17 Extreme Couponing Secrets From a Retired Couponer
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average family of four spends between $561.80 and $1,285 per month on groceries. This can put a massive strain on your budget and hinder your ability to achieve other financial goals.
My wife and I freed up a ton of cash each month by feeding our family of four on less than half of the USDA’s lowest guideline. How did we pull it off? We took part in the growing extreme couponing game.
You’ve likely seen the television shows about couponers rolling up to registers with multiple carts full of items and a 6-inch-tall stack of coupons, and thought there is no way you can handle that. Trust me, it’s not like how the made-for-TV couponers do it.
Here are 17 extreme couponing secrets from a former extreme couponer himself.
1. Turn Off the TV
OK, let’s get the big surprise out of the way first: Those extreme couponer shows are mostly fake. The deals are not real, the stores often played along or bent their rules for the show, and the mile-high stacks of coupons are often fakes.
In one case, the mother of a 16-year-old couponer had to pay the grocery store back for the 408 free rolls of toilet paper he got on an episode of “Extreme Couponing” using fraudulent coupons. Of course, the show didn’t let you in on that bit of information. Instead, viewers were left believing he walked out with a massive supply of TP on the cheap. Guess his mom got the crappy end of that deal.
Real extreme couponing isn’t really that extreme. Oftentimes, it involves a less-than-full cart of groceries worth $30 that you get for $5 or less. Sometimes, if you’re really good, you end up paying pennies or even get cash back, but those are rare moments.
2. Watch for Newspaper Deals
Sometimes, you’ve got to coupon to get the coupons. What I mean is couponing often requires several newspaper subscriptions, and that can get very expensive. Keep an eye on discount sites like Groupon or LivingSocial for deals on yearly newspaper subscriptions. My wife and I would generally wait for a $10-per-year subscription deal to roll around and get the maximum allowed per household, which was usually four subscriptions.
Alternatively, you can ask friends and family for their coupons. If you are feeling ambitious, you can also rummage through the big community recycling bins to get great scores. I did this and often scored up to 50 coupon inserts. Before diving in, make sure you get permission first, wear gloves and always leave the surrounding area cleaner than when you arrived.
3. Deal Stacking Does the Trick
The key to being an extreme couponer is stacking deals — the art of combining multiple deals to save even more money. Buy one, get one deals are great for deal stacking because they often create moneymaker deals — a moneymaker is when the value of the coupon is higher than the product’s price — because many stores allow you to use a coupon on the free item, which basically turns that coupon into cash.
For example, if you bought two $1 items on a BOGO deal and used two 75-cents-off coupons, you would end up with a cash overage of 50 cents you can use toward other items. Get four deals, and you have $2 in free money.
4. Do Your Math Before You Hit the Aisles
Never walk into the store blind. Make sure you make a list of all the items you’re hunting for, their price and the coupons you plan to use on them. After writing it all down, tally it up and put the total on the bottom of your list. This way, you can keep an eye on your total and make sure it matches the total you came up with or is at least close.
5. The Early Bird Gets the Deals
Some deals are so hot that certain couponers will clear the shelves, meaning they will take every last bit of stock and leave nothing for anyone else. First, do not be that shelf-clearing couponer — it’s just inconsiderate. Second, you can avoid this issue by being one of the first people at the store when the doors open on the first day of the deal. This allows you to score the number of deals you need without encountering the dreaded empty shelf.
6. Ask for a Raincheck
So, you didn’t take my advice on getting there early or someone was just a few seconds earlier than you and left the shelf empty. Don’t fret, just hit up the customer service desk and kindly request a raincheck. Also ask them to staple your coupon to the raincheck so you remember exactly what deal you were shooting for when the item is back in stock.
If you planned to use a store coupon that may expire before the item is back in stock, you can ask the customer service worker or a manager if you can use the coupon after its expiration date. In some stores, they will permit this, but the manager must make a note on the raincheck.
7. Grab That In-Store Flyer
The in-store flyer is often key to a successful couponing trip, but you may need a few copies to get the number of deals you’re looking for. In many grocery stores, these flyers are in a display at the entrance, so grab as many as you need on your way in.
Always put back any flyers you don’t use and let management know if you took the last few flyers. This way other couponers can grab ads, too.
8. Get Items You Actually Want
One of the bad raps extreme couponing gets is a gluten-intolerant person may end up with 25 useless loaves of bread. Yes, you will often end up with a lot of stuff you don’t need or want, but these unwanted deals are generally the moneymakers you can use to get the items you really want for free or cheap. My wife and I would get organic eggs and milk almost every other day for pennies using these tactics.
So, what do you do with the stuff you don’t want? There are two options. The noble thing is to donate it to a local food bank. Alternatively, you can resell the items at a fraction of their retail price.
Though there is an ethical gray area here, it is perfectly legal to sell items you bought with coupons, so long as you account for any profits on your yearly taxes and follow all state and local resale laws. What is illegal is selling coupons.
