Before you dust off those scissors…

Before you dust off those scissors…

So, yes. I’ve jumped into couponing with both feet. After the initial period of thrashing and drowning, I’m pretty much dry now… though I’m up to my knees in the stuffing that came out of my life preserver: coupons.

My brilliant friend Betsy at another NNY blog (though it will soon to be a Spanish blog, since the Army is moving her and her family – and two cats and one dog – to Spain) called Nomadic Charm made the brilliant suggestion that I offer steps on getting started in couponing.

So, before you get out your scissors, here are a few steps to getting your game plan ready:

Step 1 –Think about WHY you want to coupon

What do you hope to accomplish by spending hours and hours a week printing, cutting, and organizing your coupons, then shopping at every store in town? It is a LOT of work. If you have kids, you will need child care (either from your spouse/partner or someone from outside your family) or you will need a lot of patience, a saintly child and some very portable entertainment.

And for it to be worth your time, you have to be mentally and emotionally invested in the time commitment. And organized. Oh. My. Goodness. Do you have to be organized.

For some people it’s absolutely necessary to live on a very strict grocery budget. Sometimes it’s because a parent wants to be able to stay home with the kids. Some people are trying to get out of debt, or travel more often than their current budget allows. For some, it’s just a thrilling passtime. (YES! Couponing can be thrilling! Ask my friend, CeeCee, my frequent guest blogger. She is in her early 30s and doesn’t have kids. She coupons because she’s good at it, she has a very practical outlook when it comes to money, and because it’s a fun challenge for her.)

Step 2 (which – for us – coincides with Step 1) – Know your family’s needs (as well as your own!)

I spend all this time couponing because my son, Hunk, has a digestive disorder called FPIES which basically means he can’t have dairy or soy (and we also keep him gluten-free). We have to spend lots of money on “alternative” foods that are safe for him. Since most processed foods have dairy or soy (and most often BOTH), I can probably use half of the food coupons out there. Almost everything I buy has five or fewer ingredients. You’d think this would be cheaper, but, in fact, most food coupons are for pre-packaged foods we simply can’t give him. To keep my life a little less complicated, I try to cook for the whole family as often as possible, meaning I buy a lot of staple foods – meat, vegetables, herbs, spices, fruit and whole grains – and make everything from scratch.

Hunk enjoying a gluten, dairy, soy-free birthday cupcake (and a fun hairstyle) at his second birthday party this May.
We didn’t buy that cupcake at a bakery.

Therefore, my couponing focus is mainly in finding deals on household products and health and beauty items for my family. If I can save money on laundry detergent, diapers and dog food, I can buy the more expensive foods we need to keep Hunk (and the rest of us) healthy.

Still, there are still some great food deals that we can take advantage of. I don’t make my own pasta (yet), I don’t make my own bread (yet) and I still haven’t figured out where I have room for a cow, a chicken coop and a rice field. I go to the farmer’s market as often as possible (right up until December, after it’s been moved indoors and I’m one of the only people there), but I buy the vast majority of my produce, meat and baked goods at supermarkets.

Here are some of the foods I’ve purchased with the help of coupons, saving 50% or more off retail.
All but the Special K and the Greek yogurt are safe for Hunk.

Maybe your family goes through a lot of mouthwash (ours does).

Our mouthwash, toothpaste, shampoo and diaper cream “stockpile.” This mouthwash was about $3/bottle.
Retail for this size and type of Listerine – $5.99 to $6.99/bottle. We go through about a bottle/month.
This mouthwash will last us until the next sale. I mean. It BETTER.
Diaper cream was about 50% off retail at Tops with a coupon this week.

Maybe you have a family with five children and you need a lot of laundry detergent and stain fighters. Or maybe you have three kids in diapers and it seems like you’re spending your entire household budget on huge packages of them at Sam’s Club. Whatever your family needs, there’s a coupon out there for it and there’s a strategy to getting that item for much less than you normally pay.

Step 4 – Brush up on your prices

You might already have this knowledge. If not, and you live in the Watertown, NY, area, take a look at my Watertown Grocery Guide to get started.

As an example as to what can happen if you aren’t familiar with competitor prices, let me tell you what happened to me just this week:

I love French Vanilla creamer in my coffee every morning. I know it costs just over $2 for a 1 qt. Friendly Farms brand French Vanilla coffee creamer at Aldi.

But, hold on. I just printed off a couple of 55 cent International Delights creamer coupons. Should I buy a BRAND NAME creamer? (Tip: you can’t use more than one manufacturer’s coupon on a single item.)

Normally, International Delight French Vanilla coffee creamer at Price Chopper is $3.59/qt. Even though my coupon will double to $1.10 off, it still costs more and (to me) tastes similar to the Aldi stuff.

So I held on to my coupons. And guess what! This week at Tops, they had 16 oz. size International Delight coffee creamer on sale 3/$5. Tops also doubles coupons. That meant I could get $2.20 off three bottles of creamer, meaning I got 1/3 more creamer for less money. (If only I’d had a third coupon!!! That would have been legendary.)

Step 5 – Set some standards

Personally, I don’t clip coupons for sugary cereals. It’s too tempting because very frequently I can get boxes of Cookie Crisp and Golden Grahams and Reese’s cereal for under $1 a box. Yes, it would save us money to eat it (and Diva would be delighted), but it’s just a line I’ve drawn in the sand that I won’t let myself cross.

It’s not like I’m the mom sending her kid to a birthday party with strict instructions not to touch the cake, but I know I feel kinda yucky when I’m not eating very well, and I know from watching them after a big bowl of sugary cereal that they don’t feel great (or act great) after eating it either. I try not to get cereals with more than 9 grams of sugar per serving. That’s still a lot of sugar in some people’s minds, but I’m okay with it in moderation. (Like my coffee creamer, for instance. That’s sugary, yes. But I also don’t drink soda or eat candy.)

See? Diva and Hunk get to eat sugar too!

I have friends who don’t coupon because they only like certain foods and household products. That’s fine. But now that I’ve been doing this for a couple of months, I can tell you, there are coupons for SOMETHING you DO use. Coupons are not just for food (take it from me). I just printed some coupons for Neutrogena sunscreen. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t use their Dry Touch sunscreen. It’s fabulous. And wipes! Even if you use cloth diapers, (or go to the occasional bar-b-cue) you probably still use wipes, right? Pick even one thing to save money on and you’ll have more money for something else you need.

(By the way, this is where the idea for stockpiles comes in. If you love a certain product so much you don’t want to switch, save and hoard your coupons and wait for a sale. Ask your friends to look out for them and print them for you too. Get as many as you can. When that item goes on sale, buy enough to last six months. One of the things I learned from Extreme Couponers is that stockpiles are not just for looks. It’s the 21st century American version of salting meat or canning preserves or making hay when the sun shines.)

Step 6 – But don’t be afraid to try new things

I have always used either Tide or Era laundry detergent. Those really do seem to do the best job of cleaning our clothes without making them look 100 years old after four washes. But, that stuff ain’t cheap – even with coupons.

I finally broke down and tried a bottle of Wisk detergent a few weeks ago when I got it on sale at Price Chopper for $1.50/bottle. And you know what? It’s great! I have no complaints about how well it cleaned our clothes. (And Hunk gets DIRTY. See above photo.) It smells terrific too.

So, there, my friends is where I began. Believe me, I wouldn’t call myself a pro yet. I am still learning and I have made LOTS of mistakes. Give yourself time and a learning curve for figuring out if this is even worth your time.

Next up: where to FIND coupons!