Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or other book of interest. Also available is a complete list of the hundreds of book reviews that have appeared on The Simple Dollar over the years.
I find couponing blogs like Stockpiling Moms to be fascinating places. Most of the time, they’re devoted intensely towards one thing: listing a huge assortment of coupons and discounts.
While they can be incredibly useful, such sites often miss out on presenting a larger picture of how such coupons and discounts fit into one’s personal finances. After all, even if you’re using a coupon, you’re still usually spending some money, you’re spending time and energy getting the items, you’re giving up space storing the items, and then there’s the issue of whether or not you even need the item or not. All of these are relevant concerns when you’re thinking about buying an item and I often find them at least as important as the latest deals at CVS.
That larger picture is the focus of Savvy Saving, written by the two people behind Stockpiling Moms, Melissa Jennings and Shelley King. The book focuses on being a guide to putting couponing and deal-finding to proper use as a component of a frugal lifestyle.
The authors use the term “stockpiling” to describe a process that I’ve often heard called “extreme couponing.” In other words, the opening chapter lays out the techniques needed to wring every nickel from coupons, store flyers, unadvertised deals, and so on. One of the biggest keys for them is tossing brand and store loyalty out the window. While I can largely agree with them on store loyalty, I’ve learned the hard way that completely ignoring the brand of garbage bag you’re buying can often end in complete disaster with trash all over your kitchen because of the flimsy cheap garbage bag you just got a great “deal” on. Use store and brand loyalty with some sense about how you’re actually going to use the products you purchase.
For Jennings and King, one key part of all of this is collecting the coupons and, perhaps just as importantly, staying ahead of them. This means keeping them organized in some fashion (they discuss several options), keeping the old ones weeded out, and incorporating new ones on a regular basis. The authors seem to advocate a weekly couponing routine, where you extract new coupons from flyers and the internet, integrate them into your organizing system, and get rid of old coupons.
Avoid couponing with your children. Avoid shopping alone at night, because you’re often distracted by the need for focus when shopping, traversing the parking lot, and so on. Remember that when you’re using a pile of coupons, you waited in line and have the right to use those coupons. If the cashier gives you a problem, ask to speak to a customer service rep or a manager.
The more organized you are about how you store stuff, the less time you’ll have to spend finding the items you need and the fewer items you’ll have to toss out because they went to waste. The authors describe a detailed cataloguing system so that you can easily find items based on when you’re going to use them, such as a “breakfast” list that says what the item is, where it’s located, and when it will expire. This is the type of thing that requires a lot of up-front work but is well worth it when you’re actually using it in the heat of the moment.
Monthly Menu Planning
The authors advocate planning meals by the month, which is a great idea if a lot of your meals rely on frozen items (such as flash-frozen vegetables and frozen meats) and packaged items. It’s very difficult to do this kind of meal planning with fresh items, however. One solution is to leave a few spots in the monthly meal plan empty, with the assumption that you’ll plug in meals that use lots of fresh vegetables. Another solution is to prepare lots of meals in advance using fresh items, then freeze them and use those frozen meals as part of a future month’s meal plan.
One big part of the authors’ couponing routine is to utilize the coupons, flyers, and reward programs at the major drugstore chains – Rite Aid, Walgreen’s, and CVS. By being patient and stacking these offers together, you can often get health and beauty products for free. While this can certainly be a great system, my experience with it has been that it takes a lot of work, you have to accumulate a lot of toiletries in order to stay ahead, and you often wind up with items that aren’t as good as others. If you’re willing to accept the drawbacks, then drugstores can be well worth the effort.
This is an extremely brief how-to on creating a family budget, not too dissimilar to my own Budgeting 101 plan. The key thing to always keep in mind with a budget is that it’s supposed to help you identify where you’re spending too much in areas where you can control it and make reasonable changes.
Eating out can be a part of a family’s budget – and it’s a budget element that can be easily couponed. The authors discuss many options for cutting down on the cost of eating out, from using things like Groupon and Restaurants.com to simply planning on eating out on “kids eat free” nights at local restaurants. If planned well, eating out does not have to be a particularly costly option if only done once in a while.
One of the challenges of couponing is that many of the coupons are for items that aren’t exactly healthy. A huge discount on Oreos isn’t exactly a bargain in the overall scheme of things. The easiest way to live healthy while couponing is to simply ignore and avoid coupons for items that aren’t healthy. You don’t need Doritos in your home, so why coupon for them? This is right in line with the type of coupon “filtering” that I advocate, where you don’t just go for the biggest bargains but apply some common sense to the situation.
Living “Naturally” Frugal
Hand in hand with healthy couponing is sticking to a tactic of more “natural” living by doing things like avoiding paper plates and cups (sticking with actual dishes instead) and buying clothes from consignment shops and secondhand stores instead of always buying new. Reducing, reusing, and recycling is a natural money saver and it works well as part of one’s money-saving repertoire.
Stockpiling for the Holidays
The authors suggest doing what I consider to be a post-holiday tradition. Buy all of your wrapping paper and Christmas decorations a few days after Christmas and keep it all in a particular place until next year’s holidays roll around. This way, you can catch the huge post-Christmas deals on such items in a sensible way. I also use things like reversed brown paper bags as gift wrapping.
What to Do with Your Savings
If you’re saving all of this money, what are you going to do with it? The biggest mistake you can make is allow the saved money to inflate your lifestyle in other areas. Instead, keep track of what you’re saving and use that extra money to directly pay off debts or save for something big and vital like a house down payment.
Is Savvy Saving Worth Reading?
The advice in this book is fantastic stuff if you’re looking to learn how to really integrate couponing and bulk buying into your financial situation. It can save you a lot of money and this is a really approachable and thorough guide to doing just that.
The only complaint I have – and this is more of a complaint about ultra-couponing in general – is that it assumes that all garbage bags and toothpaste and flour and other items are created equal. That’s just simply not the case. I’ve found time and time again that when I score the lowest price with coupons on an item regardless of brand, I often wind up with odd-smelling deodorant that doesn’t keep me dry when I exercise or trash bags that rip out of the bottom if they’re even close to full. The inconvenience of an awful product costs me far more than I ever save buying a good one.
I use these strategies, but I restrict them strongly by what’s recommended in publications like Consumer Reports and by some common sense.