Making the Cut: The Art of Couponing

You’ve seen them in grocery chains – flipping through their 3-ring binders, shuffling through an accordion file, or sifting through an envelope for bits of paper that will save them cold hard cash.  With a list in one hand and often a calculator in the other, these are the couponers, and they’re on a mission.  You can learn a lot from these thrifty consumers; they know that to effectively save money you must first learn to effectively spend it.

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A recent press release from Inmar, the nation’s leading promotion transaction settlement provider, states that annual coupon use is on the rise for the first time since 1992 and coupon distribution hit the highest level recorded since 1988.  For the first time in seventeen years, consumers used more coupons than they did the year before, with 3.3 billion consumer packaged goods coupons redeemed – that’s a whopping 27% increase over the previous year.  This means that two-thirds of American shoppers are cutting coupons more frequently, seeking out low price over convenience, and emphasizing saving over spending.

Did you know that you can cut your grocery bill in half simply by making the system work for you?  (1) Buy what you need when it’s on sale, (2) Capitalize on techniques of doubling or even tripling coupons, and (3) Stockpile items so that you don’t have to make emergency runs when things are not on sale.  This involves a little prep work on your part, but the biggest commodity involved is time.  According to the The Wall Street Journal, an hour spent clipping coupons can yield $100 in savings.  That’s a pretty decent return on a job you can do in your pajamas while watching TV.  And although individual amounts may seem small, someone who saves just $25 per week will pocket that extra $100 per month, or $1200 per year.

“Using coupons effectively requires you to be diligent, organized and methodical.  But if you invest a little time, you can save a lot of money,” says Sue Stock, retail reporter for The News & Observer.  Stock devotes part of every week to a blog ( she’s maintained since 2007 which answers questions about retail in the Triangle and also shares her savvy shopping expertise.  Stock also teaches two N&O-sponsored couponing classes per year which cover equal parts couponing, rebates, and meal planning.

Ten years ago, Faye Prosser developed the Smart Spending System ( when she left her job to become a stay-at-home mom.  Cutting her family income in half meant learning how to save money and stretch remaining dollars as far as possible.  Within six months, she had found her niche and was following her motto, “It’s your money – spend it wisely!”  Today, Faye shops for a family of four and is teaching others how to live more comfortably within their means.  She has become a successful author, instructor, and professional blogger as WRAL’s Smart Shopper (

Prosser does most of her shopping at Harris Teeter or Lowes Foods.  This is surprising to some because their prices can be steeper.  “Both stores are actually very competitive with their sale prices,” says Prosser.  “But when you match a sale price with a coupon, that is then doubled (or sometimes tripled), your savings become exponential.  They cannot compare with your ‘low price leaders.’”

To maximize on your trip to the supermarket, you must first understand how the process works and familiarize yourself with store coupon policies.  For our purposes, we will focus on local grocers – although there are savings to be found in just about every retail market.

Lowes Foods Will double the face value of a manufacturer coupon up to 99¢ every day. Will double up to 20 coupons per day; will double 4 multiples; store will occasionally triple coupons. Will accept competitor’s coupons for $ off your total order; will not accept those for specific products nor internet printables for BOGOs.
Harris Teeter Will double the face value of a manufacturer coupon up to 99¢ every day. Will double up to 20 coupons per day; will double 3 multiples; store will triple coupons ~4x/year. Will accept competitor’s coupons for $ off your total order; will not accept those for specific products nor internet printables for BOGOs.
Kroger Will double the face value of a manufacturer coupon up to 50¢ every day. Varies by store. Will accept internet printables (3/transaction), but not for BOGOs.
Food Lion, Kmart, Target, Walmart Do not double coupons. Stores accept coupons at face value. Food Lion will accept internet printables.
Walmart will not accept competitor’s coupons, but does price match.  Their policy states that the use of 40+ coupons requires manager approval, and they also accept internet printables.

For more, please visit store websites or their customer service desk.

