plus they have opened a new store and they sent out $20 off coupons if you spent $40 on groceries at that particular location. THAT was easy to do and I came away with $79 and change off my purchases with only one item being something I would not normally buy (fruit cups) but we are enjoying. One coupon that was “free” we don’t use and I gave to someone in the store who was also using other coupons. I give unused coupons to our local charity that uses them to stock their Food Pantry. And I didn’t buy any “junk food” either. So $79 will pay my phone bill and internet bill with some left over. Not bad.

  24. Organic coupons do exist- we only use coupons for what we buy anyway or donate to charity. We also have minimal brand loyalty and that helps too. The local shelters are thrilled to get cat food or toiletries and this means that our charitable giving goes further when I can give $20 worth of stuff and we paid $7. The animal shelter just got a bag of Iam’s that between a $5 off manufacturer coupon, $2 off any purchase store coupon and a sale cost four dollars out of our pocket.

  25. To add to Kara’s previous post, I swear by couponmom.com – there is no need to cut out any coupons until you need them. I repeat no need to cut anything out so the organization scheme I use is I have a big hanging folder box with a hanging folder for each month of the year. (I keep 2 years worth in there without actually writing the year so I can just keep re-using the months) Then with each circular out of the Sunday paper I simply label it 5-7 SS for example and place it into the May hanging folder. This takes all of about 5 minutes a week to file the circulars. Once you have that down all you have to do is read the weekly email (you can sign up at couponmom.com) in which you are told what is on sale at CVS (which is the store I get everything for free at) or any other for that matter. If your store is not listed (she has over 40+ on her site) then you can just use the coupon database feature which allows you to just bounce off your shopping list against all the existing non-expired coupons. Those two uses alone have saved me over $1000 in the past year or so.

  26. Our grocery store doubles the coupons up to 99c. Yes, I realize that they probably jacked up the prices to cover the extra but we use the coupons when the item is on sale, usually for something we wouldn’t normally buy, ‘treat-like’ food. We mostly buy generic/store brand for everyday food. We spend about a half hour on Sunday am with the coupons in the paper while we are making breakfast. We found a brand new coupon organizer at the thrift store for a dollar, not fancy, just plastic envelopes in a wallet like thing. Plus there is the thrill of seeing the total go down at the register.

  27. I use a coupon box.

    Now about those “don’t clip until you need it” methods … there is another alternative.

    Clip all the coupons that come into your house. Make two piles – one for your family to keep, the other to give away.

    Why? Some families cannot afford either the cost of the Sunday newspaper, or the cost of duplicate newspapers to get additional savings with extra coupons.

    There are military coupon campaigns available to send coupons to overseas commissaries. Ask your local veterans clubs and auxiliaries if they are sponsoring such a drive. There is a cost involved with shipping coupons to the bases, so do be aware of that.

    The other possibility is coupon swapping in your own community. I promote those efforts on my blog because southeast Michigan has been hit really hard by the recession.

    Most of the local library branches in Monroe MI do have coupon swap boxes. A crisis pregnancy center in Monroe also is sponsoring a coupon swap box specifically for baby products.

  28. Couponing is one of the main reasons I have been able to be a stay-at-home for 20 years until recently. Sure there have been times I have had to throw out food that didn’t get eaten but my savings far outweighs what I have lost. In addition I love to over buy when getting items for free or near free and donate. I do this for our local homeless shelter and when friends I know are struggling. Plus to agree with Rachel most of my coupons are for good healthy food. I am now waiting for a 5.00 rebate from Sorrento cheese that with coupon will have cost me .50c per package and I get to do it 4 more times! Healthy food is really at the forefront of many of our lives and food companies know this and are catering to that with fabulous coupons.

  29. @Dash – you beat me too it. I was going to mention couponmom.com as well. I am in flux right now with my living situation, so I haven’t been keeping up, but this seems like the easiest method. Why keep a database, when someone else is already doing that, as well as matching the deals!

  30. I’ve never seen coupons like #10 is describing- but I buy my milk and yogurt at the dairy anyway.

    I use couponclippers dot com for specific items I know I’ll use then just pull out from a pile the ones I’ll be using that week.

  31. I use an old recipe box with dividers by category. These days though I don’t seem to use many coupons as they seem to be primarily for highly processed foods.

  32. I use coupons every week on double coupon day (only up to 5 so sometimes I go twice). When General Mills runs their promotion of buy however many cereals and get $10 off at the register and free milk and now free eggs, figuring those savings in, with coupons I’ve gotten boxes of cereal, for as low as .39 cents a box. I do almost all my cooking from scratch, but when convenience things are on sale and I can get them very cheaply with a coupon, I buy them. On very busy days adding a Rice-a-roni to the dinner’s rice or even using a Hamburger Helper (usually the ones for fettucine Alfredo stuff since I’m not that good at making white sauces and my kids love them) can make dinner much faster and easier, if not the best tasting. I also use coupons to get things like crackers and cookies really cheap (I seldom pay more than $1 per package). This is for when we have unexpected guests and I can whip out a quick appetizer or at least cheese and crackers, or to send to my son’s friends houses with him so the other parents don’t have to provide everything these teen boys eat. And last week, I got products for a little over a dollar a box and the promotion came with a free deli roasted chicken. And I agree with the thrill of watching the register receipt go down!