9. Binders Full of Coupons Are for Amateurs
An amateur couponer may think they need to clip every coupon and put it in a binder for future use. When my wife and I would see someone break out their coupon binder in the store, we would chuckle a bit and head to our aisle with our handful of well-organized coupons.
So, how can you coupon without hauling around a binder full of paper slips? There are plenty of couponing websites out there for all the major grocery stores. Use these sites to find the best deals and only clip the coupons you need for those specific deals. This will make your trips quick, easy and binder-free.
This doesn’t mean binders or organizers have no place in extreme couponing. My wife and I used a binder to separate our shopping trips. If we had multiple stores to go to or were spreading out our shopping over a few days, we would put our coupons in slots for those specific days or stores. What we never did was sift through our binder in the store or at the checkout line.
10. An Organized Couponer Is a Successful Couponer
Piggybacking off the binder issue, you also have to be an organized couponer to make the entire transaction silky smooth. Before heading to the register, find an aisle with no one in it — the magazine aisle was generally my go-to spot — and take the time to put all your coupons in order. Group them by product and separate the manufacturer coupons from the store coupons. When you hand these well organized coupons to the cashier, it’ll brighten their day just a bit.
And listen to feedback from the cashier. He or she may mention a better way to arrange them to make it easier. Tuck that nugget of information away for your next trip.
11. Become Fluent in Coupon Legalese
When you use a coupon, you agree to use it as intended and any other use could be fraud. No, there aren’t coupon police who will come get you for a simple mistake, but understanding the rules inside and out can help you get through the checkout process with minimal hiccups.
Some common arguments you’ll get from cashiers are them claiming coupons that read “one coupon per purchase” means you can only use one coupon for the entire transaction. It actually means you can use one coupon for every item you purchase that matches the coupon. So, if you buy five products, you can use five coupons. Study the legalese and use Google to make sure you understand what everything means.
12. Carry the Store’s Coupon Policy With You
We are all human, and cashiers sometimes forget or are unaware of the store’s coupon rules. It’s always a good idea to keep a copy of that store’s coupon policy on you in case you need to remind the cashier what the policy states. Remember, though, don’t whip that thing out like a professor about to educate someone. Simply pull it out and show it to the cashier to jog his or her memory. If the cashier continues to argue, talk to a manager.
If the manager backs the cashier, you may have to back down because many grocery stores allow managers to set their own coupon rules.
13. Think of Others Before Ringing Out
If you roll a cart overflowing with goodies and a fistful of coupons, make sure you think of the other customers. Let anyone behind you know you are using coupons, and they are free to get in front of you if they’d like. I cannot stress how rushed you and the cashier will feel as customers behind you roll their eyes and release sighs that are more like dull roars. And a rushed transaction is rarely a good one.
Save yourself the stress and aggravation by letting them cash out first.
14. Cash in on Those Side Deals
Grocery stores often have special offers for buying a certain dollar amount in groceries. Publix, my family’s preferred couponing destination, frequently offers $10 off a $50 gas card when you buy $100 or more in groceries.
Check out the fine print on these deals; if it says “before all coupons and discounts,” this means you can use coupons to lower the grand total to a fraction of its retail amount and still get the discount. That’s called the ol’ double dip.
15. Stick to Friendly Cashiers
Some cashiers simply don’t want to be there, and a couponer walking up with a cart full of groceries and a stack of coupons can make them downright miserable.
My wife and I made it a point to search for the cashier who seemed the friendliest. Look for one that smiles often and just seems like a happy person in general. A good attitude can make the stressful cashing-out process a far more pleasant one. Try to remember the friendly ones so you can visit their line every time.
Pro tip: Sometimes you come across a cashier who loves seeing those super-low totals after coupons. Stick to this one cashier like you do to that one barber who knows exactly how to cut your hair.
16. Watch the Cashier Like a Hawk, but Be Nice
We are all human, so mistakes happen. My wife and I almost always couponed as a team so one could load the groceries on the belt, have the coupons ready and repeatedly tell the kids “no candy bars” while the other watched the cashier scan everything.
Sometimes the cashier can make an honest mistake and just forget to scan a coupon, but sometimes they try to scan it and give up if it doesn’t scan right the first time. To them it’s just a $1 coupon, but to you it could make or break your entire haul.
If the cashier misses something, politely ask him or her to scan it again or manually enter it. If all else fails, ask for the manager. But most of all, be nice. An angry cashier is not helpful.
17. Don’t Forget the Cash Back
Coupons are great, but many new couponers leave money on the table in the form of cash back rewards. Apps like Checkout 51 and Ibotta will give you cash back just for buying items and uploading your receipt.
Also, cash-back credit cards often have aggressive offers at grocery stores. Swipe that card and watch those rewards add up. Just make sure you pay that credit card off in full every month to avoid interest charges.