According to Stock, Food Lion is currently installing coupon kiosks in their stores.  Similar to the CVS kiosks, you scan your loyalty card and the machine will deliver coupons with product discounts or an offer for dollars off your total purchase.

If you are looking for a warehouse membership, Prosser recommends BJ’s because they honor coupons.  They accept their own store and manufacturer coupons on the same product – and if you buy a multi-pack of something where you can see (for example) three barcodes, they will take three coupons for that item.

Know the Lingo

Smart Source, Red Plum, and Proctor & Gamble are the most common manufacturer coupon inserts you find in your weekly newspaper.  Blinkies are in-store coupon dispensers with the red flashing lights.  Peelable coupons on product packaging are called Peelies.  And those coupon strips that get printed at checkout are called Catalinas.

‘Triple coupons,’ offered occasionally in our market by Harris Teeter and Lowes Foods, are a special window of opportunity where the store will triple the face value of a manufacturer coupon up to 99¢.  ‘Super Doubles’ are when the store doubles the face value of a manufacturer coupon up to $1.98.  Couple these deals with an ongoing store sale, then layer a store coupon with a manufacturer coupon (which then either doubles or triples), and you’ve got some real savings.  “Harris Teeter has been tripling or super doubling every single month since January 2009,” says Prosser.

“By using triple coupon sales as a chance to stock up on nonperishable items, you can save yourself an extraordinary amount of money,” says Stock.  She will buy things like rice, soup, peanut butter, mustard and the like during the triples window.  “Often, I can get those items either totally free or for a very small percentage of what they would normally cost. This saves cash in the long-run and allows you to use your weekly shopping trips to pick up meat, veggies and just the really good bargains of the week.”  Shoppers cannot live on triples alone, of course, as selection can often be depleted by other couponers.  But every little bit helps.

Getting Started

So where do you find coupons?  Your local Sunday paper, magazines (Gourmet, Cooking Light, Good Housekeeping, and Walmart’s All You are good choices), manufacturer and coupon websites, friends and family, product packaging (Peelies, or those sometimes printed on the inside of boxes), the internet, mailers, Blinkies, Catalinas, the back of receipts, in the phonebook, on shopping bags, via coupon swaps (through work, church, or, in-store tear pads, or even by sending a complimentary email to your favorite product manufacturer.

Manufacturer coupons can be used only once.  Store coupons, or those printed on store flyers, are scanned at checkout and often returned to you so you can use them again before the expiration date.  It is a common practice to layer store and manufacturer coupons for greater savings on the same item.  As register coupons (or Catalinas) are both a store and manufacturer coupon, you cannot couple them with anything else.

Brand loyalty can often get in the way of real savings, so be flexible.  Store brands will save you twenty percent off the regular price of most national brands.  Stay focused and resist impulse buying.  The key to the system is buying what’s on sale in a given week.  “Your goal – as a smart shopper – is to get in, get those loss leaders, and get out,” says Prosser.  Stock up on the non-perishable deals stores run every single week to build your reserves (3-4 of an item), thereby offsetting the cost of your healthy produce and high quality, high protein meats.

Getting Organized

Ever get to the checkout and have the cashier say, “Do you have any coupons?”  Of course you do, but they’re in your car, or on the kitchen table at home, or in your other purse.  Wouldn’t it be nice to know where all those coupons were and have them handy?  Whether it’s a binder or some other sort of filing method, find a system that works for you and stay on top of it by updating weekly and removing expired coupons once a month.

Stock and Prosser both recommend creating a price notebook that allows you to know the best prices so you can effectively stock up when items go on sale.  You can’t build a stockpile over night, however.  It will take some time, so start by making a list of your families top 10 favorite items (things you buy regularly), and then record the lowest price you paid for each.  Include the date, store, item, brand, size, the price you paid, and unit price to ensure that you’re getting a fair comparison from store to store.  To calculate the cost per unit, simply take the total cost of your item and divide by the number of units.

