Wednesday, January 16, 2008

the Art of Coupons

We are not extravagant people by any means. We -- as in I -- like gourmet food, which means I like more costly foods like avocados and goat cheese and parmigiana reggiano. I watched so much Food TV in my single life that I still see mostly repeats of my favorites.

We do not wear expensive clothing or buy expensive anything. In fact, we have deprived ourselves of just about everything we've needed or wanted in the last two years in order to make ends meet. We seriously thought there was no more room in our budget for anything.

Over time, I became miserable just worrying about what we needed and couldn't afford. We know that selling and moving is the No. 1 thing we can do to relieve our situation -- for many reasons, mainly to be closer together during the day.

Our situation is rooted and all aspects are interconnected in ways that are impossible to write easily.

I have always read lots of blogs because I am in love with bloggers of all types. As a writer, I find it inspirational to see other people writing about their life and what they care most about in life. Then again, as a journalist, I dig for people's stories anyway.

The result is that I have been everywhere in the blogosphere. It's where I go first to search for tried-and-true recipes or when I want to watch You Tube with my girls but don't know where to begin. Blogs are the real voice of human beings -- and as a newspaper girl, I can say that with an air of confidence.

During National Blog Posting Month in November, I stumbled upon a blog where the mom said she feeds her family of four on $35 per week. I was dumbfounded. I couldn't believe it.

I am not sure how it happened, but I ended up returning to her site, eventually.

And that is how I "met" Crystal at Money Saving Mom. And she is the reason I am now sold on living a frugal life.

Crystal is a devout Christian. And, while my we -- my husband and I -- do not define ourselves as Christians, I trust Crystal's words and even agree with much of what she has to write about on her Money Saving Mom blog.

What I have learned from Crystal -- and her readers -- is the Art of Coupons. She taught me this first by showing me the ins and outs of CVS Pharmacy. I have since mastered CVS and am now schooling myself in Walgreen's and Rite Aid.

What I learned quickly is that what I was spending on just shampoo and conditioner alone before November is the same amount that I can buy a cart full of items. But, it takes work and planning and ... gasp ... math!

I have spent roughly $30 at CVS for more than $150 worth of stuff in the last two months and our depleted stash of things like toilet paper and toothpaste suddenly are now sitting and waiting to be used. Same with shampoo and conditioner and dish detergent, including for the dishwasher. And, the best part is that if I do everything right, I will rarely have to spend another dime in that store again.

No, actually, the best part is that by learning the ropes of coupons -- the dos and don'ts -- I am now saving roughly 33 percent at other stores as well. Dan did the math.

The tricks are in what you do not know -- what the stores and manufacturers do not tell you.

Here's what I've learned so far: My Top 5 Ways to Save, which is unrelated to my 25 Ways to Save.

1. Collect Coupons: If you see a coupon in the store grab it. You don't need to use it that day or even in that store. Buy one Sunday newspaper for the coupons, but on the really good coupon days buy two and ask friends and relatives for theirs. It's not that difficult once you establish people.

2. Watch for sales: The trick to coupons is mixing manufacturer coupons with store coupons and store sales. So, if Jif Peanut Butter is on sale for .99 and you have a coupon for $1/1 -- free peanut butter. And, in our case, it's the kind we use. You can't beat free peanut butter. Once you see what is on sale this week, build a menu mixing those sale items and what you already have on hand. Oh, and in case you don't know it: You don't really have to buy X number of items to get the sale price. You can just buy one.

3. Push your luck: You have to take risks to save. The stores will not hold your hand so you have to ask questions, dig around, and be adventurous. This means if your store is having a Buy One Get One sale, and you have a Buy One Get One coupon, you will get both items for free. Or, if the sale is buy 3 for $3, you can use 3 coupons making the deal sweeter, or possibly free.

4. Watch for deals online: For Christmas, I got some great deals once I became a convert (ie: dissing the buy generic idea). Inexpensive magazine subscriptions, restaurant gift certificates and even a free tool set for Dan.

5. Sign up for freebies: There are sites all over the Internet offering free things. While they are not usually spectacular, some good ones do show up in the mail now and then. Last week I received a free Coffee-Mate creamer coupon. Our store had them on sale and mixed with another coupon, I got two for .50 cents. The coupons that come along with freebies are often better than the freebies.

Bonus Tip: Get over your brand loyalty. Seriously. Now. This doesn't mean buy things you don't need or want, but it's been worth it to me to try new products and learn that they are, indeed, very good, if not better than what we had been using. In fact, we stumbled upon the best toothpaste after getting it free at CVS. This toothpaste is so good Dan and I were squabbling over whether he could take a tube to work yesterday.

Now, obviously, you're going to have to pay full price for some things if you really want them -- like fresh produce, which I need to be as fresh as possible. But making radical changes like buying a whole pineapple instead of canned makes me feel great and I do think it lasts a bit longer -- or it should, anyway, except that it is so yummy that everyone eats it up quickly.

The bottom line for me is that I'm now schooled in the Art of Coupons. And, like I said, to really see a difference, it takes time -- all day some days and weeks, even, to see a real change in your buying habits. Crystal promises me that it will get easier, though. I'm holding her to that.

What matters most to me, though, is the confidence I now have about money and that is carrying over into the rest of our lives as well.

In my next post, I'll talk about budgeting and meal planning a bit more. These are very hard to do, indeed.

Thank you for visiting today.

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LauraC said...

Thank you so much for the tutorial and the links! I finally got my sister hooked on CVS last week.

I really liked reading different organization techniques on the links on Money Saving Mom. I will definitely be bookmarking that site and going back!

Here is the binder system I use. I made my own but learned the technique from the woman who runs this website. She did a free mini-seminar for our twins group:

village mama said...

Another great post!

Coupon for you, and some of what we do:

Email these guys to get on their snail mail list:, then twice a year they mail you a $5 coupon for their products, which means you get 2 FREE bags of pita bread!

We do not buy plastic sandwich bags; no paper towels; hang dry most clothes; accept EVERY FREE item that people offer - our philosophy is that it is a gift/abundance and the more you say YES the more gifts/abudance comes your way; ONLY rechargeable batteries; water & vinegar to clean everything; we do not own a microwave all food is fresh/from scratch.

I used to work at a pricey health food store, it blew my mind how much money people spent on processed frozen food. Sure it's 'organic' but ... most economical foods to cook vegetarian chili, vegetarian soups, vegetarian pizza (make your own sauce too), lentil stews, roasted veggies, baking snacks in bulk ie banana breads & muffins & cookies.

Anonymous said...

woo hoo. I hear a voice that could only be yours.

Mary P Jones (MPJ) said...

Interesting. Thanks for the tips.

bella said...

I love you.
Seriously, this just rocks.
I ama true nerd in this realm. And your words are like music to me.

Shelli said...

These are great tips. Unfortunately, I live so far away from stores like CVS that I would spend in gas what I would save with the coupons. Still, I'm going to see what I can do with coupons. You've inspired me.

Stacie said...

Ugg. I'm so bad at this and I need to get better.

Shelli said...

p.s. I wanted to add that I have finally realized if I put the coupon(s) in front of my credit card (in the same slot) in my wallet, THEN I'll remember to use it! :-)

village mama said...

I was trying to remember 'who' said it before I shared it...but my memory left with the birth of my first favourite save money quote, by some money saving/money generatomg genuis: 'the best way to save money is to fold it in half and put it back in your wallet' ;-)

Sarah said...

Great tips! I am a coupon maniac, too!!