In the past, I’ve mentioned a lot of disparate facts about how we collect and use coupons, so I thought it might be worthwhile to show off our entire coupon organization system so it’s clear how we do it. Because of this system, the only time we really invest in coupons is a bit of spare time during Sunday breakfasts, some late evening idle internet surfing, and a few extra minutes when assembling our grocery list, and we often save $30 at the store because of coupons. Our system is not one of those complex and obsessive ones that tries to squeeze out every nickel – it’s merely the methodology we’ve found that gives us the maximum bang for the buck.
Here’s how we maximize our coupon value, from top to bottom.
Meet Our Coupon Binder
The best place to start is the centerpiece of the system: our coupon binder.
It’s actually just a very cheap photo album with clear pockets and a binder that allows you to move pages around as you wish. Whenever we have a new coupon to add, we just toss it in the binder in the appropriate place.
Appropriate place? We sort our coupons by one criteria and one criteria alone: by expiration date. This makes it easy for us to quickly find and eliminate the expired coupons and also keep tabs on the coupons that are getting close to expiration.
Here’s a peek inside the binder.
As you can see, the coupons each have a pocket to themselves, so we can quickly flip through the book and find what we want. We keep multiples of the same coupon in the same pocket. Thumbing through reams of coupons is a giant waste of time and drastically reduces the cost-effectiveness of the coupon clipping time investment.
The Coupons We Clip
We have a pretty simple set of criteria for clipping a coupon.
First, is it something we’re sure we’ll use? If so, we’ll clip any coupon for that item.
Second, does the coupon have a face value of $1 or more? These are coupons that are usually used as part of a large marketing campaign for a specific product and are ones that are often paired with a sale in the store within the next month or two (the one month coupon strategy at work). If we might use the product (in other words, we use that type of product, but not necessarily that brand), we’ll clip it. It’s because of this that I’m currently using Herbal Essences shampoo and Old Spice body wash in the shower, for example – I wouldn’t normally buy those brands, but clipping big discount coupons and waiting for a sale made the items very cheap.
Third, is the coupon for an item that’s often cheap or on sale anyway? A good example here is breakfast cereals (which is why you see the Honey Nut Cheerios coupon in the binder above) – they’re usually low in price and regularly go on sale, too.
If a coupon hits one of these categories, we clip it. This means our binder is often close to full and we often toss about half of the coupons we clip, but the other half really save us a lot.
Where Do We Get Coupons?
On Sunday mornings, I usually clip coupons from the Sunday paper at the breakfast table while everyone’s eating breakfast. I’ll just quickly go through the coupon sections, cut the coupons we want, and save any store flyers I see (they’re important later). This is a minimal time investment, because we’d all be sitting there eating breakfast anyway, and it’s a good opportunity to teach the value of living frugally to the kids.
If the Sunday coupons are exceptionally good, I’ll go to the local convenience store really early on Monday morning and ask the cashier to let me pillage coupon sections out of the old Sunday papers. I’ll score ten papers’ worth of flyers and cut the goodies out of them the following Sunday.
On lazy evenings, my wife or I will do some web surfing, finding coupons at places like Coupons.com and Target.com. The latter is especially nice because you can use the Target.com coupons and manufacturer coupons at the same time on purchases at Target, so you can get stuff for free sometimes if you plan carefully.
If I identify some truly exceptional coupons (for example, not long ago I had coupons for $2 off a jug of V-8 Fusion – that’s the 100% juice V-8), I might hit up a coupon broker to send me a bunch of copies of that coupon. I just Google “coupon broker” and then pay someone else a few cents to dig through their flyers and clip the coupons for me.
That’s all we do. It takes very little time in a given week to collect all the coupons and toss them in the binder.
The Pre-Shopping Ritual
Each Friday evening (or sometimes Saturday evening), we’ll assemble a grocery list. We usually make up a meal plan for the next week, make sure we have everything we need for all of those meals, and then check on the status of our household staples (toiletries, milk, flour, etc.). This gives us the backbone of our list.