In doing this, you become a more educated shopper – and you can figure out what some of the sales cycles are. Many items go on sale every 4-6 weeks in a regular, repeating cycle. If you know what the cycle is, you can buy enough when it’s cheap to last you between sales.

Meal Planning

Now that you’re organized, make a shopping list based on what’s already in your house and what is on sale.  Plan at least five dinners per week, and set a goal of $5 per dinner (for the entire meal based on a family of 4).  Not every meal will fall into that category, but that’s your goal.  Batch-cook or use your crockpot and freeze one or two dinners for another week to add variety.

Letting the Experts Work for You

In our area, you don’t even have to deal shop as Stock and Prosser do the work for you and then post weekly lists on their blogs.  For more on how to get started and what’s on sale, please visit them online.  You will also find specifics on store promotions (including the Food Lion MVP Shopper’s Companion online coupons, Lowes Foods Fresh Rewards, Harris Teeter’s e-VIC weekly online deals, and Kroger digital and e-coupons) as well as reward and instant-rebate offers (like CVS Extra Care Bucks, Walgreens Easy Saver program, and Rite Aid Rebates).

And if you subscribe to the N&O and want extra copies of the coupon sections each Sunday (but don’t want to buy extra papers), call them and they will add extra coupon sections to your paper for $1 per set.

There are literally tons of online sites to help you save money on everything from diapers to travel expenses.  You don’t have to frequent all of them – just pick the ones that are right for your family.  Many also include blogs and social media connections to make them easier to follow.  Here’s Cary Living’s best of the best for grocery deals:


Novice-Intermediate-Pro  |  Family of 3  |  Not organized & needs help getting started

“I always have good intentions of clipping,” saysRaleigh’s Sarah Simon, “but somehow it never gets done.”

In her life before children, Simon was “pretty good” about clipping, organizing, and making a shopping list.  Once in the store, however, keeping tabs on what you need, how many fat grams it contains, what its expiration date may be, and what its coupon restrictions are is tough with a toddler in tow.

“Some tips on how to organize the coupons would be a great first step,” says Simon.

Sarah’s Tip:  To help with organization, look into putting a shopping app on your phone.


Novice-Intermediate-Pro  |  Family of 5  |  Saves 25%+ on her grocery bill

“Using coupons makes me feel like I’m doing all I can to help our family budget,” says Cary’s Kate Scattergood.  “It’s not an issue of ‘can I be the best couponer in the world,’ it’s about taking control, feeling good, and a little moment of accomplishment.”

Scattergood attributes meal planning to part of her shopping success.  She looks for bulk items, staples, meats, lunchbox stuff, pet food, paper goods, shampoo and personal care items.  She will purchase non-coupon items when tracking down necessities and family favorites.

“I noticed coupons in the Sunday paper when I was first married – looked like free money to me!” she says.  “My personal best at the checkout was $78 – and the manager had to come approve my awesome savings!”

Kate’s Tips:  Shop BJ’s with coupons for extra savings; read store flyers every week; join loyalty programs; plan ahead, but don’t drive yourself nuts as it’s easy to save real money without being a pro.


Novice-Intermediate-Pro  |  Family of 2  | Saves 75% on her grocery & drug store bills

“I do not pay full price for anything,” says Dana Ginsburg ofHollySprings.  “I started in my 20’s, just trying to save a little money, and it escalated from there.”  In addition to food and drug savings, Ginsburg is also a retail store and restaurant couponer.  “We usually eat out for half price, and I don’t buy anything online without a coupon code,” she says.

“At CVS, they often pay me to shop.  I have ‘bought’ over $70 worth of goodies and had them pay me $20 in the end.  Now that’s coupon planning at its best!”

Dana’s Tips:  Once you are in the store, it can be overwhelming; plan your trips before you go using the sale flyers, internet, and your coupons – that way, you are in and out.

Cary Living
Jul/Aug 2010