  33. I have found that coupons are not worth the effort in most case for me. When I did use coupons only one or two got used a month because most of the Items I could get cheaper in the store brans or a different bran that was on sale then later the coupons I was saving, expired. I still save a few coupons but I don’t persue them like I use to.

  34. I “bought” over $3,000 in merchadise from Rite Aid in April and to date in May. I ended up paying $33, yes $33 after coupons and rebates. What a deal! I get things we use and if we can’t use it and it’s free, I donate it! It’s easy and fun!

    I organize doing this — file inserts by dates! there is almost no time involved as I go to my favorite sites and they list the date of the coupon. I then go to that insert and cut out ONLY what I need. NO wasted time. I keep a small coupon box for those I get other ways and have that organized by type. I don’t buy junk, or processed and I have $1,000′s of dollars every year….all by cutting a few pieces of paper out.

  35. You guys need to get with the times! mom’s don’t clip coupons – they file them by date and let other websites do the matchups for them! then you clip (or print or load to your card) what you need when you need it. Just google “coupon matchups for Safeway week of 5/12″ and you will learn a whole new system! they tell you what’s on sale and where to find the coupon for it. Internet printables and why. It’s a whole new world for busy mom’s (&Dads). check out http://www.bargainblessings.com/search/label/Couponing%20101 for deals in colorado – or google coupon matchups in “your city” – unbelieiveable!! these blogs always have a “new to couponing” section. little effort – big savings!!!

  36. A couple of weeks ago I spent $17 & received 4 full bags of groceries at Publix. My savings with coupons was $25. The first time I spent less than I saved! My husband is a big fan especially since we’re using every dollar to become debt free next year. :)

  37. Maybe its because I live in Alaska and there are not many choices here. But in the Sunday Newspaper, there is usually only advertisements telling you to use your store card for discounts. I rarely see coupons anymore unless its a manufactures coupon and it came with a prior purchase of the product or the store is local and doesn’t have a computer system in for scanning bar-codes. The the coupon is usually very general, such as purchase over 300 dollars and get 15 percent off the entire purchase.

  38. I use an old U-gi-oh! collector binder I picked up for about $1 at a thrift store. I throw out any coupon that is something we don’t normally use. My kids are picky, and usually even the kid-oriented things can be a waste.

  39. I am in Canada so there are not as many coupons and no Walgreens. I get the following things for free (or near to it) if I collect my coupons and use them during a great sale: whole wheat pasta, healthy choice pasta sauce, all the candles, frangrance sprays or smelly stuff I could ever want…I give it to friends, Saran wrap, tin foil, coffee, soup (for lunch and recipes) and cereal from now to Kingdom Come.

  40. Indeed, I have lamented about coupons. I need to take a clue and simplify, simplify, simplify. I’m glad I haven’t gotten sucked into getting stuff just because it’s free.

    I think there can be a real benefit for many people in using coupons, especially since these days coupons come from many places – newspapers, the internet, magazines, the mail… I’ve explored lots of options over time, and slowly I’m finding what works for me.

  41. I use coupons from the internet, mail, grocery stores and newspapers. We find that we can usually save from 35 to 60 percent each shopping trip depending on our grocery needs. It’s made a huge difference in our budget. We get to save more using coupons plus usually have a full pantry. My husband and I spend about an hour each week to do the shopping list and clip the coupons. We also try to get as many free or almost free items that we can each week. Most “free” items are donated to a local food bank to help others. We also give them to people we know that are have hard times. We feel good knowing that we can help others while keeping a handle on the food budget.

  42. My issues with coupons is that they expire within just a month or less, sometimes! I don’t even bother with them if I know I won’t be buying the product for another month or two!

  43. Ok, I guess I have another issue: I also feel that the time it takes to ferret out coupons that might be cost-effective along with the printer ink to print them makes it of very little value to me. And I resent having to pay a membership fee to a coupon site! Bah humbug!!

  44. I don’t do any clipping until I need them. It saves so much time! I just write the date on the insert and file it away. Then I check CrazyCouponMommy.com for the weekly store coupon matchups and they tell me exactly which insert to find teh coupon in or where I can print it from. She also has a coupon database you can search thru in case you are looking for something in particular! Best of all, its all free. :)

  45. I know of a great place that everybody can give their extra coupons too. I am hoping more people can be aware of this great service project. There is a website called grocerycouponsforfree.org that has a list of military bases you can send your expired coupons to. They also have a list of food shelves that you can send your unexpired coupons to. Both are great service projects and grocerycouponsforfree.org does a great job in explaining these programs. I hope more people get involved with these types of programs. These coupons go a long ways to helping people reduce their grocery bill!

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