A note on the meal plan We usually base our meal plan on the flyer from the local Fareway – our preferred grocery store. We get the Fareway and Hy-Vee flyers (the two main local grocery chains) in the mail each week and then use them to prepare a meal plan, usually preferring the Fareway flyer (because it’s basically lower on almost everything, as we discovered after some careful pricebooking). We just identify the fresh items on sale in the flyer and then try to base meals around those fresh items.
We also go through the flyers and look for obvious loss leaders in the flyers. What items are on sale that are low enough to seem genuinely surprising? We try to match these up with coupons we have, so that if we add an extra item to the list, we’re adding something that’s only going to cost pennies and is sometimes free.
We then pull out all of the coupons that match up with items on our list and then put them in a few pages at the back of the binder for easy access when shopping.
The extra time added to our shopping planning by coupons is maybe ten minutes, tops. We put probably half an hour total into our shopping preparation, but our whole preparation plan saves us about $50 per grocery shopping trip, so it’s time well spent.
While In The Store
We take our coupon binder with us when grocery shopping, but we primarily just stick to our list. We do keep our eyes open for any unadvertised in-store specials – every once in a while, we’ll find one that matches up well with a coupon in our binder and thus we grab it immediately. Aside from this, we just follow the shopping list, then pull out all of our coupons from the back pages of the binder at the checkout aisle.
Our time actually in the store is vastly reduced compared to the time we’d spend without any preparation. The time savings here mitigates the time investment made with the extra planning.
Is It Worth It?
Two weeks ago (the last “normal” week around here that didn’t involve a weekend camping trip or other chaos), I kept track of the time spent with couponing. If you count the time spent at the breakfast table clipping coupons as time spent just couponing, we spent 23 minutes on coupons alone that week, and an extra 14 minutes on preparing a grocery list and meal plan, giving us a total of 37 minutes spent planning our weekly shopping trip. When in the store, we saved approximately fifteen minutes because we had a tight, clear shopping list to follow, so our total time lost to the coupons was roughly 22 minutes for the week.
The savings from the coupons alone was $21 on our final receipt, a slightly below average week. That means our “wage” for clipping coupons with this system was $57.27 an hour after taxes for the given sample week.
In reality, our savings from investing the time to properly plan our shopping was significantly higher than that, even. By sticking to a shopping list, we avoided many impulse buys. By planning our meals in advance in accordance with the fresh items on sale, we pocketed even more savings on our food purchases. These are additional savings that I’m not even attempting to quantify, but both are real and quite tangible.
Couponing is clearly worth it in our case. The relatively small time investment it adds to our shopping is well worth the real cash savings we realize from our system.
Let me address a few of the usual coupon complaints.
Couponing is stupid because you’re not buying fresh, healthy food. We rarely use food coupons at all, and when we do, they’re usually for breakfast cereals like Cheerios, frozen vegetables, yogurt, and occasionally ice cream. The vast majority of our coupon clipping is for hygiene items (like shampoo, soap, razors, etc.) and other household items (like dishwashing detergent, etc.).
For example, if you look at the picture of our coupon book above, you’ll see six coupons: one frozen yogurt coupon, one Cheerios coupon, one Ziploc baggie coupon, a toothpaste coupon, a body wash coupon, and a facial cleanser coupon. Not exactly a big pile of junk food – and we still save a lot at the store. Our actual meal planning is based around the fresh produce that’s on sale that week.
Couponing is stupid because it’s not cost effective and is a waste of my time. We get $57.27 an hour after taxes for something we can largely do in our pajamas at the Sunday morning breakfast table. If you think that’s a waste of your time, be my guest. I consider it a pretty effective use of my time.
Couponing is stupid because it’s all about consumerism. I don’t really care that much about consumerism if I can get soap for a quarter. I’m not seeking the latest products – I’m seeking cheap. If I can get cheaper quality items without the coupons, the coupons go in the trash. If you want to label that consumerism, feel free, but I consider it a pretty frugal methodology.