Consumer IQ

The Two-Week Experiment in Extreme Couponing

“Extreme couponing” has to be a candidate for 2011’s most popular catchphrase. If you’ve seen the TLC show, you know what I’m talking about. Some of those reality TV coupon-cutters’ strategies are too die-hard for me, but I figured I would take what I’ve been watching on Season 2 and apply it to my own life. If all it takes to find a good deal is cutting up the newspaper circulars and printing out the Internet versions, what did I have to lose?

After two weeks, I learned many good lessons in spending and saving – and a few tough ones. Primarily, extreme couponing takes a lot of time, more time than I  — and many people with full-time jobs – are willing to spend. Second, to be an extreme couponer, you need to be willing to store items for a rainy day (meaning you need a lot of storage space for items you won’t be using for a while). I’ve got a small house, and my closets and pantry are already maximized, so forget that third jumbo pack of paper towels.

However, I learned a lot about timing, patience and organization, and how they all fit into the scheme of spending and saving wisely. Here are a few tips I can share on how to be a slightly less extreme coupon shopper, and still save a good deal on your grocery bill.

Start somewhere – and start slow

On my first day, a Sunday, I bought my local Sunday newspaper, plus two more, and searched a few popular websites, including Coupons.com and Coupon Network. Then, I spent hours flipping through and clipping all the coupons for every store. But after Googling each store’s nearest location and trying to make a map and schedule,  I gave up. I learned I shouldn’t try to clip every coupon and visit every store. It’s not worth getting overwhelmed by trying to grab each and every deal. You’ll get burn out, get frustrated, or worse, end up spending too much money.

So, I started by setting myself a budget for how much money I would spend total for the two weeks. Then I selected one store, my regular supermarket, and armed myself for my first visit with a few coupons for things I knew I needed, and gave myself the goal of building up from there.  The following week, I used a binder to organize my coupons from A-Z, and kept specific track of the coupons with upcoming expiration dates so I wouldn’t miss out on a good deal.

Know your stores

It’s not enough to have the coupons — it’s about knowing how to use them (and where).  I learned that my store allows double coupons and using more than one coupon per product, but not all stores do (especially after the TLC show craze caught fire). I also joined my supermarket’s loyalty program, which was free to join and offered regular discounts in every aisle, from fresh produce to my favorite Pepperidge Farm cookies. That got me coupons printed on every receipt, all of them based on my past purchases, and therefore mostly relevant for future shopping trips.

Know what a good deal is

Compare apples to apples. The way to find out if I’m getting a good deal is to compare the per unit price. Do this by dividing the price by the number of items in the package. For example, with diapers you would divide the listed price of $27.99 by the 192 diapers in the box. That comes out to 14 cents per diaper. Sound like a good deal? Do that with other comparable diapers in that aisle, and you be the judge. And when something good is on sale, it’s wise to stock up. Get enough to last you until the next sale so you won’t have to run out and buy something at full price. Of course, that works best with items that have a long expiration date. I wouldn’t go crazy on the post-Halloween sales on pumpkins and candy and clean out the aisles – stomachaches and a lot of spoiled food in the garbage bin might be the ultimate reward.

Anticipate sales and plan accordingly

Even after just two weeks of reading the grocery store fliers, I started seeing a pattern at each store, and knowing when certain things went on sale. And as all extreme couponers recommend, don’t buy it if it’s not on sale, and remember to combine the sale with a coupon. If you do this for three months or more, you’ll be a pro at knowing which coupons to whip out  at what time. The most obvious times to save are during post-holiday sales. But I learned that January is a good time to stock up on Special K cereal and Lean Cuisine frozen meals (it’s NewYear resolution time, after all) as well as, ironically, Pepsi, chips, dips and other fatty foods (Super Bowl Sunday). The blog, Living Richly on a Budget has a list of grocery sales cycles and items that offer deep discounts on certain months.

Learn from your past purchases

My best bargain: Two jugs of Wisk detergent. It was on sale at my supermarket for $3.99. I had two of the $2 off coupons clipped from two newspapers, so I whipped those out. I already had detergent at home, but for $1.99 each for a non-perishable item I use on a regular basis, you betcha I’m going to buy it. My worst loss: I bought two boxes of Cheerios at my supermarket for $3 each, and saw later in the week that Walmart was selling them at $2.50 each. Not a big loss. There were many times I should have timed my shopping better or used a better coupon, but overall, I learned how to put together a better strategy for the next sale – and for shopping on a regular basis.

I know I’ll never whittle down $1,000 in groceries down to $50 like they do on Extreme Couponing and I’ll never save 60 to 75 percent a week on my grocery run (although I was overjoyed when I saved 36 percent on one trip). But it’s not worth getting frustrated that I’m not saving as much as they do on TV. After all, one can’t live on toothpaste and frozen dinners, alone.

The best way to approach extreme couponing is to do it with a sense of fun and excitement. It shouldn’t be a horrible chore that stresses you out. Enjoy the money you’re saving, don’t go overboard buying things you’ll never need, and take a break every so often – it’s okay to use coupons for just one store instead of 10. And reward yourself once in a while – it’s alright occasionally buy something you really enjoy at full price!

Vanessa Richardson is a freelance writer in San Francisco who writes about small business and personal finance.